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Correct way of chanting vedic mantras

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1. Vedange (sciences related to the Vedas)

‘After the Upanishads with the advent of Buddhism, Vedic tradition lagged behind. The first literary attempts to revive it are the literary works of the Vedange (sciences related to the Vedas). To preserve and utilise the Shrutis systematically there arose a need to create a syllabus; hence later masters (acharya) of the Vedas wrote six sciences related to the Vedas - Shiksha (science of pronunciation), Kalpa, Vyakaran (grammar), Nirukta, Chanda (science of prosody) and Jyotish (astrology). Literature useful for the study and comprehension of the Vedas and the rituals from them is famous as sciences related to the Vedas. These sciences are supposed to be created by man.’(1)

1.1 Shiksha (science of pronunciation)

The science teaching the method of pronunciation of vowels, alphabets, etc. is shiksha. Famous holy texts on this science are written by Sages Panini, Yadnyavalkya and Vasishtha. ‘The Shatpath Brahman states that every metrical composition of Vedic mantras or every alphabet of a word possesses some kind of strength and explains the secret of every alphabet. The Mandukya Upanishad believes that even uttering of alphabets from a mantra is powerful and hence describes the greatness of the alphabet Om. Since the Vedas were considered to be divine in origin the order of every word from their mantras had to be maintained while chanting, as per the established rules. In this regard authors of the Nirukta say, “नियतानुपूर्व्‍या नियतवाचोयुक्‍तय: meaning a word, the order of alphabets in it and its method of pronunciation is definite; hence the meaning of the Vedas also does not change”.’(2) To be able to chant Vedic mantras appropriately one should know the correct pronunciation of vowels (svar). Vowels mean sound. If pronounced correctly the sound generated by a word makes it efficacious. Hence if Vedic mantras are chanted correctly then the mantras become efficacious.

Faulty pronunciation of even one word changes the entire meaning; hence vowels decide the meaning of words. In this regard the Panini Shiksha (52) says -

मन्‍त्रो हीन: स्‍वरतो वर्णतो वा मिथ्‍या प्रयुक्‍तो न तमर्थमाह ।
स वाग्‍वज्रो यजमानं हिनस्‍ति यथेन्‍द्रशत्रु: स्‍वरतोऽपराधात्‌ ।।

Meaning: The mantra without proper pronunciation of vowels (svar) and consonants (varna), that is the utterance of a mantra in a faulty manner makes it faulty and does not convey the intended meaning. Instead it gets converted into a verbal thunderbolt and harms the one chanting it, as had occurred in the case of the word Indrashatru with faulty pronunciation of vowels.

The compound word Indrashatru could have two meanings, one being “Indra’s enemy” (the slayer of Lord Indra) from Tatpurush Samas and “the one whose enemy is Lord Indra” (the one who will be slain by Lord Indra) from Bahuvrihi Samas. Since the first meaning was intended for Tvashta he had to utter the note of the last letter of the entire word in a lofty tone. He however, uttered the last letter of the first word in the Samas in a lofty tone. Consequently, instead of a son being born to slay Lord Indra, a son, Vrutra who would be killed by Lord Indra was born (Taittiriya Sanhita 2.5.1-2); hence in the Vedas importance is endowed to the pronunciation of vowels.’(3)

A. Distortion in the Vedas: ‘The ancient Aryans thought of another idea to preserve Vedic mantras in appropriate metrical compositions and hence created distortion in the Vedas. For that poetic compositions of the Sanhitas, which appeared in different branches of the Vedas in the mantra form, were created. Sages Shakalya, Gargya and Atreya created poetic compositions of the Rugveda, Samaveda and Taittiriya Sanhita respectively. Based on these compositions distortions such as Kram, Jata, Ghan, etc. were written. These variations were useful to chant Vedic mantras in reverse order and thus to realise the variations of notes occurring in them.’(4)

B. Pratishakhya: After several branches of the Vedas came into being each branch began to chant the mantras in their own way. To bring uniformity among them the Pratishakhya was created.

1.2 Kalpa

At times the Sutras (aphorisms) are also called Vedanga (science related to the Vedas) since Kalpa is included in the literature of Sutras. The Kalpa is a science which prescribes the rules to be observed in rites (sanskar) and sacrificial fires (yadnyayag) and gives a Sanhita (compilation) of the code of conduct. ‘Kalpa refers to the orderly arrangement of Vedic rituals or their science. The information on sacrificial fires in the Brahman holy texts is in concise form. One comes across a play upon words, admixture and diversion of topics in it. After scrutinising all this information on religious rites the Kalpasutras were composed in a specific order and with precise words to describe rituals.

The Kalpasutras are classified into the following three types depending upon their mutual dependence and complimentary potential - Shrautrasutra, Dharmasutra and Gruhyasutra. The Shrautrasutra gives information on fire sacrifices from the Vedas. The Dharmasutra gives an account of the dictums of Righteousness (Dharma) or religious duties to be performed as well as traditional, social, familial and religious customs. Generally the Dharmasutras are in prose form in the Arsha language (language of the evolved). The Gruhyasutra describes religious rites like the sixteen spiritual rites to be performed by a householder along with his wife for the welfare of his family, in the fire worshipped at home (gruhyagni).’(5) ‘The Kalpasutra is associated with some Vedic branch or a part of a sutra is incorporated in some Vedas. Complete Kalpasutras consisting of all the three types of aphorisms are found in only the Apastamba, Hiranyakeshi and Baudhayan parts of the Yajurveda.’(6)

1.3 Vyakaran (grammar)

‘Analysis and discussion of the entire structure of any language is called Vyakaran (grammar). The meaning of the word vyakaran is derived as follows “व्‍याक्रियन्‍ते शब्‍दा अनेन इति व्‍याकरणम्‌ meaning that in which pure words can be separated from corrupted words or that from which one learns holy words, is Vyakaran”.’(7) According to Sage Vararuchi protection of Vedas by sages, creation of new verses, quickly grasping the pure form of every word from the Sanskrut language, clarification of doubts arising in the context of Vedic topics are all the main objectives of Vyakaran. Ashtadhyayi is the holy text written by Panini in the form of aphorisms (sutras).

1.4 Nirukta

This gives the meaning of difficult words from the Vedas. Refer point ‘Interpretation of the Vedas’.

1.5 Chanda (science of prosody)

‘यदक्षरपरिमाणं तच्‍छन्‍द: ।’ means that in which the composition has a specific quantity of alphabets is the Chanda (sarvanukramani). How every vowel and consonant from a mantra should be pronounced is given in the book “Shiksha”, a science related to the Vedas and how the entire mantra should be pronounced is given in the Chanda. It is essential to know the Chanda to be able to chant the Vedic mantras appropriately. Gayatri, Ushnik, Anushtubh, Bruhati, Pankti, Trishtubh and Jagati are the main Chandas from the Sanhitas and the Brahman texts. This is called the fifth science related to the Vedas.

1.6 Jyotish (astrology)

This science was created as the prediction of time and is known as Jyotish.

वेदा हि यज्ञार्थमभिप्रवृत्ता: कालानुपूर्वा विहिताश्च यज्ञा: ।
तस्‍मादिदं कालविधानशास्त्रं यो ज्‍योतिषं वेद स वेद यज्ञान्‌ ।।

Meaning: The Vedas were created to perform sacrificial fires. The performance of a sacrificial fire is dependent on time. Hence the wise one who knows the science of the prediction of time becomes an authority on sacrificial fires.

2. The ten holy texts

‘The Sanhitas, Brahmans, Padakram, Aranyaks, Shiksha, Chanda, Jyotish, Nighantu, Nirukta and Ashtadhyayi constitute the ten holy texts (dashagrantha). The Aranyaks are not considered a part of the Brahman texts, but are endowed with a separate status. Similarly the Nighantu and Nirukta are considered as two separate holy texts. Vyadi has named these ten holy texts differently as - the Sanhitas, Brahmans, Aranyaks, Shiksha, Kalpa, Ashtadhyayi, Nighantu, Nirukta, Chanda and Jyotish. As Vyadi has described these ten holy texts the tradition of their study dates back to the ancient times.’(8) Brahmans (priests) well versed in the recitation of the ten holy texts are called Dashagranthi Brahmans.

3. Interpretation of the Vedas

3.1 The Brahman holy texts

‘In the spiritual practice of interpreting the meaning of the Vedas the first tools are the Brahman holy texts. Some Vedic mantras in those texts have been quoted and discussed from the point of view of sacrificial fires (yadnya). The authors of the Brahman texts believed that all the ancient commentaries were written only for the sake of sacrificial fires and that the meaning associated with the rituals in the sacrificial fires must be that implied by the sage who visualised the Sukta and compiled it. All the same since these holy texts are closest to the Vedas with respect to the time frame their concepts need to be taken into account.

3.2 Yaskacharya, the commentator

The next tool for the interpretation of the Vedas are the Nighantu text and Yaska’s Nirukta. The Nighantu has a compilation of all the difficult Vedic words from the Rugveda; however the most difficult words are not explained and the meaning of some words is uncertain. Based on the Nighantu, Yaska compiled the Nirukta text. Yaskacharya is the oldest and pioneer commentator of the Vedas. The commentators who followed him used his text as the basis. No other holy text like it is available.’(9) ‘The Nirukta is included in the ten holy texts that a Brahman (priest) endowed with the title of Rugvedi Dashagranthi (knower of the ten holy texts) should study.

The Nirukta is a commentary on the Nighantu. But from the very beginning the Nirukta and Nighantu have both been termed as the Nirukta. Durgacharya states that the Nirukta is superior to the sciences related to the Vedas and other scriptures as it explains the exact meaning of the Vedas. The meaning is important; the word is secondary. How to define a word and a meaning can be realised only from the Nirukta hence to understand the Vedas it is absolutely essential that one studies the Nirukta.

The Nirukta is complementary to the science of Vyakaran (grammar). The word Nirukta can be divided into two parts, nir and ukta. Nir means that which is total and ukta means that which is said or explained. In the Nirukta words have been described comprehensively. It is not a mere explanation of the meaning of words but also elucidates the origin of the word associated with that particular meaning. In other words every word is minutely analysed. They emphatically proclaim that though such a grammatically ruled word is not proven from a root of similar meaning one should not bother about it. Ignoring the rules of grammar one should firmly adopt the meaning suggested by the Name. Wholeheartedly obeying this directive Yaska and the authors of the Nirukta before Him, created new words. Vedic words should be interpreted according to the context and the same origin of the word should be given when it is used with the same meaning; however when it is used with a variety of meanings different origins may certainly be given.

“सन्‍तमेव अर्थम्‌ आययति गमयतीति सत्‍यम्‌ means that which imparts true knowledge about the existing objects is the ultimate truth”.

Through various ideas Yaska has clearly proclaimed that all names are derived from a root. The present day linguistics too has accepted this doctrine. Panini’s era came later than 700 B.C. From this it appears that Yaska’s era must have been from 800 to 1000 B.C.

One who simply recites the Vedas without understanding their meaning is but a pillar (sthanu). The one who has understood their meaning will be endowed with happiness in this world and the worlds beyond. A word devoid of meaning and knowledge cannot enlighten a person. No matter how dry a wooden log is if it is not thrown into the fire then of what use is it ? This is Yaska’s quote. It is from this quote that the evolution of His spiritual intellect (pradnya) can be realised. He says, “अर्थं वाच: पुष्‍पफलम्‌ which means that a meaning is both the blossom as well as the fruit of speech” (1.20). By writing the Nirukta he showed an easily accomplishable path to the study of the Vedas and by interpreting them proved Kautsa’s quote that the Vedas are devoid of meaning, false. When taunting Kautsa in the (Nirukta 1.16) he says,

नैष स्‍थाणोरपराधो यदेनमन्‍धो न पश्‍यति ।
पुरुषापराध: स भवति ।

Meaning: If a blind man cannot see a pillar then it is not the pillar’s fault, rather that of the man.

Sayanacharya followed Yaska and compiled commentaries on the Vedas. Sayanacharya explains the connection of words in the Vedic verses (rucha); however Yaska does not do so. Hence one does not know how he would interpret the verses.’(10)

3.3 Sayanacharya, the commentator

‘Sayanacharya is glorified everywhere because after Yaskacharya he is the first to analyse the Vedas. He wrote commentaries on all the Vedas. He explains why he wrote a commentary on a particular Veda in his Bhashyopodghat of the Taittiriya Sanhita as, “If the Yajurveda is considered as the wall then the pictures niched on it are the Rugveda and the Samaveda. Hence we have discussed the Yajurveda first.” When writing a commentary on every Veda Sayanacharya used a different style. Sayanacharya has written commentaries on the Shatpath, Aitareya, Taittiriya and all the Brahman texts of the Samaveda.

3.4 Other commentators

The commentators who came before Sayanacharya were those like Bhattabhaskarmishra and Venkatmadhav and those who came after him were Uvvat, Mahidhar, etc. Nevertheless each of them wrote a commentary on only a single Vedic Sanhita. All these commentaries are in Sanskrut with their mainstay on sacrificial fires (yadnya) from the Vedas.

3.5 Western commentators

The tradition of interpretation of the Vedas had lapsed for sometime. Over the past one or two centuries the Vedas began to be interpreted quite differently. New commentators came to the forefront. Study of Vedic literature began analytically. The credit for this type of study should be given to Western scholars. The foremost among these researchers was Max Muller. After him literary scholars like Ludwig, Geldner, Wilson, Keath, etc. did an indepth study of the Vedas and elucidated their meaning.

Dayanand Sarasvati may be nominated as a modern Indian commentator.’(11)

4. Preservation and study of the Vedas

‘The Vedas being the religious scriptures of the Aryans, to preserve the verses (rucha) in them the Brahmans (priests) strove tirelessly and even sacrificed their selfish motives for this purpose. The foremost duty of the Brahmans was to make a lifelong study of the vast Vedic literature and to learn it by rote to be able to impart it to the next generation in exactly the same form. Having sacrificed their lives for this mission wholeheartedly, naturally they neglected material life. Though by the study of the Vedas there were no monetary gains they continued their task of studying the Vedas and imparting knowledge to the others undeterred, for centuries together. Along with the preservation of the Vedas they also strove for the survival of the other sciences (vidyas) dependent on them. It is precisely because of these efforts that in the ancient times they were accorded a high status in society.

The Vedas should be studied with concentration, diligence, control over the senses, with a lot of knowledge and with austerities. The rules to be followed in this regard should be observed carefully. Study of the Vedas should be commenced after a bath performing the ritual of sandhya and chanting “Om”. A sanctified place should be chosen for its study. According to the rules laid down in the religious Sutras and Smrutis when studying the Vedas one should sit in a cross-legged posture without making any movement of the head and feet. Study means chanting the Vedic mantras exactly as done by the Guru. Just as the study of the Vedas should be done scientifically so also the teacher imparting the knowledge of the Vedas is expected to observe certain norms. Such a teacher should never accept a salary for imparting this knowledge. He should choose an appropriate disciple, perform the rite of thread ceremony on him and then teach him the Vedas.

However the question was how to preserve this knowledge once it was imparted. Hence the Brahmayadnya was included in daily ritualistic actions. Perusal of some parts of the Vedas already studied everyday itself is called Brahmayadnya a mention of which is made in the five great sacrificial fires (panchamahayadnya). Reading of the Vedas should be done regularly following the same restrictions as observed during its study. Apart from this, one studying the Vedas should always maintain a pure and clean conduct. He should consider preservation of the Vedas as the mission of his life. During the perusal contemplation on the meaning of Vedic mantras should also be done. Yaska has labelled the one who chants Vedic mantras without understanding their meaning as a ‘pillar (sthanu)’ (Nirukta 1.18).

In the ancient times the rite of thread ceremony (upanayan) was performed on girls as well and they were allowed to study the Vedas. Some examples of such women well versed in the Vedas are Apala, Vishvavara, Ghosha, etc.’(12)

Very long ago scholars well versed in all the four Vedas were called Chaturvedi, those knowledgeable in three were called Trivedi and those who could recite two of them were called Dvivedi.

5. Vedic deities

‘Followers of the Vedas glorified Brahman as Prajapati, Hiranyagarbha and Purush (Absolute Being). The Purushsukta describes how Brahman or Purush is omnipresent. Purush is the one adorning a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and a thousand feet. Despite encompassing the entire earth His body extends by the breadth of ten fingers. The Atharvaveda too describes this Brahman in its Uchchishtasukta (11.9). Uchchishta (in Sanskrut means leftover) means the principle that remains after encompassing everything or that unaffected by everything, in short The Supreme Brahman. The Bruhadaranyak expresses this Uchchishta with ‘not this [neti (नेति)]’ (2.3.11). Not this, not that, not any of the objects visualised in the entire universe; but that which remains (uchchishta) as subtle, formless, unmanifest and beyond them should be considered as Brahman. The non-dual (advait) Vedanta has attributed great significance to the statement mentioned in the above Suktas, that the Name and form are dependent on the uchchishta. The author of the Sukta says that the glory of Uchchishta is beyond description.’(13)

‘The Suktas were compiled referring to various energies from Nature as Indra, Varun, Marut, Parjanya, Ushas, etc. The term “Vishvedevaha” was used in the context of all deities. To prevent or nullify the ill effects of distressing energies on human life the practice of using tantras had also come into existence.’(14)

6. Vedic Righteousness (Dharma) and sacrificial fires

‘As new colonies of Aryans were being settled in Madhyadesh sacrificial fires (yadnya) assumed the form of ritualistic worship (karmakand) and consequently new literary works such as the Brahman holy texts came into being. There was expansion of the concept of sacrificial fires during the period of the Brahman texts. The slogan uttered then was “कृण्‍वन्‍तो विश्वमार्यम्‌” meaning “let us make the entire universe Aryan”.’ (15)

7. The Vedas and the stages in spiritual practice

The Vedas recommend three main stages of spiritual practice viz. the stage of ritualistic worship (karmakand), the stage of mental worship (upasanakand) and the stage of acquiring spiritual knowledge (dnyankand).

  • The stage of ritualistic worship: This describes the rituals and the mode of performing them along with the restrictions to be observed.

  • The stage of mental worship: This encompasses topics such as ritualistic worship (puja), devotion, etc.

  • The stage of acquiring spiritual knowledge: The Upanishads which are a part of the Vedas provide information in this regard. Maharshi Vyas has systematically compiled this information from different Upanishads into His holy texts, the Brahmasutras. Even today the commentary of Jagadguru Shri Shankaracharya on the philosophy of non-duality (advait) from the Vedas is considered the greatest philosophy in the world. According to this philosophy nothing is dual in this world. Everything in this universe is Brahman itself and nothing else.

There are 1,00,000 verses (rucha) written on the Vedas, of which 80,000 are on the stage of ritualistic worship, 16,000 on the stage of mental worship and 4000 on the stage of acquiring spiritual knowledge. The fourth stage is of Self-realisation. It is also known as the stage of devotion after Self-realisation (dnyanottarbhaktikand).

8. Vedic culture

The social life of people from the Vedic period was dominated by five principles viz. family life, repayment of the three debts, the system of classes (varna) and that of stages of life (ashrams) and the four pursuits (purusharthas) of life.

9. Family life during the Vedic period

‘It is mainly the householder who was responsible for fulfillment of responsibilities such as looking after the entire family, constantly striving for the happiness of his family, earning money and wealth and saving it. It was during this period that the fire acquired an important position in the institution of a family. The Vedics have named a fire established in the home as the master of the home (gruhapati). The householder had to perform several rites with the assistance of this fire for the welfare of his family members. He had to perform the five great sacrificial fires - for deities (the devyadnya), for ancestors (pitruyadnya), for cosmic elements (bhutyadnya), for guests (atithiyadnya) and for Brahman (Brahmayadnya). The society had accepted the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Those bound in wedlock had to maintain its restrictions throughout their lives.’(16)


‘Righteousness (Dharma)’, published by Sanatan Sanstha.

Bharatiya Sanskrutikosh. Publisher: Pandit Mahadevshastri Joshi, Secretary, Bharatiya Sanskrutikosh Mandal, 410 Shanivar Peth, Pune 411 030.
First edition: Vol. 3 to 10, Second edition: Vol. 1 and 2
[1]. Vol. 9, Pg. 582                 [2]. Vol. 9, Pg. 66
[3]. Vol. 6, Pg. 650                 [4]. Vol. 9, Pg. 70
[5]. Vol. 10, Pg. 99                 [7]. Vol. 9, Pg. 150
[8]. Vol. 4, Pg. 307                 [9]. Vol. 9, Pg. 79, 80
[10]. Vol. 5, Pg. 120-123       [11]. Vol. 5, Pg. 120-123
[12]. Vol. 9, Pg. 61-71           [13]. Vol. 9, Pg. 77, 78
[14]. Vol. 9, Pg. 71, 72           [15]. Vol. 9, Pg. 76
[16]. Vol. 9, Pg. 73

[6]. Dharmashastracha Itihas (first half). Second edition : 1980, Page 8. Publisher : Secretary, Maharashtra State Literary and Cultural Society, Secretariat, Mumbai 34

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