THE four Vedas constitute the basic texts of the Vedic knowledge. But in ancient times, several works were composed to elucidate or explain this difficult and secret knowledge. Of these, Brahmanas are most important. It has been said that Vedas consist of the mantras of the Vedas and the texts of the Brahmanas. The word Brahmana is to be distinguished from the word Brahmin. Whereas Brahmanas are literary compositions. Brahmins are members of the varna called Brahmana. The literary works known as Brahmanas are so called because they are commentaries on the mantras of the Veda.
The total corpus of the basic Vedic literature is divided into four parts:
1. Samhitas—Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda;
For each Samhita, there are corresponding Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads are closely related with one another.
The Rigveda is connected with Aitareya Brahmana, Aitareya Aranyaka and Aitareya Upanishad. Similarly, the Shankhayana branch of the Rigveda is closely connected with the Kaushitaki Brahmana, Kaushitaki Aranyaka and Kaushitaki Upanishad as well as the Shankhayana Brahmana.
The Krishna Yajurveda is closely connected with the Taittiriya Brahmana/ Taittiriya Aranyaka and Taittiriya Upanishad, while Taittiriya Aranyaka is also closely connected with the Mahanarayana Upanishad.
The Shukia Yajurveda is closely connected with the Shatapatha Brahmana. A part of this Brahmana is called Aranyaka and Upanishad both together, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
The Samaveda is closely connected with the Tandyabrahmana, which is also connected with the Chhandogyopanishad. It is also closely connected with the Jaiminiya Brahmanopanishad Brahmana. It is also known as Talavakara Aranyaka.
The Atharvaveda is closely connected with the Gopatha Brahmana, Prashna Upanishad and Mundaka Upanishad.
The Brahmana literature has many philosophical passages, but the bulk of the textual material is related to the explication of rituals. In explaining rituals, Brahmanas reveal a great deal of inner meaning of the relationship between supreme divine Reality, gods and goddesses, Asuras and Rakshasas and human beings who are agents of various kinds of sacrifice. Explanations are given in the form of formulas, explanatory statements, parables and legends.
As an example, we may give below one of the longest legends that we find in the Aitareya Brahmana,which attempts to explain the nature of sacrifice, significance of sacrifice and also how father and son are interrelated with matters connected with merits and demerits of various actions.
This legend is related to King Harischandra of Ikshvaku dynasty. As he was issueless, two sages, Parvata and Narada visited his house. During the conversation, Narada advised the King to propitiate Varuna in order to get a boon from him for a son. Acting upon the advice, the King obtained the boon from Varuna, but the latter made a condition that the King would sacrifice his son soon after his birth. The King agreed to the condition.
In due course, the King was blessed with a son who was named Rohita. Very soon thereafter, Varuna demanded the sacrifice of Rohita. But the King had become deeply attached to Rohita and prayed to Varuna to allow him to postpone for some time the fulfilment of the promise. Under one pretext or the other, the King obtained postponement from time to time until Rohita was already in age. At this stage, when the King had no other alternative, Rohita was asked by him to be ready for the sacrifice. But now the son refused to oblige the father and absconded from home seeking resort in a forest. A serious disease was contracted by the King/ who felt that this was the result of the curse of Varuna. Harischandra then became desperate to find out his son so as to perform the required sacrifice.
At this stage, Rohita was advised by Indra to go on moving. He was told that movement, if it is performed steadfastly as the Sun, brings about a bright fortune. For six years, Rohita continued to move on, on and on. In the sixth year, he met a poor Brahmin called Ajigarta and requested
him to offer his own son to Varuna for sacrifice in his place in exchange of 100 golden mudras. Ajigarta offered his middle son, Shunahshepa. Rohita took Shunahshepa to his royal palace and offered him to his father for sacrifice in lieu of himself.
Arrangements were made for the sacrifice, and Vishwamitra was appointed to act as the priest of the sacrifice. The question was as to who would tie Shunahshepa to the sacrificial post and who would perform the actual act of sacrifice. For both these crucial events, Ajigarta agreed in exchange of 100 golden mudras for each occasion. But when the moment of sacrifice arrived, Shunahshepa cried out to the gods. He prayed to Prajapati, then to Agni, then to Savitri and then to Varuna and all the other gods. Consequently/ Shunahshepa obtained boons from all these gods, and Varuna released him from the triple cord in which he was tied on the successful completion of the Soma sacrifice with the Divine blessings and permission of the priest.
Ultimately, Vishwamitra accepted Shunahshepa as his eldest son and named him Devarata (one who was given by gods).
The above legend has been a subject-matter of deep reflection, deliberations and interpretation. The most important message of this legend is that Shunahshepa represents the human being who is tied in the triple cord of body, vital desires and mind. Every human being has to learn the secret of attaining freedom from the bondage of this triple cord. The secret of freedom is to aspire for freedom and to gain the aid of Divine agencies such as Prajapati, Agni, Indra, Savitri, Varuna and other gods. The most important point is reached when one is able to perform such a severe tapas of purification that the highest delight of the Divine consciousness, which is symbolised by Soma,
can be sustained in the human frame. When tapas is unripe, the body is not able to sustain the in-pouring delight of the Divine being, and leaks down as from the unbaked jar. Therefore, the most important test that one has to pass through is that of Soma sacrifice which can be performed only by attaining complete purity—purity from egoism, purity from desires and purity from ignorance. When these conditions are fulfilled and the grace of the priest or the Guru also is secured, one gets released from the triple cord of body, life and mind. The soul of the human being is then liberated and soars heavenward, even while continuing to ensoul the human body, like a swan in the open sky. This is perhaps the secret meaning of this legend, and much of the Vedic knowledge is contained in a symbolic way in it.