Date of the Vedas : Inquiry not Proper

The idea that the Vedas are eternal does not fit into the mental outlook of Western indologists. Their claims to impartiality and to conducting research in a scientific manner notwithstanding, they are not prepared to accord an elevated status to the Hindu texts. Many Hindu research scholars have also found themselves unable to accept the view that the Vedas are eternal.

Modern historians have adopted chiefly two methods to determine the date of the Vedas: the first is based on the astronomical references in the scripture and the second on the morphology of the language of the same. But have they, using either method, come to any definite conclusion? Each investigator has arrived at a different age. Tilak' has assigned the date 6000 BC to the Vedas. According to some others it is 3000 BC or 1500 BC

There is no difference of opinion among historians about the dates of the scriptures of other religions. They are agreed that the Buddhist Tripitaka was written during the time of Asoka but that the teachings of the Buddha included in it belong to an earlier time. There is similar unanimity of view in that the New Testament is 2,000 years old. And all are agreed that the Quran was composed 1,300 years ago. In the case of the Vedas alone have historians not arrived at a decisive date.

I mentioned that two methods were adopted in reckoning the age of the Vedas. There are references in these scriptures to the position of certain heavenly bodies. The date of the Vedas, fixed at 6000 BC or so, is based on an astronomical conjunction mentioned in them.

But is it right to say that such an astronomical conjunction would not have occurred earlier too? Conjunctions similar to the one on the basis of which the date of 6000 BC has been arrived at must have occurred not only before the present creation but even far far earlier. Which of these is to be taken as the one mentioned in the Vedas? The sages had a vision that could penetrate through the eons. So such calculations will not hold in the case of the Vedas which the great sages brought together with their trans-sensual powers of perception. We find thus that the internal astronomical "evidence" found in the Vedas and made much of by modern researchers does not help in fixing their date.

The second method is linguistic. Here we have to consider not only the language but also the script. Brahmi is the source of all the scripts in use today in most parts of the country. Devanagari and the Tami4 scripts may seem totally unrelated, but the fact is otherwise. A study has been conducted on the changes the Brahmi script has undergone during all these centuries on the basis of the edicts found throughout the land. A chart made from the results of this study shows that the scripts in use today in different parts of the country, though seemingly unrelated, were evolved from the original Brahmi. An amusing thought occurs to me that the scripts prevalent today are Brahmi letters with moustaches and horns. Something like a moustache affixes itself to the middle of Brahmi letters. The Devanagari (u and U) appear similarly formed. Many letters of the Tamil alphabet look like Brahmi letters that have sprung horns. From the edicts and inscriptions we can find out with some precision the period taken for each alteration in the script. It is in this manner that the dates of some edicts have been determined.

The Vedas, however, have never been inscribed on stone anywhere. So there is no question of our fixing their date on the basis of any of the scripts. Other aspects of language have to be considered in this context. The morphology of words and the character of their sound keep changing with time. Many Tamil words belonging to the Sangam period2 have changed thus. It is a phenomenon common to all languages. An erosion takes place in the case of some sounds. Sometimes their meaning also does not remain the same. Take the Tami4 word "veguli" it now means a "simpleton", but earlier it meant "anger" or an angry man". In the old days the Tamil "manda" did not mean "dead": a Tamil scholar told me that it meant "famous". Such instances are to be met with in Sanskrit also. We do not understand the Vedas in the same way as later poetical works in Sanskrit. Compared to other languages such changes are not numerous in our own tongues. Even an Englishman cannot follow one line of Anglo-Saxon English (Old English) which is only 1,000 years old. In the course of about 300 years English has changed so much in America as to merit a name of its own, "American English".

The period over which a phoneme changes its character has been calculated. But the time taken for a change in the meaning of a word has not been determined with the same definiteness. Scholars have tried to fix the date of the Vedas by examining the character of the sound of their words. "Every two hundred years the sound of a word undergoes such and such a change," observes one authority on linguistics. "A Vedic sound, in the form that we know it today, is the result of a number of mutations. If it has undergone ten mutations, it means that the Vedas are 2,000 years old. Or, if thirty, they are 30 x 200 6,000 years old, which would mean [according to this logic] that our scripture did not exist before 4000 BC" We hear such views expressed frequently.

One example would be enough to prove how wrong such a basis of calculation is to fix the date of the Vedas.

We have so many utensils at home. We use some of them more often than others. The bell-metal vessel in which we cook rice morning and evening has to be washed twice a day. So it wears faster. Suppose we have another vessel, quite a big one, an anda3 for instance. It is kept in the store-room and not used except perhaps during a wedding or some other festive occasion. Since it is washed only at infrequent intervals, it does not wear as fast as the bell-metal vessel which we perhaps bought as recently as last year. The anda must have come as part of grandmother's dowry and must be very old. Even so, it does not show any sign of wear. Are we to infer that the bell-metal pot was bought before the anda? The dinner-plate and the rosewater sprinkler came together as your daughter-in-law's dowry. In ten years, the plate has gone out of shape but the sprinkler still retains its glitter and polish.

The same is the case with the sounds of the words of everyday speech on the one hand and of Vedic words on the other, the difference between them being similar to that between the two types of vessels mentioned above. Words in common daily use undergo erosion in many ways. Though the Vedas are chanted every day special care is taken to preserve the original sound of their words. I shall tell you later about the Vedangas, Siksa and Vyakarana4, and about how a system was devised by our forefathers to preserve the sound of each Vedic syllable from undergoing any mutation. The Vedic sounds are not subject to erosion like the utensils in daily use or the words in common speech. They are like the anda which, though old, is well preserved.

Modern indologists have also put forward the view that the Rgveda is the oldest of the Vedas, that the Yajurveda, the Sama Veda and the Atharvaveda came later (in that order). They also believe that in each recension or Sakha of a particular Veda, the Samhita is the oldest part, the Brahmana and Aranyaka being of later origin. They try to fix the dates of these different texts on the basis of the differences in their language. Also they have carried out research into how certain words used in the Vedas are seen in a different form in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and in the works of poets like Kalidasa.

The linguistic research conducted by these indologists will not yield true results because they ignore the basic differences that I have pointed out between the sound of the Vedas and that of other works. The slight changes perceived today in certain Vedic sounds, despite all the care taken to preserve them in the original form, could not have come about in 200 years but over some thousands of years. If you realise that the "wear and tear" we speak of cannot apply to the Vedas but may be to other works or to spoken languages, you will agree that to fix the date of the Vedas, as modern indologists have tried to do, is not right.

Hindi is only some centuries old. However, since it is spoken in a large area and contains Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words, it has changed in a comparatively short period. Tamil, though spoken in a smaller region, has not changed so much. Even so you will not understand Kamban's Ramayana to the same extent as you will the songs of TayumanavarT. As for Jnanasambandhar's Tevaram itself you will not understand it as easily as Kamban's Ramayana. And then there is the Tiru murugarrupadai which is more difficult than the Tevaram. So Tamil has also not remained the same all these centuries. Though Sanskrit was known all over India it was not a spoken language like Hindi or Tami4. It was a literary language and has not changed even to the extent Tamil has. As for the Vedas, they have been preserved with greater care than the poetical works and it is rarely that you see changes in them. So, according to linguistic experts, if it takes 1,000 years for certain changes to occur in other languages, it should take 100,000 years for the same in the Vedas.

The Vedas have been preserved with the utmost care in the firm belief that the mantras will be efficacious only if each syllable is chanted with precision so far as its sound and textual correctness are concerned. It was for this purpose that a separate caste was assigned with the mission of caring for them. Research conducted without realising this truth will not serve any purpose. Modern investigations have not succeeded in establishing that the Vedas are not eternal. Faith in the belief that they are anadi will be strengthened if you appreciate the care with which they have been preserved during all these ages and also consider the different ways in which their sound has been kept alive.

Notes & References

Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak discusses the date of the Vedas in his book, The Orion. In his Preface to this work, Tilak says: "... as I was reading the Bhagavad-Gita it occurred to me that we might derive important conclusions from the statement of Krsna that he 'was Margasirsa of the months'." He further says that he has "endeavoured to show..., that the traditions recorded in the Rgveda unmistakably point to a period not later than 4000 BC when the vernal equinox was in Orion". (Orion is the Greek name of Mrgasirsa.)

Sangam poetry is believed to belong to the second or third centuries AD., if not earlier.

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