Re-vision | How antiquity of Rig Veda, other Vedic literatures was distorted to fit into Christian Genesis saga

Vedic literature consists of three successive classes of literary creations. Some of these still exist, while a large number have been completely lost forever

Makkhan Lal January 20, 2022 19:47:28 IST
Re-vision | How antiquity of Rig Veda, other Vedic literatures was distorted to fit into Christian Genesis saga

The Nadistuti Sukta from hymn 75 of the 10th mandala of the Rig Veda.

Editor's note: This series seeks to examine the areas of distortion in Indian history and the reasons for it. This piece, part one of the series, looks at the Rig Veda and Vedic literature.

In a series of a few forthcoming articles, I propose to discuss the areas of distortions in Indian history and the reasons of it. Some of the topic I propose to discuss here are cow eating in ancient India, science, mathematics and technology in ancient India, Aryan Invasion and so on. In this endeavour, I begin with the Rig Veda and the Vedic literature because the foundations of India’s history heritage and identity rests on them.

The date of the Rig Veda and Vedic literature has been the subject of a keen and protracted controversy. Max Mueller, most widely quoted on the antiquity of Sanskrit literature concluded that “as an experiment, though as no more than experiments, we propose to fix the years 600 and 200 BC as the limit of that age during which the Brahmanical literature was carried on in the style of sutras.”

After having fixed the date of the sutras, “though no more than experiment”, Max Mueller proceeded to date the Brahmanas and the Vedas. He opined that “it would seem impossible to bring [these] within a shorter space than 200 years. Of course, this is merely conjectural.” However, this “experiment” later turned out to be deadly because it started being followed as a dogma. The ultimate result of this “experiment” was that the Brahmanas were assigned a date bracket of 600-800 BC with the remark that, “although it is more likely that hereafter these limits will have to be extended.” Mueller further writes: “If we assign but 200 years to the Mantra period, from 800 to 1000 BC, and an equal number to Chhanda period, from 1000 to 1200 BC, we can do so only under the supposition that during the early periods of history, growth of human mind was more luxuriant than in later times.”

But he was cautious enough to add that “these limits will have to be extended.”

At this point, let us see what is the volume of Sanskrit literature Max Mueller is considering that was composed over a period of 600 years (600-1200 B.C.). Vedic literature consists of three successive classes of literary creations. Some of these still exist, while a large number have been completely lost forever.  These three classes are:

  1. The Four Vedas: A collection of hymns, prayers, charms, litanies and   sacrificial formulas. There are four Vedas, namely:
  1. Rig Veda – (of 21 branches, two available)
  2. Sam Veda – (1000 branches, two available)
  3. Yajur Veda – (KrishnaYajurveda:86 branches, four available; ShuklaYajurveda15 branches, only two available)
  4. Atharva Veda – (Nine branches, two available)
  1. The Brahmanas: These are prose texts containing detailed explanations of Vedic hymns, their applications, stories of their origin, etc.  In a way, these carry comments on rituals and philosophies.
  1. Aranyakas and Upanishads: These are partly included in or attached to the Brahmanas, and partly exist as separate works. They embody philosophical meditations of hermits and ascetics on the soul, God, the world, etc.

The Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads are attached to one or the other of these four Vedas. These would run in over one six hundred, most of this have been lost.

Causes of the date within certain limits

Max Mueller repeatedly affirmed his full faith in the stories of Genesis and the chronology given by Bishop Usher i.e. the universe was created at 9 am on 23rd October 4004 BC. He was therefore, obliged to accommodate the whole Indian literature within the time-frame provided by Usher. Some contemporary Sanskritists like MA Winternitz, T Goldstrucker, HH Wilson and WD Whiney objected to this whole methodology of Mueller assigning randomly 200 years to different Vedic Periods and literatures. Most of the western Sanskritists were shocked at this brazenness of Max Mueller.

HH Wilson, aghast at Max Muller’s formulations, wrote: “We must confess that we are disposed to look upon this limit (of 200 years for the Brahmanas) as much too brief for the establishment of an elaborate ritual, for the appropriation of all the spiritual authority of the Brahmans, for the distinctions of races or the institutions of caste, and for the mysticism and speculation of the Aranyakas or Upanishads: a period of five centuries would not seem to be too protracted.”

Jacoby was not only more realistic in his assessment, but also very forthcoming. He writes: “It is easy to see that this estimate [i.e. two hundred years] is far below the minimum of the possible period, during which in India a department of literature could take its rise, reach perfection, become obsolete and die out, to give place finally to a thoroughly new departure… I maintain that a minimum of the thousand years must rather be taken for such a process.”

Winternitz also felt that since, “all the external evidence fails, we are compelled to rely on the evidence out of the history of Indian literature itself, for the age of the Veda… We cannot, however, explain the development of the whole of this great literature, if we assume as late a date as round about 1200 or 1500 BC as its starting point. We shall probably have to date the beginning of this development about 2000 or 2500 BC.”

Max Mueller, realising the problems created by his dating of the Vedic literature by an arbitrary and callous method, subsequently wrote: “I need hardly say that I agree with almost every word of my critics. I have repeatedly dwelt on the merely hypothetical character of the dates, which I have ventured to assign the first periods of Vedic literature. All I have claimed for them has been that they are the minimum dates, and that the literary production of each period which either still exists or which formally existed could hardly be accounted for within shorter limits of time than those suggested. Like most Sanskrit scholars, I feel that 200 years are scarcely sufficient to account for the growth of the poetry and religion ascribed to the khandas period.”

Nearly at the end of his long and highly productive career, Max Mueller eventually acknowledged the arbitrariness of his method in the following most amazing words: “If we now ask how we can fix the dates of these periods, it is quite clear that we cannot hope to fix a terminum a qua, whether the Vedic hymns were composed 1000 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on earth will ever determine.”

In fact, five years after writing the above confessional statement, Max Mueller was quite happy to accept 3000 BC as the date for the Rig Veda. This change in his attitude came about due to the discovery of two Babylonian ideographs that had to be pronounced ‘Sindhu’. This suggested that the Babylonians knew the river Sindhu and, by extension, the people of India.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, it has become a common practice among the Western and the Marxist scholars to cite the period of 1200 to 1000 BC as the date of the Rig Veda; that too as widely accepted dates.

Iron and the Vedic Literature

The occurrence of metal iron in archaeological context can help in fixing the date of Vedic corpus. Iron finds first mention in the Atharva Veda and then in Shatapatha Brahmana as ‘krishna ayas’. The antiquity of iron in India till about 30 years back could go only up to 1300 B.C., though many historians and archaeologist were reluctant to accept even this conservative date. However, excavations at the archaeological sites like Raja Nal-ka-Tila, Dadupur, Malhar and several other sites in the eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar have yielded evidence for the regular use of iron for making the agricultural tools, nails, hammers, adzes, chisels, knives, swords, spears, etc, from around 1800 BC.

If we accept the view propounded by RS Sharma and other Marxist historians that the expansion of the human settlements in the eastern UP and Bihar is indicated in a legend of Shatapatha Brahmana — Videgh Madhava’s migration from the Saraswati region, crossing of Sadanira (modern Gandak river), the eastern boundary of Koshala and coming to the land of Videh (modern Tirahut in Bihar), the date of the Shatapatha Brahmana has to be around 2000 BC, if not earlier. After all, the Shatapatha Brahmana was dated to 800 BC on the basis of the reference to iron known till then? Now, when the antiquity of iron has gone back to at least 1800 BC, what logic can hold back the date of Shatapatha Brahmana to 800 BC?

However, the antiquity of iron in Uttar Pradesh is not in isolation. We are aware that at Mundigak, iron was found to have been in use around 2600 BC; at Said Qila Tepe ‘ferrous lumps’ in 2700-2300 BC; at Lothal in 2500-1800 BC, and at the Kotelai graveyard in Swat valley in 1800 BC and a large number of archaeological sites in southern India.

In view of the fact that the date of regular settlements and the use of iron in eastern UP and Bihar goes back to nearly 4000 BC or even earlier, the date of Shatapatha Brahmana can easily be accepted to be around 2500 BC. On this ground, the dating of the Rig Veda between 5000 BC and 4500 BC should not surprise anyone.

Astronomy and the Vedic Chronology

Sanskritists have held prolonged discussions to fix the date of the Vedic literature on the basis of the astronomical data contained therein. Winternitz notes that when “Harman Jacoby attempted to date the Vedic literature back to the third millennium BC on the grounds of astronomical calculations, scholars raised a great outcry at such heretical procedure… Strange to say it has been quite forgotten on what precarious footing stood the “opinion prevailing hitherto”, which was so zealously defended.”

Thus, Evangelists were alarmed at an alternative approach which could finally prove that both Bishop Usher’s chronology and the whole Genesis story were wrong. After all, most of the Evangelists and British Sanskritists were working hard to prove precisely that Indian Sanskrit literature was an aid to the Biblical stories. But not all scholars were so committed to the Evangelical mission and objectives. Much before the advent of Max Mueller, French astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly, in his work Histoire de l’astronomie Ancienne et Moderne, wrote, “These tables [astronomical tables] of Brahmanas are perhaps five or six thousand years old.” This was vehemently opposed and the ground of opposition was the Genesis. John Bentley wrote, “If we are to believe in the antiquity of Hindu books, as he would wish us, then the Mosaic account is all a fable, or a fiction.” So much at stake over the antiquity of Sanskrit literature!

However, almost a century later, in 1884, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Harman Jacoby, totally oblivious of each other’s efforts at the initial stages, independently claimed a higher antiquity for the Vedic literature on the basis of the astronomical evidence. George Buehler, the famous epigraphist, agreed with the conclusions arrived at independently by Tilak and Jacoby.  In 1985, almost 100 years after Tilak’s and Jacoby’s conclusions, the Indian National Science Academy (one of the most respected science academies in the world) published a volume, History of Astronomy in India, wherein the Harappan civilization and the Brahmana period are correlated, and the Rig Veda is dated to about 7th millennium B.C.

The astronomical calculations are based on the position of equinoxes as given in the Vedas. Since we know the speed of the movements of the earth and the equinoxes (vernal and autumnal), in view of their relative positions today, the age of the Vedas can be calculated. On the basis of the astronomical data in the Vedas and the Brahmanas, Tilak, Jacoby and Buhler reached the conclusion that the Rig Veda is 4500 to 3000 years old. SB Dikshit also reached the same conclusion. More recently, Filliozat has also supported the views of these noted scholars. Indian astronomer Gorakh Prasad commented on the whole issue thus: “If we exclude the possibility of every astronomical notice in Vedic literature being a record of ancient tradition, which is extremely unlikely, we can say that there is strong astronomical evidence that Vedas are older than 2500 B.C. They might be as old as 4000 BC.”

The astronomical observations and the dates calculated on that basis yield a far more reliable date than the mere speculations made by Max Mueller and his cohorts. On purely academic grounds, one fails to understand that if even today one is able to calculate correctly the movement of stars and planets and the time eclipses, then how one cannot reach the near-correct date of Rig Veda on the basis of the positions of stars given in the Brahmanas and the Rig Veda?

Mathematics and Vedic Chronology

Besides astronomical data used for dating of the Rig Veda, the evidence of the Sulvasutras in the context of the origin of geometry is very important for the dating of the Rig Veda. We are well aware that Sulvasutras, which are the part of Srautsutras, tell us how to make the vedicas for yajnas. On the Sulvasutras, Vibhuti Bhushan Datta and Seidenberg have done extensive and authentic work, which throws considerable light in fixing a date for the Rigveda. Spending decades on researching the origin and development of Mathematics, Algebra, Geometry, and looking at the evidence from the ancient world —Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India China, etc — Seidenberg concludes: “To summarise the argument, the elements of ancient geometry found in Egypt and Babylonia stem from a ritual system of the kind described in Sulvasutras.”

Most of the scholars agree with the conclusions arrived at by Seidenberg.  According to Seidenberg, Babylonian Geometry belongs to 1960-1600 BC. and that of Egyptian to 2050-1800. From this point of view, it is clear that the Sulvasutras must have been completed much before 2000 BC. NS Rajaram, a renowned mathematician and consultant to prestigious organisations like NASA, thinks that the impact of the Sulvasutras can be seen in the structures of even the old kingdom of Egypt. He writes, “The connection between the mastaba of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and the smasana-citi altar (with its associated rituals) in Baudhayana’s Sulvasutra point to the possibility that the Kalpasutras must have been in existence by 2700 [BC].”

Using a large body of astronomical and mathematical evidence, Rajaram thinks that Ashvalayana Grihasutras must have been completed by 3000 B.C. He thinks that the Surta period is from 3000 BC to 2150 BC during which Shatapatha Brahmana, Asvalayana, Baudhayana, Apstambha, and the Katyayana Sutras were completed. No one has, so far, challenged the evidence and the conclusions arrived at by Rajaram.


Thus, it can be seen that most of the Sanskritists, even those in the West disagreed with Max Mueller’s arbitrary date given to the Rig Veda and the Vedic literature. Most of the scholars now agree that Rig Veda can be dated around 4500–5000 BC and the rest of the Vedic literature from 4500 BC to 2000 BC. The Vedic literature is far older than the Genesis stories and Bishop Usher’s date of the creation of the universe at 9 am on 23rd October 4004 BC.

The writer is a well-known historian. Views expressed are personal.

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