Monthly Archives: August 2020

Atharva Veda, the Veda of the Masses

The Atharva Veda is a collection of 730 hymns divided into twenty chapters. This Veda is associated with mythic fire priests of prehistoric antiquity, Atharvan and Angiras and later Bhrigu resulting in this Veda being named Atharvangirasah and Bhrgvangirasah. As about half of its hymns is attributed to sage Atharvan this Veda is also known by the name Atharva Veda. In the matter of the total number of mantras and suktas compiled in the four samhitas, the Atharva Veda stands next only to Rig Veda. S.N.Dasgupta presumes that a good number of Atharvanic hymns were composed even before the composition of Rigvedic hymns as never probably in the history of India was there any time when people did not take to charms and incantations for curing diseases or repelling calamities and injuring enemies; the main subject of Atharva Veda. However, by the time the Atharva Veda was compiled in its present form some new hymns were incorporated with it, the philosophical character of which does not tally with the outlook of the majority of the hymns.

Authors of the Atharva Veda

Unlike the three Vedas of the Trayi which derive their names from the nature of the composition, Atharva Veda derive the name from their authors, namely Atharvan, Angirasa and Bhrigu.

The name Atharvan occurs about fourteen times in the Rig Veda. He generally appears in the character of an ancient priest. He appears as the first enkindler of fire and also as the founder of the cult of sacrifice. The Atharvans also probably initiated the Soma sacrifice. In the Atharva Veda, the Atharvans are referred to as medicine men.

Sage Angiras is often referred to in the Vedas by the seers as their ancient father. He is closely connected with the production of fire and the inauguration of the fire cult. The word Angiras occurs about ninety times in the Rig Veda and sometimes occurs as an epithet of Agni or of Indra. Angiras was a great and enthusiastic religious reformer. He preached the doctrine of tirtha yatra (journey to sacred places) and upavasa (fasting) as easier substitute for the cumbrous Vedic sacrifices.

The Bhrigus or Bhargavas claim descent from the primeval rishi Bhirgu. The earliest Bhrgu mentioned in the Puranas are Chyavana and Shukra, the latter being the guru of the Asuras. The members of Angiras and Bhrigu families originally formed a single unit and were great philosophers, leaders and religious teachers. The Atharvanic texts represents an attempt of the Brahmanic orthodoxy led by the Angirasas and Bhrigus to enlist the sympathy of the masses whose beliefs and traditions are faithfully recorded in the Atharva Veda. The Bhrigus and Angirasas were jointly responsible for the final redaction of the Mahabharata and supported the Vaishnava religion and used the Mahabharata as a vehicle of instructing the people in the new and simplified forms of the Vedic religion devised by them.

The Rituals of Atharva Veda

While trayi is connected with srauta ceremonies with oblation of Soma, the Atharva Veda is about rites where oblation other than Soma was poured into the fire. The rituals of the Atharva Veda fall broadly under four classes namely-

  • Shantika– rituals performed for mitigating evil and creating an atmosphere of good.

  • Paushtika– rituals performed for the attainment of plenty and prosperity.

  • Adbhuta– rituals performed for warding off evils from unseen agencies and

  • Abhicharika– rituals performed for warding off evils from enemies.

The rituals of the first and second classes are performed with the aid of mantras. The rituals of the third and fourth classes are intended for special use under special circumstances.

Contents of Atharva Veda

With regards to the contents, the Atharva Veda presents a remarkably rich variety of contents from subtle philosophical speculation to refreshing medicinal references. According to S.C.Banerji, the Atharva Veda is an inestimable source of knowledge of the actual popular religion of ancient India. The Atharva Veda has information on astronomy, agriculture, polity and about the habits, customs and culture of the people of that times. It has medicinal charms to cure diseases and possesses a knowledge of anatomy. Hence Sushruta says that Ayurveda (the science of life) is an upanga of the Atharva Veda, while Vagbhatta the elder speaks of Ayurveda as a upaveda of Atharva Veda. This is because both the texts deal with the curing of diseases and attainment of long life; the Atharva Veda by incantations and charms and the Ayurveda by medicines. As Atharva Veda provides a good deal of information on statecraft and kingship it is considered as a base for Dandaniti. According to Lalan Prasad Singh, the Atharva Veda deals with the Tantric cult and covers all the branches of Tantrism. It is a compendium of Vidya Tantra which propagates the philosophy of Brahma Vada and Upavidya Tantra which deals about charms and sorceries. The Atharva Veda also contains much material in the form of worldly wisdom and in the Raghuvamsha, Kalidasa speaks of Vasishta as the receptacle of Atharva (wisdom). Here the wisdom has relation to finding out remedies for misfortune. The Atharva Veda is specially connected with the avoidance of sufferings.

Reluctance to accord Vedic status

Even up to the times of Ramayana or even Kalidasa, Vedatrayi referred to Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda and Atharva Veda was discarded from the group. For a long time, the followers of trayi had scant regard for Atharva Veda and its followers did not recognise the Atharvan text as a Veda. Even among the trayi, gradation was made in orthodox circles and the first place of importance was given to the Rig Veda. But Sayana was of the opinion that in sacrifices it is the Yajur Veda which stands prominent. But in the case of Atharva Veda all agreed that it is inferior to other three Vedas. The reason for meting out such a treatment to the Atharva Veda is that while the other three Vedas contain in them prayers and sacrificial formulae used in sacrifice, the Atharva Veda contains in it hymns which are devoid of all sacrificial utility. Another reason was because Atharva Veda contained matter of the nature to bless and to curse and to cure and cause diseases and hence its character was not wholly holy. Atharva Veda contains mantras to effect good as well as bad to the people and it was not regarded as a purely sacred text. Also, as the name of the seers who composed the Atharva Veda did not figure in the traditional lists of the Vedic seers (anukramanis), it was denied the status enjoyed by the trayi. According to Ksetreshacandra Chattopadhyaya, the reason for non recognition of the Atharva Veda as a Veda was because it was mainly concerned with shanti (removal of troubles) and pusti (aquisition of good things in life) and was the sphere of the Purohita (the domestic priest). Whereas the Rig Veda, Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda dealt with shrauta sacrifices for which the services of the hotr, udgatr and adhvaryu priests were needed. Hence the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda makes mention of the first three Vedas and not the Atharva Veda.

Attains the status of fourth Veda

To make their text a part of the Vedas, the Atharvans resorted to a two-fold strategy. First as in Yajur Veda and Sama Veda, they added hymns from the Rig Veda to their text. For instance, chapters like 14 and 18 of the Atharva Veda contains mantras from the tenth mandala of Rig Veda and chapter 20 contains complete hymns (borrowed from Rig Veda) addressed to Indra and relates to the Soma ritual, which is entirely foreign to the spirit of the Atharva Veda. Secondly, they began to glorify their text as Sarvavidya and tried to prove Atharva Veda superior to all other Vedas both in holiness and comprehensiveness. The Atharvavedis claimed that the Atharva Veda provides fruit in this world and also in the other world whereas the other three Vedas provide fruit only in the other world. Also, they claimed that the followers of trayi will reach the highest heaven whereas the Atharvans and Angirasas go beyond the great world of the Brahma. The Vaitana Sutra, the ritual text of Atharva Veda advises that only a person well versed in Atharva Veda be chosen as Brahman (the supervising priest in Vedic sacrifices) and he is given precedence over the hotr, adhvaryu and udgatr priests. Later under the influence of Atharva texts like Kaushika Sutra, the kings began to appoint priest (a wise Brahmin) as his councillor/adviser and he was an Atharvavedin as they were well versed in the art of charms and incantation and could protect the king and his people from all kinds of evils. These factors finally led Atharva Veda to be accorded the status of fourth Veda. It is true that Atharva Veda has been called the fourth Veda, but Ithihas-Purana which comes next has been mentioned as the fifth Veda and certainly Ithihas-Purana cannot be called a Veda. 

Popularity of Atharva Veda

The sacrificial rites of the Rig Veda were expensive and only the moneyed people could afford to perform them. Also, the Rig Vedic rites could not be expected to cure a man from jaundice, heart disease or fever. The Atharvanic priest brought the sacrificial technique within the reach of the people by simplifying its procedure. They introduced Sava sacrifices which were less elaborate, less expensive and were manageable by single individual and which gave the same fruit as the old Vedic sacrifices. According to Sayana the Atharva Veda was indispensable to kings for warding off their enemies and securing many other advantages and the royal priests had to be well versed in the Atharvanic practices. As these practices were mostly for the alleviation of the troubles of an ordinary householder, the grhya sutras drew largely from them. The Atharvavedis evolved and popularised the worship of the pitrs (manes) and through a special rite known as Vratyastoma, admitted the Vratyas (followers of a non-Vedic cult) into the Vedic fold.

The hold of the Atharvanic charms on the mind of the people was probably very strong since they had occasion to use them in all their daily concerns. Even now when the Rigvedic sacrifices have become extremely rare, the use of Atharvanic charms and of their descendants, the Tantric charms of comparative later times, is very common amongst all classes of Hindus. A very large part of the income of the priestly class is derived from the performance of auspicious rites (svastyayana), purification penance (prayashcitta) and oblations (homa) for curing chronic and serious illness, winning law suit, alleviating sufferings, securing a male issue to the family, cursing an enemy and the like. Amulets are used almost as freely as they were three or four thousand years ago and snake charms and charms for dog bite and others are still in vogue.

Status of Atharva Veda at present

The Atharva Veda existed in nine recensions namely Paippaladah, Staudah, Maudah, Shaunaka, Jaladah, Jajala, Brahmavada, Devadarsha and Caranavaidya. At present Atharva Veda is not widely followed by any section of people in India except in some pockets in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh who are the followers of Shaunaka text while that of Paippalada text has followers in Odisha. Even present-day Brahmins regard the Atharvavedis inferior to themselves and do not dine with them. A report in The Hindu dated 3rd October 2015 mentions that there are just around ten qualified scholars and 100 to 120 learners of Atharva Veda in India and reports about a patashala in Tiruchanur in Andhra Pradesh where only Atharva Veda is taught.


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