Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Engaging Vedic exploration

Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights
by Frits Staal Penguin Books. Pages: 420. Rs 495

Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman
WERE the Aryans the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent or did they come from outside? Is the Indus Civilisation older than the Vedic? When were the Vedas composed? What was the society like? These are questions that have not been so far satisfactorily settled.

Philosopher, polyglot, polymath Frits Staal's thoroughly researched Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights throws new light on these mysteries. The writer spent years in India, obtained a Ph. D. in philosophy, and learnt Sanskrit from a pandit who taught the language to him using Panini's grammar. This is an exhaustive volume that is divided into five parts, each of them deserves to be dealt in considerable detail, but as that is not possible in a short review, we shall not dwell much on some of the better known topics, and focus on some lesser-known facts instead.

For instance, information on a cuneiform clay tablet mentions Vedic gods Indra, Mitra, and Varuna in a treaty between Hittite king who ruled over what is now Turkey, and the king of Mitanni, whose empire consisted of present day Syria and northern Iraq. The Hittite king spoke Hittite, an Indo-European language, and the Mitanni king spoke a language that is very close to Sanskrit. Then there is a treatise written by Kikkuli, a Mitanni writer whose language was also close to Sanskrit. These sources might solve at least part of the mystery: the Indus Civilisation precedes the composition of the Vedas.

Coming to the Vedas, Staal says that they were composed in different parts of the Indian subcontinent and at different times. It is largely accepted that the Rigveda is the oldest of the four Vedas, not only because its language is the most archaic but also because the other three Vedas presuppose what is said in it and quote from it at length.

In popular imagination, the Vedic age not only brings to mind pastoral hymns, sacrifices, rituals and mantras, but also caste system. The writer points out that the Vedic society did not have an idea of caste, as it emerged much later. Although there are terms such as brahmana, they do not refer to caste as such but various kinds of learned people, including sages, poets, and priests. The word kshatriya also has no specific meaning in the Rigveda.

Upanishads took Indian philosophy to its zenith, and the book deals with them in considerable detail. The word Upanishad occurs first after the end of the Vedic period, in the Mundaka Upanishad, which was composed perhaps in fourth to third century BCE. Staal also discusses Vedanta and the philosophies of Bhaskaracharya, Shankaracharya Ramanujacharya, and Madhvacharya. He shows that all of them were inspired by the Upanishads, although their philosophies are quite distinct. During this age great philosophical debates took place, notable of them being between Yagyavalkya and Gargi, the woman philosopher. Part five is devoted to the inter-relationship between Vedas, Jainism, and Buddhism.


are not taken very seriously in this modern age, most people think they are nothing but mumbo-jumbo, but their importance should not be overlooked says the author. Staal points out that a popular approach to the study of mantras has been pragmatics, a discipline that is closely related to logic and deals with the indexicals ('I', 'here', 'now', 'today','he', 'she' etc.) that were introduced by the philosopher J. L Austin. It has been argued that mantras are 'speech acts'. By speech acts Austin meant language utterances by which an act is performed. If a priest addresses two people with the words: 'I unite you in marriage'; these are not just words; he has performed an act by which the two are now married to each other. The same words uttered by anyone else would not have the same purport.

Staal, however, holds that mantras are neither language nor speech acts. 'Their powers are different and distinct from the concepts and categories that are used in logic, philosophy and the human sciences. That is in accordance with a simple fact that we have not so far taken in to account: mantras are not confined to humans.' He suggests that we should widen our net and study mantras in context of the animal kingdom. The study of bird song has led to unanimous conclusions with regard to its meaning or semantics, and this is a direction we must explore to understand mantras.

There is no sign of algebra in the Vedic age, though the term mathematics is used in several senses. Readers interested in geometry might look at the appendices for proof of Baudhayana's theorem by Liu Hui and Euclid. As far as astronomy and astrology are concerned the Rigvedic 'contribution to astronomy does not appear to have been very remarkable. It did not distinguish the five planets (graha in later texts) from the fixed stars.'

Staal writes with rare literary skills, vibrant prose, and tops it up with humour. Packed with informative maps, diagrams, illustrations and photographs, this book would add fresh insights to our understanding of one of the most important epochs in Indian history.