Mantras and Brahmanas of the Vedas
The Mantras and Brahmanas are two of the three parts into which the Hindu sacred text of the Vedas is divided into. The third part is known as the Upanishads. Despite of occupying a major portion in the Brahmanas, the Upanishads are considered as a separate distinction of the Vedas due to their increased importance in the history of early Indian thought.
The exact chronological order of the entire Vedic period is yet not known in a specified sense, yet it is assumed to have begun from around 2000-2500 BC and ceased around 500 BC.
Discussion about the Mantras
The word ‘mantra’ is originally a Sanskrit term which denotes a reference of a religious song or a hymn. The hymns about which Hiriyanna has referred to in ‘the Essentials of Indian Philosophy’ refer to devotional melodies and rhythmic compositions in different languages such as Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali , which were attempted to mark the spiritual connection between the devotee and the deity for whom he was singing the composed hymn and it also referred to giving birth to a sort of mysticism, in other words, marking a soulful connection as being related to the deity and expressing a desire of being united with the deity. These so- called hymns have been compiled together in a collection popularly termed as samhita. Millions and trillions of mantras have been composed while composing the actual Vedas, yet in the current time only a fraction of them are available for historical analysis and out of them the oldest of the hymns, hold more importance and we would analyze the early mantras of the Vedas.
Key Philosophical Conceptions of the Mantras
There isn’t much evidence available of the existing material of the mantras of the earlier context and due to the incompleteness of the hymns and missing links of correlation with the entire composition and a largely hampered understanding of the context of framing the particular song or hymn. Therefore, it is quite possible that being new to these philosophical traditions and having our own creative perceptions, we might tend to misinterpret the true essence of the hymn and make false assumptions based on our perceptions. To avoid, minimal errors in understanding and analyzing the mantras, we shall first understand them based on scholarly predictions and then compare them with our own interpretation of the text and to what extent can the former match with the latter.
Based on predictions made by scholars, the mantras are supposedly symbolic to nature worship or in other words, entitling the various forces of nature such as agni (fire), vayu (air) and surya (sun) to the status of divinity and subjecting themselves as the devotee or conscious follower and worshipper of these forces. The status of divinity ascribed to three of these forces is so massive that man considers his existence as a result of being an ardent follower of the three forces of nature and constantly owes this prayer of gratitude for making him human in each prayer and worship of his. In fact, he also owes the presence of seasonal cycles and the transition from day to night and vice versa to these forces of nature.
Since man has considered these forces of nature as authoritative figures which can define and deny their existence and also make them repent and suffer for their false deeds and crimes, they surrender themselves entirely to these forces of nature, considering them to be Supreme Beings, against whom no human can possibly compete and if he dares to do so, he might encounter immediate death or repenting for his sins for his entire life.
In a more specific sense, these forces of nature in the mantras merely describe the importance of the element they are representing, but for purposes of worship and prayers, each natural force represents a deity who is responsible for controlling that force of nature. In the Vedas, for instance, two such deities have gained high regards and have been mentioned and worshipped truly by the followers in a rigorous manner. Two such deities are Indra and Varuna. The former has been considered superior in most of the aspects and has attracted a lot of devotees as compared to the latter. Indra, is considered the chief deity of rain, thunder and clouds. The monsoons are supposedly controlled under his jurisdiction and heavy rain and thundering clouds are an indication of Indra becoming furious and punishing his devotees as a consequence of their ghastly sins. He represents majorly the virtues of valor and force, but apart from these two virtues, he also controls certain actions and feelings which aren’t acceptable in a conventional sense in the realm of a deity. He is supposed to be fond of an intoxicating drink which is extracted from a creeper termed as soma and is considered as vain and boastful.
On the contrary, Varuna is considered representing divinity in its true essence as he is assumed to represent the virtues of righteousness due to his strict compliance towards certain principles and defining the moral aspects of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in society. This figure appeals to deeper importance of the Vedas in the Mantras. For instance, those of his followers who have followed the wrong path and committed a number of sins, are also forgiven and humbly accepted by him, if they persevere and regret of their actions and thoughts with pure intentions and true determination of getting ‘purified’ again. Both these virtues are both conceptually and philosophically quite distinct and contradicting to each other in their ideals and expectations from their devotees. Indra, is also recognized as the ‘protector of the Aryan color’ and ‘destroyer of the dark skin’. This was one of the strategies adopted by our ancestors, the Aryans who were of foreign descent and not native to the country originally. So, in order to assert their importance and dominate over the native Indian blood and subject them to their power and rule, they attempted to glorify the importance of Indra as the chief deity and also curated virtues of fear and apprehension in the minds of deviants and those not agreeing to surrender themselves to such external oppression. Also, the Aryans marked that the geographical location of the Indian sub-continent was such that it attracted the south-western monsoon winds and it created a monsoon like atmosphere which was both arid and moist and humid as well. So, associating Indra with the rains was beneficial for their entire kin to establish their permanent residence here.
It is ironical that despite of being a liberal, righteous and virtuous deity among other more dominating, fierce and terrific ones like Indra, Varuna couldn’t attract many of the devotees in his realm of ideologies and principles. Many of the hymns or the mantras composed for him attribute him as ‘witnessing the truth and falsehood of his followers’ and also to be forgiving of those who indulge in falsity through their prayers and perseverance. Due to increasing glorifications, allegories and symbolisms oriented towards Indra and his unseen wrath, the followers were skeptical of entering Varuna’s world by sacrificing that of Indra and being observed as deviants and traitors in the eyes of Indra.
Divinity, in these periods also comprised of the doctrine of Rta in the mantras. It stands for the ‘cosmic order’ and also ‘course’ and thus signified a dutiful observance of the stated principles in the Rta wholeheartedly. Varuna is considered as the ‘chief trustee of the rta’ as he represents righteousness which largely summarizes a dutiful following of the cosmic order as stated by each deity. Indra, also holds some importance in the doctrine but not as much as Varuna does. These early mantras consider the world to be comprising of three realms each of heaven, the world of mortals and the intermediate region. According to his theology, the man has an intimate relation with the gods and describes them as his ‘father’ and ‘brother’ in various mantras. According to this divine order, those who commit sins are supposed to disappear in ‘abysmal darkness’ after death and those who are true to the divine principles are supposed to gradually descend into a ‘white light’ after death. Thereby, the mantras are of primary importance when considered in relation to understanding the Vedas.
Let us now understand the importance of another important concept in the Vedas apart from the mantras which are referred to as the Brahmanas.
Discussion about the Brahmanas
The Brahmanas represent the second part of the ancient Vedas following the mantras and are derived from brahman which typically refers to ‘prayer’ or ‘devotion’, which is an authoritative utterance pronounced by the priest. These utterances are generally related to some sacrifices and these can be made possible only in the presence of the priest.
These hymns are developed based on three principles, which are namely monotheism, monism and ritualism.
Doctrines of Monotheism, Monism and Ritualism
Monotheism refers to the belief of the presence of many gods but their similarity or derivation from each other. Thus, each god which we worship with different names and ideals, is eventually considered the same and summed up into a substantial whole of divinity. All of these gods have certain common features which gives them a singular identity These gods are also considered to be luminous as they are termed with the common term of ‘deva’ which is meant as ‘to shine’. It attributes a common power of control and identity over the world, the people and the natural resources and removes the distinctiveness from each deity and also all attempts of comparison. But, in the later Vedic pantheon, a different ideal of monotheism developed, under this belief, the hymns mentioned about one particular Supreme Being or deity who was supposed to be the creator of this world and of all other gods as well. It subjected the existence of all other gods as of secondary importance and as a result of the presence of the Supreme Being. For instance, Prajapati or the ‘Father God’ was one such deity who was ascribed this divine status of being the chief deity and the source of the entire Universe’s existence. He was ascribed such a status due to being born of the rta or the principle of righteousness.
The next major doctrine of the Brahmanas is that of Monism. Monism in its principle, doesn’t ascribe the divine status to a single deity by considering it to be the Creator and the Supreme Being. It instead attributes the creation of the Universe and the cosmic order to the individual himself. There is no potential deity who can possibly determine the moral principles of right and wrong and create the entire Universe. The individual is considered to be self-sufficient and is responsible for his own existence. The individual is assumed to be possessing of a latent power or tapas out of which he himself gives birth to the entire universe and the gods. So, here the entire universe is created by the individual himself through his internal ideals and not via some external force or entity. This principle thus considers existence as independent of external power.
Monism is both immanent and transcendent. Immanence here refers to the intrinsic causal existence of the world which is independent of any Supreme Being and transcendence refers to the existence beyond the normal level. The individual possesses such spiritual powers that he can give rise to the entire universe single- handedly without any support or aid and which is conventionally imagined to be beyond a certain level of existence.
The third doctrine is that of Ritualism. This doctrine emphasizes on performance of certain rituals of sacrifice and prayers in order to gain importance in the realm of the gods and ask them for fulfilling certain desires and asking for favors. These rituals were largely in the form of sacrificial traditions of donating items such as grains, ghee, clothes, food, etc. Gradually, as this principle started gaining importance widely, the sacrificial ritual was further made into a complicated tradition which could be performed only by certain priests who belonged to a special class of the cosmic order which comprised of all professional priests who were considered as highly prestigious and important for the entire kin of devotees. These sacrifices later turned out to be of very long durations and priests were specially invited for performing the sacrifice in front of a large crowd. The major ideology behind all these elaborate sacrifices was that of compelling and forcing the gods to fulfil all desires of the sacrificer. This involved the transformation of the spirit from the god to the Veda itself. This transformation happened as it was stated that the sacrifice couldn’t be performed without the presence of the royal priest who was learned of the rituals and hymns to be recited while performing the sacrifice. In this context, thus the priest and the Veda gained high status of ritualism. The priests who were responsible for compiling the entire Vedas and those who studied it deeply and learned each single saying and hymn of it gained importance in the Vedic pantheon of ritualism.