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india Updated: Jun 24, 2008 12:57 IST
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Discovering the vedas
Frits Staal
Rs 495,PP 419

Millenia-old hymns of nomadic priests who worked their way from Afghanistan to the Ganga have curiously inspired some of the world’s most tedious scholarly works. Hence the pleasure in finding a discourse on the Vedas that is readable, even entertaining.

The Vedas, the four main collections of which the Rigveda is the oldest, the Upanishads and hundreds of other ancillary materials inspire awe on the grounds of age alone. But they are very human: they occasionally err, parts of them are corrupted and much of their original context is unknown. Frits Staal has enormous admiration for the Vedas but admits they “are often puzzling, sometimes abstract or mysterious; they may also be muddled.” The book is accessible in part because it tries to give an audience a sense of the Vedas rather than a dry as dust recap of them.

Staal uses archaeology and forensic linguistics to work out who and what the Indo-Aryans were. They were likely very small bands who roamed the mountains north of India and Iran. Some where diverted to India. These Vedic people “kept their Indo-European language, together with its poetic techniques, mythologies, the cults of fire and soma, and the knowledge of horses and chariot.” But they were not invading hordes, contributing a few odd Y-chromosomes to the teeming sub-continental millions, and their impact was outsized because of the vacuum left by the Indus civilisation’s collapse.

Even a non-history buff will find the role of the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex and the Iranian Wedge in the evolution of Hinduism fascinating.

The survey of the four canonised Vedas thankfully avoids lengthy philosophical post mortems. Staal admits “it is easier to say what they are not than what they are.” They aren’t holy scripture, they are by humans addressing gods or simply teaching rituals and the like to other humans. They aren’t a coherent body of thought. “The Four Vedas were cast into One Large Unit, but that is not what they were to begin with. The Vedas are not one of a piece. History shows this.” Veda, Staal repeatedly says, only means ‘knowledge’ and brahman means ‘language'. Caste had no place in Vedic thought — the oft-cited Purusa hymn that compares various castes to body parts is a later insertion and ‘Sudra’ appears nowhere else in any Veda. Special marks are deserved for the section on the oft-neglected Samaveda — the Rigveda set to music.

Citing 4th century BC grammarian Kautsa, Staal turns conventional wisdom on mantras on its head. “In Indic, mantras are meaningless, from which it follows that they cannot be true or false. They have no meaning be cause they are not statements and they are not statements be cause they are not language.” Less convincing is his attempt to compare mantras with bird song.

What have we learnt from the Vedas? He dismisses ‘Vedic mathematics’ as neither Vedic nor mathematics. Staal believes the real innovation of Vedic civilisation was in the understanding of language and grammar, though it’s a stretch to call that a ‘science’. The book ends with a speculative chapter on the possible influences of the Vedas on Buddhism. Until now it has been assumed the twain never met – there is no record of the Buddha even mentioning the Vedas.

Staal has written a lengthy, occasionally idiosyncratic essay on the Vedas. It helps that he has strong opinions and lets his mind wander down various bylanes. Ultimately this is also a paean to the Vedic people. What led such primitives to dwell so much on infinity or develop numbers so large they “have nothing to do with the universe,” he wonders. Perhaps the influence of soma, to the exact nature of which Staal notes, there exist over 140 theories.