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Vedangas - The Limbs of the Vedas




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by Jayaram V

Introduction

Vedangas literally mean the limbs of the Vedas. They are six in number. Just like the limbs of the body, they perform various supportive and augmenting functions in the study, preservation and protection of the Vedas and the vedic traditions. The six Vedangas are Siksha, Chhanda, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Jyotisha and Kalpa. These subjects were an integral and essential part of ancient vedic education system, aimed to promote an all round development of the students with a better understanding of the Vedas and vedic practices.

Of these six subjects, Siksha deals with the study of sounds and pronunciation associated with each syllable; Chhanda with the mastery of rhyme and meter; Vyakarna with the study of word and sentence structure; Nirukta with the meaning of complex words and phrases; Jyotisha with the study of heavenly bodies to find an auspicious time for the performance of the rituals; and Kalpa with the ethical , moral and procedural percepts associated with the performance of rituals as a way of life. In the following paragraphs we will discuss each of these subjects in detail.

The importance of the Vedangas. 

The Vedangas played an important role in maintaining the purity and integrity of the Vedic tradition. Although they have lost of much of their ancient significance, they continue to occupy an important place in the academic study of the Vedas. For centuries they taught and continue to teach vedic students how to recite the vedic hymns, understand their meaning and perform the various rituals and ceremonies strictly according to the established procedures. Their study inculcates among its students a sense of discipline and respect for tradition and helps them conduct themselves in society as upholders of the vedic dharma and traditional family values. 

To a certain extent the Vedangas were responsible for the popularity of Sanskrit as the main language of communication in ancient India and for its emergence as the language of the elite through such works as those of Kalidasa and Kalhana. They also played an influential role in the development of native languages, education system and vernacular literature of the Indian subcontinent by providing the basic framework on which they could grow. 

Many principles and practices of the Vedangas were taken up by other religious traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism which relied upon Sanskrit as their medium of communication and included in their education systems and religious practices. Through them they also extended their sway to other parts of the world such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Tibet and Ceylon where they were used in the study of Buddhism and Buddhist literature and preservation of its traditions.

While the combined knowledge of the Vedas and the Vedangas is still a desirable prospect, with the decline of Sanskrit as the language of the elite and the emergence of new methods of devotional worship and agamic temple traditions which took precedence over the vedic traditions in many parts of India, the Vedangas have lost of much of their priestly relevance. However they continue to attract the attention of Indological scholars and serious students of the Vedas, because of their  literary and historical value in our understanding of the development of human languages and linguistic and literary sophistication among the diverse socio religious and linguistic groups of the Indian subcontinent. 

Siksha

Siksha  deals with the study of pronunciation of words and syllables through the correct intonation, conjunction (sandhi) and disjunction (vichheda) of syllables, recognized primarily as vowels and consonants. It intends to train the students in the art and science of articulation of words and syllables so that they can chant the vedic hymns perfectly, producing the desired sound vibrations and maintain the ritual purity and efficacy of the ceremonies they perform. 

A lot of importance was attached in ancient India to correct pronunciation of the Vedic hymns because of the belief that the Vedas were inviolable and divine in origin. The scriptures proclaimed that a Sanskrit syllable was God in the form of a syllable (askhara Brahman), an imperishable entity (a + kshara), revealed to the mortals for the sake of dharma and welfare of the world, just as the thunder that rumbled from the heavens or the subtle sounds that could be heard in meditation. Its medium was ether (space), the medium of gods. So no liberties could be taken or transgressions be made by mere mortals while chanting them, without attracting unhappy consequences for themselves and those for whom the were sung. As a result of these beliefs, Sikhsa developed into a separate branch of study to preserve the integrity and purity of the divine words and save the dharma from human fallibility.  

The teachings of the Siksha are contained in the ancient texts known as Pratisakhyas, each attached to a particular Samhita, providing  instructions for the recitation of the hymns contained in it. The Pratisakhyas were probably composed by many grammarians like Saunaka before Panini and revised from time to time. 

Siksha played an important role in vedic India at a time when there was no written script and the knowledge of the Vedas had to be transmitted from one person to another orally. By establishing the ground rules of proper pronunciation, it minimized the chances of distortion that would usually accompany verbal communication. Vedic students were required to spend years reciting the mantras using the principles enunciated in the Pratisakhyas under the careful watch of their teachers before they were allowed to return to their homes and become ordained priests. As young apprentices they could ill afford to risk their careers by deviating from established traditions or show any sign of incompetence or imperfection due to lack of mastery.  

Chhanda

Chhanda deals with the analysis of the types of meter used in the construction of various Vedic hymns. Chhandashastra of Pingalanaga is considered to be the oldest text available on the subject. It was probably composed between 6th and 5th Century BC. In Sanskrit, the metrical unit is known as pada (foot). Depending upon the number of syllables used, a pada may be of the length of  eight, eleven or twelve syllables, known as gayatri, tristubh and jagati respectively. There are other metrical schemes and further variations in the  classification of the padas (meters) depending upon different criteria, the discussion of which is outside the scope of this article. The knowledge of the Chhanda proved useful in the composition of the smriti literature. It also played an important role in the emergence of classical Indian music and Sanskrit poetry besides providing a frame work of reference for compositions in other languages. 

Vyakarna

Vyakarna deals with Sanskrit grammar or the analysis and decomposition of words, word formation, root words and complex sentence structures, providing useful insights into the usage of words and sentences leading to the mastery of the language. The most authoritative work on the subject is considered to be the Ashtadhyayi of Panini, who lived probably between the 5th and 6th Century BC. Considered to be a milestone in the historical development of Sanskrit language, the Ashtadhyayi is probably a representative work summarizing the prevailing traditions and preserving them for posterity. It assumed so much importance over a period of time that most of the works on Sanskrit grammar preceding it lost their significance and were considered not worth preserving. The Ashtadhyayi contains about 4000 sutras or aphorisms divided into four parts. 

  • Siva Sutras deal with phonetics or the accent and intonation of distinctive units of sound that form part of the word and letter sounds.
  • Ashtadhyayi deal with the structure of words and sentences and their construction.
  • Dhatupata deals with list of root words (words that give rise to other words)
  • Ganapatha deals with groups of nominal words (nouns or noun phrases)

Nirukta

Nirutka deals with the etymological interpretations or explanations of obscure words especially those found in the Vedas. Technically it deals with the difficult and obscure words of a dictionary, whose analysis and interpretation is vital to the study and understanding of the Vedas which are replete with mysterious symbolism not usually understood by all. The most authoritative exponent of this branch of study is Yaksha, a Sanskrit grammarian and master of Sanskrit etymology, who lived before Panini. He is remembered for his monumental work called Nirukta, which is an excellent commentary of the obscure words found in the Nighantu (dictionary) of his time. Nirukta deals with the interpretation and analysis of difficult words and provides insight into the hidden content of the Vedas. Since many Sanskrit words can be split into more than one way and the Vedas contain many obscure and unknown words, an in-depth study of Nirkuta will help students discover the latent or hidden meaning of the Vedas and understand their linguistic and philosophic significance.

Jyotisha

Jyotisha deals with the astronomical and astrological aspects of fixing auspicious date and time to perform various vedic rites and rituals including the sacraments or rites of passage. The auspicious time is usually determined based on the position of the luminous bodies (jyotis) namely the sun, the moon, the stars and other heavenly bodies. According to tradition, sage Bhrigu is said to be the first person who perfected the knowledge of Jyotisha and built a record of the natal charts of every human being who was to be born on earth. Some of the earliest works on the subject are  considered to be Jyotishyavedanga (400 BC) and the Siddhanta. The treatise of Aryabhata, known as Aryabhatiya, (600 AD) and the Panchasiddhantika of Varahamihira are other important works. 

The Jyotisha of the vedic world played an important role in the development of vedic calendar, in the preparation astrological charts for the purpose of performing various sacraments or rites of passage and determining the date, time and place for the performance of the sacrificial ceremonies and daily rituals. Study of the movement of the sun, the moon, the star and planets helped determine the time of the day and night, the day of the week and fortnight, the period of the seasons, the month and the year,  besides the influence of each heavenly object on the events of the world and the lives of the people. 

According to some historians, much of our knowledge of Jyotisha came from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia and Greece through traders, sailors and travelers and subsequently from the Islamic world through contact and conquest. The Jyotisha of today is wider in scope and purpose than the original Jyotisha of Vedic period. It is now divided into several branches and sub branches and cater to a wider audience for purposes other than performing vedic ceremonies. Once considered to be an ancillary subject, the astrology of today is a profession by itself often practiced by people having little understanding of the Vedas and the Vedangas.

Kalpa

Kalpa deals with the practical, ceremonial, sacrificial and ritual aspect of the Vedas. Technically it is the applied science of the Vedas. The method and the manner in which the sacrificial ceremonies and daily household rituals have to be performed are established in a compendium of sutras or aphorisms known as Kalpa Sutras, categorized together as sruti literature. Kalpa literally means sacred rule or law or ordinance and sutra means a thread. Sutras are threads of knowledge or short statements used as memorial rules. In the absence of written language, the sutras acted as mental hooks and helped the students remember the intricacies of performing vedic sacrifices and observing the daily rituals. They also facilitated easy transmission of complex vedic wisdom from one person to another. Because of their precise nature, they used to spark wild debates and philosophical speculation as to their original meaning and purpose.

Kalpa Sutras are usually divided into Srautasutras and Smarthasutras. Srautasutras prescribe rules for the performance of different types of sacrifices and rituals, the amount of fees to be paid to the priests and the type of penances to be practiced in case of violation. The Srautasutras were probably composed around the 6th century BC, the same time during which some of the Smarthasutras were composed. The latter are divided into Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras. The Grihyasutras prescribe domestic rites and rituals for the three upper castes (brahmins, kshatriyas and vaisyas)., in additions to the duties and responsibilities meant for them as householders so that they can uphold the dharma and lead an ideal life in harmony with truths expounded in the Vedas. 

The Dharmasutras deal with the code of conduct and duties and responsibilities of various castes within the framework of the four purusharthas or aims of life and the four ashramas or divisions of life. They also suggest the norms for appropriate social and religious behavior for both men and women, norms of marriage, study and sexual union and punishments in case of violation. Of the many Dharmashastras that existed during the vedic period, only a few have survived, such as the Baudhayana, the Apasthamba, the Gautama and the Vashistha. Of these the first three are associated with different schools of Yajurveda, while the Vashistha is associated with the Rigveda. The first three texts were composed probably around 6th century BC and the last around the 1st Century AD. Other important law books of ancient times were Manusmriti, Vishnusmrit, Yagnavalkyasmriti and Naradsmriti.

Importance of the Vedangas

The Vedangas played an important role in preserving and protecting the vedic tradition over a long period of time. They formalized the procedures and techniques of performing various vedic rites and rituals and established authoritative sources of reference for succeeding generations to practice the vedic ceremonies and rituals with little ambiguity and fear of transgression. They ensured the purity of language and expression, defined and enforced, through moral fear, the social and religious conduct expected of men belonging to different social strata, and established well defined ground rules for moral, ritual and spiritual behavior of men involved in the performance of rituals. They highlighted the importance of academic excellence and physical, mental and moral discipline in upholding the vedic dharma and most important of all, as the limbs of the Vedas, they truly served the body of the vedic tradition by moving it forward through succeeding generations of men of superior vision and wisdom who could adapt themselves successfully to the changing circumstances without sacrificing their faith in the core values upheld by the Vedas. The Vedangas provide vitality to the Vedas just as the limbs of the human body.

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