‘This is a remarkable book. It untangles the many complexities of the Vedas and combines Staal’s scholarly respect for the texts with explanations that are lucid and occasionally witty. His insights are thoughtful and perceptive.’
‘Wielding his forensic skills on a trail clouded over by many hooves, blending personal insight with a composite history pieced from eclectic sources, [Frits Staal] paints a people in transition from the nomadic to the sedentary. [He] rescues mantra from our commonplace view of it as ossified ritual [and] treats it as a venue of meaning and memory.’
In this unprecedented guide to the Vedas. Frits Staal, the celebrated author of Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar and Universals: Studies in Indian Logic and Linguistis, examines almost e very aspect of these ancient sources of Indic civilization.
Staal extracts concrete information from the Oral Tradition and Archaeology about Vedic people and their language, what they thought and did, and where they went and when. He provides essential information about the Vedas and includes selections and translations. He sheds light on mantras and rituals that contributed to what came to be known as Hinduism. Significant is a modern analysis of what we can learn from the Vedas today: the original forms of the Vedic sciences, as well as the perceptive wisdom of the composers of the Vedas. The author puts Vedic civilization in a global perspective through a wide-ranging comparison with other Indic philosophies and religions, primarily Buddhism.
For Staal, originally a logician, the voyage of discovering the Vedas is like unpeeling an onion but without the certainty of reaching an end. Even so his book shows that the Vedas have a logic all their own. Accessible, finely argued, and with a wealth of information and insight, Discovering the 1edas is for both the scholar and the interested lay reader.
Frits Staal has written about language, philosophy and ritual but his scientific pursuits encompass diverse areas and disciplines. Born in Amsterdam in 1930, he studied several languages, including Creek and Arabic. But concentrated on physics and mathematical logic before a Government of India scholarship took him to India. Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. He travelled on both sides of the Himalayas taught and did research for extended periods in Europe and Asia. But spent most of his life in the Departments of Philosophy and of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Where he is now Professor Emeritus. His most well-known books are The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Universals: Studies in Indian Logic and Linguistics and Rules without Meaning. After retirement he moved to Thailand. Having long predicted that civilization would return to Asia under the intellectual guidance of India and China.
He who studies understands, not the one who sleeps.
The beings of the mind are not of clay.
Byron, Childe Harold
The Vedas are often regarded as abstract and mysterious sacred books. If there is one thing the Vedas are not, it is sacred books: they are oral compositions in a language that was used for ordinary communication; and were handed down by word of mouth like that language itself. Though the Rigveda is said in English to consist of ten ‘books’, it is a misleading mistranslation of Sanskrit mandala which means ‘cycle’. The expression ‘sacred book’ is also an erroneous appellation. It is applicable to the Bible or Qur’an and was insisted upon by missionaries and colonial administrators who could not imagine anything else. It is less easy to explain why this misleading construction has been thoughtlessly embraced by moderns. It is true that the Vedic poets were regarded as inspired and their speech was considered a powerful agent. The Rigveda says: ‘Soma unpressed has ever elated Indra, nor its pressed juices unaccompanied sublime language (brahman)’ (RV 7.26.1). It nowhere says that the Veda is revealed or sruti, literally ‘what is heard.’ It is heard only in the sense that it is transmitted from father to son or from teacher to pupil. The Vedas are an Oral Tradition and that applies especially to two of the four: the Veda of Verse (Rig-veda) and the Veda of Chants (Samaveda). Another anachronistic idea is that the Vedas are apauruseya, ‘of non-human origin’. They never regard themselves as such. The idea comes from the Purva Mimamsa, a philosophical system that arose several centuries after the end of the Vedas. The Rigveda was composed by poets, human individuals whose names were household words even before there were households:
Visvamitra, ‘Friend of All’, Bharadvaja, ‘Bearing Strength’, Dirghatamas, ‘Seeing Far into Darkness’. These poets were not addressed by gods. They used the brahman of Vedic invocations to address gods. I have translated brahman as ‘language’ and not ‘speech’, a common rendering, for reasons that will become increasingly clear in the course of this book.
My book will demonstrate that the Vedas are not one or all of a piece. It is easier to say what they are not than what they are. The Vedas had no founder or supreme authority, no popes or pontiffs, and neither were they associated with temples or icons. They refer to a variety of priests with distinct ritual tasks (sixteen in the classical Srauta ritual), but no hymns or prayers, English words often met with in translations. There are gods, on earth and in heaven, but they do not dispense grace (with the possible exception of Varuna, who came from Bactria). They do not expect loving devotion or bhakti. The Vedas are not a religion in any of the many senses of that widespread term. They have always been regarded as storehouses of ‘knowledge’, that is: veda. But they are more than that. They embody a civilization.
The idea of writing a book about the Vedas that addresses both the scholar and the interested lay reader came from Romila Thapar. It was also inspired by Wendy Doniger’s Rigveda selections published in Penguin Classics, a book that was written ‘for people, not for scholars.’ That selection of ‘one hundred and eight hymns’, a tenth of the Rigveda which is the first and earliest of the four Vedas, contains beautiful translations and a mass of scholarship.
The Vedas are often puzzling; sometimes abstract or mysterious; they may also be muddled; but those are the exceptions, not the rule. They overflow with information, much of it concrete. Part I of my book extracts such information from the Oral Tradition but also from archaeology. It deals with Vedic people and their language, what they thought and did, and where they went and when. Part II, almost twice as long as any of the others, provides essential information about the canonized four Vedas as we know them. It includes selections and translations. Part III seeks to discover and understand not only the facts and where they come from, but what they mean. It is analytic and attempts to shed light especially on mantras and ritual, about which many absurd statements circulate (ihgayanti as the Rigveda puts it: like words moving around in a sentence). Mantras and rituals are the main channels through which Vedic contributions entered what came to he known as Hinduism.
Parr III does not arrive at definite conclusions because I do not believe that we know and understand enough. Part IV tries to answer a rarely asked question: what can we learn from the Vedas? I do not advocate a Vedic lifestyle, but believe that there are things the composers of the Vedas knew and we do not. They include the original forms of the Vedic sciences and the meaning of brahman. Part V, the concluding part, puts the Vedas in perspective in a wide- ranging comparison with Indic philosophies and religions, primarily Buddhism.
Before going further, I should say something about myself and my work. In the realm of non-fiction, creativity thrives on specialization, yet I have always been convinced that the distinctions between letters, sciences and other manmade subdivisions and disciplines are arbitrary. The seeds for these beliefs were planted during World War II in Amsterdam. Though I count myself as a citizen of the world, and not a native of any particular country, it is in this cosmopolitan city that I attended a Gymnasium. We did do gymnastics there though we were not naked (Greek gumnos), but concentrated on mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography and several languages. Our teachers were not only teaching us these subjects, they were lively and eccentric men and women who were interested in developing our minds. The number of languages we learnt might baffle an Anglo-American, but not an Indian. In addition to Dutch, we were taught English, French, German, Greek, Latin, with optional Italian and Hebrew. To this I added Arabic which I continued to study at the universities of Amsterdam and Leiden.
Languages are the gateways to civilizations. I did not care for literature, but languages may be studied for a variety of reasons. The primary appeal of Arabic had been the beauty of its flowing calligraphy. Without it, I would not have read al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on algebra under the tutelage of a famous scholar. When I was younger, I had played about with Chinese characters; but did not continue, perhaps because I sensed that it might take a lifetime to learn them. The first three languages we learned to read and write at the Gymnasium were English, French and German. The last was the easiest but was not popular because of the German occupation. At the university, its horrors stayed fresh in our minds; but now we began to see similarities with the Dutch colonial empire. These acts might have been of a milder sort, but were detailed where necessary by the Indonesian students in our midst. The classical languages, five years of Latin and six of Greek, belonged to a more idealized world. But not one of dreams, because it gave access to ancient civilizations and especially to Greek philosophy which became my favourite. I continued with Greek philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where I combined philosophy and mathematics which led to the first subject I studied in greater depth: mathematical logic. It was the Lime of L.E.J. Brouwer in intuitionistic mathematics, Kurt Godel and Alfred Tarski in logic and foundations.
Amsterdam itself was, of course, ‘a center of culture’, though no one called it that. If I now try to remember how that quality appeared to me when I was young—a flavour that has evaporated in the course of more recent visits—I recall only the facts. When I walked from my home to the Gymnasium, I passed the Concertgebouw and sniffed the dusky air beneath the large passage gateway of the Rijksmuseum. I had been at home in the Concertgebouw since I was five years old. My violin teacher took me there during rehearsals when I was allowed to sit on a podium chair. I heard and saw all the great conductors of Europe before my legs could reach the floor. All of it prepared me to play the violin and viola in the student’s orchestra and in string quartets and quintets. These are perhaps the ultimate reasons that I added a fifth part to a book about the four Vedas.
The walk to the university was in the same direction as that to the Gymnasium but twice as fat I crossed the bridges that spanned the four concentric canals of the ancient city. It never occurred to me that the old buildings at their very centre would not be my future home. I was not interested in being a teacher or educator. ‘Scientist’ isn’t a special label in any language but English. French science, Dutch wetenschap, German Wissenschaft, Japanese gaku, Sanskrit sastra, etc., refer to any serious discipline. We paid no attention to practical applications such as technology, politics, economics, civics or business administration. Only basic sciences were taught and I was interested in all of them. Research and the search for truth, that was me.
In 1948, the year I became an undergraduate, the Tenth International Congress for Philosophy was held at Amsterdam. Three lectures fired my imagination. The first was by the intuitionist mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer, the greatest Dutch mathematician since Christian Huygens. Brouwer put a long quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita in the middle of a forest of mathematical symbols. The second was by I.M. Bochenski, a Dominican logician and historian of logic, who was Rector of the University of Freibourg in Switzerland and an expert on Marxism. The third was by T.M.P. Mahadevan from the University of Madras. He ended his talk with a quotation from Anandagiri: ‘An enlightened person does not become a bond slave of the Veda. The meaning that he gives of the Veda, that becomes the meaning of the Veda.’ T.M.P. is the first of three Mahadevans that are mentioned in this Preface.
After the war, we were free to travel, not only in our own country but all over Europe. Hitch-hiking, mostly in trucks that transported wine, was fashionable. The driver refilled his bottle at every stop from the tank behind and did the same for us. Virtually all students went south. Some of us lucky survivors reached Paris, the Côte d’Azur from Marseilles to La Spezia, Rome and the Greek temple at Paestum in southern Italy. My French and Italian were• fluent. There were no tourists. A few of us, including two Arabs from Indonesia, crossed the Mediterranean on the deck of a small cargo boat. We were a few weeks in Algeria until the French police became suspicious and ordered us out of the country.
Halfway through my graduate studies, a friend handed me a newspaper, the kind of thing he knew I never read:
‘Something for you!’ The Government of India was offering a one-year scholarship to a Netherlands student. I applied and was selected, much to my surprise, until I discovered that the Indians preferred a student who might have done something else and had an open mind, to a professed India expert. The Indian embassy told me that I had to choose a university forthwith. Since I knew only one, it became the University of Madras, at Madras, now Chennai. It was an almost blind but fortunate choice. My first Mahadevan, T.M.P., left me entirely free but corrected my English and forwarded from his own pocket my monthly stipend of two hundred rupees that generally arrived late. After three years, one spent at Benares, I obtained a PhD from the University of Madras for my thesis on Advaita and Neoplatonism: A Critical Study in Comparative Philosophy.
Fortunately for me, Indian philosophy was taught in Indian departments of philosophy through the medium of English. I knew, however, that one cannot study such a subject without Sanskrit. I could not follow the classes of V. Raghavan, one of the world’s great Sanskrit scholars, for beginning students already knew the language. But he found me a pandit who taught Sanskrit to little children using Panini’s grammar through the medium of Tamil; and was willing to use the same method for me but through English. Thus, I was taught Panini’s method before I learned Sanskrit. How did I do it? Again, I recall only some facts. First, I had to correctly pronounce my teacher’s name:
R. Sankarasubrahmanya Ayyar. Second, I walked daily, under a large black umbrella, from the Victoria Student Hostel in Triplicane to the Kuppuswami Research Institute in Mylapore. During holidays, my two hundred rupees enabled me to travel all over India, including Sri Lanka. The amount astounded the Dutch ambassador in New Delhi who arranged for the embassy to buy me a copy of Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary. It is still within arm’s reach from my desk. Study and travel—they were good beginnings and have continued through my life.
Here I should mention that, though a student of Vedanta or ‘end of the Vedas,’ I never learned anything about the Vedas. Outside academia I did discover that there are many Indian ideas about the Vedas—just as there is a German Greece, a French Greece, an English Greece, images that are all quite different from each other, as W.H. Auden had observed. I knew only one thing: that one should study Vedic as I had studied Latin and Greek. It is then that I discovered another entry to that apparently unknown realm. I heard the vigorous varieties of Vedic recitation not only in Madras and Tanjore, but in Dikshitar houses surrounding the temple of Siva Nawraja in Chidambaram. It opened my ears and gradually led to the study of Vedic ritual, not from books or Sanskrit texts, but on the terrain and especially among Nambudiri brahmans in Cochin and South Malabar. I began to make tape-recordings all over India. Some of my rarest recordings of Vedic recitation and chant were made during a ride across South India on an old Royal Enfield. ‘The complete collection is now being digitized at Berkeley and will be housed at the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology at Gurgaon.
At Banaras Hindu University (BHU), T.R.V. Murti had lint only taught me how to study Indian philosophy, but introduced me to a pandit in the old city under whose tutelage I nibbled at Navya Nyaya, the modern logic of India. But my three years in India were beginning to come to a close. I also had to look for a job. I returned to Amsterdam, expecting to do more work on logic, but obtained instead an assistant lectureship in Sanskrit at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London. Subsequently, I taught philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to Amsterdam to be given a title that was the result of long deliberations: ‘professor of general and systematical philosophy, including comparative philosophy.’ I was locally famous which proved to be stifling, a golden cage from which I escaped occasionally. In 1962, at the Stanford International Congress of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, I met Noam Chomsky and discovered that his linguistics was a straightforward combination of Panini and logic. I understood immediately what a packed auditorium of linguists failed to grasp. It led to a year of teaching the Sanskrit Grammarians at MIT and publication of my Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians.
Throughout the following decades, while teaching at Tokyo, Kyoto, Paris and other places, I continued to work in India. At BHU, Murti introduced me in Sanskrit as Abhinava Kautsa, a new Kautsa, not because he agreed with his thesis (see Chapter 8), but because he loved to discuss it. In the meantime, I had settled at the University of California at Berkeley with an appointment in Philosophy and an assignment to set up a new department of South Asian Studies to which, in due course, I added Southeast Asian. I continued to give lectures and do fieldwork in many Asian countries though my colleagues in philosophy never learned the difference between South and South-east Asia. Other Berkeley colleagues knew that, on one occasion, I had trekked across the western Himalayas into Zanskar and Ladakh; and on another, reached Mount Kailas and Lake Mansarovar via Peking and Lhasa. My publications began to pay attention to Thailand, Indonesia, Central Asia, China and Japan, where the wooden ladles used to make oblations in the Shingon Buddhist fire ritual have the same shapes as the Vedic.
The University of California allowed me to embark upon a decade of ritual studies, going up and down between Kerala and my California desk. A 1975 performance of the Agnicayana Vedic ritual in a small village was documented with the help of Harvard anthropological film-maker Robert Gardner and several others, including Romila Thapar and Adelaide de Menil. One outcome was the film Altar of Fire. The chief result was AGNI, the Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, published in two volumes, and in collaboration with the two ritual experts who had been in charge of the performance, C.V. Somayajipad and Itti Ravi Nambudiri (see Bibliography). Most of its 130 plates, in colour or black-and-white, come from Adelaide de Menil, including Figure 18 in this book and the one on the cover which depicts how one of the Vedic accents is taught, namely the ‘resounding’ (svarita) accent. When the pupil is about to recite the syllable on which it occurs, the teacher bends his head to the right. Other head movements are used for two other Vedic accents.
I should stop writing about myself and my work. But I cannot fail to add that in the meanwhile I moved to Thailand, having long predicted that civilization would return to Asia under the intellectual guidance of India and China.
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend