Svādhyāya: Studying our Holy Books- I

The Hindu tradition lays great stress on the study of scriptures-svādhyāya. It is considered a religious duty for Hindus to study and recite their scriptures on a daily basis, if possible.

The Hindu tradition lays great stress on the study of scriptures. It is considered a religious duty for Hindus to study and recite their scriptures on a daily basis, if possible. In particular, Hindu priests are required to recite their own designated group of scriptures (called ‘svādhyāya’) every day, and even multiple times every day because that is what grants them the status of priesthood.

Shruti and Smriti are the two eyes of Brahmanas. He who is bereft of one is one eyed, and if bereft of both, is completely blind – thus it is said.” Vādhūla Smriti, verse 197

Hindu scriptures assign five great daily duties for all householders, and the very first one of them is the Brahmayajna, or the daily study and recitation of scriptures, in particular, the Vedas.

Lord Krishna enunciates the study of sacred scriptures as one of the 26 attributes of one who is endowed with divine wealth.

“Absence of fear, Purity of heart and Mind, Steadfastness in the path of Spiritual Wisdom, Charity, Control over one’s senses, Performance of Vedic sacrifices, Study of Holy Scriptures, Austerity and Straightforwardness” Gita 16.1

“Ahimsa, Truth, Absence of Anger, Renunciation, Peacefulness, Absence of Backbiting or Crookedness, Compassion towards all Creatures, Absence of Covetousness, Gentleness, Modesty (Decency), Absence of Fickleness (or immaturity).” Gita 16.2

“Vigor and Energy, Forgiveness, Fortitude, Cleanliness (external and internal), and Absence of too much pride – These belong to the One who is born to achieve Divine Wealth, O Bhārata!” Gita 16.3

Millions of Hindus recite ‘Om’, the Gayatri Mantra, the Purusha Sūkta (Rigveda 10.90), Stotras (hymns in praise of different deities), or sing devotional hymns, or study their holy books on a daily basis as an act of piety and to earn religious merit.

During the convocation ceremony, the Vedic teacher, therefore exhorts his student to continue studying and teaching the scriptures everyday even after they have graduated and have left the school. The Upanishad says that while performing various religious duties and practicing virtues, we must at all times continue svādhyāya and pravachana (teaching to others).

Righteousness, and study and teaching (are to be practiced). Truth (should be adhered to), and study and teaching (are to be practiced). Austerity, and study and teaching (are to be practiced). Control over senses, and study and teaching (are to be practiced). Control over the mind, and study and teaching (are to be practiced). The Vedic ceremonial fires (are to be kept lit), and learning and teaching (are to be practiced. The Agnihotra or Vedic twilight worship (is to be performed), and study and teaching (are to be practiced). The guests, scholars, and the needy (are to be served), and study and teaching (are to be practiced). Humans (should be served and interacted with appropriately), and study and learning (are to be practiced)…..Taittiriya Upanishad 1.9

Hindu scriptures themselves equate the study of scriptures to acts of worship, and the fruit of studying and reciting scriptures is said to be considerable. They say: They studied the Riks and thereby offered milk to the Devas. The Devas then manifested. With the study of Yajus, the Rishis made the offerings of clarified butter; with Samans, made an offering of Soma; with the Atharva Angiras, the made the offering of honey. With the study of Brahmanas, Itihāsa, Nārāshaṃsī, Gāthā, Kalpa and Purāṇa, they offered animal fat to the Devas. When the Devas manifested, they destroyed hunger and other evils, and then returned to heaven. By means of this Brahmayajna, the Rishis attained proximity to the Supreme Being. (Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 2.9.2)

If a twice born recites the Rigveda daily, he offers milk and honey (so to speak) to the Devas and honey and Ghee to his ancestors. If he studies the Yajurveda daily, he offers Ghee and water to the Devas, and Grains and honey to his ancestors. If he studies the Samaveda daily, he satisfies the Devas with Soma and Ghee, and satisfies his ancestors with honey and Ghee. If he studies the Atharvaveda daily, he offers butter to the Devas and honey and Ghee to the ancestors. He who studies the Vākovākya, Purāṇas, Nārashamsi (ballads), Gāthās, Itihāsas and different sciences offers meat, milk, honey and porridge to the ancestors. Satisfied with these offerings, the Devas and ancestors bestow desired fruits to the regular student of the scriptures. He who is ever devoted to the study of scriptures obtains the fruit of whatever yajna (Vedic religious ceremony) he performs, the fruit of donating the entire earth filled with treasures and food thrice, and obtains the fruit of performing numerous austerities. Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.41-48

Chanting the Scriptures:

This study of the sacred Hindu literature can occur in many ways –

  1. Japa or chanting of ‘Om’ and selected passages (such as the Purusha Sūkta from the Rigveda), stotras (devotional hymns to various Deities) from holy books with attentiveness and reverence, and paying attention to the meaning and significance of the words recited. In most cases, the focus is on chanting as an act of devotion, without paying much attention to the meaning although the latter too is strongly recommended.
  2. Svādhyāya: In ancient times (and to a limited extent even today), different families studied a specific set of scriptures from the entire corpus of Hindu sacred literature. For example, a family belonging to the Deshastha Brahmana community in Maharashtra (India) could chant a specific group of 10 scriptures related to the Rigveda (the Rigveda Samhitā, Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, Aitareya Āraṇyaka, Aitareya Upanishad, Āshvalāyana Shrauta Sūtra, Āshvalāyana Grhya Sūtra, Panini’s Așhtādhyāyī, Pingala’s Chhandasūtra, Yāska’s Nirukta and Kātyāyana’s Sarvānukramaṇī) during their lifelong study of scriptures. This same set of scriptures was studied by the members of the family as their primary focus generation after generation and constituted their traditional scriptural study or Svādhyāya. In this form of study too, the focus is on the recitation of the sacred texts, and not necessarily on their meaning.
  3. Adhyayana or study of scriptures in general to imbibe their teachings, and reflect upon their meaning. There may or may not be any chanting involved. The student may study them privately, or under the guidance of a Guru.

The three terms are however used interchangeably. For example, the word ‘adhyayana’ is often used to denote the corpus of texts that are recited during ‘Svādhyāya’. Likewise, Japa is also often used to denote svādhyāya.

A lot of times, Hindus recite and study scriptures without reflecting upon their meaning. This method of reciting scriptural passages from memory mechanically as a ritualistic or a devotional act, without pondering over their meaning, is a good preliminary step towards studying them and acquiring familiarity with their contents. But we must not stop at that.

Importance of Knowing the Meaning of our Scriptures:

Hindu scriptures criticize those who merely chant the scriptures like parrots without trying to understanding their meaning. They say –

He, who having learned the Veda does not know its meaning is like a pillar which merely carries a burden, because only he who knows the meaning attains the auspiciousness and the holy, having got rid of all his sins through wisdom (contained in the meaning of the words). Sage Yāska’s Nirukta 1.18; Rigveda’s Shānkhāyana Āraṇyaka 14.2

An ignorant man has eyes to see but sees nothing, has ears to hear but hears nothing, has a tongue to speak but speaks nothing. The ignorant can never understand the hidden mysteries of knowledge. But it is to the learned alone that knowledge reveals its true nature, just as a woman longing to meet her husband, dresses in her best and puts on her finest jewelry, so as to display her charms to him. Rigveda 10.17.4

Only he who knows (and not merely recites) the Vedic mantras knows the Deities because the Deity does not accept the ceremonial offering that is made without knowledge. Rishi Shaunaka’s Brihaddevatā 7.130,132

Therefore, one must try to understand the meaning of scriptural passages too. But even and chanting and knowing the meaning of the scriptures is not sufficient. Hindu tradition states that the study of our holy books involves five activities:

Fivefold is the practice of Vedas: First is learning it from a teacher, second is contemplation, third is their practice (acting per their teachings and performing the rituals taught by them), fourth is their recitation (Japa) and the fifth is teaching them to one’s own disciple. Daksha Smriti 2.31

Knowledge is acquired and mastered in 4 steps – during the period of study, during the period of self-reflection on what is taught, during the period of teaching it to others, and while practicing it. Mahābhāshya of Patanjali

In other words, the learning of the letter and the meaning of scriptures must be followed by self-reflection, teaching it to others, and application of the teachings in our daily lives. The daily study of scriptures, and the performance of our daily duties are closely inter-related, and they illuminate and reinforce each other.

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Vishal Agarwal is an independent scholar residing in Minneapolis (USA) with his wife, two children and a dog. He has authored one book and over fifteen book chapters and papers, some in peer reviewed journals, about ancient India and Hinduism. He and his wife founded the largest weekend school teaching Hinduism to students, and also a teenager organization to keep them engaged in Dharma. Vishal has participated in numerous interfaith forums, and has represented Hindus and Indians in school classrooms and in seminars. Vishal is the recipient of the Hindu American Foundation’s Dharma Seva Award (2010), the Global Hindu Academy’s Scholar award (2014) and service awards from the Hindu Society of Minnesota (2014 and 2015). He is very strongly engaged in the social and Dharmic activities of the Indian and Hindu communities of Minnesota, and has authored a series of ten textbooks for use in weekend Hindu schools by children from the ages 4-14. Professionally, Vishal is a biomedical Engineer with graduate degrees in Materials Engineering and Business Administration (MBA). His scientific and statistical training enables him to bring precision and a high level of rigor in his research – qualities that are very often missing in contemporary publications on Indology and in South Asian Studies.
  • Varunapraghasa

    Good article. A very serious in depth one.