A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 2
CHAPTER IITHE VEDIC PERIOD
On the very threshold of Indian literature more than three thousand years ago, we are confronted with a body of lyrical poetry which, although far older than the literary monuments of any other branch of the Indo-European family, is already distinguished by refinement and beauty of thought, as well as by skill in the handling of language and metre. From this point, for a period of more than a thousand years, Indian literature bears an exclusively religious stamp; even those latest productions of the Vedic age which cannot be called directly religious are yet meant to further religious ends. This is, indeed, implied by the term "Vedic." For veda, primarily signifying "knowledge" (from vid, "to know"), designates "sacred lore," as a branch of literature. Besides this general sense, the word has also the restricted meaning of "sacred book."
In the Vedic period three well-defined literary strata are to be distinguished. The first is that of the four Vedas, the outcome of a creative and poetic age, in which hymns and prayers were composed chiefly to accompany the pressing and offering of the Soma juice or the oblation of melted butter (ghṛita) to the gods. The four Vedas are "collections," called saṃhitā, of hymns and prayers made for different ritual purposes. They are of varying age and significance. By far the most important as well as the oldest—for it is the very foundation of all Vedic literature—is the Rigveda, the "Veda of verses" (from ṛich, "a laudatory stanza"), consisting entirely of lyrics, mainly in praise of different gods. It may, therefore, be described as the book of hymns or psalms. The Sāma-veda has practically no independent value, for it consists entirely of stanzas (excepting only 75) taken from the Rigveda and arranged solely with reference to their place in the Soma sacrifice. Being meant to be sung to certain fixed melodies, it may be called the book of chants (sāman). The Yajur-veda differs in one essential respect from the Sāma-veda. It consists not only of stanzas (ṛich), mostly borrowed from the Rigveda, but also of original prose formulas. It resembles the Sāma-veda, however, in having its contents arranged in the order in which it was actually employed in various sacrifices. It is, therefore, a book of sacrificial prayers (yajus). The matter of this Veda has been handed down in two forms. In the one, the sacrificial formulas only are given; in the other, these are to a certain extent intermingled with their explanations. These three Vedas alone were at first recognised as canonical scriptures, being in the next stage of Vedic literature comprehensively spoken of as "the threefold knowledge" (trayī vidyā).
The fourth collection, the Atharva-veda, attained to this position only after a long struggle. Judged both by its language and by that portion of its matter which is analogous to the contents of the Rigveda, the Atharva-veda came into existence considerably later than that Veda. In form it is similar to the Rigveda, consisting for the most part of metrical hymns, many of which are taken from the last book of the older collection. In spirit, however, it is not only entirely different from the Rigveda, but represents a much more primitive stage of thought. While the Rigveda deals almost exclusively with the higher gods as conceived by a comparatively advanced and refined sacerdotal class, the Atharva-veda is, in the main, a book of spells and incantations appealing to the demon world, and teems with notions about witchcraft current among the lower grades of the population, and derived from an immemorial antiquity. These two, thus complementary to each other in contents, are obviously the most important of the four Vedas. As representing religious ideas at an earlier stage than any other literary monuments of the ancient world, they are of inestimable value to those who study the evolution of religious beliefs.
The creative period of the Vedas at length came to an end. It was followed by an epoch in which there no longer seemed any need to offer up new prayers to the gods, but it appeared more meritorious to repeat those made by the holy seers of bygone generations, and handed down from father to son in various priestly families. The old hymns thus came to be successively gathered together in the Vedic collections already mentioned, and in this form acquired an ever-increasing sanctity. Having ceased to produce poetry, the priesthood transferred their creative energies to the elaboration of the sacrificial ceremonial. The result was a ritual system far surpassing in complexity of detail anything the world has elsewhere known. The main importance of the old Vedic hymns and formulas now came to be their application to the innumerable details of the sacrifice. Around this combination of sacred verse and rite a new body of doctrine grew up in sacerdotal tradition, and finally assumed definite shape in the guise of distinct theological treatises entitled Brāhmaṇas, "books dealing with devotion or prayer" (brahman). They evidently did not come into being till a time when the hymns were already deemed ancient and sacred revelations, the priestly custodians of which no longer fully understood their meaning owing to the change undergone by the language. They are written in prose throughout, and are in some cases accented, like the Vedas themselves. They are thus notable as representing the oldest prose writing of the Indo-European family. Their style is, indeed, cumbrous, rambling, and disjointed, but distinct progress towards greater facility is observable within this literary period.
The chief purpose of the Brāhmaṇas is to explain the mutual relation of the sacred text and the ceremonial, as well as their symbolical meaning with reference to each other. With the exception of the occasional legends and striking thoughts which occur in them, they cannot be said to be at all attractive as literary productions. To support their explanations of the ceremonial, they interweave exegetical, linguistic, and etymological observations, and introduce myths and philosophical speculations in confirmation of their cosmogonic and theosophic theories. They form an aggregate of shallow and pedantic discussions, full of sacerdotal conceits, and fanciful, or even absurd, identifications, such as is doubtless unparalleled anywhere else. Yet, as the oldest treatises on ritual practices extant in any literature, they are of great interest to the student of the history of religions in general, besides furnishing much important material to the student of Indian antiquity in particular. It results from what has been said that the contrasts between the two older phases of Vedic literature are strongly marked. The Vedas are poetical in matter and form; the Brāhmaṇas are prosaic and written in prose. The thought of the Vedas is on the whole natural and concrete; that of the Brāhmaṇas artificial and abstract. The chief significance of the Vedas lies in their mythology; that of the Brāhmaṇas in their ritual.
The subject-matter of the Brāhmaṇas which are attached to the various Vedas, differs according to the divergent duties performed by the kind of priest connected with each Veda. The Brāhmaṇas of the Rigveda, in explaining the ritual, usually limit themselves to the duties of the priest called hotṛi or "reciter," on whom it was incumbent to form the canon (çastra) for each particular rite, by selecting from the hymns the verses applicable to it. The Brāhmaṇas of the Sāma-veda are concerned only with the duties of the udgātṛi or "chanter" of the Sāmans; the Brāhmaṇas of the Yajur-veda with those of the adhvaryu, or the priest who is the actual sacrificer. Again, the Brāhmaṇas of the Rigveda more or less follow the order of the ritual, quite irrespectively of the succession of the hymns in the Veda itself. The Brāhmaṇas of the Sāma- and the Yajur-veda, on the other hand, follow the order of their respective Vedas, which are already arranged in the ritual sequence. The Brāhmaṇa of the Sāma-veda, however, rarely explains individual verses, while that of the Yajur-veda practically forms a running commentary on all the verses of the text.
The period of the Brāhmaṇas is a very important one in the history of Indian society. For in it the system of the four castes assumed definite shape, furnishing the frame within which the highly complex network of the castes of to-day has been developed. In that system the priesthood, who even in the first Vedic period had occupied an influential position, secured for themselves the dominant power which they have maintained ever since. The life of no other people has been so saturated with sacerdotal influence as that of the Hindus, among whom sacred learning is still the monopoly of the hereditary priestly caste. While in other early societies the chief power remained in the hands of princes and warrior nobles, the domination of the priesthood became possible in India as soon as the energetic life of conquest during the early Vedic times in the north-west was followed by a period of physical inactivity or indolence in the plains. Such altered conditions enabled the cultured class, who alone held the secret of the all-powerful sacrifice, to gain the supremacy of intellect over physical force.
The Brāhmaṇas in course of time themselves acquired a sacred character, and came in the following period to be classed along with the hymns as çruti or "hearing," that which was directly heard by or, as we should say, revealed to, the holy sages of old. In the sphere of revelation are included the later portions of the Brāhmaṇas, which form treatises of a specially theosophic character, and being meant to be imparted or studied in the solitude of the forest, are called Āraṇyakas or "Forest-books." The final part of these, again, are philosophical books named Upanishads, which belong to the latest stage of Brāhmaṇa literature. The pantheistic groundwork of their doctrine was later developed into the Vedānta system, which is still the favourite philosophy of the modern Hindus. Works of Vedic "revelation" were deemed of higher authority in cases of doubt than the later works on religious and civil usage, called smṛiti or "memory," as embodying only the tradition derived from ancient sages.
We have now arrived at the third and last stage of Vedic literature, that of the Sūtras. These are compendious treatises dealing with Vedic ritual on the one hand, and with customary law on the other. The rise of this class of writings was due to the need of reducing the vast and growing mass of details in ritual and custom, preserved in the Brāhmaṇas and in floating tradition, to a systematic shape, and of compressing them within a compass which did not impose too great a burden on the memory, the vehicle of all teaching and learning. The main object of the Sūtras is, therefore, to supply a short survey of the sum of these scattered details. They are not concerned with the interpretation of ceremonial or custom, but aim at giving a plain and methodical account of the whole course of the rites or practices with which they deal. For this purpose the utmost brevity was needed, a requirement which was certainly met in a manner unparalleled elsewhere. The very name of this class of literature, sūtra, "thread" or "clue" (from siv "to sew"), points to its main characteristic and chief object—extreme conciseness. The prose in which these works are composed is so compressed that the wording of the most laconic telegram would often appear diffuse compared with it. Some of the Sūtras attain to an almost algebraic mode of expression, the formulas of which cannot be understood without the help of detailed commentaries. A characteristic aphorism has been preserved, which illustrates this straining after brevity. According to it, the composers of grammatical Sūtras delight as much in the saving of a short vowel as in the birth of a son. The full force of this remark can only be understood when it is remembered that a Brahman is deemed incapable of gaining heaven without a son to perform his funeral rites.
Though the works comprised in each class of Sūtras are essentially the same in character, it is natural to suppose that their composition extended over some length of time, and that those which are more concise and precise in their wording are the more recent; for the evolution of their style is obviously in the direction of increased succinctness. Research, it is true, has hitherto failed to arrive at any definite result as to the date of their composition. Linguistic investigations, however, tend to show that the Sūtras are closely connected in time with the grammarian Pāṇini, some of them appearing to be considerably anterior to him. We shall, therefore, probably not go very far wrong in assigning 500 and 200 B.C. as the chronological limits within which the Sūtra literature was developed.
The tradition of the Vedic ritual was handed down in two forms. The one class, called Çrauta Sūtras because based on çruti or revelation (by which in this case the Brāhmaṇas are chiefly meant), deal with the ritual of the greater sacrifices, for the performance of which three or more sacred fires, as well as the ministrations of priests, are necessary. Not one of them presents a complete picture of the sacrifice, because each of them, like the Brāhmaṇas, describes only the duties of one or other of the three kinds of priests attached to the respective Vedas. In order to obtain a full description of each ritual ceremony, it is therefore needful to supplement the account given by one Çrauta Sūtra from that furnished by the rest.
The other division of the ritual Sūtras is based on smṛiti or tradition. These are the Gṛihya Sūtras, or "House Aphorisms," which deal with the household ceremonies, or the rites to be performed with the domestic fire in daily life. As a rule, these rites are not performed by a priest, but by the householder himself in company with his wife. For this reason there is, apart from deviations in arrangement and expression, omission or addition, no essential difference between the various Gṛihya Sūtras, except that the verses to be repeated which they contain are taken from the Veda to which they belong. Each Gṛihya Sūtra, besides being attached to and referring to the Çrauta Sūtra of the same school, presupposes a knowledge of it. But though thus connected, the two do not form a unity.
The second class of Sūtras, which deal with social and legal usage, is, like the Gṛihya Sūtras, also based on smṛiti or tradition. These are the Dharma Sūtras, which are in general the oldest sources of Indian law. As is implied by the term dharma, "religion and morality," their point of view is chiefly a religious one. They are closely connected with the Veda, which they quote, and which the later law-books regard as the first and highest source of dharma.
From the intensely crabbed and unintelligible nature of their style, and the studied baldness with which they present their subjects, it is evident that the Sūtras are inferior even to the Brāhmaṇas as literary productions. Judged, however, with regard to its matter, this strange phase of literature has considerable value. In all other ancient literatures knowledge of sacrificial rites can only be gained by collecting stray references. But in the ritual Sūtras we possess the ancient manuals which the priests used as the foundation of their sacrificial lore. Their statements are so systematic and detailed that it is possible to reconstruct from them various sacrifices without having seen them performed. They are thus of great importance for the history of religious institutions, But the Sūtras have a further value. For, as the life of the Hindu, more than that of any other nation, was, even in the Vedic age, surrounded with a network of religious forms, both in its daily course and in its more important divisions, the domestic ritual as well as the legal Sūtras are our most important sources for the study of the social conditions of ancient India. They are the oldest Indian records of all that is included under custom.
Besides these ritual and legal compendia, the Sūtra period produced several classes of works composed in this style, which, though not religious in character, had a religious origin. They arose from the study of the Vedas, which was prompted by the increasing difficulty of understanding the hymns, and of reciting them correctly, in consequence of the changes undergone by the language. Their chief object was to ensure the right recitation and interpretation of the sacred text. One of the most important classes of this ancillary literature comprises the Prātiçākhya Sūtras, which, dealing with accentuation, pronunciation, metre, and other matters, are chiefly concerned with the phonetic changes undergone by Vedic words when combined in a sentence. They contain a number of minute observations, such as have only been made over again by the phoneticians of the present day in Europe. A still more important branch of this subsidiary literature is grammar, in which the results attained by the Indians in the systematic analysis of language surpass those arrived at by any other nation. Little has been preserved of the earliest attempts in this direction, for all that had been previously done was superseded by the great Sūtra work of Pāṇini. Though belonging probably to the middle of the Sūtra period, Pāṇini must be regarded as the starting-point of the Sanskrit age, the literature of which is almost entirely dominated by the linguistic standard stereotyped by him.
In the Sūtra period also arose a class of works specially designed for preserving the text of the Vedas from loss or change. These are the Anukramaṇīs or "Indices," which quote the first words of each hymn, its author, the deity celebrated in it, the number of verses it contains, and the metre in which it is composed. One of them states the total number of hymns, verses, words, and even syllables, contained in the Rigveda, besides supplying other details.
From this general survey of the Vedic period we now turn to a more detailed consideration of the different phases of the literature it produced.