By Swami Harshananda
Brāhmaṇas literally means ‘liturgical texts of Brahman or the Vedas’.
Classification of Vedas
The Vedas are the basic scriptures. They are broadly divided into two parts:
- The Samhitās - The Samhitās comprise of the mantras or hymns in praise of the various Vedic deities like Agni and Indra.
- The Brāhmaṇas - The Brāhmaṇas are composed in prose and explains the mantras. They prescribe the use of mantras in sacrifices and also give the know-how of the sacrifices in detail. The Brāhmaṇas include the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads, though these two are also considered as two more parts, different from the Samhitās and the Brāhmaṇas.
Contents of Brāhmaṇas
Yajñas and yāgas sacrifices offered into the duly consecrated fire occupy a central place in Vedic religion. Hence, the need for clear and elaborate instructions to conduct them was keenly felt. The Brāhmaṇas fulfilled that need. The primary content of the Brāhmaṇas can be stated as ‘vidhi’ or injunctions concerning the various rites and rituals which form a part of the sacrificial system. It comprises of such details:
- When to perform a sacrifice
- Which sacrifice and for which purpose
- Who is the person fit to perform it
- What are the various components
- What are the mantras to be used
- Where and how it needs to be performed
Apart from the vidhis, the Brāhmaṇas also contain other topics:
- Hetu - Portions of the work that provide logic and reasoning in support of a vidhi are called ‘hetu’.
- Nirukti - Certain words are explained with their etymological derivations. These explanations are termed as ‘nirukti’.
- Stuti or arthavāda - Stuti or arthavāda comprises the statements of praise in support of the injunctions and derogation in support of prohibitions.
- Ākhyāna - Ākhyānas are stories or narration of ancient incidents interspersed in the body of the Brāhmaṇa literature. They are often full of esoteric meanings or philosophical speculations.
Significance of Brāhmaṇas
The Brāhmaṇas occupy a very important place in the Vedic lore. They not only provide the necessary details for the performance of Vedic rites but also give the inspiration to sustain them. The various discussions that used to take place during the Brāhmaṇa period concerning the several aspects of the sacrificial religion, gave rise to the Mīmāmsā system of philosophy.
Inception Period of Brāhmaṇas
Like in the case of the most ancient scriptures, it is rather difficult to determine the definite date of the Brāhmaṇa literature. Western Indologists assign the dates as 1200 B.C. to A.D. 200. In contrast, scholars who base on their arguments mainly on the astronomical data available in the Brāhmaṇas (like the Śatapatha Brāhmana) push it back to the period 3000 B.C. to 2000 B.C.
Language of Brāhmaṇas
The entire Brāhmaṇa literature is in prose. It is the most ancient prose in Sanskrit literature known at the present time. The sentences are simple and straight, and long, compound words or grammatically intricate structures are practically unused. Hence, it is much more intelligible to the modern reader. The absence of archaic words found in the Samhitās and the use of many new words give the impression that the Sanskrit of the Brāhmaṇas represents a transition stage from Vedic to Classical Sanskrit.
Community and Social Life During Brāhmaṇa Era
The Brāhmaṇas give an inkling into contemporary social life of the time. The varṇa system is the division of the society into four broad groups based on the natural propensities and professions. It had become well-established during the age of the Brāhmaṇas. People were very much devoted to the performance of the sacrifices, which were extensively practised. This naturally led to the brāhmaṇas, members of the first of the four varṇas, occupying the preeminent place in the social setup. They were almost revered as gods on earth. However, they had to earn that status through the mastery of the Vedas and tapas or austerities.
The next important social status was accorded to the kṣattriyas. A kṣattriya ruler had to submit himself to the guidance and advice of the brāhmaṇas. The third varṇa, the vaiśyas, were devoted to the development of the whole society through their activities of trade, commerce and agriculture. Finally, those who were not capable of the other three vocations contented themselves in living by serving others. They were known as the śudras.
Great importance was attached to satya and dharma, or truth and righteous behavior. One who forsake the path of truth was considered unfit for the performance of sacrifices. Slipping into sinful ways would result in a vicious circle, thereby obliging the sinners to commit more heinous sins. Hence it had to be avoided at all costs. Since purity in personal life would conduce to the purity of social life, it was highly regarded and stressed upon. People prayed that they would be gifted with virtuous sons, and a chaste woman was treated with respect. In essence, the Vedic sacrifices were believed to help in achieving this goal.
Brāhmaṇas In the Vedas
Each of the four Vedas has its own Brāhmaṇas. Since the number of the extant Brāhmaṇas is rather small compared to what has been mentioned in the gṛhyasutras and other ancient works, it can safely be surmised that many of them have been lost, perhaps irretrievably. An idea of the contents of these Brāhmaṇas can be obtained under the respective titles. The Brāhmaṇas available now, may be listed as follows:
- Aitareya Brāhmana
- Kausītaki Brāhmana
- Taittiriya Brāhmana
- Śatapatha Brāhmana
- Tāndya Brāhmana
- Sadvirhśa Brāhmana
- Sāmavidhāna Brāhmana
- Ārseya Brāhmana
- Daivata Brāhmana
- Samhitopaniṣad Brāhmana
- Upaniṣad Brāhmana
- Vamśa Brāhmana
- Jaiminlya Brāhmana
- Gopatha Brāhmana
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore