Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Vedic sages versus the Apauruseya doctrine

(Abstract of my lecture at the World Conference on Logic and Religion, 4-8 November 2022) Most believing Hindus, some erudite ones citing the Pūrva Mīmāṁsā school or Śaṅkara for authority, will tell you that the Vedas are apauruṣeya, "non-human", super-human, of divine origin, revealed, uncreated, as old as the universe. They divide scripture into Śruti, "that which is heard (from a divine source)", viz. the Vedas in the broad sense; and the Smṛti, "that which is remembered" (and of which no divine origin is claimed, though in practice it is also treated as unquestionable authority), viz. the Itihāsa-Purāṇa literature and the Śāstras. This is actually a mirror-image of the Islamic view of the Qur’ān: abiding since creation in God's bosom, the Qur’ān is rained down on humanity at a time and place of God's choosing. Next to the Qur’ān, the Hadīth and Sīra do not have that divine status, but function nonetheless as the basis for unchangeable Islamic law. The difference between really existing Dharma and Dīn, effective Hinduism and Islam, is not as radical as often thought. However, this Hinduism, though making a claim on the Vedic Ṛṣis, viz. that they were passive receptacles of divine revelations, would be unrecognizable to the Ṛṣis themselves. The Vedic text itself serves to verify this. The Qur’ān (or the Biblical Ten Commandments) takes the form of God speaking to his prophet or to mankind. By contrast, the Vedic hymns take the form of a human composer addressing or describing a deity. Thus, the very first hymn of the Ṛg Veda is Oṁ agnim ile, "I worship the Fire", i.e. man as subject, the Fire god as object. In the Gāyatrī Mantra, "we" implore the Sun god to awaken our minds. In the Mṛtyuñjaya Mantra, "we" worship the Three-Eyed One. The relation between the composer and the deity is essentially that of a suitor singing a serenade under his beloved's balcony. And yes, just as the suitor hopes to sway her and make her favour him, the poet hopes to influence the deity towards his side ("do ut des"). Thus, after the victorious Battle of the Ten Kings, seer Vasiṣṭha ascribes his patron Sudās's victory to the magical effect his own hymns have had on the battle-relevant god, storm-god Indra. Moreover, the hymns themselves refute their eternality by regularly referring to a pre-Vedic age: to the "Ṛṣis from the past", to past battles (e.g. against the Druhyus with the help of Aikṣvāku king Māndhātā, within living memory of the Vedic project’s initiators, king Bharata and his court-priest Ṛṣi Bharadvāja), to ancestors like Manu and Ilā. The Vedas, by their own testimony, are located in history. Given the flora, fauna, rivers and the level of technology they describe, they can be pinpointed as composed in Bronze-Age Northwest-India. From there and then, a number of historical events have found their way into otherwise religious poetry. The aim of this paper is to explicitate and elucidate how the transition was made from this human practice of poetry enshrined as an ever-growing corpus of hymns into the adoption of this corpus as a legacy from the gods and therefore a source of divine authority. This provides one of world history's best examples of an "invented tradition", reinterpreting the earlier tradition and absorbing it into a new worldview. Parallel developments in Christian and Confucian civilizations will very briefly be considered. In practice, the Vedas derived an enormous prestige from the discipline of learning the hymns by heart, the whole edifice of their mnemotechniques and the social support by a Brahminical class set apart for it, and the fact that they became the backbone around which many new sciences grew (Vedāṅgas, Upavedas, some of them worldwide firsts, e.g. linguistics and branches of mathematics). It also made them fit as the glasses through which to see the accruing non-Vedic components of Hinduism (e.g. mūrtipūjā), serving as vault over these and providing them with a conceptual framework and technical language. As their origin disappeared on the horizon, they were elevated ever higher. By the time the illiterate Dark Age ended, ca. 300 BCE, a new tradition had been invented that divinizes the Vedas. Hindu traditionalists won't welcome this account, but on the bright side, it implies that their Ṛṣi ancestors were creative geniuses, rather than passive receptacles of voices from above.

No comments: