Category Archives: a. The Vedic Samhitas

The Sama Veda

The Sama Veda is one of the four Vedas of Hindu scriptures. The Vedas are believed to be of divine origin, belonging to a class of literature known as sruti, meaning “that which is heard” (Bharati 82). According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas were divinely “heard” by seers known as Rsis, and therefore are not the product of human work or skill (Rai 2). As one of the Vedas, alongside the Rg, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas, the Sama Veda shares this divine status, and therefore a place of honor in the Hindu tradition. Although the Sama Veda is often considered the third Veda after the Rg and Yajur Vedas, in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great epics of the Hindu tradition, Krsna describes the Sama Veda as the most important of the Vedas (Mitra 9).

While the high status that the Sama Veda has enjoyed in Hinduism is clear, unfortunately its origin is not. Many schools of thought in the history of the Hindu tradition have believed that the Sama Veda is eternal, not as a divine creation, but as co-eternal with the divine (Bharati 82). The Satapatha Brahmana claims that the Sama Veda originates from the sun, which is embodied by the deity Surya (Rai 4). In the Purusa-Sukta, the Sama Veda is said to come from the hairs of the great deity Purusa, the sacrifice of whom is said to have created the entire cosmos in the Hindu tradition (Rai 4), while still other traditions account for the origin of the Sama Veda in different ways, [for more traditions on the origin of the Vedas see Rai 1977]. Some scholars, including Raja Rai, have argued that the hymns of the Vedas were originally passed on as one before being later organized and subdivided into the four Vedas as they exist today (Rai 8). This idea accords well with the tradition of the Visnu Purana, which states that the Vedas were divided from a single source (Rai 6).

Like the Hindu thinkers of the past, modern scholars have developed varying ideas about the origin of the Sama Veda. Some scholars, working backward from the rise of Buddhism in 500 BCE, date the origin of the Vedas to roughly 1000 B.C.E. (Rai 17). Other scholars date the Vedic hymn collections as being composed over a longer period of time between 1400 and 500 B.C.E. (Rai 19). The dating of the origin of the Sama Veda is complicated by the fact that the text is comprised of a number of sections, some of which are earlier than others. Although it is impossible to say exactly when the Sama Veda was first composed, or who first composed it, it is fairly safe to date its oldest portions to the Aryan period, beginning around 1500 B.C.E. (Griffith vii). Interestingly, this inability to pin down the authorship and origin of the Vedas has been used as an argument by Hindus to support the claim that the Vedas are of divine origin (Rai 11).

The Sama Veda is not a monolithic text, but rather is comprised of a number of texts written over a large period of time, dealing with a variety of subjects. The Sama Veda is comprised of a Samhita, or collection of hymns, a Brahmana, which provides exegesis on the hymn collection, and an Upanisad, which is a text of a more philosophical nature (Rai v).

The Samhita of the Sama Veda, the oldest text of the Sama Veda, is a collection of hymns, the vast majority of which are taken from the Rg Veda (Griffith vii). The Sama Veda Samhita is not, however, simply a restatement of the Rg Veda. The hymns of the Sama Veda are altered from the form in which they are found in the Rg Veda in several meaningful ways to facilitate their ritual use (Griffith vii). The Sama Veda hymns are designed to be sung in the context of ritual and are therefore altered from the way that they appear in the Rg Veda in ways that alter the singing of the hymns (Griffith vii). Every nuance involved in the recitation of Sama Veda hymns, in a ritual context, is extremely important to the Hindu tradition, as it is believed that the truths of the Vedas become manifest in the performance of rituals (Howard 11). Also, the extent to which the hymns of the Sama Veda are considered effective, within the context of a ritual, in securing benefits for the one for whom the ritual is performed is believed to depend on the correct chanting of the hymn (Rai 38). The hymns of the Sama Veda also differ from their arrangement in the Rg Veda, as the Rg Veda organizes its hymns according to their attributed author, while the Sama Veda organizes its hymns topically, according to the object of worship (Stevenson 12). While some of these variations on the hymns of the Rg Veda are alterations of the existing Rg Veda, Griffith argues that some variant versions may even preserve an older reading than what is found in the Rg Veda (Griffith vii).

In addition to the Samhita, the Sama Veda also contains a Brahmana, which, according to an analysis of the writing style, was composed some time after the hymn collection (Stevenson 10). This Brahmana is largely concerned with describing the necessary procedures to be done before and during the chanting of the Sama Veda Samhita (Stevenson 10). The Brahmanas of the Sama Veda set the standard for the proper recitation of the Samhita, and claim that only when such standards are followed correctly will the hymns have power (Stevenson 11). Although the correct performance of ritual is central to the Sama Veda Brahmanas, these Brahmanas do cover a diversity of topics, ranging from social customs to ways of countering bad omens (Mitra 17, 18).

The Sama Veda also contains an Upanisad known as the Chandogya Upanisad (Rai 39). This Upanisad also bears a great difference in style compared to the hymn collection, which reveals that it is the product of a later time than the hymn collection (Stevenson 12). The Chandogya Upanisad is part of a larger work known as the Chandogya Brahmana. The Chandogya Brahmana is ten chapters in length, the first two chapters belonging to the genre of Brahmana and the last eight comprising the Chandogya Upanisad (Mitra 37). The Chandogya Upanisad contains an important discussion of the syllable Om, a sacred utterance in the Hindu tradition (Mitra 27). The Upanisad describes Om as the source of being, and as superior to ritual (Mitra 27).

The Chandogya Upanisad also contains several elements that subvert the social hierarchy of its time. In a number of places throughout the text, the importance of the priestly hegemony, the Brahmin class, is downplayed, while the warrior class, the Ksatriyas, are raised to a higher status (Mirta 27). This reversal suggests that true knowledge is not only available to the priestly elite. This subversion of the standard social hierarchy is continued within the seventh chapter of the Chandogya Upanisad. In this section it is argued that knowledge, even Vedic knowledge, is worthless without knowledge of Brahma, the divine essence behind all things (Mitra 35).

This subversive element is further expounded upon in the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanisad, which contains the famous story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu. In this story Svetaketu is a young Brahmin, who is excessively proud of his learning (Johnston 199). However the young Brahmin’s learning is proved obsolete, for throughout the story, Uddalaka, Svetaketu’s father, shows a greater depth of knowledge. Uddalaka, through a series of images, proves his greater philosophical depth by instructing his son as to the nature of Brahma, the discrete essence behind all things (Mitra 34). In this story, as in other passages of the Chandogya Upanisad, philosophy triumphs again over book learning, [for more on the story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu, see Johnston 1910]. These texts suggest a movement within Hinduism away from an emphasis on ritual and the socioreligious hierarchy, towards philosophical speculation, making the Chandogya Upanisad of the Sama Veda a key text as far as the development of Hindu thought is concerned, [For more on the Chandogya Upanisad see Mitra 1862].

The way in which the Sama Veda has been used throughout Hindu history is best exemplified through an analysis of the way it is used in the Somayaga ritual, the ritual at which the Sama Veda is primarily designed to be sung (Griffith vii). The term Somayaga refers to a sacrifice in which Soma, a plant with narcotic properties used in Hindu worship, is offered to a deity or deities (Howard 11), [for the use and possible identification of Soma see McDonald 2004]. This ritual is described in detail in the Praudha Brahmana, one of the most prominent sections of the Sama Veda (Mitra 16). The beneficiary of this sacrifice, known as the Yajamana, is responsible for funding the ritual (Stevenson iv). The ritual, which involves the burnt sacrifice of animals as well as Soma libations (Stephenson iv-vi), must be performed exactly as prescribed or, as the Praudha Brahmana argues; it will bring no benefit to the Yajamana. Throughout the Somayaga, six different groups of priests are employed by the Yajamana to assist in the performance of the ritual (Stevenson 9). These groups of priests perform different roles throughout the ritual including the preparation of various elements of the sacrifice and the singing of Vedic hymns (Stevenson 9). The group of priests, known as the Udgatar, is the group responsible for singing verses of the Sama Veda during the Somayaga (Stevenson 9). It is through this group of priests that the Sama Veda plays a crucial role in the Somayaga. The various hymns of the Sama Veda sung throughout this ritual perform the function of consecrating the sacrificial fire as well as the Soma juice that is offered as a libation (Stevenson 6), [For more on the Somayaga see Stevenson n.yr.].

The strong connection that the Sama Veda has to the Somayaga ritual is due to the very nature of the text itself. A brief look at an index of Sama Veda hymns reveals that the vast majority of the Samhita is dedicated to the praise Agni, the Hindu deity that personifies fire (Gonda 140), Soma, and Indra, the Hindu deity personifying storms (McDonald S148), [for more on Agni and his relationship to the Samhitas see Gonda 1979]. The prominence of hymns worshiping Agni and Soma corresponds to the importance of the burnt offering and Soma libation in the Somayaga. In addition to this fact, the various prescriptions governing the practice of the Somayaga are found within the Sama Veda itself, in the Praudha Brahmana (Stevenson 6).

Despite its status as sruti, the role Sama Veda has diminished significantly in contemporary Hinduism. This is partially due to the fact that such extensive sacrifices as the Somayaga, which may take anywhere from a day to over a week to perform (Mitra 16), have become less common, with the Somayaga being only performed a few times since the British colonization of India (Stevenson 11). This diminishing use of the Vedas in contemporary Hinduism is further revealed by a study published in the mid-1970s. In a survey of educated Hindu youth from across all castes, only ten percent had received any formal Vedic instruction (Ashby 52-53). Despite this shift away from Vedic study in contemporary Hinduism, the Sama Veda still holds an important place in history as a pivitol text which has significantly shaped Hindu belief and practice throughout the centuries.



Ashby, Philip (1974) Modern Trends in Hinduism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dayanand, Bharati (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Gonda, J. (1979) “Agni in “Rgveda-Samhita” 9, 66 and 67.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 2: 137-152

Griffith, Ralph (1986) Hymns of the Samaveda: Translated with a Popular Commentary. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Private Ltd. in

Howard, Wayne (1986) Veda Recitation in Vsranasi. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Johnston, Charles (1910) “The Dramatic Element in the Upanishads.” The Monist 20 #2 (April): 185-216.

McDonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany 58 (Winter): S147-S150, S51, S152-S173

Mitra, Rajendralala (1862) The Chandogya Upanishad of the Sama Veda: With Extracts from the Commentary of Sankara Acharya. Calcutta: C.B. Lewis, Baptist Mission Press.

Parpola, A (1973). The Literature and Study of the Jaiminīya Sāmaveda. In Retrospect and Prospect. Studia Orientalia XLIII:6. Helsinki.

Rai, Raja (1977) The Vedas: The Scripture of the Hindus. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Stevenson, John (n.yr.). Translation of the Sanhita of the Sama Veda. London: Oriental Translation Fund.

Wilkins, William Joseph (1975) Modern Hinduism: An Account of the Religion and Life of the Hindus in Northern India. Delhi : B.R. Pub. Corp.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhagavat Gita


Chandogya Upanisad



Praudha Brahmana

Rg Veda


Satapatha Brahmana




Tat Tvam Asi




Visnu Purana

Yajur Veda


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Matthew Pawlak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Yajur Veda

The Yajur Veda is one of the oldest books in the Vedas and arguably one of the oldest texts recorded in the world. The Yajur Veda is a Samhita, which is one of four sections of the Hindu holy scriptures which has the highest influence upon the lives of the Hindus (Rai 10). A Samhita is a collection of mantras, or hymns, most of which sing the praises of one or another personal god (Prabhavananda 31). Its origins are speculated to go as far back as 2000 B.C. when the Vedas were orally kept (Santucci xi). It was not until a millennium later around 1000 B.C. when the Yajur Veda was compiled (Staal 749). In the Rgveda itself the Yajurveda and the Samaveda are mentioned in a number of passages (Saraswati 192), leading to the assumption that these three Samhitas were around at the same time.

The ‘Yajur Veda’ is translated as “the knowledge of sacrificial formulae (yajus)” (Santucci 11). The Vedas – Rg veda, Yajur veda, Sama veda and Atharva veda — are the first four of the pramanas (authoritative texts) of the religion and also the most important (Saraswati 136). The Yajur Veda along with the other Vedas (Rg, Sama, Atharva) is considered to be apauresya (divine in origin) (Prabhavananda 25). In particular the Yajur Veda is referenced to and used by the Adhvarya priest (Santucci 11).

The Vedas are considered to be “revealed”, divinely inspired (Jamison 10). The Vedas are regarded as sruti: uncreated, eternal and revealed to sages (Sharma 6).   The Vedas were received by visionaries (rsi) who saw with a special psychic perception the sacred mantras upon which they meditated and finally communicated in the form of the Vedas (Cush, Robinson, York 694). The Vedas are ‘revealed’ at the beginning of each cosmic age to seers who ‘see’ the Vedas and teach it orally to their disciples (Sutherland, Houlden, et al. 575).

The Yajur Vedas’ origins are legendary. Dvaipayana (known as Veda Vyasa) the primordial sage in the second yuga compiled the Vedas after they were revealed to him (Sharma 6, Rai 1). Dvaipayana taught a Samhita to each of his many pupils over time (Rai 1). The knowledge of the Yajur Veda was taught to one of his students named Vaisampayana (Rai 1).  A rsi by the name of Yajnavalkya was a disciple of the great rsi Vaisampayana (Prabhavananda 28). After Vaisampayana had missed a very important council he was said to have sinned (Prabhavananda 28). In order to rid himself of his sin he ordered his disciples to do austerities (Prabhavananda 28). Yajnavalkya questioned his great master by saying “Master, how can you expiate your sin by the austerities of these thy worthless disciples?” (Prabhavananda 28). At this Vaisampayana grew angry, and said: “How dare you speak thus? I want no such hot-headed, egotistical disciple as you! Give back what you have learned from me, and be off!” (Prabhavananda 29). So Yajnavalkya recited all he had learnt and departed from Vaisampayana (Prabhavananda 29). That which he recited back to Vaisampayana is known as the Black Yajur Veda (Prabhavananda 29). Now Yajnavalkya, having cast away his knowledge of the Vedas, felt empty and realized what kind of man he had become (Prabhavananda 29). He asked himself “But where might I find a teacher” (Prabhavananda 29). Then it occurred to him that the sun-god never separated himself from the Vedas (Prabhavananda 29). Yajnavalkya accepted the sun-god as his master, and prayed to him for knowledge (Prabhavananda 29). The sun-god, pleased with the fervour of his new votary, answered his prayers (Prabhavananda 29). The sun-god taught Yajnavalkya and the teachings henceforth became known as the White Yajur Veda (Prabhavananda 29). Then in turn Yajnavalkya taught this White Yajur Veda to his disciples (Prabhavananda 29).

Deriving from the story above, the Yajur Veda itself has two divisions; the White (Sukla) Yajur Veda and the Black (Krsna) Yajur Veda (Santucci 11). The White Yajur Veda contains only the sacrificial formulae without any explanation to their uses in the rituals (Santucci 11). While the Black Yajur Veda on the other hand contains an explanation and discussion of the sacrificial rites to which the formulae belong (Santucci 11).   These explanations are called brahmanas, which are written in prose style (Jamison 13). The White Yajur Veda also has a brahmana, but it is separate from the Yajur Veda text itself (Jamison 13). Because of the these differences and overall presentation of each recension, the White Yajur Veda is commonly known as clear and precise in presentation (Jamison 13). These attributes give rise to the White Yajur Veda having a ‘clear’ Samhita and a ‘clear’ brahmana (Kapoor 1851). The Black Yajur Veda is known to be ‘mixed up’ because the brahmana is mixed in with the Samhita writings (Jamison 13). Also with the chronology of the legend of the Yajur Veda, the White Yajur Veda is more recent and an improvement on the Black Yajur Veda (Kapoor 1852). Despite this major difference in the structure, the sacrifices that both the White and Black Yajur Vedas outline are almost identical (Rai 35).

The divisions as stated before are the White Yajur Veda and the Black Yajur Veda. The White Yajur Veda has one Samhita with two recensions and the Black Yajur Veda has four different Samhitas (Santucci 11). The White Yajur Veda is also known as the Vajasaneyi-Samhita (Suntucci 12). The Vajasenyi-Samhita exists in two very similar recensions, the Madhyamdina and the Kanva (Jamison 13). These two recensions are almost identical; the chief difference is in the variance of the sacrificial formulae themselves (Santucci 12). The Black Yajur Veda Samhitas are very closely interrelated to each other (Santucci 11). All four discuss the same subject matter, sometimes in identical or nearly identical language (Santucci 11). Their individual titles are Kathaka-Samhita, Kapisthala-Samhita, Maitrayani-Samhita, and the Taittriya-Samhita (Santucci 12). They are considered Samhitas and not recensions because of the differences in their brahmana portions, which take independent and in some cases opposing positions (Jamison 13). The Kathaka-Samhita and the Maitrayani-Samhita are often in agreement and are in opposition to the Taittriya-Samhita (Jamison 14). The brahmana proses of these texts are the oldest expository prose written in Sanskrit (the ancient text in which the Vedas were written), even older than the texts specifically called Brahmanas (Jamison 13).

The Black and White Yajur Vedas have different ways of organizing their contents (Rai 30). The White Yajur Veda has forty lectures (adhyaya) which are unequally subdivided into shorter sections (kandika), each of which has a prayer or mantra (Rai 30). Each of the forty lectures contains between thirteen and one hundred and seventeen sections (Rai 30). The Black Yajur Veda is divided into seven books (astaka) each containing anywhere from five to eight lectures (adhyaya) (Rai 35). Likewise each lecture is subdivided into sections with a total of six hundred and fifty sections (Rai 35). The books of the Black Yajur Veda are more commonly known as Kandas (Rai 35).

The most important feature of the Yajur Veda is that it supplies the formulae for the entire sacrificial ceremony (Santucci 12). The prose formulae and prayers are called yajus (plural yajums); the verses are called rc (plural rces) (Winternitz 152). There are two ways of performing the yajus; one is by muttering the prayer which is called yajus and the second is by speaking aloud the prayer which is called nigada (Alper 6). Within the formulae there are mantras associated with each ritual (Sharma 185). A mantra is understood by the tradition as a polyvalent instrument of power (Alper 6). As for the sacrifice itself, the name that has been used for millennia is yajna (Rodrigues 28). The sacrifice, once performed, goes to the god which it is being performed for as a gift (Oldenberg 184). Through the rituals which humans perform, the gods can be manipulated to a certain extent (Sutherland, Houlden, et al. 576). The sacrificing part of a yajna ceremony falls under the duty of the Adhvaryu priest (Jamison 22). The Adhvaryu by consulting the Black Yajur Veda receives a step-by-step procedure which goes down to the minutest of procedures (Oldenberg 8). Not only does the Adhvarya perform the yajus but he also prepares the sacrificial grounds, the implements, and the oblations (Jamison 22). The priest performing the yajna hopes that it will have an effect on the mind of the god through awakening of his good will in favor of humans (Oldenberg 184). An example of this in Vedic lore is when the Vedic god Indra asks a man named Susravas to do a yajna and after he does as he is commanded, the god Indra loves Susravas for it (Oldenberg 184). The importance of precision cannot be overstated when performing a ritual (Winternitcz 150). If an act is not performed exactly as prescribed, a prayer, mantra or a melody sung wrong brings ruin to the performer (Winternitz 150). The center of the religious practice of the entire Aryan (early Hindu) people was the sacrificial rituals (Sutherland, Houlden, et al. 576).

The Yajur Veda holds some of the grandest and most important mantras and rituals in the Hindu religion (Winternitz 163). For instance, the Taittiriya-Samhita contains the Gayatri mantra four times (Sharma 21). It also contains the Sarvamadha or “all-sacrifice”, which is the highest sacrifice that exists (Winternitz 163). Along with one of the grandest of all the yajna which is the asvamedha or horse-sacrifice (Rodrigues 30). An example of a section in the Taittiriya-Samhita is:

“yo’sman dvesti

Yo’sman dvesti yam ca vayam dvisma

Idam asya griva api krntami”

(Taittriya-Samhita c)

The translation of this mantra with accompanying brahmana is:

“The enemy has to be excluded from the alter, for making the alter is a cruel act. “Let him think of anyone he hates; he does truly inflict trouble upon him!”


(Apler 49-50)

The version of the Yajur Veda you will read may depend on where you are in the world (Sharma 21). For instance if you go to India’s second largest temple, Ranganathaswamy at Srirangan, their rituals are performed under the Kanva shakha (Sharma 21). Even though different recessions of the Yajur Veda are used in different areas, various mantras within the Yajur Veda should be known by all Brahmins (Saraswati 263). The Gayatri mantra (Taittiriya Samhita, once learnt from a Guru, should be recited by the Brahmin every day (Saraswati 263). Some of the mantras from the Yajur Veda that every Brahmin should be able to chant are the Purusha Sukta (Vajasenayi Samhita 31.1-6) and the Sri Rudram (Taittiriya Samhita 4.5, 4.7) (Saraswati 264).

The Yajur Veda is seen as the most important of the four Vedas (Kapoor 1965). Without the Yajur Veda one cannot understand the Brahmanas and without these, the Upanisads (Winternitz 174). Sayana, the great commentator of the Vedas, said “the poetry of the Rg Veda, and even the collection of the Sama Veda, are of far less importance than the Yajur Veda” (Kapoor 1852). In his introduction to the Taittiriya-Samhita he says “The Rg Veda and Sama Veda are like fresco-painting, whereas the Yajur Veda is the wall on which they stand” (Kapoor 1852). The Yajur Veda is a complex and ancient text. It is a text that has many intricacies and many versions to study from. It has been used since the time of the Aryans up until this day. It is prominent now just as it was three thousand years ago. The essence of pleasing the gods and balancing the cosmos is brought out in the Yajur Veda through its rituals. The Yajur Veda holds a special place in not only the Vedic canon but also to anyone who believes in the Vedas.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Alper, Harvey P. (1989) Mantra. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cush, Denis, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Abingdon: Routledge Publishers.

Kapoor, Subodhi (2000) The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New Delhi: Cosmo Publishers.

Jamison, Stephanie W. (1991) The Ranenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun, Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. New York: Cornell University Press.

Oldenberg, Hermann (1988) The Religion of the Veda. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Prabhavananda, Swami (1979) The Spiritual Heritage of India. Hollywood, California: Vedanta Press.

Rai, Raja Rammohan (1977) The Vedas-Scripture of the Hindus. Delhi: Nag Publications.

Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge Publishers.

Santucci, James A. (1976) An outline to Vedic literature. Missoula: Scholars Press.

Saraswati, Chandrasekharendra (1995) Hindu Dharma. Delhi: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Publishers.

Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopedia of Vedas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Staal, Frits (2001) How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of Soma, Social Research, Vol. 68, No. 3, Altered States of Consciousness.

Sutherland, Stewart, Leslie Houlden, Peter Clarke and Friendhelm (1988) The World’s Religions. Boston, Massachusetts: G.K.Hall and Co. Publishers.

Winternitz, Maurice (1981) History of Indian Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.


Related Websites


Related Topics


Rg Veda

Sama Veda

Atharva Veda

Vedic Priesthood







Article written by Brayden Wirzba (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Atharva Veda

The Atharva Veda is the fourth of four Vedic hymn collections that are revered by Hindus.  It has twenty books in total; its primary purpose is to provide directions on how to act auspiciously within the Hindu tradition (Bloomfield xxix). Although the Atharva Veda is considered Vedic literature, it is fairly different from the other texts within the Vedic canon.  The Atharva Veda focuses on “spells, charms and incantations”, which promise to “fulfill all worldly desires of human mind” (Karambelkar xi).  This differs greatly from the sacrificial themes of the three other Vedas (Karambelkar xiii).  However, despite the Atharva Veda’s uniqueness, it still has a vital place in the Vedic canon.  The structure of the Atharva Veda, its directions on how to act auspiciously, and its influence in Hinduism are important to discuss when examining the Atharva Veda.

The Atharva Veda’s twenty books incorporate seven hundred thirty-one hymns, which are then subdivided into six thousand verses (Winternitz 120).  There are three major divisions of the Atharva Veda—the first grand division (books 1-7), the second grand division (books 8-12), and the third grand division (books 13-18).  Since the last two books of the Atharva Veda were added at a later date, they are not included in the three grand divisions.

The first grand division contains short hymns, which consist largely of charms and curses (Whitney cxlvii).  This division of the Atharva Veda is regarded the most important section of the text; out of all the divisions, its hymns are the most widely read (Whitney cxlviii).  The second grand division consists of longer hymns than the first division (Whitney clv).  These hymns provide instructions on how to perform priestly duties in an auspicious way (Whitney clv).  The third grand division contains books that are characterized by “unity of subject” (Whitney clviii), meaning that the remaining six books of the Atharva Veda have been kept together, and “constitute [as] a whole by itself” (Whitney clviii).

Instructions on how to act auspiciously is a main theme throughout the Atharva Veda. Its hymns can be categorized into different types—those to obtain long life, those to acquire desired good wishes from deities for households, those to ward off misfortune, and those to excuse errors, to name a few (Joshi ix).  There are also sorceries in the Atharva Veda, but these are used to benefit oneself and to harm others, and are therefore considered as auspicious (Bloomfield xxix).

The role of the Atharva Veda was very important in the Indo-Aryan culture.  Karambelkar reasons that agriculture and raising livestock were probably the main professions of people of that time (58).  The Atharva Veda contains incantations that protect cows and their calves, along with charms that are performed to protect the sowing and harvesting of crops (Karambelkar 58-59).  Verses in the Atharva Veda also describe other aspects of ancient culture—weaving, metal smiths, and chariot builders (Karambelkar 61).  In addition, the incantations of the Atharva Veda reveal something about how the medical practices of the Indo-Aryan culture were performed.  Through reference to the Atharva Veda, it can be concluded that citizens of that time believed that disease was “caused by supernatural powers, particularly demons” (Karambelkar 77).  Incantations in the Atharva Veda were used as a means to defend against different diseases incurred amongst the Indo-Aryan citizens.  The contents of the Atharva Veda give scholars some idea about the Indo-Aryan culture—both its practices, and its belief system.

Despite all the cultural information that the Atharva Veda gives, describing Indo-Aryan lifestyle is not its main focus.  Instead, “magic is the main and essential subject matter of the [Atharva Veda]” (Karambelkar 91).  The magical incantations that the Atharva Veda consists of are both “defensive magic” and “offensive magic” (Karambelkar 91).  In other words, the purpose of magical incantations is to remove unpleasant powers, to preserve blessings and to avoid harmful things.  The Atharva Veda is divided into two parts—the Atharvana discusses auspicious practices, while the Angirasa concerns itself with sorcery (Karambelkar 92).  The hymns of the Angirasa section are “full of the spirit of intense hatred”, condemning to death anyone who interferes with the magical incantations (Karambelkar 92).  On the other hand, people performing from the Atharvana “generally invoked Heaven and Earth”, with an understanding that both entities would participate in the magical blessing (Karambelkar 96).  Both sections focus on magic as a means to bring about desired effects, whether that is prevention from the bad, or calling upon the good.

Because the Atharva Veda is largely filled with magical chants and incantations, Bloomfield believes that it received strong opposition in ancient Indo-Aryan culture (xxix).  In fact, some followers of Hinduism actually question the authority and authenticity of the Atharva Veda because of its magical contents (Bloomfield xxix).  However, Adhikari suggests that the religious contents of the Hindu tradition “are infected with magic in inseparable identity” (135-6).  Bloomfield agrees, stating that witchcraft and sorcery are incorporated into every aspect of Hindu religious thought and action (xxxix); he argues that witchcraft has “penetrated…the holiest Vedic rites” (xlv).  Despite the fact that many oppose the position of the Atharva Veda in the Vedic canon, Bloomfield suggests that its place in the Vedic scriptures is essential to the Hindu tradition (xl).

Since the Atharva Veda discusses auspicious behavior in the Hindu tradition, it seems appropriate to discuss the rituals described in the text, which are intended to bring about auspiciousness.  The first way in which the Atharva Veda promotes auspicious behavior is the way in which its hymns are categorized into different ganas, which are groupings of mantras (Karambelkar 167).  Hymns of the same type compose a gana.  The grouping of similar hymns assists in the correct recitation of hymns in the Atharva Veda (Karambelkar 168). This promotes auspicious behavior.  Water is a very important aspect of the Atharvan rituals because it is considered a protection against demons and a healing remedy (Karambelkar 168).  Fire is also important because it is used for priestly rituals and sacrifices that accompany the recitation of hymns (Karambelkar 168-9).  Symbolism is another very important part of Atharvan procedures.  Certain things like the shooting of arrows, the color of a cow’s milk and the burning of chaff demonstrate auspicious behaviors, which Atharvan rituals promote (Karambelkar 171).  Chanting in ganas, the use of water and fire in sacrifice, and symbolism are all important aspects of Atharvan ceremonies.

To demonstrate some of the different aspects of correctly reciting a hymn from the Atharva Veda, it is appropriate to examine a specific hymn and its recitation rituals.  An example of an Atharvan ritual is the hymn to heal ksetriya (inherited disease).  First, the priest “washes the patient outside of the house while reciting II.8.1,2 at dawn” (Karambelkar 173).  This chant consists of the following:

1. Up have risen the majestic twin stars, the vikritau [italics added] (‘the two looseners’); may they loosen the nethermost and the uppermost fetter of the [ksetriya] (inherited disease)!

2. May this night shine (the [ksetriya]) away, may she shine away the witches; may the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 13).

The second portion of the ritual is to recite the third verse:

3. With the straw of thy brown barley, endowed with white stalks, with the blossom of the sesame—may the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 13).

While this hymn is being chanted, the priest crushes up the plant aforementioned, collects mud, and sews up a freshly hunted animal, tying it to the leg of the diseased patient as a type of good luck charm (Bloomfield 287).  The next section of the ritual is to chant the fourth verse:

“4. Reverence be to thy ploughs, reverence to thy wagon-poles and yokes!  May the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 13-4).

During this portion of the ritual, the priest places a plough and cattle near the diseased patient, while pouring water over it (Karambelkar 173).  The fifth and final part of the ritual sees the priest pouring ghee into a pot holding water, which is then placed in an empty house while reciting the fifth verse (Karambelkar 173):

“5. Reverence be to those with sunken eyes (?), reverence to the indigenous (evils?), reverence to the lord of the field!  May the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 14).

Thatches from the empty house which contains the pot of water are placed in a ditch (Karambelkar 173-4).  Ghee is then placed in this ditch, followed by the patient, who drinks the water (Karambelkar 173-4).  More treatments are given to the patient and eventually the ritual ceases.

This example demonstrates some of the aspects within the Atharvan ritual—the different uses of water, the employment of priestly activity, and the many different applications of symbolism.  While the symbolism is not completely clear, the practices “seem at any rate to be built up…in the sense of ‘field’” because of its references to plants, fields, and plowing (Bloomfield 287-8).  Since agriculture was a major part of Indo-Aryan culture, the symbolism refers to things that many citizens could recognize and identify with.  Along with the usage of symbolism, explicit instructions are provided on how to perform this ritual properly.  This example, along with numerous other hymns in the Atharva Veda, emphasizes and promotes auspicious actions.  The Atharva Veda instructs individuals and priests how to perform auspicious behavior through the use of rituals and chants.

The Atharva Veda is not something irrelevant; it holds authority in present-day Hinduism.  Its instructions on auspicious behavior, its rituals, and its magical incantations contribute a unique and vital aspect to the Hindu Vedic canon.  The Atharva Veda is a valuable tool to ancient scholars, as well as modern-day readers and interpreters, in describing the actions of the Indo-Aryan culture and their religious rites.  The Atharva Veda’s use of symbolism, along with its instructions on how to recite hymns auspiciously, is essential to the Hindu tradition today.  The structure of the Atharva Veda, its role in the Indo-Aryan culture, and most importantly, its directions on acting in an auspicious way through the incorporation of magic, are all important aspects of the text.  The Atharva Veda holds an essential role within the Vedic canon.


Adhikari, T.N. (2002) “Some Socio-Magical Aspects of the AtharvaVedaParisista.” In Abhijit Ghosh, ed.  Atharvavana: A Collection of Essays on the AtharvaVeda with Special Reference to its Paippalada Tradition. Kolkata: Sanskrit Book Depot.

Bloomfield, Maurice (1969) Hymns of the Atharva-Veda, Together With Extracts From the Ritual Books and the Commentaries. New York: Greenwood Press.

Joshi, K.L. (2002) Atharva-Veda Samhita. Delhi: Parimal Publications.

Karambelker, Vinayak Waman (1959) Atharvavedic Civilization, Its Place in the Indo-Aryan Culture. Nagpur: Aryabhushan Press.

Veer, Yjan (1979) Language of the Atharva-Veda. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

Whitney, William Dwight (1996) Atharva-Veda-Samhita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Winternitz, Maurice (1972) A History of Indian Literature. New Delhi: Pearl Offset Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

















Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Julie Steeves (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Rg Veda

The Rg Veda

The Rg Veda is the oldest book in Vedas and is arguably one of the oldest texts known to mankind. It is known as a Samhita as it is a collection of hymns formed around 600 B.C.E. or at the end of the Brahmana period (Santucci 1). Before being written down the Rg Veda was orally transmitted from generation to generation, being composed around 1800 B.C.E. (Santucci 1). Translated it comes to mean “Veda of verses,” aptly named because it contains 1028 hymns (sukta) that comes to total over 10,000 verses (Renou 3). The fact that the Rg Veda is a collection from a multitude of authors makes it difficult to attach a set date to the work; furthermore, some sections of the Rg Veda appear to be written at different times. This belief is derived from the fact that the writing styles change between books, as language and writing developed in India (Renou 5). The Rg Veda along with the other Vedas (Sama, Yajur, Atharva) is considered to be apauresya (divine in origin) (Prabhavananda 25); the universe is claimed to be created from the knowledge of the Vedas , therefore Vedic knowledge is claimed to have existed before mankind was even created (Prabhavananda 25).

The Rg Veda can be divided into 10 books or Mandalas (circles) (Santucci 1). Of these 10 Mandalas, II to VII are the oldest (Renou 5). These are known as the family books, as each book was written by a rsi (semi-divine visionary) from a certain priestly family. These families were: in order, Gritsamada, Vishvamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadvaja, and Vasishtha (Renou 5). The family books (Mandalas II – VII) are arranged in descending order of the number of hymns they contain; therefore, Mandala II has the most hymns and Mandala VII has the least (Renou 3). The VIII Mandala is not considered one of the family books. Though the majority of this Mandala was written by the Kanva family, hymns 67-103 were composed by other families (Santucci 1). Mandala IX is solely concerned with Soma, a plant used in Hindu rituals; the hymns of Mandala IX were taken from the other Mandalas and therefore reveal that this Mandala was written after Mandalas II – VII (Santucci 2). The first Mandala contains 191 hymns from a series of different poets, none of whom composed more than 26 hymns in the Mandala (Santucci 2). Many researchers agree that this first Mandala was a later addition to the Rg Veda although some individual hymns date back many years (Santucci 2). Mandala X is without argument the most recent addition to the Rg Veda. Researchers came to this conclusion by studying the grammar and subject matter of the Mandala and finding it to be in more recent style of writing (Santucci 2). Mandala X contains 191 hymns, making it an exact match to the first Mandala (Santucci 2). In each Mandala the arrangement of the hymns is in descending order in relation to the number of verses found in each hymn. If two or more hymns have the same number of verses, then the order of those hymns is determined by the length of meter (Renou 3).

The hymns within the Rg Veda were used during religious and social ceremonies and are still used in Hindu rituals. These hymns contain instruction on the procedure of ritual and prayer (depending on what ceremony is taking place).

During a wedding ceremony, a Brahmin (priest) will read from the Tenth Mandala, hymn number 85 (Chandra Das 370). This hymn is known as “The Marriage of Surya.” It tells the tale of Surya’s (the Sun) marriage to Soma (the Moon) (Chandra Das 370). All Hindu “marriages are modeled upon this one, and the bride is called Surya (O’Flaherty 267).” Verses 20 – 47 of this hymn are recited during the wedding ceremony (O’Flaherty 267).

There are hymns within the Rg Veda that a mother can say to protect her unborn. During 1800 B.C.E. when the Rg Veda was composed it was believed that there were demons that were constantly looking to harm both mother and child (Chandra Das 385). To repel these demons, parents would recite hymns to ward off the evil spirits. The hymn “For Safe Pregnancy and Birth” found in Mandala X.184 prays to a number of gods that the seed be safe and brings forth a child at the end of the pregnancy (O’Flaherty 291). Mandala X.162 contains the hymn “To Protect the Embryo” which invokes Agni to drive away the demons who may try to harm either the mother or the developing child (O’Flaherty 292).

The majority of Hindu funerals result in cremation of the deceased. The reason is the belief that cremation is necessary to detach the soul from the body, otherwise the soul will “linger” as a preta (ghost) (Chandra Das 412). The mantra that is sung at a cremation ceremony is Mandala X.154 “The Funeral Hymn,” and asks that Yama take the deceased to heaven. Burials without cremation are reserved for infants who are without sin and Sadhu (holy men; renouncers) who have overcome their human desires and evil inclinations and are too regarded as without sin (Chandra Das 412). All other humans must be cremated in order for Yama (the god of death) to take them to heaven. The hymn that is sung at a burial of an infant or Sadhu is Mandala X.18, “Burial Hymn, a prayer to Mother Earth to “wrap… up” the deceased, and for Yama to build a house upon the grave for the deceased (O’Flaherty 52).


Chandra Das, Abinas (2002) Rgvedic Culture. New Delhi: Mohit Publications.

Renou, Louis (2004) History of Vedic India. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1981) The Rig Veda. London: Penguin Books.

Santucci, James A (1976) An Outline of Vedic Literature. Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press.

Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopedia of the Vedas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Kumar, Frederick L. (1991) The Philosophies of India. Lewiston, New York: The Edwin           Mellen Press.

Prabhavananda, Swami (1979) The Spiritual Heritage of India. Hollywood, California: Vedanta Press.

Related Topics

Sama Veda

Yajur Veda

Atharva Veda





Related Websites

Article written by: Gerard Biggins (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.