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The Atharvaveda (Sanskrit: अथर्ववेद, atharvaveda, a tatpurusha compound of atharvan, an ancient Rishi, and veda meaning "knowledge") is a sacred text of Hinduism, and one of the four Vedas, often called the "fourth Veda". According to tradition, the Atharvaveda was mainly composed by two groups of rishis known as the Atharvanas and the Angirasa, hence its oldest name is Ātharvāṅgirasa. In the Late Vedic Gopatha Brahmana, it is attributed to the Bhrigu and Angirasa. Additionally, tradition ascribes parts to other rishis, such as Kauśika, Vasiṣṭha and Kaśyapa. There are two surviving recensions (śākhās), known as Śaunakīya (AVS) and Paippalāda (AVP).
The Atharvaveda, while undoubtedly belonging to the core Vedic corpus, in some ways represents an independent parallel tradition to that of the Rigveda and Yajurveda. It incorporates much of early traditions of healing and magic that are paralleled in other Indo-European literatures. There are striking parallels with Hittite and Germanic sorcery stanzas.
The Atharva Veda is less predominant than other Vedas as it is little used in solemn (Shrauta) ritual. The largely silent Brahmán priest observes the procedures of the ritual and 'heals' it with two mantras and pouring of ghee when a mistake occurs. Though an early text, its status has been ambiguous, due to its magical character. It was not found in South India during the Middle Ages, and until very recently.
The Gayatri mantra used in Atharva Veda is different from other three Vedas. A special initiation of the Gayatri is required to learn the Atharva Veda. The Atharvaveda Parishishtas Pariśiṣṭas (appendices) state that priests of the Mauda and Jalada schools of the Atharvaveda should be avoided, or strict discipline should be followed as per the rules and regulations set by the Atharva Veda. It is even stated that women associated with Atharvan may suffer from abortions if pregnant women remain while the chants for warfare are pronounced.
The Atharvaveda is considered by many to be as dark and secret knowledge, pertaining to the spirits and the afterlife. In the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas are exiled to the forests for thirteen years, Bhima, being frustrated, suggests to Yudhisthira that they consult the Atharvaveda, and "shrink time, and hereby compress thirteen years to thirteen days..."
Of these, only the Śaunakīya (AVS) and the Paippalāda (AVP) recensions have survived. Both have some later additions, but the core Paippalāda text is considered earlier than the Śaunakīya. Often in corresponding hymns, the two recensions have different verse orders, or each has additional verses not in the other.
Saṃhitāvidhi, Śāntikalpa and Nakṣatrakalpa are some of the five kalpa texts adduced to the Śaunakīya tradition and not separate schools of their own.
Two main post-Samhita texts associated with the AV are the Vaitāna Sūtra and the Kauśika Sūtra. The Vaitanasutra deals with the participation of the Atharvaveda priest (brahmán) in the Shrauta ritual while the Kauśikasūtra contains many applications of Atharvaveda mantras in healing and magic. This serves the same purpose as the vidhāna of the Rigveda and is of great value in studying the application of the AV text in Vedic times. Several Upanishads also are associated with the AV, but appear to be relatively late additions to the tradition. The most important of these are the muṇḍaka and the praśna Upanishads. The former contains an important reference to Śaunaka, the founder of the Shaunakiya shakha, while the latter is associated with the Paippalāda shakha.
It is clear that the core text of the Atharvaveda is not particularly recent in the Vedic Saṃhitā tradition, and falls within the classical Mantra period of Vedic Sanskrit at the end of 2nd millennium BC - roughly contemporary with the Yajurveda mantras, the Rigvedic Khilani, and the Sāmaveda.
The Atharvaveda is also the first Indic text to mention Iron (as śyāma ayas, literally "black metal"), so that scholarly consensus dates the bulk of the Atharvaveda hymns to the early Indian Iron Age, corresponding to the 12th to 10th centuries BC or the early Kuru kingdom.
During its oral tradition, however, the text has been corrupted considerably more than some other Vedas, and it is only from comparative philology of the two surviving recensions that we may hope to arrive at an approximation of the original reading.
Tradition suggests that Paippalāda, one of the early collators, and Vaidharbhī, one of the late contributors associated with the Atharvanic text, lived during the reign of prince Hiranyanabha of the Ikshvāku dynasty.
Divisions and issues of note
- The Shaunakiya text is clearly divided into four parts: Kāṇḍas 1-7 deal with healing and general black and white magic that is to be applied in all situations of life, from the first tooth of a baby to regaining kingship. Kandas 8-12 constitute early speculation on the nature of the universe and of humans as well as on ritual, and are thus predecessors of the Upanishads. They continue the speculative tradition of some Rigvedic poets. Kandas 13-18 deal with issues of a householder's life, such as marriage, death and female rivalry, as well as with the ambiguous Vratyas on the fringes of society and with the Rohita sun as an embodiment of royal power. Kandas 19 is an addition and Kanda 20 is a very late addition containing Rgvedic hymns for the use of the Atharvanic Brahmanacchamsin priest as well as for the enigmatic Kuntapa ritual of the Kuru kingdom of Parikshit. The Paippalada text has a similar arrangement into four parts (Kandas 1-15, 16-17, 18, 19-20) with roughly the same contents.
- Jain and Buddhist texts are considerably more hostile to the Atharvaveda (they call it Aggvāna or Ahavāna Veda) than they are to the other Hindu texts.
- The AV is the first Indic text dealing with medicine. It identifies the causes of disease as living causative agents such as the yatudhāna, the kimīdin, the krimi or kṛmi and the durṇāma. The Atharvans seek to kill them with a variety of incantations or plant based drugs in order to counter the disease (see XIX.34.9). This approach to disease is quite different compared to the trihumoral theory of Ayurveda. Remnants of the original atharvanic thought did persist, as can be seen in Suśruta's medical treatise and in (Garuḍa Purāṇa, karma kāṃḍa - chapter: 164). Here following the Atharvan theory, the Purāṇic text suggests germs as a cause for leprosy. In the same chapter Suśruta also expands on the role of helminths in disease. These two can be directly traced back to the Atharvaveda saṃhitā. The hymn AV I.23-24 describes the disease leprosy and recommends the rajani auṣadhi for its treatment. From the description of the auṣadhi as black branching entity with dusky patches, it is very likely that is a lichen with antibiotic properties. Thus the AV may be one of the earliest texts to record uses of the antibiotic agents.
- The Atharvaveda also informs about warfare. A variety of devices such as an arrow with a duct for poison (apāskambha) and castor bean poison, poisoned net and hook traps, use of disease spreading insects and smoke screens find a place in the Atharvaveda saṃhita (e.g. hymns IX .9, IX.10, the trisaṃdi and nyārbudi hymns). These references to military practices and associated Kṣatriya rites were what gave the Atharvaveda its reputation. In the Mahabharata there is a frequent comparison between weapons and the mantras of the heroes.
- Several regular and special rituals of the Aryans ārya are a major concern of the Atharvaveda, just as in the three other Vedas. The major rituals covered by the AV are marriage in kāṃḍa - XIV and the funeral in kāṃḍa - XVIII. There are also hymns that are specific to rituals of the bhṛgu-aṅgirasas, vrātyas and kṣatriyas. One peculiar rite is the Viṣāsahi Vrata, performed with the mantras of the XVII kāṃḍa in a spell against female rivals. The Vrātya rituals were performed by individuals who took on a seminomadic way of living and were generally roaming about in neighboring tribal territories to gain wealth in cattle by putting pressure on householders grihastha. Finally, there are some rituals aimed at the destruction of the enemies (Abhicārika hymns and rites), particularly found in chapters 1-7. While these support traditional negative views on the AV, in content they are mirrored by several other hymns from the Rig as well as the Yajuṣes. Moreover, Abhicārika rites were an integral part of Vedic culture, as is amply attested in the brāhmaṇa literature. Thus the Atharvaveda is fully within the classic Vedic fold, though it was more specific to certain Brahmán clans of priests. The development of the Abhichārika rites to their more "modern" form is clearly seen in the vidhāna literature. The author of the ṛgvidhāna provides passing reference to the development of similar rites in the AV tradition (the references to the Āṅgirasa Krityās). These rites reached their culmination in the Kauśika Sutra and in some of the Pariśiṣṭas (appendices) of the atharvan literature.
- Philosophical excursions are found in books 8-12. One of the most spectacular expressions of philosophical thought is seen in the hymn XII.I, the Hymn to goddess Earth or the Pṛthivī Sūkta used in the Āgrayana rite. The foundations of Vaiṣeśika Darśana is expressed in the mantra XII.1.26 in which the 'atoms' (Pāṃsu) are described forming the stone, the stones agglutinating to form the rocks and the rocks held together to form the Earth. Early pantheistic thought is seen in the hymn X.7 that describes the common thread running through all manifest and non-manifest existence as the skaṃbha. This skaṃbha is described as what poured out of the Hiraṇyagarbha, that was the precursor of the complex world in a very simple form (X.7.28). (Hiraṇyagarba = " The golden embryo, from which the Universe was formed.") This Skambha is Indra and Indra is the Skambha which describes all existence. The hymn also describes a pantheistic nature of the Vedic gods (X.7.38): skaṃbha is the heat (tapaḥ) that spreads through the universe (Bhuvana) as waves of water; the units of this spreading entity are the gods even as branches of one tree. This theme is repeatedly presented in various interpretations in later Hindu philosophies.
The Shaunakiya text was edited by Rudolf Roth and William Dwight Whitney (Berlin, 1856) and by Vishva Bandhu (Hoshiarpur, 1960–62). Translations into English were made by Ralph Griffith (2 vols, Benares 1897), D. Whitney (revised by Lanman, 2 vols, Cambridge, Mass. 1905), and M. Bloomfield (SBE Vol XLII); also see Bloomfield, "The Atharvaveda" in "Grundriss der Indoarischen Philologie", II (Strasburg, 1899).
The bulk of the Paippalāda text was edited by Leroy Carr Barret from 1905 to 1940 (book 6 by F. Edgerton, 1915) from a single Kashmirian Śāradā manuscript (now in Tübingen). This edition is outdated, since various other manuscripts were subsequently discovered in Orissa. Some manuscripts are in the Orissa State Museum, but many manuscripts are in private possession, and are kept hidden by their owners. A few manuscripts were collected by Prof. Durgamohan Bhattacharya of Bengal by deceiving their owners, as told by his son Dipak Bhattacharya in 1968 (below), who describes the theft as valiant daredevilry:
... The knowledge of the villagers, in whose possession many important manuscripts remain, about their possession is often very hazy [...] Prof. Bhattacharya secured a manuscript from an illiterate Brahmin on promise of return ..."
Books 1–15 were edited by Durgamohan Bhattacharya (1997). There is a provisional (unpublished) edition of book 20 by Dipak Bhattacharya.
Book 2 was edited and translated by Thomas Zehnder (1999) and book 5 by Alexander Lubotsky (2002), and books 6-7 by Arlo Griffiths (2004).
- Modak (1993) p.15 (footnote 8)
- Zehnder (1999), p.19. Bhattacarya (2007, p. lxxv) in a postscript assures that this account is misleading, asking "Why does Zehnder imagin deceipt of which there is no hint in my statemet? Is it a matter of common knowledge to Zehnder in connection with persons he is acquainted with? [...] We never thought in Zehnder's line. But later I discovered some documents testifying to the purchase of the manuscripts. Any Doubting Thomas may come and see them.
- Dipak Bhattacharya, Paippalada-Samhita of the Atharvaveda Volume 2, The Asiatic Society (2007).
- Ralph Griffith, The Hymns of the Atharvaveda 1895-6, full text, (online at sacred-texts.com)
- Maurice Bloomfield, Hymns of the Atharva-veda, Sacred Books of the East, v. 42 (1897), selection, (online at sacred-texts.com)
- Alexander Lubotsky, Atharvaveda-Paippalada, Kanda Five Harvard College, (2002)
- Thomas Zehnder, Atharvaveda-Paippalada, Buch 2 Idstein, (1999)
- B.R. Modak, The Ancillary Literature of the Atharva-veda, Rashtriya Veda Vidya Pratishthan, New Delhi (1993) ISBN 81-215-0607-7