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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Vedic Chanting -- a Perfectly Formulated Oral Tradition -- Dr. S. Yegnasubramanian

Vedic Chanting -- a Perfectly Formulated Oral Tradition -- Dr. S.
Our tradition believes that the Vedas are the breath of God Himself!
With that belief, our Rishis exercised enormous care to preserve the
Vedas in its original form without the infiltration of any errors.
Especially in the absence of writing, and through only an oral
transmission from father-to- son or teacher-to-disciple, for
thousands of years, this is an accomplishment of unimaginable
proportion! Considering the vast magnitude of mantras contained in
the vedas, such a preservation, with built-in safeguards, is mind
It is believed that the complete benefit of Veda mantras could be
achieved only when the following conditions are met:
o Correct pronunciation of letters (words)
o Correct duration for utterance of letters (words) -- and,
o Correct intonation of letters,
Our Rishis prescribed several fool-proof methods to correctly recite
the ved mantras.
Six ways of recitation were considered incorrect and they are:
One who chants in a sing-song fashion, who chants fast, who nods his
head up and down without actually raising or lowering the pitch, who
reads from a book, who chants without knowing the meaning, and who
chants in a feeble voice, are considered incorrect .
They believed that altering the pitch even (without any change in
words and duration), might lead to diametrically opposite effects, as
related in the story of Vrtra who, instead of killing Indra, got
killed by Indra by just a change in the intonation alone of the
mantras chanted by Vrtra’s father, Tvashta.
The rules of correct pronunciation and articulation of sounds are
given in the Vedanga, known as Seeksha. Seeksha deals with varNa
(letters), svar: (pitch); [there are essentially three svaras,
namely, anudatta (gravely accented or low pitched), udatta (high
pitched or acutely accented), svarita (circumflexly accented)]
maatraa (duration -- a prosodial unit of time); balam (strength or
force of articulation); saama (uniformity); and santaana:
(continuity) during recitation.
Our ancestors devised unique methods to protect and maintain the
basic Veda mantras in its original form through various patterns and
combinations of recitation. The basic mantra is called vakya or
samhita paatha which is a full sentence. Splitting them word by word
is known as pada paatha, which gives the knowledge of each word to
the student.
Next is krama paatha, where the first word of the mantra is added to
the second, the second to the third and so on, until the whole mantra
is completed. This method enables the student not only to know
individual words but also how to combine words in recitation and the
changes in svara that occur as a result of such combination.
Both Pada and Krama methods of chanting retain the natural order of
words of the samhita paatha and so, are known as prakrti or natural.
For example, if we take sentence consisting of six words a-b-c-d-e-f,
in samhita paatha, it will be chanted as six separate words a, b, c,
d, e and f in pada paatha will be recited as a-b, b-c, c-d, d-e, and
e-f in krama paatha. Actually, a reciter proficient in chanting in
the krama format is honored as a kramavit !
In addition, they devised eight other combinations which do not
follow the natural order, and are known as vikriti or artificial
order. The vikritis are given in the following verse: They are,
jataa, maalaa, sikhaa, rekhaa, dhwaja, danda, ratha and ghana.
Among these only jataa and ghana are prevalent (or, only !) practices
in the Krishna Yajur Veda which is mostly predominant in the South.
In Sukla Yajur Veda, which is mostly predominant in Banaras and in
the North, (the Madhyandina and Kanva schools) all the eight vikritis
were practiced.
However, today, there may not be any scholars at all who might know
all these vikritis Jataa (braid) paatha In the above example, the six
words in the line, when chanted in the jataa format becomes, a-b-b-a-
a-b; b-c-c-b-b-c; c-d-d-c-c-d; d-e-ed-d-e; e-f-f-e-e-f and so on. As
can be seen, the forward-reverseforward arrangement of words resemble
the way ladies braid their hair, and so this practice of chanting is
termed jataa!
Two types of maalaa (garland) exist: a)krama maalaa and b) pushpa
This is simialr to krama paatha in that two-word units with the
characteristic overlapping are the foundation. sikhaa (top knot) is
similar to jataa except that, instead of two words being repeated
forwards and backwards, three words are linked. Recitations in rekhaa
(row), dhwaja (flag), dand (staff), and ratha (chariot) are more
complex and the reader can refer to Wayne Howard [2] for details.
Mention can be made here that there are three of ratha, namely,
dvipaada (two wheels), tripaada (three wheels) and catuspaada (4
wheels). Each wheel corresponds to a quarter verse (paada) of the
text. Among these, dvipaada chatuspaada varieties are the ratha types
most widely cultivated today.
Ghana (bell) paatha
This is one of the most popular format of recitations and requires
years of learning and practice by the student. A scholar proficient
in recitation in this format is honored as a ghana paathi . Here the
arrangement of words take the shape of a bell.
For example, the group of words a-b-c-d-e-f mentioned earlier, when
chanted in the ghana format will be, a-b-b-a-a-b-c-c-b-a-a-bc; b-c-c-
b-b-c-d-d-c-b-b-d; and so on.
The earliar illustration of six words, when written in ghana format
will appear as follows:
Please note that, what was originally six words in the samhita,
evolve in to about sixty words in the ghana format -- a ten fold
increase in this case -- that gives an idea of how complex the
chanting can become with larger sections of the mantras !! We can now
appreciate the rigor a ghana pathi has to go through in his education
to learn, by heart, the thousands of mantras, to be able to recite in
ghana format.
Our Rishis devised all these elaborate and complicated system of
chanting in order to preserve the purity of the sound, word,
pronunciation, intonation, pitch and sound combination of the ved
mantras which are the foundation for our sanaatana dharma itself.
Also, repetition of words in many ways, the correct tally of words
was also maintained which ensured the purity. They also believed that
higher merits (punya) accompany greater complexities in chanting --
for example, a ghana recitation is several orders higher in merit
than jataa recitation, which is higher in merit than krama recitation
and so on.
Wayne Howard [2] noted in the preface of his book, "Vedic Recitation
in Varanasi", "The four Vedas (Rg, Yajur, Saama and Atharv) are not
"books" in the usual sense, though within the past hundred years each
ved has appeared in several printed editions.They are comprised
rather of tonally accented verses and hypnotic, abstruse melodies
whose proper realizations demand oral instead of visual transmission.
They are robbed of their essence when transferred to paper, for
without the human element the innumerable nuances and fine
intonations -- inseparable and necessary components of all four
compilations - are lost completely. The ultimate authority in Vedic
matters is never the printed page but rather the few members ... who
are today keeping the centuries-old traditions alive."
It is unfortunate that there is very little subscription to this
education these days and it is an important duty of all of us to
ensure that this education is encouraged and adequate support is
given to promote and propagate it.
1. "The Vedas", Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1988.
2. "Veda Recitation in Varanasi", Wayne Howard, Motilal Banarasidass,
Delhi 1986.
Dr. S. Yegnasubramanian (President, SVBF) is a scientist at Bell
Labs., NJ. He has been teaching vedic recitation & vedant for several

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