Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vedic Chanting – a perfectly formulated oral tradition

Courtesy: Facebook Post by Krishnamoorthy Gopalaswamy, Chennai.
(Excellent Article: Sharing for the great information).

Vedic Chanting – a perfectly formulated oral tradition

The Vedas are called ‘Sruti”- which means, what is heard.

It is never read from a text, since the recitation of any veda mantra should conform to the following six parameters, namely,

varNa (letters);
svara (intonation);
mAtrA (duration of articulation);
balam (force of articulation);
sAma (uniformity), and
santAna (continuity).
This has been explained in Thaithriya Upanishad in SIKSHAVALLI as


The Vedic teacher will first explain the
science of phonetics of Vedic language. This
entire Upanishad being an abstract of the entire Veda highlights only the essential topics which are indicated. With respect to phonetics of Vedic language, the essential topics are
varnah svarah . matra balam.h .sama santanah .
Varnah svarah means accent on letters, syllables and words. Every Vedic chanting hasprescribed svaras. They are four in number, namely, Udattham, Anudattham, Svaritham
and Prachayam. These svaras are usually indicated in the written version of Veda mantras. For example, Udattham is indicated by
a vertical stroke above the letter or the
syllable, and it means "raise the voice". Anudattham is indicated by
a horizontal stroke,
and it means "lower the voice". Svaritham is
indicated by two vertical strokes above the
syllable, and it means raise the voice and lengthen the syllable by three units of time, and Prachayam means normal pronunciation. For one who is well trained in Vedic chantings,
these Svaras come naturally.
If any of these parameters is not maintained, it would change the meaning of the mantra itself, leading to even diametrically opposite effects!

In the absence of a written text, our rishis had devised many ways to prevent even a small error to creep in to the recitation of the veda-mantras. These fool-proof methods used to
chant each veda-mantra in various patterns and combinations are known as : vaakya,pada, krama, jaTA, mAlA, SikhA, rekhA, dvaja, danDa, ratha, and Ghana.

Among these, vAkya, pada, krama, jaTa and Ghana methods of chanting are more popular and let us analyze them only here.

Vaakya or samhitA pATha is to recite a mantra in a sentence straight with appropriateintonations. In sentences, some of the words have to be conjoined in chanting.

In padapAtha, a sentence is broken down to ‘words’ or pada’s, which gives the student theknowledge of each word.

In the krama method, the first word of a sentence is added to the second, the second to the third, the third to the fourth and so on, until the whole sentence is completed. This method enables the student to understand not only individual words but also how the words combine in recitation with the attendant modification of the svaras.

Scholarly priests capable of reciting the entire veda-SakhA in the krama format is given the title kramavit.

In the jaThA method, the first word and the second word are recited together and then the words are recited in the reverse order and then again in the original order. For example, in the krama method, if they are recited as 1-2;2-3; 3-4; 4-5 etc., in the jaThA method, they are recited as 1-2-2-1-1-2; 2-3-3-2-2-3; 3-4-4-3-3-4 and so on. Scholarly priests capable of reciting in the jaThA method are given thetitle “jaThAvallabha”.

The Ghana method is more difficult than the above where thecombinations of words will be 1-2-2-1-1-2-3-3-2-4-4-2-3; 2-3-3-2-2-3-4-4-3-2-2-4 and soon. A priest who can recite in the Ghana method is given the title ghanapAThi.

These methods of complicated recitations in a oral tradition were devised in order to preserve the purity of the word, the sound, intonation, pronunciation, accent and sound combinations of the vedamantras. By repeating the words in manifold ways, the correct tally of words was also kept which has naturally ensured its purity. To enable the scholars
to take up the difficult methods recitiation, it was believed that, more difficult methods of chanting earned more puNya or merit!

5. The Merit, and the Plight of a Vedic Scholar Today

Just to illustrate what it takes for a priest to earn the title of a ghanapAThi, let us briefly analyze what is involved in the training. For illustration, let us consider only one portion of the krishNa yajur veda, called the taittiriya samhitA. In this portion there over 2,000 pancASat’s (1 pancASat = 50 pada’s), amounting to 109,308 pada’s. We can roughly assume each pada to have 3 syllables, thus totaling ~330,000 syllables. In the Ghana method of chanting, each syllable gets repeated 13 times, thus amounting to 4,290,000 utterances. And each of these utterances have to conform to all the six parameters discussed earlier.

Only when a person becomes capable of reciting this in any order asked, gets the title of a ghanapAThi. This is for only one samhitA portion in krishna yajur veda alone. Then there is Sukla yajur veda, rig veda, sAma veda, and atharva veda. There were scholars proficient in more than one veda as evident from the names dvivedi, trivedi and caturvedi. In addition, there are other samhitA portions, brAhmaNa portions, AraNyaka poritons, and the Upanishads, in the vedic scriptures alone.

After proficiency in ghanapATha, some learn lakshaNa-ghanapATha, which deals with the characteristics of each letter, its origin, how it has to be emphasized in a mantra, its varNa, the presiding deity, etc etc. Then there are purANa’s, dharma-Sastras etc. All these were learnt without any book, tape or any such instruments in the oral tradition, and were stored just in ~200 grams of the human brain! And the most interesting thing is, it was not that one or two individuals who were proficient in this dharma, but an entire society was well versed in this! Such a scholarship takes well over 25 years of intense education in a gurukulam, in addition to observing all the religious disciplines!

Having analyzed what it takes for a vedic priest to become a ghanapAThi, let us look at his plight in modern day society.

When there is so much of respect and recognition for all other secular professionals – be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, businessman, artist etc. – the respect and the compensation extended to these vedic scholars are patheticallyfar below standards.

On the one end we are all proud to inherit such a rich and cherished vedic tradition, but, on the other, not being sensitive enough or even negligent towards preserving and transferring it forward. At this rate, what were originally 1,131 SakhAs, and are only 10 today, will further deteriorate leading to a great loss to human-kind.

The only guardians of this rich tradition are the vedic priests. Because of the way the society treats them and the poor compensation, they are not motivated to send their children to vedic schools (pAThaSAlA’s). Generally they come from economically backward families, and so they drop out of schools early, striving to make a living and to support their poor families. All others who have already migrated to secular education are not going to revert back to vedic learning in the traditional sense.

In addition, the personal discipline to be observed by the vedic priest being so stringent (otherwise, the rituals and mantras are believed not to give the desired result, and to even bring demerit), it makes one to shy away even more. When compared to the status of priest-hood in other religions, the plight of the vedic priest is really sad.

6. What can be done to bring back the lost glory of the vedic priest ?

Even though the situation appears very gloomy, there is lot of hope today.
The very fact that a forum like this wants to address this issue itself is very encouraging. Following are some of my thoughts to help foster and propagate this tradition, though by no means exhaustive:

1. The first step is for every member of this varNa to be aware of what we have in our vedic scriptures and become sensitive to this education.

2. Even if one may not have time or may have other limitation to learn, observing the disciplines, one could at least support those who learn, and the pAThaSAlA’s
that teach.

3. Many of the teachers in these pAThaSAlA’s are highly under-paid and they continue to teach just to foster this dharma. With the affluence of the NRI community, support can be given to increase the compensation for the teachers and stipend to the students.

4. Scholarships for advanced vedic learning can be implemented to motivate students not to discontinue from a full curriculum due to economic reasons.

5. Most of the mantra’s employed in rituals are from Vedas.
Actually rituals(samskAras) are aimed at developing the eight inner values (Atma guNa’s),which are: compassion (dayA), patience (kshamA), free from jealousy(anasooyA), purity (soucam), keeping cool (anAyAsam), not beingmiserly(akArpaNyam), absence of attachment (aspruhA), and peace (mangaLam).

The more we shy away from rituals, more are the chances of losing those mantra’s, since less will be the motivation for the priest to practice them!

6. There can be awareness courses on samskAra’s (there are ~ 41 samskAra’s from conception to cremation!), so that every member of the varNa will develop an interest and faith in them. Such faith will increase their respect for the vedic priest as an AchArya.

7. We believe that giving dAnam (gift) to a priest washes our sins. The priest gets this power because of his vedic knowledge. Hence, the compensation for the priests should be given with faith, humility and sincerity so that, it is not just a compensation for a job done, but an offering (sambhAvanA) for blessing our families in the name of Vedas.

Unless this varNa raises to bring back the glory of the vedic priest, it may be difficult to expect others to raise to this call. After all, religious practices are only for the believers, and these discussions are aimed at those who have an implicit faith in this dharma.

With a renewed thrust and commitment, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The vedic-priesthood will certainly become well respected in society with this awareness.

Institutions like the Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation Inc. USA, organize mega yajnas like the ati-rudra-mahA-yajna of 1997 bringing ~100 vedic scholars from India, essentially to appreciate and respect the vedic priest-hood, in addition to showing to the present and the future generation, how an authentic vedic ritual could be conducted, even outside of India, and how such knowledgeable priests are available even today.

Source Material:

1. "The Vedas", Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1988
2. “Rescuing our Vedic Pundits”, Dr. S. Yegnasubramanian