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Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in his book “The Orion, or Researches into the Antiquity of the Vedas”, has shown, based on internal evidence (using astronomical references) of the Vedas, that the R̥g Veda and some of the portions of the Yajur Vedic Samhitas are at least 6000 years old. The language of the Vedas, called Sanskrit, is highly refined and sophisticated. (In fact, Saṃskr̥tam ‘Sanskrit’, means ‘well-made, refined’.) So, Sanskrit must have been evolving as a language for quite some time before that.
The R̥g Veda and later compositions (together called the Vedas) of the ancient ancestors of the Indians have come down to us as pitch (tone) accented chants without any mistakes creeping in over the 6000 years of their life. It is clearly the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence in the world. In fact, UNESCO (on Nov. 7, 2003) has recognized the tradition of Vedic chanting as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The technique our ancestors used to ensure this high level of fidelity while transmitting them orally from generation to generation, over the centuries, is to devise many different, special, methods of rendering each line and each verse of the Vedas. In addition to the normal, continuous recitation of the verses of the Vedas, applying the rules of phonetic and euphonic combination of the words (the so called Saṃhita), there was a tradition of recitation with a pause applied after each word (the so-called Pada Pāṭha), and other traditions where the words were permuted, combined and repeated in various ways (the Krama Pāṭha, the Ghana Pāṭha, etc.). There were eleven such ways of rendering the verses, and Vedic scholars memorized every one of these! This ensured that any error that crept into a recitation was automatically corrected with reference to the other types of recitations.
Now why did the ancients devise such an elaborate system of oral transmission to ensure fidelity over the ages? Why didn’t they just write the Vedas down? Many of the current authorities think that the main reason was that the ancients considered the technique of preserving the fidelity of the Vedas using the Pāṭha techniques to be so “pure” that rendering and communicating them in any other fashion, would make them lose their character.
But I think that the main reason why our ancestors did not choose to write the Vedas down, but chose to invent some elaborate recitation schemes to preserve the oral chants, was that when the Vedas were composed, writing had not yet been invented. If writing had been invented, surely, the Vedic seers, who had the energy to create such complicated systems to maintain the fidelity of their creations, would not have balked at another, new (and surer) approach to preservation? There were no elaborate techniques yet then to consider “pure”. So, they could have written them down, without violating any ‘pure’ traditions. Remember that the Vedas were considered sacred, handed down to our ancestors by divine authority. So, any method for preserving their purity would have been eagerly welcomed in the early stages of the Vedas.
No, writing was not invented when the Vedas were composed. And this again attests to their great antiquity. Definite proof of writing being available comes from around 5500 years ago from the Euphrates-Tigris regions. (Of course, other civilizations, including that of our ancestors, may have also independently invented writing). This writing method is supposed to have spread from Euphrates-Tigris regions to the other regions like the Indus-Saraswati regions. This spreading would have happened over many generations. The Indus-Saraswati civilization (The Indus-valley civilization) clearly had some form of writing. So, we can safely guess that writing must have reached this area around 5000 to 5200 years ago. [Of course, I am discounting the so-called Aryan invasion theory which postulates that the ancient Aryans came from some faraway place, conquered and displaced the indigenous population to establish their sway over the Indus-Saraswati region. I am assuming that our ancestors were already in the valley by then, either having been born there or having migrated there from nearby places.]
Now, the ancient seers of India were constrained to devise complicated systems for preserving the fidelity of the Vedas precisely because writing was not available to them. So, the R̥g Veda (and portions of the other Vedas) were composed and in use before writing was widely available. This again pushes the compilation of the R̥g Veda to around 6000 years ago.
Western Sanskritists have arbitrarily set the date of the composition of the R̥g Veda at around 1500 BCE (or 3500 years ago). This date was, I think, set by people like Max Mueller, trying to reconcile the Vedic dates with the time periods deduced from the Bible for the creation of the world (based on Semitic and Sumerian mythologies for the creation of the world). There was also a need to reconcile the dates of the development of Indian thinking and literature with the development of thinking and literature in the Semitic (and Sumerian) world. Max Mueller divides the Vedic literature into four periods – the Chandas (the golden age of poetry of the ancient R̥ṣis) , Mantra (the age of rituals, or the age of priests rather than poets), Brāhmaṇa (the age of pedantry and exegesis) and the Sūtra (the practical age; the age of grammar, etymology, phonetic, astronomy etc.). He assumes that these four periods were sequential, arbitrarily assigns 200 years to each period, decides on a date of around 400 BCE for the Sūtras and so gets the date of around 1200 BCE for the composition of the early Vedic literature. Interestingly other western scholars have assigned 500 years for each period and arrived at 2400 BCE using the same base! [If we assign 900 years, which is as believable as 200 or 500, to each period, we will reach our 4000 BCE! [One argument in favour of these large gaps is the fact that we can clearly see the writers of the Brāhmaṇas struggling with the import and the meanings of the Vedas and indulging in wild speculations. This means that when the Brāhmaṇas were composed, the meanings of the Vedas had already become obscure owing to the long gap between their creations. A couple of hundred years is too short for this level of haziness to have happened.]
Also, the absence of any reference to the catastrophic flood that gave rise to the flood myths of other civilizations, attests to the antiquity of the Vedas. The Vedas have to be pre-flood. But, sure enough, the flood myths are mentioned in the Brāhmaṇas.
Any attempts to use astronomical references in the Vedas to date them, were dismissed by most Western Sanskritists, because they felt that the early Aryans were too primitive to have had any astronomical accuracy! Tilak says that “This means that we must refuse to draw legitimate inferences from plain facts when such inferences conflict with our preconceived notions about the primitive Aryan civilisation.” Tilak also asks, “I cannot also understand why scholars should hesitate to assign the Vedic works the same period of antiquity which they allow the Chinese and the Egyptians.” I think the answer is clear. India was a colony of the Europeans!
Now, one argument against the early (6000 years ago) dates for the composition of the Vedas is the close connection between the language of the Vedas and the language of the oldest parts of the Avesta, which is claimed by these Sanskritists to be only around 3000 years old. How could the Vedas that were composed 6000 years ago and the Avesta composed 3000 years ago have very similar language? It had to mean that the language of Persia had to remain unchanged for 3000 years.
I can see an objection to this argument. For one, Sanskrit has a track-record of staying surprisingly stable till the Prakrit (prākṛta ‘natural’ as opposed to saṃskr̥ta ‘refined’) revolutions of the late first millennium BCE. Even then, what was Sanskrit remained fairly stable becoming what is called Classical Sanskrit. As we saw before, our ancestors took extreme care to preserve their Vedic compositions. I think this sort of exercise also preserved the language, especially the language of the elite. There may have been earlier Prakrit-like deviations into local languages, but the basic Sanskrit in which the Vedas were composed remained the same. That is, even if the vernaculars in Persia had deviated away, the liturgical language remained unchanged and this is what our Persian cousins used to compose what were their Veda equivalents. Of course, an easier explanation, which Tilak proposes, is that the Avesta is also much older than is supposed by the historians!
Coming back to India; when writing later became generally available, the seers of those generations may have vigorously opposed the rendering of the Vedas into writing, for the same reasons that some authorities have proposed to explain why the Vedas were not written down.
Look at how staunchly people opposed computer-based automation when computerisation was starting. Entrenched people opposed mechanised industry during the industrial revolution. Any “new-fangled” idea is always met with opposition. At the heart of this opposition is the worry about the spread of knowledge to the world in general; worry that knowledge that was once available only to a particular set of people exclusively, would now be available to the hoi-polloi. Of course, the ostensible reason given for the opposition was that the Vedas would lose their “sanctity” if they were committed to writing.
[And, at this stage the question of preserving the fidelity of the Vedas by writing did not arise because the fidelity was already ensured by other elaborate systems, as we saw before. In the early days, during the composition of the Vedas, our ancestors did not have a sure way of ensuring the fidelity and they were experimenting with many different ways. In that situation, they would not have hesitated to use writing, if it had been available, as an additional method. Also, in the small societies where the Vedas were composed, the kind of exclusivism that later crept in may not have existed. I am trying to explain why writing would have been welcome earlier but not later.]
In the next “fact”, I will try to conjecture that the Vedic Aryans and the people of the Indus Valley were one and the same. This can add indirect credence to the fact that the Vedas were composed before the building of Indus Valley (Indus-Saraswati) civilisation’s edifices and cities (that is, before writing reached the Indus Valley). This will also establish that there is a continuous tradition of Sanskrit from 6000 years ago, through the Indus-Saraswati people. Of course, even if they were not the same people, nothing prevents us from assuming that the Aryans, carrying the Vedas with them, lived side-by-side, sometimes as enemies, sometimes as friends, with the Indus-Saraswati people. Therefore, continuity cannot be in question.
So, “6000 years ago” is a good, round figure for the antiquity of the Vedas. If so, then the Sanskrit language is at least 6000 years old. It should in fact be older, because the full structure of the language had developed and was in use 6000 years ago.
And one thing is clear. Our Vedic ancestors certainly lived in the Indus-Saraswati area, for the Vedas, especially the R̥g Veda, talk extensively about the geography and environmental features of that area.