Understanding The Tradition of Vedic Recitation [Part-I]

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-Dr. Soma Basu

1.1. The relevance of ancient Indian texts on Phonetics –

The purport or relevance of the ancient scriptures (Śāstras) on Phonetics is most modern considering their invaluable importance in the methodical phonetic procedure developed by them, which helped preserve the Vedas without the slightest variants in the most faithful way possible. The Vedas are the most ancient bulk of literature humanity has ever produced. They are not only scriptures, but also the fountainhead of Indian culture and human civilization. Actually, they are the treasure house of knowledge par excellence. They are the source of integral wisdom, science, tradition and culture of a remarkable civilization. They are oral compilations of distilled wisdom of cosmic knowledge survived from the time immemorial. We all know that the Veda has to be studied along with its six ancillary texts, i.e., the Vedāṅgas. They are the last treatises of Vedic literature. The Vedāṅga likely developed towards the end of the Vedic period, around of after the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, These auxiliary fields of Vedic studies emerged because the language of the Vedic texts composed centuries earlier grew too archaic to the people of that time.

ṣaḍaṅgo vedo’dhyeyo jñeyaś ca.

1.2. The function of the auxiliary disciplines of the Vedas (Vedāṅgas) –

The necessity of the Vedas and precisely the limbs or auxiliary disciplines of the Vedas (Vedāṅgas) will never die out, in as much as these are the most dependable source to look up to for answers to many a query that invoke intricate exploration. Understanding Vedāṅgas is a pre-requisite to understanding the Veda. The function of the Śikṣā (i.e., the foremost of the six limbs – [The other five being Kalpa or ritual, Vyākaraa or grammar, Nirukta or etymology, Chandas or meter and Jyotia or astronomy.]) is to fix the parameters of Vedic words. Phonetics is most important in the case of the Vedic language; because we see that a mere change in sound leads to change in results and effect. The ancient Indian science of phonetics, which is taught so meticulously in the Śikṣā texts, is the ultimate knowledge discussed in such an ancient time regarding construction of sound and language for synthesis of ideas, in contrast to grammarians who developed rules for language deconstruction and understanding of ideas. We are astonished to know the content of the major treatises of this particular branch which are most relevant in today’s perspective since they analyze sound, vowels and consonants, rules of combination and pronunciation to assist clear understanding, to avoid mistakes and for resonance pleasing to the listener. The methodology found in the Śikṣā texts has been not just highly technical, it has strong aesthetic “sensuous, emotive” dimension, which foster thinking and intellectual skills in a participatory fashion. The reciter’s mind and body are engaged, making language and sound as an emotional performance. In theNāradīya Śikṣā, it has been expressed beautifully, –

Just as a tigress takes her cubs tightly in her teeth without hurting them, whilst fearing that she might drop them and injure them, so one should approach the individual syllables (2.8.31). (transl. by Annette Wilke and Oliver Moebus, (2011). Sound and Communication: An Aesthetic Cultural History of Sanskrit Hinduism. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-018159-3. [Source :Internet]

1.3. Some information –

1.3.1 From the ancient texts –

In the Atharvaveda (12.1.45), there is the unique realization janaṃ bibhratī bahudhā vivācasaṃ nānādharmānaṃ pr̥thithaukasam |

which means, “Let the earth, bearing in many places people of different speech, of diverse customs (-dharman) according to their homes…” [Trans. W. D. Whitney.  Atharvaveda Saṃhitā. Cambridge , Mass.1905 (1st Edition), MLBD : Delhi 1962, 1971, 1984 ( rpt.) Vol.8, p. 668.]

In the ancient texts like the Taittirīya Saṃhitā ( and the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa ( there is a well-known story narrated where it has been described how Tvaṣṭr̥ repeating the words ‘indraśatrur vardhasva’ in wrong accents caused the fire to be extinguished instead of inflaming it against Indra as he intended. The legend is all about how Tvaṣṭr̥ wanted to pronounce the word ‘indraśatruḥ’ (meaning ‘destroyer of Indra’) as a Tatpuruṣa compound (in which the last syllable of the compound has the udātta accent), while he actually pronounced the word as a Bahuvrīhi (meaning ‘whose killer would be Indra’), in which case the first word of the compound has the udātta accent (as in ‘indraśatrurḥ’) [P. V. Kane. History of Dharmaśāstra.  Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1941. vol. II, pt. I, p. 347.]. Pāṇini says, ‘samāsasya’ (6.1.223) – samāsa-niṣpaṇṇa-śabdasya anta-svaraḥ udātto bhavati and ‘bahuvrīhau prakr̥tyā pūrvvapadam’ (6.2.1) – bahuvrīhi-samāse, udātta-svarita-yuktaṃ pūrvvapadaṃ prakr̥tyā bhavati… etc.

1.3.2  From the Bible –

The story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis (11:1-9) offers an explanation for the many different languages spoken on earth, though on the surface, otherwise it carries deeper meaning too. According to the story, all the descendants of Noah spoke a single language. They began to spread eastward as they increased in number. After finding a fertile area called Shinar they settled there and instead of setting up a society that fits God’s will, they decided to challenge His authority and build a city with a tower that could reach Heaven. They wanted the tower to be a proud monument to themselves and a symbol that would keep them united as a powerful people. However, God thought it otherwise. Unhappy he came down and looked at the city and watching the tower said, if as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. (Genesis 11:6-7) God, recognizing their arrogance, regained control over them through a linguistic stratagem. Therefore, God made the people speak many different languages so as not to understand each other and work together on building the city and tower. He scattered the people around the world and the city was abandoned. After that incident, the number of languages increased through diversification, and people started to look for ways to communicate.

(to be continued…..)

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


‘Sapta- Sindu’ the Homeland of the Rigvedic Culture – Literary Evidence

Prof. Shashi Tiwari, General Secretary, WAVES-India 

There are so many questions related to Vedic people under discussion as part of Indian history, religion, mythology and civilization. The hunt for their original land has been a particularly important topic of research among Indologists and historians since Sir William Jones’s pronouncement in 1786, in Calcutta, that ‘Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Celtic and old Persian were related languages with common source.” The whole of nineteenth century was dedicated to the study of language and literature of Vedic and ancient Sanskrit texts, where the study of dates, editions and interpretations was done. The publication of two volume of Vedic Index by A.A. Macdonell and A.B. Keith in 1912 was almost the closing work in this field. Macdonell placed the Aryan entry into India at about 1500 BC. The establishment of the notion of a common Indo- European heritage, at the beginning of British rule in India, was a powerful instrument to rule Indians, so this view was highlighted in various ways. Ironically, in 1907 came archaeological evidence from Boghszkoi (east Turkey), which established the existence of the names of the Rgvedic  deities in fourteenth century BC.

In the 1920s, the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were discovered. Tentatively a time period of 2500 -1500 BC was assigned to these cities at that time. Since the estimated date for the end of these cities coincided with the estimated date for Aryan entry into India, it was emphasized that these cities were brought to an end by Aryan invaders. Aryan invasion was sometimes called as Aryan migration. In either case Harappans were declared as Non-Aryans. Now many historians and Sanskrit scholars are refuting these theories on the basis of various categories of evidence. They think that the Homeland of Aryans was Indian continent or Aryans themselves were Harappans.  It is understood generally that Harappan civilization began at about 3300 B.C. and takes its earliest roots at Mehrgarh. Excavation has shown that this civilization possessed a writing system, as well as a social and economic system.

In my understanding, the Vedic civilization is the earliest civilization in Indian history for which we have written records.  The vast Vedic literature provides important materials to understand every aspect of the Vedic people and their views. The mantras present an extraordinary picture of culture, religion, philosophy, economics, polity, ritualistic practices and scientific knowledge of the Vedic people. It looks like such an organized and developed society based on agriculture, arts and crafts, trade and industry, education; characterized by a deep interest in nature and environment, and moved by the spiritual urge. These facts have been proven in my earlier papers written on agriculture, economics, architecture, birds, animals, food, ornaments, weapons, society and education of the Vedic people.  In the entire Vedic literature, the authors of Vedas never say a single word about their migration or invasion. Rather they indicate their stable and calm establishment in numerous places in the literature.

Evidence from within the Vedas suggests that the Vedic people were acquainted with the seven rivers, especially with the mighty river Saraswati. The description of mighty Sarasvatī  and references related to the terms Sapta-sindhavah͎ and Sapta-Sindhuṣu in Rigveda show a rich historical tradition of Vedic people in that area. The country of seven rivers is very dear to them. Saraswati is described as sapta svara (having seven sisters- 6/61/10, 8/10/9). It is said to be the mother of seven rivers (saraswat̄i saptadhī sindhumātā. -7/36/6). There is much talk and exploration of the river. She is a great river rushing down from mountains towards the ocean (ekā acetat sarasvatī  nadīnām shuchir yāti giribhya ā samudrāt -7/95/2). She is far superior to her companions (uttarā sakhibhyah -7/95/4). She surpasses all other streams by her sheer majesty (prabābadhanā rathyeva yāti  -7/95/1) and glory (pra yā mahimna mahināsu cekite -6/61/13). She is the best of rivers, best of mothers and best of goddesses (ambitame, nadītame devitame sarasvati -2/41/16).

The core region between Sarasvati and Drisadvati rivers was called vara aprithivya (the earth’s best place) and nabha prithivya (the navel of the earth).  It also has been known as ‘Kurukshetra’ (the land of the Kuru people). Manusmriti called it ‘Brahmavarta’ (the divine land). According to mantras, Vedic people feel affection for this area because their civilization began and flourished there in the Saraswati basin since 5000 to 4000 BC. This was the homeland of Vedic Aryan people. Broadly it was the sapta sindu region where Sarasvati was Main River. According to two mantras there were three sets of seven rivers (i.e. twenty one rivers)- trih͎ sapta sasrā nadyo mahir (10/64/9) and pra sapta sapta tredh̄a hi  (10/75/1). The Vajasaneyi-samhitā  (34.11) talks about of five rivers joining the Sarasvati. So we see that the descriptions vary slightly due to the symbolic poetry of Vedic Seers. The important point though, is their fascination regarding the sapta-sindhu area and the river Sarasvati.  The Aitareya and Shatapatha Brahamanas repeatedly mention that Sarasvati either got fanned out in deserts or dried up. Later on, the drying up of Sarasvati led to migrations of people towards the northwest or westward of the Sarasvati river system .This is the opinion of many scholars today.

Atharvaveda’s Bhumi sukta depicts the picture of Indian land. It has six seasons (12/1/36 ), colorful soil, sea, rivers,  mountains, and glorious description of ancestors. In the Rigveda we find names of only three seasons – vasant, grishma and sharad (RV 10/90/6) but they are indicative of winter and rain. These seasons are familiar to Northern India.


The principal food of the Ṛgvedic Aryans consisted of barley-flour and its various preparations, rice and other cereals, fruits, honey, clarified butter (ghee), curd and other preparations of milk. The sowing, ripening, and ploughing of Yava is mentioned in the Ṛgvedic verses. Etymologically, barley was called Yava because its grain, though one, has two distinctly marked parts, which are still not separated. Specimens of barley, unearthed from the ruins of Mohenjodaron shows its use in that region even in the Ṛgvedic age. It is certain that barley and some other grains were cultivated in Ṛgvedic times. Barley was offered to gods. In their prayers, Vedic people are found asking gods for this grain. In the Atharvaveda it is called one of the two immortal sons of heaven, i.e. barley and rice (AV.8/7/20). These two were the staple crops that were cultivated by the Ṛgvedic Āryans, one in winter or spring and the other during the rainy season. It may be that, as the climate of Punjab was extremely cold in the Ṛgvedic times, the cultivation of barley was more convenient and yielded bumper crops rather than that of rice. Moreover ‘Vrīhi’ – meaning rice – is frequently referred to in the later Vedic works. Dhānya, Dhānā are other words denoting grains in general. It is but natural that for agriculture and cultivation a stable society and lifestyle is needed. Thus seasons, grains and agriculture prove the homeland of Aryans as the region of seven rivers near Punjab.

It is important to note that Salt (Lavan͎a) is not mentioned in the Rigveda, but is frequently mentioned later. Keith and Macdonell has observed that, “it is somewhat surprising, if the regions then occupied by the Indians were the Punjab and the Indus valley, where salt abounds, (that it is not mentioned) it is however, quite possible that a necessary commodity might happen to be passed over without literary mention in a region, where it is very common”. It is sure Āryans knew it because in a Ṛgvedic mantra they talk about thirst (Trishn͎ā) between waters of ocean ( RV 7/89/4).

We found description of ornaments and jewellery in Ṛgveda, almost similar to what we found in Harappan excavations. In both descriptions people used them to decorate head, ears, neck, finger, chest, hands, waist and legs, These decorative items were made of metal,  mud or stone; such as  man͎i grīva, nis͎ka, khādi,sraj, rukma, hiranyavartani etcGenerally it is said that Rigvedic people were living in mud houses in villages. We found that houses and building materials were not unknown to them. In one Mantra worshipper says to Varuna that ‘he does not want to live in a house made of clay’.- Mo shu varuna mrinmayam griham rajan naham gamam (7/89/10). Instead he askes to Parjanya Deva to give ‘tridhatu Sharnam (7/101/2 ) i.e. ‘three  storied dwelling’ according to H H Wilson and ‘Tribhumika house’ according to Sayana. Ayasi Puh (7/95/1) i.e. ‘Fort of iron’ is used for metaphor. Ishttikas meaning bricks are described variously in Brahamana texts. Dvara for door, and chardi for terrace are in common use in the Rigveda. Two ‘Shaala’ sukas  in Atharvaveda describe about bigger and systematic house. This shows that Vedic people liked clean and strong houses for living. Study of Ṛgvedic birds, animals and plants are also relevant in this context to decide about the place and period of Vedic culture. Undoubtedly these too indicate their Indian origin.

Vedic civilization, as reflected in the Ṛgveda, is seen developing gradually in all aspects in the later Vedic texts. Keeping in mind the scientific principles of development of any civilization, it would be appropriate to think of the early period of Vedic civilization as 5000 to 4000 BC. Its later period may be assigned during Harappan period.  Further, other categories of evidence, incorporated with literary evidences, may provide advanced chronological findings of our ancient times.