Embodying the Vedas

Traditional Vedic Schools of Contemporary Maharashtra

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Borayin Larios
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    De Gruyter
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Vedas compose the oldest textual tradition in South Asia. An abyss of time exists between their poetic language and the later Sanskrit grammatical tradition, which has made Vedic studies the demesne of historical linguists. Despite their antiquity, the Vedas are still sung today, more than three thousand years after their composition. Vedic anthropologists like Borayin Larios are a rare breed, for they must possess all the skills of both philologist and field ethnographer. Larios’s work is preceded by David M. Knipe’s Vedic Voices (Oxford University Press, 2015), but while Knipe lets us see the personal and private lives of Vedic families as they change across generations, Larios documents where, why, and how that intimacy has been weathered away. 

Embodying the Vedas is the first anthropology of the vedapāṭhaśālā or “hall of Vedic recitation.” Any introduction to the Vedas makes note of its unbroken oral transmission—the longest in recorded history—but until now the pedagogical institutions that have made this transmission possible have not been systematically examined. While the Vedic texts themselves do not tell us about ancient pedagogy, we do have ancillary literature from the end of the Vedic period and later dharmaśāstras (treatises on dharma) concerned with the rules of Vedic studentship. Is what we see in these treatises anything like what is actually observed in India today? Larios visited twenty-five schools in Maharashtra, documenting pedagogical techniques, the relationships between students and teachers, and the networks they formed with accrediting institutions and sources of funding. 

In the introduction, Larios discusses how he was able to gain access to his informants and collect his data in the first place. Vedic families are notoriously reclusive. This privacy is in part due to the rules of purity necessary for Vedic pursuit, but part of it is functional: svādhyāya, (private study of the Vedas) demands a certain isolation from distractions.

In the second chapter, Larios attempts to provide some local history on the Vedic schools of Maharashtra. The patronage of Vedic recitation by the Marāṭhā empire took the form of more than just land grants and key administrative appointments. Under the Marāṭhās, an expansion of local Brahman identity into a kind of supra-local national identity began. To that effect, “a deliberate effort to import Vedic reciters” made Maharashtra “one of the melting pots of Vedic traditions” (45). In this melting pot, Vedic reciters can identify themselves as “orthodox,” while still participating in the diverse religious market of Maharashtra. 

The core data of the study are contained in the third and fourth chapters. Chapter 3 opens with a discussion of the relationship of these schools to the government and to private funding entities. After this, Larios provides a threefold typology of the modern Vedic school. The first, the gurukula,is the smallest school. In this scenario, students are invited into their teacher’s home and live as fictive sons alongside the guru’s own children. The second type, the vedapāṭhaśālā, is larger than the gurukula. It is a communal school in which several teachers live with a number of students. According to Larios, these schools seek “to emulate the mythical āśramas” (82) described in classical Sanskrit literature, isolating students to minimize distractions and remain ritually pure. The third type of school, the vedavidyālaya, is larger still: a communitarian institution administered by its financial sponsors. In this type, teachers are essentially employees of the school. These types of schools are often ideological projects. As Larios puts it, “students are prepared to ‘serve the society’ at large. They are trained to be ‘role models’ for the Hindu society” (84). In addition to teaching several branches of the Vedas, they also offer courses in English and computer use. This chapter goes into rich ethnographic detail, comparing each type of school at every level: curricula, examinations, and even typical seating arrangements. Chapter 4 shifts from the institutional perspective to that of the Vedic student. What does his academic calendar look like? What is his daily schedule? How does he amuse himself when not in class? 

The fifth chapter theorizes the guru: not as a subject, but rather as an imitable object of Vedic pedagogy. The student assimilates to the guru in all respects, becoming, like him, a vedamūrti—an “embodiment of the Vedas.” Mimesis is at the center of ancient Vedic training, and Larios’s discovery of its enduring importance in Vedic modernity is an exciting one. 

In the sixth chapter, Larios examines what the Vedas signify outside of the school to the South Asian community at large. He argues that “Vedic identity” functions something like a kaleidoscope, for that identity changes depending on the observer. Some of the pieces of glass are, of course, quite ancient, but some are rather recent. This chapter contains a series of case studies, each of which shows how the modern and anti-modern poles of “Vedic identity” produce new images as the kaleidoscope turns. 

Embodying the Vedas is a rare book indeed, because few scholars possess the interdisciplinary skills necessary to execute such an ambitious project. Its rarity underscores its importance, however, for despite well over a century of scholarly work on the Vedic tradition, there has been precious little theorization of the very thing which has allowed the tradition to survive three millennia: its pedagogy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caley Charles Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Young Harris College.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Borayin Larios is a professor at South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany.


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