Vedic Language And Literature
Dr. Susan Rosenfield, a visiting scholar at Brown University, gave a talk titled ‘Vedic Language and Literature’ on 3 May 2008, at the Science Center Hall A, Harvard University. The lecture was part of the outreach lecture series titled ‘Languages and Literature of India’ presented by Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies.(This article is sponsored by S4, Inc. )
Vedic Sanskrit, a rich and ancient language, is one of the oldest members of the Indo-European family of languages. It has a diverse vocabulary with a verbal system and case endings that express subtle meanings. The word ‘Veda’ meaning knowledge comes from the root ‘vid’, “to know.” The word ‘video’ we use today is a cognate with this verbal root in the sense of ‘to see’ and therefore ‘to know.’ Most modern scholars' estimate of the Rg Veda, the oldest of the Vedic Sanskrit texts, places it around 1400 B.C.E, some later, some earlier by a few hundred years. It seems clear that the Rg Veda compositions centered around the environment of Punjab region and the immediately surrounding areas. Rivers of the Indus and as far as the Ganges and some Afghani rivers are mentioned in the Rg Veda hymns. This seems to have been the home of the core of Vedic Sanskrit texts.
The bulk of what we know about the language is captured in the texts of the four Vedas, which are mainly comprised of hymns about rituals, their meaning and the underlying philosophical discussions. There being little of a mundane nature, it gives us little information about the life and times of that era. Dr. Rosenfield provided the example that just as English has changed over time from what Chaucer wrote, through Shakespeare to our current usage, so also Sanskrit has changed over time from Vedic to Classical forms to what is taught nowadays as spoken Sanskrit.
The Vedic schools, also known as ‘Shakhas’ or 'branches,' were originally three: Rg, Sāma, and Yajur, collectively known as the Trayī Vidyā or "Three-fold Knowledge." The Rg Veda pertains to the main corpus of hymns and mantras used within the ritual. The Sāma Veda is comprised mainly of Rg Veda hymns but rearranged as chants and melodies to be sung in the ritual. The two branches of the Yajur Veda, Krishna and Shukla, are concerned with the performance and actions of the ritual. The Atharva Veda, which is now known as the fourth Veda, originally had a status outside of the other three Vedas. It was designated as the fourth Veda in later literature, and because of its language and style, it must be considered as part of the corpus of Vedic literature. It consists of hymns often used to accomplish very specific individual desires.
Each of the four Vedas has the same divisions of Samhitā, Brāhmana, Āranyaka, and Upanishad texts. The Samhitās, meaning "collection," primarily include hymns and invocations to the Vedic deities and are used within both the Vedic solemn and householder rituals. The Brāhmanas and Āranyakas contain explanations of these rituals and give a general knowledge on how to perform them. They also include expansions of the myths alluded to in the Samhitās. The Upanishads have to do with the internalization of the ritual and its broader, esoteric meaning. They deal with implications to the individual and their relationship to the macrocosm, the universe, and its underlying universal essence known as "Brahman."
Using hymns as illustrations, Dr. Rosenfield showed how different deities were worshipped at that time: Indra, Agni, Soma, Mitra, Varuna, Surya, Vac, Ushas, Vishnu, Rudra, and Prajapati. Many of these deities are not part of common worship today. Some hymns even showed the desire to ponder about the one god who is above all gods. The Creation, or " Nasadiya" Hymn conveys speculative thought about the nature of the universe and its origins.
Since Vedic Sanskrit was originally an oral tradition and not meant to be written down, Dr. Rosenfield aptly illustrated the talk at different points with audio recitation of hymns. She also explained the tonal patterns of Vedic Sanskrit and showed how the three main tones of raised, lowered and resonated were used. She presented some of the metres in which the Vedic hymns were composed, namely the Gayatri, Trishtubh, Anushtubh and Jagati metres. She also provided illustrations of the techniques used to commit the hymns to memory, as well as examples of these recitation patterns. The speaker touched upon the relationship of Vedic Sanskrit to other languages such as Avestan and Prakrit, and how it came to be written in different scripts in different parts of the country.
The lecture mentioned efforts by various groups, including support from UNESCO, to maintain traditional Vedic recitation and manuscript traditions, and to continue research in the field. Also included in the lecture were examples of modern musical compositions using Vedic hymns and recitation.
An engaging discussion after the lecture raised issues about the difference between the literary and technical nature of translations of western scholars versus the spiritual translations by Indian scholars.
Dr. Rosenfield's depth of knowledge and scholarship about this subject and its intricacies brought to life why many believe that Vedic Sanskrit has divine origins and was given to mankind through the Rishis. She concluded with the call to preserve all avenues of the Vedic traditions and the necessity to act immediately towards this end. She also expressed the need to expand scholarship beyond the limited scope of what has been analyzed to date.
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