Aitareya Brāhmaṇa

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By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Aitareya Brahmana, Aitareya BrAhmaNa, Aitareya Braahmana


There are two important sections of Vedas:

  1. Brāhmaa - It is in prose and confines itself to liturgy, describing the modus operandi of the various sacrifices.
  2. Samhitā - It is in poetry and deals with a variety of subjects.

The Brāhmana is further classified into two sections :

  1. Aitareya Brāhmana - It is the longer one of the two extant Brāhmaṇas of the Rgveda.
  2. Kausitaki Brāhmana - It is attributed to Mahidāsa Aitareya

There is reason to believe that this is, perhaps, an abridged edition of an earlier and much bigger work. The book is divided into eight pañcikās (quintets) each consisting of five adhyāyas or chapters which are again subdivided into kaṇḍikās or short sections. In all, there are 285 kaṇḍikās spread over 40 adhyāyas. The language is almost as archaic as that of the Samhitā and certain word-groups tend to appear repeatedly.

Since this work contains many details of sacrificial rites which are rather bewildering to the modern mind, only a very brief summary of the contents will be mentioned here.

  • The first thirteen adhyāyas give a minute description of the various duties and responsibilities of the hotṛ (principal priest of the Rgveda) in the sacrifice called Agniṣtoma. Agniṣṭoma is a prakṛti or prototype of all other Somayāgas (which are its vikṛtis or modifications or versions). It has been given the pride of place here.
  • Adhyāyas 15-17 describe the sacrifices Ukthya, Atirātra and Sodaśī which are all vikṛtis of Agniṣtoma.
  • The 18th adhyāya deals with the Sattrayāgas (which take a full year to perform). The hotr is expected to play an important in it.
  • The next six adhyāyas from 19 to 24 deals with the sacrifice called Dvādaśāha, the emphasis again being on the instructions to the hotṛs.
  • Agnihotra is described in the 25th.
  • The duties of the hotṛ and his assistants in the Somayāgas which take several weeks are described in the five adhyāyas 26 to 30.
  • The last two pañcikās comprising adhyāyas 31 to 40, contain interesting material from which plenty of information can be gathered on contemporary history.
  • Rājasṅya sacrifice is the main theme of the adhyāyas 31-35. It is here that we come across the well-known story of Sunaśśepha and Hariścandra.
  • The last section (adhyayās 36 to 40) deals with the coronation of Indra and gives a long list of the various kings who were coronated by ṛṣis following the same pattern of Indra’s coronation.
  • The work ends with the exhortation to the king to appoint a purohita (priest). It also describes the qualifications of the purohita (priest) to deserve the honor.

Some of the special features of this Brāhmaṇa are:

  • Viṣṇu is highly respected
  • A number of earlier religious works are quoted referencing other Brāhmaṇa works which are not available now
  • It is interesting to note that the work criticizes the views of other works and earlier teachers, if and when found necessary.
  • Out of the several ṛks (Rgvedic mantras) quoted here, a few have not been found in the extant Rgveda Samhitā. Perhaps another śākhā or branch of the Rgveda Sarhhita is different from the Śākala version available now.
  • The whole text is overwhelmingly weighed in favor of the sacrificial system of religion leaving practically no room for metaphysical ideas as, for instance, in the Upaniṣads.

Kings of the Kuru-Pāñcāla race were ruling in Central India. Kings of the east were called ‘sāmrāṭ’ and of the south were called ‘bhoja.’ Emperors who conquered these used to assume titles like ‘ekarāṭ,’ ‘sārvabhauma’ or ‘parameṣṭhin.’ They believed that the rite ‘mahābhiṣeka’ (by which Indra was coronated) would induce in the king the necessary power and inspiration to achieve this sovereignty.

Emperors and kings were fond of performing long and complicated sacrifices, especially the ‘mahābhiṣeka.’ Curds, honey, ghee and water were being used in this rite for anointing and sprinkling. Though the State exercised full control over the people, the brāhmaṇas were deemed to have transcended it.

The book contains a list of twelve kings who underwent this mahābhiṣeka rite. Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna and Bharata, the son of Duṣyanta and Śakuntalā are included in this list. Though the people were ardently devoted to the sacrificial rites they had not neglected the life here and now. Brāhmaṇas vied with one another to exhibit their erudition while the kṣattriyas did the same in the field of physical prowess and skill in arms.


References

  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore