Antiquity of the Vedas
Theosophist, October, 1879
A journal interested like the THEOSOPHIST in the explorations of archæology and archaic religions, as well as the study of the occult in nature, has to be doubly prudent and discreet. To bring the two conflicting elements—exact science and metaphysics—into direct contact, might create as great a disturbance as to throw a piece of potassium into a basin of water. The very fact that we are predestined and pledged to prove that some of the wisest of Western scholars have been misled by the dead letter of appearances and that they are unable to discover the hidden spirit in the relics of old, places us under the ban from the start. With those sciolists who are neither broad enough, nor sufficiently modest to allow their decisions to be reviewed, we are necessarily in antagonism. Therefore, it is essential that our position in relation to certain scientific hypotheses, perhaps tentative and only sanctioned for want of better ones—should be clearly defined at the outset.
An infinitude of study has been bestowed by the archaeologists and the orientalists upon the question of chronology—especially in regard to Comparative Theology. So far, their affirmations as to the relative antiquity of the great religions of the pre-Christian era are little more than plausible hypotheses. How far back the national and religious Vedic period, so called, extends—”it is impossible to tell,” confesses Prof. Max Müller; nevertheless, he traces it “to a period anterior to 1,000 B.C.,” and brings us “to 1,100 or 1,200 B.C., as the earliest time when we may suppose the collection of the Vedic hymns to have been finished.” Nor do any other of our leading scholars claim to have finally settled the vexed question, especially delicate as it is in its bearing upon the chronology of the book of Genesis. Christianity, the direct outflow of Judaism and in most cases the State religion of their respective countries, has unfortunately stood in their way. Hence, scarcely two scholars agree; and each assigns a different date to the Vedas and the Mosaic books, taking care in every case to give the latter the benefit of the doubt. Even that leader of the leaders in philological and chronological questions—Professor Müller, hardly twenty years ago, allowed himself a prudent margin by stating that it will be difficult to settle “whether the Veda is ‘the oldest of books,’ and whether some of the portions of the Old Testament may not be traced back to the same or even an earlier date than the oldest hymns of the Veda.” The THEOSOPHIST is, therefore, quite warranted in either adopting or rejecting as it pleases the so-called authoritative chronology of science. Do we err then, in confessing that we rather incline to accept the chronology of that renowned Vedic scholar, Swami Dayánund Saraswati, who unquestionably knows what he is talking about, has the four Vedas by heart, is perfectly familiar with all Sanskrit literature, has no such scruples as the Western Orientalists in regard to public feelings, nor desire to humour the superstitious notions of the majority, nor has any object to gain in suppressing facts? We are only too conscious of the risk in withholding our adulation from scientific authorities. Yet, with the common temerity of the heterodox we must take our course, even though, like the Tarpeïa of old, we be smothered under a heap of shields—a shower of learned quotations from these “authorities.”
We are far from feeling ready to adopt the absurd chronology of a Berosus or even Syncellus—though in truth they appear “absurd” only in the light of our preconceptions. But, between the extreme claims of the Brahmins and the ridiculously short periods conceded by our Orientalists for the development and full growth of that gigantic literature of the ante-Mahábháratan period, there ought to be a just mean. While Swami Dayánund Saraswati asserts that “The Vedas have now ceased to be objects of study for nearly 5,000 years,” and places the first appearance of the four Vedas at an immense antiquity; Professor Müller, assigning for the composition of even the earliest among the Brâhmanas, the years from about 1,000 to 800 B.C., hardly dares, as we have seen, to place the collection and the original composition of the Sanhitâ, of Rig-Vedic hymns, earlier than 1,200 to 1,500 before our era! 1 Whom ought we to believe; and which of the two is the better informed? Cannot this gap of several thousand years be closed, or would it be equally difficult for either of the two cited authorities to give data which would be regarded by science as thoroughly convincing? It is as easy to reach a false conclusion by the modern inductive method as to assume false premises from which to make deductions. Doubtless Professor Max Müller has good reasons for arriving at his chronological conclusions. But so has Dayánund Saraswati Pandit. The gradual modifications, development and growth of the Sanskrit language are sure guides enough for an expert philologist. But, that there is a possibility of his having been led into error would seem to suggest itself upon considering a certain argument brought forward by Swami Dayánund. Our respected friend and teacher maintains that both Professor Müller and Dr. Wilson have been solely guided in their researches and conclusion by the inaccurate and untrustworthy commentaries of Sayana, Mahidar, and Uvata, commentaries which differ diametrically from those of a far earlier period as used by himself in connection with his great work the Veda Bhashya. A cry was raised at the outset of this publication that Swami’s commentary is calculated to refute Sayana and the English interpreters. “For this,” very justly remarks Pandit Dayánund, “I cannot be blamed; if Sayana has erred, and English interpreters have chosen to take him for their guide, the delusion cannot be long maintained. Truth alone can stand, and Falsehood before growing civilization must fall.” 2 And if, as he claims, his Veda Bhashya is entirely founded on the old commentaries of the ante-Mahábháratan period to which the Western scholars have had no access, then, since his were the surest guides of the two classes, we cannot hesitate to follow him, rather than the best of our European Orientalists.
But, apart from such primâ facie evidence, we would respectfully request Professor Max Müller to solve us a riddle. Propounded by himself, it has puzzled us for over twenty years, and pertains as much to simple logic as to the chronology in question. Clear and undeviating, like the Rhône through the Geneva lake, the idea runs through the course of his lectures, from the first volume of “Chips” down to his last discourse. We will try to explain.
All who have followed his lectures as attentively as ourselves will remember that Professor Max Müller attributes the wealth of myths, symbols, and religious allegories in the Vedic hymns, as in Grecian mythology, to the early worship of nature by man. “In the hymns of the Vedas,” to quote his words, “we see man left to himself to solve the riddle of this world. He is awakened from darkness and slumber by the light of the sun” . . . and he calls it—”his life, his truth, his brilliant Lord and Protector.” He gives names to all the powers of nature, and after he has called the fire “Agni,” the sun-light “Indra,” the storms “Maruts,” and the dawn “Usha,” they all seem to grow naturally into beings like himself, nay greater than himself. 3 This definition of the mental state of primitive man, in the days of the very infancy of humanity, and when hardly out of its cradle—is perfect. The period to which he attributes these effusions of an infantile mind, is the Vedic period, and the time which separates us from it is, as claimed above, 3,000 years. So much impressed seems the great philologist with this idea of the mental feebleness of mankind at the time when these hymns were composed by the four venerable Rishis, that in his introduction to the Science of Religion (p. 78) we find the Professor saying: “Do you still wonder at polytheism or at mythology? Why, they are inevitable. They are, if you like, a parler enfantin of religion. But the world has its childhood, and when it was a child it spake as a child, (nota bene, 3,000 years ago), it understood as a child, it thought as a child . . . The fault rests with us if we insist on taking the language of children for the language of men. . . . The language of antiquity is the language of childhood . . . the parler enfantin in religion is not extinct . . . as, for instance, the religion of India.”
Having read thus far, we pause and think. At the very close of this able explanation, we meet with a tremendous difficulty, the idea of which must have never occurred to the able advocate of the ancient faiths. To one familiar with the writings and ideas of this Oriental scholar, it would seem the height of absurdity to suspect him of accepting the Biblical chronology of 6,000 years since the appearance of the first man upon earth as the basis of his calculations. And yet the recognition of such chronology is inevitable if we have to accept Professor Müller’s reasons at all; for here we run against a purely arithmetical and mathematical obstacle, a gigantic miscalculation of proportion . . .
No one can deny that the growth and development of mankind— mental as well as physical—must be analogically measured by the growth and development of man. An anthropologist, if he cares to go beyond the simple consideration of the relations of man to other members of the animal kingdom, has to be in a certain way a physiologist as well as an anatomist; for, as much as ethnology it is a progressive science which can be well treated but by those who are able to follow up retrospectively the regular unfolding of human faculties and powers, assigning to each a certain period of life. Thus, no one would regard a skull in which the wisdom-tooth, so called, would be apparent, the skull of an infant. Now, according to geology, recent researches “give good reasons to believe that under low and base grades the existence of man can be traced back into the tertiary times.” In the old glacial drift of Scotland—says Professor W. Draper—”the relics of man are found along with those of the fossil elephant”; and the best calculations so far assign a period of two-hundred-and-forty thousand years since the beginning of the last glacial period. Making a proportion between 240,000 years—the least age we can accord to the human race—and 24 years of a man’s life, we find that three thousand years ago, or the period of the composition of Vedic hymns, mankind would be just twenty-one—the legal age of majority, and certainly a period at which man ceases using, if he ever will, the parler enfantin or childish lisping. But, according to the views of the Lecturer, it follows that man was, three thousand years ago, at twenty-one, a foolish and undeveloped—though a very promising—infant, and at twenty-four, has become the brilliant, acute, learned, highly analytical and philosophical man of the nineteenth century. Or, still keeping our equation in view, in other words, the Professor might as well say, that an individual who was a nursing baby at 12 M. on a certain day, would at 12:20 P.M., on the same day, have become an adult speaking high wisdom instead of his parler enfantin!
It really seems the duty of the eminent Sanskritist and Lecturer on Comparative Theology to get out of this dilemma. Either the Rig-Veda hymns were composed but 3,000 years ago, and, therefore, cannot be expressed in the “language of childhood”—man having lived in the glacial period—but the generation which composed them must have been composed of adults, presumably as philosophical and scientific in the knowledge of their day, as we are in our own; or, we have to ascribe to them an immense antiquity in order to carry them back to the days of human mental infancy. And, in this latter case, Professor Max Müller will have to withdraw a previous remark, expressing the doubt “whether some of the portions of the Old Testament may not be traced back to the same or even an earlier date than the oldest hymns of the Vedas.”
1. Lecture on the Vedas.
2. Answer to the Objections to the Veda-Bháshya.
3. Chips from a German Workshop, vol. 1, p. 68.