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Origins, Content, And The Dating Of The Vedas

C. Gopinath

On 14 March 2010, Dr. Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit, Harvard University, spoke on the Vedas in the Science Center at Harvard University, Cambridge.
As we do not have art objects or archaeological evidence, scholars have used philology to understand the language and the people of the Vedic times. The speaker began with a description of Vedic Sanskrit, and its relation to Indo-European as well as Indo-Iranian. He pointed out that the study of texts and their language and what it represents should be made clear. They are not to be equated with ‘race’, polity or religion. The geographic region described in the Vedas can be broadly surmised by the description of rivers given, to be between Kabul and Delhi of present day South Asia.

Dr. Witzel gave a broad overview of the four Vedas. The Rig Veda is comprised of 1028 hymns that are addressed to the deities. It was not composed at one time, but is the product of several poets who lived in the times of about five generations of kings/chieftains, and hence can be said to cover a period of about 125 years. It reveals a pastoral, semi-nomadic community, moving around with cattle. The other Vedas include: Sama Veda, essentially the same hymns of the Rig Veda, except sung in a complex manner; the Yajur Veda which were sacrificial mantras, and the Atharva Veda which included sorcery, speculative hymns and domestic rites, many of which continue to be used. The post-Rigvedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, and other texts may be dated as being closer to the later Vedic period, ending about 500 BCE. The Vedic texts also reveal that there were three classes of people (to which the Shudras were added) which later became more rigid as castes).

Dr. Witzel’s talk was well illustrated. He played audio recitations from the Yajur,  Rig and Sama Veda to illustrate the language and show how the pronunciation and intonation is still practiced as it was originally. The pronunciation was seen as being very important as mis-pronunciation can change the meaning of the word. The speaker humorously gave an illustration of how a phrase about Indra, mis-pronounced meant being an enemy of Indra, and teachers often quote it to suggest that Indra came down and severed the head of the son of Tvastar who mispronounced. He also showed a picture of a manuscript, from Tibet, that was written around the 12c., (considered the oldest available manuscript), and also used various maps to show the geographic spread of Indo-Iranian languages and Vedic Sanskrit, and to demarcate the region about which the hymns were speaking.
The biggest challenge of scholars has been the dating of the Vedas, which is also the subject of much controversy. Dr. Witzel placed the Rig Veda as being no older than 1400 BCE. This was based on the references to metals (bronze, and no iron), horses, and chariots. He maintained that there was no evidence to support earlier dates. He also said that Vedic Sanskrit was imported to the region, as shown by the similarity with many other languages, although there was a local substratum of language and customs that were retained in the Vedic times.

The range and depth of his scholarship was revealed by the speaker in his presentation. He gave examples from various Sanskrit texts, and drew parallels between how these texts are interpreted and interpretations in other traditions, such as among the Christians, the Greek, etc. Given the limitations of time, he was not able to go into various other interesting streams of research, although he made references to them, and of others working in those fields.

Dr. Witzel’s presentation prompted an enthusiastic response and several questions from the audience. One challenged his interpretation of the texts arguing for the mystical and philosophical explanations that are given. Dr. Witzel said that his interpretation of the dating, and comments on the life in those times was based on the text themselves and the meaning of the words in relation to other similar words in the Indo-Iranian family of languages. Another question related to Saraswati river and Dr. Witzel’s reply was that a rain-fed river was in existence in that area around the time of the Indus civilization but it cannot be established that it was the same at the mythological giant river.  He also, in reply to another question, explained how the Vedas do reveal a very high level of poetry, for example, in the hymn about the Goddess of dawn, Ushas. Finally, in response to another question from the audience, he gave a brief description of various topics that were still considered to be ‘open’ and which required more research before we can have a better understanding of the texts and the times. These included: the correlation between textual description and the rituals, the descriptions of the climate given in the texts, and many words/expressions and grammar that pre-date Panini, and which are still not clear as to their meaning.
Dr. Witzel’s talk was the fifth in the Outreach Lectures of the Harvard Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies for the academic year 2009-2010. In his welcome to the audience, Prof. Bijoy Misra, Convener of the Outreach Committee, recalled that the Outreach lectures, which began in Jan 1995, were initiated by Dr. Witzel when he was the Chair of the department, and he has been a continuing supporter of these lectures which serve as a bridge between the Sanskrit Department and the larger Harvard and greater Boston community. Over the years the lectures have covered several aspects of Indian studies, including culture, arts, history, religion, architecture, philosophy, languages and literature. Beginning this academic year, a new series of events was focusing on the theme of ‘Indian Society through the Ages.’
The next event in this series will be on ‘The Prosody of Rig Veda,’ by Dr. Satya Prakash Saraswat, a Vedic scholar, who is also a professor at Bentley University, on 11 April, 3-5 pm, Hall A, Science Center, Harvard University.

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