By Swami Harshananda
Aṣṭaka literally means ‘of eight parts’.
The Rgveda, the first and the foremost of the four Vedas, consists of 10,552 mantras or verses. There are two well-known systems of dividing these mantras into books, sections or chapters.
As per the first system which groups the mantras according to the deities, topics and meters, the Rgveda is divided into ten ‘maṇḍalas,’ each maṇḍala being subdivided again into ‘anuvāka’ and ‘sukta.’ Though this method is good from the standpoint of study, it is not good from the standpoint of memorization (which had a supreme place in ancient Vedic studies) since there is a large variation in the number of mantras in each maṇḍala. Hence an attempt was made later to divide the whole of the Rgveda into eight sections, each called as an ‘aṣṭaka,’ keeping the total number of mantras in each aṣṭaka almost the same.
Each aṣṭaka was again subdivided into eight ‘adhyāyas’ or chapters and the adhyāyas into ‘vargas’ or groups. The vargas consisted of the mantras. Due care has been taken to maintain same number of the total number of akṣaras or letters in each aṣṭaka, since some mantras are in longer meters. The following table gives an idea of this division:
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore