Friday, July 9, 2010


Wendy Messes up the Rig Veda IntroductionReview of chapter five

“Humans, Animals and Gods in the Rig Veda, 1500-1000 BCE”


From “The Hindus: An Alternative History”
by Wendy Doniger

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, Price Rs 999.00


Pramod V. Pathak

I was an admirer of Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty after reading her books, the Rig Veda (1981), and The Laws of Manu (1991), which is a translation of the “Manusmriti” co-authored by Brian Smith. After I started reading her latest book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” (2009) I feel sorry to say that I have to revise my opinion. There is a very potent proverb in my Mother tongue, Marathi: sAThI buddhI nathI i.e. intellect of humans declines on crossing the age of sixty. Though Wendy has crossed that age of sixty long back, it has started dawning on her. It is not a very good feeling to see a scholar like her losing bearings on the very topic, which she had a command over a few decades ago. The review of the fifth chapter, “Humans, Animals and Gods in the Rig Veda 1700-1500 BCE” is dealt with in the following pages.

It starts with pronunciation of her biased outlook about the Rig Veda text in which she states, “We will face the violence embedded in the Vedic sacrifice of cattle and horses and situate that ritual violence that it expresses, supports, and requires, the theft of other people’s cattle and horses. We then consider the social world of the Vedas focusing first on the tension between the Brahmin and royal/martial classes (the first and the second classes) and the special position of the fourth and the lowest class, the servants; then on other marginalized people; and finally on women. Marginalization also characterizes people of all classes who fall prey to addiction and for intoxication, though intoxication from the soma plant (pressed to yield juice) is the privilege of the highest gods and the Brahmins” (P 103-104).” This reminds us here of the apt remark once Mahatma Gandhi made about the book on India by Miss Mayo, “it is a gutter inspector’s report”. So it is with Wendy’s introduction of the Rig Veda for her readers. She is out with a broom to scavenge the dirt (?) she claims she found in the Rig Veda text. Obviously she will have no eye for lofty and sublime ideas in the text.

To set the record straight, most of the RV prayers are for the benefit of the society as a whole. They do not seek aggrandizement of an individual or self. The Vedic seers were very broadminded. They prayed for the benefit of all. In many hymns, they say, ‘We all beget pleasure, we all beget wealth’, etc. They were no bandits or cowboys of the American style as Wendy would like readers to believe. The original Sanskrit word indicating all the human beings is “naH” which stands for “to us”, “ours”, all rolled together. For example, the Vedic seers praise the Supreme God Indra: “svastinaH indraH” – “Oh Indra! May wellness be with all of us”, (and not with me alone).

Nomads with professions and highest language skills

Wendy observes, “We can see the remains of the world that the Indus Valley people built, but we are blind to the material world of the Vedic people; the screen goes blank. The Vedic people left no cities, no temples, scant physical remains of any kind; they had to borrow the word for “mortar” (P 104). This she quotes from John Keay’s “India, a History” (P 24). She could have easily given the borrowed word. She has not given. Is she not confident of the statement herself that she quotes from the secondary and second rate reference? That renders her book a third rate narration. In the Rig Veda there are references to building of houses and the thousand pillared house. As Wendy herself translated: “Let fathers hold this pillar for you; let Yama build a house for you” (RV 10.18.13b, The Rig Veda P 53). The word used for pillar is “sthUNA”. The same word is used for house with thousand pillars “sahastrasthUNAH” with golden glitter in well laid land “bhadre kZetre nirmitA” (RV 5.62.6-7). Was it built without mortar? Does she realize that the Rig Veda is not a construction manual? She acknowledges that “The Rig Veda tells us of many professions, including carpenters, blacksmiths, potters, tanners and weavers. But by the end of this period, the class system was in place” (P 116). Rig Veda also tell us about gambling and bad after-effects of playing dice and as Wendy acknowledges, the dice was found in the Indus Valley civilization (P 121). As pointed out elsewhere the Vedic civilization has to be the same as the so called Indus Civilization which some scholars are resisting to identify in diehard manner. After comparing the Vedic people with the modern day American cowboys, she concludes “the Vedic cowboys did not yet (though they would, by the sixth century BCE) have policy of owning and occupying the land, for the Vedic people did not build or settle down; they moved on” (P111-112). She reaches the height of make-believe when she imposes her preconceived notion on the Vedic people to call them nomads. The people who built houses, thousand pillared mansions, who made channels for the rivers, who ploughed the fields, developed elaborate system of sacrifice which needed participation of minimum seven functionaries, who needed spies to keep watch, etc., could not be nomads. It is a learned madness. On P 103 she herself contradicts her above theory about the nomadic nature of the Vedic people when she gives the chronology of 1200 – 900 BCE for “The Vedic people compose Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda”. These Vedas are decidedly the texts of sedentary and city bred population. She is really ignorant about the fact that till about three centuries ago, there were no land owning rights and nor was there a notion of “titles” to the properties in India. The Village owned the land. It is too much to expect from Wendy who thinks of herself as a know-all. We can only smile at her ignorance and hypocrisy.

Identity of Dasas

Many of the Vedic scholars, in particular the proponents of the Aryan invasion (or now “migration theory”) were either ignorant or they purposefully ignored the fact that Dasas never lived in India. They have been residents of Seistan province of Afghanistan and Iran together and they continue to live there till today (Present authors book, the Afghan Connection, 1999, and recent personal communication in April 2010 with Dr. Mehdi Mortazavi from the University of Seistan and Baluchistan in Saharan, Iran). The conflict of Aryans and Dasas occurred not in the Indus Valley but in the Seistan province. By then the people of the Rig Veda had developed civilization, which Dasas also shared. Archaeological site of Dahan-e-Golaman in Iran points to close affinity with the Indus culture. Present author has identified the winter forts of Dasas in the Rig Veda in the Seistan province (The Afghan Connection P 50-70). The followers of the Vedic religion crossed the Helmand River to engage in conflict with Dasas. Therefore her statement, “the Vedic people took significant parts of their material culture from communities in place in India before they arrived, Dasas of one sort or another” (P 117) needs revision. Less said the better about her speculations (P 117-119) over the sacrifice of the Primeval man (RV 10.90). After all these are speculations. We are concerned with facts and reality. While she notes only the rags and tattered cloth of the Muni in RV 10.136 pointing to the so-called marginalized status, for others with positive outlook, the same hymn could the experience of ecstasy by the Muni who drank viZam with Rudra. Wendy translates viZam as drug. While tradition till Sayanacharya and many other scholars have translated it as water – udaka, she could indentify it as drug. However, why could it not be “like soma juice giving,” subjective experience of exhilaration and ecstasy” (P 123).

Malicious and misleading remarks

With the jaundiced view of the Vedic civilization, Wendy passes malicious remarks making it apparent that she is up in arms with broom. For her, the description of horse sacrifice in RV 1.162, becomes “indeed rather gruesome details” (P 115); viZam becomes “drug” in the modern sense of addiction; beautiful description of croaking of frogs as critique of Brahmins chanting RV hymn in succession; and “A man needed wife when he performed any sacrifice, though she had to stay behind the screen. Women also appear occasionally as subjects, even as putative authors, of Vedic poems” (P 123), etc. The behind the screen statement is typical of her. Did wife of a sacrificer, while participating in the ritual, remain in veil or, for example, purda or burqua? As she only states wife’s participation in most of the Vedic/Hindu rites is a must, there are no indications that she was hidden behind a veil or screen at all; or else Wendy would have been the first one to point it out. Here she quotes from Stephanie Jamison’s Sacrificed wife P256. Why not refer to the original statement? The wife in fact was and is considered equal partner in the Vedic/Hindu rituals. While taking a vow – sankalpa – in any ritual, she is asked to touch hand of her husband indicating that she has equal share and responsibility in the act. This she does in the presence of everybody gathered there. Another such statement is that of putative authorship of the hymns by women. Ghosha, in fact, was the first women’s right activist in the Rig Vedic times recorded in history. Woman in Wendy, in spite of eulogizing Ghosha, is downgrading her by making her a putative author. Ghosha, Apala and other lady authors were accorded official status of “seer” thousands of years ago, while it took almost two thousand years for Christianity to ordain priesthood on women, and Islam is still centuries away. Was a wife buried with husband in ancient times as speculated by Wendy? (P 124). She again quotes from Martin L. West’s Indo-European Poetry (2007, P 500). As she only agrees that wife was made to come back from pyre and unite with her brother-in-law, the suttee is not to be found in the Vedic lore. Wife ascending pyre was accomplishing the vow of “nAti carAmi” – will not go away- till the last rite. It will be interesting to note that there was no couple burial identified in “Cemetery H” at Harappa excavated by M.S. Vats. As H. D. Sankalia confirmed “the cemetery H people culturally and racially do not seem to be different from the Harappans.” (Sankalia H.D. 1972-73, Puratattva, No 6 Pp 12-19). The pottery found in the cemetery with peacock paintings has been further identified by Asko Parpola, “I would like to suggest that this bird, the peacock covered with many “eyes” or “stars” represents Varuna in his “sky garment” of the star-spangled night (Parpola Asko, 1985, Sky Garment, P 71).

Misunderstanding Indra

The book “The Rig Veda” (1981) bears the name of Wendy Doniger O’Flaharty alone as the author. She has translated 108 hymns from the text. She has translated the famous Indra-Vritra conflict hymn RV 1.32 (P 148-151) and RV2.12 eulogizing Indra’s accomplishments. Here in “The Hindus” she writes, “Indra, the king of the gods, the pragmatic warrior and the god of rain in (English) a homonym. He reigns and he rains. ……Both Indra and Vritra are drinkers, but Vritra cannot hold his soma as Indra can (on this occasion)” (P 130). Wendy commits a blunder calling Indra of the Rig Vedic lore a “Rain God”. Since Bergaigne (1878) till R. N Dandekar (1979), everybody has attested that rains were never associated with slaying of Vritra. Present author too confirms the observation in his in-depth study of Vritra episode in the Rig Veda (Pathak P. V. 2001, Indra-Vritra Myth and Tectonic Upheavals). According to him, Vritra was an earthen bund formed due to tectonic upheavals in the Indus Valley region. Wendy’s another blunder is calling Vritra a drinker of Soma. Nowhere in the Vedic lore has one come across a mention of Vritra ever drinking soma juice or any other drink. It is a totally incorrect statement in the context of the Rig Veda.

From Atharva Veda to Upanishads

While performing the last rites, hymn RV 10.14 urges the dead man’s soul to leave behind the sin and evil, following the path of ancient fathers, merging with astral body of glorious nature in the company of ancestors and Gods Yama and Varuna. The flesh devourer Agni is urged to keep the body untouched, possibly in glorified form etc. in RV 10.16. It points to the clear thinking about the post death existence of the soul. The subject of Upanishads is entirely different. Excepting a few passages about the travel of dead soul, the main thrust of philosophical deliberations in the Upanishadic lore are for self realization of a human being to unite with the Universal Soul during life time. This can be traced to the Atharva Veda. A hymn (AV 2.1) by Seer Vena is proclamation of state of self-realization. The hymn claims that this state transcends the status of gods who control the universe. The hymn describes the sojourn of an individual soul into the realms of ultimate reality. It transcends even the existence of various gods who possess eternal life. It states that the manifest universe is only a quarter of that ultimate reality; while three-quarters of it remain un-manifest. Incidentally, in modern cosmology, too, curiously estimated weight of the mass-less particles - the dark matter of neutrinos - also accounts for three-fourths of the weight of the universe. In two hymns (AV 19.53 and 54) dealing with concept of time, kAla that extends from the time immemorial to date is conceived as a horse. It is identified with the Supreme Brahman itself. All the above hymns give the impression of finalization of the concept of the Supreme Brahman. They all set the highest goal for the human beings – to strive for uniting with the Supreme Brahman leading to self-realization. These goals set for the human beings have continued to evoke the sacred desires in the minds of Hindus and constituted the very basis of Indian spirituality. It was further elaborated in the upaniZad texts. Wendy shows total ignorance about the Atharva Veda contents. She writes, “But these are at least, but the early, murky stirrings of a doctrine that will become clear in the Brahmanas and Upanishads (P 134). One is at a loss to understand as to what is so murky about it. It only shows the murkier mode of thinking Wendy has developed over the decades, since she translated The Rig Veda hymns.

Silver lining to the murky cloud

The Rig Veda has been studied for the elevating thoughts, the philosophical contemplations and highest doctrines that puts the Almighty among the people on the earth, “tridhA baddho vRZabho roravIti| maho devo martyAm A viveSa||” (RV 4.58.3) which till to this date has inspired great souls born in India to develop many schools of thought. I appreciate Wendy’s translation of the nAsadIya sUkta RV 10.129 as one of the better translations (The Rig Veda Pp 25-26). In the present book too she writes, only once in a while, “The Veda shows a tolerance, a celebration of plurality, even in asking unanswerable questions about the beginning of all things” (P 129). When compared to the socio-cultural havoc played by the Semitic religions on the earlier societies, the tolerance of the other point of view, of religious freedom, are the legacies of the Vedic culture that can be traced to the Rig Veda. We are proud of it.

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About the author Dr. Pramod Pathak – He has postgraduate education in Chemical Engineering with M.Tech. (Chemical) from I.I.T. Mumbai, and is a professional Chemical Engineer and innovator. He has a Ph.D. in the Vedic literature from University of Bombay. He has studied Indus Culture in depth, participated in archaeological excavations, and has conducted experiments on Indus Culture type porous pot in “experimental archaeology”. His major contribution is in the areas of Vedic “Vritra myth” and interpretation of the Indus Culture seals. He contributed papers on the Vedic deities and the Indus Culture seals. He has worked on the living traditions in India. He has written books on the Vedic texts, Ramayana, “The Afghan Connection” and “The Living Traditions of the Emerald Land: Tulasi Vrindavans and Holy Crosses in Goa”. He regularly writes for the magazines and research journals.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this book at a bookstore about a month ago and started thumbing through it. The first parts I read were the ones you referenced about Indra and Vritra. At the "Vritra drinking Soma" references, I started to wonder whether I had completely missed something. Then I came across the bits about Soma "addiction" that seemed to make the king of Devas out to be some sort of drunk. Finally, I reached the infamous, "the god of rain in (English) a homonym. He reigns and he rains.." I laughed aloud and said, "So WHAT? RV isn't an English text! What's your POINT??"

    Thank you for this post. It pains me to think of the folks that will pick up this book and think that it accurately represents the "social world of the Vedas." :/