Demythologizing the Historic Krishna

Sri Krishna the hero of the Yadavas and counselor of the Pandavas was the main character in the epic Mahabharatha.  If not for his teachings contained in the Bhagavad Gita, now a part of Mahabharatha, the said epic would have been a bland story of a quarrel between cousin brothers. In the annals of ancient Indian history, Krishna possessed a unique personality. A master political strategist, he refused to ascend the throne of Mathura, though it was the wish and plea of his fellowmen1. Krishna was a master of various arts like the art of healing2 and in the art of driving chariots3. He was also a good singer and musician4. He invented a new weapon; the Sudharshan Chakra5. Krishna was the first socio-religious reformer of India who questioned the significance of the dry rituals of the Vedas6 and in its place founded an egalitarian and universally applicable religion called Bhagavatism7. Its philosophy now contained in the Bhagavad Gita teaches paths to salvation through selfless action (karmayoga), devotion (bhaktiyoga) and meditation (dhanyayoga). In fact the vast literature known as Upanishads, which the whole world admires, contains the teachings of Bhagavad Gita as its kernel8.

But over the centuries, various myths were built around Krishna’s personality with some of the events associated with him being exaggerated and interpolated with stories which blemished his character. Some of his views/opinions on statecraft and ethics were also appropriated and its credit given to other historical characters9. In this article, an attempt has been made to demythologize some of the myths associated with Krishna and to find the reason behind this act of interpolating his history with absurdities.

Critical evaluation of Sources

Is it possible to write objectively on Krishna’s history? Yes if we critically evaluate the sources which give us information about him, namely the Puranas and the epic, Mahabharatha.  First we will critically examine the Puranas. Amara Simha in his lexicon Amarakosa spoke of the five characteristics which Puranas possessed, namely-

  1. Sarga- about creation;
  2. Pratisarga- about recreation;
  3. Vamsa- genealogy of gods and sages;
  4. Manvantara- cosmic cycles and
  5. Vamsanucharita- accounts of royal dynasties.

Except for the Vishnu Purana, none of the present Puranas have these five characteristics10.

By the middle of 4th century A.D. the Puranas gradually began to lose their original character and turned into important codes of Hindu rites and customs by including chapters on varnashramadharma, achara, shraddha, prayashichita, dana, puja, vrata, thirtha, diksha, utsarga, etc11.  Consequently the accounts of the genealogies of kings and sages were little cared for and often fabricated. People also took absolute liberty in making changes in the text resulting in the increase of textual corruption in the Puranas12.

With regards to information on Krishna, except for the Vishnu Purana, Brahma Purana, Bhagavata Purana and Brahma Vaivarta Purana, the story of Krishna is very briefly told in the other Puranas and their accounts is in no way different from those given in the first four Puranas named above13. Even among these four Puranas, the original Brahma Vaivarta Purana is lost and the present Brahma Vaivarta Purana is a modern creation of some enthusiastic religious scholar14, while the Bhagavata Purana is based on some other older Purana15. Coming to the Brahma Purana, the account of Krishna given in this Purana and Vishnu Purana is identical word for word in 26 chapters. This means that both the Puranas have quoted these 26 chapters narrating the career of Krishna from some other older work16. As Vishnu Purana is the only one which has retained some characteristics which a Purana should possess as mentioned by Amara Simha, only this Purana can be relied for reconstructing the history of Krishna.

Coming to the Mahabharatha, Vyasa had composed only the essence of Mahabharatha comprising 8800 shlokas and that work was known as Jaya. Vaishampayana added a few verse of his own and brought the number of shlokas to 24,000 and gave the book the name, Bharata Samhita. It was Suta who made many more addition and made the book so big as to fetch it the name Mahabharatha. It took perhaps centuries to get this transformation of the book from Jaya to Mahabharatha17.

Hence on the nucleus of the family feud of the Kauravas and Pandavas, in its present form the  Mahabharatha contains myths and legends pertaining to Brahmanical philosophy, ethics and law stressing the superiority of Brahmins, myths of Vishnu and Siva, fables, parables, fairy tales and moral stories18. With regards to information on Krishna, he appears for the first time in the epic at the svayamvara of Draupadi where he had come from Dwaraka and the epic is silent as to his earlier life. This is because the Mahabharatha is principally concerned itself with the history of the Bharatas. The Harivamsha which forms the supplement of Mahabharatha deals exhaustively and exclusively with the life and history of Krishna on which the Mahabharatha is silent19.

A critical study of the Harivamsha reveals that the descriptions of things in the Vishnu Purana are all expanded in the Harivamsha. The Harivamsha is a later work than Vishnu Purana and the story of Krishna that it gives is apparently borrowed from Vishnu Purana20.

Hence it is quite apparent that the works such as the Puranas and the Mahabharatha were made the vehicles by various enthusiastic writers of different cults at different times to promulgate their own dogmas and doctrines. They became the store houses of writings of all sorts of men of all shades of opinions, nay of any and everyone who thought that he had written something clever. From big books to single couplets, everything was thrust into them by every sort and grade of men who desired to publish their composition and to secure for them a wide circle of readers21.

Therefore the story of Krishna’s life is chiefly found in the Vishnu Purana and the Mahabharatha; one about the early life and the other about his later life. But both of them in their present form are mixed with annals, legends and fictions22. But by putting the searching light of history, analysis and logic, it would not be difficult to find out which portions of it are fictions and stories and which are after-interpolations23.

Why interpolation/slander of Krishna took place?

Bhagavatism the religion founded by Krishna was not very favourably inclined towards the varnashramadharma and the Brahmins. This religion freely admitted women, shudras and even foreigners into its fold.24 And from about the beginning of the 5th century A.D. if not earlier, the Vaishnavas (Bhagavatas and Pancharatras) and probably the Shaivas came to be influenced by Tantricism. It is not yet definitely known how and when Tantricism arouse but that it is of considerable antiquity cannot be denied. Tantricism was purely of non-Vedic in origin and its ideas and practices were also non-Vedic. In its early character it did not seem to have recognized the varnashramadharma and the authority of the Vedas25. The ideas, rites and practices of Pancharatras (the aagamic literature of the Vaishnavas), aagamic Shaivas and the Tantriks amply testify to their non-Brahminical or rather anti- Brahmanical character. These sectarian faiths discouraged priesthood, and its rituals which were all non-Vedic affected the Brahmins very seriously26 (in terms of their livelihood). The rise and propagation of these rival faiths proved very fatal to the sacrificial religion of the Vedas which was already on the decline27. To reestablish the varnashramadharma and the authority of the Vedas, the Brahmins introduced smrti materials into the Mahabharatha and the Puranas28.

The varnashramadharma and Vedic rituals must have had been proved quite sophisticating, stifling for all and sundry of the ancient Indian society. The people and society was wallowing in the grip of superstitions, rituals and cumbersome process of prestation society. Moreover, the priestly class must have had been interfering in every walk of life as they had woven such intricate web of ‘dry rituals’ in each and every aspect of individual and collective life that it might have had been quite exasperating. The rigid and stratified social order might have had been proving to be anathema to the progress and development. Krishna had not only broken the backbone of this prestation society by establishing a monotheistic sect Bhagavata and propounding Samkya yoga, but also virtually abolished the varnashramadharma and the stratification thereof. The Samkya Yoga and Bhagavat Sect that Krishna founded had led to the loss of power and privilege of the priestly classes. He punished and dethroned anti-people, cruel and selfish kings and emphasized on debate and discussion, making ruling elites sensitive to public opinion29.

Krishna had ushered in social revolution by stopping the worship of serpents, ghost and superstitious figures like Indra30. Krishna had become the biggest threat to the two classes or castes of Indian society- social and political elites (priestly and political class). He gave an open challenge to the priestly class by opposing the system of worshiping based on fear and greed (of getting heaven or birth in a rich and prosperous family) and terming Vedas and Vedic ritual as obstruction instead31. Hence they (priestly and political class) started the greatest farce of the humanity. Gita was distorted, Krishna was mystified and made god so that nobody could dare to repeat his great acts. There were many insertion made in the Gita related to the varnashrama based caste system which was against the very principle and values of Krishna. The Avatar system was concocted to prevent any repetition of Krishna like acts by any human being in future32.

Interpolation also took place as the authors who revised the Puranas and epics wanted to make them amusing and interesting to the masses before whom they were recited and sung. Hence fanciful and poetic descriptions and extraordinary miracles were added to them over the years33.

The priests of Shiva were the last to retouch the Mahabharatha and as there is as much Shaivism in the Mahabharatha as there is Vaisnavism; sectarian rancor may have been responsible for inventing some incidents and darkening the character of Krishna34.

Myths on Krishna decoded

Now we shall scrutinize some of the myths/exaggerated accounts related to Krishna’s life mentioned in the Puranas and Mahabharatha and through logic and critical analysis find the actual facts.

Myth– Putana a rakshasi was deputed by Kamsa to kill Krishna. She went to his house in disguise as a gopa woman and fed him on her breasts. But Krishna the child extracted her life also with her breast milk and she assumed her original form and fell down dead35.

Fact– During his childhood Krishna was attacked with a fatal disease named Putana which has been referred by Susruta in his work Uttara Tantra, chapter 27 and 3736.

Myth– A fierce serpent called Kaliya lived in Kalindi. The trees on the banks of the river were withered and dried up on account of the poisonous breadth emitted by him. One day the Gopalas and their cattle drank water in the Kalindi and fell down dead. Krishna then jumped into the river, fought with kaliya, who being defeated begged for mercy. At the instance of Krishna, Kaliya with his family left the place37.

Fact– At Vrindavana lived a settlement of Nagas whose chief was Kaliya. The Gopas were in great fear of the fierce Nagas. Krishna challenged the Naga chief to a single combat and in a fierce encounter defeated Kaliya. Krishna then commanded him to leave the forest which the Nagas did38.

Myth– Once Krishna picked up the clothes of Gopa women bathing in Yamuna river39.

Fact– The incident of Krishna removing the clothes of the maidens when they were bathing described in the Bhagavata Purana is the creations of the author of Bhagavata Purana according the Dhirendra Nath Pal40. Whether this incident is fictitious or real, a more reasonable explanation which one can give is that having seen some maidens bathing all naked in river Yamuna, Krishna collected their clothes lying under a tree and placed it up in the tree. Later when the maidens expressed their regrets; Krishna returned their clothes with a warning not to repeat the act of bathing naked in public places41.

Myth– The people of Vrindavana used to perform yajna every year in favour of Indra for rainfall. Krishna opposed it and instead asked them to worship mount Govardhana. Angered by this Indra let loose heavy rains on Vrindavana. Krishna uprooted and held mount Govardhana like an umbrella and people took shelter under it. Beaten at this own game, Indra sang the praises of Krishna, came and saluted him42.

Fact– It is impossible to believe that a boy of ten years of age or for that matter any being in human form could have lifted a mountain and held it on his finger. Probably Krishna might have dug a big cave in which his people and cattle took shelter during the rains. It might be an allegory signifying that the Indra worshippers finding their god slighted attacked the Gopas and made an attempt to destroy their new sacrifice and that Krishna in this armed attack protected the hill on which the Gopas took shelter43. It is also probable that there occurred heavy during the time of the yajna which flooded the Yamuna and Govardhana. Krishna while grazing cattle near the Govardhana Mountain might have gained good knowledge about the terrain of the said mountain which had large caves there. At the time of the floods, Krishna shifted the residents to the caves in Govardhana and saved them. For that he was given the title, ‘Giridhar’44.

Myth– At the advent of spring the melody of Krishna’s flute rendered the Gopa women lovelorn. Gopa women both married and unmarried mad with love roamed about Vrindavana with Radha calling ‘o Krishna’, ‘o Krishna’. Krishna appeared, entered the waters of Yamuna with them and satisfied them45.

Fact– Raasa means simply a dance. Sridhara Swami the great commentator of the Bhagavata, thus explains the word. ‘It is a circular dance of men and women by holding one another’s hand’. Such dances were very popular amongst the people in which Krishna was born. There was nothing wrong in these amusements and none was charged with carnality who joined in them. Hence the Raasa leela of Krishna is nothing but the innocent sports of merry boys and girls at Vrindavana. Krishna was a mere boy about eleven years of age when these sports were held. It is possible for a boy of eleven to entertain any idea of carnality? When Krishna was most foully abused by Shishupala, he was never charged by him with sensuality. If Krishna really did what some of the Puranas wanted us to believe, he would not have been spared by Shishupala. Nowhere in the Mahabharatha, which is a much earlier work than any one of the Puranas, have we found Krishna described as a man of lewd character46.

Radha is a poetical creation. She is not to be found in the Mahabharatha, or in Vishnu Purana or Harivamsha or Bhagavata ⃰. Perhaps she is the creation of the author of the original Brahma Vaivarta Purana which is now lost. It is possible that the author of this Purana picked up one of the many gopa maidens who sported with Krishna in the Vrindavana and giving her a name, he painted her in the highest flight of poesy. Since then innumerable poets have used their great powers to develop the character of Radha. Her love for Krishna has been painted as the highest development of devotional love of the human soul for the supreme one47. Bhasa in his two dramas Balacharita and Panchasatra refers to Hallisaka dance of the cowherd boys and girls. The latter’s names are Ghosa, Sundari, Vanamala, Candrarekha and Mrigaksi and Radha is conspicuous by her absence even in Harivamsha and Vishnu Purana48.

Myth– Krishna went to Pragjyotisa the kingdom of Narakasura, defeated him and released his 16,000 daughters from captivity. After returning to Dwaraka along with them, Krishna assumed the guise of 16,000 men and married these 16,000 girls49.

Fact– In the Mahabharatha, Harivamsha, Vishnu Purana and other Puranas there are many accounts of Krishna’s various wars. But they are narratives, full of extraordinary descriptions and it would be mere waste of time to make an attempt to pick up from them any historical facts and this include the story of Krishna’s war with Narakasura and his rescuing and marrying the sixteen thousand women imprisoned by Naraka50.

But some historians who believe in this story opine that it is not sixteen thousand but 16 wives of Narakasura whom Krishna married. According to them sixteen thousands of the Puranas mean 16 only. Shata and sahasra (100 and 1000) are very often meaningless addition in the Vedic parlance51. This story is also interpreted in another way where Narakasura is depicted as a dacoit who looted brides and marriage parties. Krishna killed him and liberated all the women. But neither their parents nor husbands were willing to accept them. Krishna told the Yadavas to take these women so that they get a home and a name for their children. But none agreed. Hence Krishna married them and gave them a home. Thus he set an example for the relatives of these women who are raped and are then left alone either to commit suicide or to become a prostitute52.

Myth– Krishna had 80 sons, ten each born to his eight wives namely Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Satya, Bhadra and Lakshana53.

Fact– The list of wives of Krishna given in the various chapters of Vishnu Purana and Harivamsha differs in numbers and names. Except Rukmini and Satyabhama none of these wives ever appear on the scene of action. Satyabhama appears only once or twice, but those places of the Puranas or Mahabharatha in which she appears are apparently interpolations. Again none of the sons of these wives except of Rukmini and Jambhavati is to be met with in any period of Krishna’s life. Jambhavati was a bear’s daughter and therefore it is impossible to believe that she gave birth to a human being. It is said this son Samba carried away the daughter of Duryodhana name Lakshana. This story is mentioned only in the Puranas; no mention is made of it in the Mahabharatha. If this story had any truth in it, it must have a place in the Mahabharatha which is the history of Duryodhana and the Kurus. Rukmini’s son Pradumna however is present all through Krishna’s career. It is his grandson, Vajra, who finally ascended the throne of the Vrisnis. Under the circumstances we shall not be very wrong if we doubt the very existence of any other wives of Krishna except Rukmini54.

Myth– Krishna taught Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna on the eve of the battle at Kurukshetra.

Fact– It is hard to believe that the armies of Pandavas and Kauravas were waiting till Krishna recited the eighteen adhyayas (chapters) of Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna55. As we know the Gita is in verse form and nowhere have we found people talking in verse. It is nowhere mentioned in the Mahabharatha that the Rishi Vyasa was present when Krishna told it to Arjuna or when Sanjaya recited it to the king Dhritarashtra. Thus we can by no means trace the Gita as it now exists to Krishna56. Moreover the present Gita contains innumerable interpolations and grafting of Brahmanical discourses, particularly in respect of Vedic authority, rituals and varnasharama. This has distorted the Gita and has transformed it into a confusing treatise with several passages contradictory with one another. How could the same Krishna adhere to the supremacy of the Vedas and the Vedic rituals which he considered as obstruction for, liberation57?

It has also been proved by many great oriental scholars that the present Gita is a work written many years subsequent to the time when the original Mahabharatha was written. But by whomsoever written it was written based on the teachings of Sri Krishna. Krishna delivered a lecture to the Pandavas just before the great battle and Vyasa must have briefly mentioned it in the original Mahabharatha he wrote. It was quite natural that Arjuna and the Pandavas should be filled with great despondency when they came face to face with their dearest friends and relatives whose death meant their victory. To remove this despondency Krishna had lectured them and this was briefly mentioned by Vyasa in the original Mahabharatha. A subsequent writer wrote the present Gita in verse based on these teachings. It is evident from the meager accounts that we get of Krishna in the Puranas and the Mahabharatha that he founded and preached a new religion; but neither the Puranas nor the Mahabharatha clearly say what it was. The little of his teachings that we meet with in the Puranas and the Mahabharatha leads one to conclude that his religion could not but be that which has been told in the Gita 58.

Myth– During the Mahabharatha war Drona was killed deceitfully on the advice of Krishna. It is written that when Krishna found it impossible for the Pandavas to kill Drona, he advised them to leave the path of righteousness and kill Drona by a most shameful stratagem. He advised them to go and tell Drona that his son Ashwathama was killed. It he hear this news, he would be overwhelmed with grief and he would surely give up arms. Arjuna flatly refused to do it but Yudhisthira hesitatingly agreed. Bhima then killed an elephant named Ashwathama and went to Drona and told him that his son was dead. Drone did not believe Bhima’s words and said that he would believe none except that embodiment of virtue, Yudhisthira. So Yudhisthira went and said-‘Ashwathama was dead’, adding in a low voice, ‘Ashwathama the elephant’. On hearing this Drona left his arms and Dhristadumna cut off his head59.

Fact-This story is a palpable fiction as it is impossible to believe that Yudhisthira who went to exile only to keep his word would tell a lie or Krishna who spoke of the Gita would advise him to do so. It is written in the Mahabharatha itself that Ashwathama obtained immorality by his asceticism. Drona was fully aware of it. It is not possible that he should take even Yudhisthira’s words as truth knowing fully well that his son could not die. It is also impossible that a man like Krishna should advise to say something which was in the face of it could not be taken as true. It is also impossible that Drona would not ask anyone of his party to enquire whether Ashwathama was really dead of not. Drona’s death was due to fatigue and his great religious devotion for which he gave up arms and concentrated his mind on god, determined to die instead of retiring from the field with ignominy and shame. This story was subsequently added to save the great Panchala dynasty from the reproach of their prince having killed a Brahman, – an act which in later age became one of the greatest sins amongst the Hindus 60.

It might be asked why this scandalous incident has been fastened on Krishna. It is very easy to explain. The answer would be ‘because he was God and to God, right or wrong, sin or virtue are all alike for nothing touches him’. The poetaster who made these foolish embellishments over the descriptions of great Vyasa has fastened on Krishna all wrongful acts done on the Pandava side; for the poor fellow thought that he would thereby save the reputation of the Pandavas without doing any harm to anybody; for nobody would blame Krishna for anything as he was the incarnation of God. Such writers have done the greatest possible injury to our great religion and great men61.

Myth– During his last days Krishna retired into the deepest forest and lay down on the ground with his feet raised. An asura called Jara mistaking Krishna’s raised feet for a deer, shot it with his arrow and Krishna expired. There is a story behind the reason why Krishna died after his feet was hit by an arrow. Once sage Durvasa went to Dwaraka as Krishna’s guest. One day he expressed his desire to taste pudding and accordingly was served the same. After tasting it Durvasa asked Krishna to smear his whole body with the leftover pudding. Krishna did so, except the region below his feet. Then Durvasa smeared the body of Rukmini with the remaining pudding, yoked her to a chariot, whipped her and rode on the streets of Dwaraka with Krishna running after him. After going some distance, Durvasa jumped out of the chariot and went to the forest. Before that he told Krishna that he was pleased with the service accorded to him by them and said that Rukmini would not be affected by old age and Krishna would never meet with death by being hit at those parts of his body which had been smeared with the pudding. As Krishna had not smeared his feet with the pudding, he was killed by the hunter’s arrow62.

Fact– This story is evidently an allegory. Jara means old age and Krishna died of old age in a forest63. With regards to the story of Durvasa smearing the body of Krishna and Rukmini with pudding we can easily make out that this is one among the numerous stories interpolated in the Mahabharatha to show that Brahmins had power to change the destiny of even Gods.

Need to bring critical editions on Krishna’s history

The teachings of Krishna contained in the Bhagavad Gita is universal in outlook and if we want to showcase his teachings to the world then we have to first expunge all absurdities and silly fables interpolated in the literary sources providing information about his life and times. Even the Gita which has been interpolated with contradictory statements has to be critically edited.

One reason why fables were interpolated and incidents exaggerated by editors of Puranas and epics was to amuse the masses to whom these were recited. But now times have changed and with access to modern education and information available at the touch of their fingertips, people no longer believe in things which defy commonsense and logic. Moreover all these texts are being translated into English and other languages of the world. If absurdities and silly descriptions contained in these texts are not removed, Hindus stand exposed in the world as those who are immature and believe in cock and bull stories.

By not bringing critical editions of the Puranas and the epics we are providing ammunitions to Hindu baiters who ridicule historic Hindu personalities and sages by citing the information provided in the Puranas and epics. It is no use blaming Marxists for depicting Hindu society in poor light as they do so by quoting the Puranas and epics.

Today only a minuscule percentage of Brahmins have priesthood as their calling. Majority of them have foraged into different professions. Just for the sake of protecting their main source of livelihood, that is through gifts (dana and dakshina) the Brahmins of yore had written about the merits of giving gifts to Brahmins and also about their superior status in the society in the Puranas and epics. Times have now changed and it is high time we get rid of these additions to make the Puranas and epics as the true history books of ancient India.

Compared to Muslims and Christians, the present Hindu society is not cohesive. The main reason is the caste system, in which some caste groups consider themselves as superior to other castes. This illusion of superiority among the upper castes especially the Brahmins is mainly due its reference in the Puranas and epics which majority of them believe as divinely sanctioned. They are not aware of the fact that these books have been revised several times by common people and unscrupulous men with ulterior motives had interpolated them with falsehoods.  The castes so considered as the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy fall easy prey to missionaries who take advantage of this schism in the Hindu society to convert them to their respective faiths. These missionaries in fact make use of the Puranas and epics which depict the Shudras and women in poor light to propagate their faiths in bright colours and claim that their faiths stand for equality.


  1. During the time of Krishna, it was a practice for a person who dethroned a king to ascend the vacant throne. In the history of ancient India we find none who did not avail himself of this privilege except Krishna. For a cow herd boy to withstand the great temptation of becoming a king and to refuse the supplications of the whole Yadu race bespoke a strong will. Cited in Dhirendra Nath Pal- Sri Krishna- His Life and Teachings, Published by C.C.Basak, The Research Home, Calcutta, 1923, p. 84.
  2. Ibid, p.76
  3. Ibid, p.386
  4. Ibid, p.48
  5. The chief weapon of Krishna was a discus- a circular steel instrument with sharp edges all round which he used to throw at the enemy by whirling it on his finger. It was a tremendous weapon of offence. Ibid, pp:207,208
  6. Krishna was opposed to the sacerdotalism of the Vedic religion and preached the doctrines which he had learnt from Ghora Angirasa. His opposition to the Vedic cult comes out in passages where Indra when vanquished humbled himself before Krishna. S.Radhakrishnan, The Bhagavad Gita, George Allen & Unwin (India) Pvt Ltd, 1971, p.29.
  7. There is a consensus among scholars in favour of the view that Krishna, a warrior chief and religious teacher of the Yadava clan founded in ancient India a monotheistic religious system called Bhagavata or Sattvata Dharma. The cult gained momentum and flourished steadily and Krishna the nucleus of the cult was apotheosized even before 5th century B.C. Janmajit Roy- Theory of Avatara & Divinity of Chaitanya, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2002, p. 26.
  8. Bhagavad Gita contains a total synthetic view of life and it would be more reasonable to accept the kernel of the teachings of Bhagavad Gita as forerunner of the vast class of literature known as Upanishad. Ibid, p.132
  9. Bhishma’s wisdom on the statecraft, war, thumb of the rules for conducting the stately affairs, the pro-people, just equalitarian rule and related subjects as imparted to Yudhisthira after his coronation as king of Hastinapur after the great war while he was lying on deathbed seem to be that of Krishna’s appropriated to the patriarch, perhaps to counter balance the latter. This also seems to be interpolation as to how a dying man could preach such wisdom and ideas on the statecraft. Moreover his teachings seem to be more of Krishna’s than that of Bhishma. Gopal Chowdhary – The Greatest Farce of History, Partridge India, 2014, p. 114
  10. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, pp: xv, xvi
  11. Rajendra Chandra Hazra- Studies in the Puranic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 1987, p.6
  12. Ibid, p.7
  13. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p. xxiii
  14. Ibid, p. xxiv
  15. Ibid, p. xxv
  16. Ibid,
  17. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, p.122
  18. D.Pusalker- The Epic and Puranas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1955, p. xxi
  19. Ibid, p.58
  20. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p. xxvi
  21. Ibid, pp: xxxi, xxxii
  22. Ibid, pp: xxiii, xxxiv
  23. Ibid, p. ix
  24. Rajendra Chandra Hazra- Op.cit, pp: 199, 200
  25. Ibid, p.218
  26. Ibid, p. 225
  27. Ibid, p. 194
  28. Ibid, p. 213
  29. Gopal Chowdhary – Op.cit, p. 203
  30. Ibid, p. 56
  31. Ibid, p.107
  32. Ibid, p. 154
  33. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p. xlix
  34. D.Pusalker- Op.cit, p. 60
  35. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p. 421
  36. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, pp:25,26; A.D.Pusalker- Op.cit, p. 68
  37. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p. 422
  38. D.Pusalker- Op.cit, p. 69; According to Dhirendra Nath Pal, Kaliya was a thief of the wild men who was driven out of Vrindavan by Krishna (p.43)
  39. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p. 423
  40. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p.67
  41. P.Mittal- History of Ancient India (4250 B.C.-637 A.D.) Vol- II, , Atlantic Publishers and distributors, New Delhi, 2006, p.434
  42. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p.423
  43. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, pp:60,61
  44. P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.433
  45. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p. 423
  46. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, pp:68,69

⃰ Though traditional pandits try to find veiled references to Radha in the Bhagavata Purana, it is seen that the name occurs for the first time in the 9th century A.D. and that the Radha worship is a late growth in Bhagavatism. A.D.Pusalker- Op.cit, p. 81

  1. Ibid, p.70
  2. Venkatakrishna Rao – Krishna’s story in its various settings, QJMS, vol- XLIX, 1958, No.1, p.28
  3. Vettam Mani-Op.cit, p. 426
  4. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p.105
  5. C.Singhal and Roshan Gupta- The Ancient History of India, Vedic Period, a New Interpretation, Atlantic Publishers and distributors, New Delhi, 2003, pp:196,197
  6. P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.444
  7. Vettam Mani-Op.cit, p. 426
  8. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, pp:98,99
  9. Prof Vrinda Nabar and Shanta Tumkur- The Bhagavad Gita, Translated from the Sanskrit- Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997, p.XIII
  10. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p. 285
  11. Gopal Chowdhary – Op.cit, pp:99,110
  12. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, pp:285-287
  13. Ibid, pp:415,416
  14. Ibid, pp:416,418
  15. Ibid, p. 418
  16. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p. 429
  17. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p.450



Institution of Marriage in Ancient India

It is held by many scholars that the human race must have originally lived in a state of promiscuity, where individual marriage did not exist, where all the men in a horde or tribe had indiscriminate access to all the women and where the children born of these unions belonged to the community at large. A passage in the Mahabharatha describes in detail how such a state of things existed in Indian society till it was prohibited by a sage named Shwetaketu who was shocked beyond measure to find his own mother going out with a stranger in the presence and with the full approval of his own father.

Marriage a Divine Sacrament

But during Rig Vedic period the institution of marriage was strongly planted. According to the Rig Veda the purpose of marriage was to enable a man, by becoming a householder, to perform sacrifice to the gods and to procreate sons. Marriage (Vivaha) was one of the sacred sacraments which every individual had to undergo and was also the second stage, Grihasthashrama (householder) among the four stages of life prescribed in the Ashrama dharma. The term dampati used in the Rig Vedic period designates the mistress as well as the master of the house that is both husband and wife.

In ancient India marriage was a medium for bringing together the two distinct halves of life, man and woman. Husband and wife were not two separate entities capable of division, but two halves constituting an entire, single organic whole. It was in their wholeness that perfect humanity could manifest itself. During those times the family rather than the individual was regarded as the social and political unit and hence marriage was regarded as a sacrament. According to ancient Hindus marriage is not a temporary contract to serve the momentary physical demand or to enjoy good company for some time and then to lapse at the slightest inconvenience. It is a permanent union which stands various vicissitudes in life only to grow stronger and more stable. The primary function of marriage was the continuity of the race through the procreation of children and to ensure transmission of the cultural heritage. Marriage was regarded as a sacred religious union brought about by divine dispensation.

Criteria for selecting a bridegroom

Several factors like having intelligence, good character, good health and wealth were taken into consideration while choosing a bridegroom. Also other aspects like a bridegroom being a celibate and having the support of relatives and friends were taken into account. Kaatyaayana says that a bridegroom who is lunatic, guilty of grave sins, leprous, impotent, belonging to same gotra, bereft of eyesight or hearing, an epileptic should be avoided. Mahabharatha observes that friendship and marriage should take place between those alone whose wealth is similar and whose learning (in families) is of equal status, not between rich and poor.

Criteria for selecting a bride

Rules for the selection of the bride was far more elaborate than those for selecting a bridegroom though in some respect they are the same like the necessity of good family and absence of disease. Aasvalaayana Gruhasutra says one should marry a girl who is endowed with intelligence, beauty, good health and possessing auspicious characteristics. Kamasutra recommends that the bride must be younger than the bridegroom by at least three years, a virgin and of the same caste. An undesirable bride was one who had tawny (orange-brown or yellowish-brown colour) hair, excessive limb (such as a sixth finger or a deficient limb), who is hairless or very hairy, talkative, have a hoarse voice, very dwarfish or very tall, belonging to the same gotra as of the bridegroom and having dimple on her cheeks when she laughed. Manu, Manava Gruhyasutra and Yajnavalkyasmriti say that the girl to be chosen must not be brother less. This was because during ancient times when a man had no son, he would stipulate with the person marrying his daughter that the son born to her would be his (i.e. the girl’s father’s) son and would offer pindas as a son to his maternal grandfather. The result would be that the son of such a girl would not be able to offer pindas to his father (biological father) and would not continue the line of his father (biological father). Therefore brother less maidens were not chosen as brides.

Tallying of horoscope

Tallying of horoscopes played no part in the settlement of marriage in ancient India. The Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras nowhere suggest or recommend that horoscopes of the parties should be consulted before deciding their marriage. The reason was during those days the science of astrology was in its infancy and made it progress only during 400-900 A.D. A reference to parents of brides consulting an astrologer for the marriage of their wards occurs perhaps for the first time in the 7th century work Dasakumaracharita.

Custom of Dowry

In prehistoric times women were regarded as chattel and so it was the bride’s father and not the bridegroom’s who was regarded as justified in demanding a payment at the time of marriage. The bridegroom carried away the bride and deprived her family of her services and hence he could not have dreamt of demanding dowry or donation. Therefore dowry was unknown in ancient India. Among rich and royal families gifts were used to be given to son-in-laws at the time of marriage. They were voluntarily given out of pure affection. The dowry system is connected with the conception of marriage as dana or gift. A religious gift in kind is usually accompanied by a gift in cash or gold. So the gift of the bride also was accompanied by a small gift in cash or ornament. It is only medieval times and in Rajputana that we find the dowry system assuming alarming proportions, however happened only in the case of royal and aristocratic families (13th -14th century A.D.) But during the last 150 years the dowry system has assumed scandalous proportions.


The word Stridhan is derived from stri, woman and dhan, property and means literally woman’s property. Stridhan consisted of movable property like utensils, ornaments and apparel that was given to the bride at the time of marriage. According to Manu and Yajnavalkya, Stridhan usually consisted of gifts received from near relations at any time and from non-relations at the time of marriage. By 1100 A.D. commentators like Vijneshwara belonging to the Mitakshara School began to plead that all properties acquired by a woman like property acquired by inheritance, partition, etc. should be considered as Stridhan. However women were not allowed the right of disposal over this property and could only enjoy its income. The Dayabhaga School of Bengal did not accept this amplification of Stridhan, but it allowed women the right of disposal over Stridhan in the older and narrower sense of the term.

Marriageable Age

The age of marriage for both sexes varied considerably from age to age, from province to province and from caste to caste. A boy was to marry after he finished his Vedic studies which varied from 12, 24, 36 and 48 years or as much time as was necessary to master one Veda or a portion of it. Hence the earliest a boy could marry was at the age of 20 (Twelve years of study after his Upanayana ceremony which took place at the age of eight). Angiras says that the bride should be two, three or five years younger to the boy which means that the girls were married not before the age of fifteen. This was the trend during the Vedic age and continued till about 5th century B.C. The writers of Dharmasutras who flourished from 400 B.C. – 100 A.D. began to advise that marriage of girls should not be delayed after their puberty.

Causes for lowering the marriageable age of girls

  • The institute of nunnery in Jainism and Buddhism and the instances of several grown up maidens taking holy orders against their parents desire and some of them later falling from their high spiritual ideal must have strengthened the view of those who favoured marriages at about the time of puberty. If a girl is married before her personality is fully developed there was no danger of her joining a nunnery. We may therefore conclude that during the period 400 B.C.-100 A.D. the marriageable age was being gradually lowered and the tendency on the whole was to marry girls at about the time of puberty.
  • From about 200 A.D. pre puberty marriages became the order of the day. Yajnavalkya insists that girls should be married before their puberty. The analogy of Upanayana was also utilized for lowering the marriage age for girls. Smriti writers of the period 500-1000 A.D. began to encourage the marriage of girls at the age of eight as it was the same age for boys to undergo the Upanayana ceremony. Though during the Vedic period girls like boys used to undergo the Upanayana ceremony, over the period of time it was completely given up and marriage was prescribed as a substitute for Upanayana for girls.
  • The parents of lower section of the society where the custom of bride price was prevailing were the first to take advantage of the lowering the marriageable age of girls for their own selfish ends. Their example was followed by other classes.
  • The ramification of the caste system into hundreds of sub castes and the prohibition of inter caste marriages among them from about eighth and ninth century A.D. further accentuated the evil of child marriage. The selection of a suitable bridegroom was becoming progressively more difficult and parents did not like to take a risk of losing a good bridegroom at hand by postponing the marriage to a later date.
  • Sati system which had become popular also helped in this cause. If the father died and the mother followed him there would be at least a father-in-law to look after the young orphans if they were already married.
  • Joint family system and the satisfactory economic condition in the country favoured early marriage as the young couples were taken care off. It was also presumed that the girl could adjust with the family members of her husband and no chance of scandals would arise if married before puberty.

Types of Marriage

Grihyasutras, Dharmasutras and Smritis mention eight types of marriage. They were-

  • Brahma – In this type of marriage, the father used to invite a man learned in the Vedas to marry his daughter decked with garments and jewels.
  • Daiva – In this type of marriage, the person who organizes a sacrifice marries his daughter to the priest who had come to officiate at the sacrifice
  • Arsha – In this type of marriage, the father marries his daughter after receiving a cow and bull or a pair of it by the bridegroom
  • Prajapatya – In this form of marriage, the father after honouring the bridegroom gives his daughter and addresses both of them with the words- “may both of you perform your religious duties together”
  • Asura – In this type of marriage, the bridegroom willingly gives as much wealth as he can afford to the bride and her kinsmen
  • Gandharva– In this type of marriage, there is the union of a girl and the boy through mutual consent.
  • Rakshasa – In this type of marriage, the bride is forcibly carried from her home by the bridegroom after her kinsmen are beaten and wounded.
  • Paishacha– In this type of marriage, a man by stealth seduces a girl who is asleep, intoxicated or disordered in intellect

In the first four forms there is the gift of the girl (kanyadana) by the father or other guardian to the groom. This is in the sense of transfer of the father’s right of guardianship and control of the maiden to the husband. The mere listing of the Rakshasa and Paishacha forms of marriage do not mean that it was legalized but meant that there are eight ways in which wives could be secured. Among all the forms of marriage that of Brahma is the best and Paishacha is the worst. Gradually the last one came to be universally condemned and the seventh allowed only in the case of a Kshatriya. In general only the first four alone were approved for a Brahman though Manu and others condemned even the third for both this and the fifth types of marriage were looked upon as selling a daughter. The sixth was out of question when child marriage prevailed.

Inter caste Marriages

All writers on Dharmashastra start with the proposition viz. that the four castes Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are arranged in a descending scale of social status and that marriage is or was permissible between a male of a higher caste with a woman of a lower caste. But the union of a woman of a higher caste with a male of lower caste was reprehensive and was not permitted. Marriages between the members of the different twice born castes, (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas) were quite common in the society down to the 8th century A.D. as the cultural differences between them were not far reaching. Even orthodox Smriti and Nibandha writers regard them as legal. Agnimitra (a Brahmin) of the Sunga dynasty had married Malavika, a Kshatriya Princess in 150 A.D. The Kadamba ruler, a Brahmin had given his daughter to a Gupta prince (a Vaishya). This type of marriages, when men of high caste married with women belonging to a lower caste was called Anuloma. Later after 9th century A.D. under the influence of growing rigorous notion of puritanism Brahmin gave up meat eating, and instead of one bath began to have two or three ablutions a day. They also began to undertake a number of Vratas and instead of two Sandhya prayers added a third one. All these factors led to their exclusiveness and the earlier practice of forming matrimonial alliance with Kshatriyas and Vaishyas was given up.

While a marriage between members of the twice born was recognized, that between an individual belonging to a twice born caste, especially a Brahmin woman with that of a man belonging to Shudra caste was looked upon with disfavor and condemned with severity. Still such marriage used to take place and was called Pratiloma.

Marriage Rituals

There prevailed great divergence in the rites of marriages since ancient times. Some of the common rituals associated with a marriage of twice born were as follows.

  • Vadhuvara gunapariksha– Examining the suitability of a girl or boy
  • Varapresana– Sending persons to negotiate for the hand of the girl
  • Vaagdhana or Vaannishchaya– Settling the marriage
  • Nanadi shraddha– The honouring of pitrs (ancestors)
  • Mandapa Karana– Erecting a pandal where the ceremonies are performed
  • Gauri Hara puja – Worship of Shiva and Gauri by the bride
  • Tailaharidraaropana – Applying of turmeric powder to the boy and girl’s body
  • Snaapana, Paridhaapana and Samnahana– Making the bride bathe, put on new clothes and girding her with a string or rope of darbha
  • Madhuparka– Reception of the boy at the bride’s house where honey and curds are partaken.
  • Pratisarabandha –Tying an amulet string on the bride’s hand
  • Parasparasamikshana – Looking at each other at a proper time by the boy and girl when a piece of cloth held between them is removed
  • Kanyaadana – The gift of the bride
  • Mangalasutra bandana – Tying a string having golden and other beads by the boy around the bride’s neck
  • Agnisthapana and Homa – Offering oblations into fire by reciting mantras
  • Panigrahana – Taking hold of the bride’s hand
  • Laajahoma – Offering of fried grain in the fire by the bride
  • Agniparinayana – The boy going in front takes the bride round the fire and water jar
  • Saptapadi– Taking seven steps together around the fire
  • Murdhaabhisheka – Sprinkling holy water on the head of the boy and girl

Polygamy and Polyandry

Though monogamy seems to have been the ideal and probably the rule, the Vedic literature is full of reference to polygamy. Polygamy was a useful instrument for kings and nobles in strengthening their political power by contracting numerous but judicious matrimonial alliances. The rich probably regarded plurality of wives as a proof of their wealth, reputation and social position. Though it was the kings and nobles who practiced polygamy, the Sutras allowed a man to have a second wife if his first wife did not bore him a son. With regards to polyandry we do not come across a single passage in the Vedic literature which refers to that practice. The only exceptional case is that of Draupadi as the wife of the five Pandavas.

Divorce/Dissolution of marriage

There is absolutely no reference to divorce in the Vedic text or in the post Vedic literature. The theory of Dharmashastra writers is that marriage when completed by homa and saptapadi is indissoluble. Kautilya in his Arthashastra says that there can be no dissolution of marriage if it was celebrated in one of the first four forms, namely Brahma, Arsha, Daiva and Prajapatya. However if the marriage was in the Gandharva, Asura or Rakshasa form, then the tie may be dissolved by mutual consent.

While Hindu law did not allow divorce, it allowed separation of wife and husband under different circumstances. According to Kautilya, a woman can abandon and marry the brother of her husband her husband becomes a lunatic, a recluse, or of a bad character, traitor of the state or gone abroad since a long time. Similarly a husband could abandon his wife if she acted immorally, was barren, unable to beget a male child, ailing or spendthrift.


During the early Vedic period remarriage of a widow was permitted but it does not seem to have been the rule. The Grihyasutras are silent about remarriage; so probably by that time (600-300 B.C.) it had come to be prohibited generally among the Brahmins and other higher castes. The only option for a widow was to marry her husband’s brother or go in for Niyoga if her husband died sonless. But some authorities like Parashara, Narada and Devala permit a woman to take a second husband under certain circumstances like if he is missing or dead, had become a recluse, impotent or tainted. But these rules soon become more or less dead letters and the remarriage of women become rare if not altogether obsolete in course of time. One of the earliest historical instances of remarriage was that of Dhruvadevi, queen of Ramagupta, who after Ramagupta’s death married her brother-in-law, Chandragupta. Among the lower castes widow remarriage was allowed though it was held to be somewhat inferior to the marriage of a maiden.

The custom of Niyoga

As the law givers have opined that a bride is given to the family and not to the groom only, a childless widow was allowed to have sexual relation with the brother of her husband to beget a son. This act was known as Niyoga. To die without a son was regarded as a great spiritual calamity and it was the sacred duty of a brother to see that a son was raised on his sister-in-law to perpetuate his brother’s memory and to ensure him a seat in heaven. If this was not done, there was also the danger of the widow marrying a stranger and being lost to the family. A son by Niyoga was always preferred to a son by adoption as the former had the blood of the mother, if not his father at least that of a near relative. Niyoga was also allowed if the husband was incapable of procreating children and the brother-in-law was regarded as the most eligible person for this duty. The custom of Niyoga was fairly common down to 300 B.C. and after that time it began to meet with considerable opposition, because society felt that such temporary unions were undesirable.

The practice of Sati

In prehistoric times there prevailed a belief in several societies that the life and needs of the dead in the next world are more or less similar to those in this life. It therefore became a pious duty of surviving relations to provide a dead person all the things that he usually needed when alive. Especially when an important personage like a king, a nobleman or a warrior died, he would require his wives, horses and servants in the next world and it would therefore be necessary and desirable to kill these all and burn or bury them with him. Such a belief should have given rise to the custom of burying and burning the dead husband along with his living wife.

There is no reference to Sati in the Vedic literature, Grihyasutras and Buddhist literature. Not it is mentioned by Megasthenes and Kautilya. The earliest historical instance of Sati is that of the wife of the Hindu general Keteus who died in 316 B.C. while fighting against Antigonos. The custom of Sati became gradually popular from 400 A.D. and was known to Kalidasa, Bhasa, Vatsyayana and Shudraka. Smriti writers of that period refer to that practices, but do not consider it ideal for the widow and allow it only as a second alternative and regard ascetic life as preferable to it. The custom gained popularity among the fighting classes and the conduct of a widow boldly burning herself with the remains of her husband appeared as the most glorious example of supreme self-sacrifice. From about 700 A.D. fiery advocates began to come forward to extol the custom of Sati in increasing number. Angiras argued that the only course which religion has prescribed for a widow is that of Sati. Harita maintained that the wife can purify her husband from the deadliest of sins, if she burns herself with his remains. The views advocated by these writers gradually began to produce some effects on society. During the period 700 -1000 A.D. Sati became more frequent in north India especially in Kashmir. Later it was popular among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, the Sikhs and Marathas. After 1000 A.D. Sati was practiced in Deccan and the far south. Though it was popular among the Kshatriya women later women of Brahmin caste and other castes also practiced it.


  1. S.Altekar- The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, From Prehistoric times to the present day, Motilal Banarasidass
  2. Swami Madhavananda & R.C.Majumdar, Edited- Great Women of India, Advaita Ashrama, Almora, 1982
  3. P.V.Kane –History of Dharmashastra, Vol II, part –I, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1941
  4. Usha Sharma, Edited- Marriage in Indian Society: From Tradition to Modernity, Vol-1, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, 2005

Agrarian Condition in Ancient India

In India way back during the Neolithic age (10,000 B.C.) people led a settled life by practicing agriculture and raising crops like wheat, rice, ragi, barley, etc. They had domesticated animals, knew art of pottery, spinning and weaving of clothes. Hence by the time of Vedic age agriculture was well advanced and been the chief industry of the country and played a significant role in the evolution of material culture in ancient India. We come across many prayers in the Vedic literature which were offered for the success of agriculture. Artificial waterways and wells were used for purposes of irrigation and cow dung was used to enrich the soil. The people knew the importance of deep ploughing and grew better and abundant crops.

Ownership of Land

In earlier times there was no pressure of population on land and land was not at all scarce. It was quite possible to enjoy the land without hindrance by the first man who cleared the woods and started cultivation. In the Vedic period the king had no proprietary rights on agricultural land. In return for good governance he was entitled to a defined portion of the gross produce as tax. Land belonged to those who tilled it. According to Kautilya people suffering from anarchy elected Manu, the Vaivasvata to be their king and allotted one-sixth of the grains and one-tenth of the merchandise as sovereign dues. In Rig Veda it has been stated that the king could claim bali from his subjects which was the amount due to him for the protection granted to his subjects. Later in Atharvaveda we find a prayer for the grant of a share of the village to the king. This shows that the king at that time was not regarded as the sole owner of the village and that people granted him some land for maintenance of his authority and dignity.

Later as the king assumed more power and consolidated his position, the institution of monarchy acquired a divine status and this led to the belief that all land belonged to the king. Kautilya suggests that all land essentially belonged to the king and even Greek writers dealing with the pre-Gupta times invariably state that all lands belonged to the king. However as long as the cultivators paid their taxes to the king, they were not disturbed and only if they did not paid tax or till the land, the kings exercised his power as the ultimate owner of the land and confiscated it.

Consequently by the time of the commencement of the rule of the Mauryas, there existed individual ownership of land side by side with the royal ownership which was not different from individual ownership as the king appeared as the biggest landholder. Besides as a result of land grants, collective or communal ownership of land also seems to have been introduced.

  • In lands owned by individuals, the owner carried on cultivation with the assistance of his family members or hired labourers, who were of two types; permanent and temporary.
  • The State farms or crown land was under the charge of Sitaadhyaksha (Superintendent of Agriculture) who with a band of assistants, labourers, slaves and prisoners raised crops. The State also used to lease its land to tenants who used to pay some amount of rent along with 1/4th share of the produce.
  • In communal ownership of land, that is land held by religious or educational centers and those held by the trading class, land was divided into small plots and leased to crop sharers.

Classification of Land

In Vedic age land was classified as Urvara (cultivable land), Khila (barren land), Dhanva (waste land) and Aranya (forest). In Amarakosha land has been grouped according to fertility, physical composition and situation like-

  1. Urvara- fertile land
  2. Usara- barren land
  3. Maru- desert land
  4. Aprahata- fallow land
  5. Saadvala- grassy land
  6. Pankila- muddy land
  7. Jalapraayamanupam- wet land
  8. Nadimaatraka- land watered by river
  9. Devamaatraka- land watered by rain
  10. Kachcha- land contiguous to water
  11. Sarkara- Land full of pebbles
  12. Sakravati- sandy land

Arable land was classified under two categories; dry land requiring water for cultivation and wet land requiring less water for cultivation. The pasture lands around the villages were held in common by the villagers. These lands were under the direct ownership of the state but the people were allowed to enjoy the rights of grazing their cattles. The boundaries of the fields were marked by trees, bones, stones, anthills, charcoal dikes, raised grounds, etc.

Crops grown

Paddy, wheat, barley, oil-seeds, sugarcane, pulses and cotton were grown. They also grew various kinds of fruits and vegetables.

The Cultivating Class

In the beginning agriculture was considered as a noble profession and each family possessed a number of cattle and fertile corn fields. Later agriculture became the main occupation of the Vaishyas. All the writers of Dharmasastras consider cultivation as an occupation exclusively meant for Vaishyas. At the same time they permitted Brahmins and Kshtriyas to follow the profession in emergency. Apart from farming the Vaishyas were also involved in trade and banking and comprised a wealthy and respectable section of the society. They were hospitable, good nature and god fearing. With the rise of ahimsa doctrine, agriculture profession came to be disliked by the virtuous as it was felt that the act of tilling will injure living beings like insects and resulted in the Vaishyas giving up the profession of agriculture. This prompted Kautilya to permit the Shudras to adopt the occupation of agriculture. On being converted into peasants, the Shudras gained status in the societal hierarchy.

Knowledge of Agricultural Practices

Ancient Indian cultivators possessed a fair knowledge of climatology, plant physiology, soil classifications, seasonal cultivation, rotation of crops, protection of crops, treatment of seeds and different kinds of manure. In Yajurveda we find distinct reference to the rotation of crops, the metal plough and crops like wheat, sesame, etc. The Atharvaveda mentions animals’ enemies of corn, the locust, the rat, etc. and contains exorcism of these pests, charm for procuring increasing grain and many other references to agriculture. As for the use of manure besides bones, flesh of animals, vegetables and animal products; manure primarily consisted of the excreta of various animals mixed with litter which absorbed urine.

Agricultural acts were ceremonial

In Rig Veda we find numerous prayers for agriculture, invocation of the divine for timely rains and solicitude for the safe keeping and well being of cattle. For instance sacrifices were made in honour of Indra ‘the wielder of the dreaded thunder bolt’, the god who alone was believed capable of killing Vrtra ‘the demon of drought’, and thereby release the pent up rains so vitally important for carrying on successfully agricultural operations. Cultivators used to offer oblations to gods of the elements before cultivating their fields and later when they reaped their harvest.

Amenities provided to Cultivators

It was one of the important regal duties to take a personal interest in agriculture and to see that there might be nothing detrimental to the interest of agriculture and agriculturists who were exempted from fighting.  Smritis (law books) exclaim the great merit of excavating water reservoirs. In the Sabha Parva of Mahabharatha we find Narada asking Yudhisthira if he was attentive to the improvement of agriculture by digging tanks in his kingdom at proper distances so that agriculture might not have to depend entirely on rain. In Arthashastra, book II, chapter I enjoins that the king shall construct reservoirs filled with water either perennial or drawn from other sources. The State allowed remission of taxes to those who built tanks, lakes or repaired neglected or ruined tanks. The lake Sudarsana which was excavated by Pushya Gupta, the viceroy of Chandragupta Maurya and whose channels of irrigation were completed by Tushaspha in the days of Emperor Ashoka is one of the greatest monumental works that points to the great importance attached to irrigation in ancient India. In south India the Chola ruler Karikala Chola constructed a dam (Kallanai) across river Kaveri in Trichy district of Tamilnadu around 2nd century A.D. To save crops from destruction, provisions were made by the State to destroy rats, locusts, injurious insects, wild beasts and birds. During the Gupta period the state took several measures to increase agricultural output by extending the area under cultivation. The cultivator was not allowed to leave the land uncultivated. The Narada Smriti states that if the owner of the land is unable to cultivate it, any stranger can cultivate and appropriate the produce. The state took every care to protect the agricultural produce. Brihaspati another law giver says stealers of agricultural produce were to pay ten times the damages to the owner and double the damages to the state as fine. The state was interested in the scientific method of agriculture is evident from Varahamihira’s elaborate directions for the treatment of seeds and for digging the pit for sowing seeds. The state had fully realized the importance of irrigation to agriculture. The Junagadh Rock Inscription of Skandagupta states in detail how when due to much rainfall, the dam burst and the lives of people were in danger, Chakarpalita with his father saved the country by raising an embankment.

Assessment of Land Revenue

In the early Vedic period, the king’s power was not well established and taxation seems to have been occasional and voluntary. The term Bali originally used to denote voluntary offerings made to gods for securing their favour came to be applied later to the presents and taxes offered to the king more or less voluntarily. In course of time when the authority of the king came to be stabilized Bali was converted into a tax. What was once a type of voluntary contribution later came to be regarded as a right of the king to tax the people.

Before fixation of land revenue, the fields were measured and the soil classified according to the fertility and all these details like the area, grade, nature of produce, ownership, etc. were recorded in the registers of the government. The villages were grouped into three categories, Jyeshta (first grade), Madhyama (middle grade) and Kanishta (lowest grade) and the officer in charge of the village (Gopa) recorded in his register the land under different categories like cultivated land, uncultivated land, plain land, wet land, garden land, vegetable growing land, irrigated land, etc. Assessment varied according to the quality of the land and the nature of the crop raised. The share of the king was determined after taking into account the fertility of the soil, the need of the State and producer’s surplus.

Unit of Measurement

There existed two kinds of measurements, linear and square. Linear unit of measure consisted of

  • Angula- 3/4th of an inch
  • Pradesa- 9 inches
  • Pada- 10 inches
  • Hasta- 18 inches
  • Danda- six feet
  • Rajju- 60 feet
  • Krosa- 1.13 miles
  • Yojana-4.54 miles

Square unit of measurements consisted of

  • Adhavapa-1/2 acre
  • Nivartana 3100 sq yards or less than one acre
  • Dronavapa- 1.5 to 2 acres
  • Vel- 5 to 6 acres
  • Hala- 10 to 12 acres
  • Kulyavapa- 12 to 16 acres
  • Pataka-60 to 80 acres
  • Kula- 96 acres

 Types of Land Tax

  • BaliSmritis consider bali as king’s share which varied from 1/6th, 1/8th, 1/10th and 1/12th. But Arthashastra says bhaga as king’s share and bali as an undefined cess over and above the kings normal share of the produce (bhaga).
  • Bhaga – This was a kind of revenue which was payable to the king in kind or cash on the land produce. The rates of bhaga as fixed by Manu varied between 1/6th, 1/8th and 1/12th according to the quality of land. Kautilya fixed the lower limit at 1/6th; Gautama and Baudhaayana agreed to 1/6th.
  • Bhoga – This denotes king’s share in vegetables, fruits, flowers, milk and forest products like firewood.
  • Hiranya – King’s share of certain commercial crops like sugarcane, ginger, cotton, etc. to be paid in cash as distinguished from tax in kind (bhoga).
  • Udranga and Uparikara – According to Ghoshal Udranga was a tax/rent imposed on permanent land tenants while Uparikara was a tax/rent on temporary land tenants. The former tax was deposited in the royal exchequer and the latter given to tax collectors for their subsistence.
  • Kara – A kind of tax to be levied periodically on the villagers to be paid in cash or taxes levied upon fruit trees.
  • Pindakara – Tax levied upon whole villages, i.e. lump sum assessment upon villages as distinguished from the king’s grain share assessed upon the individual cultivators.
  • Jalakara – Irrigation tax / Udakabhaagam– water cess
  • Pranaya – Tax levied during grave emergencies. Different rates were assessed for different classes of soils, the maximum rate being 1/3rd or 1/4th.

According to Kautilya the highest revenue officer was called Samahatra (during the Mauryan period). During the Gupta period this officer was known as Uparika and as Bhogapati during the rule of Harshavardhana.

Tax exemption

Taxable land was known as Karada and non-taxable land akarada. The lands were made akarada or exempted from taxation generally in return for some specific service rendered in respect of persons other than Brahmanas. Land granted to scholarly Brahmins, Hindu and Buddhist monasteries and temples were exempted from land tax. Exemption was also extended to those unable to pay taxes, while farmers who brought uncultivated land under cultivation were given remission of taxes for two years. The Rummindei Pillar Inscription of Ashoka records the Emperor order that the village of Lumbini, because of its being the birth place of Buddha has been made liable to 1/8th of the bhaga and exempted from bali. Law giver Aapastamba prescribed that the Vedic student, men of Vedic learning, women of all castes, ascetics, children, boys in the residence of their teachers for study, Shudras doing menial work as well as the blind, the dumb, the diseased and crippled and persons over seventy years were exempted from paying taxes.

Land Grants

Land grants were of four types,

  1. Beneficial tenure

         Under beneficial tenure we have

  • Brahmadeya – This type of land grant which was exempted from taxes and fines was given to a Brahmana who was a performer of sacrifices, a scholar and a priest. In this type of land grant the king had no claim on it even on the failure of an heir on the part of the donee. The Brahmadeya land could be transferred only to those members of his caste who enjoyed similar endowment. The settlement of the Brahmins in this type of land grant was known as Agrahara and they were supposed to impart regular religious or secular instruction to others.
  • Devadana – This type of land grant was given to temples which were serving as religious and social centers. The donors were kings, queens, officials, private persons and village communities. Kings gave lands to temples with a view to secure a powerful empire or to record their visits. The common people donated land to temples to secure the four objects of life namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. The income from these lands was used for daily worship and for conducting festivals.
  • Mathapura – This type of land grant was given to the mathas (monasteries) for their maintenance, promotion of study and the spread of their respective theologies.
  • Buddhist Sanghas – The Buddhist monasteries were also centers of education and received land grants from kings and commoners alike to carry on their activities. For instance the University of Nalanda had been endowed with more than two hundred villages.

       2. Service tenure

Under Service tenure land was granted to government officials of definite categories and members of some professions. For example, superintendents, Gopas, Sthanikas, accountants, veterinary surgeons and physicians, horse trainers and some messengers were the recipients of land grants. During the time of Harshavardhana high officers were not paid in cash for their services to the state and Hiuen Tsang explicitly sates that the governors, ministers, magistrates and officers had each a portion of land assigned to them for their personal support. These grants of land were not hereditary and not transferable through sale or gift.

  1. Contractual tenure

Under this tenure the crown land was assigned to persons who brought new areas under cultivation or raised crops in the crown land and paid rent or a share in the produce.

  1. Miscellaneous types of land tenure
  • Aatithya – Land grants given to state officers for the purpose of public charities.
  • Aayudhiya – Land given to villages which supplied troops or land held on condition of supplying troops.
  • During the Ganga rule over southern parts of Karnataka land grant called Bittuvatta was given to persons who took care of irrigational facilities and land grant called Nettarukodige was given for subsistence to the dependents of the deceased in battles.

The deeds of grants were broadly divided as royal (rajakiya) and private (laukika). Royal records were issued by the king, queen, nobles, governors and other high officials of the state. Private records were issued by the guilds and by the common people.

Famine Relief

Magasthenes states that famine has never visited India but this is not true. Due to natural calamities like drought and excessive rain and man-made calamities like constant warfare and oppressive taxation system, famine like situation used to prevail in ancient India.  But people were able to cope up with it as every village had a sufficient stock of food grains and forest open to public use provided fodder for livestock. The existence of public granaries shows that grains were stocked. For instance at Harappa a granary have been discovered. Ashoka’s Rock Edict from Rupnath records two store houses each divided into three apartments at Shravasti for storage of grains. Arthashastra lays down the following measures as relief during famine- supply of seeds and other provisions; employment of famine stricken people in public undertakings like construction of bridges, buildings, etc., supply of food, sending the famine stricken people to another country for the time being or seeking the help of a friendly state.

Decline in Agricultural produce and the status of Agriculturists

  • As we know in ancient India the cultivators belonged to the Vaishya caste who had expertise in agricultural activities. Under the influence of ahimsa doctrine many of them gave up cultivation as it involved killing of insects and pests. This led to decline in agricultural produce as those who replaced them had poor knowledge of agricultural production.
  • During the Gupta rule land grants (made in Madhya Pradesh) gave the donee the right to subinfeudation. The donee reserved the right to evict the cultivators and as a result the permanent tenants were reduced to the status of ‘tenants at will’. This resulted in the depression of the peasantry and subdued their interest to bring more areas under cultivation.
  • Since the time of Harshavardhana, high officers were not paid in cash for their services but by tax free land grants. As long as waste land was in plenty the kings share (tax given by individual cultivators) did not vary much. When there was no more waste land the kings share increased by imposition of various levies at places to such a point that many cultivators had to give up their lands than cultivate them.
  • The Mohammadan system of farming revenue (revenue leasing) established a chain of middlemen of which the highest were the farmers of revenue and the lowest, the headsmen of villages, all of whom squeezed out the cultivators to the utmost extent.
  • From 10th century onwards Muslim jihadists like Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghur and Timur during their frequent raids over northern India devastated, ravaged and burnt whole villages and cities. They also butchered lakhs of men including farmers, women and children and completely destroyed standing crops in the fields and looted or destroyed stores of grains. All these led to famine and pestilence and it took many years to recover. Also Sultans like Ala-ud-din Khilji loathed Hindus, raised land revenue to one-half of the produce and imposed other tax like grazing tax, house tax and jizya. The result was that the Hindus who were mainly connected with land in one form or the other were reduced to extreme poverty and retarded agriculture activities.


  1. Ganesh Prasad Sinha – Post Gupta Polity (500-750 A.D.)
  2. N.Ghoshal – The Agrarian System in Ancient India, University of Calcutta, 1930
  3. Kunwar Deo Prasad – Taxation in Ancient India, Mittal Publication, Delhi, 1987
  4. N.Luniya – Life and Culture in Ancient India, Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, Agra, 1978
  5. Muddachari – Economic History of Karnataka
  6. Narendra Nath Kher – Agrarian and Fiscal Economy in the Mauryan and post Mauryan Age
  7. Radharaman Gangopadhyay, Some Materials for the study of Agriculture and Agriculturists in Ancient India, N.C.Mukherjee & Co, Serampore, 1932
  8. P.Rayachaudhuru and Mira Roy, Agriculture in Ancient India – A Report, Publication and Information Division, New Delhi, 1993
  9. R.Sarkar – Public Finance in Ancient India, Abhinav Publication, New Delhi, 1978
  10. Saroj Dutta – Land System in North India 400-700 A.D.
  11. N.Saletore – Life in the Gupta Age
  12. V.Sreenivasa Murthy – History and Culture of India to 1000 A.D., S.Chand & Company, New Delhi, 1980
  13. L.Srivastava – The Sultanate of Delhi, Shiva Lal Agarwala & Co, Agra, 1995
  14. Sushil Maltidevi – Economic condition of Ancient India

The Historicity of Vishwamitras

Among the ancient Rishi families, that of the family of Vishwamitra stands prominent. Their names have been associated with the rulers of Ikshavaku dynasties like Trishanku, Harishchandra, Sudasa and Dasharatha Rama. The famous king Bharata in whose memory our country is today named was the grandson of a member of this family. Moreover the third mandala of Rig-Veda is ascribed to a member of Vishwamitra family and so also the famous Gayatri mantra. Information about Vishwamitra is found in the Rig-Veda, Brahmanas, Ramayana and the Puranas. In the Puranas 1 the name of Vishwamitra is associated with Ikshavaku kings who ruled during different time periods. For instance Trishanku was the 26th ruler of that dynasty, while Sudasa was the 47th ruler and Rama was the 65th ruler.2 If we have to believe that a single Vishwamitra had associated with all these rulers, it means that he lived for several centuries and this defies human reasoning and makes Vishwamitra a mythical person. An alternative assumption which we could make is to consider the Vishwamitra associated with Trishanku as Vishwamitra I, the one who is associated with Sudasa as Vishwamitra II and so on.3 In this essay an attempt have been made to find the historicity of the members of the Vishwamitra family and identify the interpolated stories associated with them.

Vishwamitra’s rivalry with Vasishta

Vishwamitra it is said in the Puranas was originally a Kshatriya and ruler of Kanyakubj. Once he met sage Vasishta who entertained Vishwamitra and his retinue in his ashram with a lavish lunch with the help of a divine cow Kamadhenu/Nandini. Vishwamitra asked Vasishta to give him Nandini and offered him a thousand cows, horses, gold and precious stones; but Vasishta refused. Vishwamitra tried to use force but was defeated. After repeated defeats under the hands of Vasishta, Vishwamitra undertook severe penance and attained the status of Brahmarishi. From Kshatriya he became a Brahmin.4 But the old grudge which he had with Vasishta persisted and continued in various episodes involving various characters like Trishanku and Harishchandra.

Vishwamitra and Trishanku

From the chronological point of view the first ruler with whom Vishwamitra is associated is Trishanku, the king of Ayodhya. Trishanku desired to go to heaven with his body intact and approached Vasishta to fulfill his desire, but the latter declined saying that it was not possible. Trishanku then approached Vishwamitra who took it as a challenge and using his merit of penance sent Trishanku to heaven. When Trishanku reached the gates of the heaven, Indra did not allow him and Trishanku started falling down towards earth. He cried for help and Vishwamitra using his supernatural power created a separate heaven for Trishanku (Trishanku swarga). Indra then pleaded Vishwamitra not to create a parallel heaven and agreed to admit Trishanku to his heaven.5

Vishwamitra and Harishchandra

Harishchandra was the son of Trishanku and once performed the Rajasuya ceremony with Vasishta as the main priest. This made Vishwamitra jealous and he waited for an opportunity to take revenge upon Harishchandra. As Harishchandra was famous for his truthfulness and charitable disposition, Vishwamitra in disguise as a Brahmin went to him for help to marry his son. Harishchandra promised to give whatever Vishwamitra wish to have. Vishwamitra demanded his kingdom with all its wealth. Harishchandra gave up his kingdom and with his wife and son decided to leave the kingdom. It was a convention that whenever a gift is given to a Brahmin, a dakshina should also be given along with it, otherwise the gift would be futile. When Harishchandra asked the Brahmin what he wanted as dakshina, the Brahmin demanded two and a half bhaaras of gold. As Harishchandra was now penniless, he promised the Brahmin to pay him as soon as possible. Later the Brahmin persisted for the dakshina resulting in Harishchandra selling his wife and son to pay him. As there was shortage of the amount promised, Harishchandra pledged himself to a grave digger and finally settled the amount. Finally when Harishchandra was about to commit suicide with his wife after cremating his dead son, Vishwamitra reveals his true image and along with gods bless Harishchandra for keeping his word.6

Vishwamitra and Shunashshepa

In Rig-Veda Vishwamitra’s name is associated with an episode in which he partakes in a sacrificial ceremony in which a human is to be slayed. The story goes on like this- Harishchandra, the ruler of the Ikshavaku dynasty is childless and is keen to have one. Sage Narada advises him to pray god Varuna for a son with a promise that he (Harishchandra) would surrender the child to Varuna in a sacrifice. Varuna agree to this and grants him a son. Later Harishchandra makes several excuses to part with his son and later apprises his son Rohita of the contract which he had made with Varuna. Rohita who did not wish to be sacrificed went to the forest. Meanwhile Varuna curses Harishchandra with a disease. In the forest Rohita meets a sage Ajigarta and offers him 100 cows in return for giving him (Rohita) his son, Shunashshepa. Ajigarta agrees and Rohita brings Shunashshepa to his father Harishchandra and tell him to approach Varuna with an offer to sacrifice Shunashshepa in lieu of Rohita. Varuna agrees to this and a sacrificial ceremony begins in which sages like Vishwamitra, Vasishta and Jamadagni take part. Distressed of being sacrificed Shunashshepa pleads to the gods who taking pity of him decides to set him free. Shunashshepa is then adopted by Vishwamitra.7 Apart from the above stories Vishwamitra is also associated with Rama whose help he took to slay the demons who tried to disturb his sacrificial rites.8

Identifying the historic Vishwamitras

The information with regards to Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku is first referred in the Bala kanda of Ramayana. As the Bala kanda and Uttara kanda are not genuine to the original Ramayana, the narrative in question is clearly a later interpolation.9 Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku defies commonsense and is just an imaginary fiction of a person who misused his authority to insert it in the epic Ramayana during revision of the text.10 The story of Vishwamitra tormenting Harishchandra first appears in the Devi Bhagavata Purana (a upapurana), which might have been fabricated by the fertile imagination of the story teller.11 Hence regarding the historicity of Vishwamitra I we can presume that he was a contemporary of Trishanku and lived around 5169 B.C.12 As Trishanku was not in good terms with Vasishta, his family preceptor, he took the help of Vishwamitra I in conducting a ceremony which further enraged Vasishta. Hence Vasishta had probably refused to perform Trishanku’s obsequies. This could have forced Trishanku’s son Harishchandra take the help of Vishwamitra I to conduct his father’s last rites by paying a heavy fee (dakshina). These facts were blown out of proportion by the Puranic writers of the later period. Hence we find all those fanciful stuff like Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku and later harassing his son Harishchandra for dakshina, etc.13 The next important member of this family was Vishwamitra II who lived around 4489 B.C.14 His daughter was Shakuntala who married the Paurava king Dushyanta. Their son was Bharatha in whose memory our country is named.

The most famous member of this family was Vishwamitra III (4329 B.C.) who composed the 62 hymns of Rig-Veda (third mandala). He was a contemporary of a member of Vasishta family who composed the VII mandala of the Rig-Veda.15 Vishwamitra III is said to have helped the Ikshavaku king Sudas and his retinue, to cross the confluence of river Vipas and Shutudri (Beas and Sutlej).16The credit of having composed the famous Gayatri mantra also goes to him. In Atharvaveda Samhita, Vishwamitra’s name is connected with charms and spells, the utterance of which could cure diseases and food grains becomes abundant. Hence he was called Vishwa Mitra, friend of the world.17 But it is difficult to prove whether it is referred to Vishwamitra III or another member of this family.

Now let us verify the story of Shunashshepa. Reference to Shunashshepa is found in verses in the first and fifth mandala of the Rig-Veda. With regards to the reference to Shunashshepa in the first mandala, H.L.Hariyappa in his work, Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages infers that two of the verses (1.24.12 and 1.24.13) ascribed to Shunashshepa could be a later insertion or interpolation by samhita designers in order to remind themselves of that great Vedic event.18 If two verses can be interpolated why we can’t doubt the entire verses ascribed to Shunashshepa to be interpolated on the following grounds.

  1. This story is not even indirectly mentioned in the Vishwamitra mandala (III mandala) and Vasishta mandala (VII mandala) though both the rishis officiated as priests in the ceremony in which Shunashshepa was to be sacrificed.19
  2. It is surprising that Shunashshepa story is recorded in the fifth mandala by the Atri family who were in no way connected with the affair.20
  3. It was only during the Brahmana period that sacrifices gained a prominent place not during the early Vedic period. Hence it is hard to believe that eminent seers like Vishwamitra, Vasishta and Jamadagni belonging to the early Rig-Vedic period could take part in a ceremony where an innocent Brahmin is sacrificed.
  4. Harishchandra is famous for keeping up his word at any cost and this is known from the episode (once again interpolated) in which he sold his wife and pledged himself to raise money to pay the dakshina of Vishwamitra and how he underwent untold miseries just to keep his promise. In the Shunashshepa episode he is seen not only avoiding fulfilling his promise but also replacing his son with Shunashshepa at the sacrificial altar which is quite amazing.
  5. Based on the then current popular stories, there is a possibility of Shunashshepa’s story being introduced by the editors of the Rig-Veda.21
  1. Even the reference to Vishwamitra of having performed the Ashvamedha yaga (horse sacrifice) on behalf of the Bharatas mentioned in the Rig-Veda appears to be an interpolation as it was during the Brahmana period that sacrifices attained prominence; the details of the said ritual are found in the Brahmana and Sutra literature and not in the Rig-Veda.

Vishwamitra’s rivalry with Vasishta

Vishwamitra’s rivalry with Vasishta is purely fictions. It lacks Vedic authority to say that Vishwamitra was a Kshatriya elevated to Brahmanhood. Apart from orthodox tradition, researches point to the fact that caste held sway over the people during a very late period of the Rig-Vedic age. As Vasishta and Vishwamitra belonged to a hoary past even at the time of the Rig-Vedic compilation, it would be short-sighted to attribute any varna to them.22

In Valmiki’s Ramayana we hear of one Vishwamitra who took the help of Rama and Lakshmana to fight against the asuras who were causing havoc at the ceremonies being conducted by the rishis in the forest. This person was probably another descend from the famous Vishwamitra family and lived during the period 3609 B.C. We shall identify him as Vishwamitra IV.

Probable reasons behind the interpolations

  1. In the Shunashshepa episode seers like Vishwamitra and Vasishta were deliberately involved to show that these eminent men of yore supported sacrifices. These interpolations may have taken place during the period when due to the influence of the ideals of Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism sacrificial ceremonies were looked upon with contempt.
  2. The reason behind the story of the rivalry between Vishwamitra and Vasishta was to show that no matter how strong and powerful a Kshatriya king was; he would be always inferior to a Brahmin.
  3. Katre in his work, Introduction to Indian Textual Criticism says that Interpolation is a natural instinct in man and such cannot be considered a crime. Considering the texts which have been transmitted for centuries by oral tradition only- namely the Veda and Vedic literature- the aspect of interpolation need not be doubted at all, “for the organs of tradition were not machines, but men”.23
  4. According to Prof. R.C.Hazra adherents of various sects such as Shaktas, Sauras, Pancaratras interpolated chapters in the Puranas of the established group and in some case wrote new and independent works to propagate their own ideas and styled them Puranas.24

Just like the historians of the Macaulay/Marxist breed, the Itihasakaras and Pauranikas of ancient India have made a mess of our ancient history by interpolating imaginary tales and other absurdities in the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Puranas during successive revisions of these texts. There is an urgent need to critically edit the above source books, so that the political history of ancient India could be reconstructed from at least 5000 B.C.

As we have not reconstructed the political history of the Vedic period in a systematic manner, political history of ancient India is studied beginning with 3rd century B.C. Hence in the study of world civilizations top priority is given to Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greek civilizations as the annals of their kings and rulers whose historicity dates back as far as 4000 B.C. have been well documented. To put Indian civilization at par with other ancient civilizations we need to reconstruct a comprehensive political history of ancient India at the earliest so that the historicity of persons now considered as mythical can be established.

As the personalities of the Vedic and epic period traversed across the whole of India, they have left behind rich memories which are still remembered in regional folklore and places of interest in India. For instance personalities like Agastya, Parashurama, Hanuman, etc., and places like Kishkinda, Lepakshi, Hampe, Rameshwaram, etc., to name a few. Hence documenting the history of the Vedic period would also rectify the lacuna found in the existing description of Indian history where inadequate coverage is given to south India.


  1.  The main source of information about the rishis of ancient India is the Puranas which unfortunately mix up gods and mythological persons with real rishis. It was also difficult for the Sutas (bards whose duties was to preserve the genealogies of rishis as well as the kings) to preserve the genealogies of the rishis as they lived in secluded forests. Unlike that of the kings, there was no exciting tales to tell about the rishis for the Sutas and therefore they did not give much importance to maintain the genealogies of the rishis. (E.Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, p.185) Hence we find the same names of rishis who were associated with the rulers living in different times.
  2. See the list of kings belonging to Ikshavaku dynasty mentioned in the Vayu Purana in D.R.Mankad’s, Puranic Chronology, Gangajala Prakashana, 1951, p.341
  3. The mention of a person by the simple name is no sure criterion that the original person of that name is intended, but often means a descendant. F.E.Pargiter- Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, London, 1922, pp:139,140
  4. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, p.835
  5. Ibid, p.795
  6. Ibid, pp: 873-875
  7. Hariyappa- Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages, Poona, 1953, pp:191-193
  8. Vettam Mani- cit, p.632
  9. Hariyappa, Op.cit, pp:295,296
  10. Ibid, p.329. The author (Hariyappa) opines that a lot of concoction and distortion have taken place in the epics and the Puranas and those who were responsible for that did so with bad taste and unworthy motive.
  11. Ibid, p.320. In the footnotes in the same page the author (Hariyappa) writes – “popular impression now is that Vishwamitra was a cruel sage and all that. How different from the Vedic Viswamitra, ‘heaven born, favourite of the gods, great sage’. One is tempted to ask whether or to what extent, if at all, has the cause of TRUTH been served by unbridled tradition, by the unscrupulous story teller of Harikatha performer, or even by the high handed poet.
  12. As members of the Vishwamitra family were associated mainly with the rulers of the Ikshavaku dynasty, we can tentatively arrive at the dates of important members of that family if we can fix the dates of the Ikshavaku kings. To fix the dates of the Ikshavaku rulers I have relied upon the list of the said rulers given in the Vayu Purana. (D.R.Mankad p.341) The Ikshavaku king who participated in the Mahabharatha war was Bruhadbala who is placed in the number 94 in the list. Anterior to him is Rama placed in number 65; that is 29 generation before. If we take 2449 B.C. as the date of Mahabharatha war and allot 40 years for each king, then Rama’s date would be 3609 B.C. (40 years X 29 generations = 1160+2449 = 3609) Sudasa’s number in the list is 47, that is 18 generations prior to Rama and is date would be 4329 B.C. (40 years X 18 generations = 720+ 3609 = 4329). Trishanku’s number is 26, that is 21 generations prior to Sudasa and his date would be 5169 B.C. (40 years X 21 generations = 840+4329 = 5169). (In the Purana list given by Pargiter, (pp: 144-148) the number given to rulers belonging to Ikshavaku dynasty varies from that given in the Vayu Purana. For instance in Pargiter’s list, Trishanku’s number is 32 while it is 26 in the Vayu Purana. Similarly Sudasa’s number in the Pargiter’s list is 53 while it is 47 in the Vayu Purana. But the numbers given to Rama and Brihadbala, 65 and 94 respectively are same in both the list.)
  13. Over a period of time the Sutas who were the preservers and propagators of the Puranas sunk low in the social scale and foreign dynasties like that of Kanishka and the Huns did not patronize them. The Sutas probably became Buddhists as Buddhism with its Jataka stories gave to all persons following the profession of a bard sufficient scope for earning their livelihood. (P.V.Kane, History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II, p.857) With the exit of the Sutas and as Sanskrit learning became peculiarly the business of Brahmins, the profession of studying Puranas was taken over by the Brahmins. (E.Pargiter, Op.cit, p.24) But the Brahmins who studied the Vedas considered the Brahmins who were devoted to the study of the Puranas as having fallen away from the highest Brahmanic standard. Hence the Brahmins studying the Puranas magnified their own profession and extolled the Puranas by incorporating distinctly Brahmanic teachings and practice into the Puranas and compared them as sacred as Vedas. (F.E.Pargiter, Op.cit, p.29) According to P.V.Kane, (Op.cit, p.838) the extant Puranas and some of the Upapuranas have been so much tampered with and inflated by additions intended to bolster up particular forms of worship and particular tenets that great caution is required before one recognize them as genuine and reliable representatives for ascertaining the general state of Indian society and beliefs in ancient India.
  14. For fixing the date of the member of Vishwamitra family who was the father of Shakuntala, I have relied on the list of the Paurava kings given by Pargiter in his work Ancient Indian Historical Traditions, (p.146). Dushyantha who married Shakuntala is placed at number 43 in the list and the Pandava brothers are placed at number 94. This means that Dushyantha lived 51 generation earlier to the Pandavas and hence his date would be 4489 B.C. (40 years X 51 generations = 2040+2449 = 4489).
  15. Hariyappa, Op.cit, p. P.241
  16. Ibid, p.244
  17. Ibid, p.261
  18. Ibid, p.186
  19. Ibid, p.187
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid, p.190
  22. Ibid, 330
  23. Ibid, p.186
  24. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, p.837

The Vedas- A Brief Introduction

The Vedas contain the divine wisdom and knowledge of things directly seen by the Rishis or seers of hoary antiquity by intuition and are called Shrutis, i.e. what is directly heard or experienced by intuition. Hence Vedas are called Apaurusheya, i.e., not composed by any human beings.1 The Vedas are the earliest books of mankind and occupy a unique position in world literature. In comparison with the Egyptian pyramids and other ancient monuments which inspire us with their mute grandeur and perpetuate the memories of their builders, the Vedas which have most faithfully preserved the immortal words uttered by the ancient seers thousands of years ago have been inspiring millions of devout Hindus since time immemorial. The Vedas are the fountainhead of later Indian literature both religious and secular. All Indian law givers regard the Veda as the principal source of Dharma and all Hindus look upon the Vedas as the supreme authority in all matters concerning religion, laws and social conduct. There is an unmistakable imprint of Vedic influence over Indian religions, philosophy, literature, art and culture. Even today millions of Hindus perform their religious rites with the recitation of those very Vedic mantras which were recited by their forefathers thousands of years ago.2

Authors of the Veda

The hymns of the Rig Veda were composed by the members of Rishi families like the Kanvas, Angirases, Agastyas, Grtsamadas, Atris, Viswamitras, Vasishtas, Kasyapas, Bharatas and Bhrgus. Apart from these families we also have hymns composed jointly by members of different families and those composed by Rishis whose family identity is unknown or unidentifiable.3 These mantras were revealed to about 400 Rishis among whom 30 are women. Some women Rishis who composed the Rigvedic hymns were Aditi, Apaalaa, Godhaa, Indraanii, Lopamudra, Romashaa, Urvashi, Yami, Sikataa, Nivaavari and Aatreyi.4 Swami Mahadevananda Giri has given the names of the Rishis who has composed the Rigveda in appendix I of his book Vedic Culture.5

Date of its Composition

Based on astronomical data Indians have fixed the date on which the Mahabharatha war took place. According to Aryabhatta, Kaliyuga began from 3102 B.C. and the date of Mahabharatha war was 3138 B.C. In modern times scholars like Dr. Mankad fixed 3201 B.C. as the date of the war and mathematicians and astrophysicists making use of planetarium software and taking the astronomical data available in the text of the epic Mahabharatha itself as the basis, have assigned the year 3067 B.C. as the date of the Mahabharatha war.  Another famous astronomer Varahamihira says that Yudhisthira became king in saka era 2526 B.C. corresponding to 2469 B.C. or 2447 B.C. Dr. P.C.Sengupta based on Vedanga Jyotisha has fixed 2449 B.C. as the date of Mahabharatha war. The date arrived by the Kashmiri historian Kalhana was 2448 B.C., one year less than that assigned by P.C.Sengupta. Considering either 3067 B.C. or 2449 B.C. as the date in which the Mahabharatha war took place helps us arrive at the approximate age of the composition of Rigveda.6

It is said that Mandala II to VII form the oldest core of the Rigveda; of which the III mandala is ascribed to sage Vishwamitra and the VII to sage Vasishta. Both Vasista and Vishwamitra were associated with Sudasa, the Ikshavaku king and entertained by him on different occasions. In Vayu Purana we have a total of 94 kings from Manu to Bhrihadbala belonging to the Ikshavaku dynasty. Bhrihadbala died in the Mahabharatha war and was 47 generation after Sudasa, the famous king of Ayodhya. Taking Vayu Purana as the basis for the list of ancient Indian kings and the year 2449 B.C. as the date of Mahabharatha war and allotting 40 years for each generation, the date of Sudasa would be 4329 B.C. and as Vasista and Vishwamitra were contemporaries of Sudasa, the date 4329 B.C. could be taken as the approximate date of the composition of the Rigveda. If we take the year 3067 B.C. as the date in which the Mahabharatha war took place then the approximate date of the composition of the Rigveda would be 4947 B.C.7

Classification of the Vedas

In ancient times Vedas meant only one collection of all the mantras numbering about twenty-five thousand or more. Later for the purpose of study and preservation, the single collection was divided by Veda Vyasa into four overlapping collection of mantras as Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda and taught one each to his disciples, Paila, Vaishampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu respectively.8 According to Sri Chandrashekar Saraswathi men in ancient times were endowed with great mental and physical abilities and were able to master the whole Vedas. But in the Kali age they began to lose their divine yogic powers. Hence to protect the Vedas from going into total extinction, Krishna Dvaipayana (also known as Veda Vyasa) divided the Vedas 9 and this took place after the end of Mahabharatha War (2449 B.C or 3067 B.C.)

Contents of the Vedas

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda samhita is in Rik or hymn form. (The name rik is applied to those mantras that are divided into feet, metrical padas (often) based on meaning) Each Rik is a mantra. A number of Riks constitute a Sookta. The Rig Veda has 1028 sooktas containing 10,552 mantras.10 A mantra is a poetic revelation received by a human sage (Rishi) during the state of deep concentration.11 The Rig Veda consists of hymns mainly in praise of different gods and form the immediate source of the other three Vedas. These gods are personalities presiding over the diverse powers of nature or forming their very essence like the storm, the rain, the thunder, etc. it was the forces of nature and her manifestations on earth and atmosphere that excited the devotion and imagination of the Vedic poets. These gods may be roughly classified as the terrestrial, atmospheric and celestial gods.12 The largest number of mantras, (2500) is addressed to Indra, followed by Agni with 2000 mantras and Soma with 1200 mantras.13

Yajur Veda

The word Yajus is derived from the root Yaj which means worship. The word Yajna (sacrificial worship) is also derived from it. (Yajus means those Vedic mantras that are neither rik nor Saman) The chief purpose of Yajur Veda is to give the mantras of the Rig Veda appearing in the form of hymns a practical shape in the form of yajna or worship.14 The Yajur Veda contains in addition to the verses from Rig Veda (Usually at least a third of the mantras in any Yajur Veda recession are rik mantras 15) many original prose formulas- to be employed in various religious sacrifices. Hence this Veda may be called the book of sacrificial prayers.16

The Yajur Veda is divided into Shukla Yajur Veda and Krishna Yajur Veda. The Shukla Yajur Veda is also known as Vaajasaneya Samhita (Vaajasani means the sun) as Rishi Yajnavalkya is believed to have learnt this knowledge from the sun god.17 Shukla Yajur Veda has 3988 mantras including both rik and yajus mantras.18 The Vaajasaneyi Samhita of the Shukla Yajur Veda, its associated Brahmana, Shatapata Brahmana and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are associated with sage Yajnavalkya.18

The Samhita of the Taittiriya branch of Krishna Yajur Veda known as Taittiriya Samhita has a total of 4773 mantras of which 3248 are yajus and 1525 are rik mantras. Of these rik mantras, 862 can be traced to the existing edition of Rigveda samhita. Thus about 663 rik mantra in the Taittiriya Samhita are not in the current Rigvedic text.19 In the Taittiriya branch of Krishna Yajur Veda, the Taittiriya Brahmana and Taittiriya Aaranyaka have both mantra and the Brahmana passages and hence form a continuation of the Taittiriya Samhita.20 One point to note is that there are about thousand mantras which are common to both Vaajasaneya Samhita and Taittiriya Samhita.21 Of all the shakhas (branches) of the four Vedas, Taittiriya Samhita of Krishna Yajur Veda has the greatest number of adherents in Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and the border regions in Maharashtra.22

Sama Veda

Sama means to bring ‘shanti’ or peace of mind.23 The Sama Veda consists of 1549 stanzas distributed in two books. Except 75 verses, all other verses of this Veda is taken entirely from Rig Veda and were meant to be recited by the Ugatri priest to certain fixed melodies during the Soma sacrifices. Hence this Veda may be called the book of chants. (Saman is the name applied to Vedic mantras that are sung) The contents of Sama Veda are derived chiefly from the 8th and 9th book of Rig Veda and resemble the Yajur Veda in having been compiled exclusively for ritual application.24 According to Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, Sama Veda is the basis of Gandharva Veda, the science of music.25

Atharva Veda

Atharva means a purohit and also a name of a rishi (Atharvana).26 This Veda has mostly rik mantras with a small number of yajus mantra.27 According to tradition Atharva Veda is mainly a contribution of sages Atharvana and Angira. Atharva Veda contains references to various aspects of spiritual and temporal importance like Brahmavidya, kingship, marriage, treatment of ailments, poetics, etc. This Veda is also connected with subsequent development of Tantric system and mentions the significance of Japa or chanting of mantras to achieve material or other benefits which form an integral part of Indian religio-mysticism till today.28 Atharva Veda is the basis of Ayurveda, Kamashastra and Dandanithi.29

Parts of the Vedas

The Brahmanas

Each Veda consists of samhitas which are collection of hymns called mantras. To each Veda are attached a treatise called Brahmanas written in prose. They are the primary source of information about sacrifices, rituals and priests. They contain numerous myths and legends put forward for illustrating ritual and sacrifices. The subject matter of the Brahmanas can be divided into two main topics of vidhi (rules) and arthavada (explanations). Thus the rules for conducting a sacrifice are supplemented by a commentary on aspects connected with the sacrifice.30 They subject matter of the Brahmanas which are attached to the various Vedas differs according to the divergent duties performed by the kind of priest connected with each Veda. The Brahmanas of the Rigveda in explaining the ritual usually limit themselves to the duties of the priest called Hotri or reciter. The Brahmanas of the Sama Veda are concerned only with the duties of the Udgaatri or chanter or the Saamans and the Brahmanas of the Yajur Veda with those of the Adhvaryu or the priest who is the actual sacrifice.31

Some of the important rishis who composed the Brahmanas are Mahidasa Aitareya the composer of Aitareya Brahmana of the Rigveda, Rishi Kausitaka who composed Kausitaki Brahmana, Rishi Taittiri the composer of Krishna Yajurveda and its Brahmana portion called Taittiriya, Rishi Jaimini, the originator of Talavakara Brahmana of the Sama Veda, Yajnavalkya the great exponent of Shukla Yajurveda and Shatapatha Brahmana.32

The Aaranyakas

As a further development of the Brahmanas we get the Aaranyakas or forest treatises. These works were probably composed for old men who had retired into forests and were thus unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring multitude of accessories and articles which could not be procured in the forest. These texts gave prominence to meditation on certain symbols for obtaining merit.33

The Upanishads

The Rishis of a much later age attempted to recover the spiritual knowledge independently by means of tapas (meditation). The philosophical truths and occult knowledge recovered by the Rishis are contained in the Upanishads. There is the list of 108 Upanishads compiled in the Muktika Upanishad. But the famous 13 Upanishads which are associated with a Brahmana book or Aaranyaka book typically constituting their ending chapter or chapters are quoted by Baadaraayana in his book Brahma Sutras. They are Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Maandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, Shvetashvatara and Mahanarayana.34

Of the well-known ten Upanishads, three belong to Atharvaveda (Prashna, Mundaka and Mandukya), two to Shukla Yajur Veda (Isha and Brihadaranyaka), two to Krishna Yajur Veda ( Katha and Taittiriya); one to Rig Veda (Aitareya) and two to Sama Veda (Kena and Chandogya).35

Topically arranged these Upanishads might be thus classified- 39 belong to the Jnanakanda and 62 to Karmakanda while seven deal with miscellaneous topics associated with Karmakanda. It might be interesting to notice at the outset that while ordinarily it is believed that the Upanishads are primarily philosophical and speculative in their topical interest, on actual examination it would be realized that the Upanishads which deal with the Karmakanda or our daily conduct in life are greater in number than those that deal with purely metaphysical speculation. The undue predominance given to metaphysical value of Upanishads is due to the great movement of Vedantic revival set afoot by acharyas like Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva.36

Vedangas- Limbs of the Veda

The term Vedangas literally means a limb of the Veda, the study of which was essential either for the reading, the understanding or the proper sacrificial employment of the Vedas. The beginning of the Vedangas go back to the period of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas where the explanation of the sacrificial ritual are mixed with occasional discussions on matters relating phonetics, etymology, grammar, metrics and astronomy. These subjects were treated systematically in due course in special treatises or texts in the form of sutras. The sutra form was meant to serve the practical purpose of presenting some science systematically and concisely so that the pupil may easily commit it to memory. The six subjects commonly comprehended under the title of Vedangas are

  1. Siksha or the science of pronunciation of letters and accents. The doctrine of shiksha arouse out of a religious need; for inaccurate pronunciation of Vedic texts was thought to bring disaster to the sacrificer.
  2. Chandas is metre
  3. Vyakarana means grammar, the purpose of its study is to avoid incorrect words.
  4. Nirukta- Etymology, the object of which was to explain or interpret difficult Vedic words.
  5. Jyotishya- Astronomy; its object was to convey such knowledge of the heavenly bodies as is necessary for fixing the days and hours of the Vedic sacrifices.37
  6. Kalpa or ceremonial- The Kalpa deals with matters such as
  • How should a particular ritual be done
  • What functions or karma should be performed by men of each caste, in which stage (ashrama)
  • Which ritual involves which mantra, which materials and which devata
  • How many Rithviks (priests) should be employed
  • What vessels of what shape and size should be used

The Kalpa saastra has been compiled by a number of sages. Six sages, Aapasthamba, Bodhaayana, Vaikhaanasa, Satyaashaada, Bharadwaja and Agnivesa have written Kalpa Sutra for Krishna Yajur Veda which is mostly prevalent in South India. For Rig Veda, sage Aaswalayana and for Shukla Yajur Veda, sage Katyaayana and for Sama Veda, sage Jaimini have composed the Kalpa Sutra.38

Language of the Vedas

The Vedas, especially the Rigveda samhita and the mantra portion of the Yajurveda belong to the early phase of the development of Sanskrit language. The Brahmanas of the Rigveda and Yajurveda present the second stage in the development of Sanskrit and belong to the period which may be called middle Sanskrit. The last stage is the classical period to which belongs the epics, earliest specimens of kavyas and dramatic plays. Panini’s Sanskrit is identified with that which preceded the epics and to the literary period between the Brahmanas and Yaska’s Nirukta.39 Paanini who lived during 5th century B.C. use the term chhandas to describe the Sanskrit language in which the Vedas were composed as distinguished from bhasha, the spoken Sanskrit language prevailing during his times. Chhandas included both samhita and the Brahmana literature.40

Purpose of the Vedas

According to Purvamimamsa, the whole Veda is concerned with sacrifices.41 Hence the Vedic religion is considered first and foremost a liturgy and only secondarily a mythological or speculative system. The Rig Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda are mentioned together as the triple Veda (Vedatrayi) and conform to ancient hieraticism.42 But apart from yajnas and methods of worship, the Vedas also mention many methods of meditation and prayers (upaasana).43 The Rig-Veda contains over ten thousand mantras, hardly one-third of them are employed in Vedic rites, the rest are employed in japa.44 Also several hymns and verses of the Rigveda are purely philosophical, cosmological, mystic and speculative.45 The Vedas also deal with various kinds of medical treatment to ensure bodily health and shantis or methods to pacify enemies and to avert the harm contemplated by them.46 According to Sri Aurobindo the Vedas are not books of rituals but books of wisdom valid for all times, particularly modern times, framed in exquisite poetry.47

Mode of Vedic Worship

At a very early stage in the development of Vedic religion, the offering of oblation in the fire to the gods was accompanied by the recitation of Vedic verses as the Vedic people held the belief that a sacrifice which was accompanied by the recitation of Vedic verses yielded desired results.48

In the beginning the ritual were very few and simple, but with the passage of time they become large in number and complicated in their performance. As the ritualistic performances became complicated the householder (yajaman) began to patronize a priest who might help in the performance of the rites and in return the yajaman gave him dakshina (wealth and cattle). When the Vedic sacrifices took a large shape the family priest alone was not able to perform the entire rituals and other priests were invited, these occasional priests were called rtviks and were given fees called dakshina.49

When the Vedic ritual developed further, the priests felt the need of a collection of verses and formulas to be recited at the performance of sacrifices and this necessity led to the compilation of certain Rigvedic verses and ritualistic formulas in the form of Yajur Veda.50

The Kalpa Sutra describes 40 Vedic rituals or karmas to be performed from the time the embryo forms in the womb to the time the body is cremated. They are divided under the heads- Grihya Sutra containing 26 rituals and Srouta Sutras containing 14 rituals. While Grihya Sutras describes the domestic rites those done at home, Srouta Sutras describes major sacrifices.51 The Srouta Sutras contained a very detailed, meticulously accurate and vivid descriptions of several sacrifices based on Brahmana texts.52

Important Vedic Sacrifices

Some of the important yajnas (sacrifices) were Agnyadheya (performed by a person with his wife with the help of four priests for two days), Agnihotra, Darsha Purnamasa, Pindapitryajna and Jyotistoma. Sacrifices like Vaishvadeva, Varunapraghasa, Sakamedha and Shunasiriya were called Chaturmasya i.e. seasonal sacrifices. Then there was Soma sacrifices, which were seven in form and were performed by kings, nobles and the rich and required 16 priests. These sacrifices were Agnistoma, Atyagnistana, Ukthya, Sodashin, Vajapeya, Atiratra and Aptoryama. Other important sacrifices were Sautramani and Ashvamedha sacrifices.53

Vedic Priests

The Vedic sacrifices required the services of specialized priests performing different duties. The Hotr priests used to recite the rik mantras and summon the Gods; he is the summoner, aahvaata. The Udgaata priest’s duty was to delight the Gods by chanting the Saaman mantras54 Verses from Rigveda and Sama Veda are recited loudly.55

Preparing the altars, bringing the fuel, placing utensils at Vedi, producing agni by churning of two fire sticks, bringing of animals, killing and making offerings to them into agni were performed by the adhvaryu priest.56 All yaju mantras were to be muttered in a low voice except Aashruta.57 The Brahma was the chief priest who led the whole ceremony without interfering in the rules of the sacrifice. He was supposed to know all the three Vedas.58 The names of other priests who were associated with Vedic rites were agnimindha, gravagarbha, shamsta, suvipra, potr, prashastr, etc.59

Interpretation of the Vedas

The hymns of Rig Veda samhita were composed at different times by different rishis and were transmitted from father to son in certain families. The composition of these hymns extended over a long period, the language is not the same throughout and sometimes it is so antiquated that they defy all efforts at interpretation and their sense was not understood even by the rishis who flourished in the very next generation.60 This led to the growth of various schools who interpreted the Vedas from their point of view. They were the Nairuktas (etymologists), the Yajnikas (ritualists or sacrificial school), Vyakaranas (grammarians), Jyautisakas (astronomers), Sampradayavids (traditionists), Adhyatmavids (philosophers), Aitihasikas (legendarians) and Bhasavids (philogists/linguists of the west)61   Parivrajakas (mystic school), Adhidaivata (naturalistic), Nayyaayikas (logicians) and Adhibuta (supra-physical).

These schools interpreted the words in the Veda differently. For instance Yaska in his Nirukta says that for the Aitihasikas the word ‘Vrtra’, means Asura, son of Tvastr, while according to the Nairuktas, ‘Vrtra’ means only cloud. In another instance the Nairuktas identified the twins mentioned in RV X.17.2 as Indra and Madhyamika, while the Aitihasikas identify them as Yama and Yami. Yaska’s Nirukta mentions the names of 17 individual predecessors like Agrayana, Kautsa, Gargya, Galava, Sakatayana, etc. whom Yaska differs often and who differ among themselves with regards to interpreting words in the Vedas.62

Though the first systematic attempt to interpret the Vedas was made by the Nairuktas, the ritualistic interpretations of the Vedas gradually supplanted the other systems of Vedic interpretations, for the sacrificial employment of the Vedic mantras came to be regarded as their main utility in the period of the Kalpa Sutras and later on.63 The earliest attempt to put ritualistic interpretation on the Vedic mantras is discernible in the compilation of the Yajur Veda (literarily meaning ‘the Veda of the ritualistic formulas) in which a considerable number of verses from Rigveda had been adapted for sacrificial purpose.64

This is why almost all the ancient extant commentaries on the Rigveda are predominantly ritualistic in their approach. The famous commentator Sayana in the introduction to his commentary on the Rigveda asserts that since the Yajur Veda is useful mainly for the performance of sacrifices, he has first explained that Veda and has later on taken up the Rigveda for explanation.65

The ritualistic interpretations occupy a predominant position not only in the commentaries of Sayana, Uvata and Mahidhara on the Yajur Veda, but also on the commentaries of Skandasvamin, Udgitha, Venkatamadhava, and Sayana on the Rigveda and also in the commentaries on the Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.66

The dominant tradition of ritual application of Vedic mantras and the tremendous influence exercised by the ritualistic texts like the Brahmanas, Kalpa Sutras and Paddhatis on the Vedic students seem to account for the preponderance of ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas.67

During modern times Swami Dayananda Saraswathi and Sri Aurobindo have interpreted the Vedas in the Adibuta (supra-physical) and Parivrajakas (mystic) method respectively.

The Adibuta method gives man-related, creature oriented, social or nationalistic interpretation of the Vedic hymns. This method has been very rarely used by the commentators of the Veda and Swami Dayananda Saraswathi alone has used this method.68

According to Sri Aurobindo the hymns of the Veda has a mystic meaning and the rishis for the sake of secrecy resorted to double meaning, the secret word was understood only by the one who was purified in soul and awakened. But P.V.Kane objects to his view and says that the most sublime thought of the Rigveda is that there is only one spirit behind the various gods; Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, that originally there was only One, there was no day and night, no death and immortality. No secrecy was observed about this fundamental truth and it was proclaimed in mantras that can be understood even by an ordinary man of today who knows a little Sanskrit. Because we cannot understand some mantras does not mean that the ancient seers purposely composed mantras with two meanings.69

According to Ram Gopal the problem of Vedic interpretation is that since the language of the Vedas and especially that of the Rigveda is highly developed, polished and often figurative any attempt to present a literal translation of the Vedic hymns according to the meanings assigned to common words in the later Sanskrit is bound to lead to a gross misinterpretation of the Vedas.70

Vedic shakas (branches) and charanas (schools)

Veda Vyasa had divided the Vedas into four and taught Rigveda to Paila, Yajurveda to Vaishampaayana, Samaveda to Jaimini and Atharvaveda to Sumantu. Paila in turn divided the Rig Veda into two samhita and gave one each to Indrapramati and Baskala. Indrapramati taught it to his son Maandukeya. Baskala divided his samhita into four and taught it to Bodhi, Aadimaadhava, Yajnavalkya and Parashara. Vaishampaayana made 27 divisions of Yajurveda and taught it to his disciples. Jaimini’s great grand- son, Sutva divided the Samaveda into thousand branches. Sumantu taught Atharvaveda to Kabandha who split it into two and gave each to his disciples, Devadarsha and Pathya.71 In this way the original Veda was divided into four and later subdivided into a number of branches and sub branches called shakas.

The text of a Vedic shaka would grow into a living institution and spread into offshoots claiming numerous teachers and students within its fold. The original teacher was the nucleus round whom there grew up an appropriate literature of exposition like the Brahmanas to which contribution were made by teachers and pupils of successive generations expanding their literary heritage. The charana represented the type of educational institution in which one particular recension or branch of the Veda was studied by a group of pupils called after the original founder. For example Rishi Tittiri promulgated the Taittriya sakha of which the students were also called Taittiriyas. These charana in course of time developed its full literature comprising of Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishad text, Kalpa and srauta sutras and later on even its Dharma Sutra.72 According to the divergence of the Brahmanas of different shakas there occurred the divergences of content and the length of the Upanishads associated with them. Thus the Upanishads attached to the Brahmanas of the Aitareya and Kausitaki schools are called respectively Aitareya and Kausitaki Upanishads.73

The establishment of numerous branches may also be due to a variety of factors like geographical location, ritual specialization and doctrinal and ritual disputes. It is within these branches that most of the Vedic texts were composed and orally handed down. Each of these Vedic branches has as its foundation text a samhita (collection) of verses or liturgical formulas and a prose text Brahmana explaining the meaning of the liturgy. The samhita was by and large common to all the branches of a Veda, even though some may have their own recension of it, while each branch has its own Brahmana.74

These shakas followed their own methods of recitation of the text, preservation of the knowledge, interpretation and application of the mantras.75 During Paanini’s time the Rigveda had been divided into 21 shakas (branches), the Yajurveda into 101 shakas, the Samaveda into 1000 shakas and the Atharvaveda into nine shakas. 76

Available recensions of the Veda as present

As of now only one, Shakalakas of the Rigveda; two, Shaunakiya and Paippalada of the Atharvaveda; three, Kauthumas, Ranayaniyas and Jaiminiyas of the Sama Veda and five of the Yajurveda (three of Krishna YV namely Taittiriyas, Kathas and Maitrayaniyas and two of Shukla YV namely Madhyandinas and Kanvas) recensions are available.77

Methodology for Vedic studies: The study of Vedas began after the upanayana ceremony which was performed at the age of eight for Brahmins, at the age of ten for Kshtriyas and twelve for Vaishyas. Gautama Smrtis says 12 years is required to study one Veda. Manu Smrti says one should study the three Vedas for 36 years under a guru or 18 years for two Vedas and nine years for one Veda. The student should not only memorize it but also understand its meaning and actually perform the sacrifices and also teach it or expound it. Daksa says Vedabhyasa (study of Vedas) comprehends five matters, viz, memorizing it, reflection over it, constant repetition of it, japa and imparting it to pupils. These were ideals attained by a few persons only, while most Brahmins generally rested content with memorizing one Veda or a portion of it.78

Interpolation in the Vedas

Dr. B.R.Ambedkar in his work- Who were the Shudras, citing Colebrooke 79 and Max Muller 80 opines that the Purusha Sukta verse in the tenth mandala of the Rigveda is an interpolation. Similarly H.L.Hariyappa 81 infers that two of the Rigvedic verses (1.24.12 and 1.24.13) ascribed to Shunashshepa could be a later insertion or interpolation by samhita designers in order to remind themselves of that great Vedic event. Regarding how interpolation takes place we get an idea from Ghasi Ram who has translated the commentaries on the Veda by Maharshi Dayanada Saraswathi into English. According to him whenever an author aspired to give currency to his views he adopted the most convenient course by composing a work of his own and sending it out into the world in the name of Vyasa or some other person whose authority was acknowledge by all and sundry or if he dared not do this he quietly interpolated his views into an authoritative work. The manuscript so tampered with was copied and circulated in places far and wide and thus gained currency in the country and came to be regarded as an authentic copy of the original. This explains the fact why we find views diametrically opposed tone another advocated in one and the same book.82 Hence Katre in his work, Introduction to Indian Textual Criticism says that Interpolation is a natural instinct in man and such cannot be considered a crime. Considering the texts which have been transmitted for centuries by oral tradition only- namely the Veda and Vedic literature- the aspect of interpolation need not be doubted at all, “for the organs of tradition were not machines, but men”.83

Status of Vedic worship at present

According to the Purvamimaamsa, Vedas are eternal, self-existent and of absolute authority.84 Manu states that in case of conflict between Sruti and Smrti, the former prevails.85 Still the learned men of the 10th century prohibited about 55 customs and practices sanctioned by the Vedas, declaring them to be harmful in the Kali age. The reason for this injunction was, during 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D. vast changes in the religions and social ideas of the Indian people and in their customs and usages had taken place. Buddhism arose, flourished and disappeared from India, the caste system became rigid in the matter of food, marriage and social behavior; Vedic rites, divinities worshipped and language underwent great transformation. Animal sacrifice though occasionally performed had ceased to be looked upon as meritorious. As the common people had ceased to follow ancient ritual and worship, the religious literature had to be recast to suit new ideals and new worship.86

The living Hindu religion of today is essentially Tantric. Even a few genuine Vedic rites that are preserved and are supposed to be derived straight from the Vedas, i.e. the Sandhya have been modified by the addition of tantric practices.87 Currently rituals like Chandihoma, Vishnuyaaga, etc. imitating the character of srouta rituals are mixed with tantric elements and performed.88 The Gods worshipped today by the Hindus are Shiva and Vishnu and his avatar’s like Rama and Krishna. Shiva and Vishnu were minor gods during the Vedic age. Later Shiva absorbed the functions of Agni and Vishnu those of Indra and Surya. The Vaishnava, Shakta and Shaiva movement on which the present Hinduism is based is influenced by the Agamas. The rituals of the temples based on Agamas killed out the Vedic yajnas.89 Vedic sacrifices are now very rarely performed except a few simple ones like Darshapurnamaasa and Charturmaasyas.90


  1. Subodh Kapoor (Edited)- Encyclopedia of Vedic Philosophy: The Age, Religion, Literature, vol-8, Cosmos Publication, New Delhi, 2002. P.2071
  2. Ram Gopal- The History and Principles of Vedic Interpretation, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1983. P.1
  3. Shrikant G. Talageri- The Rigveda- A Historical Analysis, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 2000, p.6
  4. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Krishna and Shukla Yajur Veda, Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture, Bangalore, 2004, p.16
  5. Swami Mahadevananda Giri- Vedic Culture, University of Calcutta, 1947
  6. See
  7. Ibid
  8. L.Kashyap, Op.cit, p. 16
  9. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati- The Vedas, Bharatiya Vidhya Bhawan, Mumbai, 2006, pp:108,109
  10. Ibid, p.43
  11. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Rigveda, Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture, Bangalore, 2005, p.2
  12. Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- I, Cambridge University Press, 1922, pp: 16,17
  13. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Rigveda, pp: 29,30
  14. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.85
  15. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Krishna and Shukla Yajur Veda, p.2
  16. A. MacDonell-History of Sanskrit Literature, D.Appleten & Company, New York, 1900, p.30
  17. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.45
  18. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Krishna and Shukla Yajur Veda, pp:3,19
  19. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Rigveda, p.7
  20. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Krishna and Shukla Yajur Veda, p.94
  21. Ibid, p.19
  22. Ibid, p.11
  23. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.47
  24. A. MacDonell, Op.cit, pp:171,172
  25. Introduction to the commentary on the Vedas by Maharshi Dayanand Saraswathi, Translated from the original Sanskrit by Ghasi Ram, Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, New Delhi, 1984, p.382
  26. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.47
  27. L.Kashyap- Essentials of Rigveda, p.7
  28. Introductory remarks by M.C.Joshi in The Atharva Veda by Devichand, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Ltd, 1997, p.x
  29. Hukum Chand Patyal- Significance of the Atharvaveda in Journal of the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, vol-I, edited by G.K.Pai and A.P.Jamkhedkar, p.46
  30. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, p.1223
  31. A. MacDonell, Op.cit, p.33
  32. Swami Mahadevananda Giri, cit, pp:281,282
  33. Surendranath Dasgupta, cit, p.14
  34. The Light of Veda- A Practical Approach by T.V.Kapali Sastry- Compiled by R.L.Kashyap, Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture, Bangalore, 2004, p.15
  35. K.Venkatesan – The Upanishads and the Atharvaveda, QJMS– VOL XXVI July 1935, No 1,p.53
  36. Ibid, p.51
  37. Vedangas and their Value- G.Sitaramiah, QJMS, vol-32, April 1942, pp:375-76
  38. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, pp: 169,170
  39. Krishnamachariar, History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, TTD Press, Madras, 1937, pp:3-5
  40. S.Agrawala-India as known to Panini, University of Lucknow, 1953, p.318
  41. V.Kane, Op.cit, p.984
  42. Hukum Chand Patyal- cit, p.43
  43. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.85
  44. V.Kane, Op.cit, p.1223
  45. Ibid, 983
  46. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit,, p.85
  47. The Light of Veda- A Practical Approach, cit, p.viii
  48. Ram Gopal, cit, p.23
  49. B.Chaubey- Origin and Evolution of Vedic Rituals in the Journal of the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, Op.cit, pp:17,19
  50. Ram Gopal, cit, p.23
  51. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.170
  52. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-2, part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1941, p.980
  53. Ibid, pp: 986-1255 gives details about these sacrifices
  54. The Light of Veda- A Practical Approach, cit, p.30
  55. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-2, part II,p.984
  56. B.Chaubey, Op.cit, p.20
  57. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-2, part II,p.984
  58. Paul Deussen- Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, vol-I, translated from Germany by V.M.Bedekar and G.B.Palsule, Motilal Banaridass Publishers, New Delhi, 1987, p.1
  59. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-2, part II,p.981
  60. Krishnamachariar, Op.cit, p. xix
  61. Hariyappa- Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages, Poona, 1953, pp: 132,133
  62. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II,p.984
  63. Ram Gopal, cit, p.30
  64. Ibid, p.22
  65. Ibid, p.30
  66. Ibid
  67. Ibid
  68. Ramnath Vedalankar’s article entitled- Dayananda’s unique contribution to Vedic interpretation in World Perspectives on Swami Dayananda Saraswathi– Editor, Ganga Ram Garg, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1984, p.11
  69. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II,pp:986,987
  70. Ram Gopal, cit, p.12
  71. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, pp:304,305
  72. S.Agrawala, Op.cit,pp:286,295-298
  73. Surendranath Dasgupta, cit, p.30
  74. Patrick Olivelle- The Dharma Sutras- The Law Codes of Ancient India, Oxford University Press, 1999, p.xxii
  75. Jyesht Verman- The Vedas, Oxford and IBH Publishing Co Pvt Ltd. 1992, pp: 9,10
  76. S.Agrawala, Op.cit,pp:14,15
  77. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, cit, p.112
  78. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II,pp:1180-1182
  79. Colebrooke says that in language, metre and style the Purusha Sukta is very different from the rest of the prayers with which it is associated. It has a decidedly more modern tone and must have been composed after the Sanskrit language had been refined and its grammar and rhythm perfected.
  80. In the opinion of Max Muller “There can be little doubt, for instance, that the 90th hymn of the 10th book… is modern both in its character and in its diction. It is full of allusions to the sacrificial ceremonials, it uses technically philosophical terms, it mentions the three seasons in the order of Vasanta, spring, Grishma, summer and Sharad, autumn; it contains the only passage in the Rig Veda where the four castes are enumerated. The evidence of language for the modem date of this composition is equally strong. Grishma, for instance, the name for the hot season, does not occur in any other hymn of the Rig Veda; and Vasanta also, the name of spring does not belong to the earliest vocabulary of the Vedic poets. It occurs but once more in the Rig Veda (x. 161.4), in a passage where the three seasons are mentioned in the order of Sharad, autumn; Hemanta, winter; and Vasanta, spring.”
  81. Hariyappa- Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages, Poona, 1953, p. 186
  82. Introduction to the commentary on the Vedas by Maharshi Dayanand Saraswathi, cit, pp:vii,viii
  83. Cited in L.Hariyappa’s- Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages, Poona, 1953, p. 186
  84. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II,p.1270
  85. Ibid, p.1265
  86. Ibid, p.1267
  87. T.Srinivasa Iyengar- Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Theosophical Publishing Society, Benaras and London, 1909, p.130
  88. G.Kshikar- The Shrauta Ritual and its Relevance Today in the Journal of the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, Op.cit, p.55
  89. T.Srinivasa Iyengar, Op.cit, pp:124,128
  90. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-II, part II,p.978