Frits Staal - Discovering the Vedas (Summary - I)

I have always been fascinated by how cultures developed overtime. Early humans foraging for food and shelter slowly come together to form a settlement that ultimately becomes part of a bigger civilization. Language develops, Gods are created and venerated and a basis of religion is formed. I am currently reading Frits Staal's book - "Discovering the Vedas". This is the first book I am reading on how early Hinduism came into being and it has found me all excited. The premise of the book is since early Vedic civilization left no records (like built structures or written text), the starting point for how to describe the times would be the Vedas itself and if we can de-construct them, we can understand the broad contours of the time and space that they were created in. The below write up is a broad summary of the first section of the book and I will try to come up with similar summaries of other sections as well. In no way whatsoever the ideas puts forward in this book are definitive but it is definitely worthy of a thought.

So what is Vedas? - Vedas are archaic text that are regarded as 'revealed' or sruti, or literally 'what is heard' by sages from the Gods. But they are of human origin written by early Vedic scholars and are basically hymns used to address and invoke Gods. They were passed from teacher to pupils orally [called as Oral Tradition] over a thousands of years and were created in early Vedic language which is archaic form of classical Sanskrit. Vedic (or early classical Sanskrit) is one of the many Indo-Iranian language that rose during that prolific time that ultimately all trace back to a common Indo-European ancestor language. Vedas were finally written down sometime in the early Common Era. Contrary to common knowledge, Vedas were not created in one piece or one place. They were composed in multiple places over a long period of time and some feature are not be even part of Indian subcontinent. Rig Veda is most archaic and other three Vedas depend and quote it extensively.

Where were they written? - The book states that Rig Veda (RV) records the name of rivers of north west India and Pakistan extensively. So they must have been created in or in vicinity of north west India. Harappa civilization existed in the same region around 3000 BC to 1800 BC and it was well known for the proper city planning and fired bricks. But RV never mentions of cities or bricks in its verses. It talks of fort with mud walls but never of bricks. In RV, there is mention of mythical river Saraswati flowing in north west India. Saraswati  has the same language origins as with another river called as Haraxaiti [river Helmand in Afghanistan]. Both words sound very similar and have same meaning [i.e. river with ponds or that dries in desert]. The book puts forwards a theory that early Vedic people knew about Haraxaiti as they lived around it and when they moved to north west India and when they found a similar river there, they named it similarly. Like English migrants named New England in US when they came from England and found it similar. Hence Vedas were likely composed in north west India with rivers and early tribes names providing the geographical fingerprint. The centre of the Vedic culture slowly kept moving west starting in frontier Pakistan and ultimately moving to the Gangetic plains of Bihar.(where later Vedic text was composed)

When were they written? - The current generally accepted time of composition of RV is around 1500 BC. Harappa culture was also in the same space (north west India), but they never shared time. So RV was either pre-3000 BC or post-1800 BC as Harappa culture existed during this period and they both seem to be mutually exclusive. More on timelines later when we discuss the origin of early Vedic people.

Where did early Vedic people came from? - This is the big question and the book proposes a theory which many may not necessarily agree. The book briefly touches on genetic make-up of Indian population (caste or otherwise) and states that the predominant DNA material goes back to 9000 years and Vedic people can not contribute so much of DNA material so long back. It also mentions of another source where a similar ancient Vedic culture sprung up (more on Mitanni on wiki). In ancient middle east, there was a treaty between Hittite kingdom (modern day Turkey) and Mitanni kingdom (modern day Syria/North Iraq) that refers to Vedic gods of Indra and Varuna. Mitanni nobles spoke of language that was very very close to Vedic. The text tablets of the treaty are dated around 1400 BC and are basically horse training and chariots making manuals for fighting wars. Now to posit that a group of Vedic people moved from India to modern day Syria does not cut ice. Most likely a group of near-Vedic speaking people wandering around split and some came to India while the other group went to middle east taking with them the language and equestrian skills. Mitanni nobles had knowledge of something that allowed them to rule the more numerous natives. Maybe in India something similar happened that allowed a small group of people to become kings and chiefs and they slowly kept moving west.These people brought with them the power of written language and the skills of horse and chariots (spoke based chariots that are much faster) over the mountains to north west India. Harappa culture had no written language. Probably the idea of a written text filled the gap. The language also brought with itself the power of mantra and myth to invoke Gods that may have added to the power of ruling elite besides the charm of the language. Horses were introduced from else where as they were not native to India. They were not present in Harappa culture but they are everywhere in RV. It points that horses and chariots were fashionable as probably they were new to the land. The overall premise of the book being that instead of an big Aryan invasion (as is generally thought of), maybe Vedic people trickled over the mountains in small numbers and settled over time and became royalty as they had the skills alien to the land (i.e horses, chariots, language, mantra and myth) but fashionable.

How does this all hang together? - The book proposes that the origins of early Vedic people were most likely somewhere in Sintashta culture (in Russian steppes, south of Ural mountains that developed around 2100-1800 BC). In Sintashta culture which was primarily a Indo-European or maybe Indo-Iranian language culture, evidence of early chariots and horse/fire sacrifice have been found extensively. This culture is further north of another culture called BMAC which is a non Indo-European culture located on the banks of Amu Darya river in Central Asia. One wave of people from Sintashta move south via BMAC into northern Iran where they form the basis of early Iranian culture and language [Avestan/Zoroastrianism]. At the same time, another set of people from Sintashta start moving east on to wide empty plains of Kazakhstan and continue moving east to what is now called as Chinese Xinjiang. Here in the dry Tarim basin countless mummies have been found dating to 2000 BC with Indo-European features. During this long trek over mountains and deserts the language started changing from India-Iranian into Vedic. High in the mountains the early Vedic people find the plant Soma which is heavily mentioned in Vedas for its stimulant qualities and is said to grow near Mount MÅ«javant. The author proposes that Mount MÅ«javant could be Muz-tagh Ata near the Pamir mountains. After crossing the Pamir, north of Karakoram the nomads enter Afghanistan. Here they mingle with the BMAC culture and influence each other. Number of non-Indo-European words are picked and added into the Vedic vocabulary here. This maybe dated around 1800 BC. Once in BMAC, they split, one goes west to formed Mitanni state [in 1500 BC]  and the other moved to north west India via Khyber pass. This fits nicely with linguistic side as Vedic and Mittani are more similar then say Iranian and Mitanni. Another set of people moved further south and entered India via Bolan pass picking the Iranian word Haraxaiti from eastern Iran. So somewhere around 1500 B.C.,the early settlers settle themselves in northern India bringing with them the power of language and art of horse riding and fast chariots. In fact Harappa has toys with solid wheels but RV never mentions solid wheels and instead has whole terminology for chariots and its parts showing that it was more fashionable and probably an in-demand skill at that time. This brings us to the end of the first section that provides a brief take on that era when early Vedic civilization rose.

Whatever the author proposes is difficult to prove one way or other but I find one thing hard to believe. While the origin of Vedic people may be in Sintashta culture of the Russian steppes or near about, but the idea of large number of people along with their women/children and possibly livestock as well moving around in such treacherous and nearly inhospitable terrain of Pamir and Tarim is difficult to comprehend. Would it not been easier for them to just move south to BMAC directly and then enter India via Khyber taking along with them the horse and the chariot. At least this route is easier and more live-able. Well! we will never know the answer!

No comments:

Post a Comment