Each of the four Vedas, the basic scriptures of Hinduism, is again divided into four parts: Saṁhitā, Brāhmaṇa, Āraṇyaka and Upaniṣad.
The Aitareya Āraṇyaka (2500 B. C.) is one of the two Āraṇyakas belonging to the Ṛgveda, the other being Śāṅkhāyana Āraṇyaka. It has five main divisions each of which is also given the appellation ‘āraṇyaka.’ For instance, the first division is called ‘prathamāraṇyaka,’ the second ‘dvitīyāraṇyaka’ and so on. The total number of adhyāyas or chapters is eighteen. These adhyāyas are again subdivided into khaṇḍas or small sections.
The first āraṇyaka describes the ‘mahāvrata’ which is a part of the Sattra-yāga known as ‘Gavāmayana’ and performed on the penultimate day. (See SATTRAYĀGA and GAVĀMAYANA for details.) This rite derives its name primarily from the fact that a sāman (a hymn from the Sāmaveda) called ‘mahāvrata’ is sung while offering a cup of soma juice to Prajāpati (‘Father of beings’) who is also called ‘mahān’ (‘the great one’). A priest playing on a harp and another sitting on a swing, shooting of arrows, mimetic fights, dancing with water pitchers on the head by the servants—these are some of the important side-lights of the ritual.
The first three adhyāyas of the second āraṇyaka deal with uktha or niṣkevalya śastra, and describe prāṇa, the vital force and the greatness of puruṣa (human being). Niṣkevalya śastra consists of certain Ṛgvedic stanzas which are to be chanted (and not sung) at the time of pressing the soma juice during sacrifices like Gavāmayana. Certain meditations connected with it are described.
The rest of this āraṇyaka (i.e., the fourth, fifth and sixth adhyāyas) comprises the well-known Aitareya Upaniṣad. (For details see AITAREYA UPANIṢAD.)
The third āraṇyaka deals with the special upāsanās or contemplations and their fruits connected with the saṁhitā-pāṭha, padapāṭha and kramapāṭha (the vedic texts and their systematic breaking up for convenience in remembering and interpreting). It also deals with the ariṣṭas (ill-omens) manifesting through certain physical signs like seeing the sun as moon, as not seeing one’s head through the mirror or through dreams, as seeing a man of black complexion—all of which forebode death. Names of certain ancient ṛṣis like Śākalya, Māṇḍūkeya, Pāñcālacaṇḍa and Tārkṣya are mentioned as the propagators of the upāsanas.
The fourth āraṇyaka which is very short deals with the mahānāmnī mantras of Sāmaveda which are to be chanted on the fifth day of the mahāvrata.
The fifth āraṇyaka which is the last, deals with many ritualistic details of the mahāvrata.
Hindu tradition ascribes only the first three Āraṇyakas to Aitareya, the fourth and the fifth being attributed to Āśvalāyana and his guru Śaunaka.