How old are our mantras?

The Michael Wood documentary, The Story of India, which was telecast in six parts on PBS mentioned something interesting in the very first episode. Wood talked about the Out of Africa theory – the migration of humans 70,000 years back, from Africa along the shores of Arabian Sea into South India – and mentioned that all non-Africans in the world are descendents of these Indians. Nothing new in that.

Going in search of clues left by those ancient migrants in South India, he arrived at the house of a Kerala brahmin who is teaching his son mantras the way it has been done for millenia. Wood then shows the 2006 athirathram – a 12 day vedic ceremony – and mentions that certain sounds recited in this ceremony takes years to learn but have no meaning. When brahmins were asked for meaning, they did not know. They simply knew that it was handed down.

Since man is a speaking animal, we have always assumed that any word man says is in language, but some of those mantras are not in any known language. Hence these sounds, which are still recited today, are considered to have evolved before human speech.

Of Birds and Humans

Frits Staal of UC Berkeley  thought that the claim that mantras are older than language was “preposterous.” In 1975 he helped finance an athirathram, which had not been conducted since 1956 due to financial constraints. Analyzing the sounds he came to the conclusion that mantras could belong to a pre-language era since:

  • Mantras are language independent: Anything in language can be translated whereas mantras remain the same in all languages.
  • Mantras, even though they seem to be in a language like Sanskrit, are not used for their meaning.
  • Mantras follow patterns, like refrain, which is not seen in language.

The clincher for the pre-language theory came when the sound patterns were analyzed to find the nearest equivalent in nature. The technique followed was like this: He took a mantra like Jaimintya Gramageyagana (45.2.1) which goes:

vo no ha bu / idam idam pura ha bu / pra va pra
vas ia ia ha yi / nina ninava tarn u vo ha bu / stiisa vi
sakhtaia Ya ha vi / dramutalyayi / o vi la /

It was split into patterns like AB / CB / DE/.. where A = vo no and B = ha bu. Comparing it to bird songs, it was found that the patterns were similar and such patterns were not found any where else.

As a side effect, by comparing the patterns of mantras and certain birds, it is possible to find which birds influenced the mantras. There is research which found patterns in the composition of Igor Stravinsky and a bird usually found in the region where he worked. Thus some of the mantra sounds were found to be inspired by the songs of Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Whitethroat – two birds which migrate to India.

There are examples of bird-human interaction in Vedas and Upanishads. Some vedic chools have been named after birds — like kausika after the owl or taittiriya after the partridge. D. D. Kosambi believed that Vedic clans were totemic. Then there is the story of Satyakama Jabala in Chandogya Upanishad who:
Text not available


Having established this similarity between bird song and mantra, the theory then takes off with a life of its own. There are vedic rituals for making rain and curing illness and similarly birds sing for building nests or attracting females; there are rituals and bird songs for various occasions. Then it was also found that bird sing – believe it or not – just for pleasure. So Staal extends the theory to say that, similar to skiing, dancing and music, mantras and rituals too are done for pleasure.

Between Staal’s athirathram in 1975 and Wood’s in 2006, one was held in 1990 near Thrissur which I attended  for a day. This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.”

Prof. Staal thinks that not just the sounds, but rituals too are meaningless. But Wood writes that mantras, “work on emotions, the physiology, and the nervous system.” According to Wood, these rituals are a away of achieving heightened mental and physical state. So I am not sure if this research is of the Ganesha phallus quality. If you have seen any paper or book by anyone else, please leave a comment.

Postscript: Kosambi’s concept that Vedic clans were named after animals was criticized inThe Early Brahmanical System of Gotra and Pravara (Purusottama Pandita, John Brough). They wrote that it is equivalent to saying an Englishman with the surname Fox belongs to a totemic clan of that animal.  Instead they suggest that the bird name could have come from the clan name.

Michael Wood has a companion book to the program. More details can be found in Staal’s paper, Mantras and Bird Songs, in which one quoted sentence reads: “there are mechanisms in existence which reinforce economical perfection in motor skills independently of the attainment of the ultimate biological goal in whose pursuit the learned movement is developed.” Staal’s book on this topic is available in limited preview mode in Google Books.


21 thoughts on “How old are our mantras?

  1. I am confused what this article wants to convey. may be because of my bad grasping power.
    But I am pretty sure that I am not in agreement with the claim that some sounds don’t have meaning. It would be good if any examples are provided. I am from a vedic family and I’m pretty sure all sounds have meaning. Inspiration from birds need not necessasarily be meaningless words. The word pattern (‘mala’ pattern is referred here) referred above is to make sure noone adds or removes words in future, to make sure it doesn’t change every year like Bible. Rig and Yajur are for straight reciting and sama is for musical reciting. When you do musical reciting in sama, it will be have musical notes, but the underlying words are same and densely meaningful

  2. Great post. I remember watching a documentary on discovery that showed one such somayajna and related it to bird sounds.

    I remember my guruji telling me that all such yajnas like somayajna, ashwamedha yajna etc are called shrauta-yagjnas where are our commonly performed ‘ganapati homam’, ‘navagraha homam’ etc are called smaartha yajnas. Now, shrauta comes from the word shruti: ‘that which is heard’–heard from, I guess, nature, though shruti is commonly translated as vedas.

    And about mantras for pleasure, ‘shabda’ (sound) in vedic tradition is given utmost importance and is equated to Brahman itself. I believe Patanjali and Panini have dwelt at length over the importance of shadba.

    If fortunate, I can come back with more information, but then, it would be from a Rigveda ghanaapaati, not from a research scholar as we have come to know, and so “less credible”.

  3. “I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.””

    That was good!

    I am curious if Staal actually used the mantralu as they were meant to be used before declaring they were useless and meaningless simply by doing a primitive comparison, in the 70s, between bird sounds and mantralu recited during athirathram.

    Also I read in rediff in a profile of CEC Gopalaswamy that he was instrumental to get funding from UNESCO, about $5mil, to transcribe Sama Veda. (Link of rediff article: Apparently it is still carried on orally. We already know Hindus and Hinduism are orphans in secular Bharatham but wasn’t sure if Sama Vedam hasn’t been transcribed yet and someone had to beg UN for monies to get it done. A rich temple like Tirupathi could have easily done it.

  4. Kedar,

    Staal was of the opinion that srauta rituals are devoid of meaning or function unlike the grhya or domestic rituals. Then he found that there is no meaning or function a ritual cannot posses. Basically he says you can take any ritual to mean anything.

  5. JK, thanks for the post. This is the kind of stuff that needs to be called as B.S as it truly is.

    According to Shri Aurobindo and Shri T V Kapali Sastry’s (a disciple of Shri Aurobindo, as well as Ramana Maharshi (now believe that!)) opinion, a first attempt at interpretation of the Vedic hymns was the Brahmanas. Another attempt was the Upanishads, with the last classical one being by Sayana.

    One could write that the first led to the ritualistic interpretation, the second to the “mystical interpretation” and the third to reconciliation of the above two. But, these questions of “what do these rituals mean” and “what is the proof that they would surely lead one to eternal happiness” has been there since eternity. For example, a famous Mimamsa sutra explains that the whole theory of vAk (in general and vEda-vAk in particular) and its associated meaning is unborn. Very loosely speaking, Mimamsa is based on Brahmanic (as in the text: Brahmanas) interpretation of Vedas. Hence the question of what the Brahmanic injunctions — which could be interpreted as “rituals” — mean, has been there for some time.

    In one of their books, the above scholars note that people who are not from the system better not attempt to interpret the hymns as the language changed (vedic sanskrit vs. classsical sanskrit), the original spirit changed (one that leads to true understanding of the universe vs. one that leads to the breaking down of the system to make it more productive), the capability of people changed (with the longer attention spans of the earlier people), and the conditions changed (people moved due to Saraswathi changing course for example).

    As an example of misinterpretation, the above scholars give a very clear example of Griffiths translation of Mantra 1.164.41 “Forming the water-floods, the buffalo hath lowed, one-footed or two-footed or fourfooted, she, Who hath become eight-footed or hath got nine feet, the thou sand-syllabled in the sublimest heaven.”. Here the correct intrerpretation of the famous gaurir-mimaya mantra from RV, which any student of Vedas learns, is: the subject is division of speech and the meaning within.

    Here is a reading list which I would wholeheartedly recommend for the interested reader.

    1. Aurobindo’s “Secret of the Veda” and “Hymns to the Mystic Fire”. I have read these books, but I should admit they are not for easy reading at all. The first part of the former book is worth reading (and multiple readings:) by anyone interested in the subject.

    2. T V Kapali Sastry’s books:
    I can gladly recommend any of His “Lights books”. He refers to Aurobindo many times. So, it helps if you keep Aurobindo at hand when reading him. All his “lights books” are the interpretation of Vedas. He, as I understand, had many fights with people, some of the western people and some Indic people. But was much readable.

    3. You could verify the above mis-interpretation of 1.164.41 in Griffith’s book, page #90

    4. You may want to refer to a book on Mimamsa for understanding the nature and meaning of rituals. Note that the whole systems of rituals has been thoroughly rejected by the great Shankara.

  6. JK:
    What Staal says defies pure logic. A civilisation that has invested so much on exactitude on remembering words, and even the swaras of the words, places no importance on their exact meaning and exact symbolism when they are used in a particular (and extremely clearly laid out) ritual is really, well… beyond common sense. Amazing.

  7. RK:
    Lot of info in your comment. Need to study more. As fas as I understand Adi Sankara, he rejected the empty ritual devoid of inner growth. The antar-yajna as specified by Aurobindo (was it he?) is of utmost importance for growth.

  8. Thanks for this post. It comes a day after I finished Staal’s book “Discovering the Vedas” and helps put the reading in context

  9. American Justice Dept upheld Indian Yoga and Meditation

    Your website is beautiful, informative and Excellent.

    Article by M.P. Bhattathiri, Retired Chief Technical Examiner , to The Govt. of Kerala. Humble request that it may be published in your website and magazine after editing if necessary

    [Edited the remaining long comment]

    1. bhattathiri, I would request you to get a free blog at or and publish your articles.

  10. Nice article, but I would like to comment on Wood’s show too. He supports the Aryan Invasion in the same sense as the British and today’s politicians, but at the same time mentioned that the Brahmins (Namboodiris) of Kerala are more native to India than the so-called Dravidians. This amused me! It goes on to state that they will go to any extent to impose their “thoughts” on us. Initially, Hinduism itself was considered as those of the “invading Aryans”. Then after statues of Mother Goddess were found in the archaeological sites, they ascertained Shaktism to be native, while other sects as that of the Aryans’. Next, after Shiva lingams were found, they said Shaivism is also native, next came Vaishnavism too after the discovery of the Shalagrama stones. Hence it was declared that worships and rituals that use fire alone are Aryan. Now after the excavations of fire altars, how are they goin to reframe this so-called history??

  11. Excellent article.In the storm of life we struggle through myriads of stimuli of pressure, stress, and muti-problems that seek for a solution and answer. We are so suppressed by the routine of this every life style that most of us seem helpless. However, if we look closely to ancient techniques we shall discover the magnificent way to understand and realize the ones around us and mostly ourselves. If only we could stop for a moment and allow this to happen. May all beings be happy (Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu)

    The ancient Hindu philosophy of keepiing mind and body for the well being, has entered the managerial, medical and judicial domain of the world. Today it has found its place as an alternative to the theory of modern management and also as a means to bring back the right path of peace and prosperity for the human beings. Let me bow to Indian Maharishi Veda Vysa with folded hands who helped in removing the impurities of the mind through his writings on Vedas, impurities of speech through his writings on puranas, and impurities of body through his writings on other sacred texts.

    The Holy Gita is the essence of the Vedas, Upanishads. It is a universal scripture applicable to people of all temperaments and for all times. It is a book with sublime thoughts and practical instructions on Yoga, Devotion, Vedanta and Action. It is profound in thought and sublime in heights of vision. It brings peace and solace to souls that are afflicted by the three fires of mortal existence, namely, afflictions caused by one’s own body (disease etc), those caused by beings around one ( e.g. wild animals, snakes etc.), and those caused by the gods (natural disasters, earth-quakes, floods etc).

  12. I think the writer is being quite narrow minded here. Just because the writer thinks that brahmins do not sing or chant mantras for pleasure in todays life context with all its negative pressures (and many 100 years of cultural and religious subjugation under Islamic rule), does not mean it was never meant to be so many 1000 years back.

    The writer is too caught up in his current world and time to appreciate what might be a wonderful possibility. Instead the writer is indulging in mindless flexing of “english muscle” and “manner of speech”.


  13. I think that most people are mising the real point, that imitation of birdsong may have come before speech. There are only three sets of animals that can follow a change of beat in music or follow a conductor and synchronize a beat with another; parrots, song birds and humans. If you compare a bird brain with a human brain, even though different parts do similar functions the distance between the parts is the same. In other words the shape of a bird brain is very much like a human’s, and they are the only other creatures for which pitch association, vocalization and gesture are fused along the same pathways. This does not exist in other primates, only humans, and it may well be that dancing, singing and chanting came before speech. Birds were probably very important to survival and early humans probably dpended on how birds reacted to their environment to survive. It has also been noted by many bird specialists, that sometimes birds sing just because it’s fun. It doesn’t always have to mean something. Who hasn’t sung in a shower for the sheer pleasure of it? I do agree that both birds and humans use sounds to communicate, but they may have done it becausee it was fun to synchronize the sounds and the beat. What the writer is implying is that the oldest known genetic haplogroup to leave Africa and end up in that part of India, and if indeed the Kerala Brahmins have maintained the sounds for thousands of years, it could be evidence of the oldest rudimentary language. The implications of this are quite significant and would explain a lot about the evolution human brain devlopment. Just because the writer says that the sounds didn’t have meaning, doesn’t mean that the rest is is B.S. Humans probably did both, and even the Kerala Brahmins say they don’t know what the mantras mean. Whether the chants were meant to communicate or simply a ritual of synchronized movement and chanting. It has been proposed that the synchronization was necessary for complex speech to evolve. For a fascinating look into this, go onto google videos, and type in World Science Festival 2009 Avian Einsteins.

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