Vedic priesthood

Vedic priesthood

Priests of the Vedic religion were officiants of the "yajna" service. As persons trained for the ritual and proficient in its practice, they were called ṛtvij ("regularly-sacrificing"). As members of a social class, they were generically known as vipra ("sage") or kavi ("seer").


Specialization of roles attended the elaboration and development of the ritual corpus over time. Eventually a full complement of sixteen "IAST|ṛtvija"s became the custom for major ceremonies. The sixteen consisted of four chief priests and their assistants, with each of the four chief priests playing a unique role:

*The IAST|hotṛ was the reciter of invocations and litanies. These could consist of single verses ("IAST|ṛca"), strophes (triples called "IAST|tṛca" or pairs called "pragātha"), or entire hymns ("sukta"), drawn from the "IAST|ṛgveda". As each phase of the ritual required an invocation, the "IAST|hotṛ" had a leading or presiding role.
*The adhvaryu was in charge of the physical details of the sacrifice (in particular the "adhvara", a term for the Somayajna). According to Monier-Williams, the "adhvaryu" "had to measure the ground, to build the altar, to prepare the sacrificial vessels, to fetch wood and water, to light the fire, to bring the animal and immolate it," among other duties. Each action was accompanied by supplicative or benedictive formulas ("yajus"), drawn from the "yajurveda". Over time, the role of the "adhvaryu" grew in importance, and many verses of the "IAST|ṛgveda" were incorporated, either intact or adapted, into the texts of the "yajurveda".
*The IAST|udgātṛ was a chanter of hymns set to melodies ("sāman") drawn from the "sāmaveda". This was a specialized role in the major soma sacrifices: a characteristic function of the "IAST|udgātṛ" was to sing hymns in praise of the invigorating properties of "soma pavamāna", the freshly pressed juice of the soma plant.
*The brahman was superintendent of the entire performance, and responsible for correcting mistakes by means of supplementary invocations.

In the systematic expositions of the "shrauta sutra"s, ["Shānkhāyana SS" 13.4.1, "Āsvalāyana SS" 4.1.4-6.] which date to the fifth or sixth century BCE, the assistants are classified into four groups associated with each of the four chief priests, although the classifications are artificial and in some cases incorrect:

*With the "IAST|hotṛ":
**the "maitrāvaruna"
**the "acchāvāka"
**the "grāvastut" (praising the Soma stones)
*With the "IAST|udgātṛ":
**the "IAST|prastotṛ" (who chants the Prastâva)
**the "IAST|pratihartṛ" ("averter")
**the "subrahmanya"
*With the "adhvaryu":
**the "IAST|pratiprasthātṛ"
**the "IAST|neṣṭṛ"
**the "IAST|unnetṛ" (who pours the Soma juice into the receptacles )
*With the "brahman":
**the "brāhmanācchamsin"
**the "agnīdh" (priest who kindles the sacred fire)
**the "IAST|potṛ" ("purifier")

This last classification is incorrect, as the formal assistants of the "brahman" were actually assistants of the "IAST|hotṛ" and the "adhvaryu".

A similar attempt at symmetry, as well as an attempt to exaggerate the preeminence of the "brahman" in the ritual, was a claim that the Atharvaveda was the "brahmans exclusive province, a fourth and presumably superior "veda" for the fourth and senior most of the chief priests. This theoretical fancy had no basis in fact or likelihood, as the Atharvaveda made no contribution to the liturgy of the solemn high rituals. In practice, the "brahman" function was usually performed by a IAST|bahvṛca"' ("one who has many verses", i.e. a Rgvedin), suggesting a historical split of the duties of the "IAST|hotṛ" in the development of the "brahman" as a distinct role.

The older references uniformly indicate the "IAST|hotṛ" as the presiding priest, with perhaps only the "adhvaryu" as his assistant in the earliest times. The phrase "seven hotars" is found more than once in the Rgveda. RV.2.1.2 enumerates them as the "IAST|hotṛ", "IAST|potṛ", "IAST|neṣṭṛ", "agnīdh", "IAST|prashāstṛ" (meaning the "maitrāvaruna"), "adhvaryu" and "brahman" (meaning the "brāhmanācchamsin"). The rgvedic Brahmanas, Aitareya and Kausitaki, specify seven "hotraka"s to recite "shastra"s (litanies): "IAST|hotṛ", "brāhmanācchamsin", "maitrāvaruna", "IAST|potṛ", "IAST|neṣṭṛ", "agnīdh" and "acchāvāka". They also carry a legend to explain the origin of the offices of the "subrahmanya" and the "grāvastut".


The requirements of the fully developed ritual were rigorous enough that only professional priests could perform them adequately. Thus, whereas in the earliest times, the true sacrificer, or intended beneficiary of the rite, might have been a direct participant, in Vedic times he was only a sponsor, the "yajamāna", with the "IAST|hotṛ" or "brahman" taking his stead in the ritual. In this seconding lay the origins of the growing importance of the purohita (literally, "one who is placed in front"), a term originally for a domestic chaplain, especially of a prince. It was not unusual for a "purohita" to be the "IAST|hotṛ" or "brahman" at a sacrifice for his master, besides conducting other more domestic ("IAST|gṛhya") rituals for him also. In latter days, with the disappearance of vedic ritual practice, "purohita" has become a generic term for "priest".

Philological comparisons

Comparison with the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, a distinct religion with the same origins, shows the antiquity of terms for priests such as "atharvan" (cognate to Avestan "athravan") and "hotar" (Av. "zaotar") "invoker, sacrificer". While "hotar/zaotar" is well understood, the original meaning of "atharvan/athravan" is unknown. The word "atharvan/athravan" does not appear in either the Vedas or in the oldest Iranian texts, and in the Younger Avesta appears in a context that suggests "missionary," perhaps by metathesis from Indo-Iranian "*arthavan" "possessing purpose." In the Upanishads, the term appears for example in "atharvāngiras", a compound of "atharvan" and "angiras", either two eponymous rishis or their family names.

In present-day Indian Zoroastrian (Parsi) tradition the word "athornan" is used to distinguish the priesthood from the laity (the "behdin"). These subdivisions (in the historical Indian context, "castes"), and the terms used to describe them, are relatively recent developments specific to Indian Zoroastrians and although the words themselves are old, the meaning that they came to have for the Parsis are influenced by their centuries-long coexistence with Hinduism. It appears then that the Indian Zoroastrian priests re-adopted the older "athravan" (in preference to the traditional, and very well attested derivative "asron") for its similarity to Hinduism's "arthavan", which the Parsi priests then additionally assumed was derived from Avestan "atar" "fire". This folk-etymology, which may "have been prompted by what is probably a mistaken assumption of the importance of fire in the ancient Indo-Iranian religion" (Boyce, 1982:16), subsequently reached 19th century Europe where it was uncritically assumed to substantiate the "interconnectedness principles" that were then in fashion.

The same pseudoscientific "interconnectedness principles" were also applied to the Vedic priesthood in other ways, for example, in the supposition that the division of priestly functions among the Hotar, the Udgatar and the Adhvaryu was "directly comparable" to the Celtic priesthood as reported by Strabo, with the Druids as high priests, the Bards doing the chanting and the Vates performing the actual sacrifice.


ee also


External links

* [ The Asylum of Sarabhanga]
* [ The Turning-Point in a Living Tradition]

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