Access to Ritual & Knowledge in Hinduism: The case of veda and āgama

This essay will provide some insight into the particular traditions within the larger dharma framework and how these various systems gave access to one and all, as long as they were sincere aspirants.

One of the most prevalent misconceptions extant in modern discourse is that the brāhmaṇa-s monopolized “religious resources” at the expense of others. Now, broadly speaking, we can identify two types of the aforementioned resources:

  1. Knowledge: To what extent were jāti-s, belonging to varṇa-s apart from the brāhmaṇa, were able to access generic knowledge as well as knowledge specific to a particular sampradāya?
  2. Ritual: To what extent, Hindus, other than the brāhmaṇa-s, had access to ritual systems by way of dīkṣā (initiation)?

A survey of the relevant material will demonstrate that, far from the non-brāhmaṇa population being disenfranchised and deprived of knowledge and rituals, the brāhmaṇa-s constantly innovated new texts, paths and strategies to significantly circumvent any restrictions, which may have been in place. In section 2, we would note two fine examples of rigorous argumentation in the service of a more generous understanding of adhikāra (competency).

Earliest precedents within the vaidika system and later developments in the post-vedic literature

The veda had its own complex historical context, which made it a closed tradition that one cannot simply become an adherent of, by choice. However, for a long time, the veda was not a static, fixed canon. It was a diverse, dynamic and growing body of texts, expanded by groups representing various recensions (śākhā-s), which continuously witnessed ritual innovations and developments. One such development was the instituting of the pāriplava rite as part of the aśvamedha ritual, a ten-day rite that repeats thirty-six times. The very first ten-day period commenced on the day the horse was set free to roam unchallenged through rival kings’ territories for a period of one year (Hence, thirty-six such ten-day periods).

During this ten-day period, a different ākhyāna (narrative) is recited every day to a particular group of individuals. The logic behind the rite is that there are, mythically speaking, several kings lording over various domains and subjects and all those lordships should be vested in the yajamāna (the sacrifice) of the aśvamedha, the king. There are different lords, ruling over the world of men, ancestors, aquatic creatures, birds, etc. The eighth and ninth days are particularly interesting. These are the relevant parts of the verses,, from the śatapatha brāhmaṇa introducing the proceedings of those two consecutive days:

athāṣṭame’han…matsyaḥ sāmmado rājetyāha tasyodakecarā viśasta ima āsata iti

matsyāśca matsyahanaścopasametā bhavanti tānupadiśatītihāso vedaḥ so’yamiti kaṃciditihāsamācakṣīta…

Translation: Now on the eighth day… ‘matsya sāmmada the king (rāja)’, thus he says; ‘of him (matsya rāja), those moving within the waters (udakecarā: fish) are his people and here they are seated;’, thus [he says]. Fish and fish-killers (i.e. fishermen) have come thither: it is them he instructs; ‘the itihāsa is the veda: this it is;’ thus [saying], he says (ācakṣīta: more in the sense of “points out” or “introduces”) some (kaṃcid) itihāsa…

…tārkṣyo vaipaśyato rājetyāha tasya vayāṃsi viśastānīmānyāsata iti

vayāṃsi ca vāyovidyikāścopasametā bhavanti tānupadiśati purāṇaṃ vedaḥ so’yamiti


Translation: Now on the ninth day… ‘tārkṣya vaipaśyata the king’, thus he says; ‘of him, birds are his people and here they are seated;’, thus [he says]. Birds and fowlers have come thither: it is them he instructs; ‘the purāṇa is the veda: this it is;’ thus [saying], he says some purāṇa…

In this way, by the end of the thirty-six ten-day periods, the king becomes possessed of all types of knowledge as well as has all kinds of lordship over differing domains and subjects established in him. It is most interesting to see how the ritual demand for the aśvamedha to give legitimacy to an all-encompassing rule of the king gave way to the sacred education of various groups. Given that this happened thirty-six times and the hotṛ did not have to subscribe to a very fixed form for the content he was going to deliver, the amount of information received by the audience must have been fairly extensive.

Many Hindus are likely to be aware of the well-established proposition in the texts that how the itihāsa-s and purāṇa-s were composed for those, who are traditionally deemed to have no access to the veda. Later, these were recited by the sūta-s, a class of skilled bards, who, despite being outside the four varṇa-s, were highly respected for their knowledge and ability to move their audience. Indeed, the most famous among them, whom tradition records as having been the primary reciters of the purāṇa-s, is known as romaharṣaṇa. His delivery was so stirring and moving that it would cause the hair (roma) of his listeners to stand erect (harṣaṇa)! The dissemination of paurāṇika and aitihāsika lore to the public at large is indeed a critical component of our dharma; one that enables all and sundry to remain connected to their rich heritage.

Therefore, it is interesting to see how the practice of delivering the knowledge of the itihāsa-s and purāṇa-s to groups like fishermen and fowlers is found in the hoary veda itself. Perhaps, the current tradition of kathākālakṣepa may have had its ultimate origins within the pāriplava rite of the aśvamedha itself. But that is a topic for a different article.

Dissemination of knowledge aside, there is a question of actual ritual practice. While śrauta practice, as a general rule, was limited to the first three varṇa-s (brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya and vaiśya), important exceptions were created for two groups: the rathakāra-s (chariot-makers) and the sthapati (chieftain) of the niṣāda-s, both of whom were undoubtedly recognized to be outside the first three varṇa-s. Let us see some of these provisions for both of them.

r̥bhūṇāṃ tvā devānāṃ vratapate vratena ādadhāmi íti rathakārasya: taittirīya brāhmaṇa ( provides for agneyadhāna (establishing of the sacrificial fire) and has distinct mantras for the sacrificers depending on the group they belong to and here it gives for the rathakāra.

niṣādarathakārayor ādhānād agnihotraṃ darśapūrṇamāsau ca niyamyete: hiraṇyakeśi śrautasūtra (3rd praśna, 1st paṭala, 1st khaṇḍa) generously makes a provision as to what both the niṣāda and rathakāra can do after agneyadhāna, enjoining that they observe agnihotra and darśapūrṇamāsa (full and new-moon sacrifices).

vasante brāhmaṇamupanayīta grīṣme rājanyaṃ śaradi vaiśyaṃ varṣāsu rathakāramiti | sarvāneva vā vasante: baudhāyana gṛhyasūtra (2nd praśna, 1st adhyāya, 6th sūtra) explicitly provides for the upanayana (upanayīta) of the rathakāra in the monsoon season.

vāstvamayam̐ raudráṃ carúṃ nírvaped yatra rudraḥ prajāḥ śamāyeta: maitrāyaṇi saṃhitā (2nd kāṇḍa, 2nd prapāṭhaka, 4th anuvāka) prescribes a vāstu caru (a kind of caru/porridge made from a grain called vāstu) offering to rudra, where the fierce deity has attacked his offspring (praja).

This particular rite was extended to cases where protection was sought for one’s cattle (paśu) against the wrath of rudra in the śrautasūtra-s of āpastamba (9th praśna, 14th kaṇḍikā, 11th sutra): raudraṃ vāstumayaṃ caruṃ nirvapedyasya rudraḥ paśūñchamāyeta and hiraṇyakeśi (15th praśna, 4th paṭala, 19th khaṇḍa) raudraṃ vāstumayaṃ caruṃ nirvaped yatra paśupatiḥ paśūñ chamayeta

tayā niṣādasthapatim̐ yājaye, sā hi tásyeṣṭiḥ: The maitrāyaṇi saṃhitā further mandates that a sthapati of the niṣāda-s is to offer it and emphatically states that this caru-offering is indeed his (the niṣādasthapati’s) iṣṭi.

niṣādasthapatirgāvedhuke’dhikṛtaḥ: kātyāyana, who begins his śrautasūtra by neatly outlining the adhikāra of various groups, notes (1st adhyāya, 1st kāṇḍikā, 12th sutra) that the chieftain of the niṣāda-s is to offer a caru made from the gāvedhuka (coix barbata).

Even with respect to the veda, one could make an argument that those outside the first three varṇa-s were not completely cut off from the śrauta ritual system. These ritual injunctions may have little impact or utility today given the most unfortunate decline of the śrauta system. Furthermore, the cynics would argue that the adhikāra in these instances was available for only two groups and that too, only in a few circumstances. It must be pointed out that the examples given here are hardly exhaustive, but it is beyond the scope of this essay to deal with all relevant rites and ceremonies.

Also, the śrauta system has its own historical context and certain clans came together to form their own closed ritual space. As it is in a diverse, polytheist society, every group of Hindus, has a general right to create its own traditions and develop an exclusive ritual space for its own needs. The rural traditions centred around their local, village pantheons as well as the tribal systems had their own separate, sacred spaces. Even then, brāhmaṇa-s, who overwhelmingly were responsible for developing the śrauta, gṛhya, paurāṇika and āgamika ritual content, were interested in expanding access for their non- brāhmaṇa brethren.

Further expansion of access in the āgamika systems:

Apart from the śruti (the vedas) and the vast body of kalpa-texts constituting an ancillary to the śruti, a plethora of āgamika systems developed, primarily around śiva and viṣṇu. Within the broad vaiṣṇava complex, there is the pāñcarātra, which has its own particular texts and rituals. The pāñcarātra system faced immense criticism from certain vaidika-s for its alleged avaidika (non-vedic) antecedents and supposed ‘unorthodoxy’. A trinity of works (as far as I’m aware of, only three) defending the pāñcarātra doctrine and ritual system was written over between the tenth and fourteenth centuries: āgamaprāmāṇya of śrī yāmunācārya, pāñcarātra rakṣa of śrī vedānta deśika and tantraśuddha of bhaṭṭāraka śrī vedottama. Here, we will see passages from the first and third works. Let us see the following discussion from the āgamaprāmāṇya, written by one of the greatest doyens of śrī vaiṣṇava and viśiṣṭādvaita thought:

  1. kimiti vā tatparigrahādaprāmāṇyam atraivarṇikatvāditi cet kiṃ bhoḥ traivarṇiketarasavarṇa rathakāraniṣādādi parigṛhītānuṣṭhīyamānārthānām atharvaṇavacasāṃ rathakāra ādadhīta etayā niṣādasthapatiṃ yājayet ityādivacasāṃ prāmāṇyaṃ nāsti |

Translation: why, from their [the bhāgavatas’, they who follow the pāñcarātra] acceptance [of the pāñcarātra system], is there non-authoritativeness [of the pāñcarātra]?

If it (the non-authoritativeness of the pāñcarātra texts) is from them (the bhāgavatas) not being of the first three varṇa-s; then the atharvana statements accepted and practiced by rathakāra-s, niṣāda-s and others, who are of other than the first three varṇa-s, [vedic] statements such as “the rathakāra establishes [the fire]”, “the niṣāda chieftain is made to offer with that” and others would not be authoritative.

Let us go through the argument presented here by śrī yāmunācārya. The opponent is presumably a vaidika, who disparaged the pāñcarātra tradition as it is followed by the bhāgavatas. Yāmunācārya then pre-empts one of many possible reasons why this would be the case. Would it be because many of these bhāgavatas fall outside the pale of the first three varṇa-s? If that were the case, the vedic statements, (some of which we treated earlier above in the article), instructing the rathakāra and niṣāda to perform various rites, would now be non-authoritative! Why? If the opponent refuses to accept the pāñcarātra texts and rituals as authoritative simply because individuals outside the first three varṇa-s have accepted it with devotion, then he should also refuse to accept vedic injunctions for the rathakāra and niṣāda, as they too accept those injunctions and practice them!

Through this employment of sharp logic and rigorous argumentation, relying on the precedents within the veda itself, yāmunācārya brilliantly demolishes the opponent’s uncharitable position that a tradition loses its status by opening its doors to groups outside a particular fold.

Let us see a final example from bhaṭṭāraka śrī vedottama, where he defends the adhikāra (competency) of śūdras in the pāñcarātra system. He states:

  1. śūdrasyāpyādhikārād avaidikatvam iti yad uktaṃ tad asat, sthapatīṣṭivad upapatteḥ yathaiva hi “niṣāda sthapatiṃ yājayed” ityatra vācaniko’dhikāraḥ siddhaḥ, tathehāpi bhaviṣyati “śrāvayec caturo varṇān” iti vacanād itihāsa purāṇādai yathaiva śūdrasyāpyādhikārād, na cāvaidikatvaṃ, tathātrāpi bhaviṣyati

Translation: “From the competency of even the śūdra, the non-vedic quality [of the pāñcarātra follows]”, this statement [of the opponent]; it is false as, like the īṣṭi (sacrifice) of the sthapati, it [also] can be justified. Just as [in the case of] “cause the sthapati of the niṣāda to sacrifice”, from this statement competency is established; so even here, it will be the case. “let him cause [all] four varṇa-s to hear”: just as the competency of even the śūdra [follows] from this statement in the itihāsa-purāṇa and it is not [therefore] non-vedic, so too it will be in this case.

The argument here is fairly straightforward. The author, bhaṭṭāraka, convincingly argues that avaidikatvam (“non-vedic”-ness) of the pāñcarātra system does not logically follow as a result of the system admitting śūdra-s into its fold. He uses the same reference to niṣāda-sthapati as well as an additional reference from the mahābhārata 12.314.45 (śrāvayec caturo varṇān).

The above two passages reproduced and explained are examples of how brāhmaṇa ritualists and scholars, who were no slackers in respect of their piety, staunchly defended the adhikāra of śūdra-s and others, where the system in question was designed for open access to one and all.

The discussion of the pāñcarātra being done, perhaps, it would be poignant to note that nothing has occurred as unprecedented as the development in the śaiva world. The śaiva siddhānta system has a structured system of three initiations: samaya, viśeṣa and nirvāṇa dīkṣā-s, the highest of which is the nirvāṇa (the initiation conferring liberation on the initiate). Regarding the eligibility criteria for the nirvāṇa dīkṣā, the following is said in the most renowned and respected āgama of the śaiva siddhānta tradition, the kāmikāgama uttarabhāga 23.220-221a, right after elaborating on the procedure for the initiation:

ityevaṃ kathitā dīkṣā sarvapāpavimocanī |

catvāro brāhmaṇādyāścāpyanulomāśca ye matāḥ ||

nyāyajā gūḍhajātā vā dīkṣāyāmadhikāriṇaḥ |

Translation: Thus, has been spoken about the initiation that frees ones from all sins. The four [varṇa-s] beginning with the brāhmaṇa-s, even the anuloma-s (mixed castes); legitimately or illegitimately born; I consider all to be competent for this initiation.

The śaiva siddhānta tradition was developed by the ādiśaiva brāhmaṇa community and as such, only this specific group of brāhmaṇa-s (excluding all non-ādiśaiva brāhmaṇa-s) have a right to serve as priests in śiva temples built in accordance with śaivāgama. Nevertheless, the kāmikāgama of impeachable authority created an important provision. It allowed śūdra nirvāṇa dīkṣā initiates to be ācārya-s to their own community and confer dīkṣā to their own clansmen independently. As the text, in the uttarabhāga again, states at 24.8-10a:

viprādayastrayo varṇāḥ dīkṣāyāṃ sthāpane’pi ca |

brāhmaṇakṣatriyādīnāṃ kṣatriyaḥ śūdra vaiśyayoḥ ||

vaiśyaḥ śūdrasya dīkṣāyāṃ svasyajātāvapīṣyate |

svārtheṣṭau cala liṃgasya pratiṣṭhāyāṃ trayasvime ||

śūdropi śūdradīkṣāyāṃ svārthe ca calasaṃjñake |

The last line, alone being relevant for this essay, can be rendered as: “śūdras can confer dīkṣā on their own clansmen and install a moveable (cala) liṅga”.

Now, one may question if the numerous provisions examined in this article had any real practical implications.


To that question, this essay would answer in the affirmative. Consider that most of the śaiva ādhīnam-s including Madurai, Tiruvavatuturai and Dharmapuram are institutions entirely controlled and led by pontiffs belonging to the elite śaiva vellāla and other related castes, who all belong to what one would call the fourth varṇa.

Furthermore, these texts and debates are not mere theoretical squabbles, but the steps forward to securing the opportunity for initiation range for sincere dhārmikas of all backgrounds. Hence, the extensive quotes from the texts and related discussions mean something tangible; they have real results that we can see today. Here, we provide links evidencing how aspirants of various backgrounds continue to receive initiations in such backgrounds, seriously undermining the divisive theory that the brāhmaṇa-s monopolized these traditions for themselves:

  1. This video is an example of a non- brāhmaṇa couple receiving initiation into the śrī vaiṣṇava fold by way of five sacraments (pañcasaṃskāra)
  2. This video shows numerous men and women at an ādhīna in Tamil Nadu receiving initiation into the śaiva siddhānta tradition.
  3. Another example here about initiation to people of all castes into the śrauta śaiva siddhānta system

It is hoped that this essay provided some insight into the particular traditions within the larger dharma framework and how these various systems opened their doors to one and all, as long as they were sincere aspirants.

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