How Ancient Is The Vedic Tradition
Dr Kenneth Chandler
Origins Of Vedic Civilisation
The Devanagri Script
Now we consider the Devanagri script in which Vedic Sanskrit is written. For years after Mohenjo-Daro and other settlements of the Indus valley were excavated, the only evidence of a writing script were a few artifacts that were inscribed with characters that appeared to be pre-Devanagri. Devanagri is the language in which both Vedic and Classical Sanskrit are written, so if the script of the Indus valley was indeed an earlier and more primitive script, as it appears to be, this led many archeologists to speculate that the Vedic tradition belongs to a post-Indus valley civilization and that the period came after the end of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus some scholars felt that the Vedic tradition must belong to a period more recent than 1900 BC, when the peoples of Indus and Saraswati settlements apparently abandoned their homelands and migrated east to the Ganges river valley.
This speculation, it turns out, is completely unfounded. Recent digs in western India have unearthed stone inscriptions in Devanagri, that date from 3,000 BC. This is an extremely important finding. For one thing, we know that the Vedic tradition began as an oral tradition. Recitation of the Vedic hymns employed, as we mentioned, elaborate methods to perpetuate the oral tradition. The Vedic tradition existed before the advent of a written script, and was passed on in an oral tradition long before the advent of a written script.
The Rig Veda was memorised by heart and recited in teams of two pundits, who sang in unison to preserve its purity, precisely because there was no script in which to write it down and preserve it over time. Preservation depended on memorisation and passing it on in a formal method of oral recitation.
Since the oral tradition of recitation was a phenomenon that belonged to the period before the advent of a written script, and, since the Devanagri script existed in the Indus-Saraswati valley by 3,000 BC, this would place the origins of the Vedic tradition long before 3,000 BC. The Vedic literature in its entirety is a body of oral literature, passed on first in recited songs, and only later written down, after the advent of a script. If we take Winternitz’s estimated time for the incubation of the Vedic period, which is 1,900 years, this would put the beginnings of the Vedic oral tradition sometime before 4,900 BC.
New Light on the “Cradle of Civilisation”
Textbooks on the origins of civilisation commonly state, even today, that the “cradle of civilisation” was in Mesopotamia, in the flood plane between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Mesopotamian artifacts have been dated as far back possibly as 4,500 BC, and Egyptian, Assyrian, and other ancient civilizations extend back possibly as far as the early fourth millennium BC.
The discovery of cities such as Mehrgarh in the Indus valley, which dates from 6,500 to 7,000 BC, puts the Indus valley settlements much further back in time. Exactly how long ago the Rig Vedic tradition began remains unfathomable, but there are far more ancient cities in the Indus-Saraswati valley than have been found in the middle-eastern civilisations of Mesopotamia.
How long ago did urban civilisation begin in India ? The most reliable answer is that we don’t know. More importantly, the Vedic tradition may have begun before the advent of the written languages and the building of brick towns and cities. The appearance of a written script and building of cities may have come after the decline of the oral Vedic tradition. Moreover, there is evidence of a long period of human activity in India long before the earliest appearance of towns in the Indus-Saraswati valley around 7,000 BC.
Archeological evidence shows that at 40,000 BC, during the last ice age, groups of hunter-gatherers lived in central India in painted shelters of stacked rocks. There are also sites with rock windbreaks in northern Punjab in India dating from this time.
As early as 100,000 BC, there were humans with 20th-century man’s brain size (1,450 cc), and as early as 300,000 BC, Homo Sapiens roamed from Africa to Asia. Evidence of human use of fire dates to 360,000 BC. There is also evidence that hominids occupied the Punjab region of northern India as early as 470,000 BC. Stone hand axes and other primitive chopping tools found in northern India have been dated to 500,000 BC. Other stone artifacts found in India have been found dating from two million years ago. Remains of the genius “Homo” were found in Africa that are dated between two and a half to three million years ago.
How far back in time, then, does the Vedic tradition go ? The most sure answer is still at this point in time that we simply do not know. At present there is not enough evidence to determine, except we can venture that it is far more ancient than has been commonly supposed. The Rig Vedic civilization almost certainly dates from long before 3,000 BC, and possibly before 6,000 BC.
However, in dating the Rig Veda, the range of possibilities must not be considered too narrowly. We must not arbitrarily assume that Vedic tradition originated at any given date. Its origins may go back in time tens of thousands of years, or even longer. Since it is an oral tradition, it left no footprints in stone. What is certain is that the Aryan invasion myths and the dates given by Muller and other nineteenth century scholars came from wild speculations that served nationalist, religious, and racist agendas, not from scientific considerations.
The First Pioneers Of Indology
It may be surprising to learn that the first pioneer in indology was the 12th Century Pope, Honorius IV. The Holy Father encouraged the learning of oriental languages in order to preach Christianity amongst the pagans. Soon after this, in 1312, the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican decided that …
“The Holy Church should have an abundant number of Catholics well versed in the languages, especially in those of the infidels, so as to be able to instruct them in the sacred doctrine.”
Consequently, chairs of Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean were created at the Universities of Bologna, Oxford, Paris and Salamanca. A century later in 1434, the General Council of Basel returned to this theme and decreed that …
“All Bishops must sometimes each year send men well-grounded in the divine word to those parts where Jews and other infidels live, to preach and explain the truth of the Catholic faith in such a way that the infidels who hear them may come to recognise their errors. Let them compel them to hear their preaching.”
Centuries later in 1870, during the First Vatican Council, Hinduism was condemned in the “five anathemas against pantheism,” according to the Jesuit priest John Hardon in the Church-authorized book, The Catholic Catechism. However, interests in indology only took shape when the British came to India.