Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Divinizing the Veda: the Problem of Traditionalism



Divinizing the Veda : the Problem of Traditionalism

Dr. Koenraad ELST

in Prof. Bhaskarnath Bhattacharya, ed.: Vedavidyāśrīḥ / Gems of Vedic Wisdom. Prof. Shashi Tiwari Felicitation Volume (Pratibha Prakashan, Delhi 2021), p.170-186:



The present discussion is not new but still necessary. Till today, traditionalism insists that the Vedas are a revealed scripture. This is what Muslims also say about the Qur’ān, but in Hinduism it precedes Islamic or any other influence. Rather, it stems from a pan-human tendency to idealize and absolutize anything deemed spiritual, and is well-attested in foreign cultures throughout history. But it is demonstrably in conflict with various types of testimony in the Vedas themselves.


1.     Traditionalism

Definition: traditionalism claims that what was valid in the past, is still valid today and must be continued tomorrow. This is because what has been handed down is intrinsically superior, just as a child trusts its father’s grasp of reality to be superior to its own. In ethics and law, for instance, rules are handed down from earlier generations to us (the mos maiorum, “customs of the ancestors”) because we deem them to have proven their worth by long practice. To an extent, this may be justified; it is pragmatic. But this evaluation often gets absolutized and is vulnerable to a few distortions.

Firstly, what was once experienced in practice to be valid, may be done by future generations purely out of deference to the mos maiorum without any remaining reference to its empirical reason. This attitude may then wilfully ignore new circumstances or increasing knowledge: a blind attachment to a past generation’s experience blind to new but equally real experience. A very simple example, over an even shorter time-span than generations: we once knew a girl regularly hanging up the laundry outside so sun and wind could speed up its drying. She used clothespins because she found (and in fact, at first her mother had told her) that otherwise the wind would blow the clothes away. But one day it rained and she hung the wet clothes to dry (p.171) inside the garage, where there was no wind; yet out of attachment to a long established habit, without thinking further, she still used clothespins.

If this example is innocent, we can also give more controversial instances. Thus, for ages, women were expected to confine sexual activity to inside marriage, and not before, as they could get pregnant; but that has changed with the discovery of reliable birth control. Men were advised to jealously guard their wives’ fidelity, since otherwise the children they bore could be another man’s, even without his knowing; but that has changed somewhat with the development of genetic testing. Does this mean that the chastity rules from the past can now go out the window? Not necessarily, there may be other reasons for maintaining them, but these elementary biological considerations have lost their compelling force. So now, debate and reconsideration are needed.

We need a subtler understanding of the human condition to make the right choice. Old truths are not so obvious anymore, the course to take not so automatic anymore, so that we have “choice stress”. This is at once the main reason why traditionalism is so popular: it saves us the trouble of making choices, a possibly demanding process of gathering information, analysing it and estimating potential consequences. It is easy. In a world where we have so many things to do, we cannot always go back to square one, we often have to rely on conclusions or decisions that some older and wiser generation has made for us. Indeed, as children we do it all the time, so it is an ingrained habit. As adults we sometimes get to make the laborious choice whether to follow in our ancestors’ footstep or chart a new and different course, and we tend to limit these occasions.

Thus far, no real problem, at least not for the topic of the status of the Vedas that concerns us here. But a second problem with traditionalism arises when traditionalists also do the reverse: they do not just make the past condition the present, but also project the present norms onto the past, or norms valid in a recent past onto a more ancient past. They homogenize the past into a single screen, denying any specific time-depth to different phases. They do in time what we all do in space when looking at the stars: we see no space-depth, they all look homogeneously far, whether 4 or 4,000 light years away. In doing so, they tend to deny changes that have taken place at some historical point in the past. This usually takes the form of grafting onto the ancient past an invented tradition that came about later. Grafting, or imagining a false ancestry for current views and customs, is widespread in traditionalism, though not synonymous with it. It need not be intrinsic to traditionalism, but is a disease to which it is very vulnerable.

Thirdly, the ancients in many cultures had a tendency to absolutize the value of what the earlier generations had transmitted, and extol it to superhuman status, even (p.172) God-given. What is eternal was there before you, what your grandparents have been into was also there before you, so the two are easy to confuse.


2.     Foreign Examples


Our first examples are from outside India. The Book of Changes or Yijing was

written in the 11th century BCE, and incorporated in the Confucian corpus

collected in the 5th-3rd century BCE. It was originally an oracle book:

predictions of the future in a straightforward language that, with the loss

of the contemporaneous reference framework and the changes in script and

language, has become cloudy. The Confucians read all manner of new,

moralizing meanings into the key phrases of the Yijing, thus making it into

a proto-Confucian classic. For instance, the standard phrase li zhen, “fortunate

oracle”, came to mean: “constancy is beneficial”. The Confucian reading of

the Yijing has been enormously influential in Chinese civilization, yet

constituted an invented tradition seriously different from the original.


Neo-Platonism was a dominant philosophy in the later Roman Empire.

It was emanationist, i.e. it taught that from the original One, successive

emanations formed layers of solidifying essence, culminating in the material

world, somewhat like the five successive sheaths in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad.

This means that even the most material objects partook of the essence of

the One. Many scholars agree that it was a Hellenistic evolute of a basic

insight from Vedānta.


This emanationism was the opposite of creationism: unlike in Biblical

(and later most explicitly the Quranic) theology, it did not posit a creation

ex nihilo, where the created world contrasts as temporary with the eternal

Creator. In the Vedantic-cum-Neo-Platonist view, every being carries the

essence of the One inside itself, whereas in the creationist view, the Supreme

Being and his creation are radically different, and it is blasphemous to liken

the one to the other. There, God is the totally Other.


Yet, Neo-Platonism was absorbed by some Jews, who started

reinterpreting the Bible in its light. This became mystical Judaism or the

Qabbala, “what has been received”, “tradition”. Its concept of the Tree of

Life is intellectually quite elegant and original, bridging these ultimately

opposing ideas of creation and emanation. But the point at present is: it

projects meanings onto Biblical terminology that weren’t there and had not

been meant by the authors. Like seeing the Tree of Life wherever the

Biblical narrative mentions wood.

This back-projection of meanings onto scriptural terminology is also in evidence in Sufism, the mystical current within Islam. Thus, ḏikr, “remembering”, is a translation of the Sanskrit Vedāntic concept smaraṇa 173 (Panjabi simraṇ) or smṛti, Pali Buddhist sati, and means in effect dhāraṇā, “concentration”, “continuous focus”. This yogic concept was not present in the Qur’ān, yet the Sufis had to justify as Quranic their borrowed spiritual practices (to avoid being denounced as Infidels), so they read this technical meaning into the perfectly ordinary word ḏikr. This way, they grafted a new, borrowed spiritual tradition onto the Quranic stem. (Through French convert René Guénon, Sufism actually spawned a self-styled “Traditionalist” current in 20 th -century Europe.)

Within Christianity, Roman Catholicism is, according to the Protestants, full of “invented traditions”, often borrowed from Pagan sources but at any rate not Evangelical. Thus, modern Catholics may assume that their celibate priesthood is an ancient and quintessentially Christian institution, but Jesus never created a priesthood. This institution was at some point imitated from the surrounding religions; and it was only at yet another remove that this priesthood was ordered to remain celibate.

The Catholic Church bases itself only very partially on the Bible and more on what it calls “Church tradition”, justified as the continuous working of the Holy Ghost, e.g. the institution of priestly celibacy is attributed to a whisper from the Holy Ghost. Or for another example, when the Cardinals vote to elect a new Pope, it is the presence and unseen working of the Holy Ghost that someone engineers the “right” majority vote. Through the Holy Ghost stratagem, the Church manages to do de jure what other traditions only do de facto, viz. to integrate change or deviation from the original message.

Traditionalism is a worldwide phenomenon, simplifying and homogenizing the working of time as far as a sect’s own doctrine and practices are concerned. Scholars of other cultures will immediately recognize it in the Hindu tendencies sketched below. But this attribution of a tendency well-attested elsewhere to Hindu civilization is, so experience teaches, strongly resented in Hindu circles. To them it is like trying to pull the large psychological categories of Yoga thought into the small categories of modern materialistic Western psychology.


3.     Indian Non-Vedic Examples

Now coming to India, let us see how Hindu traditionalists celebrate invented traditions, historically determined, as if they were hoary or even eternal, and as if they are quintessentially and constitutively Hindu. The “traditional” chronology offers a fine example, viz. the claim that Kṛṣṇa’s death completing the Mahābhārata narrative took place in 3102 BCE, and the war 37 years before, in 3139 BCE. We see this “invented tradition” take shape only in the mid-1st millennium CE. The specification of the year (p.174) 3102 BCE as the start of Kali Yuga only appears in the work of Āryabhata in 499 CE, and there, Kṛṣṇa’s passing is not brought into the equation. The full equation: Kṛṣṇa’s death = 3102 BCE = Kali Yuga is first found in the Aihole inscription of 634 CE. (Yet, the term yugānta, “end of an epoch”, often applied to this war [as in Irawati Karve’s title of her 1974 book on the epic], may well date back to the battle itself, but in another, more manageable meaning. A yuga, “era, epoch”, literally is a conjunction of two celestial bodies, marking the beginning or end of their interaction cycle, such as the moonless night for the sun/moon cycle also known as the month. The epic itself gives many stellar positions as marking the time of the war, arguably including the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction [this point is debated: disputant doctores], which was the end of the largest cycle known before the discovery of the precession cycle. One Jupiter-Saturn cycle takes 20 years; but after three cycles, the two planets don’t just reconnect, they also do so at the same place in the Zodiac, thus giving rise to a 60-year cycle, recognized as a kind of century or “epoch” in both Indian and Chinese astronomy. Just a tempting possibility.)

The epic itself merely says about the Kali Yuga (an already long-existing concept) that it will not touch the world as long as Kṛṣṇa’s feet walk on it. Historically, this concept of four world ages of descending quality exists in many cultures, indicating a very early common origin, certainly pre-Vedic. The Hindu notion of Kṛtā, Tretā, Dvāpara and Kali Yuga is matched by the Greek notion of a Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron Age and the Germanic notion of a Spear, Sword, Wind and Wolf Age. Neither in the epic nor abroad are any specific dates or time-spans assigned to them. The phrase about Kṛṣṇa’s presence excluding and preceding the darkest age is only a literary manner of speaking and should not be taken literally.

On present evidence, the long duration of these ages originated as fractions of the precession cycle, the movement of the vernal equinox around the ecliptic of ca. 25,772 years, rounded off to 24,000 years. This motion was discovered by Hipparchus of Alexandria in 127 BC, whereupon this knowledge was transmitted via the Indo-Greeks to India. (Proof that earlier Hindus had not yet understood precessional movements is Maitrī Upaniṣad 1.4, where the precessional falling away of the Pole Star from the North Pole is wrongly interpreted as a sign of a world in chaos rather than as a regular application of an astronomical law, see Radhakrishnan 1992:797. This growth in knowledge incidentally contradicts the traditionalist idea that truth has anciently been given and must only be preserved, in favour of the evolutionist paradigm that ignorance and fanciful explanations gradually make way for better insights. Admittedly it is only peripheral information within the text and does not concern the metaphysical subject- (p.175) matter of the Upaniṣads.)

In a next move, the numbers were multiplied by 360 out of awe, in zealous application of the intuition that “a year for man is only a day for the Gods”. This innovation then, more recently than 127 BC, yields the equation: Kali Yuga = 432.000 years, beginning in -3012. It implies that the preceding Dvāpara Yuga was twice as long, so that the even earlier Tretā Yuga in which Rāma is situated, must have taken place a million years ago, even though Rāma’s epic contains Bronze Age technology from less than 10.000 years ago. Stories are fine, but adults shouldn’t take them literally, so the Yuga ages as conceived by Hindu traditionalists had better be put between brackets as just fanciful. Among outside observers, the sight of Hindus taking it literally costs the Hindu cause a lot of credibility.

In the same vein, Hindu traditionalists speak of “Vedic astrology” when they mean the horoscopy presently practised by Hindu astrologers. As Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel has said: “In India, ‘Vedic’ simply means ‘old’.” But there was no horoscopy yet in the Vedic age. There did exist a certain astrology, not based on the 12 Zodiac signs (rāśi) but on the 27 or 28 moon houses (nakṣatra), with beneficial and harmful configurations determining auspicious and inauspicious times for conducting a ritual or starting an enterprise. It would nowadays be called mundane and electional astrology; an important relic still observed today are the auspicious times for weddings. But that is something else than the individual birth horoscopes with which Hindu astrologers make a living. The first known horoscope, still quite simple, is from Babylon in 412 BC. After Alexander conquered the city, this horoscopy got combined with Greek geometry, and within decades, it developed essentially all the techniques still used by astrologers in the West as well as in India. The Indo-Greeks then brought it into India, where the oldest horoscopy writings have Greek technical loanwords, transcribe rather than translate the Greek names of the Zodiac signs, introduce the planetary names of the weekdays, and explicitly acknowledge their Greek lineage, as in the title of the oldest treatise, Yāvana Jātaka, “Greek Birth Horoscopy”. It is clear as day that horoscopy was imported, yet traditionalists graft it onto the Vedic stem.

A very consequential invented tradition concerns caste. Some elements of Hinduism have been taken to be quintessentially Hindu, so that no Hinduism is deemed possible without them; yet they turn out to have a genesis in history, as well as an ending. Traditionalists treat them as God-given and beyond history, and thus they see caste as part of unchanging Sanātana Dharma. They see caste as part of revealed scripture (Śruti) through the appearance of the four social functions (Varṇas) in the late-Vedic Puruṣa Sūkta (a beautiful summary of the doctrine of Corporatism, i.e. likeness of (p.176) the cosmos and of society to a human body, of which traditionalists won’t like to hear that it is quite banal, present in many mythologies), which actually fails to mention the two defining traits of caste: hereditary profession and endogamy. In this case, the traditionalists are enthusiastically seconded by anti-Hindus, who hurry to flaunt the hymn as “proof” that Hinduism is intrinsically and irrevocably “caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste”. Their valuation of caste is opposite, and what the traditionalists use as proof of its God-given character is used by the Missionaries and Ambedkarites all the better to incriminate Hinduism.

By contrast, the Veda fundamentalists of the Ārya Samāj emphasize the contrast between the situation in classical Hinduism, where a hard caste system reigned supreme for some two millennia, and the Vedic age which began totally free of caste and ended with a hymn that in spite of superficial appearances is really still free of caste. In this they are surprisingly seconded by Marxist historians, who tie social systems to economic conditions and deem the Vedic-age economy unfit for generating a division in castes. (Thus Shereen Ratnagar in Thapar 2006:166) In the later Vedic period, the caste system did emerge in stages, first without endogamy as caste identity was passed on in the male line, with the father free to marry a woman of another caste; and then with full endogamy, which geneticists estimate as having existed since ca. two millennnia. When caste came into its own, early votaries of this “invented tradition” started back-projecting it onto ancient scriptures. The Vedas had by then become too venerated to add a word to it, but the Rāmāyaṇa received the addition of a final chapter: the Uttarakaṇḍa. Contrary to Rāma’s carefree interaction with foreign and tribal people, contrary to Rāvaṇa’s inter-caste love for Sītā, this interpolated final chapter has Rāma rewarded by the gods for mercilessly killing the Śūdra Śambuka for trespassing against caste rules. Other writings retold and reinterpreted the implied Vedic episode of rivalry between the sages Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha, which has nothing to do with caste there, as a struggle between Kṣatriya and Brāhmaṇa caste. This way, the traditionalists managed to insert their innovations into early parts of Hindu scripture and near-equate Hinduism with caste.


4.     The Traditionalist Veda

The traditionalist account of the Vedas is that they are the source of Hinduism, and that everything of value proceeds from them. This to them is logical, as the Veda is of divine origin: a revealed scripture, apauruṣeya, “non-human”. Unlike scriptures of various other religions, that were not written by human beings, no individual wrote the Vedas. So, those others falsely claim a revealed scripture, but Hindus have the truth on their side when they claim the same. Or in a Gandhian variety, they don’t want to (p.177) deny truth and a revealed origin to other religions, but at least they insist on a divine origin for the Vedas.

In this respect, the egalitarian anti-caste Ārya Samāj was also traditionalist. Generally it is not known as traditionalist but as fundamentalist: its “back to the Vedas” as an instance of the common viewpoint of all fundamentalists: “back to the sources”. Unlike the traditionalists, it rejected the post-Vedic practices, such as idol-worship and untouchability, and scriptures such as the Purāṇas. But it didn’t think through the fundamental assumptions of Hinduism, which then were mostly traditionalist. So, it equally continued to assume the revealed origin of the Vedas.

This contrasts with the view of the Indologists and of everyone who would stumble upon a book full of hymns: these hymns are poetry written by human poets. In the disastrous attempts by California Hindus to introduce more Hindu-friendly amendments in the state’s social science textbooks in 2005-6 (see Elst 2012:137-155), one (unsuccessful) demand was to replace the term “poetry” for the Vedas with “scripture”, on a par with the Bible and the Qur’ān. “Scripture” is a status that the believers attribute to a book, whereas “poetry” as a characterization of the Vedic hymns is just factual. Even if revealed, it remains poetry. But alright, it then also has the status of scripture. Yet, if Hindus claim their religion to be “scientific”, as they often do, they ought to do better than such primitive a-dime-a-dozen claims for a supernatural origin.

The term apauruṣeya is usually translated as “non-human”, “impersonal”. It does not come from the Vedas themselves, but from the Pūrva Mīmāṁsā school of philosophy, centuries younger than the youngest book that could reasonably be called Vedic: “The Mīmāṁsakas hold that the Veda is self-subsistent, eternal and ‘Śruti’ or divine revelation.” (Anirvan 2018:11-12) In the intervening centuries, the Vedas had been extolled, with a class of people set apart just to memorize them and pass them on unchanged to the letter; and with the best of sciences (grammar, mathematics, astronomy) growing up around them. If anything in the surroundings of an ancient Hindu approached the divine, this was it. So the idea of divinizing them or at least their source caught on among intellectually unsophisticated minds.

This attribution to the Vedas of a supernatural origin through revelation is exactly what Muslims say about the Qur’ān. But it is not what the Ṛṣis say about the Vedas. They all write their hymns in the form of man addressing God, just the opposite of the Qur’ān. Thus, in the Gāyatrī Mantra, “may You, the rising Sun, awaken our minds”; or the Mṛtyunjaya Mantra: “we worship the tryambaka deity”. The hymn chosen by Veda editor Veda-Vyāsa (at, by definition, the very completion of the Vedic period) to be the very first, 1.1.1, says that “I (the poet or Ṛṣi) worship the Fire”, and it incidentally (p.178) also refers to “earlier Ṛṣis”, i.e. pre-Vedic Ṛṣis. For another example among numerous ones: “A thought have I imagined, like a workman.” (RV 3.38.1) This refers to the craftsmanship needed, and the hard work of fashioning verses: as any poet knows, composing poetry is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. Likewise: “I worship Heaven and Earth, parents of the Gods.” (RV 7:53:1 and again 7:43:1) Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha even praises himself for having, through his perfect hymns, swayed the god Indra into supporting his employer, king Sudās, into winning the Battle of the Ten Kings. (RV 7:33:1-3) The Ṛg-Vedic family books are very explicitly creations by human poets. The Ṛṣis were originally deemed Mantra-kartā, “makers of Vedic verses”, only later Mantra-draṣṭā, “seers of Vedic verses”, their now-common epithet. The devotional masses lapped this post-Vedic “invented tradition” up. This is a tamasic attitude, but unworthy of creative men of genius like the Vedic Ṛṣis.


5.     The Vedas as a source of history

The Ṛg-Veda (RV) is a collection (saṁhitā) of hymns (sūkta) to the gods

(devatā). Its subject-matter is not historical narratives, but praise of the gods.

Yet, inevitably, and like any human creation, it contains a lot of historical

information. Any and every text, regardless of its topic, gives information

about its time and place. The Vedic hymns allow us to deduce that they

were written in Bronze Age North India. To judge from the texts themselves,

their composers were neither cavemen nor automobile drivers, and they

mention neither African giraffes nor Arctic polar bears. The Ṛg-Veda is

neither global nor timeless. Like all human creations, it is determined in

space and time. Any historian will note that the Vedas are composed in a

specific human language, pre-classical Sanskrit, datable and enjoying a

placement on the genealogical tree of the Indo-European language family.

Like the Bible and the Qur’ān, the Vedas only contain statements that could

perfectly have been made by human beings of that place and time; nothing



The Ṛg-Veda is explicit about the existence of a pre-Vedic period. This

includes the oft-mentioned ancient patriarch and law-giver Manu, the Vedic

tribe’s foremother Ilā, the patriarchs Nahuṣa and Yayāti, who were ancestors

of the Vedic founder Bharata. It also hints at the pre-Vedic expulsion

northwestwards of the Druhyu tribe. It implies that the Vedas had a

beginning within history. This is confirmed by another text corpus, hazier

but covering a more extended area and period, the Purāṇas.


Likewise the Vedic hymn collection had an ending within history, just

like all mortal entities, encapsulated in their final editing attributed to Veda (p.179) Vyāsa, the “editor of the Vedas”. We find confirmation for the traditional belief that the Vedic hymn collections were completed just before the

Bhārata war, viz. by the non-mention in the Vedas of any king who,

according to the Puranic genealogical lists, is younger than Veda-Vyāsa’s

biological son Dhṛtarāṣṭra, father of the Kaurava party in the war.


As Shrikant Talageri (2000) showed, the Vedas are expressive of the

culture of the Paurava tribe of Northwest India, particularly of the Haryāṇā

area around the Sarasvatī basin. This was a variation on the culture of the

surrounding areas (like the Aikṣkvāku tribe to their east, featuring Rāma and

the Buddha, and the Yādavas to their south, featuring Kṛṣṇa), which likewise

were tributaries of what came to be known as Hindu civilization. Helped

no doubt by a period of expanding political power for the Pauravas, the

Vedas, as an ordered corpus of well-crafted poetry memorized by a class set

apart for this purpose, and as the centre around which several prestigious

sciences developed, gained a leading role in an ever-larger area, ultimately

all over the Subcontinent. On the other hand, Talageri’s contextualization

of the Vedas conflicts with common Hindu beliefs: that everything Hindu

stems from the Vedas, and that they can even be treated as the defining

source of Hinduism.



6.     When a Battle is just a Battle


In spite of not being a historical chronicle, the Vedic corpus does contain

a few accounts of historical events which were occasions to thank the gods.

These are principally several migrations and battles, best known among them

the Battle of the Ten Kings (chiefly described in RV 7:18, 7:33 and 7:83).

This was a confrontation between the Paurava tribe’s Bhārata clan and

mainly the Ānava tribe, with numerous names of participating tribes and

battles. Numerous Hindus, including the Ārya Samāj, Mahātma Gāndhi and

Sri Aurobindo, consider this a symbolic battle against materialism or against

the evil in oneself, or against the evil-doers. Terms like Asura and Dāsa, later

in classical Sanskrit used for demons c.q. serfs, get their later meaning back-projected onto their usage in the battle’s account, where in fact they are

only the names of all or some of the Ānavas. This follows a universal pattern,

where names for “foreigner” end up as terms for “barbarians”, “evil-doers”

or “demons”. Other Sanskrit examples of a similar process are Rākṣasas,

Pisācas (two mountain tribes, later reduced to something like “cannibals”)

and Mlecchas (the natives of the non-Vedic territory more or less coinciding

with the region of Sindh).


But no, unlike what all too pious interpreters claim, thereby considering themselves very profound and spiritual, this does not concern a battle of the good guys against the bad guys; it is only and robustly a (p.180) real-life battle of “us” against “them”. There is no indication that the Ānavas embodied evil; their only negative trait from a Paurava/Vedic viewpoint is that they were the enemy in a war for territory. And while they are described as aggressors from the Asiknī/Chenab basin eastwards to the Vedic-held Paruṣnī/Ravi basin, they may only have staged a counterattack against an intrusive king Sudās originally based more to the east in the Sarasvatī basin.


It is like that other battle, the core event of the Mahābhārata, which has endlessly been treated as a metaphor for some moral or spiritual struggle, where one side represent dharma, the other adharma. Even there, the moral contrast between the two warring parties is not black and white. At most, a moralizing narrative pitting dharma against adharma has been laid over a historical event, where the two sides both had their share of good and of evil, which still shines through in the final version of the evolving story. Indeed, that is what we find so great about the epic: that the good guys have somehow deserved the injustice they encounter, and that the bad guys also have a justification for whatever they do. It is not some simplistic fairy-tale.


Some Vedic events are verifiable, chiefly through correspondence with

the archaeological data collected in the Sarasvatī basin. Very rarely, the

textual information is even matched by information given in another text:

the Vārṣāgira Battle, a sequel to the Ten Kings’ Battle but farther west, is

also reported in a source by the then enemy, viz. the Avesta of the Iranian

section of the Ānava tribe. The military commanders on both sides are the

same, only the outcome of the battle is slightly different: clearly not as

resoundingly victorious on the Vedic side as the Ṛṣis claim. (Especially in

the longer term, it becomes clear that the initially expanding Pauravas have

to settle for the already-established border, viz. the Hindu Kush mountain

range between a Vedic India and an Iranian Afghanistan.) But two slightly

different versions is exactly what you would expect in two people’s

testimonies of a single event. So, this is what can happen in a historical

narrative; no need to take refuge in a symbolic or didactic reading.


7.     Pro Traditionalism

All the arguments we have ever heard against the historicity of the Vedas (and that cannot annul the Ṛṣis’ own primary testimony anyway) are based on (1) later-Vedic or post-Vedic sayings; and (2) shifting the meaning of one of the terms employed. Thus, an Ārya Samāj spokesman sent us this quotation: “The Vedas are the true knowledge of God. In the beginning after human beings had been created, the Supreme Spirit made the Vedas known to Brahma through Agni, etc., i.e., Brahma learnt the four Vedas (p.181) from Agni, Vayu, Āditya and Aṅgira. (Manu Smriti 1-23).” A better approximation of the verse’s meaning would be: “He (= Brahmā), for the perfection of sacrifice, from fire, wind and the sun, milked (out) the eternal threefold Veda (Brāhma), which consists of the Ṛg-, Yajur- and Sāma- (Vedas).” The detail that the verse only mentions a set of 3 Vedas, which is the original version (Vedatrayī), whereas the classical count implied here is 4 Vedas, including the Atharva-Veda, already amounts to a modest motion of no-confidence against the Traditionalist paradigm, for it exemplifies an element of change in the purportedly eternal Vedic tradition.

But in a general sense, it is of course true that the Manu Smṛti, the Bhagavad Gītā and other post-Vedic literature took this new narrative of uncreated revealed eternal Vedas and ran with it, making it into an unquestioned tradition. Yet, with all due respect for those authority-laden books, their claim is and remains in conflict with the evidence of the Vedas themselves, and wrong. Among the reasons not yet discussed, we might mention that it does injustice to the divine character of the gods: if these have to dictate the hymns of praise to themselves, they are narcissistic. If a girl is given a serenade by a suitor below her balcony, she is not going to dictate to him what praises to sing; on the contrary, she wants to be surprised by what new phrases he comes up with. At any rate, the claim is and remains post-Vedic, unknown to the Ṛṣis. It is the psychological result of centuries when the Vedas had been given a higher place in Hindu society than anything elsewhere. People looked ever more steeply upwards to them.



8.     Narahari Achar’s case

In reply to Shrikant Talageri’s historicization of the Vedas (Talageri 2020a), Prof. Narahari Achar argues from scripture that neither the Vedas nor other ancient sources give a historical analysis. Mostly they don’t, but that is what you would expect from a poetry book. What historians find in there are meta-data, information not intended by the writer but nonetheless present because all men unwittingly let on much about their circumstances. Even in an explicitly historiographical book from ancient Northwest India you wouldn’t find most of the modern philological and historical methods. But out of the ordinary, Achar himself uses meta-information, viz. that yajña is the essence of the Vedas, and that: “Since yajña is traced to Manu and essentially to creation, there was no time when yajña was not there and hence the concept ‘pre-Vedic’ does not arise.” (Achar 2020) Yajña was in principle possible ever since mankind mastered the “red flower” (as Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books character Mowgli calls fire), hundreds of thousands of years ago. Indeed, as the first fire was probably taken from trees struck by lightning, i.e. “by the thunder-god”, it was taken (p.182) to be a gift from Above. Fire was an intrinsically divine element and thus a logical bridge from the human to the heavenly sphere, symbolized by the smoke circling up from the flames to heaven, and this since many millennia before the composition of the Vedas.

However, as per one of Shrikant Talageri’s less controversial observations, the introduction of the yajña was not made the centre of the Vedas as an age-old inheritance, but was known in the Ṛg-Veda itself to be more or less coterminous with the time of the Vedic hymns: it was introduced by early sage Bhṛgu, who stemmed from the Ānava tribe, northwestern cousins of the Vedic Paurava tribe and generators of the Avestan tradition. It was not a widespread practice, the usual form of sacrifice worldwide being either pouring a liquid on a representation of the deity, as in the pan-Indian pūjā, or sacrificing a victim on an altar. But among the Ānavas, it was standard practice, and while being passed on to the Pauravas, it continued to evolve, extolling the sacred fire thus far that they abandoned throwing their sacrifices into it.

Fire-sacrifice was typical for the northwestern tribes, the Druhyus and the Ānavas (chiefly the Proto-Iranian branch during the early Vedic period), who made up the near-total of the Indo-Europeans emigrating from India. The Abbasid caliphate’s ambassador Ibn Faḏlan, who in the 9th century sailed up the Volga river and lived with the Vikings there, describes his hosts as “fire-worshippers” (like the Zoroastrians), because while idol-worshipping was only marginally in evidence, probably borrowed through the Romans ultimately from the ancient Middle East, fire was central in their religion. The Irish Celts had a prominent fire-temple dedicated to the goddess Brigit (same root as Bhṛgu), the Romans had Vestal virgins tending the eternal fire. So, what was a marginal phenomenon in India, confined to the northwest, was exported to the whole Indo-European expanse. In India, it gained a pre-eminent position when the Vedic tradition was spread all over the Subcontinent because kings invited Brahmin families to emigrate from the Sarasvatī basin, settle in their own kingdoms and confer the sanctity and prestige of the Vedas on their dynasties.

Alright, so fire sacrifice is not intrinsically coterminous with the Vedas, but as it happens, the two do more or less coincide. Still, they are not the same, and nothing is proven about the Vedas by making a point about yajña. So when it comes to the Vedic hymns themselves, Prof. Achar should have shown something in the text that could not possibly have been thought up by a Bronze-Age NW-Indian human being, or perhaps brandished a dinosaur skeleton sporting a tattoo of the Gāyatrī Mantra or at least the Auṁ sign to prove the Vedas’ eternality.

In a reply to Achar’s paper, Talageri (2020b) notes that most (p.183) Traditionalists reject not only the notion of “pre-Vedic” but also the discerning of successive historical layers within the Vedas, the key to lots of data about the geographical gradient crucial to the “Aryan” debate. These have been elaborately distinguished by Western Orientalists and in even more consequential detail by Talageri himself: “All this massive evidence certainly cannot be discarded on the basis of the myth (yes, myth) that an individual person named Vyāsa compiled all the Vedas in one go. It is perfectly possible that Vyāsa gave the final canonical form to the collection, but to say that the books were all composed and compiled together at one point of time (I will ignore here the date of this point of time: Achar says 3100 BCE, I say 1500-1400 BCE) against all the evidence, and then further use this to deny any internal chronology to the Rigveda, is a joke.”



9.     Daya Krishna’s case


Philosophy Professor Daya Krishna musters even more arguments why the

Vedas are just human literature. They behave just like any human literature.

Thus, the existence of different versions of the Yajur-Veda was consciously

countenanced by the Yajur-Vedic Ṛṣis: “Obviously, they would not have

regarded it as apauruṣeya or revealed”. (Krishna 1996:84) Repetition of Vedic

verses is another key to the natural process of intertextuality: “It is not only

that a very large number of Mantras from the Ṛgveda are repeated in the

other Vedas, but that there are substantial repetitions in the Ṛgveda itself.”

(Krishna 1996:86) The Ṛṣis freely borrowed from each other, they could

see far because they stood on the shoulders of giants: “But if this was the

relation of one Vedic Ṛṣi to another, how can that relation be understood

either in terms of apauruṣeyatva or revelation, or even in terms of Vedic

authority?” (p.86)


Today’s devout God-fearing Hindus, temple-goers and practitioners of

a daily pūjā, would not feel at home with the old-school Hindu philosophers,

many of whom were functionally or even explicitly atheist. Daya Krishna

cites Karl Potter with approval: “If, for example, one chooses the second

century AD, one would discover that ‘the major systems extant at that time --

Sāṁkhya, Mīmāṁsā, Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, Jainism, the several schools of

Buddhism, and Cārvāka -- are none of them theistic’. But ‘if one slices

instead at, say, the fourteenth century AD, one finds that Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika

has become pronouncedly theistic, that Buddhism and Cārvāka had

disappeared, and that several varieties of theistic Vedānta have come into

prominence.” (Krishna 1996:40) This shows in passing that medieval and

modern Hindus are very different from their ancient ancestors, including

the Ṛṣis they swear by.


Coming to the Upaniṣads, according to Krishna: “Most are not (p.184)

independent works, but selections made out of a pre-existing text”. (Krishna

1991:104) This raises normal philological questions, such as: who made the

selection, and why? Thus, the Aitareya Upaniṣad forms the middle part of

the Aitareya Āraṇyaka, the Kena Upaniṣad forms the 10th chapter of the

Jaiminīya Upaniṣad-Brāhmaṇa, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad is the 7th to 9th

chapter of Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, while the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is part of the

Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa. Again, the fact that many later books named Upaniṣad

clearly postdate the Vedic period, even in the capacious definition of “Vedic”

current in India, casts doubt on their status of apauruṣeyatva. Like in the

hymn collections, here too, we get to know from the texts the very human

life-stories of Ṛṣis, such as Yājñavalkya, Satyakāma Jābala, Uddālaka Aruṇi and others, as of any human writers.


If this is God speaking, we find him, as gods go, comparatively undecided, wrapped up in trifles, changing his mind even at the solemn moment of giving a message for eternity. Yes, the doctrine of the Self is enormously important, but if God Himself had to communicate it, would he have buried it in all-too-human anecdotes? By contrast, in human beings, this is only what you can expect: even discoveries or innovations of genius get born in an all-too-human context, with circumstances that disappoint if you expect splendour befitting their world-historical importance. Yet, Traditionalists consider these texts as Śruti, “what is heard”, interpreted as “what has been revealed”.



10.                        Strategic Implications of Anti-history Positions


Today, in an ongoing and very consequential debate, the Traditionalist

position happens to be contrary to Hindu self-interest. The search for

historical information in the Vedas (so far both by the Western Orientalists

and by Talageri), has yielded lots of material, first establishing but on closer

look refuting the Aryan Invasion Theory decried by most aware Hindus. The

ancient but post-Vedic writers conditioned by human psychology and

cultural tendencies, extolling the for them already ancient Vedas, were in

no position yet to draw all the historical implications from these texts.


As Talageri (2020) notes: “All these ancient writers were totally

unacquainted with the Indo-European question or the AIT, and with the

principles of modern linguistics and historical studies, and could never have

possibly intended that their religious views be misused as weapons by present-day “traditionalist” Hindus to sabotage research on ancient history and to

disarm other Hindu researchers from dealing with the (for example, AIT-promoting) opponents.”


For the Traditionalists, however, it is still preferable to lose this debate

(which is mostly with foreigners, whose opinion they contemptuously ignore

(p.185) anyway), rather than to give up on their fundamental belief that the Vedas were uncreated and oblivious to mere history.


In another debate too, the historical approach proves quite fruitful. About caste, the diehard Traditionalists simply maintain that the Vedas are eternal and the necessity of caste with it. But at the same time, numerous Hindus are aware that caste is Hinduism’s Achilles heel. So modern activist Hindus try to disown caste and evacuate it from Hinduism. Ludicrously, they deny the emphasis on caste in their scriptures, or reinterpret caste as a matter of personal choice. Thus, they deny (or if possible, keep out of view) that in the Bhagavad Gītā, both Kṛṣṇa’s and Arjuṇa’s references to “immorality of women” as cause of “caste-mixing” obviously imply an unabashedly birth-based endogamous understanding of caste. They even claim that caste is nothing but a British concoction, the Hindu counterpart of the anti-Hindus’ claim that the Ayodhya temple was nothing but a British concoction, and for the same purpose: to “divide and rule”.


A historical view of caste, by contrast, concedes candidly that caste was

intertwined with Hinduism for long, but equally shows that caste was initially

absent and only intruded in stages. Hinduism can flourish all while letting

caste wither away. That may satisfy at least the more fair-minded among

Hinduism’s critics.

But then, real Traditionalists are not interested in such temporary advantages, trifles compared to timeless Tradition. And now you mention it, it may be commendable to forego a strategic advantage just to remain faithful to your most cherished beliefs. Moreover, the Aryan Invasion debate can be dismissed as but a temporary distraction. It didn’t exist for most of history, and after being resolved, it will disappear again soon, so it is not worth sacrificing an old doctrine for. Similarly, caste can be cherished as too precious (and alas, misunderstood) to justify any interference by incomprehending moderns. Right? Well, in that case, after discarding considerations of argumentative expediency, the consideration of truth remains. There is not a shred of evidence for the Vedas’ supernatural origin, and plenty for a human, historical origin.





Those who disagree with us and stick to the belief in an eternal and

uncreated Veda, shouldn’t convince us, they should go and convince the

Ṛṣis. It is they, not the cabal of Western India-watchers or Orientalists, who

have described a pre-Vedic stretch of history, and who gave us a collection

of hymns expressing the human viewpoint and addressing the gods. They

included all manner of historical details, from contingent and convoluted

family sagas through the names of rivers to descriptions of battles, all in

between their main purpose of singing praise to the gods.




Oddly, for people who hold the Vedas in such quasi-divinizing awe, the

Traditionalists turn out to go against the Vedic testimony itself. When the

choice is between the Traditionalists’ version and the Ṛṣisí version, we stand

with the Ṛṣis.





Achar, BN Narahari, 2020: Revisiting the Chronology of Rigveda and the exact identity of Vedic Aryans,

Anirvan, 2018: Veda Mīmāṁsā, vol.1, Akshaya Prakashan, Delhi.

Elst, Koenraad, 2012: The Argumentative Hindu, Voice of India, Delhi.

Griffith, Ralph TH, 1991 (1889): The Hymns of the Rgveda, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.

Jamison, Stephanie W, and Brereton, Joel, 2014: The Rigveda, OUP, New York.

Krishna, Daya, 1996 (1991): Indian Philosophy. A Counter Perspective, OUP, Delhi.

Oldenberg, Hermann, 2005 (1888): Prolegomena on Metre and Textual History of the Rgveda, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, 1992 (1953): The Principal Upanishads, Edited with Text, Translation and Notes, Humanity Books, New York.

Talageri, Shrikant, 2000: The Rigveda, a Historical Analysis, Voice of India, Delhi.

--, 2020a: “Rigveda and the Aryan Theory: a Rational Approach”,

--, 2020b: “A Reply To Prof. Narahari Achar’s Critique of my article The Rigveda and the Aryan Theory: A Rational Perspective. The Full Out-of-India Case in Short”,, 7 July 2020.

Thapar, R., et al.: India. Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, National Book Trust, Delhi 2006.

Wilson, HH, 1997 (1866): Ṛg-Veda Saṁhitā (full text plus translation), Parimal Publ., Delhi.

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Amrit said...


I'm not looking to argue with you to render Veda ahistorical, or to use the anādi and apauruṣeya excuse to elide any historical discussions on them. Nor am I unaware of time-depth, but I have 2 submissions for your consideration:

1. Within tradition, the notion is not comparable to Abrahamic "divine revelation." You may refer to works of Svami Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati, for example, who explains very clearly what is meant by anādi and apauruṣeya. The specific comparision he makes is to the law of gravitation- which always existed independent of Newton's discovery of it. This does not make gravitation divine revelation. Similarly, Vedic knowledge is NOT divine revelation. The view within tradition is that the Vedic ṛṣis were able to "connect" to a transcendent platform, from which they derived vidyā of an eternal nature. We may still call this supernatural belief, but it is not divine revelation. The claim is not that some kind of divinity showered beatitude on specific ṛṣis who thus revealed knowledge. The claim is that these ṛṣis, using specific techniques and hones abilities, were able to discern elements of ṛta, or the natural order. You may still say this is no different to divine revelation, but I feel the comparison is unwarranted reductiveness.

2. Even the claim of anādi and apauruṣeya, if accepted, does not actually elide historicity. For even if the knowledge gleaned was eternal, like gravitation, the ṛṣis who gleaned it were human and lived at a specific moment in time- like Newton did. Thus the "divine revelation" does not disallow us from historical evaluations as "traditionalists" would insist. Their claim, even if accepted, has no bearing on historicity of the ṛṣis and other figures named in the mantras.

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