The Vedas are not a book like the Old Testament or the New Testament or the Zend-avesta, but a virtual library. The Vedas are not the product of a person or a period. They represent the contributions of many; they came into existence over a period of years.
- The three Vedas had preceded the Atharva-veda possibly by thousands of years.
- In each Veda, the Brahmanas and Aranyakas precede the Upanishads. While the body of Vedas is devoted to rituals and prayer, the Upanishadsencapsulate philosophical thoughts of the greatest subtlety. The Rishis belonging to specific Shakhas of the Vedas added the Upanishads to their respective Shakhas, thus letting the Vedas grow. The ripening of thoughts within the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads is there for all to see. The Samhitas must have preceded the Upanishads portion of the Vedas by several hundred years.
The Precise Date
It is to be noted that for studying the precise date of the Vedas, the earlier parts of the work is mostly referred.
Based on the premise of the ‘Aryan Invasion’, the Harappan 3500 BCE marked the beginning of the settlement. The alien invaders had to settle down in the new location, imbibe the local milieu and produce their literature – the Vedas. This easily could warrant two millennia.
Therefore, it was surmised, reasonably, that the Vedas were ‘revealed’ in 1500 BCE, give or take 500 years. In addition to Indologists like Max Muller, respected historians like A.L. Basham have gone by this 1500 BCE as the age of the Vedas and by implication the Vedic Civilization.
Vedas and the Harappan Civilization
“This great Vedic literature requires a great urban culture to explain it; just as the great Harappan urban culture requires a literature to explain it. Both come from the same region and cannot be separated.”
Young students of Sanskrit are always cautioned against ‘Dooranvayam’ – the practice of bringing together two words, which are not adjacent to each other to obtain a (desired) meaning. This principle of simplicity in construct is relevant in reconstruction/theorizing on history. The Harappan civilization and the Vedas, both of which were found in the Gangetic plains, have been linked through a Central Asian tribe. The Aryan Invasion theory was a stretched imagination of what could have happened 3500 years ago. Fortunately, the discovery of ‘Saraswati’ has undone this fiction.
From the date of the civilization to that of its literature – the Vedas, in all fairness, one question need be raised and answered. The question is – Whether the Vedas were produced during the Harappan days or after the southwestward migration.
Following the method of the ancient preceptors, the case can be examined in the following manner:-
First look at the possibility of the ‘Poorva-paksha’, the anti-thesis. For instance, let us assume that the Vedas were produced not during the Harappan days, but during the post Harappan days, which would let the dating of the Vedas at 1500 BCE. This would occur despite the invalidation of the Aryan Invasion theory.
Again, if we assume, for a moment, that the Vedas had been composed in 1500 BCE, from then on till 500 BCE (the recorded advent of Buddhism), the following events had to be filled in
- The Puranic events of the pre-Ramayana period
- The Ramayana
- The Mahabharata and
- The decline of Vedic ritualism and the advent of Buddhism.
Thousand years is too small a period to fit in all these epochal events. The period from the Ramayana to the Mahabharata itself is estimated to be thousand years. Therefore, it stands to reason that at least the early parts of the Vedic literature would have been composed on the banks of the river Saraswati, prior to the migration. One date we can put on the Vedas is that they were certainly produced earlier to 3500 BCE.
If the Vedas had been composed on the banks of the river Saraswati, we still need answer to the question; at what stage would the composition have taken place. In the Rig-veda-samhita, the oldest part of the Vedic literature, there is reference to Saraswati.
Pra ksodasa dhayasa sasra
esa sarasvati dharunamayasi puh
Prababadhana rathyeva yati
visva apo mahina sindhuranyah II
Rig-veda, Mandala 7, Adhyaya 95, Anuvaka 6, Mantra I
Translated as – Pure in her course from the mountains to the ocean, alone of streams Saraswati hath listened.
The mighty Saraswati River and its civilization are referred to in the Rig-veda more than fifty times. It stands to reason that Saraswati acquired this state of reverence during its hay days and not after it started drying.
Mahabharata to the Vedas
The period of Mahabharata is established with a fair degree of certainty at 3000 BCE. From the Mahabharata to the Vedas we can work back through –
- A Dynasty of Kings and
- A Lineage of Teachers
Dynasty of Kings
In the Mahabharata, the genealogy of kings upto Dharmaputra (the eldest of the Pandavas) is listed. Considering the period of Mahabharata as 3000 BCE, we can reach the period of Ramayana, the beginning of the Puranic period and from thereon to the Vedic period.
|~||King||Gene-||At25yrs||At 20 yrs||Event|
|1||Krishna||3000||3000||Mahabharata, the beginning of the Kaliyuga|
|2||Rama to Krishna||54||1350||1080|
|3||Rama||4350||4080||Beginning of the Dwapara yuga|
|4||Bhagiratha to Rama||20||500||400|
|5||Bhagiratha||4850||4480||Change in Ganga’s course|
|6||Bhagiratha to Puranic Kings||25||625||500|
|7||First of the Puranic Kings||5475||4980|
Lineage of Teachers
The Brihadaranyaka–upanishad talks of a lineage of 60 teachers from the Upanishadic period to Mahabharata.
Mahabharata à 3000 BCE
Number of teachers à 60
- At 30 years/generation à 4800 BCE
- At 35 years/generation à 5100 BCE
The Rishis and teachers fought but mental battles and therefore enjoyed much longer tenures than the poor kings who provided them their patronage.
Since the Upanishads came into being 1000 years after the Samhitas, for the Samhita part of the Vedas, we reach a date of 6000 BCE.
The Astronomical Markers
Independent of history, astronomy can help place events of great vintage, specific to even a day, depending upon the uniqueness of the astronomical marker used.
The Vedas contain descriptions of unique astronomical events of their period. Since it is agreed that the knowledge to work back the positions of a time gone by was not available, the descriptions should relate to the Vedic period. It is conceivable that some dramatic astronomical events are remembered for decades by the community, narrated to each other and retained in memory. The description in the Vedas could, in which case, follow the astronomical events by a few decades, not much more.
To reach any kind of conclusion on the basis of astronomical evidence, the event should be so unique that the conjunction of planets described should not be capable of occurring over a span of four thousand years, as the range of time within which the Vedic period is debated is truly that long.
There are multiple astronomical markers which answer this requirement of uniqueness which place the Vedas at 6000 BCE or earlier.
Weighing the evidence on hand, 6000 BCE or earlier is the date that one is able to place on Vedic literature. Without underestimating the antiquity of the Vedas, an attempt has been made to approach this delicate task objectively, by understanding it in an easy-to-fathom fashion.
When you are trying to figure out ‘what happened when, thousands of years ago’, one mistake that you could make is to imagine that you have got it right this time. New evidences would be found; there would be more appropriate interpretations of new and existing evidences. The only thing that we can aspire for is to sift the available data and reach fair conclusions, which we have attempted.
The Traditional Perspective
Traditionally, the Vedas are believed to be of divine origin and also eternal, which would suggest that the Vedas have been there since the birth of the present universe. The traditional belief as to the age of the universe (43, 20,000 years) happens to match with current ‘scientific understanding’ as well.
The law givers – Manu and Kautilya
Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number and in no other ancient law-book are their rights so well protected as in the Arthasastra. No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu. In all her history of warfare, Hindu India has few tales to tell of cities put to the sword or of the massacre of non-combatants. To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.
- Dr. A.L Basham, The Wonder that was India, (2000) p. 8.
Pride of India – A Glimpse Into India’s Scientific Heritage
Compiled by Bharatiya Bouddhik Sampada ‘Anand Vilas’
Published by Samskrita Bharati