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Wednesday, August 3, 2016
How Vedas are preserved through oral tradition (Guest post by R.Ramanathan)
R.Ramanathan, a Veda adhyayin whose
articles on topics related to Vedas and Sanatana Dharma are enlightening gems
to be preserved and spread, has come up with yet another rare gem that tells us
how Vedas have been preserved for all these ages and for eternity through
in-built checks and scientific techniques. We all talk high of Vedas but have
never known how and what techniques were used to preserve them. It is not that
easy to explain these techniques to people who don’t know Sanskrit grammar. But
Mr Ramanathan has done a wonderful job in explaining in simple ways and
language the various methods by which Vedas have been preserved and transferred
from one generation to the other without giving any scope for corruption or
interpolation, through oral tradition known in Sanskrit as Karna Parampara. On
behalf of the countless readers of all time to come, I thank him for writing
this rare article.
Vedic Karna Parampara:-The Oral tradition
of the Veda.
one of the articles written on Astika
Darshanas there was a discussion as to the
validity on the Puranas as pramana (Valid
source of knowledge). In relation to that I had given some examples of how the aanupurvika (The fixed ordering of
words and accents) of the Veda were preserved. In response to this, Shrimati
Jayasree had requested me to write a separate article for common interest. This
is the driver for this article. This article goes just beyond the question of
preservation and tries to bring to the reader, the whole idea of the oral
traditions or karna parampara
(KP) of the Vedas.
Hindus who take their dharmic practices seriously, irrespective of whether or
not they have learnt it in the proper designated way, know that the Vedas were
taught orally for millennia. Even 500 years ago it was considered sin to write
down the Veda and chant it. Panini
in his Shiksha (Work on phonetics) calls these people as “Likita Paatis” in a derogatory
sense. Even 100 years ago, though books were available it was beyond the reach
of average people and they had to learn it orally by rote (??). So we see that
the oral tradition of the Veda was alive until much recently.
have all in our childhood played this game where children are seated in a
circle and a sentence is whispered into the ear of a child and it is asked to
whisper it to the next one and so on until the circle is complete. Almost
always the sentence originally told to the first child and the sentence uttered
by the last child are never the same. This is true of adults also. We are not
able to maintain the integrity of information when it is communicated across
Question: How was the Vedic literature (All
4 Vedas and individual recensions or Shaka within a main Veda) which was vast,
taught with such accuracy?
scholars like R.L.Kashyap
and the erstwhile Fritz Staal
have conducted studies to prove the accuracy of transmission, i.e. the Yajur
Veda chanted now is the same chanted 1000 years ago, having only a few
transmission errors. This in itself is an amazing feat considering the Vastness
of the literature and the scanty copying techniques available in olden
times. Obviously some highly
sophisticated techniques of preservation and interpretation, both at individual
word levels and also from a philosophical level
are involved. The idea of the article is to attempt to give an idea of
these techniques. I have tried my best to put what I know. If there is even an
iota of benefit for anybody from the article, the entire credit goes to all the
Veda Acharyas who taught me. Seeking their blessings I proceed now to
illustrate what is involved, not to an exhaustive extent but to provide a
glimpse of it.
Why only Karna paramparai or oral tradition?
When it was possible to write down magnum opuses like the Ramayana
and Mahabharata, why were the written transmissions of the Veda thoroughly
discouraged to the point of making it a sin and considering chanting from
written material inferior?
understand this question we must look at the nature of the Veda. The Veda is
considered to be apaurusheya,
meaning there is no human author involved. The rishis are not authors but are mantra drashtas, meaning they “See”
the mantras as they are. Even god is not considered to be the author of the
Veda as per the Mimamsakas. Other theistic schools consider god just as an agent to recall
the Vedas at the start of each Kalpa and give it to Brahma. The
following could be some of the reasons why the Vedas were taught by oral
transmission alone without books.
Vedas conceive of speech (Vaak) as divine and it was associated with the
goddess Saraswati. Thus learning from the Guru's mouth was considered more
the Vedas orally and retaining them and transmitting to next generation was
considered a penance in itself. Thus forgetting the Vedas was considered a sin
and atonement's were prescribed by the Smriti. Even today in the very few
Patashalas that practice oral transmission,
the students at the end of their
lessons for the day have to close both ears with their palms and utter the
“Salutation to the Vedas. May the Vedas be in my retention and
never forsake me. May I be blessed by
it, so that I can be it's bearer. May my ears never fail me, in hearing”
I have used Sayana Bhashya in this translation. Here ब्रह्म means the Vedas. धा॒रणं
means retention or a powerful memory.
(The picture is only suggestive)
Sanskrit scripts cannot be the same across all regions of the country across
the ages. Even the Devanagari script is considered to be of much recent origin.
Also scripts differ with the vernacular languages that are spoken. For example
as of now, in Tamil-Nadu the grantha script is used for Tamil speakers. They
cannot read Devanagari and Tamizh lacks the complete alphabet for the Vedic
mantras. Also the same scripts evolve and change over time. Thus it would be
difficult for present native Tamizh speakers to read the Tamizh found in older
manuscripts or on temple walls. This reason would make reading from older
something is written down, somebody can claim authorship for the same falsely,
which is an antithesis to the nature of the Veda. On the other hand oral
transmissions with a fixed set of accents and rules of intonation, gives the
system of transmission a sort of formalism and rigor.
would be difficult to represent accents in writing on palm leaf manuscripts.
For the Sama Veda especially it would be difficult as there are at least a
minimum of 7 swaras.
palm leaf manuscripts are easily defaced or destructible, mantras could be lost
in floods, fires etc., whereas it could be retained across multiple people in memory.
hundred years ago people would go to neighboring villages to recollect some
portions or clarify some doubt as great vedic scholars were in plenty in those
days in Village agraharams.
What is Karna parampara
simplest answer to this is learning from the guru, by just listening to what he
chanted and repeating it back without the reference of any other visual aids
like books etc. Traditionally the Guru chants a sentence and the disciple
repeats it two times in the same way the guru
intonates (please note this word) it. But this is not as simple as it
seems. There are a number of questions
there is no written material, there are no punctuation marks. How do you
demarcate a complex sentence?
does one ensure correct pronunciation?
does one ensure that the portions he learned are not corrupted? (I.e. missing
words, extra word etc. We will deal with this in detail later)
important, how to preserve accents from being corrupted?
chanting how to correct other people on the fly?
does one correct accents if they are wrongly learnt?
does one split sentence correctly?
does one indicate starting of a sentence and ending of a sentence
are grammatical peculiarities/abnormalities indicated?
to apply mantras in shrauta rituals. This is also very important as they will
change as per situation.
are some of the challenges that are involved in oral teaching. We will go now
into some of terms/techniques now in no specific order along with an example of
how that is applied in the Karna parampara.
Swara or accents and how they preserve
information and textual correctness
or accents are the heart of Vedic chanting. Mantras are supposed to be
intonated with the correct accent to produce the desired effects. Without the
correct accent mantras are supposed have no efficacy or worse cause ill effects
too. We will go into this in detail too. Many ancient languages like Greek were
accented languages and were not just spoken in the normal sense of the term,
but intonated to convey the particular emotion which the speaker intended to
convey. Similarly Vedic Sanskrit is also accented and more over the accent
rules are very sophisticated and form an important part in preservation and the
meanings. It is easy to understand that a message that is conveyed with a song
and rhythm is easy to remember than the same message conveyed with simple
speech. Also it is an important factor in establishing meaning of words. To
illustrate, the example “Hang him, not
leave him” and “Hang him not, leave him” brings home
the truth. In the former case the stress or intonation at “him” means that he
should be hung and not let off. The latter case exactly means the opposite of
in all the 4 Vedas there are 3 basic accents. The Sama Veda has additional
swaras, the number varies as per the Sama shaka. Note
that these have to be learnt by actually hearing the Guru pronounce each swara.
It is impossible to indicate the actual oral pronunciation with symbols as in
many shakas, udatta is not fixed at one tone but can vary over a range of
This is the natural accent of speech and is very important. In a sentence
generally if one knows the Udatta aksharas, using Paninian rules we can derive the
rest of the accents. The Akhsara or a syllable of udatta accent is suffixed by
U in examples I give here. I.e. A(U) means the akshara “A” is of udatta accent.
In terms of Indian classical music, the Shadja and Panchama are Udatta notes.
In typical Vedic Devanagari texts however the syllables that are unmarked
(there are exceptions of course) are udatta. For example in the words नमः॑, हेडः॑, तव॑, न, हे, and त are udattas. However
without books in the karna parampara the student has to recognize all the
accents on hearing or through other special devices like “Hasta chaalanam” or hand indications.*
(The picture is only suggestive)
that are pronounced lower than the Udatta.
Represented here by A(An) i.e. akshara A is an anudatta. In typical
Vedic Devanagari texts however the syllables that are marked with a “-” under
the letter are anudatta. Example रु॒द्र॒,अ॒दृ॒श॒न्न्॒. In terms of music, the Rishaba and Daivata are the
higher than an udatta. Represented by A(S). In typical Vedic Devanagari texts
however the syllables that are marked with a “’” over the letter are Svarita गिरः॑
The Nishada and Gandhara are the swarita
will proceed to now give some basic accent rules. Note these are pretty
complicated when sandhis
or “Punarchi vidhi”
in tamizh or coalescing in English
occur. I will give only the most basic ones.
verbs (Kriya pada) are sarvaanudata i.e. all akshara’s are anudatas in a verb.
For example अ॒दृ॒श॒न्न्॒. This word means “They saw”. One more example is ई॒म॒हे॒. This means “May we
worship”. Thus based on the accent of the word we can find whether a word is a
verb or not. There are exceptions to this and the change in kriya pada or verb
swaras are used to detect shifts of Bhava or feeling and change of focus from
the act, to the performer or the benefits of performance and so on. This part
is very important for the Poorva Mimamsakas.
2.All words that are used
or in the mode of direct addressing are sarvanudatta. Example रु॒द्र॒. This word means that
we directly address rudra as “O Rudra!!!”
As a further example, there is a difference when I say “This book is for you Rama”
and “This book is for Rama”.
Svarita occurring on the last syllable of a word will become an anudatta, when
the starting syllable of the next word is an udatta when the words are uttered
in continuity without a gap. This type of svarita is called a tairovyanjana svarita. As an example, in the Rudradhyaya in the 4th
kanda, 5th prashna of the Taittriya shaka, we keep hearing नमो॒नमः॑.
Now remember always that the samhita or the natural mode of chanting in rituals
etc is built from the pada paata.
The pada paata for this example is नमः॑|
नमः॑. Applying the rule
above the swarita at the end of the first नमः॑ marked with (|) comes
down to become an anudatta marked with (-) under the letter i.e. नमो॒नमः॑|.
This is a very common rule and occurs very frequently.
there is a train of anudattas following an udatta, the first anudatta
immediately after the udatta becomes a swarita. All the subsequent anudattas,
are chanted in udatta tone and are called prachaya swaras, though being
anudattas. This chanting in udatta continues till the last anudatta in the
original train is reached. After this last anudatta there will be an udatta. As
an example, Consider the pada paata
we construct the samhita from the above rule. Note the train of anudattas after
Also note that this is udatta in accent. As per the rule the first anudatta मे॒,
following मम् becoms a swarita. The rest of the anudattas from व॒रु॒ण॒
become prachaya i.e. chanted in udatta tone (left unmarked in texts, but to be inferred
as a udatta in karna parampara). The final samhita looks like इ॒मंमे॑वरुण.
Note the small line above मे॑ and note that वरुण is now prachaya, i.e., chanted in udatta shruti and left
unmarked as per textual marking. As from the previous rules we know that a
directly addressed word is sarvanudatta or completely anudatta, व॒रु॒ण॒
is a sambodhana in pada pata. When the same word is found as वरुण,
it means it is in conjunction with other words and is prachaya. So when names
or nouns or in prachaya or sarvanudata, they are inferred as such. This also
the case with पाहि which is prachaya because of the swara combinations with
the previous words. As a stand-alone word it should have all anudattas as
swaras because it is a verb meaning “protect”.
this is sufficient to show some techniques of preservation and error correction,
disambiguation of meanings in compound words (Samasa) using accent rules.
Use of swaras to
demarcate begining and end of a sentence
a sentence begins with a Kriya pada or a sambodhana, the swara of the word is
now not sarvanudatta, there gets
introduced one udatta. Thus this is used to mark the start of a sentence.
Example for a sambodhana beginning: अग्ने॒नय॑सु॒पथा॑रा॒ये. Here the mantra addresses
agni, “Oh agni lead me on a good
path”. As per rule 2 the swara should have
been sarvanudatta i.e. the word should have complete anudatta marks on all
syllables. But now the अ
is udatta. Another example with a kriya pada demarcation of a sentence तावि॑ष्णोपाहिपा॒हिय॒ज्ञम्पा॒हि. This means “May you oh Vishnu protect. Protect the sacrifice”.
The first पाहि
has the accentuation of a kriya pada (There is one small change here we will
discuss later). Note the change in accent of the 2ndपा॒हि. This means, that तावि॑ष्णोपाहि is one sentence and
the next sentence begins with पा॒हिय॒ज्ञम्पा॒हि. The student
should be able to grasp this in the oral traditions based on accent changes.
then how deep his concentration and grasping abilities should be.
of swaras to preserve meanings across different Vedas and the pratishakya
Let us take the Pursha Sukta occurring in the Taittriya
shaka, in the Aranyaka ,3rd prashna 12th anuvaka, 35 verse.
Here note the word अय॑जन्त. It is a kriya pada
sacrificed”. As per the rules
given above it should have been sarvanudatta. But note the udatta accent on अ.
In the rig Veda the same verse has proper verb accentuation i.e. anudatta for
all syllables. So in the Rig Vedaअय॑जन्त would be a sarvanudatta. Now as per the last rule since
the वा in दे॒वा is an udatta, the first anudata which is अ
would be a svarita and rest would be prachaya as in the case of इ॒मंमे॑वरुण.
Now we have to confusing swaras for the same line in different Vedas.But it is here that the
Taiitriya Praati Shaakya grantha kicks in and says that the meaning is
different in both cases. The Rig Veda indicates Samashti srishti and Yajus
vyashti. So accents enable to preserver subtle meanings across different Vedas.
help correcting accents if wrongly uttered
In the Yajus the statement "Maa(U) Maa(Swa)
higumsihi (All syllables are prachaya)" is very common. It
simply means "Do not injure us". Now
here the issue is Maa means "Dont"
and also "Me". Now how are we going to distinguish which one means
what? This is where the swara rules save us. Maa (U) means always
"Don't" or prohibition. Maa (With Anu or Swar) always means "For
me" or "to me".
Now let us say when doing adhyayanam a boy mispronounces
"Maa(U) Maa(U) Higumsihi(All prachaya)"
Both "Maa" are now mispronounced as udatta. As
per swara rules the last word higumsihi is a verb meaning injure. Now as
mentioned earlier this has all anudattas. And as per the previous explanation
all will have anudatta intonation in pada paata. When recited in samhita mode
it will be
"Maa(U) Maa(U) H(Swarita)Higumsihi(All
The above combination is an impossible case. So we can
correct the boy and thus prevent corruption. These are just 2 examples of how
scientifically information was preserved and transmitted for ages.
Swaras and disambiguation of meanings in compound words.
is one more example given in the Taittriya shaka itself of how wrong
pronunciation results in bad unexpected results. Since the rules pertaining to
this example are based more on compound words or samasa, I will not go deep
into this as it needs an exhaustive knowledge of grammar. I will just stick
with the story alone.
Tvashta was the Deva –Guru
once. But He deceitfully gave offerings to strengthen the
asuras. Indra drove him away and this angered him. He started to perform a rite
where he chanted “Indrashatru Vardhasva”
Indra the enemy”, instead of “May Indra’s enemy grow”. The whole swara mistake revolves on the compound Indrashatru. Indrashatru can mean “Indra’s enemy” or “Indra the enemy”. Which one,
depends on the accent rules for the compound word. The shruti says Tvashta
uttered the accents in such a way that the meaning ended up as “May Indra the enemy, grow”. This shows how
accents are used to preserve the meanings of compound words. As another simple
example, when I
say Ramanathan it could mean “The lord of Rama (Natha) i.e Shiva of
Rameshwaram” or “Rama is lord”.
Now this ambiguity is resolved in the Veda through swaras or accents.
I could go on and on. But that alone would be a separate
article. Please note again accents should be learnt from a Guru and not from
books or CD’s. Learning like this does not constitute Veda Adhyayana. Thus ends
the discussion on accents or swaras.
used to prevent corruption.
How does one prevent corruption of words while doing
adhyayana? Corruption could mean the following
1.Forgetting a word
2.Adding another word not found in the text at all.
3.Mixing up similar sentences from another chapter with the
I will give another example from the Taittriya shaka 1st
kanda, 1st anuvaka that I gave in the comments section of the same
link at the beginning
At the end of the first anuvaka starting with "इ॒षेत्वो॒र्जेत्वा॑
", we have a sentence appended saying "Ishe Thrichatvaarigumshat". This is called “Shrinkala paata” or “Kovai” in Tamizh. This
means that in the para that started with "Ishee" you have 43 words
(Trichatvaarimshat). This is similar to the CRC checking used in Computer
science. CRC or cyclic redundancy check is a technique used to check whether
data has been received without corruption. The sender calculates the CRC based
on some algorithm and appends it to the data to be sent. The receiver picks the
appended CRC, calculates the CRC over the received data with the same algorithm
and compares the calculated value to the received value. If not equal data is
corrupted else we got it fine. The first 2 points will be solved by the above.
If there are similar words or sentences, we use prior, different words to
distinguish 2 similar sentences. These details are appended at the end of the
anuvaka. So if there is confusion, a check of the kovais of the confusing
anuvakas would in most cases resolve these issues.
correct pronunciation of varnas
This technique is actually a very advanced technique and
is called varnakrama. Varnakrama is an exhaustive description of each letter
or varna, with its characteristics, like origin of the sound, place of
articulation, organ of articulation effort needed, time period or maatra
kaalam, the swaras of each vowel and so on. There are about 22 parameters that define one letter or Varna
completely. The level of
analyses shown here is mind boggling. There have been studies conducted
using ultra sound techniques that trace
the complete path of the air followed when a Varna is uttered. They are amazingly
close to the description given by the Ashtadyayi. Thus to understand the Varna
Krama and chanting it requires a very sound knowledge of the Ashtadyayi.
To give a simple example, take सएकः॑|
from the Taittriya Upanishad. The ए in एकः॑ should actually pronounce from the throat like the “a”
in “Forbade”. If it is pronounced as “येकः॑”, with a “य॑”,
the meaning changes. The sentence सएकः॑
means “He is one” only if pronounced from the throat. If “य॑”
is brought in, it means “Who is he?” This is what we do in our vernaculars. If
so why have separate varnas ए and ये at all?It would take a separate article in itself for
varnakramam chanting. I will give a link
that gives a sample of how varnakramam is chanted.
word इति is used for multiple purposes in the karna
parampara. This usage occurs only in
the pada paata and krama paata and not in the Samhita paata.
1.इति is used to demarcate the end of a sequence
in pada and krama. As an example of this is the krama paata for नम॑स्तेरुद्रम॒न्यव॑उ॒तोत॒इष॑वे॒नमः॑।. This occurs in the 4th kanda 5th
prashna(The Rudram as is popularly known) in the first line. The krama for this
the boldened इति . This indicates that Krama for the above
given sentence has ended. The last word of the sentence is
repeated after the इति
2.It is used to indicate many grammatical
ideas. For simplicity here we take the Pragrihya. The Pragrihya is a word that does not
undergo sandhi with the next word even if there is scope for it for reason of
semantics, meanings and so on. Again as an example, consider the pada paata for
the samhita text नम॑स्तेरुद्रम॒न्यव॑त॒इष॑वे॒नमः॑। नमः॑।ते॒।रु॒द्र॒।म॒न्यवे ।उ॒तोइति॑।ते॒।इष॑वे।नमः॑।
emboldened text shows that the word उतो is a pragrihya. This is also used
to indicate special prefixes to verbs, nouns etc.
How to use mantras in shrauta rituals
Sometimes as in Vedic yajnas like the soma Yajna, the way
the mantras are used is different from the way they are studied. This is true
in the case of the Rig Veda, which is
employed to invite the gods to the Yajna. In soma Yajnas the Rig is chanted in Eka Shruti, or all words are uttered in Udatta accent, even though
the mantras would be lear'nt with proper
swaras. The Yajur usually has no changes.
The application of the sama veda is more complex in
sacrifices. The basic sama ganas that are
gaanas, provide the tunes
or Ragaas. Examples of some tunes
are the Gayatram,
Rathantra, Vamadevya and so on. So
in Yajnas, the singer should
be capable of adapting a particular Rik to any of the above tunes, depending on the Devaata and the any
particular desires of the sacrificer. This involves
heavy knowledge of Chandas, Grammar, Stobhas which are something like Bija aksharas, swara rules and so on.
With this we come to the end of what is involved in
actual oral transmission and application.
All this goes to prove how much intense mental concentration was involved. No wonder there were so
in olden days. The intense mental
concentration would generate the necessary mental purity. Thus a Dvija who involved himself in a thorough study of the Veda by the age old tradition
did not require any separate exercises like Nama sankirtana, since he was
always reciting the Veda, or external Puja apart from Yajnas found in the Veda. With the purity gained he would
become fit easily for upanishadic study, and
advance further spiritually.
* Mr Ramanathan has agreed to write a details of Hasta Chaalanam in another article.