Back of the Book
‘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.’
From the Jacket
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, primari