Mr 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.
In 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.
All 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.
We 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 multiple humans.
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?
Many 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?
To 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.
1. The 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 sacred.
2. Acquiring 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 following mantra.
नमो॒ ब्रह्म॑णे धा॒रणं॑ मे अ॒स्त्वनि॑राकरणन्धा॒रयि॑ता भूयास॒ङ्कर्ण॑योश्श्रु॒तं मा च्योढ्वं॒ ममा॒मुष्य॒ ओम्|
“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)
3. Written 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 manuscripts difficult.
4. If 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.
5. It 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.
6. Since 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.
Even 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
The 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
1. Since there is no written material, there are no punctuation marks. How do you demarcate a complex sentence?
2. How does one ensure correct pronunciation?
3. How 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)
4. Also important, how to preserve accents from being corrupted?
5. When chanting how to correct other people on the fly?
6. How does one correct accents if they are wrongly learnt?
7. How does one split sentence correctly?
8. How does one indicate starting of a sentence and ending of a sentence
9. How are grammatical peculiarities/abnormalities indicated?
10. How to apply mantras in shrauta rituals. This is also very important as they will change as per situation.
These 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
Swaras 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 the former.
Basically 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 tones.
1. Udatta: 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)
2. Anudatta: Syllables 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 anudatta notes
3. Swarita: Pronounced 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 notes.
I 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.
1. All 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 as sambodhana 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”.
3. The 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 नमो॒ नमः॑. 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. नमो॒ नमः॑|. This is a very common rule and occurs very frequently.
4. Whenever 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
इ॒मम्। मे॒ ।व॒रु॒ण॒
Now we construct the samhita from the above rule. Note the train of anudattas after मम्. 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 इ॒मं मे॑ वरुण. 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”.
Now 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
When 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: अग्ने॒ नय॑ सु॒पथा॑ रा॒ये. 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 ता वि॑ष्णो पाहि पा॒हि य॒ज्ञम्पा॒हि. 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 2nd पा॒हि. This means, that ता वि॑ष्णो पाहि is one sentence and the next sentence begins with पा॒हि य॒ज्ञम्पा॒हि. The student should be able to grasp this in the oral traditions based on accent changes.
Think then how deep his concentration and grasping abilities should be.
Use of swaras to preserve meanings across different Vedas and the pratishakya literature
Let us take the Pursha Sukta occurring in the Taittriya shaka, in the Aranyaka ,3rd prashna 12th anuvaka, 35 verse.
तेन॑ दे॒वा अय॑जन्त
Here note the word अय॑जन्त. It is a kriya pada meaning “They 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 इ॒मं मे॑ वरुण. 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.
Swaras 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 it as
"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 prachaya)"
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.
There 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” meaning “May 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.
Techniques 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 current one.
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 " इ॒षे त्वो॒र्जे त्वा॑ ", 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.
Ensuring 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 स एकः॑| 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 स एकः॑ 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.
The use of the word इति॒
The 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 नम॑स्ते रुद्र म॒न्यव॑ उ॒तो त॒ इष॑वे॒ नमः॑ ।. This occurs in the 4th kanda 5th prashna(The Rudram as is popularly known) in the first line. The krama for this is
नम॑स्ते । ते॒ रु॒द्र॒ । रु॒द्र॒ म॒न्यवे । म॒न्यव॑ उ॒तो । उ॒तो ते । उ॒तो इत्यु॒तो । त॒ इष॑वे । इष॑वे॒ नमः॑ ।नम॒ इति॒ नमः॑ ।
Note 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 नम॑स्ते रुद्र म॒न्यव॑ त॒ इष॑वे॒ नमः॑ ।
नमः॑ । ते॒ । रु॒द्र॒ । म॒न्यवे । उ॒तो इति॑ । ते॒ । इष॑वे । नमः॑ ।
नमः॑ । ते॒ । रु॒द्र॒ । म॒न्यवे । उ॒तो इति॑ । ते॒ । इष॑वे । नमः॑ ।
The 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 called prakriti 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 many Brahmavits 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.