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The oral tradition of the Vedas (Śrauta) consists of several pathas, "recitations" or ways of chanting the Vedic mantras. Such traditions of Vedic chant are often considered the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence, the fixation of the samhita texts as preserved dating to roughly the time of Homer (early Iron Age).
The various pathas are designed to allow the complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation, including the Vedic pitch accent.
UNESCO proclaimed the tradition of Vedic chant a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on November 7, 2003.
A pathin is a scholar who has mastered the patha. Thus, a ghanapaathin (or ghanapaati in Telugu) has learnt the chanting of the scripture up to the advanced stage called ghana. Ghanapathins chant the ghana by intoning a few words of a mantra in different ways, back and forth. The sonority natural to Vedic chanting is enhanced in ghana.
The padapatha consists of dividing the sentence (vakya) into individual pada or words. The kramapatha consists of pairing two words at a time. In Jatapatha, the words are braided together, so to speak, and recited back and forth. The Ghanapatha or the "Bell" mode of chanting is so called because the words are repeated back and forth in a bell shape. The samhita, vakya and krama pathas can be described as the natural or prakrutipathas. The remaining 8 modes of chanting are classified as Vikrutipathas as they involve reversing of the word order. The backward chanting of words does not alter the meanings in the Vedic (Sanskrit) language.
The chief purpose of such methods is to ensure that not even a syllable of a mantra is altered to the slightest extent, which has resulted in the most stable oral tradition of texts worldwide.
Styles of Memorization
Prodigous energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity. For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently "proof-read" by comparing the different recited versions. Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally "mesh recitation") in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order. The recitation thus proceeded as:
In another form of recitation, dhvaja-pāṭha (literally "flag recitation") a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:
The most complex form of recitation, ghana-pāṭha (literally "dense recitation"), according to (Filliozat 2004, p. 139), took the form:
That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Ṛgveda (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings. Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).
The insistence on preserving pronunciation and accent as accurately as possible is related to the belief that the potency of the mantras lies in their sound when pronounced. The shakhas thus have the purpose of preserving knowledge of uttering divine sound originally heard by the rishis.
Portions of the Vedantic literature elucidate the use of sound as a spiritual tool. They assert that the entire cosmic creation began with sound: "By His utterance came the universe." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.2.4). The Vedanta-sutras add that ultimate liberation comes from sound as well (anavrittih shabdat).
Primal sound is referred to as Shabda Brahman - "God as word". Closely related to this is the concept of Nada Brahman - "God as sound". Nada, a Sanskrit word meaning "sound, noise", is related to the term nadī, "river", figuratively denoting the stream of consciousness - a concept that goes back to the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas. Thus, the relationship between sound and consciousness has long been recorded in India's ancient literature. Vedic texts, in fact, describe sound as the pre-eminent means for attaining higher, spiritual consciousness.
Mantras, or sacred sounds, are used to pierce through sensual, mental and intellectual levels of existence (all lower strata of consciousness) for the purpose of purification and spiritual enlightenment. "By sound vibration one becomes liberated" (Vedanta-sutra 4.22).
Modern practitioners claim that the sounds of Sanskrit phonemes (aksharas) have been shown to affect the mind, intellect, and auditory nerves of those who chant and hear them (see also experiments by Hans Jenny), claiming that they affect the seven chakras of the spinal column, as well as the three pranic channels of the subtle body.
In Puranic Hinduism
The chanting of popular Hindu mantras like Om (found throughout the Vedas) or the Hare Krishna mantra (found in the Kalisantarana Upanisad) is also sometimes referred to as "Vedic chant" even if the chanting is not done according to a patha. The Gayatri Mantra is Rigvedic, but due to its popularity in Hinduism it is often chanted freely, and thus would also sometimes not strictly qualify.