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History of the Gokarna Vedic Collection

by Hema Patankar

The collection of manuscripts presented here has been gathered over the course of the last 150 years by three families of learned Vedic practitioners and teachers in Gokarna, and held with care and reverence in their homes. These are the families of Shri Keshav S. and Neelakantha Shastri Joglekar, Shri Bhalchandra Kodlekere, and the late Shri Samba D. Dixita. The Joglekars are Shakala Rig Vedis who are Chitpavan Brahmins originally from Ratnagiri on the southern coast of Maharashtra. The Dixita and Kodlekere families are Kannada Havikar Brahmins from the Gokarna area. The Dixitas are also Shakala Rig Vedis, while the Kodlekeres are Baudhayana Shaka Krishna Yajur Vedis. Together these families have been performing Shrauta rituals, particularly darshapurnamas ishti and Somayags regularly for multiple generation.. For them, the knowledge they hold both in memory and in manuscripts embodies Sarasvati, not just intellectually in deference to tradition, but ritually and emotionally.

The ancient temple town of Gokarna where they now live is an important pilgrimage site clustered around the svayambhu linga of the Mahabaleshwar Mandir, facing pristine beaches on the northwest coast of Karnataka. Mentioned in the Shrimad Bhagavatam and in the poetry of the 6th century CE Tamil saints, Gokarna developed into an important center of Sanskrit and Vedic knowledge and practice. Numerous generations have studied and taught in vedapathshalas in the homes of the learned Brahmins there, and more recently in local maths or monasteries.

The Dixita, Joglekar and Kodlekere families have been practicing and teaching the Vedic tradition of the Shrauta Sutras for as many as 30 generations. Many members of these families and their ancestors are Agnihotris, keepers of the sacred fire in their homes. Many members of the Joglekar and Dixita families are accomplished Hotrs who practice according to the Ashvalayana Shrauta Sutras, while the Kodlekere family has produced a continuous tradition of Adhvaryus who practice according to the Baudhayana tradition.

They are also Vedic teachers and Sanskrit pandits who are considered to be custodians of invaluable heritage and sacred knowledge. Their manuscript collections indicate that members of these families, particularly the late Shri Neelakantha Joglekar and Shri Samba Dixita, went to great pains and expense to acquire these manuscripts from throughout the region, especially from Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast in southern Maharashtra, and from Dharwar, further inland in Karnataka, where a whole truckload of books and manuscripts was acquired.

Their purpose was to study these texts and use them as ritual manuals, as well as using them for reference and teaching. The manuscripts were in no way seen as a substitute for the extraordinary memorization that is required of learned practitioners of the oral traditions of the Veda. Shri Keshav Joglekar, for example, is considered a walking encyclopedia of Vedic knowledge. At over 80 years of age, he can still effortlessly recite from memory all ten mandalas of the Rig Veda, quote detailed cross-references in the Puranas, and answer challenging questions with obscure references from the broader Vedic literature. His nephew Shri Ganesh Joglekar frequently performs the role of Hotr in any of the full range of Soma Yagas, which extend for many days and weeks, reciting flawlessly from memory the copious mantras for his own role, and chanting along with the mantras for all the other participants, filling in if anyone misses a mantra.

Similarly Shri Ramachandra Bhatta Kodlekere, and now his grandson Ravi, continue their family lineage of performing the demanding role of Adhvaryu in numerous Soma Yagas. This requires directing the whole Yajna, and both reciting from memory and enacting with precision the minute details of rituals described in passages encompassing the entire Krishna Yajur Veda. In fact, Ravi Kodlekere was Adhvaryu for the last Somayag for which Shri Samba Dixita was the yajamana.

Shri Samba Dixita, who passed away in 2014, was a renowned Sanskrit scholar and author who had been honored for his contributions to Sanskrit by the President of India. At the same time, he was a deeply learned traditional pandit and Agnihotri, who held an immense body of mantras in his memory.

So despite being outstanding exemplars of the oral tradition of the Vedas, they also understood the importance of collecting all the ritual manuals for both the private and public rituals that their families were involved in performing, as well as for reference and teaching purposes. Yet the scope of their collection went beyond the basic necessities of a reference library and indicates that they had an intense interest in exploring and keeping alive every nuance of the Vedic knowledge of their region and communities.

Most of the manuscripts in this collection are from the Ashvalayana and Baudhayana Shrauta traditions to which these families belong, Ashvalayana being the texts used in the virtual absence of the Shakala Shrauta texts. There are also a number of texts from the Hiranyakeshi Shrauta tradition, to which they do not belong but which was earlier one of the primary shakhas of the Chitpavan brahmins. Knowledge of the Hiranyakeshi texts was considered to be part of the currency of knowledge for learned Vedic practitioners of the region, especially since these texts are rich with references to other Shrauta texts and traditions. Of course, tradition stipulates that one must first study and master the texts of one's own shakha, providing it is available. Studying a different shakha instead is tantamount to stealing, and such knowledge will not only fail to bear fruit but even becomes a curse.

So these families studied and referred to manuscripts of other shakhas to enhance their ability to participate knowledgeably in Soma Yagas, for example, where the Yajamana may be from another shakha. Or when performing the role of Brahmadeva, who watches over and corrects if necessary every mantra and action performed by ritviks of any shakha represented in a particular Soma Yaga, a role which nowadays falls increasingly to learned Rig Vedis and Yajur Vedis, since there are too few learned Atharva Vedis who can perform this function. For example, at an Atyagnishtoma Soma Yaga performed in Ratnagiri in January 2015, the Yajamana belonged to Hiranyakeshi shakha, so the rituals pertaining to the Grihya fires were performed according to Hiranyakeshi shakha, while the main Yajna was performed by the Adhvaryu according to Apastamba shakha, since there are no longer teachers of the Hiranyakeshi Shrauta tradition to train rtvikas. The role of Brahmadeva was performed by an Ashvalayana Rig Vedi.

The physical preservation of these manuscripts often involved making their own painstaking handwritten copies of borrowed or deteriorating manuscripts. Other manuscripts were copied by a priest in the local temple who had beautiful penmanship. He worked together with members of these families to insure absolute accuracy in scribing. A number of the manuscripts include watercolor illustrations and decorated title pages, but nothing is known about who added these touches.

The majority of these paper manuscripts are 100 to 150 years old, yet preserved in remarkably good condition using traditional methods The paper on which they were written was first dipped in an alum solution and dried, rendering it distasteful to insects, rodents and fungus. The black ink used was indelible. The manuscripts we tied together tightly in cotton cloth that had been soaked in turmeric water, which not only gave it an auspicious color but also infused it with anti-microbial qualities. In addition to careful storage and handling, the manuscripts are brought out each year during Swati nakshatra, when the sun is considered to emit special anti-microbial qualities in its rays. Each manuscript bundle was opened, dusted and checked for insects, then placed in the open to be bathed in sunlight.

In addition to their scholarly interest in these manuscripts, these families are meticulous honoring and preserving the spiritual potency of this manuscript treasure. Every year for the final three days of Sharad Navaratri, which are dedicated to Sarasvati, the entire manuscript collection is opened in front of the family puja and ritually worshipped as the embodiment of Sarasvati. When the worship is complete, the manuscripts are tied up again, placing auspicious markings with sandalwood paste and kumkum on the cloth bundles. This offering of Sarasvati puja to the written word is considered indispensable, because in their eyes unless their manuscripts are treated with reverence, the knowledge held in their pages will not stay in their memory, and its subtleties will remain inaccessible to their minds. In fact, whenever a manuscript is consulted, they first light a lamp and touch the manuscript to their eyes and forehead in reverence. In their Vedic culture, respect plays a powerful role.

These families in Gokarna became concerned about the challenges of preserving their manuscript wealth in modern times, as its value is not easily understood beyond their diminishing immediate community. One of their friends had bought a roadside snack wrapped in old paper only to discover that it was wrapped in pages from a rare old Vedic text. They surmised that when the owner died, his family must have had no idea of the importance of his collection of old books, and had sold them off as scrap paper. This incident awoke them to the reality that hoarding knowledge was not necessarily preserving knowledge.

During this time, they happened to meet members of Muktabodha's field staff at a Soma Yajna. As a result of their mutual interest in preservation of the knowledge held in these manuscripts, Muktabodha's photographic team was invited to visit Gokarna in 2003 to digitally photograph every page and leaf in this collection.

Yet they deliberated extensively on the implications of the next step: making these manuscripts available worldwide on the internet. They believe it is their responsibility to protect the knowledge in these manuscripts from potential misuse. As a scribe once added in a note at the end of a manuscript, speaking for the manuscript itself: Protect me from oil, water, insects and loose bonding, and above all O Lord, protect me from falling into the hands of a fool. Ultimately these families decided that the potential good of making these manuscripts accessible for current and future students and practitioners of the Vedas outweighed the possibilities of misuse. So in the spirit of vidyadana, a gift of knowledge, they share their manuscript treasure with the worldwide community of those who study and value Vedic knowledge.

Muktabodha is honored to be entrusted with the digital presentation of this manuscript wealth. We are also extending assistance with the preservation of the original manuscripts by supplying new storage cabinets, and bringing in regional manuscript conservation experts for assistance. Everyone involved hopes that this knowledge will remain an accessible and illuminating resource for generations to come.

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