Bandhutā in the Brāhmaṇas

Succumbing to various influences-from the abrahma monotheisms, the native bhakti tradition as well as the gross perversion of neo-vedānta, many Hindus today display a disdainful attitude towards ritual, discounting its value as a method of transmuting theoretical statements and abstract concepts into a concrete, practical experience. Many neo- vedāntins cite well-known “catchphrases” from an upaniṣat without appreciating the ritual context in which the upaniṣad-s were born. After all, the bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣat opens with the aśva and aśvamedha brāhmaṇa-s. Many passages in the upaniṣads require at the very least a basic knowledge of the chandāṃsi, sāman chants and an acquaintance with brāhmaṇa texts treating the subject of ritual. Rituals, whether it be of the vaidika and tāntrika type, invoke a complex set of correspondences between two or more of the following: 1. mantra-s, 2. Ritual actions, 3. Ritual implements and paraphernalia, 4. Individuals participating in the ritual, 5. Physical, non-sentient entities, 6. devatas and ṛṣis relating to the mantra-s and finally, 7. Metaphysical Abstractions/Personified Concepts

The purpose of the brāhmaṇa-s (and to a lesser extent, the Āraṇyakas) has been grossly misunderstood by Mleccha indologists whose condescension for these texts know no rational bounds. For instance, the pretamata stooge max mueller delivered a bigoted tirade against the brāhmaṇas, which for the purposes of our current discussion, is worth quoting in its entirety:

“The Brahmanas represent no doubt a most interesting phase in the history of the Indian mind, but judged by themselves, as literary productions, they are most disappointing. No one would have supposed that at so early a period, and in so primitive a state of society, there could have risen up a literature which for pedantry and downright absurdity can hardly be matched anywhere. There is no lack of striking thoughts, of bold expressions, of sound reasoning, and curious traditions in these collections. But these are only like the fragments of a torso, like precious gems set in brass and lead. The general character of these works is marked by shallow and insipid grandiloquence, by priestly conceit, and antiquarian pedantry. It is most important to the historian that he should know how soon the fresh and healthy growth of a nation can be blighted by priestcraft and superstition. It is most important that we should know that nations are liable to these epidemics in their youth as well as in their dotage. These works deserve to be studied as the physician studies the twaddle of idiots, and the raving of madmen.”

Surrounded with spiteful ignorance on all sides, in the middle of it all, mueller does note that “there is no lack of striking thoughts, of bold expressions…” We would get to these bold and striking thoughts in a while. The fact remains that many early indologists showed little regard for the brāhmaṇas. Lest we should naively presume that poor scholarship is the reason for the brāhmaṇas being singled out for the harshest criticism, the following polemic from rudolph roth exposes the ulterior motive behind it:

“[T]he Indian nation has…carefully treasured up, and at all times regarded as sacred, the productions of its earliest period; but it has attached the main importance to a worthless supplement, and lost from sight and from knowledge the truly valuable portion. Only once in the whole long course of its later history has it enjoyed a period worthy of being compared with that primitive one: during the first ages, namely, of Buddhism. Those, then, who are called to labor in the wide field of Indian missions may confidently hold up before the people its own antiquity as a model…”

The ‘worthless supplement’ is of course the brāhmaṇas, which are alleged to lack fidelity to the “productions of the earliest period”, the ṛg-saṃhitā. The brāhmaṇas are presented as texts that have departed from the profound heights of the saṃhitā and went astray into degenerate ritualism. This meme of “Philosophy good, ritual bad” is a crudely simplistic formula. However, wicked missionaries have exploited this easy formula by constant repetition and inculcating a hatred of ritualism in the minds of uninitiated and unlearned Hindus.

What indologists stated, Hindu traitors soon followed suit with neo- vedāntins and pracchanna- abrahmīyas condemning the brāhmaṇa-s as texts for the unenlightened. Naturally, most of their membership are fallen brāhmaṇa-s or simply not insiders to the tradition. They buy into the myths of their own opponents and shamelessly thrust enemy worldviews onto our own, injuring the memory of the great forebears of the tradition. The pracchanna-abrahmīyas, in what can only be called “a tribute to irony”, call themselves ārya-s, when in fact they have scant respect for the vedic tradition. These abrahmīyas disguised as nobles, adopt the tenets of the Abrahamic religions while claiming to defend Hinduism from it. Like the western monotheists, they have a need for a fundamental text and for that purpose, they chose the saṃhitā texts and derided the Brāhmaṇas and other parts of the vedic textual tradition. They may have not made a particularly great impact on Hindus but they are representative of the zeitgeist that made a whole generation of Hindus deride the ritual texts as unworthy of regard.

A common criticism of the brāhmaṇas is its seemingly irrational approach to various matters such as etymology and interpretation of the mantra-portion it “comments” on. The correspondences (bandhutā) mentioned above seem to be unfounded on any reasoning and seem nonsensical. As an example, we take the following passage from the śatapatha brāhmaṇa, where svaidāyana gautama of the udīcya region explains to the famous uddālaka āruṇi the correspondences between the ritual structure of the darśapūrṇamāsa (New and Full-Moon sacrifices) and certain practical realities with respect to dental growth.

atha yadapuro’nuvākyakāh prayājā bhavanti tasmādimāh prajā adantakā jāyante’tha

yatpuro’nuvākyavanti havīṃṣi bhavanti tasmādāsāṃ jāyante’tha

yadapuro’nuvākyakā anuyājā bhavanti tasmādāsām prabhidyantetha

yatpuro’nuvākyavantah patnīsaṃyājā bhavanti tasmādāsāṃ saṃtiṣṭhantetha

yadapuro’nuvākyakaṃ samiṣṭayajurbhavati tasmādāsām punaruttame vayasi sarva eva prabhidyante (śatapatha brāhmaṇa

And inasmuch, not having invitatory verses (a-puro’nuvākyā), the preliminary offerings (prayāja) are, therefore here, creatures, without teeth, are born and

Inasmuch, having invitatory verses, the principal offerings (havīṃṣi) are, therefore they (teeth) springs up (in creatures) and

Inasmuch, not having invitatory verses, the after-offerings (anuyāja) are, even hence they (teeth) breaks-i.e.-decays-(in creatures) and

Inasmuch, having the invitatory verses, the offerings to the wives (of the gods) (patnīsaṃyāja) are, therefore teeth comes to stay (in creatures) and

Inasmuch, not having the invitatory verses, the samiṣṭayajus oblation is, even thus they (teeth) again, in the last stage, all decay.

To neatly re-state the correspondences, they are as follows:

  1. puronuvākyā, or the invitatory verses to invoke the deities, correspond to teeth in creatures
  2. prayāja, or the preliminary offerings corresponding to birth. Both are initial stages in the sacrifice and human life respectively. And both are without “teeth”, with the prayāja lacking the metaphorical teeth of puronuvākyā while humans lack teeth at birth.
  3. havīṃṣi, or the principal offerings correspond to the period of growth after birth. Both are principal stages in their respective domains and both represent the growth of teeth.
  4. anuyāja, the after-offerings correspond to young adolescence during which tooth decay does occur.
  5. patnīsaṃyāja, the offerings to the wives of the deities, correspond to the long period of adulthood where teeth are relatively stable. It helps to note that the wife of the sacrificer is involved only in this rite and the rich conjugal symbolism of the patnīsaṃyāja is pretty apparent to even an amateur reader (E.g. The puronuvākyā for this is recited in a low voice as the patnīsaṃyāja represents union and union is done in a low voice.) The references to soma and tvaṣṭṛ acting with regards to the male seed make it abundantly clear that the correspondence between adulthood and the patnīsaṃyāja is quite apt.
  6. samiṣṭayajus is the last offering to be made before dismissal of the deities. The lack of the puronuvākyā in it is a ritual counterpart to the decay of teeth in the last stage of a person’s life, when he is of advanced age.

At first sight, these linkages appear to be nothing short of absurd. But “scholars” and lay readers alike miss the point of such passages. When the brāhmaṇa says that it is because a certain rite has the puronuvākyā, humans have teeth in a particular life-stage, it is not intended to be an actual, explanation of the anatomical phenomenon in question. So, no. The ritualists did not seriously think that teeth decayed because of the way a certain rite is executed. But nor is the converse true. The structure of the five offerings in the darśapūrṇamāsa, a rite so well-established and elaborately discussed in the ritual texts, was not based on various stages of dental development. As a matter of fact, the bandhutā-s discussed in this particular chapter of the brāhmaṇa are not stated elsewhere. It would have been very difficult for ritual thinkers, however creative they must have been, to envision a connection between two entities as remotely related as “teeth” and the puronuvākyā recitation! It is a testimony to the ingeniousness of svaidāyana whose genius lies in seeing a bandhutā tying a renowned ritual with a seemingly most profane aspect of worldly life (i.e. growth and decay of teeth) that couldn’t possibly be more distant in content from a ritualist’s introspections.

What, then, is the purpose of discovering such a bandhutā? Criticizing it for a lack of “philosophy” or “rigorous logic” or condemning it for “fanciful etymology” does not do justice to a proper understanding of its raison d’etre.  Though brāhmaṇa-s are “supposed” to explain the mantras of a saṃhita text, they do have an agenda of their own, although they do offer otherwise unavailable insight to some of the more difficult hymns. While there was some ritualism at the time of the ṛg-saṃhitā, it attained greater complexity in the brāhmaṇa-s whose authors, ritualists, were both intrigued and disturbed by the profound chasm between ‘this’ world (the world of matter, the profane, non-sacred) and the ‘other’ world (the world of spirit). From the bodies of the sacrificer and his priests to bricks for making altars and ritual instruments, profane matter was very much part of sacrifice, which had to be divine. The ritualists are faced with a contradiction. In that case, it was the bandhutā that transformed erstwhile mere matter or a mundane experience into something sacred and resolved the contradiction.

As we have noted in the very first paragraph, bandhutā-s can be established in a complex of more or less seven categories. However, we can demarcate this canopy of bandhutā-s into two broad sets. The first type of correspondence involved the discovery of links between aspects of ritual and facets of earthly life outside the ritual context. The very first brāhmaṇa passage we discussed, regarding the “teeth”, would be an example of this type. The growth and decay of teeth has no obvious ritual meaning. Such bandhutā-s attempt to sacralize all of mundane existence, all phenomenon outside the ritual context by discovering its appropriate ritual counterpart.

The second broad set of bandhutā-s is between elements within the ritual arena itself. It may involve links between reciting certain mantras and ritual acts, or between such acts and a philosophical/mystical concept. Let us take an example from the same text:

tānkathamāprīṇīyādítyāhuḥ samiddho añjankṛdaram matīnāmíti

bārhadukthībhirāprīṇīyādbṛhadúktho ha vaí vāmadevyo’śvo vā

sāmudriraśvasyāprīrdadarśa tā etāstābhirevainametadāprīṇīma íti

vadanto na tathā kuryājjāmadagnībhirevāprīṇīyātprajāpatirvaí

jamadagniḥ so’śvamedhaḥ svayaivainaṃ devatayā samardhayati

tasmājjāmadagnībhirevāprīṇīyāt (śatapatha brāhmaṇa

‘How shall he appease them?’ With the “samiddho añjankṛdaram matīnāmíti”, the

bārhaduktha āpri verses that bṛhadúktha, the son of vāmadeva, or

aśva, son of samudra, saw as the āpri verses of the horse.

With these (verses) he appeases it,’ so they say.

Let him not do that; By the jāmadagna (RV 10.110, the āpri of the jāmadagnyas) he appeases; for

jāmadagni is prajāpati, as is the aśvamedha. With its own deity he accomplishes it (aśvamedha)

Let him thus appease with the jāmadagna verses

This is a rather simple example of a whole class of bandhutā-s which attempt to discover an underlying unity between various aspects of the sacrifice. In the particular example we gave, we note an extremely common structure in the method of imparting ritual knowledge. An initial position is raised and then rejected by putting forth an alternative. It can be argued that the first position is also a bandhutā since the bārhaduktha āpri verses are composed specially for the occasion of the aśvamedha and therefore there is a rather straightforward and simple correspondence. However, the second position attempts to find a more fundamental bandhutā, one that is beneath the surface. Hence, instead of finding a āpri hymn that is directly related to the aśvamedha, it finds a mutual referent for both the aśvamedha as well as the āpri-i.e. prajāpati. Of course, whether this bandhutā is indeed more suitable than the former one (or the  is an issue to be left to an informed reader. The idea behind unity in sacrifice can be traced to the prototypical sacrifice par excellence, as stated in asya vāmasya hymn, ṛg veda 1.164.50a as well as RV 10.90.16:

yajñena yajñamayajanta devāstāni dharmāṇi prathamānyāsan

“With the sacrifice, the gods sacrificed the sacrifice, these were the first rites/laws”

puruṣa himself is the sacrifice (púruṣo vaí yajñah, śatapatha Br., kauṣītaki Br. 17.5.9) as well as the one to be sacrificed. prajāpati is also spoken of as the sacrifice itself. The bandhutā between prajāpati and the aśvamedha or jamadagni is suggested as better than the original idea. And this is the methodology of the brāhmaṇas. Constant reworking of correspondences. New models of bandhutā-s are theorized. It is not difficult to see how the concept of the unity of ritual would have led to transcendental beings like prajāpati, puruṣa, etc and eventually the brahman of the upaniṣads. Another example of bandhutā-s from the veda is as follows:

jagatā sindhuṃ divyastabhāyad rathantare sūryaṃ paryapaśyat RV 1.164.25

By the jagatī, he established the waters in heaven and in the rathantara, he saw the sun

More clearly, in RV 10.130.4,

agnér gāyatrī́ abhavat sayúgvā uṣṇíhayā savitā́ sám babhūva

anuṣṭúbhā sóma ukthaír máhasvān bŕ̥haspáter br̥hatī́ vā́cam āvat

With agni, gāyatrī was yoked together, with uṣṇíh savitṛ

With the anuṣṭubh, soma exalted by hymns; in bṛhaspati the bṛhatī aided his speech

After stating a few more correspondences, the hymn states in verse 5 that it is by this knowledge (of bandhutā) men became ṛṣis: téna cākl̥pra ŕ̥ṣayo manuṣyā̀ḥ

We have only briefly explored the fascinating subject of bandhutā. The theory of ritual correspondence is not completely unique to the vedic texts as one notes it in tantra-s (though, to a lesser and simpler extent) and more interestingly among the Neoplatonist Theurgists such as Iamblichus and Proclus, in whose writings we see the concepts of symbola and synthemata which, arguably, may be understood as counterparts of the vedic bandhutā.

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