HOW ANCIENT IS THE VEDIC TRADITION and how did it begin? Was it the creation of a people who invaded India from outside, as many European scholars believed for centuries? Or did it arise among an indigenous people of northern India? In this chapter we will ask where the Vedic tradition originated, and in the next chapter, we will consider when it came into existence. In the third chapter, we will consider its relation to European civilization.
According to the Vedic tradition, the Veda is eternal. It exists within the eternal fabric of consciousness itself. As such it is uncreated. But even so, we can ask, when was the Veda first cognized? And when did the tradition of reciting the Veda begin? Did Invaders of India Create the Vedic Tradition?
Many myths about the Veda and Vedic tradition have formed that must be dispelled before we can get an accurate picture of its origins. One myth is that a race of light skinned Aryan peoples invaded India from outside, pushing the dark-skinned natives, called Dravidians, into the south. According to this theory, the lighter-skinned race invaded India in an incursion that took place, some scholars project, around 1,500 BC.
This myth persisted long after an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, and a consensus of archeologists, showed that it is completely untenable. It must be discredited before we can get an accurate picture of the character of Vedic Civilization.
As we will see, the Veda was first “cognized,” not by invading races from outside India, but by a people who had lived continuously in India for thousands of years. Also, the dates commonly ascribed to the origin of the Vedic tradition are probably off by many thousands of years. Archeologists at Harvard, Oxford, and other top universities in the US and Europe are now widely agreed that there was no invasion of India from outside that displaced the peoples of the Saraswati and Indus river valleys.
This civilization arose within northern India and there is also evidence, which we will consider in the next chapter, that Vedic civilization was either a precursor to the Indus-Saraswati civilization or an early contributor to its cultural and spiritual heritage. Vedic civilization arose in India many millennia before the speculative mythologies of the past suggest.
Origins of the Indo-European Hypothesis
Linguistic similarities between Indian and European languages were recognized bythe earliest European scholars. In the late eighteenth century, it was observed thatSanskrit, Iranian, and most European languages share many common words andgrammatical structures. Early linguists classified Vedic Sanskrit and the majority ofEuropean tongues in the same “family of Indo-European languages.”
Sir William Jones was the first to show that there are many common cognate words shared by Sanskrit and European languages. Speaking to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on February 2, 1786, Jones made a statement which was soon to become quite famous:
…the Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.1
A quick glance at some of the common cognate words of English and Sanskrit shows definite family resemblances that Jones spoke about:
Common Cognate Words Shared by English and Sanskrit
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In nineteenth century, the German linguist Friedrich Schlegel suggested that the main body of European languages were derived from Sanskrit. Schlegel’s suggestion was widely rejected, mainly because European scholars did not like to think that their language and culture derived from India. But the early nineteenth century it was widely recognized that all European languages and the Indic languages belonged to a common “family,” distinct, for example, from Chinese, African, and American Indian language families and groups. All but a few of the European languages, such as Basque for example, belong to this distinct family of Indo-European languages. Thus, the idea that an Indo-European language was at the root of the family of the main body of European languages came into prominence.
To many European scholars of the nineteenth century (characterized more by their Euro-centrism than by scientific attitudes towards peoples of other cultures), the idea that the family of European languages family could have originated in India was unthinkable. It was just not culturally acceptable to think that the roots of European language and culture could be traced to darker-skinned peoples indigenous to India. So European thinkers began to speculate about a pre-historic “proto-Indo-European” race who had migrated from somewhere in Western Asia, perhaps around the Black Sea, Eastern Europe, or Russia, to settle in India and in Europe. This, as we will see, was a purely racial and cultural bias, with no basis in archeological fact.
Many European scholars immediately bought in to the “Indo-European hypothesis,” which was the stimulus to develop the discipline of historical linguistics. European scholars like Max Muller, Thomas Young, Joseph de Goubinau, Dwight Witney, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, A.L. Basham, George Cox, and John Fiske all adopted the theory of Indo-European origins. They commonly proposed that a people speaking “proto-Indo- European” came from somewhere in central or Western Asia or southeastern Europe, invaded India from the northwest, overran the local culture, and settled in the north of India.
These Indo-Europeans were said to be “Aryans” in race and language, which meant primarily fair-haired and light-skinned people. By the twentieth century they were conceived, mainly by German scholars, as a blue-eyed, blond race that was the stock of the Germanic people—all nicely fitting the cultural-political-racial agendas of Western Europe—and Nazi Germany in particular.
In spite of the large number of scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who believed the invasion theory, it turns out, as we see below, that there is almost no shred of evidence to support it. It is one of the great myths formed by European scholars to support their bias that outside invaders created early Indian civilization. Anthropologist today find all evidence points to an origin of the Vedic tradition that is indigenous to northern India.
Scientific Archeology: The End of the Invasion Theory
In the 1990s, a new wave of scientific evidence, coming partly from satellite photos, geological study, archeological digs, and other anthropological finds began to seriously discredit the old myth. Once the rubble of false assumptions was cleared away, a far more simple scientific picture of the origins of ancient north Indian civilization began to emerge.
Professor Colin Renfrew, professor of archeology at Cambridge University, in his Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, (1988) gives evidence for Indo-Europeans in India as early as 6,000 BC. He comments:
As far as I can see there is nothing in the Hymns of the Rigveda which demonstrates that the Vedic-speaking population was intrusive to the area: this comes rather from a historical assumption about the ‘coming’ of the Indo-Europeans.3
Professor Schaffer at Case Western University writes in “Migration, Philology and South Asian Archaeology” that there was an indigenous development of civilization in India going back to at least 6000 BC. He proposes that the Harappan or Indus Valley urban culture (2600-1900 BC) centered around the Saraswati river described in the Rig Veda and states that the Indus Valley culture came to an end, not because of outside invaders, but due to environmental changes, most important of which was the drying up of the Saraswati river.
Schaffer holds that the movement of populations away from the Saraswati to the Ganges after the Saraswati dried up in about 1900 BC, is reflected in the change from the Saraswati-based literature of the Rig Veda to the Ganges-based literature of the Itihasa and Puranic texts. He also states that the Aryan invasion theory reflects a colonial and Euro-centric perspective that is quite out of date. He concludes:
We reject most strongly the simplistic historical interpretations…that continue to be imposed on south Asian culture history…Surely, as south Asian studies approach the twenty-first century, it is time to describe emerging data objectively rather than perpetuate interpretations without regard to the data archaeologists have worked so hard to reveal.4
Anthropologist Brian Hemphill of Vanderbilt University has been studying the human remains of the northern Indian subcontinent for years. He states categorically that his analysis shows no indication of population replacement or large-scale migration.5
Archaeologist Mark Kenoyer, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and co-director of the Harappa Archeological Research project, holds that the invasion theory is completely unsupported by archeological, linguistic, or literary evidence. He writes in an article on the Indus valley civilization:
If previous scholars were wrong about the origin of the Indus people, they also missed the boat when it came to explaining their downfall, which they attributed to an invasion by Indo-Aryan speaking Vedic tribes from the northwest.6
Archeological evidence simply does not support the thesis of an outside invasion. Kenoyer argues, “It’s likely that the rivers dried up and shifted their courses, altering trade routes and undermining the economy.” Kenoyer holds that the Indus valley script can be traced to at least 3,300 BC—making it as old or older than the oldest Sumerian written records.
Archaeologist Kenneth Kennedy writes that no Aryan skeletons have been found in the Indus valley that differ from the skeletons of indigenous ethnic groups. All prehistoric human remains recovered from the Indian subcontinent are phenotypically identifiable as south Asians. Furthermore their biological continuity with living peoples of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the border regions is well established across time and space.7
Scientific archeology, it is now safe to say, no longer gives the invasion theory a grain of credibility. It has lost its supporters among serious scientists.
Also, as professor Renfrew argues, there is no internal evidence from the ancient Vedic literature that Vedic civilization originated outside India. The verses of the Rig Veda, the most ancient songs of Vedic tradition, detail many aspects of daily life of the people. There is no hint in this vast literature of a migration or of a history that lies in a homeland beyond the mountains of northern India. All evidence from archeology, anthropology, and Vedic literature indicate that Vedic civilization was indigenous to northern India. Geological data now explains the demise of the Indus and Saraswati valley civilizations in terms of climactic change, bringing an end to the outside-invasion theory.
Causes of the Decline of the Indus-Saraswati Civilization
Geological and archeological evidence, it turns out, give strong evidence that a long and devastating drought followed by devastating floods led to the abandonment of the settlements along the banks of the Indus and Saraswati rivers in western India, ending an urban civilization that had flourished, archeologists now surmise, sometime between 2,600 BC and 1,900 BC. The Indus and Saraswati valley civilization was vast and widespread, and covered over 250,000 square miles, from north central India in the east all the way to the eastern edge of Iran in the west. There is no evidence to suggest that this vast civilization was destroyed by Indo-European Aryan invaders, but rather, it is now virtually certain that its demise came as a result of widespread climatic changes that occurred in 1,900 BC.
Recent studies by Louis Flam of H. H. Lehman College of the City University of New York have shown that the course of the Indus river changed dramatically around 1,900 BC, probably flooding many settlements along the river and disrupting the Indus valley civilization. Jim Schaffer of Case Western University has found impressive evidence that settlers of the Indus valley migrated at this time east to the plane of the Ganges.8
Mortimer Wheeler, the anthropologists who excavated Mohenjo-Daro in the in the 1920s , one of the most well-preserved cities of the Indus Valley civilization, brought to the project an “outside invasion theory.” He found unburied skeletons in the most recent layers of the city which led him to think that he had evidence that the civilization was overrun by invaders from outside. More reliable recent evidence has shown that the people of the Indus valley were not victims of invasion and massacre, but that their civilization withered as a result of various climactic changes, including prolonged droughts and extensive flooding, and possibly also earthquakes that changed the course of the rivers.
It was not outside invaders of India who brought an end to the Indus-Saraswati civilization, but a series of climactic changes and natural disasters. The biases of European scholarship caused them to see invaders where there were none. They existed only in the imagination of European scholars.
Historical Linguistics and Migrations of Early Civilization
The other issue that needs to be considered is language origins. Historical linguistics appears to detect patterns of language change which some think may imply patterns of migration of early peoples, and which may therefore provide a clue to the origins of Vedic civilization.
The original theory proposed by the early historical linguistics who considered these issues was that Vedic Sanskrit conserved the original sound system of the “proto-Indo- European” language most closely, and that Iranian and European languages underwent a systematic sound shift, creating break-away or daughter languages spoken by the people who populated India and Europe.9 According to this theory, Vedic Sanskrit was put at near the trunk of the proto-Indo-European language tree, if not the trunk itself.
This theory has been challenged and hotly debated in recent years, most especially by computer linguists.10 Since the 1990s, it is now common for computer linguists to hold that Sanskrit is not so near the root of the Indo-European language tree, but a subsequent branch. A currently dominant theory is that the original Indo-European language stemmed from an Indo-European proto-language that has since been lost.
The first languages to break off from the proto-Indo-European root, according to the dominant contemporary linguistic theories, was Anatolian (the language of what is now central Turkey), followed by Celtic (a language found in nearby Thrace in northeastern Greece, and also Ireland suggesting that there was a commerce or colonization between Ireland and early Thrace), then Greek, and then Armenian.11 According to these theories, the Indian and Iranian language groups are still later branches off the proto-Indo-European “root.”
The linguistic evidence appears to imply migrations of people from the Black Sea area into India, and yet there is no anthropological evidence to support either a migration into northern India, or an invasion. Evidence from skeletal remains, as we saw, as well as pottery and other artifacts; show no cultural replacement at any time in north Indian history. This makes it difficult to conclude that a people speaking a proto-Indo-European root language migrated to India from outside, resulting in a language shift to the daughter language of Sanskrit. The hard anthropological evidence just does not support such a view. How else, then, can we account for the apparently late evolution of Sanskrit from the proto-Indo-European root language?
Eminent computer linguists caution against drawing conclusions from computer simulated language programs—which may reflect the assumptions of the programmers more than the branches of the linguistic tree.12 They caution that computer linguists tend to program in assumptions that reflect their own biases and expectations, and therefore the outcomes cannot be any more accurate than the assumptions. Computer linguistics does not necessarily mean unbiased, objective linguistics, but may, on the contrary, program in distinct biases of the linguists. If linguists start with a theory of an outside invasion, they will naturally bring those biases into their work, and it is not unthinkable that such biases have colored computer and historical linguistic theories.
It also needs to be pointed out that if a false assumption is programmed in, then anything at all can come out. Anything at all can be derived from a false assumption. If the assumption that Sanskrit is not the proto-Indo-European language root be false, then anything follows.
More on the Indo-European Proto-Language
In 1990, Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, authors of the two volume The Indo-European Language and the Indo-Europeans,13 published an article in Scientific American, in which they state, “The landscape described by the reconstructed Indo-European proto-language is mountainous—as evidenced by the many words for high mountains, mountain lakes and rapid rivers flowing from mountain sources.” They note also that, “the [proto-Indo-European language] has words for animals that are alien to Europe, such as “leopard,” “snow leopard,” “lion,” “monkey” and “elephant.””14 The authors suggest, on the basis of this and other linguistic evidence, that the homeland of the proto-Indo-Europeans was somewhere in the Caucasian mountains of western Asia near the Black Sea in around 4000 BC.
These same words could be used to make the case that the mountainous terrain, and more especially the elephant, monkey, and snow leopard are more commonly found in the region of northern India and the Himalayas.15 If the words for elephant, monkey, snow leopard, and mountains are in fact more abundant in the Indo-European protolanguage, this would most likely put the proto-Indo-European home somewhere in the Himalayan region of northern India, rather than in the Mountains to the east of the Black Sea. This would tend to support the hypothesis that the Indo-European protolanguage originated in the region of the Himalayas of northern India and Tibet, rather than in the area of central Turkey, where there are few monkeys and elephants.
At present, there is simply not enough evidence to discern the early patterns of migration and language shift that brought about the different language groups. We can say with relative certainty, however, that the Vedic people did not migrate into India from outside, so it is relatively unlikely that the Vedic language came from outside India. Thus the origins of Vedic Sanskrit remain obscure.16
Many linguists stress that our “linguistic heritage, while it may tend to correspond with cultural continuity, does not imply genetic or biological descent. There is no more reason to suppose that we, as speakers of an Indo-European language, are descended biologically from the speakers of proto-Indo-European, than that the English speaking population of Nigeria is Anglo-Saxon.”17 It is necessary to be very careful in drawing conclusions about migration patterns and racial origins from linguistic evidence.
Rules of Language Transformation
A main tool of historical linguistics is the set of rules of sound and grammatical transformation governing the language change. One language evolves into another due to cultural or geographic separations of peoples due to migrations or other cultural displacements, such as conquest. Using the rules of historical linguistics, it appears to be possible to discern patterns of change and to determine which language has shifted into the other.
One such rule is the softening of consonants over time. Thus, for example, the “v” in the Sanskrit “Veda,” meaning knowledge, is transformed into the softer English “w” in “wit,” “witten,” “wisdom” and the German “wissen,” which also means knowledge, and derives from the more ancient Sanskrit root. The Sanskrit “deva” is transformed into the softer Latin “deus,” Greek “theos,” Lithuanian “dewas,” Irish “dia,” and Old Prussian “diews.”
Using such transformation rules, linguists attempt to reconstruct which languages are earlier and which broke off later in the transmutation of language. Historical linguists assume that these rules are constant over time and that they apply to early transformations as well as later ones.
If we assume that the basic rules of language transformations are constant and do not mutate over time, then these conclusions follow. But could there have been sound shifts in the opposite direction at much earlier times in history? Perhaps different laws applied at the time when Vedic Sanskrit changed from and to other languages.
Consider that there are also changes in the reverse direction. For example, the “g” in the Sanskrit “go,” (meaning cow) is transformed into the harder consonant “k,” to make the German word “kuh” for cow. The English word “cow,” pronounced with a hard “k,” is a harder, guttural form than the “g” in the Sanskrit “go.”
Also, in the case of the Vedic tradition, we have a people who were highly conscious of language and sound and the rules of sound transformation, even from the early Vedanga period. The Vedangas give elaborate theories of sound and its relation to meaning. Ancient Sanskrit grammar has its own rules for the transformation of consonants, internal rules for change, codified in ancient texts on phonology and grammar (Nirukta and Vakaran), both of which express elaborate theories of sound. Such self-reflective theories at an early date may have influenced the direction of language shift and may be anomalous to the rules applied in later linguistic theory.
Other hypotheses may explain why Vedic Sanskrit appears to not be the proto-Indo-European root language. One might propose, for example, that an early form of Sanskrit arose in northern India, and that some north Indian peoples migrated west to the Black Sea area, where their language mutated into Anatolian, Armenian, Celtic, and Greek.
Then language change within Vedic Sanskrit, due to self-reflective grammatical theories, have mutated this earlier form of Sanskrit in a direction contrary to the typical rules of linguistic transformation.
Computer simulated models of language change may be simply wrong or misleading. In other words, the transformation “rules” of historical linguistics may not apply to changes as early as Vedic Sanskrit. Or they may reflect more the racial and cultural biases of the programmers. Rather than assume a migration from the Black Sea area into India, which is not supported by anthropological evidence, we must simply acknowledge that we do not have enough knowledge to discern the early patterns of migration of the people who wrote the Vedic literature. The simplest hypothesis to account for the data may be that Vedic Sanskrit is itself is the mother tongue of the proto-Indo-European peoples.
Summary: Euro-centrism and Objective Science
For years, theories of the origins of the Indo-European people were based on small bits of evidence that were used to make sweeping generalizations. The Euro-centric perspective so heavily biased the discussion that it became necessary for scientists of the later twentieth century to re-examine and re-balance the perspectives in order to remove long-standing misconceptions formed by two centuries of speculative mythmaking.
When these misconceptions are eliminated by objective science, no evidence remains that the Veda tradition came to India from outside. Now we come to our second main question, How long ago was the Veda first cognized? When did the Veda first come to be known in the civilization of India? How far back in time does the Vedic tradition go?
1 Quoted in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. William Morris (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), article by Calvert Watkins, p. XIX.
2 G. S. Rayall, English and Sanskrit: A Common Heritage of Words, (Patiala: Punjab University Press, 1996).
3 Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archeology at Cambridge University, in his famous work, Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988) Renfrew also sees evidence that the Indo-Europeans were in Greece as early as 6,000 BC.
4 in Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia: Evidence, Interpretation and History, ed. by Bronkhorst and Deshpande, University of Michigan Press.
5 See Jonnathan Mark Kenoyer, “Birth of a Civilization.” Archeology, January/February 1998, 54-61, p.
6 Mark Kenoyer, “Indus Valley: Secrets of a Civilization” in Wisconsin, Fall 1998. See also E.J.H. Mackay, Further Excavations at Mohenjo-daro, 1938, p. 222.
7 Kenneth Kennedy, “Have Aryans Been Identified in the Prehistoric Skeletal Record from South Asia” appearing in The Indo-Aryans of South Asia (Walter de Gruyter, 1995) Kennedy writes, “Assumptions that blondism, blue-grey eyes and light skin pigmentation are physical hallmarks of either ancient Aryans or of members of Brahmin and other social groups in modern south Asia, find their origins in the improper marriage of excerpts from Vedic texts with nineteenth century Germanic nationalistic writings.”
8 See Jonnathan Mark Kenoyer, “Birth of a Civilization.” Archeology, January/February 1998, 54-61, p. 60.
9 Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, “Family Tree of the Indo-European Languages,” Scientific American, March, 1990, p. 110 and following.
10 Dr. Don Ringe and Dr. Ann Taylor, two linguists at the University of Pennsylvania, with the help of computer scientist Dr. Tandy Warnow, developed a computer algorithm to sift through the Indo- European languages and look for grammatical and phonetic similarities between them. Their work, published in 1996, has thrown up four possible family trees. “We have come up with a favorite,” says Dr. Warnow. The tree shows that the first breakaway language was Anatolian, an ancient group of languages once spoken in Turkey. Celtic was quick to follow, spawning Irish, Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. Armenian and Greek then developed from proto-Into-European. Strangely enough, one of the later branches to emerge, according to the runs of the computer programs, was Sanskrit.
11 It is interesting that the Celts settled in Thrace in northern Greece, just a short distance from Anatolia. Thrace was the birthplace of the Orphic mysteries which swept into Greece in the sixth century BC. Celtic is one of the earliest languages, along with Anatolian and Greek, to break off from the Indo European proto-language. The technique for self-knowledge described by Socrates were said to have come from Thrace. The Anatolians of central Turkey occupied the area near where the pre-Socratic tradition sprang up in the sixth century BC. This suggests that a technique was passed from India into the Celtic language.
12 Personal communication with several faculty of the linguistics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
13 Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, The Indo-European Language and the Indo-Europeans, (published in Russian in 1984)
14 Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, “Family Tree of the Indo-European Languages,” Scientific American, March, 1990, p. 110 and following.
15 Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, “Family Tree of the Indo-European Languages,” Scientific American, March, 1990, p. 110 and following. The authors argue that more “recent evidence now places the probable origin of the Indo-European language in western Asia.” They hypothesize that the proto- Indo-Europeans originated sometime around 4,000 BC in the region around the Black Sea.
16 Radio-carbon dating of skeletal remains of the “Kennikut man” found in the late 1990s in the Columbia river gorge on the west coast of north America shows that caucasoidal men inhabited Oregon more than ten thousand years ago. Some words of the Klamath Indians of that region of Oregon are also of apparent Indo-European origin. The Klamath word which means “to blow” is “pniw” and may be linked to the Greek “pneu” which means breath or to blow, and ultimately to the Sanskrit “prana” which means breath. Linguists assume this was mere accident before the discovery of Caucasoid remains in the area. This would suggest that a migration into the Americas took place 10,000 years ago or more—and the immigrants brought with them an Indo-European language, putting the dates of the proto-European root at before 10,000 BC. The Rig Veda civilization, like the American Indians, had a bow and arrow technology. Rig Vedic civilization can be placed in time as more advanced than the Indian culture of 10,000 years ago.
17 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. William Morris (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), article by Calvert Watkins, p. XX.
(from the book “Origins of Vedic Civilization” by Kenneth Chandler, Ph.D.)