In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vedic Oral Tradition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Texts, Branches, and Canons

Hinduism Vedic Oral Tradition
Finnian M.M. Gerety
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0184


“Vedic oral tradition” is a broad rubric for traditions of recitation and ritual connected to India’s oldest Sanskrit texts, the Vedas, which were orally composed, compiled, and codified during the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium BCE. From that time into the early 21st century, the Vedas have been orally transmitted with great fidelity within certain orthodox communities of Brahmins, members of India’s priestly caste, whose social status is founded on their role as transmitters and interpreters of this sacred “knowledge” (veda). There are four Vedas, each one containing Sanskrit formulas (mantra) in a distinctive form: the Rig Veda compiles poetry in verses; the Sama Veda, songs and melodies; the Yajur Veda, liturgical formulas; and the Atharva Veda, spells, curses, and healing formulas. Within each Veda, the mantra collections (saṃhitas) are chronologically the earliest stratum, succeeded by the strata of interpretive texts called Brahmanas, Araṇyakas, and Upanishads, which furnish an array of mythological, theological, and philosophical reflections. Central to the vedic corpus are archaic, elaborate sacrifices that continue to be performed in some parts of India today. Regarded as a divine revelation “heard” (śruti) by primeval sages, and venerated as the supreme textual authority in Hindu traditions, the Vedas are comparable to scriptures in other world religions. While the Vedas have also been passed down in written form, their principal authority abides in orality: the power of the mantras is realized only when they are chanted out loud. Over the centuries, vedic oral tradition has exerted a strong influence on Hindu religiosity, both in the concrete sense of perpetuating the recitation of vedic mantras in Hindu rites of passage and temple worship, and in the broader sense of shaping Hindu paradigms of sacred sound.

General Overviews

With its history extending from the late Bronze Age into the early 21st century, and its influence reaching into every region of India, vedic oral tradition is a complex cultural phenomenon, encompassing text, ritual, transmission, and performance as well as the patronage networks, familial organization, and sociopolitical status of the Brahmins. While no single work covers the tradition’s historical background, longtime scale, wide geographical distribution, internal intricacy, religious influence, and modern situation, the works cited here and in the next section (Texts, Branches, and Canons) are a good place to start. The introduction in Staal 1961 presents a succinct overview of vedic oral tradition as it persists in modern India, contrasting the ongoing oral transmission of the Vedas with the literary transmission of scriptures belonging to Western “religions of the Book.” More recently, Staal 2008 presents a historical introduction, situating vedic oral tradition within the long arc of Indo-European migrations to the subcontinent and treating the formation and influence of vedic culture in ancient India. Knipe 2015 provides an informative survey of the basic features of living vedic traditions, including texts, rites, and social context, offering many key insights into the lives of “vedic” (vaidika) Brahmins in modern India. A general overview of vedic oral tradition should also include listening to recitation: Levy and Staal 2003, a selection of recordings that represent the diversity of the living traditions in the mid-20th century, is ideal for this purpose.

  • Knipe, David M. Vedic Voices: Intimate Narratives of a Living Andhra Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199397686.001.0001

    Treats the lives, routines, and aspirations of several vaidika Brahmin communities in Andhra Pradesh from the 1980s until the second decade of the 21st century. Chapter 2, “Vedamlo, Living in the Veda,” is useful as a general overview; Knipe’s work provides a welcome ethnographic counterpart to the philological and descriptive approach of Staal 1961.

  • Levy, John, and Frits Staal. The Four Vedas: The Oral Tradition of Hymns, Chants, Sacrificial and Magical Formulas. 2 CDs or MP3. Asch Mankind Series FW04126. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2003.

    Originally released in 1968 as a set of two phonograph records (Folkways Records FE 4126), this classic selection of vedic chants recorded in the 1950s and 1960s features a sampling of all four Vedas from regions across India; also includes an essay and track-by-track commentary by Staal (see Staal 1968a, cited in Studies by Frits Staal).

  • Staal, J. F. Nambudiri Veda Recitation. Disputationes Rheno-Trajectinae 5. The Hague: Mouton, 1961.

    A seminal study of vedic recitation in 1950s South India that analyzes the chanting and transmission practices among the Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala; also touches on recitation by Brahmins in Tamil Nadu.

  • Staal, Frits. Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights. New Delhi: Penguin, 2008.

    An eclectic and wide-ranging treatment of vedic texts, rituals, and culture, aimed at the general reader, this volume synthesizes a selection of material from Staal’s academic books and articles. Particularly useful is Part I (“Origins and Backgrounds”), which surveys the basic facts of geography, language, and archaeology pertinent to understanding the Vedas as an oral tradition rooted in ancient India.

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