The Atharva Veda is the “knowledge storehouse of atharvāṇas, the procedures for everyday life“. The text is the fourth Veda but has been a late addition to the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism.
The Atharva Veda is composed in Vedic Sanskrit, and it is a collection of 730 hymns with about 6,000 mantras, divided into 20 books.
About a sixth of the Atharvaveda texts adapts verses from the Rigveda, and except for Books 15 and 16, the text is in poem form deploying a diversity of Vedic matters.
Two different recensions of the text – the Paippalāda and the Śaunakīya – have survived into modern times. Reliable manuscripts of the Paippalada edition were believed to have been lost, but a well-preserved version was discovered among a collection of palm-leaf manuscripts in Odisha in 1957.
The Atharvaveda is sometimes called the “Veda of magical formulas“, an epithet declared to be incorrect by other scholars. In contrast to the ‘hieratic religion‘ of the other three Vedas, the Atharva Veda is said to represent a ‘popular religion‘, incorporating not only formulas for magic but also the daily rituals for initiation into learning (upanayana), marriage and funerals. Royal rituals and the duties of the court priests are also included in the Atharva Veda.
The Atharvaveda was likely compiled as a Veda contemporaneously with Samaveda and Yajurveda, or about 1200 BC – 1000 BC. Along with the Samhita layer of text, the Atharva Veda includes a Brahmana text and a final layer of the text that covers philosophical speculations.
The latter layer of Atharvaveda text includes three primary Upanishads, influential to various schools of Hindu philosophy. These include the Mundaka Upanishad, the Mandukya Upanishad, and the Prashna Upanishad.
The Atharva Veda is a collection of 20 books, with a total of 730 hymns of about 6,000 stanzas. The text is, state Patrick Olivelle and other scholars, a historical collection of beliefs and rituals addressing practical issues of the daily life of the Vedic society, and it is not a liturgical Yajurveda-style collection.
The Caraṇavyuha, a later era Sanskrit text, states that the Atharvaveda had nine shakhas, or schools: paippalāda, stauda, mauda, śaunakīya, jājala, jalada, brahmavada, devadarśa, and cāraṇavaidyā.
Of these, only the Shaunakiya recension, and the more recently discovered manuscripts of Paippalāda recension have survived. The Paippalāda edition is more ancient. The two recensions differ in how they are organized, as well as the content.
For example, the Book 10 of Paippalada recension is more detailed and observed carefully not doing a single mistake, more developed and more conspicuous in describing monism, the concept of “oneness of Brahman, all life forms and the world“.
The Atharvaveda is sometimes called the “Veda of magical formulas“, an epithet declared to be incorrect by other scholars.
The Samhita layer of the text likely represents a developing 2nd millennium BCE tradition of magico-religious rites to address superstitious anxiety, spells to remove maladies believed to be caused by demons, and herbs- and nature-derived potions as medicine.
Many books of the Atharva Veda Samhita are dedicated to rituals without magic and to theosophy. The text, states Kenneth Zysk, is one of the oldest surviving records of the evolutionary practices in religious medicine and reveals the “earliest forms of folk healing of Indo-European antiquity“.
The Atharvaveda Samhita contains hymns many of which were charms, magic spells, and incantations meant to be pronounced by the person who seeks some benefit, or more often by a sorcerer who would say it on his or her behalf.
The most frequent goal of these hymns charms and spells were the long life of a loved one or recovery from some illness. In these cases, the affected would be given substances such as a plant (leaf, seed, root) and an amulet.
Some magic spells were for soldiers going to war with the goal of defeating the enemy, others for anxious lovers seeking to remove rivals or to attract the lover who is less than interested, some for success at a sporting event, in economic activity, for bounty of cattle and crops, or removal of petty pest bothering a household. Some hymns were not about magic spells and charms, but prayer qua prayer and philosophical speculations.
The contents of the Atharvaveda contrasts with the other Vedas. The 19th century Indologist Weber summarized the contrast as follows:
The spirit of the two collections [Rigveda, Atharvaveda] is indeed widely different. In the Rigveda there breathes a lively natural feeling, a warm love for nature; while in the Atharva there prevails, on the contrary, only an anxious dread of her evil spirits and their magical powers. In the Rigveda we find the people in a state of free activity and independence; in the Atharva we see it bound in the fetters of the hierarchy and superstition. — Albrecht Weber
Jan Gonda cautions that it would be incorrect to label Atharvaveda Samhita as a mere compilation of magical formulas, witchcraft, and sorcery. While such verses are indeed present in the Samhita layer, a significant portion of the Samhita text are hymns for domestic rituals without magic or spells, and some are theosophical speculations such as “all Vedic gods are One“.
Additionally, the non-Samhita layers of Atharvaveda text include a Brahmana and several influential Upanishads.
Surgical and medical treatment
The Atharvaveda includes mantras and verses for treating a variety of ailments. For example, the verses in hymn 4.15 of the recently discovered Paippalada version of the Atharvaveda, discuss how to deal with an open fracture, and how to wrap the wound with Rohini plant (Ficus Infectoria, native to India):
Let marrow be put together with marrow, and joint together with joint,
together what of the flesh fallen apart, together sinew and together your bone.
Let marrow come together with marrow, let bone grow over together with bone.
We put together your sinew with sinew, let skin grow with skin. — Atharvaveda 4.15, Paippalada Edition
Remedy from medicinal herbs
Several hymns in the Atharvaveda such as hymn 8.7, just like the Rigveda’s hymn 10.97, is praise of medicinal herbs and plants, suggesting that speculations about the medical and health value of plants and herbs were an emerging field of knowledge in ancient India. The Atharvavedic hymn states (abridged),
The tawny colored, and the pale, the variegated and the red,
the dusky tinted, and the black – all Plants we summon hitherward.
I speak to Healing Herbs spreading, and bushy, to creepers, and to those whose sheath is single,
I call for thee the fibrous, and the reed like, and branching plants, dear to Vishwa Devas, powerful, giving life to men. The conquering strength, the power and might, which ye, victorious plants possess,
Therewith deliver this man here from this consumption, O ye Plants: so I prepare the remedy. — Atharvaveda 8.7, Shaunakiya Edition
Speculations on the nature of man, life, good and evil
The Atharvaveda Samhita, as with the other Vedas, includes some hymns such as 4.1, 5.6, 10.7, 13.4, 17.1, 19.53-54, with metaphysical questions on the nature of existence, man, heaven and hell, good and evil.
Hymn 10.7 of Atharvaveda, for example, asks questions such as “what is the source of cosmic order? what and where is planted this notion of faith, holy duty, truth? how is earth and sky held? is there space beyond the sky? what are seasons and where do they go? does Skambha (literally “cosmic pillar”, a synonym for Brahman) penetrate everything or just somethings? does Skambha know the future? is Skambha the basis of Law, Devotion and Belief? who or what is Skambha?”
The wonderful structure of Man
(…) How many gods and which were they,
who gathered the breast, the neck bones of man?
how many disposed the two teats? who the two collar bones?
how many gathered the shoulder bones? how many the ribs?
Who brought together his two arms, saying, “he must perform heroism?”
(…) Which was the god who produced his brain, his forehead, his hindhead?
(…) Whence now in man come mishap, ruin, perdition, misery?
accomplishment, success, non-failure? whence thought?
What one god set sacrifice in man here?
who set in him truth? who untruth?
whence death? whence the immortal? — Atharvaveda 10.2.4 – 10.2.14, Paippalāda Edition (Abridged)
The Atharvaveda, like other Vedic texts, states William Norman Brown, goes beyond the duality of heaven and hell and speculates on the idea of Skambha or Brahman as the all-pervasive monism.
Good and evil, Sat and Asat (truth and untruth) are conceptualized differently in these hymns of Atharvaveda, and the Vedic thought, wherein these are not dualistic explanations of nature of creation, universe or man, rather the text transcends these and the duality therein.
Order is established out of chaos, truth is established out of untruth, by a process and universal principles that transcend good and evil.
The Mundaka Upanishad, embedded inside Atharvaveda, is a poetic-style Upanishad, with 64 verses, written in the form of mantras.
However, these mantras are not used in rituals, rather they are used for teaching and meditation on spiritual knowledge. In ancient and medieval era Indian literature and commentaries, the Mundaka Upanishad is referred to as one of the Mantra Upanishads.
The Mundaka Upanishad contains three Mundakams (parts), each with two sections. The first Mundakam, states Roer, defines the science of “Higher Knowledge” and “Lower Knowledge“, and then asserts that acts of oblations and pious gifts are foolish, and do nothing to reduce unhappiness in the current life or next, rather it is the knowledge that frees.
The second Mundakam describes the nature of the Brahman, the Atman (Self, Soul), and the path to knowing Brahman. The third Mundakam continues the discussion and then asserts that the state of knowing Brahman is one of freedom, fearlessness, liberation, and bliss. The Mundaka Upanishad is one of the text that discusses the pantheism theory in Hindu scriptures. The text, like other Upanishads, also discusses ethics.
Through the continuous pursuit of Satya (truthfulness), Tapas (perseverance, austerity), Samyajñāna (correct knowledge), and Brahmacharya, one attains Atman (Self, Soul). — Mundaka Upanishad
The Mandukya Upanishad is the shortest of all the Upanishads, found in the Atharvaveda text. The text discusses the syllable Om, presents the theory of four states of consciousness, asserts the existence and nature of Atman (Soul, Self).
The Mandukya Upanishad is notable for inspiring Gaudapada’s Karika, a classic for the Vedanta school of Hinduism. Mandukya Upanishad is among the oft-cited texts on chronology and philosophical relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism.
The Prashna Upanishad is from the Paippalada school of Atharvavedins.
The text contains six Prashna (questions), and each is a chapter with a discussion of answers. The first three questions are profound metaphysical questions but, states Eduard Roer, do not contain any defined, philosophical answers, are mostly embellished mythology and symbolism.
The fourth section, in contrast, contains substantial philosophy. The last two sections discuss the symbol Om and Moksha concept.
The Prashna Upanishad is notable for its structure and sociological insights into the education process in ancient India.
Medicine and health care
Kenneth Zysk states that “magico-religious medicine had given way to a medical system based on empirical and rational ideas” in ancient India by around the start of the Christian era, still the texts and people of India continued to revere the ancient Vedic texts.
Rishi Sushruta, remembered for his contributions to surgical studies, credits Atharvaveda as a foundation. Similarly, the verse 30.21 of the Caraka Samhita, states it reverence for the Atharva Veda as follows:
Therefore, the physician who has inquired about devotion to the Atharvaveda is ordered from among the four: Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. — Sutrasthara 30.21, Atharvaveda
The roots of Ayurveda – a traditional medical and health care practice in India—states Dominik Wujastyk, are in Hindu texts of Caraka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, both of which claim their allegiance and inspiration to be the Vedas, especially Atharva Veda. Khare and Katiyar state that the Indian tradition directly links Ayurveda to Atharvaveda.
Wujastyk clarifies that the Vedic texts are more a religious discourse, and while herbal health care traditions can be found in Atharvaveda, the purely medical literature of ancient India are actually Caraka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, these two are the real roots of Ayurveda. Kenneth Zysk adds Bhela Samhita to this list.