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Tag Archives | Vedic Tradition

How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)

As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.

For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited

The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11

When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)

This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.

PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

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A Course on Mathematics in India (From Vedic Period to Modern Times)

In 662 CE, a Syrian bishop named Severus Sebokht wrote

When Ibn Sina (980 – 1037 CE) was about ten years old, a group of missionaries belonging to an Islamic sect came to Bukhara from Egypt  and he writes that it is from them that he learned Indian arithmetic. This, George Gheverghese Joseph, writes in The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics shows that Indian math was being used from the borders of central Asia to North Africa and Egypt.

Though there is a such a rich history, we rarely learn about the greatness of Indian mathematicians in schools. Even our intellectuals are careful to glorify the West and ignore the great traditions of India. A prime example of that was an article by P. Govindapillai, the Communist Party ideologue, in which he lamented that the world did not know about the contributions of the Arab scientist al-Hassan. In response, I wrote an Op-Ed in Mail Today in 2009.

Thus it is indeed great to see that NPTEL ran a course on Mathematics in India – From Vedic Period to Modern Times. The entire series of around 40 lectures is available online. It is there on YouTube as well. It starts with Mathematics in ancient India with the Śulbasūtras and goes past the period of Ramanujam. It goes through various regional scientists including the members of the Kerala School of Astronomy and covers the difference between the Greco-Roman system of proofs and how Indian mathematicians did it. Kudos to Prof. M. D. Srinivas, Prof. M. S. Sriram and Prof.K. Ramasubramanian for making this available to the general public.

PS: @sundeeprao points to this course on Ayurvedic Inhertance of India

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The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda

Prof. Subhash Kak has put his book The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda in the public domain (via Michel Danino).  From the introduction of the book

My own discovery was triggered by an essay in a popular magazine in November 1992 pointing out the marvelous coincidence that the moon and the sun are nearly of identical size when viewed from the earth. I had an overpowering feeling that the matter of size had something to do with the structure of the R. gveda. Checking the text in my library, I quickly discovered that the number of hymns encoded facts about the passage of the sun and the moon. The next task was to make sure that the correspondence was not just a coincidence, which required a careful sifting of numerical and textual data. I later found a confirmation of these numbers in the structure of the Atharvaveda and the Bhagavadgita.

There are those who argue that human progress can be measured only in terms of scientific progress. To such people the question of the science of the R. gveda is of much importance, for it is the oldest complete book that has come down to mankind.

Scholarly opinion has often swung between two extreme views on the past: one barbaric, the other idyllic. In truth, the past was much more of a complex affair than suggested by either of these labels. The discovery of the astronomical code not only allows us a new look at the rise of early science, it also focuses on the need to find the developmental process at the basis of the hymns[The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda]

I have not read this book yet, but will do soon. You can download the entire PDF here

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Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.

At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.

The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]

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The Lost River: Harappans and Vedic People

Michel Danino’s The Lost River (Penguin, March 2010) has been reviewed by V. Rajamani in the well-known scientific journal Current Science (25 December 2010, vol. 99, no. 12, pp. 1842–43)

Part three of the book deals with the important question ‘If Ganges civilization was built upon Harappan legacy, and if so, how much of a legacy?’ By comparing the similarities in architecture, town planning, weights and scales, technology and crafts, the Brahmi script and the religious symbols of Harappan and Gangetic civilizations, the author concluded that: (i) Indianness started with Harappans, (ii) Harappans were Rig Vedic people and (iii) the present Ganges civilization is a new avatar of the Indus– Sarasvati civilization. The discussion to counter the various arguments of several earlier workers to negate the existence of the Sarasvati River in the geographic domain of present-day Ghaggar and its mightiness makes interesting reading for those who believe in the complexities of nature.[Current Science, Dec, 2010]

According to Danino’s book, the Rig Vedic people lived during the Harappan period, but that does not mean that all Harappans were Vedic people. This is what I wrote in my review in the Aug 2010 issue of Pragati.

In the absence of any new Aryan material culture and with genetic studies discrediting an Aryan invasion/migration, Mr Danino argues that there can only be one conclusion: Vedic culture was present in the region in the third millennium BCE. Many Indian archaeologists also argue that Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period. Mr Danino, however, refrains from concluding that the Harappans were Vedic people because such a conclusion can only be made after the Indus script has been deciphered.[The mysterious Sarasvati]

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