How Ancient Is The Vedic Tradition
Dr Kenneth Chandler
Origins Of Vedic Civilisation
Other Approaches to Dating the Vedic Tradition
In an article entitled, “Birth of a Civilization,” in Archeology, January/February 1998, anthropologist Mark Kenoyer sums up decades of scientific research on the archeology of India and argues that the Rig Veda verses were known on the subcontinent sometime before 1500 BC, by communities in the northwest area of the subcontinent. This is, again, a minimal date, not an attempt to fix the time of the Vedic period at 1,500 BC.
Maurice Winternitz, a German scholar and author of the two volume History of Indian Literature, extensively re-examined the evidence for Muller’s dates in 1981, a decade before the movement to push back the dates of Vedic civilisation that started in the 1990s. Winternitz estimated how long it would have taken for the vast body of Vedic literature to form and develop before the Buddhist revival in 500 BC. He considered each of the major periods of Vedic literature and estimated a bare minimal time for the incubation of each. His estimate of 1900 years put the beginning of the Vedic tradition at sometime before 2,400 BC as a bare minimum.
The vast literature of the Rig Veda, the Brahmanans, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads, the Vedangas, the Upangas, the Puranans, the Itihasa, the systems of Ayur-Veda, Winternitz argued—each a huge body of literature—required a sustained incubation period that must have taken an extended period of time. Winternitz could not imagine that this had taken place in the short span of time that had been assigned for it to happen between 1,500 BC and 500 BC when Buddha lived. This, it must be emphasised again, was Winternitz’s estimate of a minimum time, and was not meant to fix the date of the Rig Vedic beginning.
The City Under the Sea : Dwarka
Undersea exploration of an ancient city about half a mile off the coast of Gujarat in India, in 1981, lead to the discovery a city that had been submerged since 1,600 BC. The city is well established to be Dwarka, an ancient city mentioned in the Mahabharata, the great epic of the late Vedic period of Itihasa. The Mahabharata describes Dwarka as built on land reclaimed from the sea. Boulders have been found under the fortified city walls, showing that it was the result of land reclamation. The Mahabharata also mentions that Krishna warned the residents of Dwarka that the city would be reclaimed by the sea. The discovery of a seal engraved with a three-headed animal at the Dwarka site corroborates a reference made in the Mahabharata that such a seal was given to the city. Seven nearby islands described in the Mahabharata have also been discovered.
Since archeological research shows that the city was submerged around 1,600 BC, this would date the Mahabharata at least before 1,600 BC. Again this is a minimum time.
Pottery found at the site, inscribed with the script of the Indus valley civilisation, has been established by thermo-luminescene tests to be about 3,530 years old.
The Mahabharata was written toward the end of the classical Vedic period. If we accept Winternitz’s estimates a minimum of 1,500 years lapsed from the beginning of the Vedic period to the Mahabharata, then since Dwarka was submerged by 1,600, this would set the date of the Rig Veda back to before 3,100 BC. This again marks the minimum date of the Rig Veda, and should not be construed as a fixed date.
The body of literature produced by Greece and Rome from Homer to Proclus spans roughly 1,300 years. The Vedic tradition produced an even larger body of literature from the beginning of the Rig Veda to the end of the classical period; so it would probably require at least 1,300 years for the Vedic tradition to generate a larger amount of literature. If we take 1,600 BC as the minimum date of the Mahabharata, this would put the beginning of the Vedic tradition sometime before 2,900 BC. If we take Wintenitz’s estimate of at least 1,900 years, this would put the beginning of the Rig Veda before 3,500 BC.
Frawley and Rajaram, as well as many others, now put the date of the Mahabharata war at about 3,000 BC (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi also gives this date in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita). If we add 1,900 years incubation time as Winternitz estimates, this would put the dates of the Rig Veda back before 4,900 BC.