Glimpses of Vedic Literature - Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd.)

THE literature of the Brahmanas is vast and deals with a number of subjects, which are ritualistic, philosophical, symbolic and spiritual in character. In it, there is a good deal of account relating to the human conduct, goal of life and practices by which the individual can rise to higher levels of consciousness and immortality. Nonetheless, ritualism plays a major role in the Brahmana literature. Most of the Brahmanas are in prose and provide a kind of commentary on the text of the Vedic Samhitas. The way in which this commentary is given can be illustrated by taking at random two or three examples from the Aitareya Brahmana.

The Aitareya Brahmana is so called because it is attributed to Rishi Aitareya. The story of the Rishi goes like this:

There was a Brahmin who had two wives. One of them was his favourite, while the other one was ignored by him. The ignored one was called Itara (which literally means

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

"someone else"). Itara had just one son. Once, during his childhood, when he was weeping and crying, he was scolded by his mother and was asked to keep quiet. Since then, never did he speak. As a consequence, he was considered to be dumb. The sons from the favourite wife of the Brahmin, on the other hand, became learned scholars and good orators in course of time. Once they were invited to perform a sacrifice arranged for by another Brahmin. They impressed everybody present there with their learning and oration. When the matter was reported to Itara, she felt sad. She began to admonish her son for his muteness and backwardness as compared to the sons of the favourite wife. She even expressed her great dismay and in the state of depression, she said that she would prefer to put an end to her life. She said that life in hell would be better than the life she was living with a dumb son. Having heard this, the son at once broke his silence. He said that he had been keeping silent since the day he was admonished by his mother in his childhood to keep quiet. This he was doing in deference to the wishes of his mother. He also disclosed that he was all along mentally reciting all the mantras and practising all the disciplines for attainment of liberation. He then suggested that since he was once again admonished for his backwardness and muteness by his mother and asked by her to break the silence, he was prepared to do so. He also agreed to visit the site of the sacrifice where his brothers were already present and displaying their eloquence.

When this young boy appeared at the site of the sacrifice, the sons of the favourite wife jeered at him and asked him as to how he could dare to appear at the site of the sacrifice. They laughed at the physical appearance of the young boy and hurled insults at him pointing out that his body was smeared with ashes and was unclean. Without caring for these insults, the boy proceeded to sit in the lap

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

of his father. But his father, too, turned him aside, uttering to him unkind words and thus humiliating him in the presence of all.

The shock of the humiliation and insult was so severe that even the insentient Nature could not tolerate it. The Mother earth shook violently and, all of a sudden, tearing her own bosom, she pushed forth a beautiful and ornamental throne and placed it before the boy. The Mother earth then told him, "Oh young boy! Of what use is this lap of your father which has been polluted by the sons of your step mother?" Mother earth further told him: "Occupy this throne which I have now placed before you, and God will bestow all His Grace on you as soon as you sit on this throne."

The boy then sat down on the throne and his recitations were so wonderful that even gods showered their blessings as well as beautiful flowers on him from the heaven. All the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads physically appeared before the assembly. Such was the glorious sight witnessed by every one.

His father realised his folly and came forward to worship his own young son. Sages and other Brahmins also worshipped him and gods blessed him. Even gods performed worship of him.

The boy then recited OM magnificently, and when he descended from the throne, all things seemed glorious. The trembling of the earth ceased, the throne disappeared once again into the bosom of the earth, and the boy was received with ovation.

It was this young boy who was then named Aitareya, i.e., the son of Itara, and was given the title Mahidasa, the servant of the Mother Earth.

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

It may be noted that Aitareya has remained a famous name in Vedic literature and apart from Aitareya Brahmana, there is also a famous Upanishad named after him, which is called Aitareya Upanishad, both of them belonging to the Rigveda.

It may also be noted that the story of Aitareya is quite similar to the Puranic story of Dhruva, where Dhruva while trying to sit in the lap of his father was insulted by him. Dhruva had then retired to the forest and performed tapas until Narayana himself appeared before him, blessed him and placed him on the throne of the kingdom.

There seems to be a close connection between the experience of insult and humiliation and the attainment of glory. In this light, we can understand better what Manu has said in his Manusmriti.1

Indeed, in the tradition of Wisdom, the path to glory lies through the gates of humiliation.

We may now relate a story, which explains the greatness of Gayatri, the metre in which the famous Savitri Mantra of Vishwamitra has been composed. This mantra is addressed to Savitri, who as the creator of the universe, has been invoked to direct and drive the human intelligence with its divine light.

ओमू र्भुवःभुवः स्वः तत्सवितुर्वरेण्यं ।
भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात् ॥
Rigveda 3.62.10

"We meditate upon the most luminous glory of god Savitri, so that He may drive and direct our intelligence."

According to this story, the question is about the significance of the symbolism of the three steps (padas) of the Gayatri mantra. The three steps of Gayatri are compared in

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

this story with the three steps of Vishnu. It is very well known that Vishnu is supposed to pervade the entire universe and that this pervasion is accomplished by Vishnu iri his three strides. In the famous mantra of Dirghatamas (Rigveda, 1.154.), three steps of Vishnu are described as full of honey, and imperishable and as having ecstasy by the self-harmony of their nature. Vishnu, declares Dirghatamas, is the One who holds the triple principle and earth and heaven also, even all the worlds. Indeed, these three steps have nothing to do with the ideas proper to the later mythology of the dwarf Vishnu, the Titanic Bali and the three divine strides by means of which he took possession of the earth, the Heaven, and the sunless sub-terrestrial worlds of Patala. The Vedic Vishnu has three strides, the stride of the earth, heaven, and the triple principle, Tridhatu,—Tridhatu is the triple principle beyond earth,—(matter) and heaven, (mind), and it is what came later on to be known in the Upanishads as sat-chit-ananda. The three movements of Gayatri correspond to the three movements of Vishnu. As one recites the, Gayatri, one becomes as all-pervasive as Vishnu himself. This is the significance that seems to be insisted upon by Aitareya Brahmana. The question at issue in this symbolic story is to identify the significance of the sacrificial cake, Purodasha, (which literally means "that which is given away in the divine presence"). Purodasha according to the tradition, is cooked in eight pans, and these eight pans symbolise eight syllables of Gayati. Hence, Gayatri is also visualised as a sacrificial cake. This cake is offered in three steps, which are the three steps of Gayatri, and these steps correspond to the three strides of Vishnu. In other words, the symbolism of Purodasha signifies an offering, which leads to a movement of the all-pervasive Vishnu.

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

As an important part of this symbolism, it is underlined that the sacrificial cake needs to be cooked and that this cooking is effected by fire symbolised as Agni. Agni, according to the Vedas, is the messenger of gods and therefore represents all the gods. Vishnu also is supposed to represent all the gods. The symbolism, therefore, as a whole, describes the movement of aspiration mounting towards the Supreme, where aspiration is Agni, representing all the gods working through Agni from below, and where the sacrificial cake is the raw material of human elements cooked by aspiration of Agni, and where the sacrificial cake is offered to Vishnu who represents all the gods in the higher planes. In this movement of aspiration, there is a rhythm and that rhythm is symbolised by the three steps of Gayatri. Finally, since Gayatri has eight syllables, it is prescribed that the sacrificial cake should be cooked in eight pans so as to correspond to complete movement of Gayatri.2

We may refer to one more story. This is taken from the Shatapatha Brahmana. This Brahmana is related to the Shukia Yajurveda. As is well known, Yajnavalkya is the main proponent of the Shukia Yajurveda and Shatapatha is the only Brahmana available, belonging to the Shukia Yajurveda. This Brahmana has, towards its close, the famous Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is one of the most authoritative expositions of the knowledge contained in the Upanishads, and in which, again, Yajnavalkya figures very prominently.

The story that is being narrated here explains the significance of sacrifice by tracing its origin to the first sacrifice that was performed by Manu. According to the story, Manu was once washing his hands and found that a small fish came to his hands. The fish spoke to Manu: "Protect me, I shall cause your deliverance." Manu then put the fish in a jar of water, where it began to grow in size. When it could not

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

be contained in the jar, Manu took it out and placed it in a pond of water. There, too, the fish began to grow, and when it could not be contained in the pond, Manu took it to the ocean and put it there. Under the directions of the fish, a boat was tied by Manu to the horns of the fish, which in turn, was tied to a tree. When the tides in the ocean began to rise, and did not abate, all creatures began to be submerged. But Manu was saved because of the boat, as promised by the fish earlier. When everything was wiped out, Manu alone survived and found himself on the top of a northern mountain (Uttaragiri). The tides of the ocean receded and everything became calm. Then Manu performed a sacrifice. From the sacrifice, there arose a damsel. The damsel was questioned by Varuna and Mitra:

"Who are you?" She replied: "I am the daughter of Manu." Manu also questioned the damsel, "Who are you?" She replied, "I am your daughter." Manu asked as to how she could be his daughter. The damsel then replied that since she came out of the sacrifice, which was performed by Manu, she naturally became Manu's daughter. The daughter came to be called Ila, which also symbolises all the creatures. Ila was then given in marriage to Varuna and Mitra and hence she is called Maitra-Varuni.

Ila also came to be known as Taturi, which means that which enables the individual to cross all the evils and sins of life.

This story, according to Shatapatha Brahmana, indicates why sacrifice should be performed, and how when performed, it produces the creative energy, which symbolises all the creatures.

In the Vedic symbolism, Ila is the source of power of revelation and, therefore, also that of the four Vedas. The Vedas are, therefore, considered in the Vedic tradition as the

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

first emanation in the creation. The two great powers, which are subserved by the power of revelation, are the powers of universality and harmony which are symbolised respectively by Varuna and Mitra who occupy so prominent a place in the Vedic tradition. They represent the totality of the universe and the law of mutual relations, which brings harmony of all objects of the universe. But the important point is that neither Ila nor Varuna and Mitra could come into operation without the act of sacrifice on the part of Manu. In other words, the origin of the universe is traced in terms of the symbolism of the story of the original sacrifice performed by the mental being, Manu.

This story of the Shatapatha Brahmana (1.8.1) underlines the fact that all creatures of the universe are born of sacrifice, where sacrifice means the self-giving of the Lord. As a result of it, all the creatures are born of the substance of the Lord himself. And these creatures are, in effect, reflections of the original revelation, which is wedded to the original universality and harmony.

According to the ritualistic tradition of the Veda, all rituals are imitations of the original processes of creation. Rituals are, therefore, expected to repeat the rhythms of the original creation and it is believed that the repetition of these rhythms reinforces all the works of universe and it is by these works that the past is led towards the future and the creation is constantly getting transformed into the new one. Whoever, therefore, sacrifices, contributes to the renewal of the universe, to the creation of the universe, to the transformation of the universe, even to the annulment of the bondage to the past and birth into the future.

This seems to be the meaning of this symbolic story of Manu and sacrifice. It may also be noted that this story is retold in one form or the other in the Puranas and some elements

Brahmanas (contd)

Brahmanas (contd)

of it are also to be found in the Old Testament, which is the source book of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


1 A learned Brahmin should always keep himself aloof of honour which is not better than poison. He should always be ready to invite insult, which can be likened to nectar.

2. The above story is given in the Aitareya Brahmana, Chapter I.

Brahmanas (contd)

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