1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brāhmaṇa

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BRĀHMAṆA, the Sanskrit term applied to a body of prose writings appended to the collections (samhitā) of Vedic texts, the meaning and ritual application of which they are intended to elucidate, and like them regarded as divinely revealed. From a linguistic point of view, these treatises with their appendages, the more mystic and recondite Āraṇyakas and the speculative Upanishads, have to be considered as forming the connecting link between the Vedic and the classical Sanskrit. The exact derivation and meaning of the name is somewhat uncertain. Whilst the masculine term brāhmaṇa (nom. brāhmaṇas), the ordinary Sanskrit designation of a man of the Brahmanical caste, is clearly a derivative of brahman (nom. brahmā), a common Vedic term for a priest (see Brahman), thus meaning the son or descendant of a Brahman, the neuter word brāhmaṇa (nom. brāhmaṇam) on the other hand, with which we are here concerned, admits of two derivations: either it is derived from the same word brahman, and would then seem to mean a dictum or observation ascribed to, or intended for the use of, a Brahman, or superintendent priest; or it has rather to be referred to the neuter noun brahmān (nom. brahmă), in the sense of “sacred utterance or rite,” in which case it might mean a comment on a sacred text, or explanation of a devotional rite, calculated to bring out its spiritual or mystic significance and its bearing on the Brahma, the world-spirit embodied in the sacred writ and ritual. This latter definition seems on the whole the more probable one, and it certainly would fit exactly the character of the writings to which the term relates. It will thus be seen that the term brāhmaṇam applies not only to complete treatises of an exegetic nature, but also to single comments on particular texts or rites of which such a work would be made up.

The gradual elaboration of the sacrificial ceremonial, as the all-sufficient expression of religious devotion, and a constantly growing tendency towards theosophic and mystic speculation on the significance of every detail of the ritual, could not fail to create a demand for explanatory treatises of this kind, which, to enhance their practical utility, would naturally deal with the special texts and rites assigned in the ceremonial to the several classes of officiating priests. At a subsequent period the demand for instruction in the sacrificial science called into existence a still more practical set of manuals, the so-called Kalpa-sūtras, or ceremonial rules, detailing, in succinct aphorisms, the approved course of sacrificial procedure, without reference to the supposed origin or import of the several rites. These manuals are also called Śrauta-sūtras, treating as they do, like the Brāhmaṇas, of the Śrauta rites—i.e. the rites based on the śruti or revelation—requiring at least three sacrificial fires and a number of priests, as distinguished from the gṛihya (domestic) or smārta (traditional) rites, supposed to be based on the smriti or tradition, which are performed on the house-fire and dealt with in the Gṛihya-sūtras.

The ritual recognizes four principal priests (ṛitvij), each of whom is assisted by three subordinates: viz. the Brahman or superintending priest; the Hotṛi or reciter of hymns and verses; the Udgātri or chanter; and the Adhvaryu or offerer, who looks after the details of the ceremonial, including the preparation of the offering-ground, the construction of fire-places and altars, the making of oblations and muttering of the prescribed formulae. Whilst the two last priests have assigned to them special liturgical collections of the texts to be used by them, the Sāmaveda-saṃhitā and Yajurveda-saṃhitā respectively, the Hotṛi has to deal entirely with hymns and verses taken from the Ṛigveda-saṃhitā, of which they would, however, form only a comparatively small portion. As regards the Brahman, he would doubtless be chosen from one of those other three classes, but would be expected to have made himself thoroughly conversant with the texts and ritual details appertaining to all the officiating priests. It is, then, to one or other of those three collections of sacred texts and the respective class of priests, that the existing Brāhmaṇas attach themselves. At a later period, when the Atharvan gained admission to the Vedic canon, a special connexion with the Brahman priest was sometimes claimed, though with scant success, for this fourth collection of hymns and spells, and the comparatively late and unimportant Gopatha-brāhmaṇa attached to it.

The Udgātṛi’s duties being mainly confined to the chanting of hymns made up of detached groups of verses of the Ṛigveda, as collected in the Sāmaveda-saṃhitā, the more important Brāhmaṇas of this sacerdotal class deal chiefly with the various modes of chanting, and the modifications which the verses have to undergo in their musical setting. Moreover, the performance of chants being almost entirely confined to the Soma-sacrifice, it is only a portion, though no doubt the most important portion, of the sacrificial ceremonial that enters into the subject matter of the Sāmaveda Brāhmaṃas.

As regards the Brāhmaṇas of the Ṛigveda, two of such works have been handed down, the Aitareya and the Kaushītaki (or Śānkhāyana)-Brāhmaṇas, which have a large amount of their material in common. But while the former work (transl. into English by M. Haug) is mainly taken up with the Soma-sacrifice, the latter has in addition thereto chapters on the other forms of sacrifice. Being intended for the Hotṛi’s use, both these works treat exclusively of the hymns and verses recited by that priest and his assistants, either in the form of connected litanies or in detached verses invoking the deities to whom oblations are made, or uttered in response to the solemn hymns chanted by the Udgātṛis.

It is, however, to the Brāhmaṇas and Sūtras of the Yajurveda, dealing with the ritual of the real offering-priest, the Adhvaryu, that we have to turn for a connected view of the sacrificial procedure in all its material details. Now, in considering the body of writings connected with this Veda, we are at once confronted by the fact that there are two different schools, an older and a younger one, in which the traditional body of ritualistic matter has been treated in a very different way. For while the younger school, the Vājasaneyins, have made a clear severance between the sacred texts or mantras and the exegetic discussions thereon—as collected in the Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā and the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa (trans. by J. Eggeling, in Sacred Books of the East) respectively—arranged systematically in accordance with the ritual divisions, the older school on the other hand present their materials in a hopelessly jumbled form; for not only is each type of sacrifice not dealt with continuously and in orderly fashion, but short textual sections of mantras are constantly followed immediately by their dogmatic exegesis; the term brāhmaṇa thus applying in their case only to these detached comments and not to the connected series of them. Thus the most prominent subdivision of the older school, the Taittirīyas, in their Saṃhitā, have treated the main portion of the ceremonial in this promiscuous fashion, and to add to the confusion they have, by way of supplement, put forth a so-called Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa, which, so far from being a real Brāhmaṇa, merely deals with some additional rites in the same confused mixture of sacrificial formulae and dogmatic explanations. It is not without reason, therefore, that those two schools, the older and the younger, are commonly called the Black (kṛishṇa) and the White (sukla) Yajus respectively.

Although the ritualistic discussions of the Brāhmaṇas are for the most part of a dry and uninteresting nature to an even greater degree than is often the case with exegetic theological treatises, these works are nevertheless of considerable importance both as regards the history of Indian institutions and as “the oldest body of Indo-European prose, of a generally free, vigorous, simple form, affording valuable glimpses backwards at the primitive condition of unfettered Indo-European talk” (Whitney). Of especial interest in this respect are the numerous myths and legends scattered through these works. From the archaic style in which these mythological tales are usually composed, as well as from the fact that not a few of them are found in Brāhmaṇas of different schools and Vedas, though often with considerable variations, it seems pretty evident that the groundwork of them must go back to times preceding the composition or final redaction of the existing Brāhmaṇas. In the case of some of these legends—as those of Śunaḥ-Śepha, and the fetching of Soma from heaven—we can even see how they have grown out of germs contained in some of the Vedic hymns. If the literary style in which the exegetic discussion of the texts and rites is carried on in the Brāhmaṇas is, as a rule, of a very bald and uninviting nature, it must be borne in mind that these treatises are of a strictly professional and esoteric character, and in no way lay claim to being considered as literary compositions in any sense of the word. And yet, notwithstanding the general emptiness of their ritualistic discussions and mystic speculations, “there are passages in the Brāhmaṇas full of genuine thought and feeling, and most valuable as pictures of life, and as records of early struggles, which have left no trace in the literature of other nations” (M. Müller).

The chief interest, however, attaching to the Brāhmaṇas is doubtless their detailed description of the sacrificial system as practised in the later Vedic ages; and the information afforded by them in this respect should be all the more welcome to us, as the history of religious institutions knows of no other sacrificial ceremonial with the details of which we are acquainted to anything like the same extent. An even more complete and minutely detailed view of the sacrificial system is no doubt obtained from the ceremonial manuals, the Kalpa-sūtras; but it is just by the speculative discussions of the Brāhmaṇas—the mystic significance and symbolical colouring with which they invest single rites—that we gain a real insight into the nature and gradual development of this truly stupendous system of ritual worship.

The sacrificial ritual recognizes two kinds of śrauta sacrifices, viz. haviryajnas (meat-offerings), consisting of oblations (ishti) of milk, butter, cereals or flesh, and somayāgas or oblations of the juice of the soma plant. The setting up, by a householder, of a set of three sacrificial fires of his own constitutes the first ceremony of the former class, the Agny-ādhāna (or (?) Agny-ādheya). The first of the three fires laid down is the gārhapatya, or householder’s fire, so called because, though not taken from his ordinary house-fire, but as a rule specially produced by friction, it serves for cooking the sacrificial food, and thus, as it were, represents the domestic fire. From it the other two fires, the ānavanīya, or offering fire, and the dakshiṇāgni, or southern fire, used for certain special purposes, are taken. The principal other ceremonies of this class are the new and full moon offerings, the oblations made at the commencement of the three seasons, the offering of first-fruits, the animal sacrifice, and the Agnihotra, or daily morning and evening oblation of milk, which, however, is also included amongst the gṛihya, or domestic rites, as having to be performed daily on the domestic fire by the householder who keeps no regular set of sacrificial fires.

Of a far more complicated nature than these offerings are the Soma-sacrifices, which, besides the simpler ceremonies of this class, such as the Agnishtoma or “Praise of Agni,” also include great state functions, such as the Räjasūya or consecration of a king, and the Aśvamedha or horse-sacrifice, which, in addition to the sacrificial rites, have a considerable amount of extraneous, often highly interesting, ceremonial connected with them, which makes them seem to partake largely of the nature of public festivals. Whilst the oblations of Soma-juice, made thrice on each offering-day, amidst chants and recitations, constitute the central rites of those services, their ritual also requires numerous single oblations of the ishti kind, including at least three animal offerings, and in some cases the immolation of many hecatombs of victims. Moreover, a necessary preliminary to every Soma-sacrifice is the construction, in five layers, of a special fire-altar of large dimensions, consisting of thousands of bricks, formed and baked on the spot, to each, or each group, of which a special symbolic meaning is attached. The building of this altar is spread over a whole year, during which period the sacrificer has to carry about the sacrificial fire in an earthen pan for at least some time each day, until it is finally deposited on the completed altar to serve as the offering-fire for the Soma oblations. The altar itself is constructed in the form of a bird, because Soma was supposed to have been brought down from heaven by the metre Gāyatrī which had assumed the form of an eagle. Whilst the Soma-sacrifice has been thus developed by the Brāhmaṇas in an extraordinary degree, its essential identity with the Avestan Haoma-cult shows that its origin goes back at all events to the Indo-Iranian period.

Among the symbolic conceits in which the authors of the Brāhmaṇas so freely indulge, there is one overshadowing all others—if indeed they do not all more or less enter into it—which may be considered as the sum and substance of these speculations, and the esoteric doctrine of the sacrifice, involved by the Brāhmanical ritualists. This is what may conveniently be called the Prajāpati theory, by which the “Lord of Creatures,” the efficient cause of the universe, is identified with both the sacrifice (yajna) and the sacrificer (yajamāna). The origin of this theory goes back to the later Vedic hymns. In the so-called Purusha-sūkta (Ṛigv. x. 90) in which the supreme spirit is conceived of as the person or man (purusha), born in the beginning, and consisting of “whatever hath been and whatever shall be,” the creation of the visible and invisible universe is represented as originating from an “all-offered” (holocaust) sacrifice in which the Purusha himself forms the offering-material (havis), or, as we might say, the victim. In this primeval, or rather timeless because ever-proceeding, sacrifice, time itself, in the shape of its unit the year, is made to take its part, inasmuch as the three seasons—spring, summer and autumn—of which it consists, constitute the ghee (clarified butter), the offering-fuel and the oblation respectively. These speculations may be said to have formed the foundation on which the theory of the sacrifice, as propounded in the Brāhmaṇas, has been reared. Prajāpati—who (probably for practical considerations, as better representing the sacrificer, the earthly ruler, or “lord of the creatures”) here takes the place of the Purusha, the world-man or all-embracing personality—is offered up anew in every sacrifice; and inasmuch as the very dismemberment of the lord of creatures, which took place at that archtypal sacrifice, was in itself the creation of the universe, so every sacrifice is also a repetition of that first creative act. Thus the periodical sacrifice is nothing else than a microcosmic representation of the ever-proceeding destruction and renewal of all cosmic life and matter. The ritualistic theologians, however, go an important step further by identifying Prajāpati with the performer, or patron, of the sacrifice, the sacrificer; every sacrifice thus becoming invested—in addition to its cosmic significance—with the mystic power of regenerating the sacrificer by cleansing him of all guilt and securing for him a seat in the eternal abodes.

Whilst forming the central feature of the ritualistic symbolism, this triad—Prajāpati, sacrifice (oblation, victim), sacrificer—is extended in various ways. An important collateral identification is that of Prajāpati (and the sacrificer) with Agni, the god of fire, embodied not only in the offering-fire, but also in the sacred Soma-altar, the technical name of which is agni. For this reason the altar, as representative of the universe, is built in five layers, representing earth, air and heaven, and the intermediate regions; and in the centre of the altar-site, below the first layer, on a circular gold plate (the sun), a small golden man (purusha) is laid down with his face looking upwards. This is Prajāpati, and the sacrificer, who when regenerated will pass upwards through the three worlds to the realms of light, naturally perforated bricks being for this purpose placed in the middle of the three principal altar-layers. One of the fourteen sections of the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa, the tenth, called Agni-rahasya or “the mystery of Agni (the god and altar),” is entirely devoted to this feature of the sacrificial symbolism. Similarly the sacrificer, as the human representatiye of the Lord of Creatures, is identified with Soma (as the supreme oblation), with Time, and finally with Death: by the sacrificer thus becoming Death himself, the fell god ceases to have power over him and he is assured of everlasting life. And now we get the Supreme Lord in his last aspect; nay, his one true and real aspect, in which the sacrificer, on shuffling off this mortal coil, will himself come to share—that of pure intellectuality, pure spirituality—he is Mind: such is the ultimate source of being, the one Self, the Purusha, the Brahman. As the sum total of the wisdom propounded in the mystery of Agni, the searcher after truth is exhorted to meditate on that Self, made up of intelligence, endowed with a body of spirit, a form of light, and of an ethereal nature; holding sway over all the regions and pervading this All, being itself speechless and devoid of mental states; and by so doing he shall gain the assurance that “even as a grain of rice, or the smallest granule of millet, so is the golden Purusha in my heart; even as a smokeless light, it is greater than the sky, greater than the ether, greater than the earth, greater than all existing things;—that Self of the Spirit is my Self; on passing away from hence, I shall obtain that Self. And, verily, whosoever has this trust, for him there is no uncertainty.”  (J. E.) 

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