Idiom and Grammar (and chariots again!)

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Sat Apr 7 20:45:41 EDT 2001

In a post yesterday, Subrahmanya S. -- defending S. Talageri's book on the
RV and attacking Michael Witzel -- claimed that I-E war chariots existed
only in the "fevered brains of entrenched eurocentic academics." I
responded by suggesting that Subrahmanya spend some time with M.
Sparreboom's _Chariots in the Veda_ (1985). When S. challenged me to point
to RV references to war chariots, I underlined one obvious hymn
(see infra) that contains explicit references of precisely this nature.

S. Bhatta then took up Subrahmanya's torch and -- since my evidence in
this case can't be faulted -- ignored that evidence and attacked my right
to point it out. Bhatta's apparent claim is that since I'm a comparative
historian and not a Vedic scholar I'm incapable of verifying my evidence:

> I believe in earlier posts you have suggested, perhaps even admitted, your lack of
> proficiency in the idiom and grammar of Sanskrit (Vedic or otherwise).
> Thus, without this engendered, I fail to see how you merely can point your finger
> toward some passages which you cannot read in the original language and expect to
> be taken seriously.

Let me respond to this seriously, ignoring Bhaatta's ad hominem intent,
since it touches on real methodological issues in comparative history. My
present work involves research in many premodern fields, and I don't claim
by any means to be a Vedic scholar (although my copies of
Monier-Williams and of Macdonell's _Vedic Grammar_ are getting a bit worn
by now). I began looking intensely at Vedic traditions several years ago,
attempting to solve some puzzling theoretical questions about textual
layering and processes of canonization posed by my work in premodern
traditions outside India. But the fact that I came to Indology late doesn't
mean that I would fall into the amateurish trap (like Talageri) of basing
my opinions about any RV passage (let alone claiming that I had produced an
"invincible" interpretation of the whole text!!) based on Griffith's
Victorian translation or late-ancient sources like the
Anukramanis. (On Talageri's reliance on such materials and -- despite his
claims otherwise -- on Puranic texts as well, see Michael Witzel's
exhaustive analysis at

If you want to do serious work as a comparative historian, you need to be
competent in a half dozen languages at a minimum; you are also expected to
verify any novel conclusion drawn from translated texts carefully against
the originals; but you cannot expect to become fluent in the
literally scores of languages that your research may require you to
investigate. Like comparative linguists and specialists in the ancient Near
East, comparative historians are forced to depend more heavily than most
premodernists on collaborators from other fields (resources that I heavily
cultivate in Indology, Sinology, and Mesoamerican studies; also
mathematics), all available philological tools (glossaries & word lists,
comparative grammars, etymological dictionaries, etc.), and on whatever
help is offered by the comparativist's knowledge of historically related
languages. Sanskrit idiom & grammar aren't *quite* so unfamiliar if you
approach them after years of studying (and producing scholarly translations,
in some cases) other premodern I-E languages like Latin & Greek,
and can read a half dozen other languages as well.

Any trained premodernist can make many valid inferences about the RV (if
not an "invincible" interpretation, like Talageri) if he or she
has the linguistic tools (as Talageri has not) to consult the
existing *scholarly* translations of the RV with notes in German
(Geldner), French (Renou), or Russian (Elizarenkova) -- and is willing to
doublecheck those translations when needed against Monier-Williams, the
_Vedic Indices_ of Macdonell-Keith, etc., and the mass of scholarly studies
in German, French, and other scholarly languages that Talageri hasn't taken
the time to learn.

You either do your homework or you don't.

In sum, I would never presume (unlike Talageri) to write a book on the RV
without becoming an RV Vedic expert -- although I might (and do) have
strong ideas about the the ways in which Vedic sources developed in layers
and were eventually canonized that I *do* routinely propose to Vedic
experts. (Like theorists in other fields, comparative historians propose,
but the specialists dispose.) But am I capable on my own of pointing to
obvious references to war chariots in RV 6.75 and other well-known
passages in the scholarly literature? I humbly submit that, after a quarter
century of historical training, and a reasonable understanding by now of
Vedic traditions, that I probably am.

In a related post, Arun Gupta writes:

> Steve[] Farmer seems to be saying that the war chariot apparently
> appears first in RV VI, which, according to him and accepted theory,
> is a late Mandala.

As M. Witzel correctly suggested earlier today, I did NOT imply that the war
chariot first appeared in RV 6. (I'm not sure what "first appeared" could
mean here, since RV 6 in the received text is made up of hymns from
different periods.)  I specifically picked an example of the war chariot
from RV 6.75 to underscore a point about Talaageri's book: RV studies,
using Oldenberg's methodologically tested means of detecting late additions
in the family books, showed long ago that RV 6.75 is a late hymn; but
Talageri (who has never read Oldenberg or the other classics of RV
scholarship, most of which even this outsider has read by now) claimed that
RV 6 is the oldest RV book; indeed, he dates it at the *youngest*
(supposedly a "conservative estimate") to between  3500 - 2900 BCE; see
here again Even a quick search
of the comparative data from Central Asia, the Middle East, and China would
have shown Talageri that no chariots existed anywhere on the planet in that
era -- let alone in S. Asia.

So the upshot of this is that a little study of comparative history can be
of real help to those interested in the RV. This includes non-Vedic
readers like Talageri who write "invincible" books on the RV based on
Victorian translations -- and comparativists like me who wouldn't presume
to do so.

S. Farmer

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