Dates of written Rgveda

Koenraad Elst koenraad.elst at PANDORA.BE
Mon Mar 13 16:42:11 UTC 2000


Just returned from India, carrying among other things the freshly published
Deciphered Harappan Script by N. Jha & N.S. Rajaram.

I find a question addressed to me about the horse evidence.  Well, I have
nothing to add to the status quaestionis, with archaeologists like BB Lal
claiming that a number of horse remains have been found in a dozen Harappan
sites.  Still very marginal, of course, and in that sense an argument from
silence against the identification of Harappa with a horse-centred culture.
Considering that Shereen Ratnagar has argued against a much broader argument
from silence, viz. the absence of traces of an Aryan invasion which in her
opinion need not prove the absence of such an invasion, I suppose we need
not jump to conclusions in the case of the paucity of horse remains either.
But I agree that the horse evidence is problematic.

Speaking of arguments from silence, I agree with Dr. Farmer's caution
regarding the affirmation by  Fussman, von Hinüber, and Falk, et al., that
> > The first written records in
> > India belong to the 3rd century BC.

As Farmer points out,
> much depends in the works of these scholars on the argument
> of silence, which isn't a strong one when you consider that
> neither the climate nor the nature of the typical materials used
> for writing in ancient India would favor the survival of early
> texts.

What also pleads against Fussmann etc.'s very late dating of post-Harappan
writing (implying what used to be called a "dark age" of Indian illiteracy
for more than a thousand years after 1900 BC or so) is the sheer
improbability that the civilization then in existence did without writing.
There was plenty of prose writing which is even harder to memorize than
versed hymns.  There were very technical writings, and while I find the
quoted line about Panini thinking up his grammatical rules as if in spirit
visions very charming, I also find it quite unbelievable that he worked from
a purely oral text corpus to compose his own purely oral grammar.  Panini
was a genius alright, but the implications of the Dark Age thesis simply
overestimate his brain capacity.  One text which carries its own unambiguous
dating, as shown by the much-applauded Prof. Rajesh Kochar, is the Vedanga
Jyotisha: 14th century BC, in the middle of the "dark age".  The text is
admittedly not long and easy to memorize, but the astronomical observations
which it presupposes are already harder to conceive in an entirely
non-writing culture.

As for the Vedic hymns, the situation implied in the orality thesis would
indeed be what list members call "unique".   Homer or the Confucian classics
were first written and only started to get memorized after gaining some fame
as written texts.  In the case of Homer, declamation by heart may have been
the author's intention, but in the case of the Confucian classics or the
Quran, no such intention is indicated.  In Iran there are regular contests
in reciting the Quran (whole, half or one-third) by heart, but the jury
members, though certainly well-versed in this discipline, keep an eye on
their printed Quran copies to check for possible errors.  Learning by heart
is valued because you incorporate the sacred text in your personality, and
writing is depreciated because it reduces the sacred text to materiality,
exposing it to possible foul treatment by the uninitiated (e.g. a Belgian
schoolteacher in the Emirates was fired because she threw a pupil's satchel
into the dustbin, remembering too late that the satchel contained a copy of
the Quran).  So, memorizing the Veda makes sense, but by no means implies
oral composition.  I admit that this by itself doesn't rule out oral
composition either, but on that point, the argument of feasibility comes in.
One of us should try the test of doing the titanic feat of memory which Dark
Age theorists impute to Vyasa.

Dr. Koenraad Elst

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