Truth and method in Indology (study of ancient South Asian languages and cultures)
Jan E.M. Houben
JHOUBEN at RULLET.LEIDENUNIV.NL
Sun May 31 16:53:39 EDT 1998
Grateful to those who are investing much time to produce a breathtaking virtual
discussion on WILD & tamed horses and rivers, and, on a deeper level, on Indo-
Aryan im/e-migration, I cannot resist making a few comments from the sideline
(in three different posts, reacting to three selected statements, one still
stemming from March when some thoughts were exchanged on how to make
discussions like the present one more rewarding).
Ca. 13 May 1998, Sn. Subrahmanya wrote:
>It is also interesting that scholars who argue that Max Muller's works are
>outdated have no qualms in still accepting a chronology that was proposed by
My reaction (a bit different from Witzel's, 20 May) would be:
If someone argues that Max Mueller's works are outdated, there can be no
logical necessity for him either to agree or to disagree with his conclusions.
The quality of Max Mueller's date for the Rgveda depends first of all on the
method through which it was reached. If the method was "guessing" than the
result is nothing more or less than a guess. My mathematics teacher was always
more satisfied with an incorrect result reached through good methods, than with
a correct result reached through wrong methods.
In fact Mueller's guess was subdivided into smaller ones, which brought
him to 1000 B.C. as the latest date for the Rgveda. His 'firmest' starting
point was the date of the Buddha at ca. the 6th century B.C. In his time this
was either a guess or a naive acceptance of Buddhist sources; it would take
much philological research and the testing of several diverging hypotheses
before the Buddha was generally accepted as a historical personality (rather
than, e.g., the hero of a solar myth) in the first decades of the present
century (esp. on the basis of Oldenberg's arguments). Although the Buddha's
date is still not precise, it is now much more than an (educated) guess:
textual sources, Buddhist lineages, contextual archeological evidence for
important cultural transitions (urbanisation) in the Buddha's main geographical
area in the Ganges basin, mostly converge to the fourth or fifth century as the
period of a historical Buddha (cf works ed. by Bechert, and review article on
Indology web site).
Mueller's next step was to accept that the Vedic Samhitas and Brahmanas must
have been well-established in the time of the Buddha and early followers who
are aware of these texts and reject the intricate and socially deeply
consequential ritual system with which they are inseparably bound up (or
rather, the Buddha of the Pali canon suggests thorough reforms: teaching what a
true Aryan would accept, what a true Brahmin would do, what a true sacrifice
would consist of).
In spite of the uncertainty factor of the relatively big gap between the
historical Buddha and the major final redaction of the Pali sources (fourth
century A.D. when Buddhaghosa's commentaries leave only little room for
variation; reflections from earlier versions are preserved in Chinese), this
step of Mueller basically still stands (cf. e.g. Winternitz, Hist. of Ind. Lit.
I, p. 281f): comparatively old parts of the canon presuppose some familiarity
of the Buddha and the early Buddhists with a Brahminical system in which Vedic
hymns and rituals comparable to the presently known ones were already well-
established. Apart from the Buddhist texts, also Patanjali (250 B.C.) and
Panini (one or two centuries earlier, and, NB, geographically far removed from
the main area of early Buddhism) contain their own indications for socially
well-established Vedic texts and rituals (for the texts cf. e.g. Thieme 1935
and Bronkhorst in Paninian Studies ed. by M. Deshpande and S. Bhate, Ann Arbor
But from Buddha's 600 B.C. on, Mueller guessed further: the Brahmanas might
have arisen in a period of 200 years before the Buddha, and the Samhitas in a
period of 200 years before this, leading to 1000 B.C. as the date of the
oldest Samhita (the Rg). As Gonda wrote more than two decades ago in the latest
major handbook on Vedic literature, Mueller's "ideas of chronological uccession
of 'literary genres' and of corresponding forms of religious interest can no
longer be maintained." After Muller's early guess (1859), L. von Schroeder,
for instance, guessed 1500 B.C. as the date of the Rgveda in 1887; and, on the
basis of problematic starting points, Jacobi calculated ca. 4500 B.C.
What is the methodological status of modern estimates for the "period of the
Rgveda", compared to that of the earlier ones of e.g. Max Mueller and
Schroeder? I will not try to judge existing attempts, but rather point to an
ideal but possible situation which modern scholarship may try to attain.
As far as philology is concerned, centuries of continuity prevails.
-- Methodologically, there are important parallels between European and
traditional Indian philology, cf. my articles in IIAS Newsletter 13-14
(accessible via http://iias.leidenuniv.nl --
Now, as in the nineteenth century (and earlier), reliable texts are to be
established, and as many possibly relevant texts as possible are to be read and
re-read. Especially compared to M. Mueller many more relevant texts have become
available. Linguistic and etymolgical studies have advanced, and, whatever
their intrinsic value, I enlist them here (for the issue under discussion) as
additional tools for the philologist. IDEALLY, therefore, the present level of
philological scholarship contributing to the issue could be higher (i.e.,
methodologically similar but richer on account of a greater number of available
edited texts, better tools, etc.).
Archeology was still a very young science in the last century when many
scholars in Europe remained satisfied with a 'Biblical' date for the origin of
the earth (and Indian traditional scholars with Puranic dates for the same).
Presuppositions have been renewed, methods have been sharpened, tools have
improved (e.g. with carbon-dating). The archeological information for the
relevant periods in South Asia is therefore richer and methodologically far
superior to that of the 19th century.
To bridge the gap between archeological and philological data, we may resort to
the old method of guessing. But in addition, the ever evolving social, socio-
linguistic and ethnographic sciences provide theories which may help to bridge
the gap in a more methodical way (hence in a more falsifiable way, hence in a
scientifically more satisfactory way).
It is therefore obvious that the preconditions are there to make MUCH BETTER
statements regarding the Age of the Rgveda than in the previous century. And
also that intensive exchange between disciplines is much needed. The time may
not yet have arrived to make definite statements. This need not be a drawback:
being able to work with uncertainties marked a certain maturity in sciences
like mathematics and physics. (After all, when one issue is more or less
solved, a new one of an earlier era presents itself with more urgency.) But as
far as our issue is concerned, who among present-day scholars can claim he
makes full use of the favorable preconditions?
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