By Swami Harshananda
The most ancient and basic scriptures are known as ‘Vedas.’ Derived from the root ‘vid’ (= to know), they represent a vast body of religio-spiritual knowledge transmitted orally from generation to generation over the millennia. Sage Kṛiṣṇa-Dvaipāyana Vyāsa, systematized and edited the vast Vedic literature with a view to preserve it for the posterity.
Division of Vedas
Sage Kṛiṣṇa-Dvaipāyana divided the Vedas into four parts. These four Vedas have been well-known as Rigveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda and Atharvaveda. He taught it to his four chief disciples mentioned below :
Different names of Atharvaveda
The Atharvaveda has been called by several other names :
- Atharvanaveda - The word ‘Atharvan,’ is derived from ‘athar,’ which is an obsolete word for fire. It means ‘the priest of fire.’ So, Atharvan is the name of an ancient sage who ‘brought down fire from heaven’ and started the sacrificial rites here. In the mythology, he is described as a son of Brahmā, the Creator, who introduced fire-rituals with soma and other materials.
- Atharvāñgi- rasa - Atharvan is identified with Aṅgiras and also called Atharvāṅgirasa.
- Āñgirasa - Sage Āñgirasa was one the ‘draṣṭāras’ of this Veda, i.e., the sages to whom the various hymns of this Veda were revealed. Hence this Veda was named accordingly after him.
- Bhrgvañgirasa - Sage Bhṛgu also revealed various hymns of this Veda. So this Veda was also named as Bhrgvañgirasa.
- Bhrgu-vistara - As sage Bhṛgu revealed various hymns it was also named as Bhrguvistara.
- Brahmaveda - The title ‘Brahmaveda’ is related to the priest brahmā, the fourth of the four priests in the group. The other three are hotā, adhvaryu and udgātā, connected with the first three Vedas in that order. In a general sense it also means the Veda that helps in the attainment of Brahman.
- Bhaisajyaveda - This name has been derived from the subject matter of the Veda which contains material on bhaiṣajya (medicines and treatment).
- Ksattraveda - This name originates from the matter revealed in the Veda which contains information about the ‘kṣattra’ (the warrior-class known as the kṣattriyas).
Contents of Atharvaveda
The Atharvaveda has some special features because of which it stands a little apart from the other three Vedas, especially the Rigveda. Major portion of this Veda is concerned with the following :
- Diseases and their cure
- Rites for prolonging life
- Rites for fulfilling one’s desires
- Building construction
- Trade and commerce
- Propitiatory rites
Significance of Atharvaveda
Atharvaveda has high philosophical ideas similar to the thought pattern of the Upaniṣads. The literary style is more sophisticated. Hence some scholars believe that this work was not admitted into the comity of Vedic literature for a long time. It was perhaps considered as a ‘scripture of the masses,’ not fit for the admission into the ‘elite-group’. It's sheer popularity might have forced the leaders of the society to admit it as the fourth Veda and give its priests also an honorable place in the sacrifices. For the same reasons, it is opined that this Veda is chronologically posterior to the other three Vedas. Some modern scholars like C. V. Vaidya assign it the period 3000 to 2500 B. C. But, Vedic chronology is a huge subject in which it is difficult to fix the periods precisely.
Branches of Atharvaveda
From the ancient times, nine śākhās or branches of the Atharvaveda (Samhitā) are known to have existed. However, only two of them are extant :
Of these, only Śaunaka is available in a complete form. This Veda is divided into four ‘prapāthakas,’ comprising 20 ‘kāṇḍas.’ Each kāṇḍa is again sub-divided into ‘suktas’ and these suktas, into ‘mantras.’ The details are as follows :-
|I||1 to 7||433||2030|
|II||8 to 12||45||1573|
|III||13 to 18||43||1063|
|IV||19 & 20||215||1411|
This gives us 6,077 mantras in 736 suktas spread over 20 kāṇḍas in 4 prapāṭhakas. However, due to the different methods adopted in grouping or classifying, the number of suktas given by various scholars varies from 598 to 759. But there is no difference in the number of the mantras. The last kāṇḍa, i.e., the 20th, has borrowed it thoughts heavily (to the tune of 90%) from the Rigveda Samhitā. It is opined that the kāṇdas 19 and 20, sometimes termed as ‘Khilakāṇḍa,’ are later additions to this Veda.
Core of Atharvaveda
The subject matter of the Samhitā of this Veda has no systematic division in the first twelve kāṇḍas. The last two again, deal with miscellaneous topics. However, there are eight topics that are covered:
- Bhaisajya: diseases, their causes and cures
- Āyusya: supplications for longevity
- Paustika: worldly progress and welfare
- Ābhicārika: destroy or harm enemies who obstruct progress
- Prāyaścitta: expiatory rites
- Rājakarma: political system
- Brahmanya : nature of Brahman, the Absolute.
These suktas deal with diseases, their causes and cures, show a remarkable insight into the subject of health sciences. That is why this Veda is considered to be the precursor of Ayurveda or the Science of health and longevity. Sometimes, Ayurveda is listed as an Upaveda or subsidiary of the Atharvaveda. These suktas contain many prayers for health and longevity. The various names of the parts of the body given here bespeak of an intimate knowledge of human anatomy. Several diseases like fever, leucoderma, leprosy, jaundice, diabetes, dropsy, skin disorders, troubles of the ear, nose and throat, fracture of bones, diseases of the heart and tuberculosis, are mentioned with their respective cures. These diseases are caused by germs, violation of the laws of nature, anger of deities, malevolent spirits and sins committed previously. Apart from medicines and physical remedies, use of chants and charms was also in plenty. A deep knowledge of the herbs and their various medicinal properties can be inferred from many of the mantras.
These suktas contain supplications for longevity. They are to be uttered on auspicious occasions like caula (tonsure), upanayana (investiture with the sacred thread), godāna (gifting of cows) and so on. The desire to live the full span of life, viz., 100 years, is often expressed. One of the suktas indicates to wear the ‘rakṣāsutra’ (‘thread of protection’) on the body to attain longevity.
Puṣṭi means worldly progress and welfare. These suktas generally contain prayers for the blessings of deities like the Maruts, Parjanya and others so that there can be good rains. Due to these rains crops and works like house-building, agriculture and trade flourishes well. The auspicious rites described in the Pauṣṭika Suktas are called ‘śuklendrajāla.’
The Ābhicāraka Suktas are aimed to destroy or harm enemies who obstruct our progress or try to destroy us. This is said to be achieved by pleasing or appeasing certain deities or spirits and getting one’s wishes fulfilled through them. This technique is called ‘yātu’ or ‘kṛtyā.’ The number of such suktas is rather large. Destruction of one’s enemies including the lovers of one’s spouse, annihilation of evil spirits, mesmerizing others through whom one can get one’s desires fulfilled are some of the topics dealt with in these suktas. The word ‘kṛṣṇendrajāla’ is sometimes used to indicate the type of black-magic rites depicted here.
These are concerned mainly with expiatory rites to offset the evil effects due to non-performance or wrong performance of religious rites. Omens foreboding evil and the rites necessary to combat them are also described.
- Strikarma Suktas : These suktas deal mainly with marriage, love and allied topics. Rites that help in regaining the lost love of one’s spouse are also described.
This section gives an account of the political system during those days. The king was elected by the people. National and social problems were discussed by or decided in a ‘samiti’, a parliament of the people. The Rājapuro- hita (Chief Priest of the State) had an enviable place in the affairs of the State. Prayers for victory in war and hymns expressing devotion to the Motherland given here are highly poetic and moving.
These suktas unfold the nature of Brahman, the Absolute. The philosophical ideas given here form a link ideas of the Rigveda and the Upaniṣads. Peculiarity of this Veda is the names designated to God - Kāla, Skambha, Ucchiṣṭa and Vrātya. The whole universe is emerges and established by him. He is the lord of the whole creation. He has evolved the universe. The sun is a symbol of his power and is called ‘Rohita,’ the ‘Red-One’. He is identified with God himself. This Absolute is also identified with the Atman. The word ‘Vrātya’ found in this section has nothing to do with the people who had been without Vedic sacraments, the sense in which the word has been used in the dharmaśāstras. Here it represents Brahman, the Absolute.
Cultural references in Atharvaveda
The Atharvaveda Samhitā gives us an interesting picture of the society of its times. The land in which the people lived extended from Gāndhāra (Afghanistan) to Magadha and Aṅga (Bihar and Bengal). The varṇa system had been well established. People lived in harmony. Kings were powerful. Trade and commerce were prosperous though agriculture. Agriculture was the chief source of living at that time. There are references indicating brāhmaṇas were sometimes powerful in their own right due to which they had to face the wrath of the kṣattriya kings. The cow was highly venerated and godāna (gift of cows) was considered highly meritorious. There are references to the Rājasuya sacrifice and wars among kings. The institute of marriage was very similar to that of the Rigvedic times having obsequious rites.
No Āraṇyaka of the Atharvaveda has come to light so far. Only one Brāhmaṇa has been discovered, the Gopatha Brāhmana.
The three well-known Upaniṣads belong to this Veda:
- The Praśna
- The Mundaka
- The Māndukya
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore