The Satapatha Brahmana

The Brahmanas are part of Hindu Vedic religion, which emerged after the Samhitas. Mainly, they describe details of Vedic ritual, including sacrificial rites (yajna), philosophical, and mythological background. More specifically, the Brahmanas dealt with proper performance of rituals, especially for the priestly class (Brahmins) (Rodrigues 59). It is insinuated that yajna was performed to give the gods their powers and to provide sustenance. One such Brahmana, The Satapatha Brahmana, has become famous in modern Vedic literature with the help of the translation by Julius Eggeling in the Sacred Books of the East (Vol. XII, XXVI, XLI, XLIII, XLIV. 1963).

The Satapatha Brahmana was composed around 300 BCE. It prescribes many rituals, as it is sometimes translated as The Brahamana of a Hundred Paths. In its fourteen kandas, the Satapatha Brahmana details many simple sacrificial rites but also goes into great detail of the most famous rituals in Hinduism; new and full-moon sacrifices, asvamedha (horse sacrifice) and rajasuya (consecration of a king), and agnicaya. Although the majority of the Satapatha Brahmana (SB) details Brahminic rituals, it also elaborates on ancient creation mythology such as the Flood of Manu.

Yajna are some of the most important rituals in the practice of Hinduism. As translated by J. Gonda (1) from the SB, “by reciting definite texts in a continuous, uninterrupted way one makes the days and nights of a year revolve in a continuous, uninterrupted way” (SB. 1, 3, 5, 16) “man, in being born, is born as a debt to death; in that he sacrifices he redeems himself from death” (SB. 3, 6, 2, 16).

There are many inclusions of fire sacrifices to the Hindu Fire God, Agni, in most of the kandas. This implies an importance placed on Agni in early Vedic religion to help maintain the order of the universe. Agnicayana or Building of the Sacred Fire Altar, is described in detail in the sixth, seventh and eighth kandas. Agnicayana is possibly one of the oldest surviving human rituals, as it is still performed today within Hinduism. This twelve-day ritual is premised upon attaining vitality, offspring or immortality. Before beginning the elaborate ritual, seventeen priests work for months to ensure the proper required preparations are completed (Rodrigues 64). Particular attention is paid to the detail of the layers of the bricks to construct the fire altar (vedi) (Eggeling vol. XLIII:1-147).  Historically, over the twelve days of ritual animal and soma sacrifices are made to the god Vayu (wind) and Agni (fire), purification rites for the patron are performed, construction of the fire altar, oblations of water and ghee, and many more animal and Soma sacrifices are made (Rodrigues 66) [see summary of agnicayana in greater detail in Rodrigues 64-67, or full translation in Eggeling, vol. XLI:143-419 and vol. XLIII:1-405].

Ancient social order of the Vedic peoples is studied in reference to the asvamedha and rajasuya. The asvamedha (horse sacrifice) [no longer performed because of its elaborate nature] was regarded as an important kingship ritual. A king, aspiring to achieve emperor status and attain offspring, would set free a stallion to wander about the land for one year accompanied by the king’s army. As the horse wandered upon another king’s land, the ruler would have to choose whether to relinquish his land or keep the horse and thus, initiate war. In this way, a king would acquire enough land to become an emperor. At the end of the one-year period of wandering, the horse [as a representative of the king] would be sacrificed. During the sacrificial rite, before the horse was killed, a ritual with the king’s chief queen would take place. The queen would simulate copulation with the horse under a large blanket as a representation of her relationship with the king. Rice would be cooked to represent the king’s virility, which later was to be consumed by the king’s wives. A dog was also sacrificed during this ritual to represent the killing of the king’s enemies. This ritual was very expensive and performed only by the wealthiest kings. Furthermore, the performance of one hundred asvamedhas in a single lifetime would grant the ruler the throne of Indra, ruler of the gods (Rodrigues 64) [see further summary in Rodrigues 62-64, full translation in Eggeling, vol. XLIV:274-440, and an example in the Ramayana epic].

Another form of societal ritual outlined in the Satapatha Brahmana is the rajusaya, or Inauguration of a King (Eggeling vol. XLI:42-129). A king who sought to become emperor would embark on a journey to conquer a kingdom, much like the horse representative of the king did in the asvamedha. Upon his return, the general would invite the conquered kings to join in a sacrificial ceremony. Since this was a riskier way to obtain a kingdom, it was more rare than the asvamedha [see further example explanation of the rajusaya ritual in the Mahabharata epic].

Included in parts of the agnicayana, asvamedha and rajusaya rituals, the sacred plant, Soma, also appears in numerous other rituals throughout the Satapatha Brahmana. Soma was first described in the RgVeda in little detail and further elaborated on in many other Vedic literatures, including the SB. Unfortunately, the Vedic peoples left little evidence of what soma actually was (Staal 747). Scholars regard Soma as a hallucinogenic, even though the true nature of the plant has not been verified (Rodrigues 67). Nevertheless, more than one hundred Vedic texts refer to the use of Soma (Rodrigues 67). Soma rituals prescribed throughout the SB, are mainly associated with fire sacrifices to the god Agni and Indra, who were believe to frequently drink the Soma extract (Rodrigues 67). A Soma feast is also described scrupulously in the third and fourth kandas (Eggeling vol. XXVI:226-3910)

Another important historic ritual, the new and full moon rituals, was performed twice a month, every month. The rituals were prescribed to retain the natural order of the universe. During the full moon (purnima), Hindus would observe a daylong fasting period while worshiping the god Visnu. During the new moon (amavasya) ritual, Hindus would again fast for a day in which they often worship ancestors. Clarified butter, fruit and animal sacrifices were made, as prescribed by the Satapatha Brahmana (Eggeling vol. XII:1-262, vol. XLIV:1-131). This was thought to be a central ritual, which preceded many other sacrificial rituals outlined in the Brahmanas (Eggeling vol. XLIV:1-131).

Along with rituals, the Satapatha Brahmana details creation myths, such as the Flood of Manu (Eggeling vol. XII:216-230). The Flood of Manu has recently been compared with the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible. While Manu was bathing, a fish asked to be moved into a bowl, as he was too small for the sea and the other fish would eat him. The fish promised to tell Manu how to save the world if he carried out the fish’s requests. The fish grew and grew, always requesting a bigger vessel. He quickly grew too big for any vessel and requested to be placed into the River Ganga. The fish then proceeded to instruct Manu to build a ship to hold animals when the great flood came. Manu did as he was told by the fish and saved the animals. The fish is thought to be a manifestation of Pajrapati [creator God] (Sehgal 401-402). In the interest of brevity, many points of the Flood of Manu have been excluded for this article (for short summary see Sehgal 401-402 and full translation Eggeling vol. XII:216-230).

Some rituals outlined in the Satapatha Brahmana are still maintained today, but many have been left in the past. Some rituals go into particular detail regarding animal sacrifice, which would only be prescribed for certain animals. Modern-day Hindus however, rarely use animal and blood sacrifices, instead using clarified butter, fruit and rice to feed the gods (Rodrigues 61). Modern interpretations have been made in regards to the Vedas in order to fit with current social norms.



References and Further Recommended Readings

Eggeling, Julius (trans.) (1963) Satapatha Brahmana: Sacred Books of the East, vols. XII, XXVI, XLI, XLIII, XLIV. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1882-1900.

Gonda, J. (1905) Mantra Interpretation in the Satapatha Brahmana. Leiden: Brill.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal Buddhist Ethics Online Books,Ltd.

Seghal, Sumil (1999) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Sarup & Sons.

Staal, Fritz (2001) “How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of Soma.” Social Research, Vol. 68 No. 3: 745-778

Stutley, Margaret (1969)The Aśvamedha or Indian Horse Sacrifice.” Folklore, Vol. 80 No. 4: 253-261



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Article written by Alyssa Wadman (April 2013) who is solely responsible for the content.