Hinduism Vrātyas
Edeltraud Harzer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0222


Attempts to identify, locate, and generally clarify the name “Vrātya,” as well as their social and religious role and localization, have been made many times, but such matters have not been completely resolved. Early scholars, such as Held and Hauer, considered the Vrātyas to be part of Vedic society, though a little tentively. As no direct identification has been detected, a number of other scholars settled on the hypothesis that the Vrātyas were outside of the Vedic fold or at least on the fringes of it. The scholarly community falls roughly into two categories: one studies the Vedic ritual texts, draws on the inconsistencies and changes in the rules, and practices to reconstruct the assimilation of Vrātya practice into the śrauta ritual; the other category, although studying material that is directly labeled Vrātya—material that was recorded later than the ritual texts—considers them heterodox. In the recent research, Pontillo and colleague drawing on the work of Hauer, Heesterman, Falk, etc., concur that the Vrātyas date back to pre–Rig Vedic Indo-Āryan culture, including that from geographical locations other than South Asia. They focused on possible traces found in that culture, though there is no explicit evidence. The clearest explanation of the name “Vrā́tya,” signifying a member of a sodality, is derived from vrā́ta, “sodality,” whose leader observes a particular behavior vratá, cf. Falk 1986 (cited under General Overviews), p. 17. The Vrātyas as a sodality were identified as a warrior band, mostly on the move. When they performed a ritual session (sattra) in secret in a wilderness spot, they would approach in a crouching position, holding on to each other, as they likely could not see in the darkness of the thicket. When they got up from the sattra, they would resume their accustomed wandering. They have been compared to the Maruts, who had for their leader Rudra. An early, but not explicit, resemblance is found in the Rig Veda, where Dārbhya is named the leader. (Cf. Rig Veda 5.61.17; the name Dārbhya can be taken as a clue for the comparison.) Dārbhya/Dālbhya, known also as the king of the Pañcālas and as a leader of a raiding expedition, is found in various texts. The Vrātyas’ religious aspirations were to reconnect to the divine, having lost access. It seems that they had hope. The gods to whom they appealed were Indra, Agni, and Savitṛ.

General Overviews

Falk 1986 pointed out that the inquiry into ancient sodalities began with Leopold von Schroeder in 1895, in his comments on H. Oldenberg’s Die Religion des Veda, emphasizing Rudra and his accompanying troupe. Falk observed that Indological work on ancient sodalities was stunted in response to the harsh criticism of Oldenberg’s study, still ethnographers drew on von Schroeder’s work in their scholarship on secret sodalities. Hauer 1927 conducted unparalleled, incisive research, translating textual passages from the Atharva Veda, Vājasaneyī Saṃhitā, Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, Tāṇḍyamahābrāhmaṇa, and a number of Śrautasūtras. Choudhary 1964 speculated about the Vrātyas’ geographic location and surmised that, since they were constantly on the move, it may not be possible to pin down their whereabouts. Dass 1958 differed from other scholars, advancing a theory that the Vrātyas were kṣatriya yogins. Two scholars among a host of researchers broke fresh ground through textual study, sourced from the same texts other scholars had utilized: Heesterman 1962 and Falk 1986. Heesterman 1962 argued that the Vrātyas were not only a part of Brahmanical culture but also central to the development of the Vedic ritual, an assertion now considered. It appears that this particular ancient sodality culture of the Vrātyas was not separate ethnically or culturally from the Vedic tradition. Moreover, it shares its roots with other Indo-European groups with similar customs, such as those found in Greece and even Rome, and also the ancient Near East (Falk 1984). Few studies addressed games of dice/lots until Falk thoroughly examined their function. Falk 1984 and Falk 1986 asserted that dice/lots—originally using nuts, Myrobalan/Terminalia belerica (Skt. vibhītaka, masc. or neu. RV; vibhīdaka-, masc. or fem., late Vedic)—were employed not as a recreation but for selecting one from among the young men of Vedic study to slaughter the sacrificial cow. With his fieldwork, a third work of scholarship, Sontheimer 1997, provided insight into the religious tradition, which includes practices viewed as closely related to those of the ancient Vrātyas, and still surviving in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra. Among a number of contemporary scholars who have dived deeply into the textual sources, the leading scholar Tiziana Pontillo (Pontillo, et al. 2015; Pontillo, et al. 2016b) mobilized a cohort of scholars to join her for her three-year grant project, resulting in a great variety of new approaches. The review af Edholm 2017 focuses on the two recent volumes by Pontillo although the author mentions some other research selectively.

  • Choudhary, Radhakrishna. Vrātyas in Ancient India. Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1964.

    Draws heavily on Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa as well as secondary sources that have not been used elsewhere. Offers numerous illuminating details that demonstrate the Vrātyas were sophisticated, not savage, yet still maintains they were a people separate from the Indo-Āryans, a hypothesis now out of favor.

  • Dass, S. R. “An Aspect of Vrātya Culture.” In Sir Jadunath Sarkar Commemoration. Vol. 2. Edited by Hari Ram Gupta, 59–71. Hoshiarpur, India: Panjab University, 1958.

    Gives a summary of the various hypotheses regarding the term Vrātya. Comments on, among other things, the Atharva Veda’s Vrātya Book as lending itself to the theory that Vrātyas were a class of kṣatriya yogins. The conclusion follows the generally accepted notion of that time, namely that Vrātyas had non-Āryan backgrounds.

  • Edholm, Kristoffer af. “Recent Studies on the Ancient Indian Vrātya.” Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 24.1 (2017): 1–17.

    Reviews two of the recent publications edited by Tiziana Pontillo The Volatile World of Sovereignty and Vrātya Culture in Vedic Sources. Summarizes earlier scholarship, contextualizing new discussions such as the assessment that Johannes Heesterman’s scholarship was influential, especially his claim that the Vrātya were part of the Vedic tradition. The link between Vrātya and śrauta practices, as argued in Pontillo’s and her colleagues’ work, is emphasized.

  • Falk, Harry. “Würfelspiele in Indien: Der Gott des Chaos.” Journal für Geschichte 6 (1984): 12–18.

    Asserts a game of dice/lots served not to select a winner, but a loser to kill the sacrificial cow. Though ritually necessary, the “butcher-sacrificer” became impure through the act of killing: cf. at the horse sacrifice, the “sacrificer” was killed, thereby purifying the community. True to its Indo-European tradition, in Greece, the “butcher-sacrificer” became a wolf who had to exile himself for a time.

  • Falk, Harry. Bruderschaft und Würfelspiel: Untersuchungen zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Vedischen Opfers. Freiburg, Germany: Hedwig Falk, 1986.

    A truly seminal and incisive study of the ancient sodality, the Vrātyas, which draws on evidence from the Brāhmaṇas, Gṛhyasūtras, Śrautasūtras. Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, etc. Covers the Vrātyas’s goals, organizations, rituals, and material culture, connecting the Vrātyas to the śrauta ritual in the Vedic tradition. Also discusses the use of dice or lots, which are employed in selecting the one young man whose task will be to kill the sacrificial cow.

  • Hauer, Jakob Wilhelm. Der Vrātya: Untersuchungen über die nichtbrahmanische Religion. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1927.

    Presents in detail pertinent textual evidence in translation. Assembles very specific information from texts aside from the Atharva Veda, specifically the Vājasaneyī Saṃhitā, Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, and Tāṇḍyamahābrāhmaṇa (Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa), as well as almost half a dozen Śrautasūtra texts. Discusses the Mahāvrata festival and the deification of the Vrātya. Identifies the Vrātyas rather narrowly as a non-Brahmanical religion, though still belonging to the Indo-Āryan culture.

  • Heesterman, Johannes C. “Vrātya and Sacrifice.” Indo-Iranian Journal 6 (1962): 1–37.

    A seminal, pioneering article, making an argument about the Vrātyas’s position in society: that they were Vedic Āryans, and that the rituals (vrātyastoma) accompanying the raiding expeditions were precursors of the śrauta ritual. The issue of purity and impurity seems to have become less relevant, and the śrauta ritual also acquired an economic function, namely, the sacrificial fees, the dakṣiṇā, used to support the sacrificer (previously, no exchange had been involved).

  • Pontillo, Tiziana, Christina Bignami, Moreno Dore, and Elena Mucciarelli, eds. The Volatile World of Sovereignty: The Vrātya Problem and Kingship in South Asia. New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 2015.

    A collection of studies on the Vrātya by international scholars. Traces the Vrātya legacy from early Vedic texts to later religious and cultural developments, connecting Vrātya ritual performances (vrātyastoma) to the śrauta ritual. The rise of śrauta culture is characterized as an axial reform.

  • Pontillo, Tiziana, Moreno Dore, and Hans Heinrich Hock, eds. Vrātya Culture in Vedic Sources: Select Papers from a Panel on “Vrātya Culture in Vedic Sources” Presented at the 16th World Sanskrit Conference, 28 June–2 July 2015, Bangkok, Thailand. New Delhi: D. K. Publishers Distributors, 2016b.

    The introduction gives a detailed overview of research on the Vrātyas, including brief sketches of the contributions to the volume. Reiterates doubts of Heesterman and Falk about claims that the Vrātyas could have been outcasts, or avratas, thus abandoning earlier claims. Raising new questions allows the opportunity to dispel some myths as well as reinterpret the use of language in some of the texts as possible anti-Vrātya propaganda.

  • Sontheimer, Günther-Dietz. King of Hunters, Warriors, and Shepherds: Essays on Khaṇḍobā. Edited by Anne Feldhaus, Aditya Malik, and Heidrun Brückner. Delhi: Manohar, 1997.

    Delves into Khaṇḍobā religious practices, showing that these derived from myths found in textual and oral traditions, specifically, how the oral myths regarding the king’s hunt and Bāṇāī complemented the textual tradition. Argues for continuity from the Vrātya of the Vedic period and from Rudra to the Vaggayyas, or Vāghyās, and their god Mailār of Khaṇḍobā.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.