The Veda and the Testimonies to Its Early Existence.
How did the Veda become known?
THERE seems to be a general agreement among Sanskrit scholars that the Vedic hymns as we now possess them collected in the Rig-veda-samhitâ were composed between. 1500 and 1000 B.C. Why that date has been fixed upon we shall have to consider hereafter but it is well to say at once that we must not expect the same kind of historical evidence for a date reaching back to 1500 B.C. which we have a right to demand for a date 1500 A.D.There are different degrees of certainty and it is the neglect of this inevitable fact which causes so much needless controversy between specialists and outsiders. The date assigned to the poetry of the Veda is and will always remain hypothetical. To critical scholars it would I believe be a real relief if a later date could be assigned to some portions of that sacred collection. But we can hardly hope for new evidence to enable us to fix Vedic dates. Historical dates require the evidence of contemporary witnesses and it is difficult to say where we should look for witnesses outside of India and contemporary with the Vedic Rishis.
No Foreign Nations mentioned in the Veda.
We find no traces in the ancient Vedic literature of India of any contact with foreign nations. It has been supposed by some scholars that the names of the Parthians and Persians or even of the Bactrians were known to the poets of the Veda but the evidence on which they rely is very uncertain1
The Veda not mentioned by Foreign Nations.
Nor do we find in the annals of other nations any traces of their acquaintance with India before the sixth century B.C.
Early Contact between India and Egypt Babylon Persia.
Whether there had been any intercourse direct or indirect between India and Greece before the sixth century B.C. we cannot tell. Some scholars imagine that Homer's Ethiopians who dwelt towards the rising of the sun were meant for the people of India but this belongs to a class of conjectures to which we can say neither yes nor no. If India was known to the Greeks at that early time it could only have been through the Phenicians. It is well known that among the articles of merchandise brought home by the fleets of Hiram and Solomon there were some which by their origin and name point to India. If we look at a map on which the stations are marked which were established by Phenician merchants before 500 B.C. we see that the whole coast of the Mediterranean from Tyre and Sidon to Gibraltar from Carthage to Marseilles had been explored by them. The Mediterranean was then as it is still the mart of the world. The Greeks in Asia Minor and in Europe the Phenicians and the Egyptians occupied its borders and we know now from Babylonian and Egyptian inscriptions that there was a very early diplomatic and commercial intercourse between Egypt and Babylon. We must remember also that the people on the Egyptian or Ethiopian side of the Red Sea could hardly have been ignorant of the people on the Arabian side or the people on the Arabian side of the Persian gulf unacquainted with the existence of people on the Persian side. Commerce was even then a magnetic force that attracted nation to nation and merchants less bold even than the Phenicians would not have been frightened by a voyage from the sea that received the Tigris and Euphrates to the sea that received the Indus and the rivers of the Penjâb.
Yet the name of India to say nothing of the name of the Veda is never mentioned in the more ancient inscriptions of Egypt and Babylon. The only evidence of a possible contact between India and Egypt at that early time is the occurrence of the word kafu
ape which is said by Professor Dümichen to be found in a text of the seventeenth century2
. This kafu
is supposed to be the same word as the Hebrew koph
ape which occurs in the first book of Kings x. 22. Here we read that ‘Solomon had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram and that once in three years came the navy of Tharshish bringing gold silver ivory and apes
and peacocks.’ All these articles were the products of the soil and climate of India and the Sanskrit name for ape is kapi
. Here then the single word kapi
may possibly indicate the route of commerce from India to Judaea and Phenicia and from thence to Egypt in the seventeenth century B. C
The same animal the ape is supposed to attest an early intercourse between India and Babylon also. It occurs with other animals on the black obelisc from Nineveh now in the British Museum.
Though the armies of the great conquerors of Mesopotamia must have approached very near to the frontiers of India they have left no traces of their presence there nor have they brought any intelligence of India back to Babylon or Nineveh. The idea that the Indian division of the heavens into twenty-seven or twenty-eight Nakshatras was of Babylonian origin and the assertion that the name of the Babylonian weight mna
occurred in the Veda as manâ rest both on no valid authority. In the half-legendary account given by Diodorus Siculus (ii. 16–19) of the expedition of Semiramis against India possibly derived from Ctesias the name of the Indian king who in the end repels the foreign invaders has been supposed to bear evidence of the Sanskrit language being known to the people of Babylon. It is Stabrobates
which may represent the Sk. sthavira-pati the strong lord; but this also is doubtful3
Greek Accounts of India.—Skylax.
The first Greek who is supposed to have actually visited India and to have written an account of it was Skylax
. He lived before Herodotus who tells us (iv. 44) that Darius Hystargus (512–486) wishing to know where the river Indus fell into the sea sent a naval expedition and with it Skylax of Karyanda in Karia4
As soon however as Greek historiography begins we find that the name of India was known. Hekataeos knows it Herodotus knows it both living in Asia Minor. But why did they call the country India?
Persia has formed at all times a connecting link between India and the Greeks of Asia Minor. In the ancient sacred literature of Media and Persia in the Avesta of Zoroaster India is mentioned under the same peculiar name which it has in the Veda. In the Veda the home of the Âryas in India is called Sapta Sindhavah the Seven Rivers that is the five rivers of the Penjâb with the Sarasvatî a river which afterwards disappeared and the Indus. The very same peculiar name which is used during the Vedic age only appears in the Avesta as Hapta Hendu. This cannot be a mere accident but proves like many other coincidences between Vedic Sanskrit and Zend that long after the Aryan separation there was a continued historical contact between the Vedic poets and the people among whom at one time the Zoroastrian religion flourished.
Hapta Hendu is exactly the same name as Sapta Sindhu by a change of s into h. The name of India must have reached the Greeks through a language in which as in Persian every initial s was represented by h for it is thus only that we can account for the Greek form India instead of what we should expect if the Sanskrit word Sindhu had reached the Greeks directly namely Sindia.
Persia continued to serve as a bridge between India and Greece in later times also for in the Persian cuneiform inscription at Nakshi Rustam we find among the provinces paying tribute to Darius Hindu mentioned by the side of Ionians Spartans Bactrians Parthians and Medes. Long before Alexander's discovery of India Greek writers such as Hekataeos (B.C. 549–486) and Herodotus possessed some information about that distant country beyond its mere name. Hekataeos mentions the river Indus Herodotus speaks of the Gandarioi a race evidently identical with the Gandhâras mentioned in the Rig-veda whose town Kaspapyros was known to Hekataeos. Herodotus (i. 131) knows even the name of one of the deities worshipped in common by the Vedic Indians and the Persian Zoroastrians namely Mitra; but how superficial his knowledge was is best shown by the fact that he takes Mitra for a female deity corresponding to the Assyrian Mylitta the Arabian Alitta.
Alexander's Expedition to India.
There seems to have been from very early times a vague impression that India like Egypt was the home of an ancient wisdom. Alexander himself shared that idea and was most anxious therefore to get a glimpse of the wisdom of the Brâhmans by conversing with them through the aid of various interpreters. It is quite possible that those of his companions who were entrusted with a description of Alexander's campaigns may have written down a full account of the Brâhmans particularly of the so-called Hylóbioi the dwellers in the forest called in Sanskrit vânaprastha and of the ancient literature which they possessed. But whether by accident or through the indifference of the later Greeks scanty fragments only have been preserved of these writings. Nor do we possess more than fragments of the description of India composed by Megasthenes who stayed at Patna (Pâtaliputra = Palibothra) as ambassador of Seleucos to the King of the Prasii the famous Kandragupta about 295 B.C.; still less of Ktesias who though he did not actually live in India gathered much information about that wonderful country when staying at the court of Darius II and Artaxerxes Mnemon about 400 B.C.
Certain it is that the name of the Veda is never mentioned in Greek literature and that nothing but vague ideas about the wisdom of the Brâhmans were current among the philosophers of Greece and Rome. Early Christian writers also who speak of the religions of India and are able to distinguish between the religion of Brâhmans and Buddhists never refer to the sacred literature of the Brâhmans under the name of Veda.
Contact with China.
The first people who give us authentic information about the Veda you will be surprised to hear are the Chinese. There exists a curious prejudice against all that is Chinese. We seem to look upon the Chinese very much as they look upon us as Outer Barbarians. We find it very difficult to take them as the French say au grand sérieux. They seem to us queer funny not quite like other people—certainly not like Greeks and Romans not even like Indians and Persians. And yet when we examine their literature whether ancient or modern it is by no means so very different from that of other nations. Their interests are much the same as ours and there is certainly no lack of seriousness in their treatment of the highest problems of religion morality and philosophy.
There are in China three religions that of Confucius that of Lao-tze and that of Buddha. Confucius and Lao-tze lived both in the sixth century B.C. They were however restorers rather than founders of religion. The religion of Buddha reached China from India about the beginning of our era.
The name of K
îna occurs in the epic literature of India as the name of a people on the North-Eastern frontiers of the country. But whether it was intended as a name of China is doubtful5
The three religions of China have had their controversies and their hostile conflicts. But all three are now regarded as recognised systems of faith in China and the Emperor of China is expected to profess all three and to attend their special services on great occasions. Here we are at once inclined to smile and to doubt the seriousness of a religious faith that could thus conform to three systems so different from each other as Confucianism Taoism and Buddhism. We pride ourselves on attending the services of none but our own sect or subdivision of the great divisions of Christendom. We are apt to suspect indifference latitudinarianism or scepticism in any member of the Church of England who should attend the communion of any other Christian sect. But the official attendance of the Emperor of China in the temples of Confucianists Taoists and Buddhists admits of a different interpretation also. May it not show that the wisest of their statesmen had recognised that there was some truth some eternal truth in every one of these three religions; that the amount of truth on which they all agreed was much greater and much more important than the points of doctrine on which they differed and that the presence of the Emperor at the services of the three religions of his subjects was the most efficient way of preaching tolerance humility or if you like Christian charity. We are but too ready to judge heathen nations without considering how much of charitable interpretation we have to claim for ourselves.
How serious a Chinaman can be about his religion you will be able to gather from the lives of those Buddhist Pilgrims to whom we owe the first authentic account of the Veda. Why did these pilgrims go from China to India—a journey which even now is considered by geographical explorers as one of the most perilous and as requiring no less of human endurance and bravery than Stanley's exploration of Africa?
They went there for the sake of their religion. India was to them their Holy Land. Buddhism had reached China at the beginning of our era from Northern India and to visit the holy places where Buddha had been born had lived taught and died was as much the dream of a devout Buddhist in China as to visit the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem was the dream of many a poor palmer and many a valiant Crusader in Christendom.
We possess the descriptions of these Buddhist pilgrimages extending from about 400 A.D.
to 1000 A.D.
The most important are those of Fâ-hian 399–414 Hiouen-thsang 629–645 and I-tsing 673–695. Their works have been translated into French and into English too by Stanislas Julien Professor Legge Dr. Beal and others. While the companions of Alexander had no eyes to see the existence of Sacred Books such as the Veda in India the Chinese pilgrims not only give us the name of the Veda but they actually learnt Sanskrit and they were able to point out the differences between the ordinary Sanskrit and the more ancient language used in the Veda. You know how highly Christian apologists value any mention of or quotations from the New Testament occurring in ancient authors in order to prove the existence of the Gospels at a certain date or to confirm the authenticity of certain Epistles as read in the first second and third centuries A.D.
The critical student of the Veda has the same interest in collecting independent testimonies as to the existence and authenticity of the Veda from century to century and here the testimony of the Chinese pilgrims stands first among those coming from people outside India from what the Brâhmans also would call ‘Outer Barbarians’ or Mlekkh
Later Contact with Persia.
The next people from whom we might have expected direct information about the ancient Vedic literature of India are the Persians. I do not mean the ancient Persians the subjects of Darius or Xerxes for they have left us no information about their own sacred literature much less about that of their neighbours. I mean the Persians of the sixth century A.D.
The kings of Persia at that time such as Khosru Nushirvan were men of literary tastes patrons of poets and philosophers. We know that they entertained the greatest admiration for the literature of India and patronised the translation of several Sanskrit works into Pehlevi the literary language of Persia at that time. But we look in vain for any mention of the sacred books of the Brâhman and it is doubtful whether the translators of the other Sanskrit texts were aware of their existence7
Al-Birûnî 1000 A.D.
Some of the books which during the Sassanian period had been translated from Sanskrit into Pehlevi or ancient Persian were afterwards in the eighth century translated into Arabic and some of them such as the fables of Bidpai have served to carry the fame of the wisdom of the Brâhmans all over Europe. But the Vedas remained unknown to other Oriental nations till about 1000 A.D.
At that time the north of India was conquered by Sultân Mahmud of Ghazna who from time to time made predatory expeditions to plunder and destroy the richest temples of India at Taneshar Mathurâ Kanoj and Somnâth8
. After taking Khîva in 1017 he carried off among other prisoners and hostages a learned astronomer and astrologer best known by the name of Al-Birûnî. During thirteen years which he spent in India 1017–1030 Al-Birûnî devoted himself sedulously to the study of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature. It was formerly supposed that he translated not only from Sanskrit into Arabic and Persian but likewise what would have been a much more arduous task from Arabic and Persian into Sanskrit. Dr. Sachau the learned editor and translator of Al-Birûnî's great work on India has shown that this was not the case and that all we can say with safety is that he was able to read Sanskrit texts with the help of native Pandits. But for all that Al-Birûnî was a most remarkable and exceptional man for his time a man of wide sympathies a true philosopher and an acute observer. The very idea of learning a foreign language except perhaps Persian or Turkish had never entered at that time the head of any Mohammedan. As to studying the religion of the infidels it would have been considered damnable. Al-Birûnî showed himself free from all such prejudices and the world owes to him the first accurate and comprehensive account of Indian literature and religion9
. If his writings had been more widely known and if more particularly European scholars had been acquainted with them at the time when Sanskrit literature began to attract the interest of Sir William Jones Colebrooke and others many discoveries which taxed the ingenuity of European scholars need not have been made at all for Al-Birûnî would have told us all we wanted to know. He knew the four Vedas the Rig-veda Yag
ur-veda Sâma-veda and Atharva-veda. He knew that the Vedas even in his time in the eleventh century were not allowed to be written but were handed down by oral tradition which was considered far safer than the pen of a ready writer (vol. i. p. 126). He tells us what we can hardly accept as true for the whole of India that it was not long before his time when Vasukra a native of Kashmir a famous Brâhman undertook the task of explaining the Veda and committing it to writing (vol. i. p. 126) because he was afraid that it might be forgotten and entirely vanish from the memories of men. He asserts that the Hindu consider as canonical only that which is known by heart not that which is written and he remarks that even their scientific works were composed in metre in order to facilitate their being learnt by heart (vol. i. p. 19). All this and a great deal more he tells us as an eyewitness and as one who could command the services of the best native scholars.
Emperor Akbar 1556–1605.
It is strange however that the account he gave of the Vedas should have attracted so little attention either in the East or in the West. Five centuries passed before the Vedas were really placed in the bright light of history and even then only a small portion of the Vedas was rendered accessible by means of translation. This took place during the reign of the great Emperor Akbar 1556–1605. He knew of the Vedas and in his eagerness to become acquainted with all the religions of the world before founding his own religion he made great efforts to obtain a translation of them. But his efforts were in vain. We hear indeed of a translation of the Atharva-veda made for Akbar. But the Atharva-veda as we shall see is very different from the other Vedas and the portions of that Veda translated for Akbar were most likely the Upanishads only. These Upanishads are the philosophical appendices of the Veda more particularly of the Atharva-veda. They are deeply interesting though as philosophy rather than as religion.
Prince Dârâ translator of the Upanishads.
One hundred years after Akbar they fascinated Dârâ the unfortunate son of Shâh Jehan as they have fascinated others in later times. Prince Dârâ is said to have learnt Sanskrit in order to translate the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian and a year after he had accomplished his task he was murdered by his brother Aurungzebe. It was this Persian translation of the Upanishads which Anquetil Duperron translated again into Latin in 1795 and it was Duperron's Latin translation which inspired Schopenhauer and furnished to him as he himself declares the fundamental principles of his own philosophy.
Nothing shows more clearly the indefatigable industry and at the same time the wonderful perspicacity of that great philosopher than his being able to find his way through the labyrinth of an uncouth Latin translation and to discover behind the strangest disguises the sublime truths hidden in the Upanishads. Honest as he was Schopenhauer declared openly that his own philosophy was founded on that of the Upanishads. ‘From every sentence of these Upanishads’ he writes ‘deep original and sublime thoughts arise and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit. Indian air surrounds us and original thoughts of kindred spirits. And oh how thoroughly is the mind here washed clean of all early engrafted Jewish superstitions and of all philosophy that cringes before those superstitions! In the whole world there is no study except that of the originals so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Oupnekhat. It has been the solace of my life it will be the solace of my death10