Dates of written Rgveda

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Sun Mar 12 00:55:19 UTC 2000

Dear Dr. Farmer,

Most of the pertinent arguments of the 'consensus' have been provided by
Profs. Thompson and Vassilkov, so I can be fairly brief, and will limit
myself to those items not yet mentioned.

(1) Oral tradition:

The RV certainly has several layers, but they are in the same style of
poetry, in the same Koine (barring SOME dialect features).

There is no evidence of reshaping of stanzas/hymns at the time of
composition of the texts during these (I believe), 3 historical layers with
ACTIVE composition, which I think, should be dated between roughly
1450-1200 BCE)

The first critical point is the collection (samhitaa) of the available
poems under the Kuru kings (c. 1200 BCE), which preserves the clan-wise
arrangement of hymns (these poet-priests competed with each other and would
not give up their poems that easily).

This first RV Samhita is a collection of the texts, arranged in a strictly
'mathematical' order (longer down to shorter hymns; the nucleus, from
smallest clan  collection, RV 2, up to longest clan collection, RV 7). In
short, author, deity and meter set the order (as remembered even today).
Exceptions to that rule stick out like a sore thumb, and have been
discussed already by Bergaigne and Oldenberg (1888).  Some  interpolations
are later -- but, again, we know which ones!)

We  can also tell when these interpolations took place (by language) and
before which date: i.e. before or after  the redactor, Sakalya, a Bihar
person of the late Brahmana period, i.e. shortly before the Buddha (c. 500
or 400 BCE).

We also know *what* has been changed since the time of collection
(samhitaa) : they are a few, clearly visible phonetic developments, due to
historical development, (Cuv > Cv, etc.) and a few 'strange', schoolmaster
type changes, --- we would say "in orthography" ---  but is was, at that
time of course, orthoepic diaskeuasis.

All of the above is, basically, old news (summed up and elaborated for the
socio-political context, in "Inside the texts" 1997 (for this and other
secondary lit., see my web site, below).

The one point which you don't seem able to accept is that the text was
indeed so faithfully transmitted *orally* only,  over these maximally 1000
years, until the redaction.

As pointed out by my colleagues, this is nothing special in inside India,
while it may be elsewhere. It has been the ethos of this culture(also in
neighboring Iran: Avestan) from the first hymn of the RV onwards. Even
early post-RV texts refer to it, explicitly, by a story: Indra came to cut
off someone's head because he had mispronounced the tonal accents in a
nominal compound, and thus (grammatically) had turned himself  from an
"enemy of Indra" into someone Indra hates ('whose enemy is Indra'). Indra
had no choice, since Mantras always work... The same story was still told
to me by some Nepalese Pandits when they corrected the manuscript with the
Mantras for the coronation of the present king, in 1975.

And, one can of course learn by heart the c. 800 pp. of the RV, in small
Roman characters, perfectly. Just go to the various corners of India, and
you will still find men who can do it! Make them start anywhere inside the
text, without a written text in front of them. I have seen it. So why not
in 500 CE, 500 BCE and 1000 BCE?
(And there are people who know more than one text by heart!)  In the SAME
form, whether you go to E, S, or W India, or to Benares, -- whatever
scholars say about the restrictions of human 'software'. I have seen it and
I have *tested* it (politely of course, since I have the highest regard for
*traditional* Indian scholars and Veda reciters.) We have already talked
about the several mnemotechnical aids in preserving this tradition.

If you, further, cannot believe that the texts is, apart from the changes
referred to above,  the same as in 1500/1200 BCE, consider that (almost )
all the ealry emendations by western scholars of the 19th cent. have been
given up: we are very cautious now to edit the RV (though not other, less
well preserved Vedic texts, such as Maitr. or Katha S.,Jaim. Brahm. etc,--
a special long topic, why  and how...). The RV  transmision is just unlike
the written text transmission of Homer, the Bible, the Chinese classics,

While one may try to argue that certain very specific rules of grammar,
such as for accented/unaccented verbs and vocatives, may have been
re-edited later on according to the very well developed Indian grammar
(Panini), this does *not* hold in cases where Panini DOES NOT KNOW or TEACH
the details. The  'elided' (augmentless) Aorists (injunctives) are a point
in case, where  Panini throws up his hands, and it is even more surprising
to see individual poet's points of 'stress'/"underlining" applied (again by
use of the *long lost* tonal accent) in quite a number of cases (for all of
which no grammatical rule by Panini  exists). See discussion of verbal
accent by Kline in INSIDE...

In other words, there are quite a number of cases where  no one /nothing
could help the post-RV transmitters and the redactor to 'correct' the text
since they COULD no longer know: it is indeed a tape recording (slightly
amended, though not a` la Nixon) of c. 1200 BCE.

In one word, India is different here from the rest of the world (minus, to
some degree, the Zoroastrian texts of their closest relatives, the old
Iranians),  due to the stress, put from the very beginning on correct
pronunciation and recitation, -- from tonal accents, to words, to
sentences, all in the proper textual order. No changes, no substitutions.
As my colleagues (or the Nepalese pandits, above) have said: any change in
pronunciation will result in unwanted or dangerous consequences...

(We can talk about the tradition of the early Samaveda, Yajurveda and
Atharvaveda separately. Here things are a bit more complex).

About the DATEs:
As for the dates used above, please see my all too short statement that
Dominik Wujastyk put on the Indology 'position' page (  ) some time ago: I will
elaborate on details when I get the time, maybe during the spring break.

More about the written tradition of Vedic texts, in a  separate  msg.
Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138

ph. 617-496 2990 (also messages)
home page:

Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies:

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list