ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 5): VEDIC MAGICAL RITUALS, ACTIVITIES AND MANTRAS: the four Vedas, horse sacrifice, King empowerment, fire pujas, the fourth Veda and their connection to Secret Mantra

Give us agreement with our own; with strangers give us unity
Do ye, O Asvins, in this place join us in sympathy and love.
May we agree in mind, agree in purpose; let us not fight against the heavenly spirit
Around us rise no din of frequent slaughter, nor Indra’s arrow fly, for day is present !

— Atharvaveda 7.52

Here is the write-up of Day 5 of the 17th Karmapa’s teachings on the Origins of Secret Mantra. In this teaching the Karmapa continued his explanation of the Vedic roots of Secret Mantra giving detailed descriptions of some of the Vedic rituals, such as horse sacrifices, enthronement of a King, fire pujas and the magical spells, mantras, and rituals for expelling spirits, found in the fourth Veda, Atharvaveda.

At the end of the teaching, the Karmapa briefly touched on the beginning and development of Indian philosophy from the belief in many Gods to the idea of a singular source or primordial cause/essence of all phenomena and Gods. He explained how this idea actually forms the basis of not only Indian philosophical schools and views but also Buddhist philosophical views.

May it be of benefit and may we all become fully liberated and realise the essence of Secret Mantra!

Music? Atharvaveda chanting for peace, and as someone who loves horses,  ‘Wild Horses’.

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 4th September 2021.

The Late Vedic Period

“So the last few days, I have been speaking about the Early Vedic Period. Today, it is about the Later Vedic Period, from 11th century BC to 6th Century BC. From the 11th to 10th Century,  the non-Aryan people who had previously lived in Punjab, were subdued and came under the power of the Aryan people, and some of these people became the slaves of the Aryan people. Those who did not surrender or would not listen were sent to exile in the South. Even among the Aryans, they moved to the South of the five river basin in Punjab and the valley of the Ganges river.

If you look at the map you will understand it. We can see the Aryan people came from the North-western region through the Kyber Pass and settled in the area of the Indus river and its tributaries and into the five river basin on Punjab and eventually came to the Ganges area.

At the time of the later Vedic period, they moved from Punjab to Ganges Valley, the former was in the Northern direction then they moved to central area of Ganges basin. It was much larger than the Sindu River that they had previously known. The Ganges is the largest river in India. Also, the Ganges is the most suitable area for agriculture. When they saw that large river and good fields they developed more strength and so had great improvement in their livelihood and culture.”

The Aryan culture and the caste categories and those of ‘one life’ and ‘two lives’

“During the early Vedic Period when the Aryans first appeared, they lived in tribes or clans. Among all the different tribes, the people would choose whoever was most suitable to be their chief. They would take the person they thought most important and choose a King. There was no hereditary monarchy where the King was passed down by family. As in Ancient Rome, they had a leader whom they chose. After they had settled around Ganges river, then gradually there became a tradition of a hereditary monarchy and also an army. In the early Vedic period, soldiers had to do housework and many different functions. Later, the soldiers also became like an inherited position. This became one of the royal/Kshatriyas governing class. That is how they developed. 

Then there was the ordinary populace. Whether they were farmers or had another craft, they began to pass their occupations on from father to son as well. In addition, there was a Brahmin caste, the royal/Kshatriyas caste and the Vaishya caste, and they were all made up of Aryan peoples. These three castes are all allowed to recite the hymns and perform sacrifices. So it was not just that one was born an Aryan, but also because of the Vedic religion, after entering that, they were able to lead a religious life. For that reason, they were called dvija (Tib: skye ba gnyis pa’i rigs) – a double birth. Because they had both a human life and a religious life.

Those other than these people were called Shudras (see image). They  were the people who had surrendered to the Aryans who became their servants. The Aryans called them slaves. They all did not have the same rights as the previous three castes. So they were called ‘single birth’, Ekaiti in Sanskrit, because in that one lifetime they could only be servants and had no right to practice the Vedic religion.  However, this tradition of having only one caste, came in the later Vedic period. As I said before, the hierarchy of castes initially developed based on what you could do, the trades and so on. Then each of the different trades were passed from father to son.”

Basically, the division into four castes developed over time and did not happen suddenly. As the four castes got larger and larger, they developed the four castes distinctions (see image above). There were the Brahmins and the others called the Kshatriyas. In Sanskrit, these two names also included the King, Minister and the Armies. The Tibetan word would only include the Kings, but it actually includes all those. Those who did agriculture or trade work were called the Vaishya. The Shudras acted as servants. These castes later became more stable and an inalterable tradition.

 Only the Brahmins performed the religious rituals, which were considered to be very important. For that reason, all the traditions of the culture were primarily done for the sake of the Brahmin class. That is why it is called the Brahmanical civilisation of the late Vedic period.”

The Later Vedic Literature  – different periods and three types

“During the last 500 to 600 years of the Vedic Period, when the Brahmanical civilisation developed, in terms of the spiritual inner world and the mind, there was a great spread and development in philosophy and a great number of philosophical schools that developed.  To make it easier to explain, I have divided these into three categories of the Late Vedic Period (see image above).

The first section is the Four Vedas, the second section the Brahmanical Period, and the third is the Age of Philosophy. As I said before, the Indian literature, in particular the Vedic literature was not a composition of a single text. There were many works that appeared one after the other. Even with these literary works, some of them appeared at the same time, and some in sequence. 

My division here into three different sections is not primarily in terms of time, instead it could have been simultaneous or alternating. What I am dividing into three parts here, we could say  in English is by the ‘literary form’ or genre. First, there are the four Vedas and how they are compiled. I have spoken about the Rig Veda, so how were the four Vedas compiled?

Vedic Literature – Three Types (slide from 17th Karmapa’s teaching)

If we take a broader view of the Vedic literature, all the literature could be called the Vedas. If we divide it into different parts, there are three:

1) the Mantras – these are the root texts, that include the four Vedas.

2) the Brahmanas – here is not talking about the caste but the Brahamanas texts. It means the Brahmin and so basically as Gedun Chophel said this is a text that includes all the Brahmin literature.

3) the Upanishads – Gedun Chophel would translate it as being like ‘respect’ but I think it means  ‘sitting nearby’. This is a philosophical text, and since texts were taught in secret, they had to sit near the teacher, and they would teach it to them secretly. That is probably where that name comes from.

When we talk about the Samhit, the root texts, there are the four Vedas (see image). I spoke about these the other day[i].

When the Vedas first appeared there was only the Rig Veda and it was not written down it was orally transmitted from one person to the next. The time when it was compiled was during the later Vedic period. The other three Vedas were also compiled during the later Vedic Period. 

There are three different parts of this later Vedic Period, as I have listed. In the third period, there is the text of the Aryanakas, and also the Upanishads appeared during the Brahmanical period.”

Root Texts of the Vedas – the first and second: Rig Veda and Samaveda

“First, I want to talk about the root texts of the Vedas. These took several centuries to complete. During that time, there were many people who edited them and in the end, they were compiled to produce the texts we can see in the present day. The texts were written over time, either at the same time, or in a sequence, no fixed time.

However, what is certain is that the Rig Veda came first and the others appeared later. The Brahmanas and the other texts probably appeared after the latter three Vedas, or at the same time as them. They are primarily hymns and praises of the Gods. After that is the Samaveda, then the Yajurveda with light and dark categories, and the most recent Veda, Athatarhaveda.

The Rig Veda is the earliest and the basis of Vedic literature. Most of its contents are in the Rig Veda, but what is different about it is that with the Samaveda there are many different manuscripts of it. It is like an edition combining all the different texts of the Rig Veda and compiling them into one text. So the Samaveda, is like a new collection, or edition, of the Rig Veda. It doesn’t have that much content that is not in the Rig Veda.”

Third Veda – Yajurveda, light and dark texts

“The next one is the Yajurveda (Sanskrit: यजुर्वेद) which is divided into white/light (shukla) and black/dark (krishna). The reason why the dark texts are called that, because they are the root texts of Vedas and commentaries on the Brahmanas and their philosophies that are joined together.  As the distinction between the root and the commentary texts are not clear, it is called the dark category.

The Yajurveda is the root text of the Rig Veda combined with Brahmanical texts, it thus becomes a different text, called the Yajurveda. As for the ‘light’ texts of the Yajurveda, as the distinction between the root texts and the commentaries are clear, they are called ‘Light’ texts. I will speak about Brahmanical texts later.

In brief, what many researchers think is that the Samaveda and the Yajurveda take the Rig Veda as their basis and add other texts, so they are a little bit different from the Rig Veda. Scholars do not clearly know the reasons why they are needed but they generally agree and accept that, as I explained yesterday, when doing sacrificial rituals in the Rig Veda, they needed them for the four priests (ritvji). 

The first priest does a lot of ritual, so they wrote the Yajurveda for him. The Samaveda is a separate text and it is different because it is for the second of the priests, so he needs the texts for that with the chants and music. So these texts are for the first and second types of priests, scholars surmise.

At the time of the Vedic tradition it gradually developed and spread greatly, first, people had faith in the Gods, but they didn’t take much interest in the spiritual inner life, or in the mind. So there was a lot of interest in faith and in the mind but then later, the focus became more on the external rituals and actions of body and speech, and less about exploring the inner world and mind.

Thus, it became mainly focused on sacrifices and rituals only and the priests’ movements would have a particular meaning and content, and everything they had to recite had to be done a certain way. Thus, gradually the rituals became very complicated and people didn’t understand what was happening, unless they had studied what was being done. It became very specialised. It is like when we do a big Vajrayana puja and say ‘oh we have to do the Vajrakilaya’ and people say ‘oh that’s too complicated, we cannot do it.’. Like that, ordinary people cannot do such complicated rituals.

When that happens, it becomes so difficult that it needs to be written down and  the practices explained in detail. That is why the other Vedic texts appeared.”

 Important Vedic Rituals

“Within the Yajurveda, there are a huge amount of rituals, some that are done annually, some done monthly, and some done daily. I thought it would be good to give you an introduction to some of the Vedic rituals. Most of these rituals are from the Brahmanical period, or the later Vedic period, and the transmission of these, continues to this day. Here, I will show you the names of these eight important rituals (see image above).

First, are rituals done during the waxing and waning of the moon. Then the Pindapitri – Yajn, offerings of food. Then the Agni-Hotra, these are similar to our Tibetan Sur (burnt food) offerings, these are performed daily. Then there is the Chatamasyur, four month sacrificial offering ritual. They only eat once per day and have one meal per day, and some also practice silence during that time.  Then there is the Agni Shtom, which is giving alcohol to Agni.  Then the Raja-Suya, the coronation/empowerment of the King, which I will speak more about later. Then the Asvamedha horse sacrifice ritual offering which is very well-known in history. 

These are all important rituals, but I don’t have a lot of time, so I will explain only a few of them.”

1) Empowerment of a King – Raja-Suya

First, I will speak about the Raja-Suya – coronation [or empowerment] of a King. 

This empowerment ritual comes from a Brahmanas text, called the Aitareyāraṇyaka. That text describes the way a King is enthroned. First, you need the King’s throne to be covered with a full tiger skin, all four limbs, including the claws. You don’t put it upside down, the fur has to be visible, and the head of the tiger has to be at the East or front of the throne. The reason for that is that the tiger is the King of all animals. So if the King uses the tiger skin and sits on it, the people believed that his reign would be stable and powerful.

When the King was being enthroned he would be brought in from the back and when he was brought in from the East, he would kneel on one knee, hold the throne and recite a mantra. The Brahmins at the same time,  had a holy water, superior water, which they would then pour over the King’s head. Once they had done that; they would say ‘this is the King of the world’. After that, at the end the King would be given the amrita, the alcohol to drink, and drank it on the throne. That would conclude the ceremony of enthroning the King.

In Secret Mantra, we often talk about giving empowerments, and so this is like the textual or cultural source of giving empowerments. The origin of our tradition for empowerment comes from this kind of ritual. These days, when we talk about empowerments we don’t really give you anything material. We say you achieve wisdom and so on.  In this case, they gave you the power of a King, you actually got something. It was very important that they did the empowerment in accordance with religious tradition at that time.  They did the ritual to make sure the power was stable and done in an appropriate manner.”

2) Horse Sacrifice – The Ashvamedha and gaining the powers of the King of all Kings

Now I will talk about the Horse Sacrifice, the Ashvamedha (अश्वमेध, aśvamedhá)  is called the Horse Sacrificial Offering in the Kagyur, Gedun Chophel called it the ritual of the sacrifice of the fine horse. Initially, the reason why the horse sacrifice had to be performed was mainly so people could have children. Later, during the Brahmanical period, it was not just about having more children. Its purpose and aim became completely different and not so simple[ii].

It was not a sacrifice that just anyone was allowed to do. Even an ordinary King did not have the right to do a horse sacrifice. It had to be a King of Kings, a great King, and no-one else. At that time, people believed that if you could sacrifice one hundred horses, it would be of incredible benefit. That one could gain the status of Indra and be the King of all the Gods, and you would have power over the entire world.

The way the ritual was conducted is you had to choose a particular kind of horse. In most of the pictures it is a white, horse, of a particular colour, and you clean it and bathe it, and then after let it go and wander wherever it wished for one year. When you do a life release of an animal in our tradition, you also let it goes wherever it wants. They then watched where the horse went and had to send people to follow them. So if you let go one hundred horses, then one hundred people would have to follow them and see where they went.  Also, the King himself had to take the army and follow the horses, and if the horse would go to the land of another Kingdom then the King would have to follow the horse there, and the King of that Kingdom where the horse went would either have to surrender or go to war, and there was no other choice. 

The responsibility of the King regarding the horse sacrifice was to gain power over all the Kingdoms where the horse had wandered and bring all the Kings back to his own palace. If at that time, the King were to lose, all the ordinary people would scorn and ridicule him. If he were victorious in battle, then afterwards he would become very well-known. 

So once returning home, then they had to kill all the horses they had let wander about. After killing all the horses then you had to sacrifice the animal for meat. Historically, this is a very well-known sacrifice. For that reason, the King who was able to perform the horse sacrifice was seen as being very strong and powerful.  We speak about Chakravartins who turn the wheel and this is similar to those. They were called Universal Emperors for that reason. I think these Universal Emperors were related to that horse sacrifice as these Kings would become extremely powerful.  Wherever they wanted to wage war no one would be able to oppose them[iii]. For that reason, they were called the Universal Emperors, the Chakravartins.”

Image of the horse sacrifice ritual shown by 17th Karmapa
3) Fire Puja – making fire with sticks and a Brahmanical marriage

“Now is the Agni-Adhana, the fire puja for Agni. This was the most important ritual for the Aryans in their daily lives. The reason why it was such an important ritual is that the heads of the household at that time had the responsibility of preparing the mandalas and lighting the fires and so on. If they didn’t do that it would be a sign of disrespect and disbelief in the Gods. Also, Brahmans had to have four phases in their lives. The first phase was celibacy, the second was household life, the third was forest life, and the fourth was living on alms. They had to go through all those four phases. We will speak about the four phases later but not today.

Generally, the first phase of celibacy was when they study the Brahmanical texts. After they finished that phase of study, they had to immediately get married. At the time they got married, they had to also light the holy fire in their household and the ritual for lighting the fire is this one, the Agni-Adhana.

The time to perform it is either the first day of the waxing phase or the first day of the waning phase. In the Tibetan calendar the first day or 16th day of the Tibetan lunar month.  It took two days to complete the ritual. The first day, one would appoint the two priests and  would build two hearths: a square hearth and a round hearth. Sometimes there was a crescent hearth, facing south, that would be placed in front of the other two. First, one of the priests would start the fire by rubbing two sticks together (see image above). 

They started fires by rubbing the sticks the same way they did thousands of years ago. It is not just any type of fire. Then, once the fire had started, they have to go through five different steps to start the ritual. The first one is the Brahman who is getting married would recite the names of the Gods as he would then go inside the house where he was now being married. At the same time, the priest who would teach the two of them how to start a fire by rubbing sticks. The reason they were taught how to light a fire in that way, is on the second day, they would have to light the fire in the square hearth. They would kneel before it and prostrate before the Gods. That fire would be left to burn all night. The next morning the priest would come to extinguish the fire.

This is a ritual you do once in a lifetime I think. It is a very important ritual.”

Fourth Veda – the Atharvaveda: Mantras, Spells and the Pacifying, Increasing and Wrathful Activities
Image of an edition of Atharvaveda

“I have spoken about the Samaveda and Yajurveda, now I will speak about the fourth Veda, the Atharvaveda (Sanskrit: अथर्ववेद)[iv]. The reason is because it is mainly related to mantras. The three earlier Vedas primarily teach the sacrificial rituals and hymns. The two prior Vedas were based on Rig Veda with a few other texts added to them. They were not totally unrelated to the Rig Veda, but the fourth Veda is a bit different to the other Vedas though. It has twelve books and six thousand stanzas and its primary topic is mantras and rituals to protect from spirits, dangerous animals and so on. There are also mantras for long life and prosperity, health, travel and victory over others; it teaches many methods to accomplish these.

Generally, it is not that clear when this Veda appeared. In particular, there was really not much of a direct connection between it and the other Vedas. For that reason, there was a period where they did not accept that the Atharvaveda was not one of the main Vedas. It was only after year zero that it was accepted as one of the main Vedas.

The original name of the Artharvaveda at the very beginning, was the Artharva-Angiras. It has two words, the Artharva and Angiras, these names are of two Vedic scholars/priests from ancient times.

[Author’s note:  according to Maurice Bloomfield, the “Atharvan” and “Angiras” names,  imply different things, with the former considered auspicious while the latter implying hostile sorcery practices.]

The main functions of these rituals are the pacifying and enriching activities. The Angiras tradition’s focus, or function, is the activities and mantras for spells, sorcery and wrathful activities. Later, the practices of these two traditions were combined and made into a single text. That text is now called the Artharvaveda. So the origin of that Veda is different from the other Vedas.

Mantras and Rituals

“In general, when we talk about it, there is a lot about mantras in the Veda there. In terms of the word mantra (sngags)  even during the Rig Veda there was the terminology there is a section of hymns called the Purush Sutva, which would be the Songs of the Cosmic Being. In this section, there is the word Chandas, in Tibetan we would use the same word Ngag, that was used for mantras. The word mantra was not there but there was a word with the same meaning at the time of the Rig Veda as well. As I said above, the main topic of the earlier Vedas is sacrificial rituals and what is related to them. However, in the later Veda there is a big difference and people did not accept it as a root text when it first appeared. At that time, it was just a text that was involved with mantra activity but otherwise it was not considered a special text.

Later, the Brahmans thought that it is not sufficient only to know about how to do rituals and also important to have some special powers like increasing life, and conquering enemies and so on. If we don’t have anything to show in terms of power, people will lose their faith. So they started to use the Atharvaveda to develop such powers. The Atharvaveda has many instructions for developing such powers.

Later, there is a text written called Atharva-pariṣiṣhta, this is like a supplement or addendum to the Atharvaveda. That text says that to be give the status of a royal priest ( a purohita) you have to be fully trained in and have mastered the Atharvaveda; if you do not know the activities described in it, then you had no right to become such a priest for the King. Basically, the Kings had great faith in the four activities of pacifying, enriching, destroying and so on. For that reason, people thought at that time that the mantras are what can help people get such powers. In the end, the Atharvaveda became a Vedic text. In order to become such a text it has to have an influence and power, so you have to have something that people can see with their own eyes.”

The ‘work’ of Mantras and the four types of activities
THE WORK OF MANTRA Image from 17th Karmapa’s teaching on the ‘work’ or ‘functions’ of mantra in ancient Vedic India. 1. To attain siddhis or to overcome/subdue others. 2. The difference between mantra and sacrificial offering is that one is to get the Gods to do something, whereas mantra is about getting something for oneself or conquering others.

“When we say mantra, how do we understand mantric activities? It’s not exactly the same as how we speak about it in the Vajrayana texts. At that time, people believed that all dangers came from spirit or malicious Gods and demons, or from someone else doing sorcery. Thus, first with the power of mantra one could accomplish one’s aims. One would be able to weaken or eliminate someone else with the power of mantra. There are secret instructions on how to do that. For that reason, the mantras became widespread during the Vedic period.

The Atharvaveda is used to accomplish someone’s desired aims. So its particular functions and objects are different. Sacrifices are performed for the powerful Gods but when one is doing a mantric activity that is for the evil spirits and ghosts. How do we know that? Because they invoke the Gods and demons to help them accomplish your aims. Body and speech are most important when it comes to rituals, but for mantra, it is your internal mind that is most important.

Here, when we talk about mantras, we need certain conditions. First, the mantra must have power. It won’t work if you cite whatever you want. Some people make up mantras and say ‘Om……Svaha’ and make it sound like a mantra but that is not right. Mantras must have power and benefit. Second, there must be a thing that symbolises the mantra, using a Buddhist term you need a mudra, a sign or symbol or thing that represents it. If you have those two then you have what you need to perform a mantric ritual.

There are several different categories of mantra in the Atharvaveda, there are three main types, if you add sorcery to them, then there are four main types : the pacifying activity is to pacify those who are trying to harm you with sorcery. You give them a bit of an offering and advice with a benevolent mind. that is how you avert them and pacify them.  So for example, we say ‘please take this and go’ to spirits and that there is no point to them harming us. That is a peaceful and pacifying way of averting harm-doers. Likewise they believed that if you had a headache there was a spirit who caused the headache.

Likewise, they believed if you had a headache, there was a spirit that caused it. Or if there was hail, there was the hail God and it happened because of that God. So they would supplicate and pray for them not to harm them. Also, there was peaceful purifications and so on. Sometimes they would take the person affected by the spirit and then rub it over the body and then take it to an intersection in a road and throw it away there. Then the spirits would follow that and say please go away. That was a more wrathful purification. If they still didn’t listen then would call on a more powerful God for protection, like Agni who is called the Demon-slayer.  Or Indra who could repulse ghosts and demons. You would give the work to the Gods to do it. Or you would take a thing that is invulnerable, that spirits would be afraid of and hold it in your hand as a symbol and give that in order to dispel the demons. You could also create a boundary and say ‘don’t come here’. So there are many different methods for doing this and I will not speak about them in detail.

Wrathful activity means to eliminate someone else. One would invoke evil demons and put our hopes on them to harm another person. Then there is enriching activity is to increase health, wealth and things for our household or desired aims. 

So these peaceful, enriching and wrathful activities that are described in the Atharvaveda are also very similar to those activities in the Secret Mantra. In the Atharvaveda, there was no discussion of the magnetising activity of the four activities, but within the Mantra we speak about activities, so if you add the magnetising activity then you have the four activities that one speaks about in Secret Mantra.

Also, in the Atharvaveda there are many mantras for divination. I am not going to speak in detail about these today, because there would be too much to say, Basically, it means doing divinations. We usually do them with malas and so on, but it is not just that. It is like these days sometimes people are possessed by spirits and that would have been called a divination in the past. So in India they would take young children who are 4, 8 or 9 years old and then through a mantra make a God possess and enter them  and ask them to make prophesies and so on. I won’t speak abut that today.

When we talk about divinations, the Tibetans have a lot of superstitions too, right? If you see a crow on the road, you get afraid. Similarly, in India they had ways of explaining signs, dreams and so on. In brief, in the Atharvaveda there are many instructions on divinations, mantric activities, medicinal preparations and so on. All these different types of mantra activities there are many different types.”

Different categories/functions of mantras
Image from 17th Karmapa’s teaching on the categories of mantra in the Vedic Period.

[These categories of Bloomfield on this image can be translated as:

  • Medicinal curing sickness
  • Long life, pacifying spirits, enemies, and black magic/spells
  • Activities/work of women
  • Activities/work of kings
  • Common/ordinary activities
  • Increasing wealth. prosperity and attaining adornments
  • Mantras for purification and cleaning up impure actions
  • Mantras to accomplish the aims of Brahmans.]

“The way we describe the mantras now, is from the end of 19th Century to beginning of 20th Century, there was an American philosopher/scholar who was well-versed in Sanskrit called Maurice Bloomfield. He describes the mantras in the Atharvaveda in nine different categories (see image above). Among them there are the peaceful, enriching, magnetising and destroying activities. There are also mantras for long life, to sure diseases, pacifying spirits, pertaining to women, for Kings, to accomplish aims and so on. “


Maurice Bloomfield (1855 – 1928. Austrian-born American philologist and Sanskrit scholar.

There is another scholar and Buddhist master, Yukei Matsunaga, who mainly studied the Secret Mantra and he described the different mantras in the Atharvaveda, in nine different sections (see image below):

[These categories can be translated as:

  • Medicinal cures
  • Lengthening life
  • Increasing activities
  • Purifying or reparation activities
  • Common or general activities
  • Activities/work of women
  • Wrathful activities
  • Activities/work of kings
  • Brahmanic activities.]

“” What is important to know here is the names here are very similar to those that turn up in the Tantras in the Caryā tantras. Some of these are in Chinese. It is disputed which category some tantras fall in, but according to Tibetan explanations, both the Susiddhi tantra, which mainly teaches the rituals and activities of Kriyā tantra and the Tantra of the Full Enlightenment of Vairochana (Mahāvairocana Tantra), are considered to be of the Caryā Tantra[v].

These contain the same names for the different types of mantras, and for the four types of activities. Not only are the names similar but the contents are very similar too. In the Vajraśekhara Tantra, in addition to the pacifying, enriching and destroying activities, there are also summoning/magnetising, making five activities in total.

Thus, in the Vedas, the Sanskrit names of these five activities are the same. Thus, the source of all these activities and all the rituals and the mantras in Secret Mantra, is probably the Vedic texts. If you are looking for the source, you have to look in the Vedic texts.

Similarly, the fire puja in Buddhist pujas also have their origin in these Vedic rituals.  Thus, in terms of the rituals and mantras of the Secret Mantra practices, they have their seeds in the Vedic literature. When we speak about the Vedic literature, there is over four thousand years of history to it. How is it they changed from being Vedic texts to Buddhist texts?

This is difficult to say definitively. First, we don’t have any historical sources because, as I said before, there are no clear historical documents. One thing we can definitively say is that the methods of practice taught in Vedic literature and those taught in Secret Mantra are very similar. That is not just a mere coincidence. There is a definite connection between the two. or there are stages of development between the two.

Some people might think well ‘if that is so, then all of the secret mantra Vajrayana rituals were previously Hindu rituals. We don’t have anything that is different, do we?’  We don’t need to worry about though. We can look at this in a broader way. Look how much we have in the Secret Mantra such as the wealth practices in Tibetan Buddhism, which are not from India but from Tibet in ancient times. Later, after Buddhism flourished in Tibet, the practices were then made to fit with Buddhism and content made to fit with the Buddhist view and they became these wealth practices.”

[Author’s note: It is said that the priests who practiced the Atharvaveda were considered to be the lowest tier of Brahmins, in comparison to the priests who practised the Rigveda, Samaveda, or Yajurveda. The stigma against Atharvaveda priests is said to have continued in Odisha well into the modern day.]

Development of Indian philosophy – from many Gods to one Primordial Source and the source of the twelve links of interdependence

“Similarly, in India, the Buddhists were first in Indian society. Why did Buddhist monastics have to wear particular robes? Where did Buddhism come from? These answers are all greatly connected to Indian Buddhism.  If the texts were to only say things unconnected to India, then it would be difficult for people at that time to fathom, right? One of the special features of the Buddha, is he was very skilled at teaching Dharma that fit with that time and place, their culture and what they considered valuable and took that as the basis for his teachings. If he had just taught Dharma that they could not relate to at all, then a few intelligent people might say, ‘I don’t understand it but you said, so I believe it’. However, other than that, there would be no other option, right? It would be very difficult for it to have had any real benefit.

However, as time progressed there developed skeptical views, or philosophy. The time philosophy developed there had to be doubts, otherwise philosophy cannot develop. How do we develop doubts and skepticism? We think ‘how did this world form?’ Before, people didn’t think about this. Later, people started to think about this question and began to be skeptical. They wondered about the future and what was going to happen, whether the world would be destroyed or not, and they would consider and investigate many events and so on. So in the Rig Veda people believed the sun and moon and nature as Gods 

They began to investigate and explore issues about how the world and nature was formed. Thus they began to develop philosophy in India. How did it spread? In the later Vedic period, their ideas changed from a polytheistic view to a pantheistic view: from not having many different Gods to saying that the divine permeates all things; that God is like a nature that pervades everything. This way of thinking began to develop.

First, they believed there were many Gods and in some ways it’s easy to think like that: there was simply a God and believing it was enough. However, with a monotheistic view, it is not quite the same; it is more related to logic, scripture and reason. Now what are the specific stages this happened from worshipping many Gods to one all-pervasive God? What the Vedic texts say in a simple or coarse way, in the beginning, and the reason why we speak about pantheism is very important for us. It’s the beginning of the Indian philosophy and their development. 

Eventually, the Buddhist philosophy developed. So it has a sequence to it and we need to understand how they went from a view of many Gods, to being one who is the essence of all things. When the Rig Veda first appeared, the way to worship a God was very easy. If you say Varuna or Indra, it’s that God and not anyone else. If you praise Indra, then you feel faith for that God and not other God. Gradually, the Gods and the hymns in the Veda changed and there was a new way of praising the Gods. They began to write hymns and praises that included all the Gods. For example, they say in Agni-adhana:’ The first time that you are lit, you are Varuna, then when you burn you are the form of all deities, and for the faithful you are Indra.’, so it is like seeing them as one God, as containing all other Gods. When we look at these words, they show us that the people of the time thought the Gods could be combined into one. 

In the first part of the third book of the Rig Veda, there is a particular line at the end of every stanza, which is mahād devanam asuratyam ekam. This means ‘all the Gods are one in having great power.’ This shows that people gradually believed all the Gods were the same in essence. After some time, not only were there many Gods but all philosophies were contained in one God.

There is also a passage in the Vedas: ‘Aditi is the father, mother, children, the light-skinned and dark-skinned people, is arisen and non-arisen, the ground and so on. ‘ We have similar words to this in the Secret Mantra, such as ‘you are the father, the mother, the brother, the sister and so on’. This shows us that in the past they thought the Gods were the same in essence. As things grew vaster and vaster, all things arose out of a single source and are the same in essence. Aditi is not a major God. What is important is the way the people are thinking and developing; that there must be some primordial cause or source of phenomena.

In terms of Buddhism, we call such philosophical views, nihilist or eternalist, and say their views are too extreme and so on. Sometimes we only think about things in terms of our way. Maybe using the word ‘extremist’ is not actually that suitable though.  However, this way of thinking is  a very important view in Indian philosophy and the basis of Indian philosophy. In fact, in the Mahayana there is the idea that all vehicles are the same. It is a hypothesis; it is the first most important point.

The second important similarity is their concept of ‘how things appear’ and ‘how they are’. Yet, the original source, or actual essence, is not outside the phenomena. The nature and the phenomena are not different, like an ocean and its waves, they are not separate. This was another way of thinking about reality that also had a great influence on other Indian philosophies that developed later, such as Vedanta and the Samkya school and the positions of the Mind-Only school. The seed of these philosophies all come from this time.

The third philosophical point is that all phenomena arise from a single, original source that is unchanging. Phenomena change but the source does not. Many Japanese scholars say in the Mahayana the Dharma nature of suchness if a very similar way of thinking to that.

Basically, at that time, there were many different views. Later, whether we talk about Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, they were all influenced greatly by these philosophies. The seeds of karmic interdependence, for example, has its roots in the Vedas. When we talk about the source of the twelve links of interdependence, it’s difficult to find the actual source of it. Later, a Japanese scholar said that there is something that teaches these words and their meaning in the Rig Veda in the words of a hymn. He says this is probably the seed for the Buddhist teachings on the twelve links of interdependence. 

We normally think Buddhist philosophy is something that only Buddha himself taught, or thought about. In one way, it is true that it was taught via his experience and through his practice. However, at the time of the Buddha himself, he lived in that era of Indian society, so when he was teaching Buddhism, he had to match their language and ideas and use that as the basis. That is why our current Buddhism developed in India, it uses many of the different types of terminology of Indian philosophy and culture. Similarly, if it had arisen in Greece then it would use similar terms in Greek society and philosophy. Likewise, if it had arisen on Mars then we would use Martian philosophy and terms.  Buddha taught in accordance with how learned people at that time talked and acted.

That is not something negative or something to be criticised. Instead, we should understand that it shows there is an origin and a long development of Buddhist thought. At that time of the Vedas in India, there was already a very advanced level of thought, and then with Buddha an even more advanced level of thought. So it is something we can have real confidence in.”



Bloomfield, Maurice, Hymns of the Atharva-vedaSacred Books of the East, v. 42 (1897), selection.

Dineshchandra Sircar (1962). Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (ed.). The History and Culture of the Indian People: The classical age. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Dineshchandra Sircar (1971). Studies in the Religious Life of Ancient and Medieval India. Motilal Banarsidass. 

Giebel, Rolf, transl. (2006), The Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi Sutra, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Berkeley, ISBN 978-1-886439-32-0.

Hodge, Stephen, transl. (2003). The mahā-vairocana-abhisaṃbodhi tantra: with Buddhaguhya’s commentary, London: RoutledgeCurzon, ISBN 978-1138980150.

Hodge, Stephen (1994). “Considerations of the dating and geographical origins of the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi-sutra”, The Buddhist forum, volume III; ed by T. Skorupski, pp. 57 – 83

Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya (2007). Class and Religion in Ancient India. Anthem. 

Madhav M Deshpande, Recitational Permutations of the Saunakiya Atharvaveda, Harvard University Press, based on six Atharvaveda manuscripts found in Pune, India

Rick F. Talbott (2005). Sacred Sacrifice: Ritual Paradigms in Vedic Religion and Early Christianity. Wipf and Stock.

Ralph Griffith, The Hymns of the Atharvaveda 1895-96, full text

Śaunaka Recension, “Atharva Veda Saṁhitā” [Sanskrit]. Published at Titus Project. Accessed, 14 April 2014.

William Whitney, Index verborum to the published text of the Atharvaveda Vedas, University of Michigan

Zaroff, R., ‘Aśvamedha – A Vedic Horse Sacrifice’, Studia Mythologica Slavica, No. 8,  2005, pp. 75-86.


[i] The Samhitas (Sanskrit saṃhitā, “collection”), are collections of metric texts (“mantras”). There are four “Vedic” Samhitas: the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda and Atharva-Veda, most of which are available in several recensions (śākhā). In some contexts, the term Veda is used to refer only to these Samhitas, the collection of mantras. This is the oldest layer of Vedic texts, which were composed between circa 1500-1200 BCE (Rig Veda book 2–9), and 1200-900 BCE for the other Samhitas. The Samhitas contain invocations to deities like Indra and Agni, “to secure their benediction for success in battles or for welfare of the cln.” The complete corpus of Vedic mantras as collected in Bloomfield’s Vedic Concordance (1907) consists of some 89,000 padas (metrical feet), of which 72,000 occur in the four Samhitas.

[ii] The best-known text describing the sacrifice is the Ashvamedhika Parva (Sanskrit: अश्वमेध पर्व), or the “Book of Horse Sacrifice,” the fourteenth of eighteen books of the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. Krishna and Vyasa advise King Yudhishthira to perform the sacrifice, which is described at great length. The book traditionally comprises 2 sections and 96 chapters. The critical edition has one sub-book and 92 chapters. The ritual is recorded as being held by many ancient rulers, but apparently only by two in the last thousand years. The most recent ritual was in 1741, the second one held by Maharajah Jai Singh II of Jaipur.

[iii] New-age Hindu spiritualists have recently tried to revive the ashavamedha ritual, but they use a statue of a horse rather than an actual animal. In other contemporary rituals, live horses are worshiped rather than killed. Apparently devotion to the horse can help you defeat enemies and clear debts. The first critics of the ashavamedha appeared already among members of the Charvaka school of philosophy in the seventh century BCE. The Charvakas were skeptics and atheists. They had no doubt that horse sacrifices were invented by “buffons, knaves and demons.”

[iv] “The Atharva Veda (Sanskrit: अथर्ववेदः, Atharvavedaḥ from atharvāṇas and veda, meaning “knowledge”) is the “knowledge storehouse of atharvāṇas, the procedures for everyday life. 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.[7] Two different recensions of the text – the Paippalāda and the Śaunakīya – have survived into modern times.[8] 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”, a description considered incorrect by other scholars.  In contrast to the ‘hieratic religion’ of the other three Vedas, the Atharvaveda 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 Atharvaveda.

The Atharvaveda was likely compiled as a Veda contemporaneously with Samaveda and Yajurveda, or about 1200 BCE – 1000 BCE. Along with the Samhita layer of text, the Atharvaveda 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.”

[v] The Mahāvairocana Tantra (traditional Chinese: 大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經;  also known as 大日经 Da ri Jing) is an important Vajrayana Buddhist text. It is also known as the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, or more fully as the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Vikurvita Adhiṣṭhāna Tantra. In Tibet it is considered to be a member of the Carya class of tantras. In Japan where it is known as the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (Daibirushana jōbutsu jinpen kajikyō), it is one of two central texts in the Shingon school, along with the Vajrasekhara Sutra. Both are also part of the Tendai school. The Mahāvairocana Tantra is the first true Buddhist tantra, the earliest comprehensive manual of tantric Buddhism. It was probably composed in the middle of the 7th century, in all probability in north-eastern India at Nālandā. The Sanskrit text of the Mahāvairocana Tantra is lost, but it survives in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The Chinese translation has preserved the original Sanskrit mantras in the Siddhaṃ script. There are translations from both into English.”

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