Fuzzy Vedic 'science' I (posting of Michael Witzel <witzel at fas.harvard.edu>)

Wed Oct 25 00:25:17 UTC 2000

The following is a posting by Michael Witzel <witzel at fas.harvard.edu>,
who is now not able to reach to the Indology mailing list.

While the 'discussion' about science in modern India rages on,  it may be
useful to take a look at what a modern US-based Indian scientist, with all
his empathetic, emic, inside intuitive knowledge of Indian tradition has to
say about astronomy in the Vedas.

K. Plofker has alreday voiced her opinion on S.Kak's "Astronomical Code in
the Veda", Delhi 1994 (now republished, I hear) in a 1996 review in
'Centaurus'. I have a small note, first written as part of a longer paper
in 1997, but not yet published In India, for reasons unbeknownst to me,
which I attach here:
#28. The ``astronomical code of the RV``

        One of the most arresting claims of the autochthonous theory is
that of an astronomical code in the organization of hymns of the RV (Kak
1994), which he believes to establish a tradition of sophisticated
observational astronomy going back to events of 3000 or 4000 BCE, a few
millennia after the Aryans' hypothetical arrival in the seventh(!)
millennium BCE (Kak 1994: 20-22), or more specifically, that certain
combinations of numbers enumerating the syllables, verses and hymns in the
Rgveda coincide with numbers indicating the periods of planetary motions.
        However, to begin with, Kak`s discovery is derived from the
traditional ordering of the hymns and verses of the RV, a schematic one of
the post-Rgvedic period most probably excecuted in the Kuru realm of the
Eastern Panjab/Haryana at c. 1200 BCE (Witzel 1997); it was canonized a few
hundred years later by an Easterner, Sakalya, during the late Brahmana
period (roughly, 700-500 BCE). Other versions of the RV differ slightly;
even a text contemporary with Sakalya, SB, says that the Pururavas hymn (RV
10.95) had 15 verses while our RV has 18. Which size and ordering of the
text to follow, then?
        The real question, of course, is: why should anybody order one's
texts according to some astronomical patterns?  Rather, what kind of method
would present itself to a people with a strong, well-trained memory but
without the use of script? One could think, for example, of a strictly
metrical pattern (as is indeed used in the Soma hymns of RV 9), or one
according to the use of the hymns in ritual (as is used by the Yajurveda).
None of the two is the one followed in the RV. Instead, as has been well
known for more than a hundred years (Oldenberg 1888), and indeed since
Vedic times(!), the RV is organized in three levels: according to authors,
i.e. poets` clans (the `'family books`, RV 2-7, and 8), deities (hymns to
Agni, Indra, then others), and according to meter (hymns with longer meters
come first). The core 'books' of the RV (2-7) are arranged from short books
to long ones, and, conversely, inside each book according to a descending
order numbers of hymns per deity, and numbers of verses per hymn. All of
this  is not mentioned by Kak; for details on the exact scheme and the --
only apparent -- disturbances   in it, see Oldenberg (1888). In sum, if one
knows -- just as modern practice still  prescribes-- the author, the deity
and the meter, one knows where a hymn is to be found inside the core
section  (RV 2-7) of the RV collection. This is a simple but very effective
method in an oral tradition without script.

(to be continued)
Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138, USA

ph. 1- 617-496 2990 (also messages)
home page:  http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/mwpage.htm

Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies:  http://www1.shore.net/~india/ejvs

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