The Atharvaveda Paippalāda is a large collection of incantations meant for a variety of purposes (healing spells, curses against enemies, love charms, prayers to secure victory in battle, etc.) as well as formulas to be employed in domestic rituals (particularly rites of passage: initiation, marriage, funerals, etc.). Many of these texts are extremely old products of popular oral poetry (featuring poetic and ideological traits that go back to Indo-European times), but were likely organized into a collection of 20 books in the early to mid-first millennium BCE by Atharvan priests who aspired to obtain royal patronage by promoting themselves as the ideal candidates for the role of purohita, the king’s personal chaplain.
Because of its content, the Atharvaveda Paippalāda is an unparalleled source for the documentation of popular values and beliefs in Vedic India. It provides us with a window onto the psychological world of the early Vedic people and allows us to reconstruct their daily and domestic environments. Moreover, the circumstances of this poetic material’s systematization into a manual for the royal chaplain affords us a peek into an era of social and political turmoil, when the transition from a livestock-based economy and a semi-nomadic lifestyle to an increasingly agriculture-based and urbanized world reshaped the structure of society and redefined the power relations between the priestly class and the warrior class.
A great portion of my research efforts are spent on minute philological work: collating the birchbark and palm-leaf manuscripts containing the text—these are written in the Śāradā and Odia scripts and stem from Kashmir and Odisha; compiling a critical apparatus; evaluating the different textual variants; amending the text when necessary; and providing a philological and linguistic commentary. However, I also strive to provide an interpretation of the texts within the broader context of Vedic civilization and to expand our understanding of such civilization and its cultural history by means of these texts.
In particular, I am interested in how some specific observances described in the Atharvaveda, involving the ritual imitation of the behaviour of a bull, ritual theft, and the worship of pillars in connection with annual festivities, have informed not only later Hinduism, specifically early Śaiva (Pāśupata) asceticism, but also various folk traditions up to recent times. At the same time, I am investigating the likely origins of these observances in the initiation practices of the Indo-European youth warrior brotherhoods (Männerbund) as they have been reconstructed through comparison with ancient, medieval, and modern European folk traditions—from the Lupercalia to the berserkir, and from Halloween to the many forms of ‘Carnival’, all involving male age-sets, masquerades, door-to-door trick-or-treating, etc. I study these distant cultural phenomena from a historical/comparative perspective in light of contextual evidence from philology, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and genetics.