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A Complex Intellectual Tradition

Kumkum Roy

By Frits Staal
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2008, pp. xxxvi 419, Rs. 495.00


For the last two decades, if not more, the Vedas have been in the news for all the wrong reasons, at the epicenter of discussions and debates that have been contentious, polemical and occasionally violent. In this context, Discovering the Vedas comes as a welcome relief. Its tone is firm but not strident, the content is overwhelmingly rich, the style remarkably lucid. What is more, Staal approaches his subject with obvious empathy.   At the outset, Staal lays to rest several popular myths with quiet authority. He states (p. xvi): ‘It nowhere says that the Veda is revealed or ›ruti ... Another anachronistic idea is that the Vedas are apauruœeya, ‘of non-human origin’ (italics original).   The main text is divided into five parts. Of these, the first focuses on the vexed questions of dating and localizing the Vedic tradition. Staal disposes of the much-maligned Aryan invasion theory with clarity and care, distinguishing between the likelihood of Central Asian origins for Vedic traditions, which he accepts, but refusing to reduce this to the stereotypical image of hordes of pastoralists swarming through the passes of the Northwest and overwhelming indigenous peoples.   Also remarkable is the gentle and systematic unfolding of evidence to substantiate arguments—once we have seen (p. 22) how virtually every single word of a specimen Vedic mantra has parallels in Greek, Latin and English, the idea of an Indo-European language family springs to life as an almost tangible entity. Staal draws with equal ease on archaeological evidence—visuals of Harappan carts with their solid wheels are contrasted effectively with the vivid descriptions of spoked wheels and chariots in the «gveda.   The second part introduces the problems of historicizing the texts. Characteristically, Staal uses the metaphor of the chariot in an interesting discussion on the rathakåra or chariot-maker, symbolic of the ambivalences of Vedic social orders. On the one hand, the chariot-maker possessed skills that were in great demand: on the other, in the later/post-Vedic tradition, manual skills tended to be devalued. However, although Staal is sensitive to the subtleties of social status, at times he seems too eager to underplay the existence of social hierarchies in the early and later Vedic traditions, consigning the evidence for these possibilities, somewhat unceremoniously, to the post-Vedic period.   Perhaps more importantly, Staal steers the reader through the complex maze of Vedic compositions with precision. Besides, the reader is invited to savour the rich ...

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