How Ancient Is The Vedic Tradition
Dr Kenneth Chandler
Origins Of Vedic Civilisation
Summary : Euro-centrism and Objective Science
For years, theories of the origins of the Indo-European people were based on small bits of evidence that were used to make sweeping generalisations. The Euro-centric perspective so heavily biased the discussion that it became necessary for scientists of the later twentieth century to re-examine and re-balance the perspectives in order to remove long-standing misconceptions formed by two centuries of speculative mythmaking. When these misconceptions are eliminated by objective science, no evidence remains that the Veda tradition came to India from outside.
Now we come to our second main question, How long ago was the Veda first cognised ?
When did the Veda first come to be known in the civilisation of India ?
How far back in time does the Vedic tradition go ?
How Ancient is the Vedic Tradition ?
New Light on the Cradle of Civilization
A second myth that dies hard is that Vedic civilisation came into existence as recently as 1000 to 1200 BC. Many scholars today have come to think that these dates are ridiculously recent and that the Vedic tradition, meaning the tradition of reciting the Rig Veda and the Vedic literature, is far more ancient. Scholars of the nineteenth century, the highly venerated Max Muller for one, give dates as recently as 1,000 to 1,200 BC. These dates, like the Aryan invasion theory, are products of a Euro-centric bias. They were rooted in unsustainable religious, cultural, and ethnic assumptions that were not based on scientific evidence.
Max Muller, one of many Christian missionaries to India, was firmly committed to the Biblical account of creation. Muller accepted the date of creation given in the Bible at 4004 BC and the great flood at 1500 BC. This compelled him to date the Rig Veda much later in time than an impartial scientist would have done. Muller had to fit the entire Vedic tradition into a time-frame following the great flood, which Biblical scholars held took place in 1500 BC.
Muller wrote a letter to his wife, dated 1886, in which he said “The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3,000 years.” These are hardly the words of an unbiased scientist. No matter how great Muller’s scholarly reputation, we have to examine his reasons for setting the dates around 1000 to 12000 BC.
Muller recognised that the Vedic tradition had to exist before Buddha, who lived in about 500 BC and who reacted against the Vedic tradition. Muller and other Germanic scholars also noticed that the Agni Purana and other Vedic texts refer to Buddha, so they felt justified in thinking that the Vedic tradition was just a little more ancient than Buddhism, and they put the dates of the Vedic period roughly two-thirds of way between the great flood (the Biblical limit they accepted) and the time of Buddha.
* * * These dates were given by Max Muller. For a recent discussion of Muller’s projected dates, which were meant as a minimum of time, not an actual dating, see Maurice Winternitz, A History of Vedic Literature, Vol. 1, (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981), pp. 270-288, especially p.273.
Muller thus set the dates of the Vedic period at 1000 to 1200 BC. Muller reasoned that if Buddha rejected the Vedic tradition, the Rig Veda must have preceded him by at least several centuries, but it had to have started (in his opinion as a Bible scholar) after the great flood.
Even Muller, however, recognised that this was an estimate of a bare minimum of time that lapsed between the beginning of the Vedic tradition and the time of Buddha. However, it became commonplace for textbooks to give the dates of the Vedic tradition as 1,000 to 1200 BC, based on Muller’s minimum estimate. Soon these were known as the dates of the Rig Veda. This fixed Muller’s estimate of a bare minimum into an absolute date in the popular imagination. The mud of speculation had become sedimented into the brick of common belief.
Current evidence shows that the Veda did not began so recently in human history. The references to Buddha occur in very late additions and have no bearings on the far more ancient origins of the Vedic tradition.
Satellite Photographs and Geological Evidence :
Dates of the Saraswati River and the Rig Veda
More recent scholars, such as David Frawley, Dr. B.G. Siddharth, Dr. S.B. Roy, Professor Subhash Kak, Dr. N.R. Waradpande, and Bhagwan Singh have made a case for much more ancient dates of the Rig Veda. Also B.G. Tilak, P.C. Sengupta, Pargiter, Jagat Pati Joshi, Dikshit, K.N. Shastri, Sri Aurobindo, Hermann Jacobi, Dayananda Saraswati, among many others, have argued for its greater antiquity.
David Frawley and N.S. Rajaram, in Vedic “Aryans” and the Origins of Civilisation, put forward an interesting and compelling theory of the origins of Vedic civilisation. Drawing upon a large array of evidence from anthropology, satellite mapping, geology, historical linguistic, and literary study, they have helped discredit the old “Aryan invasion theory” to establish that the Rig Veda was of much greater antiquity than Muller had estimated.
One of the strongest bits evidence comes from satellite pictures of an ancient and dried riverbed that is now taken to be the former bed of the Saraswati river. This great river, described in the Rig Veda as a “mighty river flowing from the mountains to the sea,” has long since disappeared from the maps of modern India, until satellite pictures revealed the bed of an ancient river running from the Himalayas to the western gulf of the Indian ocean, roughly paralleling the course of the Indus, but lying to the east of the Indus.
* * * There is strong evidence that Max Muller mistakenly judged the antiquity of the Indian literature by thousands of years or more. His arbitrary and most unconvincing placement of Alexander’s visit to India to coincide with Chandragupta Maurya is widely disputed today by many scholars. According to the evidence of the Purunas, Buddha lived approximately 1,800 BC, and Chandragupta/Tekshasila (Taxila) was about 1700 BC. The university at Nalanda probably flourished around 1,400 BC.
Satellite photos and geological field studies show that the Saraswati ceased to be a perennial river and flowed only seasonally, sometime before 3,000 BC. Also, since approximately 1900 BC the Saraswati riverbed has been completely dry. This, as we will see, is a key piece of the scientific evidence to establish dates of the Rig Veda. The Saraswati was fed by melt from Himalayan glaciers, after the receding of the last ice age, about 8,000 BC. As the melting glacial waters ceased to feed the river, it changed its course, became a seasonal river, perhaps went underground, and eventually dried up in its former riverbed. Some, like Subhash Kak, hold that the change in thecourse of the river was due to an earthquake.
This event left the many settlements along the banks of the Saraswati to their fate. As the river dried, without water the agricultural settlements and villages were no longer sustainable. After this time, the towns and cities were re-located to the Indus river valley nearby and still later, after the droughts and flooding that came to the Indus and Saraswati valleys around 1,900 BC, settlers migrated further east to the Ganges river plain.
The Rig Veda mentions the Indus river quite often, and it mentions the Saraswati no less than 60 times. Its reference to the Saraswati as a “mighty river flowing from the mountains to the sea” shows that the Rig Vedic tradition must have been in existence long before 3,000 BC when the Saraswati ceased to be a “mighty river” and became a seasonal trickle. Frawley and Rajaram drew the conclusion that the Rig Veda must have been composed long before 3,000 BC.
Rajaram writes that the “Saraswati described in the Rig Veda belongs to a date long before 3,000 BC.” He concludes that, “All this shows that the Rig Veda must have been in existence no later than 3,500 BC.” He thus places the beginning of the Vedic tradition “long before 3,000 BC” and its end before 2,000 BC. The Mahabharata, the great epic of classical Sanskrit, describes the Saraswati as a seasonal river. Since the Saraswati dried up by 1900 BC, the Mahabharata would have to be dated at least before 1,900 BC. Since it was still a seasonal river in 3,000, Rajaram and Frawley put the date of the Mahabharata in 3,000 BC.
Evidence from French SPOT satellite and the Indo-French field study have changed this conception of history. By showing that the Saraswati ceased to be a mighty river long before 3,000 BC, they showed that the Rig Vedic civilisation must have begun long before the Saraswati became a seasonal trickle sometime long before 3,000 BC. If the Rig Vedic tradition began before 3,500 BC, this would date it earlier the civilizations of Egypt, Harappa, or Mesopotamia.
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