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?

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