Understanding The Tradition of Vedic Recitation (Part-II)

(Continued from Part-I)

-Dr. Soma Basu

1.4. The necessity of oral transmission –

We can see that the tradition of oral transmission from teacher to pupil, from early times to the present day is most important, since it is the only method recognized as authentic and authoritative as far as the preservation of the sacred texts is concerned. The breadth of outlook of the Vedic sages, our ancestors, was truly remarkable. Great care was taken to preserve the proper accentuation of the Vedic texts.


(Source of Image : https://indroyc.com/2014/11/08/the-tradition-of-vedic-chanting/)

The practice of different modes of recitation or the method of instruction is emphatically necessary for the proper understanding and transmission of any kind of Vedic texts and ritual practices. Some peculiar but very useful devices have been applied from time immemorial, which is now practised even today by following traditional system of education.  Fortunately, a growing interest has been felt in recent years in the study of the Vedic recitation in the traditional manner particularly in some parts of India.

1.5  The importance of the ancillary texts – 

The texts (or lakṣaṇa granthas) which define the characteristics and describe the special features of Vedic texts are generally termed Veda-lakṣaṇa. These ancillary texts, the highly interesting field of traditional Indian learning, are of multifaceted importance. They are of ancillary nature and generally classified under Vedāṅga, a few of them more precisely under the Śikṣā, i.e., the texts on Phonetics or Śikṣā. They relate to the method of instruction and the practice of different modes of recitation, which are most important for a proper understanding and the study of the tradition of Vedic recitation. Such texts are not only interesting from the point of view of the preservation of Vedic texts but are also very instructive for an understanding of the various devices or methods of learning that were exclusively developed for this purpose and also for knowledge of the various aspects of the history of their proper transmission.  A mere performance in the proper way is believed to produce a spiritual effect irrespective of understanding the meaning of the texts recited.

Attempting for preservation of the sacred texts in a strictly oral tradition, not only the words but also their correct articulation led to an inquiry into the production of the sounds of speech. To attain the goal of perfect preservation of the sacred texts, a sound knowledge of pronunciation techniques is required. Towards the end of the Vedic period there were three branches of linguistic study, – phonetics (Śikṣā), etymology (Nirukta) and grammar (Vyākaraṇa), but their oldest systematical works have not survived. Phonetics was the basis for the other two branches namely, Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa. Grammar was linked up with the ritual duties of the priests.

The earliest mention of the Sūtra texts of Phonetics or Śikṣā is found in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (1.2). They are as old as the Kalpa Sūtras and connected closely with the Saṃhitās of the Vedas, the R̥gveda Prātiśākhya being the oldest textbook of Vedic phonetics. The six chapters of Śikṣā are enumerated there as lessons on letters and their intonation, syllabic measures, i.e., quantity of the syllables and volume, melody and word combination.

1.6. Conclusion

The sources of Indian phonetics, the Śikṣā and Prātiśākhya

The history of the study of Indian grammatical traditions begins with the Śikṣā and Prātiśākhya. They are two main categories that constitute the sources of Indian phonetics. Śikṣā dealing with the science of phonetics of the Vedas occupies a very important position in the Lakṣaṇa for facilitating easy learning and memorization. They contain instructions on pronunciation, intonation, euphonic changes of sounds in word combinations, elongation of vowels etc. The holistic manner of recitation of the Saṃhitās is not itself actual works of grammar still they deal with subjects which belong to grammar. They bear the testimony to the fact that the texts of the Saṃhitās have been preserved without any change throughout all these centuries since the time of the Prātiśākhyas, the oldest being the R̥gveda Prātiśākhya, the most important text book of Vedic phonetics. The Vedic Saṃhitās are the work of phoneticians or grammarians as we get the stanzas in a complete grammatically analytic form.

– Dr. Soma Basu, Associate Professor, School of Vedic Studies, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata