By Swami Harshananda
Each of the four Vedas, is divided into four parts:
The Aitareya Āranyaka (2500 B. C.) is one of the two Āraṇyakas belonging to the Rgveda. It has five main divisions each of which is also given the appellation ‘araṇyaka.’ For instance, the first division is called ‘prathamāraṇyaka,’ the second ‘dvitīyāraṇyaka’ and so on. The total number of adhyāyas or chapters is eighteen. These adhyāyas are subdivided into khaṇḍas or small sections.
The first āranyaka describes the ‘mahāvrata’ which is a part of the Sattra-yāga known as ‘Gavāmayana’ and performed on the penultimate day. This rite derives its name primarily from the fact that a sāman (a hymn from the Sāmaveda) called ‘mahāvrata’ is sung while offering a cup of soma juice to Prajāpati (‘Father of beings’) who is also called ‘mahān’ (‘the great one’). Some of the important sidelights of the ritual are as follows :
- A priest playing on a harp.
- Another sitting on a swing
- Shooting of arrows
- Mimetic fights
- Dancing with water pitchers on the head by the servants
The first three adhyāyas of the second āranyaka deal with uktha or niskevalya śastra, and describe prāṇa, the vital force and the greatness of puruṣa . Niṣkevalya śastra consists of certain Rgvedic stanzas which are to be chanted (and not sung) at the time of pressing the soma juice during sacrifices like Gavāmayana. Certain meditations connected with it are described.
The rest of this āraṇyaka (i.e., the fourth, fifth and sixth adhyāyas) comprises the well-known Aitareya Upanisad. The third āraṇyaka deals with the special upāsanās or contemplations and their fruits connected with the sarnhitāpāṭha, padapāṭha and kramapāṭha (the vedic texts and their systematic breaking up for convenience in remembering and interpreting). It also deals with the aristas (ill-omens) manifesting through certain physical signs like seeing the sun as moon, as not seeing one’s head through the mirror or through dreams, as seeing a man of black complexion —all of which forebode death.
The propogators of this upāsana are certain ancient ṛṣis like :
The fourth āraṇyaka which is very short, deals with the mahānāmnī mantras of Sāmaveda which are to be chanted on the fifth day of the mahāvrata. The fifth āraṇyaka which is the last, deals with many ritualistic details of the mahāvrata. Tradition ascribes only the first three Āraṇyakas to Aitareya, the fourth and the fifth being attributed to Āśvalāyana and his guru Saunaka.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore