The Six "Limbs" of the Vedas

Among the basic texts of Hinduism, the six Angas or limbs of the Vedas are next in importance to the Vedas themselves. The Vedapurusa has six limbs or parts - mouth, nose, eye, ear, hand, foot. These are called "Sadanga". The Tamil term "cadangu" denoting any ceremonial is derived from this word. The Tamil Tevaram refers to Sadanga in this line, "Vedamodu aru angam ayinan".

In the past all moral and religious edicts were inscribed on the stone walls of temples. In a sense the temple in ancient and medieval times was the "subregistrar's office" that "registered" all [acts of, contribution to] dharma. In the princely state of Travancore2 there used to be an official called "Tirurnantira olai'. In the old days all kings in Tamil Nadu had such an official. He was like the present-day private secretary. His duty was to write down the ruler's orders or communication and the royal message would be sent to the people concerned.

In those days the raja had to be informed about all private charities. In fact they required the royal assent and were instituted on royal orders. These were written down by the olai with these concluding words, "to be inscribed on stone and copper". The royal command was passed on to the place which received the charity. The authorities there had all this inscribed on the walls of the local temple. Most of the stone inscriptions to be found in temples are of this nature.

Inscriptions were also made on copper-plates. If more than one plate was needed, the plates were pierced and held together with a ring. The local council or assembly had to accept these inscriptions. The copper-plates were kept underground in the temple premises in a place called "ksema". The life of a land, its destiny, was entrusted in the hands of the Lord and it was natural that the temple was considered the standing monument to its life. It had something of the function of the registrar's office, the epigraphy department, and so on.

Let me now come to the subject of the local assembly.

Every village had a Brahmin sabha or assembly. Its membership was open to those who knew the Vedas and the Mantra-Brahmana People guilty of certain offences and their relatives were debarred from membership. The names of candidates wanting to be members were written on pieces of palm leaf and a child would be asked to pick one from the lot. The one whose name was inscribed on it was adopted as a member. Details of such elections to the local assembly are mentioned in the Uttaramerur Inscriptions1. There were a number of divisions of the sabha to look after different subjects like irrigation, taxation, etc. All charities, whether in the form of land or money, had to be made through the sabha. So too cattle offered to the temple or the lamps to be lighted there. The members of the sabha had to give their written consent for all this. This is how we have come to know the names of some of them. We also learn the titles conferred on some Brahmins like "Sadanganiratan" and "Sadangavi", the latter being an eroded form of "Sadangavid" - "Sad + anga + vid" = one who knows the six Angas or limbs of Vedic learning. From these old inscriptions we come to know that there were many such Brahmins even in small villages, Brahmins proficient in the "Sadanga". That is why Vedic rites themselves came to be called "cadangu" in Tamil Nadu. The Brahmin who gave away his daughter in marriage to Sundaramurtisvami was called "Cadangavi Sivachariyar".

The six Angas are: Siksa (phonetics); Vyakarana (grammar); Nirukta (lexicon, etymology); Kalpa (manual of rituals); Chandas (prosody); Jyotisa (astronomy-astrology). A Brahmin must be acquainted with all. That he must be well-versed in the Vedas goes without saying. He must first learn to chant them and proficiency in the six Angas will later help him to gain insights into their meaning.

Siksa is the nose of the Vedapurusa, Vyakarana his mouth, Kalpa his hand, Nirukta his ear, Chandas his foot and Jyotisa his eye. The reason for each Sastra being identified with a part of the body will become clear as we deal with the Angas individually.

Notes & References

The Uttaramerur Inscriptions (10th century A.D.) show that the Colas had an advanced system of local self-government. The Paramaguru has dealt with the subject in detail in one of his discourses and we hope to include it in a subsequent volume.