The Brāhmaṇa is the second important section of the Vedas, the first being the Saṁhitā. Whereas the Saṁhitā is in poetry and deals with a variety of subjects, the Brāhmaṇa, which is in prose, confines itself to liturgy, describing the modus operandi of the various sacrifices.
The Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (3000-2500 B. C.) is the longer one of the two extant Brāhmaṇas of the Ṛgveda—the other being Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa—and is attributed to Mahidāsa Aitareya (See AITAREYA for details.). There is reason to believe that this is, perhaps, an abridged edition of an earlier and much bigger work. The book is divided into eight pañcikās (quintets) each consisting of five adhyāyas or chapters which are again subdivided into kaṇḍikās or short sections. In all, there are 285 kaṇḍikās spread over 40 adhyāyas. The language is almost as archaic as that of the Saṁhitā and certain word-groups tend to appear repeatedly.
Since this work contains many details of sacrificial rites which are rather bewildering to the modern mind, only a very brief summary of the contents will be attempted here. The first thirteen adhyāyas give a minute description of the various duties and responsibilities of the hotṛ (principal priest of the Ṛgveda) (See HOTṚ for details.) in the sacrifice called Agniṣṭoma. Agniṣṭoma being a prakṛti or prototype of all other Somayāgas (which are its vikṛtis or modifications or versions) it has been given the pride of place here. Adhyāyas 15-17 describe the sacrifices Ukthya, Atirātra and Ṣoḍaśī which are all vikṛtis of Agniṣṭoma. The 18th adhyāya deals with the Sattrayāgas (which take a full year to perform) and the part the hotṛ is expected to play in it. The next six adhyāyas (19 to 24) concern themselves with the sacrifice called Dvādaśāha, the emphasis again being on the instructions to the hotṛs. Agnihotra is described in the 25th. The duties of the hotṛ and his assistants in the Somayāgas which take several weeks are described in the five adhyāyas 26 to 30. The last two pañcikās comprising adhyāyas 31 to 40, contain interesting material from which plenty of information can be gathered on contempo-rary history. Rājasūya sacrifice is the main theme of the adhyāyas 31-35. It is here that we come across the well-known story of Śunaśśepha and Hariścandra. The last section (adhyayās 36 to 40) deals with the coronation of Indra and gives a long list of the various kings who were coronated by ṛṣis following the same pattern of Indra’s coronation. The work ends with the exhortation to the king to appoint a purohita (priest) and the qualifications the latter has to possess to deserve the honour.
Some of the special features of this Brāhmaṇa may now be noted: It appears that the deity Viṣṇu was highly respected by the Vedic society of that time. A number of earlier religious works are quoted from which we can surmise the existence of other Brāhmaṇa works which are not available now. It is interesting to note that the work criticises the views of other works and earlier teachers, if and when found necessary.
Out of the several ṛks (Ṛgvedic mantras) quoted here, a few have not been found in the extant Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. Perhaps another śākhā or branch of the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā different from the Śākala recension available now, must have existed.
The whole text is overwhelmingly weighed in favour of the sacrificial system of religion leaving practically no room for metaphysical ideas as, for instance, in the Upaniṣads.
By the time of this Brāhmaṇa, Āryan culture had already spread to Eastern India, though Central India continued to be the heart of it. Kings of the Kuru-Pāñcāla race were ruling in Central India. Kings of the east were called ‘sāmrāṭ’ and of the south ‘bhoja.’ Emperors who conquered these used to assume titles like ‘ekarāṭ,’ ‘sārvabhauma’ or ‘parameṣṭhin.’ They believed that the rite ‘mahābhiṣeka’ (by which Indra was coronated) would induce in the king the necessary power and inspiration to achieve this sovereignty.
Emperors and kings were fond of performing long and complicated sacrifices, especially the ‘mahābhiṣeka.’ Curds, honey, ghee and water were being used in this rite for anointing and sprinkling. Though the State exercised full control over the people, the brāhmaṇas were deemed to have transcended it.
The book contains a list of twelve kings who underwent this mahābhiṣeka rite. Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna as also Bharata, the son of Duṣyanta and Śakuntalā are included in this list.
Though the people were ardently devoted to the sacrificial rites they had not neglected the life here and now. Brāhmaṇas vied with one another to exhibit their erudition while the kṣattriyas did the same in the field of physical prowess and skill in arms.