Wednesday, July 30, 2014


 Athravan Priests

                                                     (Athravan Priests) 

 In Indian tradition Atharva Veda is considered to be fourth and last Veda. The mainstream Vedic cult did not admit this book as Veda in their fold till very late period. Only three Veda’s, i.e. Rig, Sam and Yajur Veda’s were recognized by them for their sacrificial rituals.

Also the tradition is to consider Atharva Veda to be younger and last in the Vedic compositions. Main reason behind this, it is postulated that the Atharva Veda is not meant for sacrificial purpose. Rather it is all about occultist practices, mostly followed by Atharvan priests for charms, omens or casting evil spells to cure from various deceases, victories over enemies, safeguarding people from epidemics etc. Atharva Veda also carries seeds of spiritual science that later have been expounded in 52 Upanisada’s. Other Veda’s too at some or other places have carried the occultist’s elements, but it is not main subject of them. In a way Atharva Veda is book of charms.

Atharva Veda is special. The priestly class (Atharvan) of Atharva Veda was also known as “Kshatra-Brahmin” (Warrior Priests) as they not only conducted various rituals for Kings and nobles but participated in the wars as well. In fact in ancient times Atharvan religion, based on Atharva Veda was treated independent of all other religions. The main reason behind this was the Atharva Veda’s verses are not at all meant for sacrificial rituals. Its purpose, context and application were far different than of Vedic religion. Interestingly Atharva Veda does not mention Varna system anywhere, which too makes it unique.

Originally this Veda was called “Atharvangirasa Veda” (Composed by Atharva and Angira) or “Bhrigvangirasa Veda (Composed by Bhrigu’s and Angirasa’s). Originally both the Atharva (Bhrugu) and Angirasa Veda’s might have been separate books those were assimilated together in the later times, to be called as “Atharva Veda”. What contained in them when they were separate we might never know or we even does not know whether Angiras Veda survived or not. However Atharva Veda as is available at the present is in polluted and interpolated form as some portion of Rig Veda is attached to the body of Atharva Veda. It was done in an order to secure a seat in Rig Vedic tradition.


The credit of composition of Atharva Veda is given to the Bhrugu clan. Interestingly Bhrugu clan seems to have played a vital role in the Indo-Iranian religious system. Tarkateertha Laxman Shastri Joshi in his “Vaidik Sanskruticha Itihas” states that the Bhrigu’s were from non-Aryan stock. Dr. Padmanabhayya opines that Bhrigu’s were of Dravidian origin whereas Shrikant Talageri opines that Bhrigu’s were of Iranian origin. So there is no agreement among the scholars about origin of the Bhrigu’s.

Bhrigu’s are not mentioned in Avesta. However Shrikant Talageri thinks, since the Zoroastrian priests were called Athravans and Vedic Atharvans being of Bhrigu clan, Bhrigu’s might have associated with Avestan tradition, at the least in the beginning.

While Rig Veda was under construction, Bhrigu had become a distant memory, a pre-historical or mythical person or clan to the Vedic people. Rig Veda mentions Bhrigu’s 18 times out of which 17 times they are addressed in plural. Bhrigu’s and Angirasa’s are important families of Rig Veda.

The etymology of the both names is said to be related with fire, however from Gopath Brahmana (Only Brahmana scripture associated with Atharva Veda) it appears that “Angirasa” term evolved from “Angarasa”, which means he who born from sweat of Brahma. This etymology does not match with the fire origin of Angirasa’s.

Rig Veda respectfully mentions that Bhrigu’s introduced fire and Soma rituals to Vedic people. Aitareya Brahmana states a myth that Aditya, Bhrigu and Angira were together born of Prajapati’s semen. (3.34). This myth makes Bhrigu and Angira blood brothers. However it is a myth and not necessarily to be taken seriously.

There is no dispute that the Bhrigu and Angirasa were become historical when composition of Rig Veda had begun. The descendents of both the clans have participated in composition of Rig Veda as well; though Bhrigu’s entered composition of Rig Veda in the late period.

Atharvan’s are referred as sons of Bhrigu. However they might be distant descendents in the lineage of Bhrigu.

Though both the families, especially Angirasa’s, having two books of Rig Veda to their credit, they also have composed Angirasa Veda, which is not available at the present or it is incorporated in Atharva Veda as subject matter of both the books (Bhrigu and Angirasa Veda) were similar.

Though it is general opinion that Atharva Veda is younger, it is younger in the sense of when it got authenticity as Vedic scripture, not in the sense of its composing. According to Tarkateertha Laxmanshastri Joshi, some part of Atharva Veda predates even Rig Veda. We can surmise from this that the Atharva Veda was being composed separately but almost simultaneously along with Rig Veda, may be at different places and in different clans branched from original ones. This also can be supported by other proof that the Rig Vedic Gods like Indra, Varuna etc. are not depicted as glorious as they are in Rig Veda. It seems that to Atharvan people these gods had lost their importance.

Also a peculiar fact is Rig Veda is composed by almost 350 seers from ten Rig Vedic Seer families over generations whereas Atharva Veda is composed by the seers of only Bhrigu and Angirasa family. The names of the composers of verses do seldom appear in Atharva Veda and that too of mainly mythical persons.
So, to conclude in short, the Atharvan’s who composed Atharva Veda were together known by their family name. The priests of later times those performed Atharva Vedic charms and rituals too were called as Atharvan.


The role of Atharvan’s (Ave. Athravan) is highly important in the Zoroastrian religion which too is based on fire rites, though of different kind than of Vedic. Athravan means Fire-guardian; the attendant of the sacred fire in Persian temples; the proper word for a priest in the Avesta. His main religious duty is to perform Yasna (Sk. Yadnya, i.e. Fire sacrifice) and protect sacred fire.

Interestingly, in Avesta too Athravans are associated with Asura’s. Shrikant Talageri suggests “Angra” in Avesta are none but Angirasa’s of Vedic tradition. In Avesta “Angra Mainue” is head of the demons or evil spirits (Ave. Daeva’s). If Talageri is correct then it would mean that the Bhrigu’s and Angirasa’s of Avestan Asura culture were rivals, unlike what they have been depicted in Indian tradition. In Indian tradition, as we have seen above, Bhrigu and Angira’s were blood brothers and in their clan a whole Veda was composed along with their active participation in composing of Rig Veda as well!

Also we must note here that the Atharvan’s in Indian tradition, though some have attempted to associate them with fire, their Veda is not meant for fire sacrificial rituals at all. Rather in structure, practice and content it stands contrary to other Veda’s. This was the very reason why Atharva Veda till late times did not receive recognition as forth “Veda”.

Etymology of Avestan “Athravan” still is uncertain. However its origin could be traced to Avestan “Atar”, which means holy fire. Since duty of the Athravan’s was to protect fire, the term Athravan might have evolved from Atar…. Athravan…who protects the holy fire!

According to K. Hoffmann, (Avestische Laut- und Flexionslehre, 2nd ed., 2004) Atar got associated with Athravan by folk etymology. There also are claims that the Vedic Atharvan is a loan word from Iranians. The social status of Athravan’s was as priestly servant of the kings and Magnates, which does not speak for their high status or spiritual authority. (The Broken World of sacrifices: An essay in Ancient Indian Ritual by J. C. Heesterman)

Whatsoever may be the case, Athravan’s of Avesta were mere fire priests. There are no Gathic or Avestan compositions to their credit as we have to Atharvan’s of Vedic tradition. Athravan’s were not blood related but a group selected carefully as priests from different families. In later times Magu’s (Magi or Magavan) replaced Athravan’s as priests, thus putting an end to Athravan tradition.

It does mean that the Atharvan’s of Indian tradition has no relation whatsoever with the Athravan’s of Avestan tradition except the similarity in the title they bear. This also may be evident from the fact that the Athravan’s in Avestan tradition is collective name of the priests; it does not refer to any particular clan. The duties of Athravan’s as fire priests are well defined in Vendidad.

Or it may mean that the Athravan tradition of Avesta predated Vedic tradition and that a rival clan from Avestan Athravan tradition split to form entirely new religion that did not require fire rites at all! The myth of Atharva being Bhrigu’s son was fabricated in later times to authenticate independent Atharvan tradition of India.

Angirasa and Angra Mainyu

Shrikant Talageri suggests Angirasa’s and Angra mainyu of Avesta being same. We have seen that etymology of Angirasa too is uncertain. Either the word evolved from “Angara” which means blazing coal or “Anga Rasa” which means fluid (Sweat) from the body. Looking at the style of Indian mythologies, the persons of unknown origin but those are revered by tradition are considered to be born from Brahma or Shiva’s some body part or fluid. Angirasa, according to Gopath Brahmana, is born from Brahma’s sweat. This makes this etymology even unbelievable. Angirasa’s clan was also involved in composing of Rig Veda, almost two books to their credit and Rig Veda being related with fire ritual, making Angirasa’s connected with fire could have been the reason behind this vague etymology.

But how it can be connected with Avestan Angra? Zoroaster in the Gatha’s composed by himself does not use Angra Mainyu term for the person or persons but to the evil, destructive spirits or minds. For good spirits Zoroaster uses the term “Spenta Mainyu”. There is eternal conflict between good and bad spirits that is depicted in Avesta. Hence considering Angra of Avesta and Angirasa of Veda’s one and the same would be a fatal mistake, such as made by Shrikant Talageri.


We have seen few Indian traditional myths surrounding Bhrigu’s. We also have seen that before Rig Veda came to being composed Bhrigu’s had been a distant memory. From Indian tradition it appears that the Bhrigu’s were closely connected with Asura culture and that they introduced fire to the mankind along with the Soma ritual. The seers from this clan also participated in composing of the Rig Veda. Bhrigu’s son Shukracharya was Guru of Asura’s. In previous chapter we also have seen that Rig Veda too in the beginning revered Asura tradition by respectfully addressing their God’s with epithet “Asura”.

“Bhrigu” name derives from the root bhrk, meaning the blazing of the fire’ professed immense reverence towards the elements of fire on earth viz the life and warmth-giving Sun and the Fire. However some Sanskrit Scholars believe that the root bhrk or bhraj and word Bhrigu may not be of Sanskrit origin.
Bhrigu tradition is peculiar in their possessing different faiths and representing rival sides. Shukracharya was Guru of Asura’s. Vishvamitra had taken part in composing Rig Vedic hymns and later deserted Vedic people to gather a team of rival kings to fight against his earlier patron. Jamadagni was an Atharvan priest who in later times turned out to be enemy of his patron king Sahastrarjuna. His son Parashuram annihilated the family of Sahastrarjuna by attacking his capital several times. Interestingly Parshuram was devotee of Lord Shiva, a Non-Vedic God.

From Rig Veda it would mean that the original Bhrigu, Atharva or Angira were not the humans but fire element personified and in later ages came in to the use as noun. Whereas the Athravans of Avesta are directly associated with fire rituals as priests, and have no mythical origin as Vedic tradition has for Atharvans.

How can Athravan and Atharvan be said to be same then? Atharvan is the name of the family members/descendents of Atharva, but Athravan is a mere title of the fire priest. Again it must be remembered that the Atharvan’s as composers and followers of Atharva Vedic tradition of charms were not fire priests.
From above we can sum up as follows;

1. Athravans of Avesta and Atharvans of Atharva Veda were different entities, not related in any way with each other.Though the words are similar, meaning of the both in two traditions is entirely different.

2.Bhrigu clan was independent of Avestan and Vedic tradition. They had mastered over the art of charms and had earned a special reputation in the larger geographical area maintaining independent identity.

3. Some people of this clan might have joined Vedic tradition composing some hymns of Rig Veda. The word Atharvan appearing in the Rig Veda might be the deed of those Bhrigu’s.

4. Angirasa’s of Rig Veda and Angirasa’s as composers of Angirasa Veda can be different group that branched from the same family.

5. Angra of Avesta and Angirasa of Veda’s cannot be same as thought by Mr. Talageri.

6. Similarity between Athravan and Atharvan is though obvious the etymologies does not match with each other. Athravan word is ancient and has been used in Avestan tradition for short period, it is possible that Vedic’s loaned it to use this word in different manner or it is a co-incidence that the terms evolved independently, sounding similar but having different meanings.

So what does it mean?

First of all above discussion does not support OIT, AMT or AIT theory. It clearly suggests that the Avestan tradition is anterior to Vedic tradition.

It also suggests though there are some sorts of exchange of ideas in both the religions, both the groups ethnically had independent traits.

The third religion of Bhrigu’s i.e. Atharvan’s and Angirasa’s, been also anterior to Vedic religion and had sprouted at entirely different and distant region. This clarifies why Rig Vedic most revered Gods become secondary and demigods to Atharvan’s.

When and how did Atharvan religion of Atharva Veda and the religion of Rig Veda came together to form one with making adjustments in their scriptures, are the vital questions….

And most important question is how this Rig Vedic religion traveled to present India and who spread it with missionary zeal is the most important question to which we need to find the answers.

We shall deal with these questions in next installment.

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