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Environmental Protection and Water Reverence in Ancient Indian Culture

K.N. Sharma
Secretary, International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID)
48, Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi – 110 021, India


Water has been regarded as the first and the foremost element in the Vedas, the treasure of
knowledge and wisdom of India and most ancient scriptures possessed by mankind. Water is
regarded as the original source that gave rise to the subsequent evolution of the universe. Water,
or the water element, has been vividly addressed in the Vedas and other ancient literature
abundantly. Water is the most important tool/mode for performing religious rituals and social
ceremonies and a primary means for purification of body and soul in Indian culture since ancient
times till today. The rivers, worshipped like goddesses, were considered to be holy and the waters
in them were described as life sustaining, medicinal, as ambrosia, cleanser of sins and were
regarded as divine, protectors and blissful. This respect for waters worked as a deterrent against
their pollution.

Water, together with fire, is considered as the divine witness to all human deeds and as a result,
no Indian rite is complete without their presence. At every auspicious occasion, including social
events like marriages, or religious performances in an Indian family, the clay or metallic pitchers
which symbolically represent rivers will always be seen. The traditional Indians still chant verses
calling upon all the major rivers of India to purify them and absolve them of their sins.
The protection of environment was understood to be closely related to the protection of
atmosphere/firmament and the earth. The flora and fauna were recognized as valuable entities of
nature and protected by people, since their contribution to the maintenance of a healthy eco-
system was well understood. Many of the modern concepts of holistic approach for ecological
balance are reflected in the ancient literature. Protection of rivers, lakes and other waterbodies,
environment, ecology, vegetation as well as all living beings is the main message of the ancient
tradition of India. It was well understood that wrong actions by individuals and society could harm
the cycle of Nature and its functions. The bounties of the seasons and bliss of the Nature were
always sought through prayers. Hoping that with seasons maintaining their cycle, waters
remaining pure, rains received in abundance and actions of human beings being pious, the
people could aspire for a long life.

Historically, the influence of water and waterbodies in their various forms in the Indian society has
been witnessed practically in all aspects of culture and traditions, predominantly on religion and
prayers, social customs, ecology-related actions, architecture, literature, sayings, imageries,
festivals, tourism, pilgrimage, etc. Several water-related festivals including the Kumbha, where
millions of people congregate on auspicious occasions for a holy dip in the sacred rivers, are
celebrated throughout the country.

The paper describes the above mentioned aspects of environmental protection and influences of
water in the context of culture and religion in Indian society historically over the past several


India possesses a rich ancient literature and a long cultural tradition of thousands of years. The
Vedas are the oldest (around 6500 BC) monumental scriptures and represent fountain of wisdom
and knowledge. These are four in number – Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda.
The other ancient scriptures include - Brahmans, Upanishads, Smritis, Samhitas, Aranyaks,
Purans, etc. Every living and non-living body is made up five basic, gross elements of Nature,
called ‘Panchamahabhuta’. The substance capacity in the five basic elements (Bhutas) manifests
in the following order — Ether or Space or Firmament (Akash), Air (Vayu), Energy or Fire (Tej or
Agni), Water (Aapah) and Earth (Prithivi). Water occupies the highest place amongst these
elements. In the social and religious traditions and culture of India since the Vedic times, water
has been enjoying the most respectable and unique status. Water has been described and

referred to as nectar, honey, source of life, protector of earth and environment, cleanser of sins,
generator of prosperity, ambrosia and so on. The rivers were considered as divine in the Indian
civilization and worshipped as Goddesses in mythological descriptions. People were ordained to
use their life sustaining waters most judiciously and with greatest reverence. Water is the single
most important tool/mode for performing daily religious rituals or social ceremonies and a primary
means for purification of body and soul in Indian culture even today.

The Indian saints, sages and seers (Rishi’s) of ancient times were great visionaries who
perceived the creation of universe in a scientific manner and revealed the mysteries of cosmic
evolution with profound wisdom and theories which were, perhaps, too advanced at that time for
the world to understand. It is only now that with the modern concepts like quantum mechanics
and string theory through the efforts of physicists and nuclear scientists, the ancient theories
revealed in the Upanishads are being revisited. The ancient scriptures also present in great
detail, inter alia, the evolution of earth, the science of rainfall, its measurement and forecast,
climatology, meteorology, hydrology, water use and management, environmental protection,
agricultural planning etc. while describing and hailing the five basic elements of Nature. Even
today water festivals, popularly called `Kumbh’ are held every twelfth year on astronomically
specific occasions at four places in India where an estimated 10-30 million people congregate on
the banks of holy rivers for a dip. Water festivals throughout the country are also celebrated on
auspicious days. From birth till death in an Indian society, water remains an essential ingredient in
performing all rituals.

Nature’s Forces as Deities

It will be interesting to know that the utmost reverence for the entities of Nature saw their
deification in the ancient Indian culture and these were regarded as deities. All those forces that
were facilitators of rains, like Sun (also known as Aditya), wind, etc. were prayed as gods. A deity
was also assigned to each of the main cosmic element/phenomenon. Thus, Indra is the god for
water (and heaven), Maruts are considered gods of winds and Aryaman, Mitra, Varuna and Soma
are the facilitators of water. Aditi is referred to mean universe. Fire (Agni) was also regarded as a
god. In Vedic cosmology, the earth (Prithivi) symbolises material base and the upper sky or
heaven (Dyaus) symbolizes the unmanifested immortal source which together and between them,
provide the environment (`paryavaran’). The Rigvedic hymns vividly describe jointly the Dyava
Prithivi (Heaven and Earth) as `full of water’, `decorated with ornaments of water’, `abundantly
blessed with love of water’, `conservator of waters’, etc. In Atharva Veda also, the seers treat
earth as mother, upper sky or heaven (dyaus) as father, and atmosphere between them as
brother and seek forgiveness for any inadvertent harm that may have been done to these
“If atmosphere, earth, and sky and if father and mother we have injured, may this house-holder’s
Fire lead us from that to the world of their perfectly restored state. May mother earth, Aditi our
birthplace, brother atmosphere (save) us from imprecation; may our father heaven be weal to us
from paternal (guilt); having gone to my relatives, let me not fall down from their world.” AV

The import of the verses is to wish for a clean and unpolluted earth and environment to which no
harm or injury be done. Particular reference to ‘paternal guilt’ may be noted that indicates seer’s
wish against harm to the upper layers of atmosphere. In recent times we have seen and heard of
damage to the ozone layer high up in the atmosphere that protects us from the harmful ultra-
voilet rays. Without naming it, the meaning has been made clear with the specific indication of the
(paternal) upper sky, the father.

The seer praises the Heaven and Earth (Dyava Prithivi) by saying “You are surrounded, Heaven
and Earth, by water, you are the asylum for water; imbued with water, the augmenters of water,
vast and manifold; you are the first propitiated in the sacrifice, the pious (people) pray to you for
happiness, that the sacrifice (may be celebrated). May Heaven and Earth, the effusers of water,
the milkers of water, dischargers of the functions of water, divinities, the promoters of sacrifice,
the bestowers of wealth, of renown, of food, of male posterity, combine together.” RV 6.70.4-5.

The sage invites the Maruts (gods of wind) to create conditions whereby the rains are formed for
showering on the earth. It is an excellent example of hydrologic phenomenon-
“Sons of strength, the Maruts, awaiting your arrival; advance from the sky, Agni comes (to meet
you) from the earth, the wind traverses the firmament; and Varuna comes with undulating waters
(clouds).” - RV 1.161.14.
They prayed the Maruts not to create such conditions as to spell excess rains causing misery
from floods rather than happiness. Hymn of RV 1.167.4 says - “The radiant, ever-moving Maruts
have mingled with (their) associate (lightning), like (youths) with common women; the formidable
divinities do not overwhelm heaven and earth (with excess rain), but promote their prosperity
through (friendly) regard.”
In Vedas, Mitra and Varuna have been recognized as the facilitators of water. They are invoked in
the following hymns to create favourable conditions for rains -
“I invoke Mitra of pure vigour, and Varuna, the devourer of foes; the joint accomplishers of the act
bestowing water (on the earth). Mitra and Varuna, augmenters of water, dispensers of water, you
connect this perfect rite with its true (reward).” RV 1.2.7-8.
Mitra, in its ordinary sense is the name of the sun; Varuna, of the regent of the waters. As
identified with the sun or as Adityas, Mitras and Varunas, are said to cause rains indirectly by
producing evaporation, the vapours thus raised becoming condensed in the atmosphere descend
again in showers.
The sages were aware of undesirable actions by humans that could pollute the waters or harm
the nature’s balance, whereby the waters could be unfit for drinking. The very thought of this
unwise action propels him to ask for forgiveness -
“Whatever the offence which we men commit, Varuna, against divine beings, whatever law of
thine we may through ignorance violate, do not you, divine Varuna, punish us on account of that
iniquity”. RV 7.89.5.

Water in Prayers

Water has been highly respected and treated with great reverences in the Vedic literature and has
been prayed to grant men procreative power (RV 10.9.3). It mentions- “All creatures are born
from the waters” (RV 1.23.16, 10.17.10). Waters have been considered as mostly “motherless,
and the producers of all that is stationary and all that moves” (RV 6.50.1). They are also hailed as
mothers of all beings (RV 1.23.10, 6.50.6, 10.17.10). The Chhandogya Upanishad (7.10.1) says
that “it is the waters which pervade everything, big or small, the earth, the atmosphere, the
heaven, the mountains, gods, men, animals, birds, grass, plants, dogs, worms, insects, ants. All
these (worldly manifestations) are waters indeed”. “They are the foundations of all in the
universe” (Shatapath Brahman, SB “They are a place of abode for all the gods” (SB Taittariya Upanishad (II-i) says - `From the Self, verily, space arose, from space air,
from air fire, from fire water, from water the earth, from the earth herbs, from herbs food, from
food semen, from semen the person’. From water earth was formed, i.e. out of water sprang forth
the embryonic state of the universe.
Rishi’s in all the four Vedas hail water practically as a form of god and worship it as such, since it
was considered as life giving. The sages in Yajurveda pray – “O Water, thou art the reservoir of
welfare and propriety, sustain us to become strong. We look up to thee to be blessed by thy kind
nectar on this earth. O water, we approach thee to get rid of our sins. May the water cleanse the
earth, the earth cleanse me. May the holy waters make me devoid of sins. May the waters
remove my bad deeds. The waters that kept the Agni (fire) inside them, bless us. The waters that
generate all prosperity on earth and heaven and those which dwell in different forms in the
atmosphere, those who irrigate the earth, may those waters be kind to us and bless us. O Water,
kindly touch me with thy divine self and establish strength, radiance, intellect and wisdom in me.”
The place of water as a life giving and life sustaining element was very high. It was considered to
be cleanser of sins and was regarded as divine and a protector. It was addressed by various
names - nectar, honey, ambrosia.... in the prayers.

“May the maternal (earth’s) waters purify us, may the shedders of water purify us with the
effusion; for the divine (waters) bear away all sin: I come away from them purified (to heaven).”
(RV 10.17.10).
Varuna is a cosmic ruler as well as the deity that dwells in waters, presides over them and is
therefore prayed for granting strength and virility from waters. “ O Varuna, the ruler, you possess
hundreds or thousands of medicines”.
“May those waters that are contiguous to the Sun, and those with which the Sun is associated, be
propitious to our rite.” (RV 1.23.17).
“The waters, with their ocean-chief, proceed from the midst of the firmament, purifying (all
things), flowing unceasingly : may the divine waters, whom the thunder-bearing Lord Indra, the
showerer, sent forth, protect me here (on earth). May the waters that are in the sky, or those that
flow (on the earth), those (whose channels) have been dug, or those that have sprung up
spontaneously, and those that seek the ocean. All pure and purifying, may those divine waters
protect me here (on earth).” RV 7.49.1-2.

“(Waters) ! the plants flourish by means of water, by prayer is effectual through water; the
essence of water is vigorous through water; purify me with it.” RV 10.17.14.

Rigveda says : “Since waters are the source of happiness, grant to us to enjoy abundance, and a
great and delightful perception”. (RV 10.9.1).
“I invoke for protection the divine waters of excellent wisdom, discharging their functions –
flowing by day and flowing by night”. (RV).
“We solicit from you, Waters, today, that pure, faultless, rain-shedding, sweet essence of the
earth, which devout have first consecrated as the beverage of Indra.” RV 7.47.1.

Water in all its various forms was considered divine and blissful. This respect for waters worked
as a deterrent against pollution.

“The divine Waters, the purifiers of many, gratifying men with food, pursue the path of the gods :
they impede not the sacred rites of Indra : offer (priests), oblation to the rivers for their incessant
flows. Waters, whom the sun has vaporized by his rays, for whom Indra has opened a path by
which to issue, bestow upon us wealth; and do you (also) ever cherish us with blessings." RV

Here `Indra has opened a path by which to issue’ means that the sun having converted the
waters of the earth into cloud, Indra, by his thunderbolt, cleans the latter, and the condensed
water falls as rain.

The Indians, since ancient times, have been praying - “May the waters that descend from the sky
or from the top of glaciers, which are derived from the earth by digging or which have been
bestowed on us by the god in the form of lakes and are self evolving, those that continuously flow
towards the oceans, and the ones which are themselves holy and are used for purifying
everyone, bless us!”

Waters as Possessors of Medicinal Powers

The Vedic seers possessed a deep awareness of the medicinal characteristics of waters. RV
sheds sufficient light on medicinal quality of waters. The hymn considers water as the reservoir of
all curative medicines. This hydro-therapy finds its climax in Atharva Veda (AV) and several
hymns (6.23; 24 & 57) are exclusively devoted to medicinal use of waters.
AV prays waters to obtain cure from Kshetreeya i.e., incurable diseases. AV describes the various
sources of waters and addresses them as dispeller of diseases and as ‘more healing than any
other healer’. Rigveda hails waters as the reservoir of all curative medicines and of nectar. It
offers oblations to deities presiding over the flowing waters-
“ O Water, which we have drunk, become refreshing in our body. May you be pleasant to us by
driving away diseases and pains – O divine immortal waters” (RV 63).

The scriptures believed that waters avert pain, they are restoration/cure, they are medicine.
Wherever waters fall on earth, excellent plants grow abundantly. The hymns in Atharvaveda
(6.23, 24, 57) hail water as possessing medicinal qualities. It is prayed as a dispeller of diseases.
A hymn in Atharvaveda prays waters to cure ‘incurable’ diseases.
Rigveda (1.161.9) states – ‘there exists no better element other than water which is more
beneficent to the living beings. Hence waters are supreme’. The scriptures, Samhitas, also
regard water as capable of alleviating pain –“ O water which we have drunk, become refreshing in
our body. Be pleasant to us by driving away diseases and pains, O divine immortal waters”.
Other hymns from Rigveda mention -“Ambrosia is in the waters, in the waters are medicinal
herbs; therefore, divine (priest), be prompt in their praise. Soma has declared to me, `all
medicaments, as well as Agni, the benefactor of the universe, are in the waters’: the waters
contain all healing herbs. Waters, bring to perfection all disease-dispelling medicaments for (the
good of) my body, so that I may long behold the Sun. Waters, take away whatever sin has been
(found) in me, whether I have (knowingly) done wrong or have pronounced imprecations (against
holy men) or (have spoken) untruth. I have this day entered into the waters – we have mingled
with essence – Agni, abiding in the waters, approach, and fill me, thus (bathed), with vigour.” (RV
1.23. 19-23).
“May the divine rivers, whether flowing down declivities, in hollow places, or upwards, whether
filled with water or dry, nourishing all with their water, be auspicious to us by protecting from
diseases, may all the rivers eliminate harm or injury”. (RV 7.50.4).
“Waters, sovereigns of precious treasures, granters of habitations to man, I solicit of you
medicines (for my infirmities)” (RV 10.9.5).
“I have this day entered into the waters (for bathing), we have mingled with their essence. Agni
aboding in the waters, approach and fill me with vigor”. (RV 10.9.9).

Environmental Protection for Blissful Life
The protection of environment was understood to be closely related to the protection of heaven
(atmosphere/firmament) and the earth. Thus, the ancient sages prayed for maintaining the
requisite balance in the functioning of all entities of nature - the mountains, lakes, heaven and
earth, the forests, the waters in the firmament, and so on.
“I invoke the vast and beautiful day and night, heaven and earth, Mitra and Varuna with
Aryaman, Indra, the Maruts, the mountains, the waters (of the earth), the Adityas, heaven and
earth, the waters (of the firmament), the whole (host of gods).” RV 10.36.1.
The vegetation and forests were protected by the people, since their contribution to the
maintenance of a healthy eco-system was well recognized - "That is the forest, which is the tree
out of which the gods have fabricated heaven and earth, ever stationary and undecaying, giving
protection to the deities; through numerous days and dawns the men praise (the gods for this).”
RV 10.31.7.
“Thirst distresses (me), your worshipper, in the midst of the waters : grant me happiness,
possessors of wealth, grant me happiness”. RV 7.89.4. Here amidst the waters also one is thirsty
because the water is unfit to drink being polluted (or being saline sea water).
Hoping that seasons maintaining their cycle, waters remaining pure, rains received in abundance
and actions of human beings being pious, the seers could aspire for a long long life.
“That pure eye (of the universe), beneficial of the gods, rises; may we behold it for a hundred
years, may we live a hundred years.” RV 7.66.16.
In Yajurveda 36.24 also, the seers pray for a long and healthy life - “May we hear, may we speak,
may we be independent, for a hundred years.....”
The people were ordained in the ancient Indian culture not to harm any entity of Nature so as not
to disturb the ecological balance. They were taught to maintain harmony in Nature. “O all learned
people, fully realise your conduct towards different objects of the universe, know ye the electricity
that maintains all beautiful objects, the sun, the invisible matter brought into creation, the
invigorating vital airs, thus ye become the utilisers of all objects. Homage to him who knows the
science of clouds, and to him who knows the science of electricity.” Yajur Veda.

“Your mother (earth) and father (celestial sphere) together make the world inhabitable. May the
celestial sphere provide you with rains and other factors that promote life on earth.” YV 23.24.

The hymns above demonstrate that environmental protection was done in a holistic manner from
part to whole. Each entity of Nature was revered and nurtured with care, not to harm it in any way.
Vedic sages explored all aspects of science - the psychological, physiological, anthropological,
metaphysical and ethical and visualized the laws of nature beyond time and space.

Nature as a Part of Ancient Indian Tradition

Many of the modern concepts of holistic approach for ecological balance are reflected in the
ancient literature. Protection of rivers, lakes and other water bodies, environment, ecology, as
well as flora and fauna is the main message of the ancient tradition of India. It was well
understood that wrong actions by individuals and society could harm the cycle of Nature and its
functions. The bounties of the seasons and bliss of the Nature were always sought through
“Rejoice in all the moods of Nature, experience the unseen divine glory manifested in various
forms. Spring is the season of flowers and scented breeze which gladden the hearts, summer
follows and has a beauty of its own. The rain with its dark clouds and dazzling flashes, bathes the
entire earth with its splendour, autumn and winter too possess their peculiar charm and beauty.”
Sam Veda.
“Maintain us in well-being in summer, winter, dew-time, spring, autumn, and rainy season. Grant
us happiness in cattle and children. May we enjoy your unassailed protection.” Atharva Veda.
“We offer our reverence to Nature’s great bounties, to those who are old, and to the young, may
we speak with the force at our command, the glory of all divine powers. May we not overlook any
of them.” RV 1.27.13.
“The winds bring sweet (rewards) to the sacrificer; the rivers bring sweet (waters): may the herbs
yield sweetness to us. May night and morn be sweet; may the region of the earth be full of
sweetness; may the protecting heaven be sweet to us. May vanaspati ( vegetation and crops) be
possessed of sweetness towards us; may the sun be imbued with sweetness; may the cattle be
sweet to us.” RV 1.91.6-8

Rivers as Goddesses

The rivers have been source of evolution of socio-economic and cultural patterns. The role of
river is hailed as the shaper of people’s lives, as material sustainer and spiritual nourisher. Vedic
seers in India also revered rivers as females possessed of extra-ordinary powers. Water and fire
have been the divine witness to all human deeds. As a result, no Hindu rite is complete without
their presence. In Hindu rituals, rivers are symbolically represented by a pitcher (kalasha or
kumbh). This is the reason that at every auspicious occasion, including social events like
marriages, or religious performances, the pitchers will be prominently set up.
The rivers were worshipped to provide them fresh water for drinking and for growing food and to
keep them healthy-
“May the divine rivers, whether flowing down declivities, in hollow places, or upwards, whether
filled with water or dry, nourishing all with their water, be auspicious to us free from any disease :
may all the rivers be dispellers of every harm.” RV 7.50.4.
The rivers have also been compared as beautiful maidens, mothers, princes and queens etc.
depending on their behavior in particular regions. The following hymns of Rigveda describe the
flowing rivers as :
“O fast rivers, the venerable Lord Indra cuts easy channels for your onwards flow. Since the land
fed by you would be a source of immense food, you speed over the lofty rocks down to the plains.
You will thus evidently rule over the world. Like mothers crying for their children and like milch
cows with their milk for their calves, the other roaring streams run towards the main river.
Irrigating the banks on both sides, you march like a king going to battle carrying the waters of
your tributaries along with you like the troops of your army. The straight-flowing, white-coloured,
bright-shining river moves along with her ample volumes through the realms; the inviolable river,
most efficacious and speckled like a horse, is beautiful as a comely maiden”. (RV 10.75.2,4,7).
The rivers and river waters have also been treated with great reverence since the ancient times.
Traditionally, the Indian rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, etc are regarded and worshipped as
goddesses. One could witness every morning and evening on the banks of Ganga at Haridwar
(India), the daily ‘Ganga worship’ with lighted lamps in the presence of thousands of devotees,
traditional holy music and chants of mantras. For purifying themselves, the traditional Indians still
chant verses calling upon all the major rivers of India like the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari,
Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu (Indus), Cauvery etc. The Sarasvati river was one of the largest
rivers in the ancient India before 3000 BC. and drained the Sutlej and the Yamuna. By the end of
Harappan culture, the Sarasvati went dry bringing about the end of Harappan civilization around
1900 BC. The Vedic texts are replete with references of river Sarasvati and the ocean/seas.

Water for Social Welfare

The ancient Indian literature depicts that although water was used from different sources for
various purposes including agriculture, it basically remained a social `good’ to be used by all,
albeit with extreme care and extreme sense of duty of preserving it totally and prohibiting its over-
use. Rigveda verses 1.12.18, 1.23.18, 5.32.2 refer to use of water from rains, rivers, wells, ponds
etc. for agriculture, domestic and or other purposes with wisdom and efficiency. To meet the
obligations towards the society, Rigveda stresses the need of construction of artificial canals to
irrigate desert areas by deploying skilled persons (engineers). Atharvaveda (hymns 2.23.1,
6.100.2, 7.11.1) describes the objectives of drought management through efficient use of
available water resources and its conservation. It prescribes the learned men to provide water in
the desert areas by wells, ponds, canals etc. and to take precautionary and preventive measures
against the droughts, floods and natural calamities in advance. `The digging of a tank or well is
amongst the greatest of the meritorious acts of a man’, as is said in the ancient literature.

Epilogue: A careful interpretation of the hymns contained in the ancient Indian literature reveals
that water, together with other natural resources, was held in high esteem. The civilization paid
greatest attention to maintaining a balance in the ecological entities and phenomena, so as to
protect the environment. Water and the rivers were ordained to be treated with great respect to
keep them pollution-free. It is a pity that we have forgotten the wise teachings of that culture, thus
attracting misery for ourselves. We can appreciate how the old practices and theories of water
management and ecological preservation are relevant even today, after thousands of years. We
are over-exploiting the natural resources and interfering with the laws of Nature. The ancient
Indian scriptures and civilization offer us a lot to learn and emulate.


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Shivanandanagar, U.P., India.

2. Rig Veda Samhita, Parts 1-4 (1997), Ed. Ravi Prakash Arya and K.L. Joshi, Parimal
Prakashan, Delhi, India. .

3. Sam Veda Samhita, First Edition (1996), Ed. Ravi Prakash Arya, Parimal Prakashan, Delhi,

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International Conference of IWHA, Bergen, Norway, 2002.

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Century’, Unesco, Paris, 3-6 June, 1998.

6. Vedic, Buddhist and Jain Traditions Vol.2 (1995), Ed. Sampat Narayanan, IGNCA, New Delhi,
ISBN 81-246-0038-4.

7. Yajur Veda Samhita, Second Edition (1999), Ed. Ravi Prakash Arya, Parimal Prakashan,
Delhi, India.