Very informative article on Vedic Chanting. Please read attached pdf which has samskritham references that are not available in the inline text shown below.
The author Dr. S. Yegnasubramanian (President, SVBF) is a scientist at Bell Labs., NJ. He has been teaching Vedic recitation & vedanta for several years.
Vedic Chanting – a Perfectly Formulated Oral Tradition — Dr. S. YEGNASUBRAMANIAN
Our tradition believes that the Vedas are the breath of God Himself!
With that belief, our Rishis exercised enormous care to preserve the Vedas in its original form without the infiltration of any errors. Especially in the absence of writing, and through only an oral transmission from father-to- son or teacher-to-disciple, for thousands of years, this is an accomplishment of unimaginable proportion! Considering the vast magnitude of mantras contained in the vedas, such a preservation, with built-in safeguards, is mind boggling!
It is believed that the complete benefit of Veda mantras could be achieved only when the following conditions are met:
¨ Correct pronunciation of letters (words)
¨ Correct duration for utterance of letters (words) – and,
¨ Correct intonation of letters,
Our Rishis prescribed several fool-proof methods to correctly recite the veda mantras.
Six ways of recitation were considered incorrect and they are :
One who chants in a sing-song fashion , who chants fast , who nods his head up and down without actually raising or
lowering the pitch , who reads from a book , who chants without knowing the meaning , and who chants in a feeble voice , are considered incorrect .
They believed that altering the pitch even (without any change in words and duration), might lead to diametrically opposite effects, as related in the story of Vrtra who, instead of killing Indra, got killed by Indra by just a change in the intonation alone of the mantras chanted by Vrtra’s father, Tvashta.
The rules of correct pronunciation and articulation of sounds are given in the Vedanga, known as Seeksha. Seeksha deals with varNa (letters), svara: (pitch); [there are essentially three svaras, namely,
anudatta (gravely accented or low pitched), udatta (high pitched or
acutely accented), svarita (circumflexly accented)] maatraa (duration – a prosodial unit of time); balam (strength or force of articulation); saama (uniformity); and santaana: (continuity) during recitation.
Our ancestors devised unique methods to protect and maintain the basic Veda mantras in its original form through various patterns and combinations of recitation. The basic mantra is called vakya or samhita paatha which is a full sentence.
Splitting them word by word is known as pada paatha , which gives the knowledge of each word to the student.
Next is krama paatha , where the first word of the mantra is added to the second, the second to the third and so on, until the
whole mantra is completed. This method enables the student not only to know individual words but also how to combine words in recitation and the changes in svara that occur as a result of such combination.
Both Pada and Krama methods of chanting retain the natural order of words of the samhita paatha and so, are known as prakrti or natural. For example, if we take sentence consisting of six words a-b-c-d-e-f, in samhita paatha, it will be chanted as six separate words a, b, c, d, e and f in pada paatha will be recited as a-b, b-c, c-d, d-e, and e-f in krama paatha. Actually, a reciter proficient in chanting in the krama format is honored as a kramavit !
In addition, they devised eight other combinations which do not follow the natural order, and are known as vikriti or
artificial order. The vikritis are given in the following verse: They are, jataa, maalaa, sikhaa, rekhaa, dhwaja, danda, ratha and ghana.
Among these only jataa and ghana are prevalent (or, only !) practices in the Krishna Yajur Veda which is mostly predominant in the South. In Sukla Yajur Veda, which is mostly predominant in Banaras and in the North, (the Madhyandina and Kanva schools) all the eight vikritis were practiced.
However, today, there may not be any scholars at all who might know all these vikritis Jataa (braid) paatha In the above example, the six words in the line, when chanted in the jataa format becomes, a-b-b-a-a-b; b-c-c-b-b-c; c-d-d-c-c-d; d-e-ed-d-e; e-f-f-e-e-f and so on. As can be seen, the forward-reverseforward arrangement of words resemble the way ladies braid their hair, and so this practice of chanting is termed jataa!
Two types of maalaa (garland) exist: a)krama maalaa and b) pushpa maalaa.
This is simialr to krama paatha in that two-word units with the characteristic overlapping are the foundation. sikhaa
(top knot) is similar to jataa except that, instead of two words being repeated forwards and backwards, three words are linked.
Recitations in rekhaa (row), dhwaja (flag), dand (staff), and ratha (chariot) are more complex and the reader can refer to Wayne Howard  for details.
Mention can be made here that there are three of ratha, namely, dvipaada (two wheels), tripaada (three wheels) and catuspaada (4 wheels). Each wheel corresponds to a quarter verse (paada) of the text. Among these, dvipaada catuspaada varieties are the ratha types most widely cultivated today.
Ghana (bell) paatha
This is one of the most popular format of recitations and requires years of learning and practice by the student. A scholar proficient in recitation in this format is honored as a ghana paathi . Here the arrangement of words take the shape of a bell.
For example, the group of words a-b-c-d-e-f mentioned earlier, when chanted in the ghana format will be, a-b-b-a-a-b-c-c-b-a-a-bc; b-c-c-b-b-c-d-d-c-b-b-d; and so on.
The earliar illustration of six words, when written in ghana format will appear as follows:
Please note that, what was originally six words in the samhita, evolve in to about sixty words in the ghana format – a ten fold
increase in this case – that gives an idea of how complex the chanting can become with larger sections of the mantras !! We can
now appreciate the rigor a ghana pathi has to go through in his education to learn, by heart, the thousands of mantras, to be able to recite in ghana format.
Our Rishis devised all these elaborate and complicated system of chanting in order to preserve the purity of the sound, word,
pronunciation, intonation , pitch and sound combination of the veda mantras which are the foundation for our sanaatana dharma itself.
Also, repetition of words in many ways, the correct tally of words was also maintained which ensured the purity. They also believed that higher merits (punya) accompany greater complexities in chanting – for example, a ghana recitation is several orders higher in merit than jataa recitation, which is higher in merit than krama recitation and so on.
Wayne Howard  noted in the preface of his book, “Vedic Recitation in Varanasi”, “The four Vedas (Rg, Yajur, Sama and
Atharva) are not “books” in the usual sense, though within the past hundred years each veda has appeared in several printed editions.They are comprised rather of tonally accented verses and hypnotic, abstruse melodies whose proper realizations demand oral instead of visual transmission. They are robbed of their essence when transferred to paper, for without the human element the innumerable nuances and fine intonations – inseparable and necessary components of all four compilations – are lost completely. The ultimate authority in Vedic matters is never the printed page but rather the few members … who are today keeping the centuries-old traditions alive.”
It is unfortunate that there is very little subscription to this education these days and it is an important duty of all of us to
ensure that this education is encouraged and adequate support is given to promote and propagate it.
1. “The Vedas”, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1988.
2. “Veda Recitation in Varanasi”, Wayne Howard, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi 1986.
Dr. S. Yegnasubramanian ( President, SVBF) is a scientist at Bell Labs., NJ. He has been teaching vedic recitation & vedanta for several years.