The Vedas, the basic scriptures of Hinduism, are broadly divided into two parts: the Saṁhitās and the Brāhmaṇas. The latter include the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads, though these latter two are also considered as two more parts, different from the Saṁhitās and the Brāhmaṇas.
Whereas the Saṁhitās comprise the mantras or hymns in praise of the various Vedic deities like Agni and Indra, the Brāhmaṇas, composed in prose, explain the mantras, prescribe their use in sacrifices and also give the know-how of the sacrifices in detail.
Yajñas and yāgas—sacrifices offered into the duly consecrated fire—occupied the central place in Vedic religion. Hence, the need for clear and elaborate instructions to conduct them was keenly felt. And, the Brāhmaṇas fulfilled that need.
The primary content of the Brāhmaṇas can be stated as ‘vidhi’ or injunctions concerning the various rites and rituals which form a part of the sacrificial system. It comprises such details as: when to perform a sacrifice, which sacrifice for which purpose, who is the person fit to perform it, which are the various components, what are the mantras to be used, where and how, and so on.
Apart from the vidhis, the Brāhmaṇas also contain other topics: hetu, nirukti, stuti or arthavāda and ākhyāna.
Those portions of the work that provide logic and reasoning in support of a vidhi are called ‘hetu’. Wherever certain words are explained with their etymological derivations, such statements are termed as ‘nirukti’. Stuti or arthavāda comprises the statements of praise in support of the injunctions and of derogation, in support of prohibitions. Ākhyānas are stories or narration of ancient incidents interspersed in the body of the Brāhmaṇa literature. They are often full of esoteric meanings or philosophical speculations.
The Brāhmaṇas occupy a very impor-tant place in the Vedic lore. They provided not only the necessary details for the performance of Vedic rites but also the inspiration to sustain them. The various discussions that used to take place during the Brāhmaṇa period, concerning the several aspects of the sacrificial religion, gave rise to the Mīmāṁsā system of philosophy.
As in the case of the other ancient Hindu scriptures, it is rather difficult to fix up definitely the date of the Brāhmaṇa literature. Whereas the Western Indologists assign the dates 1200 B. C. to A. D. 200, the Indian scholars, basing their arguments mainly on the astronomical data available in the Brāhmaṇas—like the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa—push it back to the period 3000 B.C. to 2000 B.C.
The entire Brāhmaṇa literature is in prose. It is the most ancient prose in Sanskrit literature available to us now. The sentences are simple and straight. Long compound words or grammatically intricate structures are practically unknown. Hence, it is much more intelligible to the readers. The absence of archaic words found in the Saṁhitās and the use of many new words give us the impression that the Sanskrit of the Brāhmaṇas represents a transition stage from the Vedic to the classical Sanskrit.
The Brāhmaṇas give us an inkling into the contemporary social life too. People were very much devoted to the performance of the sacrifices. Hence they were extensively practised. This naturally led to the brāhmaṇas—members of the first of the four varṇas—occupying the pre-eminent place in the social setup. They were treated practically as gods on earth. However, they had to earn that status through the mastery of the Vedas and tapas or austerities.
The varṇa system—division of the society into four broad groups based on the natural propensities and professions chosen—had become well-established. The kṣattriya ruler had to submit himself to the guidance and advice of the brāhmaṇas. The vaiśyas were devoted to the development of the whole society through their activities of trade, commerce and agriculture. Those who were not capable of the other three vocations contented themselves in living by serving others. They were the śūdras.
Great importance was attached to satya and dharma, truth and righteous behaviour. One who forsook the path of truth was considered unfit for the performance of sacrifices. Slipping into sinful ways would result in a vicious circle, thereby obliging the sinners to commit more heinous sins. Hence it had to be avoided at all costs. Since purity in personal life would conduce to the purity of social life, it was highly regarded and stressed. And, the Vedic sacrifices were believed to help the human beings in achieving this goal.
People hankered for progeny, especi-ally for virtuous sons. A chaste woman was always respected.
Each of the four Vedas has its own Brāhmaṇas. Since the number of the extant Brāhmaṇas is rather small compared to what has been mentioned in the gṛhyasūtras and other ancient works, it can safely be surmised that many of them have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
The Brāhmaṇas available now, may be listed as follows:
Aitareya Brāhmaṇa and Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa.
Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa and Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa.
Tāṇḍya Brāhmaṇa, Ṣaḍviṁśa Brāh-maṇa, Sāmavidhāna Brāhmaṇa, Ārṣeya Brāhmaṇa, Daivata Brāhmaṇa, Saṁhitopaniṣad Brāhmaṇa, Upaniṣad Brāh-maṇa, Vaṁśa Brāhmaṇa and Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa.
An idea of the contents of these Brāhmaṇas can be obtained under the respective titles.