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How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)

As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.

For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited

The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11

When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)

This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.

PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

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The Culprits who found Vedic Sarasvati

In an article about the appointment of Yellapragada Sudarshan Rao, as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Mihir S Sharma writes the following in Business Standard (BS)

They argue that the earlier Vedas, which the Marxist-Missionary nexus describes as being from a pastoral society, were actually written in the Indus Valley Civilisation – sorry, the Saraswati Valley Civilisation. It provides conclusive proof, in the unquestionably Indic form of frequent assertion, that it was from India that the Aryans spread out to Iran, Central Asia, and finally Europe. Such claims are looked down on by evangelical Christian CIA agents like Chicago’s Caroline E Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions Bruce Lincoln, who describes them as “exercises in scholarship (= myth + footnotes)”. Eh, but what does he know.[Eminently funny historians]

The usage of the word Sarasvati Valley in this context is used to imply that it is a ridiculous terminology used only by people who support people like Mr. Rao about whom no one has heard of. I have no idea who this Mr. Rao is and do not wish to defend him or whatever he stands for.

There is something about the word Sarasvati Valley Civilisation though. That is not a terminology scholars use. A more popular use is Indus-Sarasvati civilisation based on evidence that most sites of the Harappan civilisation lie along the path of the non-mythical Sarasvati river. If this is a conspiracy, then there are many scholars in that list. Michel Danino writes about the use of this terminology and names the main culprits.

First, let us note that a few dailies, while reporting the Minister’s statement, rushed to stick the label “mythical” to the Saraswati river, parroting the Leftist historians who, since the mid-1980s have objected to any attempt to identify the Saraswati of the Rig-Veda with a real river within India’s geography (their objection would have been dropped if it was located in, say, Afghanistan). These historians and their followers in the media do not seem to know that the bed of the Ghaggar river running through Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and on to Cholistan (where it is known as “Hakra”) has been identified with the Vedic Saraswati since 1855 by generations of geologists, geographers, Indologists, archaeologists and remote sensing experts. They are too numerous to list here, but among them are F Max Müller, HH Wilson, RD Oldham, CF Oldham, Marc Aurel Stein, Louis Renou, Herbert Wilhelmy, Mortimer Wheeler, Raymond Allchin, Jonathan M. Kenoyer, Gregory Possehl…. This is also not the place to go into the arguments favouring this identification, but let me briefly recall that they include, first, the Rig-Veda’s description of the Saraswati as flowing “from the mountain to the sea”; second, the text’s specific mention of the river between the Yamuna and the Sutlej; and third, the existence of a small “Sarsuti” stream as a tributary of the Ghaggar. Indeed, a number of British maps, right from 1760 noted the Ghaggar-Saraswati association.[Saraswati, Ganga, and India’s vanishing rivers]

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Indian Beads in the Mediterranean

Excavations conducted in Turkey, Greece and Israel has revealed stone beads that can be traced back to workshops in and around India. Among these sites, the oldest contact is with Israel dating from 3000 BCE to 400 BCE. This was before the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE) and after cotton from Balochistan was found at Dhuwelia in Eastern Jordan dating to 4000 BCE. This is also much before the formation of Israelites as people with a separate identity and much more closer to the period the first dynasties were getting setup in Egypt.

Following this, the next contact was with Turkey, dating from 2300 to 1180 BCE and with Greece (2200 – 1200 BCE).

The beads were all studied using a combination of stylistic analysis, raw material sourcing, and technological analyses of shaping and drilling using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The 3rd millennium beads reveal the presence of different perforation techniques, including the wide spread technology of drilling with a pecking technique, and the use of tapered cylindrical stone drills. In addition, there is evidence for the use of emery abrasives with solid or tubular copper drills. The most significant discovery is the presence of beads perforated using constricted cylindrical stone drills that are characteristic of drilling technology of the Indus civilization (circa 2600-1900 BC). Some of the beads from later levels appear to have been drilled using single or double diamond drills which is a technique that also can be traced to the South Asian sub-continent. These discoveries provide a new source of information for trying to understand the complex exchange systems that linked the Mediterranean regions with West Asia and South Asia during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The identification of these long distance contacts and the long period during which they occurred has significant implications for other studies of technology, artistic styles, and even ideologies between these distant regions. [The 42nd Annual Conference on South Asia]


As I had written before, all of this is not surprising and these data points fit well into the model that has been constructed before. But here is an interesting thought: If traders from the subcontinent were traveling to far off places like Israel or exchanging goods via a trading network or if people from those regions in the Mediterranean were visiting the subcontinent, what was the language of trade? Was it Proto-Indo-European or something else?  If Indian traders or ideas were traveling West much before the mythical Aryan invasion time, who influenced whom?

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New date for Chauvet Cave

If you have seen the the Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams(2010) about the Chauvet caves, you would be wonderstruck by the amazing paintings on the walls. The paintings were dated to around 30,000 years back, when the Neanderthal man roamed alongside humans. Now new data says, these caves were old, but not that old.

But its study – when one places it in its natural regional, cultural and thematic framework – makes it impossible to see it as an isolated entity of astonishing precocity. This needs to be reconsidered, and the affinities that our research has brought to light are clearly incompatible with the very early age which has been attributed to it. And if one extends this examination to the whole of the Franco-Cantabrian domain, the conclusion is inescapable: although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics (like every decorated cave), it belongs to an evolved phase of parietal art that is far removed from the motifs of its origins (known from art on blocks and on shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian, in France and Cantabrian Spain). The majority of its works are therefore to be placed, quite normally, within the framework of the well-defined artistic creations of the Gravettian and Solutrean. Moreover, this phase of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) coincides with a particularly intensive and diversified local human occupation, unknown in earlier periods and far less dense afterwards in the Magdalenian. A detailed critique of the treatment of the samples subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating makes it impossible to retain the very early age (36,000 cal BP) attributed by some authors to the painted and engraved figures of Chauvet cave.[New investigations into the cultural and stylistic identity of the Chauvet cave and its radiocarbon dating]

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Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)

(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.

If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.

The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”

Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.

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