Dates of written Rgveda

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Mar 13 00:42:06 UTC 2000

Dear Dr. Farmer, here is the rest, in which you are much more interested.
And which should have come together with the last one.  It was sent
yesterday evening, but refused by the list as the Liverpool server accepts
only 3 message per (UK) day per person. So I had to wait until midnight UK
time to resend...   More on your last post later. There still seems to be
some misunderstanding. I suggest to take a look at the menotechnical
treatises first before asserting written tradition well *before* what I
detail here:


Script is, indeed, *not* used, as Falk, von Hinueber, Fussmann  etc.  have
discussed,  after the Indus civ. (ended c. 1900 BCE) until Asoka, in mid
3rd Cent BCE (some news from Sri Lanka points to an  earlier use of Brahmi
there at c. 500 BCE; needs countercheck). The first to actually use a word
for 'script' is the grammarian Panini, (variously dated in the 4thc. or in
the late Brahmana period). He a native of the Panjab, Gandhara -- which
probably was Persian during his time. Indeed, he uses the Persian word for
script, dipi  (pron. thipi with 'th' as in 'the'), but he also knows the
EAST Iranian one, lipi, which has become the standard Indian term. (Why, if
not a new, foreign term?)

I have no doubt that some 'progressive' Brahmins and others *may* have
tried to use written Veda texts during the time of the Smritis (NB: no one
knows the date of "Manu" for sure; the Manu Smrti used to be dated, based
on certain overlaps with the Mahabharata, which also is not exactly datable
as such). This much is clear from the injunction NOT to use written texts.
But it did not become the main, major way of transmission until much later,
-- and taking into account modern recitation, not even until today. A
proper Brahmin (Veda reciter) did not rely on books. (I think the Chinese
pilgrims - Fa Hsien - of mid first mill. CE also have such statements, need
to re-check). We do not hear about written Veda texts, as far as I have
seen, throughout early medieval 'classical' Skt. literature.

There are, however,  some clearly delineated exceptions:
Grammatical texts such as that of Patanjali (c. 150 BCE) quote Vedic lines,
which thus have received a written tradition. (Nobody has checked out,
however, the stemma of Patanjali which I urged to do already in 1986). Or
the Mimamsaka philolosophers (often real philologists) did so. Again no one
has checked on their stemmata. Or, the  Vedanta comm. by Sankara (of the
later 1st mill. CE) depends on materials which *might* have been collected
in a 'Upanisad corpus' (note however that he still can pinpoint their exact
source inside a VEDIC text/recension). This has not been tested either. I
myself have concluded (1985) that, by great exception, one version of the
Atharvaveda, Paippalada Samh., *must* go back to a written archetype of c.
800-1000 CE.  But this  exception seems to be due to the fact that the
Atharveda reciters were a very small minority (c. 1% among the reciters,
according to inscriptional evidence). They may have taken special measures
early on to preserve their weak line of tradition. - And, finally,  there
are some mid-1st mill. (by all appearance, written) commentaries  on
certain post-RV texts. In any  case, we do not get the RV, and certainly
not all of the Vedas, in (a) surviving MS(S), or see such MSS mentioned in
literature before c. 1000 CE.

The matter could be tested also in another way: by pointing out (as I have
done for Paipp.Samh.)
that our received text shows typical mistakes that could arise only when
the *supposed* Veda  MSS have actually gone through one or two  of the
major changes in Indian scripts, one around 1000 AD from post-Gupta
Siddhamatrika, etc. into Nagari, etc., or the earlier one,  from Brahmi
into Gupta script. Nobody has taken up my note/challenge of 1986.

No written Vedas, in short, until the great Choresmian scholar Albiruni
(1030 CE). He knows quite a lot about the Panjab and also about Kashmir,
for which he must have relied on Kashmiri Brahmins (who traditionally
traveled a lot, pace V.Agarwal, see my paper of 1994), since Kashmir was
off limits for Muslims then, as A. himself underlines.

At the same time, the first surviving Vedic MSS occur in Nepal. The even
older Hsinkiang/E.Turkestan MSS are never Vedic, but Buddhist, etc. Nepal
is a special case, as old MSS were and could be well kept there. The
earliest dated one just after A PERIOD OF DISRUPTION and political
reshaping, is 810 CE, but there are some undated, earlier ones. The bulk of
the early MSS comes from the Nepalese 'renaissance' period of the 11th
cent. Yet, the first  RV MS is still later. The earliest I have seen or
heard of is at Benares, dated 1380 or so (under glass, so could not check
myself). But the one of the Vajasaneyi Samhita on the cover of "INSIDE..."
rather points to 1200 CE.

Hence my earlier statement. There MAY have been some specific earlier
manuscripts (such as Paipp.etc mentioned above), earlier by one, two, even
three centuries (Sankara?), but not much more.

The gap between Sakalya, say 600/500 BCE, and Sankara/Paipp.S. around 800
CE, remains.
And, of course,  recitation *still* is better than any surviving
manuscript... (though very little used in studies!)

If all of the above does not fit the framework of comparative studies, too
bad. Comparativitists would have to show WHERE there is evidence in India
that supports their general claims.
I hope that clarifies some of your questions.
Best wishes, Yours MW>

Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138

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

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