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date: 28 February 2021


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Brāhmaṇa(s) (neuter: ‘ relating to brahman’) 

A general term for a prose explanation (brāhmaṇa) appended to a ritual text. More specifically, the second layer of Vedic literature according to the traditional division. Composed in the period between about 1 000 and 500 bce, the Brāhmaṇas are an extensive category of ritual texts containing prescriptions for the performance of the śrauta sacrifice, alongside detailed explanations of the significance of particular ritual acts, tendentious etymologies, and much supporting mythological material. The exegetical tradition distinguishes between the rules of the ritual, including ritual injunctions (known as vidhi), and explanatory cum philosophical passages (known as arthavāda). The latter are concerned with establishing bandhu, ‘equivalences’ or ‘homologies’ between the sacrificer, elements of the sacrifice, society, and the cosmos. This method reaches its apogee in the ātman-brahman equivalence of the Upaniṣads, which, along with the Āraṇyakas, were originally counted as part of the Brāhmaṇa literature.

The division of the major extant Brāhmaṇas follows that of the four Vedas, with groups appended to each of the four Saṃhitā or mantra collections. The oldest brāhmaṇa material, complemented and continued by that found in its Brāhmaṇa proper, the Taittirīya, is contained in the Black Yajur Veda, where it is intermixed with mantras. (The other Brāhmaṇas attached to the Black Yajur Veda—those of the Kaṭha, Kapiṣṭhala, and Maitrāyaṇi schools—have only survived in fragments.) The other three Saṃhitā collections, and the White Yajur Veda, separate their mantras from their brāhmaṇa material. Of these Brāhmaṇas, the Aitareya and the Kauṣītaki belong to the Ṛg Veda; the Pañcaviṃśa and Jaiminīya to the Sāma Veda, and, the best-known and most important of all the Brāhmaṇas, the Śatapatha, to the White Yajur Veda (the Vājasaneyī Saṃhitā). The Atharva Veda has one Brāhmaṇa, the Gopatha. The Brāhmaṇas are the key texts for the Mīmāṃsā school of exegesis.