Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The state of Vedic rescensions

Introduction: Traditional Vedic recitation is dwindling, and in danger of  becoming extinct. Priestly families are affiliated to a particular branch of a particular Veda, and it takes 16-20 year to learn/memorise the whole sahita to which a student ‘belongs’.  There are no takers among the younger generation, as it is a very difficult task and not at all lucrative. Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts scouts and sources rare manuscripts of these rescensions and publishes them, as well as recording the chanting, which will die with the handful of surviving exponents, the way things are at present.   

Dr. G.C Tripathi, scholar par excellence and erstwhile Head of the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts delivered this lecture at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies some years ago. It formed part of the audio support of an online course run by the centre in 2008.  He goes on to talk about ways of chanting along with audio examples. For this post I have only taken the portion relevant to rescensions. Some information may have changed since then. Also, I was working off a fairly poor recording, so there might be some mistakes – which are entirely my fault. If you notice any, please write in and I’ll make the corrections. You can find more such information here:


AV - Atharva Veda
KYV - Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda
RV - g Veda
SV - Sāma Veda
SYV - Śukla Yajur Veda

While most of us are familiar with the four Vedas, k, Sāma, Yajus and Atharva, many of us dont know that each of these has rescensions, or versions which form the central text of Vedic branches or śākhās.  The rescensions have slight variation of language, vocabulary and verse content/order. Rescensions of the ‘Ur’ texts result from ritual and phonetic variations in different regions.  While a lot of scholarly work has and is being done, we don’t know for sure how and why the śākhās arose. Patañjali, (date: circa 2nd cen. B.C.E) commenting on Pāini says there are 21 branches of g veda, 101 of Yajus, 9 of  Atharva Veda 1000s of branches of the Sāma.    

Today there are 3 RV śākhās  left – Śākalya, Āśvalāyana and Kauśitaki of which the  Śākalya is considered to be ‘theg veda – because it has been commented upon by Sāyaa and Venkat Madhava etc. The name indicates that it originated in the west of Punjab (around modern Sialkot, Pakistan) among the Madra tribe whose fort (kota) was called Śākal-kota.

The Āśvalāyana was written by the Āśvakas, who lived in the East of Punjab, in the region known as Kuru-Pāñcāla  extending from Kurukśetra to Western UP. This was the main sahita of this region. [Dr. Tripathi quotes a verse to establish it provenance – the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna is mentioned in it. The same verse is in the Śākalya, but only in the khila section. (sitāsite sarite yatra sangate…)] The Āśvalāyana recitation technique is extinct in India. Manuscripts are rare, and found mostly in the Alwar-Jaipur region.

Kauśitaki is the smallest of all k rescensions. It’s arrangement is different and it omits many verses that are in the other two. Found mostly in Gujarat, and southern Rajasthan, it has a living oral tradition – but is in danger of dying out.  There are only 2 aged pandits in Baanswada, and the younger lot not really interested. Even the 2 pandits only know those portions by heart that are used in domestic or Vedic ritual frequently. 

The Yajurveda has two distinct versions – the white or Śukla  which contains only metrical formulae/versified mantras and the black or Kṛṣṇa which has verses as well as explanations in prose on the application of the verses in ritual. The sahita of the white YV is called Vājasaneya, and has two branches Mādhyandina and the va. The former originated most probably in the Kuru-Pāñcāla region and is most widely used in ritual in north India – in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, UP, Bihar, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh

The vas belonged to the eastern part of UP, settled in Kannauj/Gorakhpur/Shavasti region from where the migrated East and took the sahita with them – to Orissa and to South India (Tamil Nadu) upo the invitation of regional Kings.  Currently of this tradition, there is a 96 year old pundit in Ambattur near Madras – he has 6 disciples. The vas  have their own version of Śatapatha Brāhmaa  – slightly different from the Mādhyandina version which was translated by Julius Eggeling. (see

The main text of KYV is Taittirīya, used almost exclusively in Andhra Pradesh, and very widely in Maharashtra and Karnataka & Tamil Nadu. Although Maharashtra uses SYV as well, but in Andhra Pradesh, it is exclusively Taittirīya (KYV).  The Kaha, Kāhaka rescension of the KYV has  no reciters at present but manuscripts are available. It was very popular at one time, because Pātañjali in his Mahabhashya says that everywhere in all the villages, you can hear Kaha. The last known reciters were 100 years ago in Tamil Nadu. The Upaniad of this school is is very well known – the Kahopaniad (for the Nachiketas-Yama  story).

The fate of Maitreyani (KYV) is not much better.  It originated most certainly in Gujarat. The sahita displays a lot of originality and also has a different euphonic system. The reciters are found exclusively today in and around the city of Nasik, Maharashtra. Reciters don’t know the whole text by heart – only those portions that are used in Vedic or domestic sacrifices.

Of the Kapiśhala rescension – only one manuscript exists in the library of the Sanskrit University, Varanasi  – that to in fragmentary condition.  There is no longer a living tradition of this rescension. It originated in the town of Kaithal in modern Haryana. Kaithal being the modern rendition of kapi-sthala (land of monkeys)

Of all of these rescensions, then, only 3 traditions of Yajurveda are alive. Mādhyandina, and va of the white YV and Taittirīya of the black.

Of the Sāma veda there are 3 sahitas, with marked variations in melody. The ways of chanting are of 4 kinds – suitable for a village (graamge), some only in a forest (araynagaan); some are embellished with additional sounds which have no meaning called uha and some are improvised depending on the time and occasion – these are called uhiya.

The 3 sahitas available with notations on how to sing are – Kauthuma in North and East (Mithila and Benaras), Rāṇayanīya in Coastal Karnataka (Mangalore) and Jaiminīya in Kerala. The sahitas hardly differ from each other – most of the verses being taken from the RV – but the order of the verses differs. All of them have independent texts containing expanded musical compositions. Most of these are unpublished.

The Jaiminīya branch has a very melodious method of chanting – very pleasing to the ear. It was clearly very strong in Kerala at one time – because even the reciting/chanting of the RV is highly influenced by it – and also their way of reciting/chanting classical Sanskrit shlokas. Only 3 very old pundits are left in Kerala who can recite the traditional way – in Panjal, Thrissur, in Northern Kerala. No young students are coming up to continue this tradition.

Pundits following the Rāṇayanīya tradition live around the coastal town of Gokarna, Karnataka. There are 5 villages referred to as Pancagrāma. Most of the pundits function as priests. They have not spread beyond Karnataka, and have some good exponents of their tradition. This tradition is not so endangered.

Of the AtharvaVeda there are two rescensions . Śaunaka, and Paippalāda. The Paippalāda was once known as Kashmirian AV, but from 1955, several manuscripts have been found in Orissa – and a critical edition is now being worked on which is not yet published.  Deepak Bhattacharya of Shanti Niketan (Asiatic Society of Bengal) has published 14 kādas, his father Durga Mohan Bhattacharya did the 1st.  Now kādas 16-20 are left which are very voluminous and make up about 45%-50% of the Paippalāda AV. One scholar (Groningen University, Netherlands) has done a critical edition of the 16th  kāda as a PhD thesis, but it is not yet published.

The Atharvavedins of the Śaunaka chant the AV in exactly the same way as the RV is chanted. The marking of accents is almost exactly the same as RV. So a lot of gvedins have shifted over to AV for the sake of livelihood – especially later in life.

As far as Paippalāda is concerned, all the accents have been lost. The sahita text bears no accent marks at all and hardly anyone in Orissa who would know the sahita by heart. Fortunately a large portion of the verses of the Paippalāda are used in domestic ritual – so the pundits have to learn them by heart – although the recite/chant them in the manner of Classical Sanskrit.

Here ends the section of Dr. Tripathi's lecture related to Vedic rescensions.

1 comment:

Aditya said...

The article seems to be very interesting. Sir, can you please throw more light on the lost vedic shakas lost.
Till now, I have never come across any smriti literature that actually discusses on the lost shakas.