How our ancient rishis preserved the Vedas flawlessly

With oral tradition as the method of passing knowledge through the generations, the ancient rishis truly developed a marvellous system to transmit our scriptures.

How our ancient rishis preserved the Vedas flawlessly

The ancient sacred scriptures of Hinduism were not found engraved on a native rock, embossed on cast metal, papyrus material, or any birch bark manuscripts. In Hinduism, we do not have any founder or any emergence dates like with the Semitic religions or even Indic offshoots like Buddhism or Jainism. We also do not know the any event or how far we need to go to find traces of Hinduism.

What we find in Hinduism is a huge volume of ancient sacred texts preserved by great seers for several millenniums. These rishis passed down their vast knowledge and our heritage from century to century from their deep memories. This knowledge was transferred through many ages by the teachers to their disciples, without ever writing them down and was later organised by Veda Vyasa rishi.  

The word Veda (वेद) is made from the word ‘Vid’ which means “knowledge” in Sanskrit are the oldest sacred text available. This is the reason why Vedas as termed as ‘Anantha vai Vedaah’ (अनंता वै वेदा:), i.e. Vedas are infinite. All other scriptures in Hinduism are derived or inherited from the Vedas. Vedas are also called as Anaadi (अनादि), one which has no beggining or end and hence eternal. Vedas are the primary and authoritative source of knowledge and are also known as Shruti literature, one “which is heard and should be remembered” by the rishis from god.

As the bedrock of Hinduism, we all know the authoritative division of the Vedas is fourfold: Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. This sacred knowledge is passed through generations, ages, millenniums without any slightest alteration and adjustment in it. But questions come how it is possible even?

These scriptures and sacred texts are so enormous that if we take the Rigveda alone, it is mentioned it had from 5 to 21 Shakhas (शाखा) in the Vedic period. Shakhas can be said as branches or schools. Out of all the Rigveda’s branch names mentioned in the scriptures; only one is to be said is available today, known as Shakala (शाकल). Combined mantras found in the Rigveda is more than 10500 (the present-day partitioning of Rigveda is done in ten different mandalas marked from 1 to 10). Ponder the number of sacred scriptures and texts which would have been available during the ancient period if alone the Rigveda was so enormous.

How would it have been possible to memorise the enormous number of mantras, suktas with the correct sound, melody, and tone in Vedic scriptures? How did our ancient seers/rishis pass down the sacred scriptures, vast knowledge for many centuries without even the slightest alteration and modification in them? This almost seems impossible, if we consider how in the present day we fumble after practising the mantras for decades. 

Even UNESCO has declared the Oral Tradition of Vedas in India as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in the year 2003.

 Taking one part of mantra which we all know “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (वसुधैव कुटुम्बकं) which appeared in the Maha Upanishad (Chapter 6, Verse 72) and “means the world is one family”. The  complete mantra of this is:

”अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसां उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकं ”

A slight change in the one accented syllable/tone will entirely change the meaning of the sentence. So the question is, how did ancient seers preserve these scriptures orally for so many centuries.

To find the solution to this, ancient seers developed unique ways to preserve these eternal mantras. They used different styles of recitation methods. Some of these techniques which are still known to us are called as padapathas (पदपाठ). These recitation methods were designed in such a way that the scriptures and sacred texts, their pronunciation including the Vedic pitch and accent were memorised perfectly while maintaining the purity of the text. Some of the most common methods of reciting are Samhita, Jata, Pada, Krama, Sikha, Rekha, Danda, Ratha, Dhwaja and Ghana.

They were designed in such a way that accuracy in recitation and transmission of Vedas from one generation to the next generation was accurately preserved. Some of these techniques are mentioned below:

Samhita (patha): In this method, syllable and complete mantras were chanted in the original form with no special pattern or changes adopted. Recitation of words leaping with its original phonetic sound, tone rules of chorus and intonation.

Jata (patha): In this, every two adjoining words/Shabd (शब्द) in the mantras were first recited in their original sequence, then repeated in reverse, and finally repeated again in the original sequence. The recitation proceeds throughout the mantra as next words are introduced. Example => word1, word2; word2, word1; word1, word2; word2, word3, word3, word2, word2, word3 and so on.

Prakrti (patha): This recitation was marked by a conscious pause after every word, and after any special grammatical codes embedded inside the text; this method suppresses and restores each word in its original intended form.

Krama (patha): In this step by step recitation was followed, where syllable combined are paired successively and sequentially. Then the mantras were recited. the first word of the mantra is added to the second, the second to the third, the third to the fourth and so on, until the whole sentence of the mantras is completed. If we try it would be as word1, word2; word2, word3; word3, word4; and so on.

Ghana (paṭha): In this method, each syllable is repeated up-to 13 times in a format such as:

word1; word2; word2; word1; word1, word2, word3; word3, word2, word1; word1, word2, word3;

word2, word3; word3, word2; word2, word3, word4; word4, word3, word2; word2, word3, word4;

word3, word4; word4, word3; word3, word4, word5; word5, word4, word3; word3, word4, word5;

word4, word5; word5, word4; word4, word5, word6; word6, word5, word4; word4, word5, word6;

What is really depressing now is that despite so much effort put in by the ancient seers to preserve these Vedas, for many millennia for the benefit of mankind, presently even with all our modern technology and preservation technique only a very limited number of people know or have the inclination to greasp these great scriptures.

About Author: Manhar Sharma

Manhar is an IT professional who has worked with some of the top MNCs in his career. He holds a master's degree in Computer Science and has developed a strong passion for Vedic literature after having spent almost a decade studying Indian scriptures. Manhar has written a book on Hinduism, "Beyond the Credence" which was published by one of India's leading publishers.

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