Vedic ritual has a long history in South Asia which starts more than three thousand years ago, and which in a sense continues to the present day.
The oldest Vedic text, the Rgveda (1500 - 1000 before common era), consists of hymns which were recited in Vedic rituals. Detailed descriptions of Vedic rituals we find only much later in the Srauta-Sutras (from ca. 2nd century before common era).
Rituals that were already important in the Rgvedic period are concerned with Agni (Fire), Soma (a sacred drink), and a pot which is heated, and from which next a hot drink (Gharma) is offered to the god Indra and to the two Asvins. The Gharma-offering developed in the late-Rgvedic period into a ritual that was in large outline similar to the Pravargya as described in the Yajurvedic texts and discussed in the Srauta-Sutras.
1  (top)

The Jyotistoma: the ritual of the "Laud of Light"

In a group of Vedic rituals that are called Jyotistoma or "Laud of Light"-rituals Agni and Soma are of central importance. The Jyotistoma is a Soma-offering, in which also a Pravargya may be inserted.2
The Jyotistoma is the simplest ritual unit in which the three first Vedas play are fully present:

  1. the Rgveda, a collection of metrical hymns for Vedic rituals;
  2. the Yajurveda, a collection of offering formulas for various rituals;
  3. the Samaveda, containing chants with as text usually parts of the Rgvedic hymns.

These three Vedas play this role on account of the participation of priests that have studied a specific Veda:

  1. the Hotr-priest, specialist of the Rgveda, takes care of recitations that accompany the offerings. His assistants are: the Maitravaruna (or Prasastr), the Acchavaka, the Gravastut.
  2. the Adhvaryu, specialist of the Yajurveda, murmurs offering formulas and takes care of the "management" of the enire ritual. He is assisted by the Pratiprasthatr, the Nestr, the Unnetr.
  3. the Udgatr, specialist of the Samaveda, takes care of the chants. He is assisted by the Prastotr, the Pratihartr and the Subrahmanya.
  4. There is a fourth group of priests, among whom the Brahman-priest is the most important one. He is a sort of "supervisor" of the ritual. For instance, his explicit permission is required when other priests want to start with a crucial part in the sacrifice, and he is the one who should know how to make corrections if something went wrong. He may belong to either of the three mentioned Vedas, or to the fourth, the Atharvaveda. The group of the Brahman includes further the Brahmanacchamsin, who in practice cooperates with the Hotr; the Agnidh, who in practice cooperates with the Hotr as well as the Adhvaryu; and the Potr, who in practice cooperates with the Hotr.

In total there are 16 priests (sometimes there is a 17th, the Sadasya who is mainly a witness): together they perform the sacrifice on behalf of the sacrificer and his wife; the latter have invited the priests and promised them a sacrificial fee, daksina.

In the course of the five or six days of the sacrifice, the sacrificer and his wife should undergo an important transformation. On the first day the Diksa or "consecration" takes place. The sacrificer is shaved, and from that moment on he restricts his food. Moreover, he will keep his hands from that moment on as much as possible in the form of a fist: the ancient exegetes explain that this indicates his embryonic status.

The sacrificer and his wife, immediately after the consecration.

Only after the concluding bath, the Avabhrtha, from which he and his wife emerge as if "reborn", is he allowed to fully open his hands. The restrictions in food and behaviour that the wife has to adopt are less severe. (top)

The sacrificer and his wife,
during the concluding bath.


Agni: the divine fire

Finding or making, transporting and maintaining fire was of great importance in the life of the semi-nomadic, Vedic man. The first hymn of the Rgveda is devoted to Agni, the divine fire. The fire is central in most Vedic rituals, among them the simple twice-daily Agnihotra.

The sacrificer normally has already been initiated into the Agnihotra, and performs this day by day, until, on the first day of the Jyotistoma, after his morning Agnihotra, he formally invites the priests to perform the sacrifice for him. After this he makes the burning fire of his daily Agnihotra "ascend" into the wooden fire board and fire stick (the Aranis) from which once the Agnihotra fire was "churned". This takes place in his house.

The sacrificer then takes these Aranis, and together with his wife and the sixteen priests he proceeds from his house to the place where they plan the sacrifice. While they walk they recite, among other things, the first hymn of the Rgveda.

When they arrive at the sacrificial area the first fire of the Jyotistoma sacrifice is prepared by pressing and rubbing the fire board and fire stick against each other.

Videostream: Making fire  (Broadband) / (Modem)

The sacrificial area is designed according to detailed ancient directions.

Map used by the priests to lay out the sacrificial area (Barsi 2001).

Simplified plan of the sacrificial area.


Garh. = Garhapatya or Domestic Fire
Ahav. = Ahavaniya or Offering Fire
Daksin. = Daksinagni or Southern Fire
R. = Rajasandi, the King's Throne for the Soma stalks
S. = Samrad-asandi, the Emperor's Throne for the Pravargya vessels
m. = methi and mayukhas, the peg and pins for the cow, the calf, the she-goat and the lamb
kh. = khara or mound
Utt.v. = Uttaravedi
n. = nabhi

Initially, the ritual acts are performed in the Pracinavamsa or "hut with top beam that is directed eastward". On the day immediately preceding the pressing day (minimally the fourth day) the centre of ritual action shifts to the Mahavedi, or large offering space, that has been measured out with much precision. The fire is then brought in a solemn procession from the offering altar in the Pracinavamsa to the Uttaravedi, the altar in the east of the Mahavedi.

Videostream: Proceeding with Agni  (Broadband) / (Modem)

The pressing of the Soma, the offering of the Soma beverage to the gods by putting it into the fire of the Uttaravedi, and the consuming of the remaining Soma beverage: this all takes place on the Mahavedi, on the pressing day. On the Mahavedi special grass has been spread which should serve as seat for the gods and for the priests. Two sheds have been built on the Mahavedi, one mainly for the chants and recitations, the other for the pressing of the Soma. After the concluding bath the grass and the sheds on the Mahavedi are burnt with the fire of the Uttaravedi.

Videostream: Final burning of the sacred grass  (Broadband) / (Modem)

Next, the fire of the three altars in the remaining old offering hut, the Pracinavamsa, is made to ascend again into the Aranis (fire board and stick) of the sacrificer, and the sacrifice and his wife return home. Here fire is made from the Aranis. From then on, the sacrificer and his wife continue with their daily Agnihotra, evening and morning. (top)

Soma: plant, drink and god

Soma is the name of a mysterious plant from which a drink is pressed that is said to have a certain effect on the mind. The plant and drink are themselves worshiped as gods. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the identity of the Soma-plant is subject of discussion of the Vedists and Indologists. Several places in the Vedic texts suggest that Soma makes wakefulness, alertness and euphoria increase. The poetical utterances in which the Soma is praised are full of metaphores and hyperboles. If these are taken as the expression of direct perceptions one should conclude that the perception of those who consume Soma has been considerably "altered", and that Soma would thus be a halucinogenic plant. The expressions, however, are rather stereotypical; the Soma-juice that is trickling from the sieve is time and again compared with rain falling from heaven, the bucket in which it is collected is referred to as the ocean, etc.

Translated citations.

One may argue that the poets of the Soma-hymns are generally following a tradition rather than giving expression to direct halucinatory experiences. The complicated recitations, songs and ritual actions in which the priests and the sacrificer consuming the Soma are engaged make it unlikely that it would be a strong halucinogenic in the form and quantities it was consumed by the participants. That the Soma was a strong halucinogenic was the theory presented by R.G. Wasson a few decades ago (1968). He argued that the fly agaric, Amanita Muscaria, was the most likely candidate for the Soma-plant. J. Brough and F.B.J. Kuiper, among others, have shown that Wasson's theory does not go well with the information provided by the ancient texts. It has also been suggested that the Soma would be an alcoholic beverage. The problem with this theory is that the procedures in the Soma-sacrifice (e.g. the Jyotistoma) does not provide a suitable occasion for the process of fermentation that an alcoholic drink would require. Moreover, the Vedic texts prescribe the consumption of alcohol for someone who has drunk too much Soma. One would hence expect that the two have opposite effects. Other proposals for Soma are Sarcostemma Brevistigma en Peganum Harmala. An old candidate, the Ephedra (defended e.g. by K.F. Geldner, author of the most used scientific translation of the Rgvedic), that does not have a strong halucinatory but a stimulating effect, has recently received new support from scholars such as H. Falk and C.G. Kashikar. Other scholars, for instance T. Oberlies and F. Staal, have now again argued that the Soma must have had a clearly halucinogenic effect, even when they admit that the concrete proposal of the fly agaric is problematic.

What is often insufficiently taken into account is that the participants in a Soma sacrifice subject themselves to certain restrictions. Ritual prescriptions say explicitly that the sacrificer should fast until he has become lean before he can start the Soma-sacrifice. As is well known, even fasting by itself can lead to halucinations. In addition, the performance of the Soma-sacrifice invariably implies extreme early rising at least on the pressing day, and occasionally a continuation through the night (the Atiratra Soma sacrifice, referred to in the Rgveda). The search for a substance which has a strong halucinogenic effect on modern people whose physiology is accustomed to full meals with lots of coffee etc. may hence be mistaken. There are a few exceptional places in the Rgveda (the Laba-sukta in the 10th book) where halucination-like experiences are linked with Soma, but these would also go well with a stimulant having at the most facilitating properties for incidental halucinogenic experiences. At any rate, the Ephedra generally suits the Vedic data as sketched above as well as the data of ancient Iran (where Haoma is pressed in a way which is parallel to the way of pressing Soma).

Videostream: Soma-pressing  (Broadband) / (Modem)

The identification of the Soma-plant is an important challenge, and the scholarly discussion on it will no doubt continue.3  If convincing evidence is found for a final identification of the Soma-plant, this would be a significant contribution to the contextualisation of Vedic culture.

However, from the point of view of the Soma-sacrifice or the Jyotistoma it is clear that the actual Soma-plant receded into the background. As early as in the ancient Brahmana-texts alternatives are mentioned for the Soma in case the real Soma is not found. Brahmins in present day India are usually unable to point out a real Soma plant. In Soma-sacrifices in Maharashtra till the present day Brahmins use a plant to which they refer as Putika in Sanskrit, and which is called Ran Sher in Marathi (this was pointed out to me by Dr. C.G. Kashikar, Pune; cf. further P.V. Kane's History of Dharmasastra vol. 2 part 2 p. 1203). The plant nowadays referred to as Putika is probably identifiable as Sarcostemma brevistigma.

Putika, substitute for Soma.

The present day Soma sacrifice has thus become like a wedding which just continues even when no-one knows who is the bride or where she has gone. From early on, it was held that the "true" soma is not the plant that is pressed but something more abstract. An important "ingredient" in the preparation of Soma are the recitations and chants, and these are very much present in the Soma-sacrifice as prescribed and as performed in attestable cases. Also the name of many specific Soma rituals suggests that the attention has shifted from the offering substance, the Soma, to the chants: this name is often connected with the character of the chants that occur in it. The name Jyotistoma, for instance, is explained in the Jaiminiya Brahmana by pointing out that the last chant at the third pressing is devoted to Agni (fire), and Agni is light or Jyotis. The name Jyotistoma is here equivalent to Agnistoma, which is the basic form of a group of rituals that will be called Jyotistoma in the broad sense of the term. The Sodasi is so called because there are sixteen (sodasa) recitations and chants, instead of twelve as in the Agnistoma.

Apparently, the Soma as god has started to play a gradually more independent role, apart from the material basis in the form of the pressed juice. In the hymns he appears as a god that provides a clear mind, that finds the light and a way out of distress, dispells diseases, gives fame, happiness and richess. See for instance the first hymn of the ninth book of the Rgveda.  

The tradition of the Samaveda, which is so important in the Soma-sacrifice, contains texts such as the Samavidhana Brahmana which ascribe positive effects directly to the chants. Here one finds a confirmation of the reduced importance of the "material" Soma which was already clear from the fact that certain knowledge of the identity of the Soma has been lost. The important role that the Samaveda plays in the Soma-sacrifice may also be related to the fact that music has a more immediate effect than the recitations with often rather complex poetical utterances that can be understood in detail only after one is quite familiar with it. The Samavedic chants, called Samans, are full of rithmic melodies, paterns of repetition with variations etc.

Audio: Example of a Saman: the Rathantara Saman in the midday pressing of the Aty-Agnistoma in Barsi, February 2001.

As such, they could be compared with Fuges of Bach in the European music world. In a Saman the textual starting point is a verse from the Rgveda; some of its syllables are lengthened or otherwise modified, and extra syllables are also inserted. In this respect the Samaveda can be compared with Gregorian chant, where a line from a Psalm (in a Latin version) is the starting point for elaborate chants created by the lengthening and insertion of syllables. (top)

Gharma and Pravargya

The most important object in the Pravargya is a pot of clay filled with clarified butter ("ghee") and heated on the fire. When freshly milked cow's and goat's milk are added to the boiling ghee, an impressive pillar of fire arises. Accompanying songs and recitations associate the heated pot with, among other things, light and the sun. In the next stage hot milk and yoghurt (dadhi) are offered into the offering fire from the pot. Finally, the participants (sacrificer and priests) consume what is left after the offerings. The Pravargya ritual is full of symbols which suggest intimate relations between the cosmos, the ritual and man. A number of verses recited in the classical Pravargya derive from the so-called Riddle Hymn of the Rgveda. A close study of this hymn has shown that the hymn may be subdivided into parts which are applicable to specific episodes in the classical Pravargya ritual. When the hymn is placed against this ritual background it turns out that convincing interpretations are possible for a large number of riddles in this ancient hymn. The relation between the classical Pravargya and the Riddle Hymn point to an "initiatory" character of the Pravargya, which also expresses itself in various other.htmlects of the Pravargya.4   

The Pravargya is never performed on its own, but always in the context of the Soma-sacrifice, for instance in the form of the Jyotistoma. Here it is performed on the introductory days (minimally three) before the actual pressing of the Soma. It is performed in the morning and in the afternoon. Each performance starts with an elaborate "beginning peace invocation" (purva santi patha) and ends with an even more elaborate "concluding peace invocation" (uttara santi patha).(top)

Audio: Concluding peace invocation.

Modern performances of Vedic rituals 5  

In the 19th century it was Martin Haug who succeeded in getting Brahmins in Pune to perform a Soma-sacrifice which he could observe from near by. He was also allowed to photograph sacrificial utensils and take them to Europe. These experiences were of great importance to Haug in order to get a better insight in the subject matter of the Aitareya Brahmana, the Vedic text which he was editing and translating. Also other scholars in his time were happy to make use of the collection and the photographs made by Haug when they studied Vedic ritual; W. Caland and V. Henry, for instance, added a table of photographs of Haug's collection to their study of the Agnistoma.

The first large performance which can rightly be called "modern" is the Agnicayana organized by F. Staal in Kerala, India, 1975. The tradition of Vedic rituals had become quite weak, and without the encouragements and support of Staal the ritual would probably not have been performed. In this performance it was necessary to take into account with all kinds of new circumstances not referred to in the traditional rules of the ritual. The ritual was to be filmed, and extensive sound recordings were to be made. The media payed much attention to the sacrifice, and there were strong protests against the killing of sacrificial animals; at the last moment it was decided to use vegetarian substitutes for these. The successful performance by Staal stimulated also traditional Brahmins to engage again in the organisation of large Srauta rituals.

Since the 1980's two persons have been very active in the organisation of larger Vedic rituals, Mr. Selukar Maharaj and Mr. Nana Kale. Both have succeeded in going through the Gavam-Ayana in 1999-2000: this is a sacrificial session (Sattra) lasting for a year in which Soma is pressed and offered. The Jyotistoma/Agnistoma and the Pravargya are recurring elements in this complex ritual.

The film The Vedic Pravargya Ritual: Performances in Delhi, December 11-12, 1996, shows the Pravargya as performed in an eleven-day Soma-sacrifice, that is, a Soma-sacrifice in which there is not one pressing day as in the basic type the Jyotistoma. For the Pravargya the larger number of pressing days makes no difference. (top)

Videostream: Pravargya-film: Introduction (Broadband) / (Modem)

Videostream: Pravargya-film: Part I: the regular performance (Broadband) / (Modem)

In preparation: Vedic schools in South Asia: a few observations and a bibliography

The Vedas survive in South Asia in multi-branched Vedic schools which have become very rare in the last few centuries. The history of these Vedic schools constitute an important part of the cultural history of South Asia. An important overview of knowledge available till then was published by Louis Renou in 1947, Les écoles védiques et la formation du Veda; since that time much new research has been done. On this place a bibliography will be made available of major research done on the Vedic schools since Louis Renou's publication. Of interest in this connection is also an essay by Willem Caland in which he gives an overview of the gradual discovery and increased study of the Veda by Western scholars up to the 19th century. As for the study of the Veda in modern times: by way of illustration we show a recent group of students studying the beginning of the Rgveda in the Veda Vijnan Ashram in Barsi.  (top)

Videostream:  Studying the first hymn of the Rgveda (Broadband) / (Modem)


1. See for instance my article "On the earliest attestable forms of the Pravargya ritual: Rg-Vedic references to the Gharma-Pravargya, especially in the Atri family book (book 5)", Indo-Iranian Journal 43 (2000):1-25. (back)

2. Jyotistoma may be understood as "Laud of the Light", from Jyotis = light + Stoma = laud or praise; the term has been used differently in different texts and periods. See for instance the introduction to Caland and Henry's description of the Agnistoma (1906-07). (back)

3. Recent issues in the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies ( and an upcoming issue containing a report of the CNWS-Seminar on Soma/Haoma (July 3-4, 1999) and some additional papers deal with the Soma problem. (back)

4. See for instance my article "Pragmatics of a Vedic Hymn", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 120.4. (back)

5. Here we are interested in the larger Srauta rituals; smaller Srauta rituals have a relatively solid continuity in some areas such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; there is also considerable interest in Vedic Grhya rituals (among them important rites of passage) which have a tenacious and more flexible tradition than the "solemn" Srauta rituals. (back)