In This Article Śrauta Rites

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Manuals and Glossaries
  • Basic Sources: Śruti and Śrauta Texts

Hinduism Śrauta Rites
by
Asko Parpola
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0167

Introduction

The Vedic religion prevailed in northern South Asia from c. 1200 until about 400 BCE, a turning point in its transformation into Hinduism. While the relatively simple domestic (gṛhya) rites of the Veda have remained an integral part of Hinduism, the very much more elaborate śrauta rites, often called “solemn” rites, have survived until today in only a few places, chiefly in South India. In its heyday, however, the śrauta ritual dominated the social and intellectual life of India. The śrauta ritual was the main content of the entire older Vedic literature, where hundreds of śrauta rites of varying duration and complexity have been described in detail. Undoubtedly, some of them were purely theoretical constructs, not intended to be performed in practice. A number of rites are obligatory for one who has decided to establish the three sacred fires, but most may optionally be performed for the attainment of specific wishes. The simplest rites involve just the sacrificer and his wife and offerings of milk, ghee, and vegetarian dishes, but others may demand sixteen specialized priests who are to be rewarded with lavish gifts, and may involve even hundreds of animal victims. The more demanding the rite, the more prestige it generates for its performer, who nowadays adds a corresponding honorary title to his proper name. In ancient times, imposing royal rites such as the rājasūya and aśvamedha to a great extent backed up the ruler’s authority, and bound together kings and their priests. The human authors of the Śrautasūtras base their exposition on older Vedic literature dealing less systematically with the liturgy, mythology, and explanation of the śrauta rites. These older texts are thought to be divine truth “seen” or “heard” in revelation by ancient sages, and they are referred to collectively as śruti (literally “hearing”); the word śrauta means “based on the śruti.” The “knowledge” denoted by the word Veda is particularly the knowledge needed by the four groups of priests, who officiate in the śrauta rites; hence the division of the Veda into Rigveda, Sāmaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. The śrauta rites engaged already ancient Indian exegetes, leading to the “philosophy” of Mīmāṁsā. Since about 1850, modern scholars have studied the structure, purpose, history, and meaning of this most complicated ritual system of the world.

Overviews

The śrauta rites are just one group of rituals performed in the Vedic culture, there being also domestic (gṛhya) rites, including chiefly rites of passage connected with an individual’s life cycle, as well as funeral rites, rites of ancestor worship, and rites of “white and black magic.” All these rites are part of the Vedic religion, which in addition encompasses conceptions of gods and other supernatural powers, the cosmos, and society. Keith 1925 is an old but recommendable exposition of the Vedic religion as a whole, and it contains substantial descriptions of śrauta rites. A lengthy overview of Vedic rituals is also in Kane 1941–1975. An updated shorter overview of the Vedic religion as a whole is provided by Jamison and Witzel 1992, while Gonda 1978 is a good survey in German (its first edition is also available in French). Heesterman 1987 provides a balanced short summary of the Vedic literature and religion, paying particular attention to the śrauta ritual. Steiner 2010 is a conveniently brief overview of the fundamental data concerning the śrauta rites.

  • Gonda, Jan. Die Religionen Indiens. Vol. 1, Veda und älterer Hinduismus. 2d ed. Die Religionen der Menschheit 11. Stuttgart, Germany: W. Kohlhammer, 1978.

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    A French translation of the first edition (1960) was published in 1962. A balanced exposition of the Vedic religion by one of its best experts. Introduction: history of research; Indian religion before the Vedas; Veda, the Brahmins, and powerful forces; Gods; Rites; Religious and cosmological conceptions and strivings for salvation. Early Hinduism: God and gods; strivings for well-being and salvation; indexes of names, topics, and text places.

  • Heesterman, Jan C. “Vedism and Brahmanism.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 15. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 217–242. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

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    This brief overview of Vedic literature and religion is particularly good with regard to the śrauta rites.

  • Jamison, S. W., and M. Witzel. Vedic Hinduism. 1992.

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    A most useful brief overview (117 pp., plus bibliography) of the Vedic religion and literature, with relatively up-to-date references.

  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra (Ancient and Mediaeval Religious and Civil Law in India). 5 vols. in 8 parts. Government Oriental Series B6. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941–1975.

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    This voluminous encyclopedia of Indian religious law—a context that extends beyond the Vedic religion into Hinduism—discusses in Volume 2 (1941, reprinted in 1974) the Vedic ritual, including a lengthy description of the śrauta rites with detailed annotations and an excellent, very comprehensive index. Volume 1 deals with the source texts.

  • Keith, Arthur Berriedale. The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads. 2 vols. Harvard Oriental Series 31–32. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.

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    A still very useful, well arranged and fairly extensive exposition of the Vedic religion. Examines the sources (pp. 1–57), the gods and demons of the Veda (pp. 58–251), Vedic ritual (pp. 252–402), the spirits of the dead (pp. 403–432), and the philosophy of the Veda (pp. 433–613). General and Sanskrit index. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970, 1976.

  • Steiner, Karin. “Yajña.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 2, Sacred Texts and Languages, Ritual Traditions, Arts, Concepts. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 361–379. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic, 2010.

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    A good and up-to-date brief introduction to the śrauta ritual. Discusses the relevance of the śrauta rites to the general study of ritual.

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