ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 4): ‘HUMAN NATURE’ AND VEDIC GODS: Fire, intoxicants, money, death and the Vedic ‘dark side’: Demi-Gods, Maras, Flesh-eaters, and the four priests required for sacrificial offerings (by 17th Karmapa)

With the years of my youth passing away
I have wandered all across the land of India, east and west.
I have studied Sanskrit, most useful,
And the useless language of the foreigners.

–Gedun Chophel, Tibetan translator of the Upanishads and Dhammapada[i]

We need to understand the background and history of Indian civilization. Only when we understand that, can we know how and why Buddhism spread and what the qualities and features of Buddhism are. How was it that the Buddha thought at that time? What were his particular deeds? Likewise, first there were the Shravakayas [the Listeners], then came the Mahayana and subsequently the Secret Mantra [tradition]. The teachings of the Buddha arose in stages, so we can have a good idea how the complete teachings of the Buddha arose.

–17th Karmapa, Origins of Secret Mantra


Here is the write-up of Day Four of the 17th Karmapa’s Origins of Secret Mantra teachings (the video is here). The previous day’s teachings reviewed the literature of the Vedic period, during which the Karmapa had spoken about the worship of divine nature via the Sky Gods and Air Gods. This teaching continued that by discussing the Earth Gods, Agni, Soma and Pṛithvī. 

This was then followed by a review of some of the other Gods, associated with Death, Aspiration, the Soul, Rivers and Wealth: Yama, Brihaspati, Puruṣa and Sarasvatī. 

The 17th Karmapa then gave a presentation about the Maras, or Demons, among which there are three primary classes: Asuras/Demigods, Rakṣhas and Piśhāchas/Flesh Eaters.

The Karmapa then explained how offerings and worship at that time were more like a business-deal relationship between the humans and Gods and how offerings were made to get something profitable in return and vice versa. 

Finally, there was an overview of Vedic ritual offerings [the word ‘sacrifice’ in English (མཆོད་སྦྱིན་ in Tibetan) might be misleading here, as it does not generally mean killing an animal but more offering small figures or gifts] and the four special priests required to perform them.

Throughout the teaching, the Karmapa pointed to various ways in which these ancient rituals informed Secret Mantra practice and the importance of understanding Indian culture and religion to understand the origins of Secret Mantra. 

Music? Chant from Rigveda to Sarasvatī, here. And Chant to Agni, the Fire-God, here.  Or Light My Fire by The Doors!

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 2nd September 2021.


The Earth Gods: Agni, Soma and Pṛithvī

Image from teaching of 17th Karmapa (August 2021)

“Regarding the Earth Gods, I will talk about  three. The first of the gods of the Earth is Agni, In Tibetan, we say fire-God. The second is Soma, the god of alcohol/intoxicants, who is probably the same essence as Chaundra, the moon. The third is Pṛithvī, probably a goddess of the Earth. I will introduce these three.

1. Agni, the fire god 
Image from teaching of 17th Karmapa (August 2021)

“First is the fire-god, Agni. who was a God worshipped by many humans from ancient times. This is because fire is very important for people on the Earth.  They considered fire to have the character of a God. He became particularly important in India. In the Vedic literature, Agni is recognized as an extremely ancient God. He was originally one God but then took on three forms later in the Vedas. The first was the Sun God of the Sky, Indra in the space between, and Agni on earth – all three are different forms or emanations, but they are all in essence Agni. 

It is as if Agni, as these three, has control over the heavens, the air, and the earth, and all three levels are of equal importance. If we had to say who was most important, the most powerful would probably be Agni. In the Vedas, we therefore find the largest number of hymns of praises to Agni, the second largest number is to Indra. 

The origin of the worship of Agni is due to the fire offerings used in fire pujas and in daily life. At that time, people believed that if you put offerings  to deities into a fire for the gods, they could enjoy the offerings. Thus, a connection was created between people and the gods, For that reason, fire was called ‘a messenger of the gods’. Like a phone, if we want to make a connection with someone we use the phone to speak with our friends or relatives. Similarly, in ancient times, by putting the offerings into the fire, via that medium the Gods would be able to accept them. They could also hear and learn about people’s desires and so forth.

In particular, when doing a fire puja, the fire was essential. If you rub two sticks together then a new fire will come. For that reason, the Indians deemed Agni the youngest of the gods who arose newly when a fire was lit by rubbing two sticks of wood together. Likewise, Agni is considered extremely powerful and majestic. This is because when we talk about  the Sanskrit term for god, which is deva, it can mean to  light or to illuminate. It is from the light that the power of the gods can become evident, or the Gods can bring out their power.  For humans, as the fire has light, it had the same divine power as the sun in the sky. Just as the sun has the ability to illuminate everything, and show all things, fire also has that power and so has a divine nature. Also, fire was particularly indispensable for humans in daily life, and that was the reason why people considered fire so significant and important. The idea of Agni being so important came from that.

When we think about Agni, what are the benefits of worshipping him or his powers?  Fire has many powers,  such as dispelling darkness and burning impurities. If you put rubbish in the fire, then it burns up, right? Since fire has those qualities, they thought Agni had those particular powers to dispel darkness and to subdue demons, for which he is also called the Demon-Slayer Raksohan. 

Also, during the Vedic period, everyone considered  it important to make fire offerings in their households. the main thing when making a fire puja is to offer a fire. That is why when making a fire puja at home, we first invite the fire God Agni, as one of the worldly deities.  Similarly, the main God was the deity Agni, also known as Gṛhapati, the Lord of the Household. The Head of the household is the fire God.

Also, when doing sacrifices the offerings are made to deities through the medium of Agni, for that reason, another name he is called is Havyavahana, which means the bearer of the sacrificial offerings. The delivery person, who takes them to carry it. Agni was the one who took the offering and brought them up to the Gods. He was also called  Duta, the messenger of the Gods. He also has many other functions, such as ruling humans, like regulating the laws of heaven and earth, as well as the power of omniscience. He had many different qualities and features. In any case, Agni, as you all know, is whom we meditate on when we do fire pujas, this is a worldly ritual, then after that we do the transcendent ritual. For that reason, he is also related to some rituals of Secret Mantra.”

2. Soma, the god of alcohol/intoxicants
Image from teaching of 17th Karmapa (August 2021)

“The second Earth God is Soma, or the God of alcohol/intoxicants. In this context, it is important to know that the Brahmins really enjoyed intoxicants. Because they liked them so much, the Aryans thought the Gods must also have a liking for them, and that it would be good to offer alcohol and intoxicants to them. Likewise, the gods Soma, Agni, and Indra were considered to have a particular connection. the reason was due to the intoxicating power of Soma [an intoxicant] which made one drunk. First you have to heat it up , and need fire so they thought the power of Agni must enter the intoxicant, which increased its ability to make one drunk. Then the intoxicant increased Indra’s strength so that he could perform great deeds. So Indra also liked to drink Soma.  After drinking it he would become very courageous and strong and destroy everything. 

Thus, they thought that the intoxicant got its power from Agni and that  Indra got his power and strength due to Agni. So the people thought there must be a God in that drink that has such powers. Soma was a drink that all the Aryan people had been drinking since ancestral times. As it was something their ancestors liked, and there wasn’t anyone who disliked it,  it was the reason why Gods and humans feel happy and get excited and become very courageous. So you have to drink it, they thought and things will become great. We also talk about amrita, it was probably also an intoxicant. When the alcohol was given to them by the Gods, it was  a gift from the gods to humans.

When humans drank this intoxicant given by the gods, it was said they could have long and healthy lives. Thus, the god Soma was also connected to people’s hopes and prayers for the future, as they thought it would give them a long life. Likewise, in the later Vedic Period, this god Soma became the Moon god Chandra. Soma is one of his names. They are the same in essence. This shows that Brahmins liked alcohol and considered to have a potency. “

3. Pṛithvī, the Earth-goddess
Image from teaching of 17th Karmapa (August 2021)

“Pṛithvī in Tibetan is considered to be the Earth goddess, Tenma. Some are said to be embodiments of the Sky, or Sun and also as an emanation of the Earth. In brief, due to the power of the Sky gods, she was worshipped by humans. Likewise, considering the Earth is the place where we all live, from ancient times, there was a tradition of recognising her as a goddess. Gradually,  Pṛithvī’s important status as a goddess declined greatly.  Initially, people considered that Pṛithvī was the mother of all things and produced and gave birth to everything. Because she is the ground, and that is from where all things come from. She is the mother of all things. 

Furthermore, they spoke about the sky and earth joining and coming together. Thus, it was believed that all the gods were born from the union of the sky and earth. However, later this devotion decreased, and the main reason for that was that the Earth is what people step upon and is always  beneath our feet, and we are always stepping on it, so the devotion for her was lost. Therefore, compared to other Gods, there were much fewer devotees for her. If you look in the Vedic texts,  there are fewer hymns to Pṛithvī than to other gods.

That completes the discussion of the Earth gods. So I have talked about these three types of Gods, but there are many others Gods  that are not included among those three categories. Now I will talk about them.

Other Gods: Death, Aspiration, the Soul, Rivers and Wealth

“The other gods I would like to speak about are Yama, Sarasvatī, Brihaspati, and Puruṣa. 

Image from teaching of 17th Karmapa (August 2021)
1. Yama
Three depictions of Yama. Image from teaching of 17th Karmapa (August 2021)

“First is Yama, who Tibetans call Zhije, the Lord of Death.  We need to know that Yama appears in Mahakala texts, in many rituals, and symbolises the Lord of Death. As to how Yama is described in the Vedic literature, when we think about Yama, we think about him as a wrathful God, right? As not so good, and we don’t really want to hear his name. However, in the earliest Vedic times, he was not originally a wrathful, terrifying god, but gradually, people made him into a dark and frightening God. 

 In the Vedic hymns to Yama, the earliest hymn to Yama, he is praised like the sunset. The setting sun is a symbol of death. The reason for that is when the sun sets, people feel a little sad, thinking that just as the sun sets, their life will also end one day and they will die. The sunset made people contemplate death. In this way, a connection was made between Yama and future lives. Now if there were a next life, there must be a place or destination one goes to and a King who rules over the place of the next life. Who is that King?  People thought it must be Yama because he is connected to the sun setting. Not only did they identify that as Yama, later he changed to having human characteristics and people gradually identified him to be the King of the Dead i.e., the king of the place that people would go to after they died.

At that time, they didn’t think it was bad when you died, as they believed that when good people died, they got a new body that radiated light. They would then go to a place of shining light and perfect happiness, a new land. Who was there?  King Yama. They thought that if they could stay there with him they would enjoy happiness. Thus, at that time, Yama was the one they were all hoping for. He was thought of as a loving, compassionate  king who had great love. It was only later, in the Vedic texts of the Purāṇas that it said that he changed and became a cruel deity who punished wicked wrongdoers after they died and treated them badly and with cruelty.

They asked does Yama have to die or not? This is an interesting question and there are stories about this in the Vedas. He was the first person in the world to die. Before him, people didn’t use to die. They didn’t commit negative actions and thus Yama appeared at a time free of illness and suffering. 

 Then, as negative actions and suffering gradually increased,  mortality became an issue and people became afraid of dying. When Yama saw this situation, the aged King led his retinue to the land of the deceased. So the first person to go to the next life, and that was why he became the King of the Deceased. The reason they were all afraid of him, was because he had two dogs that he would always send to the human realm. These dogs were terrible looking and had four eyes each and huge snouts, and a really gross stench, so people did not like them at all. However, this was before the time that people began to suspect him and became afraid of him. However, the two dogs they really disliked them.

He had a sister who was his twin, called Yami. Later in the Secret Mantra, Yama come as two deities, Yamantaka and Yama Dharma Raja – the King of the Hells, the one who punishes wrongdoers. It is a little complicated like that. The image shows three depictions of Yama, that while all originated from India, one is an Indian image of Yama, the one in the middle is the wrathful depiction from the  Japanese tradition, and the other is a Chinese depiction respectively. They have different appearances. 

Generally in the early Vedic period, there were not many female goddesses, most of them were male Gods. Among the female ones were Uṣhas, the Goddess of Dawn, whom I mentioned yesterday, and Sarasavati. Later, there were also many well-known goddesses such as Durgā, Kalī, and Lakṣhmī, but they only appeared gradually after the Vedas first appeared.

Before speaking about the goddess Sarasvatī, I will talk about Brihaspati, the God of Aspirations or Prayers. 

2. Brhaspati, the Aspirations God

“Brhaspati is considered to be the god of aspirations or prayers. He is different from the other ones, because unlike the other gods who originate from a phenomenon in the natural environment, the aspirations God, Brhaspati had no similar basis for arising. So he is like a made-up God. Why was that? People believed in the great power of prayer by means of which one would gain the ability to control others and to change the wishes of the gods, with our prayers and aspirations. As a result of that belief, the words of their prayers took on a divine nature for them, as if they had a divine power.  Just as they  believed that fire and soma had divine powers, such as burning and intoxicating, the Aspiration god has the power to influence others and to grant wishes. He was not initially so important, but later he became more so.

For example, in the Upanishads, an important non-Buddhist text which was translated into Tibetan by Gendun Chophel. within that, the god of aspiration is revered highly and given the name Bṛhaspati. In the later texts called Purāṇas, which are another type of Hindu literature, Bṛhaspati is asserted to be the highest of the three great gods and identified as the creator of the world. Later, they said Brahma was the Creator of the world but at first they did not identify him as that. Later, he was considered one of the three main Gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Gendun Chophel in India – he translated several well-known Indian texts
3. Puruṣa

“Puruṣa is another imagined god, not a god whose identity is based on a natural phenomenon, he was invented by humans. When looking at non-Buddhist texts, we find that puruṣa means a self or a soul. Puruṣa is considered to be one of the earliest of the gods, said to have a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand arms. Similar to our Buddhist thousand-armed Chenrezig [Avalokiteshvara].

Afterwards, Puruṣa was identified as being the nature of the world, like the soul, the self, or consciousness, the expanse out of which everything arises. Especially when the philosophy texts started to appear, in which they spoke about everything being a manifestation of the mind and out of the expanse of the Self, and so he became very important. The hymns to Puruṣa are representative of the initial beginning of the caste system, like the Brahmins being produced from the forehead and so on. The caste system is related very closely to this God. “

4. Sarasvatī

“Originally, in the Vedas, Sarasvatī is the goddess of all the rivers. In particular, in the Rigveda, she is described as having special powers to cleanse all people of impurities, bring wealth and prosperity, increase courage, and bring more children. These are the great benefits she brought. 

At that time, poets were very poor, like beggars, and rich people had poor literary skills. However, initially in the Vedas, she is the one who increased wealth and prosperity. Later, in the Brāhmaṇas texts, she became the goddess of sound or language. Also, she became a goddess who increased debating skills and intelligence. After that, she became recognized as the goddess Lakshmi. She then also became one of the main goddesses (Yangchen Lhamo) in the Secret Mantra tradition.”

Asuras/Demigods, Rakṣhas and Piśhāchas/Flesh Eaters

The 17th Karmapa then gave a presentation about the Maras, or Demons, among which there are three primary classes:


1.Asuras/Demigods – harmers of the Gods

“Generally, the Sanskrit word for demi-god is asura. That Sanskrit word is used in the main text of the Zoroastrian religion; a Persian religion considered one of the most ancient religions in the world. Its people live in present-day Iran and was a very advanced civilisation. The name of the religion is Zoroastrianism. The main part of their religion is the worship of the fire god. It is one of the most ancient religions and they use the word ahura, which is the same word as asura.

The reason why these words are the same is, as I mentioned the other day, that the founders of the Persian civilization as well as those who founded the Indian civilization, were Aryans, who originally came from Central Asia. There are differing explanations of what happened. One explanation is the Aryans arrived and then split up into two groups, one making its way towards the Punjab and the other group continued towards Iran, later called the Persians. In Tibetan we say Farasi. Thus, because they originally lived together, they shared a common language, and that is why we find many similarities between Persian and Sanskrit languages.

The Zoroastrian text is called Avesta, which is to Zoroastrians is like the Bible is to Christians. Within that is the word ahura. Yet, there is a great difference according to the Vedas, asuras are on the side of the gods of darkness, while in the Persian religion, ahuras are the gods of light. Such a great difference probably comes from an event in history from the time after the Indo-Aryan and Iranian-Aryan peoples split into two groups. However,  at that time, we cannot really speculate about it, as there is no clear historical evidence on it.

The Zoroastrian text of the Avesta is very long with a lot of topics. It is probably over 35,000 words long and written on around 1200 sheepskins [vellum]. It was written on skins, vellum before there was paper. It was compiled around the 4th century BC.  Later, when the emperor Alexander the Great invaded Persia, he burned it in a fire. After doing that,  only one book survived. Afterwards, during the subsequent  Persian Ashkâniân dynasty, the text was once again collected and recompiled, and completed during the time of the Sassanid Empire, which was also a Persian empire. The text we have now, if we compare it with the ancient text; it is no more than a third of it; yet it is still a very important text in terms of the ancient civilization.”

An 8th century Tang dynasty Chinese clay figurine of a Sogdian man wearing a distinctive cap and face veil, possibly a camel rider or even a Zoroastrian priest engaging in a ritual at a fire temple, since face veils were used to avoid contaminating the holy fire with breath or saliva; Museum of Oriental Art (Turin), Italy.

“What is the origin of the asuras, the demi-gods? Researchers cannot exactly describe what they are. However, in the Rigveda at the very beginning, it was also gradually compiled over several centuries. It wasn’t done in a single year or generation. So in the Rigveda, when it first speaks about the asuras, it was not used for specific god-like individuals, it is used as an adjective. For example, Gods who had the great power or strength of a demon, is called maya and were called asuras. This adjective was also used to describe Varuna and Indra, and many other gods. This word was used as a way of expressing praise to show that it was a terrifying God whom we should be afraid of, who had the demonic power called maya.

So later, asuras became a specific type of God. Even later, some verses in the Rigveda,  Indra and Agni were called asura slayers, the ones who kill asuras, and thus asuras are clearly identified as a type of demon. So there occurred a change in the meaning or usage of the word asura, but at first it was not bad. 

After the Rig Veda, there was the Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda, as they developed they became a class of demons who opposed the deva gods in the heaven and tales of the battles between them.. So asuras meant the opponents or adversaries of Gods. In the Vedas, they are said to be bad.  

In the Persian religion, ahuras or asuras were identified as good gods of light who have the same status as gods. In the Rig Veda it says that when the asuras fought the Gods, the Gods would always win. So the asuras never achieved any power, even once. It was always the Gods who were victorious. Yet in the Persian Zoroastrian religion, the asuras were greater and the Gods were lesser.  When they fought, there is not a description of it, but they had equal strength. The believed that one day, the ahura will one day be victorious and defeat the Gods and be punished and this is described fervently in their texts. These days, in linguistics, people who examine the words say that the origin of the word Asura, the linguistic root of it is ‘Asu’, which means breathing. If you don’t breathe you die right? Later the Brahmans, said the Asu gave an incorrect explanation of the origin of the term Asura or they changed the Sanskrit grammar and made the A into a negative particle, so it became A-Sura, non-gods. The Gods expelled them from the heavens and exiled them and for this reason, the demi-gods (the asuras) battled them. If we think about the language itself, whether it had the prefix, A or not, it was the word asura. We also have the Buddha Vairocana and in the Yoga Tantras and they are also related to the demi-gods, but I will speak about that later. So the demi-gods are not as bad as we think they are. They didn’t get along with the Aryans, so there were those who said they are good, and those who said they are not.”

Section from the Avesta text, Yasna 28.1 (Bodleian MS J2)
2. Rakṣhā – harmers of humans

“Rakṣhas are referred to in the Rigveda, In particular, among the four Vedas, the fourth of these is the Atharaveda and rakṣhas are a demon frequently seen in that Veda. Those who harmed, or opposed, the gods are the asuras, and those who harmed or opposed humans are called rakṣhās. 

How did they harm humans? The rakṣhās took many different physical forms and shapes, such as dogs, vultures, and owls that moved about at night and came to people to harm them. Sometimes, they took the form of a man to harm women, children, and so forth.

In particular, there was a special class of rakṣhās called yatudhanas, or sorcerers. They were especially good at casting spells or curses. They ate human or horse flesh and drank cow’s milk, they probably stole the cow’s milk. They would come and suck out all the milk and harmed humans and their livestock. Or they would take the form of food, be eaten and cause illness and pain. For that reason, at that time, people were terrified of rakṣhās, and would try methods to prevent such harm by reciting mantras or giving sacrifices to Agni. The reason they made offerings to Agni is because he is also called the Demon Slayer. So they would supplicate Agni in particular to harm the rakṣhās.

3. Piśhāchas- the corpse-eaters

“Then there is the third type of demon, the Piśhācha, or Flesh-Eaters. In Secret Mantra we talk about the Piśhācha, Vishasvari, right? Piśhāchas,  in Tibetan called ‘Flesh Eaters’ (shaza), are a type of ghost, also called corpse-eaters. Calling them that is right, as the Piśhāchas are the adversaries of the ancestors, and were called Caravidya. So the asuras harm Gods, the rakshas harm humans, so who did the Piśhāchas harm?  They harm our ancestors. How do they do that? They would eat the corpses of the ancestors.

At that time. they didn’t cremate the bodies but buried them under the ground and they would come and eat the corpses. The people considered it important to keep the corpse whole and intact, because it was beneficial for the people to have a corpse after they had died. No one liked the rakshas at all and no one would perform a sacrifice for them because they could not provide any protection. Some researchers assert that the hungry ghosts, one of the six classes of beings, were based upon the Piśhāchas.”

The business-like relationship between gods and humans 

“There are so many Gods, so what are the connections between Gods and humans? When people of that time, worshipped the Gods, how did they view the God?  In general terms, the ancient Indian people believed that, although the Vedic gods transcended humans in their magical powers, they were very similar to humans in character. So in terms of character, they are the same as humans. When we think of Gods, we think of them as people who behaved good, right? In the Vedic literature though, the Gods did all sorts of things, you had to pay them lots of bakshish (slang term for bribe in India), right? Sometimes they would sleep with their sisters and so on. They were very powerful but in terms of character, they were similar to humans.

Thus, the relationship between the two was based on reciprocal benefit and exchange of profit. It was like ‘I am giving you an offering and so you give me something back’, like a commercial transaction to get a profit. It is not like thinking the Gods are our only refuge and you are the only protection and guardian we have, like a Lord and his subjects. They were not like buddhas and bodhisattvas who do not wish for anything in return or any thanks. If one did not make an offering to the Vedic Gods, the Gods would not give any protection or assistance. If the gods did not provide help in return for offerings, the people would not make any more offerings to them. So this is like trying to get some profit out of each other, right?

The reason for this, is that there are many types of sacrifices described in the Rigveda, most of them are rituals for supplicating and praying to the Gods, but there are no rituals for offering thanks, for saying ‘I feel grateful’. So the relationship was one of making the offerings and the Gods doing what people asked, like doing a business deal. When having the negotiations and discussions about this, that is why you have the rituals. For example, in the Christian rituals, the God is supreme and like a saviour and we are their subjects and have to do as they say and be obedient.

The most important part of making a connection between Gods and humans was the sacrifice and offerings.  Such offerings were like the basis and vital element of Vedic learning, their texts and philosophy, and Vedic devotion.”

Sacrificial rituals

In the next section, the Karmapa continued to discuss the stages of the sacrificial rituals at that time:

“First, during the time of the Rigveda there were no special buildings or assembly halls where sacrifices or assemblies were held. Most were held in private houses. In the middle of the site of the fire offering, there was a hearth for the fire puja, and on one side of that was the vedi, the sacrificial altar that we call a mandala, on which kusha grass was laid out. This was considered a place for the gods to sit when they had been invited.

At that time, there was no custom of making representations of Gods. The Aryans would offer praises in front of the altar and make prayers, after which the offerings were offered to the fire in the hearth. They believed that the Gods were accepting the offerings then. The mandalas probably originated from this. A mandala in ancient India needed to be built, was made out of clay and needed to be fired; they were nothing like we use today and hold in our hands.

The offerings that people made were usually various kinds of foodstuffs, such as milk, cheese, grains, seeds, meat, and beverages. In particular, the intoxicating soma beverage was the favorite of Indra, Vayu, and the ancestors. For animal sacrifices, they usually offered cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and so forth. In very ancient times, it seems, there was also human sacrifice, which was later discontinued.

If it was a regular, ordinary sacrifice, the head of the household would perform the ritual himself. If it was a particularly elaborate ritual, the head of the household would be the sponsor, make a particular offering, and invite a priest to perform the sacrifice. From this we can surmise that the Aryans already had priests who performed sacrifices before they arrived in India. At the time of the Rigveda, the priests became powerful, and there were many different types with various ranks.

In the hymns of the Rigveda it says that there must be four kinds of priest or ṛtvij, among whom the work was divided: Adhvaryu, Udgatṛ, Hotṛ, and Brahman

The first type of priest, the Adhvaryu, prepared and oversaw the ritual. He would first measure the place where the ritual was to be conducted, prepare the altar, arrange all the substances needed for the ritual, and get the firewood, water, and animals to be sacrificed, and then recite the yajus [sacrificial prayer] in a very low voice.

The second type of priest is the Udgatṛ,  who offered the hymns. He would sing the hymns to a melody along with music, like our Umze or chant master. He would sing long or short sāman offering songs as appropriate for the ritual. 

The third type of priest is the Hotṛ, the one who performs the fire offering and invites the deity. He would recite words of the verses to invite the deities to the altar and the mandala. He would recite the Rig Veda praises from his memory.

The fourth priest was the Brahman or supervisor of the ritual, who made sure it was performed correctly. (The clan of these priests would later become the Brahman caste.) He had a higher status than the other three priests, and his responsibility was to oversee whether the ritual was performed properly or not. He oversaw all the stages of the ritual and would recite prayers on behalf of the sponsor. This priest needed to have been completely trained in all the practices of the ritual performed by the other three priests. In the past, when they did the sacrifices, these four individuals had to do them. That completes the discussion of the Early Vedic Period. From the day after tomorrow we will speak about the Later Vedic Period.”


17th Karmapa teaching on origins of Secret Mantra

The 17th Karmapa then concluded the teachings by re-iterating that in order to understand the history of Secret Mantra:

“We need to understand the background and history of Indian civilization. Only when we understand that, can we know how and why Buddhism spread and what the qualities and features of Buddhism are. How was it that the Buddha thought at that time? What were his particular deeds? Likewise, first there were the Shravakayas [the Listeners], then came the Mahayana and subsequently the Secret Mantra [tradition]. The teachings of the Buddha arose in stages, so we can have a good idea how the complete teachings of the Buddha arose.

 Even if one does not understand everything fully now, one may later think ‘oh there was a person who did teach that and had a good reason behind it’. Thus, there is no need to become anxious, that I am talking about other things when I am meant to be speaking about Secret Mantra. If I explain too much at once, then it will be difficult for you and you will not understand it all. Your mind may go blank. So, I cannot explain all the different aspects but I will focus on the most important aspects. Rather than getting anxious, one should just relax.”

Further Reading

Boyce, Mary (1984), Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, Manchester UP.

Cantera, Alberto (2015), “Avesta II: Middle Persian Translations”Encyclopedia Iranica, New York: Encyclopedia Iranica online.

Griswold, H. D.; Griswold, Hervey De Witt (1971). The Religion of the Ṛigveda. Motilal Banarsidass Publisher.

Lopez, Donald. The Useless Language of the Foreigners: On the Trials of a Tibetan Translator

Talageri, S. G. (2010). The Rigveda and the Avesta: The final evidence. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

The British Library: Discovering Sacred Texts – Zoroastrianism



[i] “This is the opening stanza of a long poem that Gendun Chopel (1903–1951), regarded as the foremost Tibetan writer of the twentieth century, wrote in India and addressed to his old monastery in northeastern Tibet. In 1934, as he was completing his monastic education, Gendun Chopel had been asked to serve as the guide for a visiting Indian scholar, Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963). A Marxist who had already spent three years in a British prison, Sankrityayan had crossed the Himalayas in search of Sanskrit manuscripts that centuries earlier had been brought to Tibet from India and preserved in Buddhist monasteries. He was particularly interested in works on Buddhist logic, translated by teams of Indians and Tibetans in what is referred to as the gsar ma (new translation) period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As a foreigner who spoke little Tibetan, Pandit Rahul, as Sankrityayan was called, needed a monk to convince the abbots to show him their treasures. After several months of travel on foot and horseback, and the discovery of some two hundred manuscripts, he decided to return to India and invited his guide to go with him. Gendun Chopel would spend the next decade in South Asia, a period of remarkable literary and artistic creation that was made possible by his study of Sanskrit and “the useless language of the foreigners”: English.

During his years in India, Gendun Chopel produced his best poems, composed a pilgrimage guide (in Tibetan) to India, and wrote the most famous work of Tibetan erotica. He also completed what he considered his magnum opus, Rgyal khams rig pas bskor ba’i gtam rgyud gser gyi thang ma (Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler), which was illustrated with scores of watercolors that he painted in a style previously unknown in the long history of Tibetan art. He would return triumphantly to Tibet in 1945, only to be arrested for treason a year later. Upon his release after three years in prison, he said he had been betrayed by the British, who, knowing of his skills as a translator from Tibetan to English, sought to punish him for refusing to work in their employ. He died a broken man, likely from cirrhosis of the liver, just two years after his release.” Donald J Lopez on Gedun Chopel (see Further Reading above).

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