Frits Staal - Discovering the Vedas (Summary - II)

This is the second part of the my summary on Frits Staal's book - "Discovering the Vedas". The first part of the summary is here. The first part basically focused on the origin of early Vedic speakers and the time and space in which the Vedas were written. This one is brief gist on Vedas and their context. As with the first part, the summary below is what I have read in the book and I am no Vedic culture expert to deny or confirm any of the ideas that the book puts forward.

By the end of first part we had come to a conclusion that early Vedic settlers came from somewhere in Russian steppes, made a long and arduous journey taking along with them their Indo-European language, myths, fire worship, soma practice and knowledge of horse and chariots. They initially settled in NW India around 1800 BC slowly moving east into the Gangetic plains. The culture was primarily village based, male dominated and ritual driven. It could have been that women (for marriage) would have come from the indigenous population and early Vedic settlers married into indigenous tribes to advance their clan or family's political/societal aims. These indigenous population contributed greatly like the name of tribes which later became the name of Vedic schools (sakhas). Women are not mentioned frequently in early Vedic text. We hear very little about women or their state. There is specifically no mention in Vedas of what was to be later known as "dependence of women" that states that a women's dependence is first on her father, then on her husband and lastly on her sons. This idea was codified much later in the 2nd century AD in the manu-smriti from where is widely took life of its own and could be said to be a seminal event in relatively poor state of women's status in Indian society. Similarly caste began appearing in the later Vedic works and in the post-Vedic dharamsutras and by the time of manu-smriti in 2nd century AD, it was also codified. Though the widely prevailing view is that caste was inherent to Vedic society probably because it fits into the aryan invasion theory whereby the invaders became the higher caste and indigenous tribes the lower status groups. But since in the first part summary, we have concluded that there was no invasion, instead a smaller group of settlers crossed over. The genetic material also goes back 9000 years making the idea that Vedic speakers could fashion a new social order so quickly is far fetched. The idea of attribute caste to Vedic civilization is either to make them easy scapegoat or to make the concept as being divine and foretold by Gods. Rig Veda (RV) mentions broad classes like árya and dása. Possibly árya could have been Vedic settlers and indigenous tribes being dása. But Vedas does mentions something very similar to the current social order. It states in the below lines [bráhman, ksatram, viš] which could relate more to the realm of occupation that groups of people are engaged in rather than a strict societal order. These lines are from RV -

promote the bráhman (language) and promote poetic inspiration,
promote the ksatram (power or dominion) and promote able bodies men
promote the viš (the common people) and promote cows.

These words were to later become brahmin, ksatriya and vaishya which now are the three higher castes (varna). Note that there are only 3 words mentioned[bráhman, ksatram, viš] and RV does not clearly state what could these words mean or if they actually meant social order. Multiple references in later works display no fixed social hierarchy and it looks like order did not matter initially and sometimes these words have no settled meaning or the meaning seems to shift. Also in the Vedas itself, there are references of a united front of brahman-ksatriya against vaishya who may have been indigenous. bráhman was still a flexible term and does not seem to occupy a fixed place in rigid system of classes or caste. That hardening happened much later. In early Vedic sense, varna could have referred to the state of a person like being royalty or learned. RV has no word for social classes but has a word 'varna' which meant color and this word is mentioned only once in RV, on the other hand jati (birth) was not even mentioned in Vedas. In RV's famous purusha sukta,[10.90] is the only place where a four layer social order is mentioned. In this hymn, purusha is a primordial man that is being sacrificed and it assigns the four varnas brahman, rajanya, vaishya and sudra to his mouth, arm, thighs and feet. This is the only place where four layers social order instead of three are used and most linguistics and scholars agree that this sukta(hymn) is a late addition to RV as it does not resemble any other RV myth (in form and diction) and is not in accordance to early Vedic social distinction. Most likely it was added later in RV to give weight and justify the new social order. So what originally started as an order to classify people into árya and dása groups later became three layered (middle Vedic) and then four layered (later Vedic) and then to a complex conundrum of varna and jati (British age) by cooperating priests-royalty combine.   

The book also broadly touches on the Vedas and their context. There are 4 Vedas and each Vedas has four different layers. The core is the samhitas which are verses and mantras, mostly in praise of Gods. The next layer is aranyakas (which literally mean 'produced in forest'). This layer mainly deals with ritual (maybe rituals in the forest as possibly forest are seen as a mysterious place where mantra and ideas originate). The next layer is brahmana which are broad commentaries on many topics. The last layer is called upanishads which is a open category and deals with philosophy and spiritual ideas. The Vedas are not one piece and never composed as one piece. They have constantly evolved over the times. The chief division of Vedas is sakhas(school) from where they originated. Each school goes back to a clan or tribe in a particular area and each sakha would memorize a specific Veda (and all it layers). The Vedic text itself of these sakhas would be slightly different from other schools of same Veda but the difference is minor. Most of these text of these schools have now been lost, but still some survive. In a settled village based Vedic civilization, cattle and cow was the primary means of wealth. Society transformed from a nomadic lifestyle to a village based. Spoke chariot building were specialized skills and the builders had a high place in society. They were called rathakára. RV does not mention them, but taittiriya brahmana states rathakára in line with other three castes. It looks as if the three caste did not have the same meaning in RV as in post Vedic works, rathakára occupied high status in Vedic times before the actual codified caste came into being where it got lost. RV was composed in upper Indus valley and the other three in upper (kuru/pancala) and middle (kosala/videha) courses of the Ganges. In midst of this geographical migration towards east, there is an evolution in Vedic Sanskrit thought and culture besides language. (Early, Middle and late Vedic)

Rig Veda [RV] is the oldest and mostly composed in Indus valley area [Early Vedic period, 1800 - 1200 BC] mostly by clans. The importance of some Gods seem to change within the Vedas itself and some ideas of early RV were discarded by the time the other Vedas were composed. In this sense, we can say the RV was probably most alien with ideas and discourse closer to nomadic culture than to the settled cultures of later Vedas. In RV, there are 12 invocations of varuna, 23 invocations for varuna-mitra, mitra is not only a friend but personification of contract (he is something similar to mithra of iranian religions). These deities have a much smaller cult compared to indra who pervades the RV. In later works, mitra no longer appears. Most likely mitra was part of old folklore of nomads wandering around Asia as mitra is present in Iranian and Mittani religions as well and was discarded later on. Also present in RV is the battle of 10 kings who were tribal chiefs. Bharata won this battle due to mantra power. This was the age of mysterious mantras and sublime language. The indigenous tribes may have also adopted the language partly because of its alleged mantra power. Here language became a tool for political ends. RV emphasized male lineage and the transmission of Vedas was also patrilineal. RV was the world of men, by men, for issues of men. RV is most ancient, venerable, obscure, distant and difficult to understand and easy to misinterpret. The composers of RV composed it mainly for their family and clan and that is why so much remains obscure to outsiders. It started with a smaller set of poems which were gradually expanded. The nomenclature the poem in the Vedas follow a circle.poem.verse. naming convention. The early reciters needed three additional information about each poem - deity, composer, the meter. The most common deities were agni, indra, soma, and though agni & soma were impersonal divinities they were concrete as well and both are ritualized while indra has more personal traits.

The other three Vedas were composed in the Middle Vedic period [1200 - 700 BC]. The heart of Vedic culture had shifted east from the Indus valley to upper Gangetic plains. While RV was more inward looking and mysterious, the other three became more outward looking. Sama Veda come from indigenous sources and most likely from non-Indo-Aryan lineage while Atharva Veda is full with local cults. The RV was the poetic high point of the Vedic culture and by the time Yajur Veda was composed, it looked as if composing Veda becomes routine, like it being part of a job. kuru/pancala is most important kingdom/tribe in this age and Kuruksetra was now the heartland of brahmanical orthopraxy. A section of kuru/pancala compositions from their schools became the three later Vedas. During middle ages, soma was combined with agni into vast complex rituals (both these being material as well as deity). The rituals were huge and tedious and explains why middle Vedic age was not poets but scholars doing mundane stuff. The vision of RV is replaced by pedantry. Vision would return with Upanishads.

Sama Veda [SV] is made from sáman which means chants and it consists entirely of the verses of RV set to music. SV has to be heard as it is more of melody of the same RV verses. Usually the words of first lines of most hymn are carefully selected to fit the melody but the rest of the lines were forced into the same format. The forced words are changed or transformed or embellishments are added which are called stobha which is just a meaningless text. It could be that melodies were earlier sung to a different language before Vedic settlers came to India. In this transformations, phrases were added removed, repeated, changed to make it fit a melody. The core of SV is ritual chants and it exhibits two types of chants - 'to be sung in village' and 'to be sung in forest'. The village ones are accessible while forest/wilderness ones are complex and more powerful. It supports a theory that forest is dangerous and a place full of powerful chants and it point to indigenous origins that were settled long time before. Both parts stressing the village and forest being the two sides of the Vedic life. Atharva Veda [AV] survives in two schools and it mainly consists of sorcery chants, speculative and mystical poems, fragments of rituals and compositions that relate to art of healing. Yajur Veda [YV] deals with the ritual. It is said that YV provides the space for RV and SV to display their beauty. It incorporates RV verses and SV chants in its ritual framework. Yajur Veda created more school then all three Vedas put together as they created the concept of school and the other three Vedas were assigned to a place. Yajur Veda thus become the assigner that will occupy the center.

Later Vedic Period [700 - 300 BC] - In this period, Vedas were refined and reworked and the final canonization of the four Vedas were done. Also during this age, from Yajur Veda, a newer version was extracted and made into white YV and old unrefined one was called as black YV which found refuge in South India. It was called white as it separated mantra and brahmanas portions from the old and thus returning to the purity of RV which consists of poetry only.  Most of the Vedic canon was closed by now. Caste was gaining ascendancy as Vedic culture was becoming caste obsessed and ritual driven. Primarily against a reaction to this caste and ritual over zeal, the reformists ideas like Jainism and Buddhism came to fore in the Indian subcontinent during this age.

What we have discussed above is the mostly the core layer of the Vedas which is the samhitas that are widely read and translatedThere are three more layers [brahmanas, aranyakas  and upanishads] to each of the Vedas. In RV, SV, AV and White YV, the samhitas and brahamans are distinct, while in in Black VY there is this continuous series to which brahmanas, aranyakas  and upanishads are attached. So while all Vedas have the samhitas, brahmanas and the upanishads layer, only RV and YV have the aranyakas layer as well. Both the brahmanas and aranyakas layers are large reservoir of comments, observations and interpretations, stories and speculation but they also seem mostly meaningless. They are huge and inaccessible and can support any theory and most of the times they do not make or convey any sense. Upanishads is the final layer of the Vedas and they are also called as Vedanta (end of Vedas). The end could mean the final piece of writing or it could also be interpreted as the ultimate aim or goal. The literal meaning of the word upanishads means sitting close to the teacher. There are 108 Upanishads of which 12 to 13 are classical which were written first (before 600 BC) and are the most important. The non classical upanishads continued to be added later on. In a broad sense of any society it can be said that humans are bound by ritual and freed by knowledge. In Vedic context, the karma or ritual is brahmanas/aranyakas and jnana or knowledge is upanishads.

This brings us to the end of my write up on this book. I must admit, I haven't read much on very early Indian history so it was a informative read but it has opened up a lot more questions than it has answered. What does the voluminous Vedic literature contain? Is there anything we can deduce or meaningfully understand. What was the significance of such extensive ritual and mysterious mantras? What of caste? How did caste became so central to Indian society?

Borges - On Exactitude in Science

Borges never stops to fascinate me. I just read this ten line story called “On Exactitude in Science” and one can not stop thinking the imagery and the ideas that this story opens up to. Here Borges revisits his favorite theme of real and unreal that is all too frequent in his works. Below is the full text of the story.
. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Incumbencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography...
This is such a small piece of work, yet the idea that a map so big that it covers the real. There is no point of reference now if you think of it. All of real is same as all of simulation. The Map is the real and the real is the map. The relationship has been let loose to such an extent that whatever we perceive or sense can easily be from our experiences of our interactions with the model or simulation of the real. The unreal and real lose context, If the unreal is as good as real, then unreal mirrors reality (it can replace reality totally). It is no more unreal. It is the real. In a sense, Map is just a construct. The idea of reality being mirrored to such perfectness that it is no longer a mirror. Then how do you define real? Do you even need real? Maybe it is the real whose tattered ruins lie all around!

Jean Baudrillard describes this in this book "Simulacra and Simulations". Quoted from this book are the two paragraph below..
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) — as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself
.

Translation - Jahaan Tera Naqsh-e-Qadam Dekhte Hai (Ghalib)

jahaan tera naqsh-e-qadam dekhte hain
khayaabaan khaayaaban iram dekhte hain

dil aashuftagan khaal-e-kunj-e-dahan ke
savaidaa mein sair-e-adam dekhte hain

tere sarv-e-qaamat se ek qadd-e-aadam
qayamaat ke fitne ko kam dekhte hain

tamashaa ki ai mahw-e-aaiinah-daari
tujhe kis tamannaa se hum dekhte hain

suraag-e-taf-e-naalah le daagh-e-dil se
ki shab-rau ka naqsh-e-qadam dekhte hain

banaa ke faqeeron ka hum bhes ghalib
tamashaa-e-ahl-e-karam dekhte hain

Line 1/2 - The world, your footsteps do we see. flowerbed over flowerbed, we see paradise. The first word (jahaan) can be interpreted as both world or where. If we consider it as where, then the poet is saying where ever we see your footsteps, we see flowerbed over flowerbed, and one sees paradise. The obvious interpretation being your footsteps are like endless rows of flowerbeds and we see of paradise in them. If we consider the word as world, then we can interpret it as This world, we see as your footprint. And in your footprints, garden upon gardens have come up, and we see paradise. This earth is the paradise becuase You touched it.

Line 3/4 - The heart is distressed/anxious, In the mole at the corner of the mouth. The blackish core, walking around in non-existence we see. This is a very very inaccessible verse. [Pritchett] interprets this as - Those who are distressed by the heart, those who have lost their heart. Those lovers in the mole at the corner of the mouth of the beloved, they see the brackish core of their heart that they lost. And in it, they see non-existence. Skipping this verse as I am unable to translate this into anything meaningful.

Line 5/6 - Your cypress of stature to one man sized height. We see the turmoil of the doomsday less (compared to this). Not a accessible verse either. The poet says seeing your stature (like a tall cypress tree) compared to the height of the normal man, We find the height of turmoil on the doomsday to be less. 'qadd-e-aadam' could also be said as height of Adam (first man) and this would interpret as your cypress of stature compared to Adam's height. When I see you both on the doomsday, and seeing the difference in height between you two, I think less of the height of the turmoil of the doomsday.

Line 7/8 - The spectacle of you so engrossed in holding/looking into a mirror. With what yearning/longing we see you. The poet to his beloved, says the sight of you are so engrossed in the mirror admiring your glow. With what (kind of) longing we look at you. You look so occupied in the mirror and in your innocence of the moment, and my longing for the beloved is like a divine yearning that has no end, no beginning and is Total. 'aaiinah-daari' could also mean bearing the mirror, so maybe the beloved is holding the mirror to me.

Line 9/10 - The evidence or trace of the steam of lamentation from the wounds of the heart. That we look for the footprints of the night traveler. The poet says we see the heat of lament and sorrowful moaning coming out from the wounds of the heart and if you want to find the evidence of such sorrowful release, look for the footprints of the night traveller. The second line could be interpreted in multiple ways. The night traveller could be a thief or robber that had robbed many houses in a single night leaving behind lot of anxious victims. I (for my heart is lost) am like those victims whose houses have been robbed. The other interpretation could be that the night traveller is lost (his confused footprints are all across the town) and he is anxious and agitated and in the same state of distress and unease as the lover.

Line 11/12 - Having put on the disguise of a faqir, O ghalib!. We see the spectacle of the generosity of the people. The poet says I have put on the disguise of the faqir to carefully observe the spectacle of the people-of-generosity. It is impossible to tell who is really generous and who are just show-off generous ('people of generosity' who make loud claims about their deeds). To actually see for myself, I have donned the garb of a faqir so that we can see the spectacle. The use of word 'tamashaa' makes the scene sound as dubious or for show and hence the connotations are to point hypocrisy of those people.

Meaning of difficult words -
naqsh-e-qadam = footprints
khayaabaan = flowerbed
iram = paradise
aashuftagan = distressed
khaal = mole
kunj = corner, lonely spot
dahan = mouth
savaidaa = blackish, the black part of the heart, the heart's core
adam = non-existence, annihilation
sarv = cypress tree (tall in quality)
qaamat = stature, body
qadd-e-aadam = one man height (height of adam)
fitne = turmoil, anarchy
mahw = absorbed, engrossed
daari = looking into (holding/bearing)
taf = vapour, steam
naalah = lamentation, moan
shab-rau = one who walks/travels at night
bhes = disguise
ahl-e-karam = people of charity

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXI


Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.

This is the thirty-first quatrain of Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. Before we delve into this quatrain, let's touch upon some ideas that these lines visit. In old world cosmology developed by Greeks from Plato to Ptolemy, the celestial model defined celestial orbits as spheres nested one within the other. These sphere touch the adjacent sphere in either directions. The earth was the centre of the universe and the seven spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn followed in that order. Saturn was the God of Agriculture in Roman mythology and his reign is shown as Golden Age of peace and bounty. More on celestial spheres can be read here.

The poet says I rose from the earth (the centre of the universe) and visited all the other spheres on my way to the last (seventh) sphere Saturn. On the seventh sphere, I besides, the throne of Saturn God, having travelled all the known spheres and seen all things possible over the years of my life. In midst of my journeys, I have untied my knots (mysteries) and unravelled many puzzles. But I have no answer for the problem of human Fate. I have failed to solve the riddle of human birth, death and destiny. The essence is the same as last two quatrains. I have visited the worlds known and worlds unknown. I have untangled many challenges over these years. But all my experiences and wisdom comes to cipher when trying to answer the questions of human condition.

Video Of The Day

NYTimes has come up with a simple to understand five minute video to explain the science and the method behind the discovery of Gravitational Waves by LIGO. Fascinating watch!


The main article on this topic in nytimes is here

Translation - Kahte Hai Jeete Hain Umeed Pe Log (Ghalib)

ishq taasir se naumeed nahin
jaan-sipaarii sajar-e-biid nahin

saltanate dast-bah-dast aai hai
jaam-e-mai kaatim-e-jamshed nahin

hai tajalli tiriii saamaan-e-wajood
zarra be-partav-e-khurshid nahin

raaz-e-mashooq na rausva ho jaye
varna mar jaane mein kuch bhed nahin

gaardish-e-rang-e-tarab se darr hain
gham-e-mahrumi-e-jaaviid nahin

kahte hai jeete hain umeed pe log
hum ko jeene ki bhi umeed nahin

Line 1/2 - Love is not disappointed by its impression/effect. Surrendering of life is not like a willow tree. The poet says that passion and love is not disappointed by its (lack of) effect. It is still hopeful that it will lead to fruition. Surrendering or sacrificing your life in path of love is unlike a willow tree which does not bear fruit. My love and my sacrifice will lead to success not like the willow tree that grows high and mighty but bears no fruits.

Line 3/4 - The empire has come from hand to hand. The cup of wine is not the seal of Jamshed. This is complicated to interpret. Jamshed the king used to have a special wine cup in which he can see the future. The first lines says that the reign of the empire goes from hand to hand. Hand to hand could mean being passed around by say inheritance (from father to son) or by show of hands (forcefully). So the empire passes from one person to another. But the cup of Jamshed is not the seal of his empire.The fabled cup of Jamshed is not like his seal which will be passed on from one ruler to another. This cup was only Jamshed to be and after him no one will get to have it.

Line 5/6 - This radiance/splendor of yours is the reason for existence. The grain of sand is not without the reflection of the sun. The poet says referring to the God, that your manifestation and splendor is the cause/reason for the existence of everything. The greatness of Him is the reason for anything and everything to exist. Like the minuscule grain of sand that reflects the rays of the sun. Even the countless and unremarkable grains of sand shows His brilliance by reflecting the sun rays and showing that they too are part of His divine workings.

Line 7/8 - The secret of the beloved does not become revealed/exposed. Otherwise there is no secret in dying. The poet says there is no mystery in dying. I would have sacrificed myself any day. The only reason I am no doing so is that my death would expose or reveal the secrets of my beloved and I do not want that to happen. My sudden death will raise questions and people may ultimately link it back to my beloved and some unwanted and unpleasant secrets could be exposed which I do not want. 'Bhed' also in commonplace language means difference. And this gives a dramatically different view. There is no difference in dying. The pain and agony of love makes living same as dying. The only reason I prefer living is that my death (due to the agony of love) will bring disrepute to the my beloved who is secret.

Line 9/10 - I fear from the revolving/turning around of the colors of joy. I have no fear from the sorrow of eternal deprivation. The poet says I am fearful of the slow turning manner of the joy. One moment one think he is happy and slowly the feeling winds down. I fear this slowly turning around of emotions from joy to sadness. I do not fear the grief of living in everlasting neediness or want for one does not get these rhythms of joy and sadness in it. Life of never-ending want is easy to live then one where joy gives way to distressing sorrow. There is another interpretation possible. Suppose these lines are said in a reply to someone as a mild censure - You fear the turning around of joy to sorrow. But not the life of endless want! How come? Do you not know that life of eternal want is many times dreadful than one where joy slowly winds down.

Line 11/12 - They say that people live on hope. For we do not hope even for living. The poet says that people live on hope. As long as they are alive, they are hopeful of something. For them to be alive means to be hopeful, having a hope. But for us, we do not have any hope. Not even hope of living, leave aside living on hope. It a cyclical play of words that come out very well.

Meaning of difficult words -
taasir = impression, effect
sipaarii = surrender, sacrifice
sajar-e-biid - willow tree
dast = hand
kaatim - seal/stamp or finger ring
tajalli = manifestation, splendor, brilliance
tirii = yours
samaane-e-wajood = reason for existence
partav = reflection
khurshid = sun
rusva = dishonored, despondent
bhed = secret, mystery. difference
gaardish = turning round, adversity
tarab = joy
mahrumi-e-jaaviid = eternal deprivation