top of page

Empiric Approach to Vedic Literature

The following is an excerpt from a book approved by Srila Prabhupada of the name Readings in Vedic literature.

In Chapter One we have discussed some of the principles of Vedic learning handed down by the disciplic succession of Vedic teachers. We should also note that in the last two hundred years virtually all Western universities have taken a critical-historical, or empirical, approach. Hinduism and Indian philosophy have become popular subjects in many colleges, and there has arisen a community of established Sanskritists and Indologists. However, if we compare the empirical version of Vedic knowledge with the version of the Vedas themselves, we often find the two at opposite poles. Empiric scholars rarely discuss this conflict. They assume, usually correctly, that readers will accept the empiric version because of the scholar's reputation for probing research and analysis. When discrepancies become obvious, the empiric scholars usually represent their own views as the objective picture of Vedic civilization.

Yet these conflicts raise a number of questions. Why do some scholars reject the explanations of the Vedic literature's origin, purpose, and transcendental nature as received from both the texts themselves and the traditional Vedic scholars? Why is the Vedic literature's description of itself necessarily unacceptable? Is it simply that the empiric scholars doubt that the Vedas or the acaryas are what they say they are? The Vedas claim divine origin, and the scholars deem their origin mythological. The Vedas propose to elevate man from suffering and grant him liberation, but the scholars suppose that studying the Vedas for spiritual purposes is unscholarly. Although the Vedas warn that the Vedic teachings are transcendental to material investigation, scholars reject such injunctions as esoteric taboos and proceed to analyze the Vedas in an empirical spirit. They frankly regard the Vedas as mythology and assign themselves to the task of demythologizing.

The Vedas affirm that Vedic knowledge must be heard from a spiritual master in the disciplic succession, but the scholar who writes books about the Vedas is not a guru, nor does his scholarly conscience allow him to accept such an approach. Moreover, the scholar surveys the guru from what he considers a superior, more objective and academic vantage point. The Vedas maintain that one must observe strict moral standards and perform austerities before understanding Vedic literature, but scholars consider such things to be unnecessary.

What is the best way to study the Vedas? Should we give credence, after all, to what the Vedas say about themselves? Before deciding, we should know something about the substantiality of empiric Vedic scholarship.

Empirical Tools

The tools used by empiric Indologists are the scientific standards of history, anthropology, archaeology, philology, and related disciplines. Since Indological studies began, in the eighteenth century, the research in every field has become increasingly sophisticated. However, the scholars agree that their critical reconstruction of the origin and nature of Vedic culture is highly uncertain.


Empiricists generally place great importance on understanding historical development, but for the Vedic period there is no history aside from the sastras. For thousands of years the early Indians kept no such histories, and as O. L. Chavarria-Aguilar writes in his book Traditional India, "A more unhistorical people would be difficult to find."1 A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy informs us, "A historical treatment of Indian philosophy has not been taken up by the great Indian thinkers themselves."2 Ancient Rome had its Livy and ancient Greece its Herodotus, but India had no great historian to record the Vedic period. According to modern Indologists, the Indian's lack of interest in history was not due to a primitive inability to keep records; rather, he accepted the historical version of the sastras as sufficient.

Scientific historians choose not to accept the historical validity of the sastras; their alternative is to begin the official history of India with the death of Buddha, in 483 B.C. In any case, this is the earliest date empirically settled. Scholars concede that the Vedic period began thousands of years before Christ, but as for the dating of even approximate periods, "everywhere we are on unsafe ground."3 Nevertheless, scholars have reconstructed various historical periods which they theoretically assign to the thousands of unaccounted years. Pioneer Indologist Max Muller devised a system of classifying the Vedic civilization into periods called "Chandas, Mantra, Brahmana, and Sutra," and a number of scholars have concurred.4 Others have also given their own divisions. Radhakrishnan, for instance, looks upon the broad divisions of Indian history as Vedic, Epic, Sutra, and Scholastic.5 Handbooks on Vedic history differ on specific dates by as much as one or two thousand years. Indeed, Moriz Winternitz, one of the most respected chronologists, argues that any attempt to reconstruct the Vedic period is unscientific. He writes, "The chronology of the history of Indian literature is shrouded in truly terrifying darkness."6 Winternitz somewhat pointedly notes that it would be pleasant and convenient, especially when preparing a handbook on Vedic literature, to divide the literature into three or four periods and assign dates and categories. "But every attempt of such a kind is bound to fail in the present state of knowledge, and the use of hypothetical dates would only be a delusion, which would do more harm than good."7 He states that it is even better not to assign dates to the oldest period of Indian literary history. Using discoveries by related field workers and conducting further research into the texts, successive generations of historians continue to develop new pictures of the Vedic past. However, Winternitz quotes a pioneer American Sanskritist who years ago said, "All dates given in Indian literary history are pins set up to be bowled down again."8 Winternitz remarks, "For the most part this is still the case today."9 We may thus conclude that there is simply no history of the original Vedic civilization in India, at least none that is acceptable in the strict sense of empiric history.


Archaeology, of course, is especially suitable for finding out about ancient cultures. But what was true for Vedic historical records is also true for archaeological finds, which to date give us no clear picture of Vedic civilization. Of course, many of the geographical sites mentioned in the scriptures are still known, and according to tradition many of the temples in India have been maintained for thousands of years, but these sites have not yielded solid archaeological evidence.

Archaeologists and anthropologists cannot accept the sastric version that Vedic civilization flourished in India long before fifty thousand years ago-the date which scientists assign as the earliest possible appearance of homo sapiens on earth. Consistently the sastras mention that Vedic literature was written down at the beginning of the age of Kali some five thousand years ago, and that philosophers, yogis, and rsis lived many millions of years ago. Although empiricists most often discount such sophistication in ancient humanity, they do admit that "the history of the human race is being rewritten with new dating processes and with exciting discoveries around the world."10 The general trend in the rewriting of human history is to push the theoretical date from the beginning of advanced human civilization further and further back into what has become known as prehistory. As far as the archaeology of India is concerned, the excavations of cities and temples have produced no conclusive empirical data about the Vedic culture's first appearance.

Western archaeology got its start in India early in the nineteenth century, when the surveyors of the East India Company found many temples, shrines, old coins, and inscriptions written in dead scripts. In the 1830's the edicts of Emperor Asoka were deciphered, and thus Indian civilization was dated at 300 B.C In the twentieth century, work began on a large scale. The most famous archaeological discoveries relating to the prehistoric period took place under the supervision of archaeologist Sir John Marshall, who in the 1920's uncovered the cities of Harappa and Mohenjaro, located in what is now Pakistan. These were the cities of an efficient, urban social community, now called the Indus civilization, which has been dated at 3,000 B.C.11 Though a fabulous find for archaeology, Harappa has contributed but little to our understanding of the ancient Vedic period. If it was hoped that the discoveries at Harappa and Mohenjaro might throw some light on the Vedas, this hope was not fulfilled. Among the artifacts found at Harappa was a small figure of a seated man who might be Siva, but this is not definite.

Linguistic research and interpretation of the Rg Veda have given rise to a hypothesis linking the Indus civilization with the origin of the Vedas. As the story has it, the peaceful Dravidians (the name of the original people of Harappa) were invaded by the Aryan barbarians, who brought with them their tales of Indra (Rg Veda). This account enjoys wide currency in books, but it is by no means a scientific conclusion.12 Rather, it is a hypothetical creation set forth to explain what would otherwise be inexplicable. About the Indus civilization, one Indologist comments, "We do not know for certain who the authors of the remarkable civilization were; it is another of those mysteries that make the scholar's life at once interesting and somewhat frustrating."13 As for the theory that the Dravidians met their demise under Indra's hordes of plundering Aryans, H. P. Rowlinson writes, "A number of scholars have pointed the finger of accusation at the Aryans...but the guilt of those immigrants is far from established."14 Thus, although scholars favor various theories, archaeological finds like those of the Indus civilization have to date given evidence insufficient for reconstructing the period in which the Vedic scriptures were composed.

Archaeology gains considerable scientific veracity by allying with other disciplines, such as atomic physics (which produced the carbon 14 dating process). Will archaeologists one day find something that will actually solve the Vedic riddles once and for all? Anthropologist Julian H. Steward writes, "Facts exist only as they are related to theories, and theories are not destroyed by facts-they are replaced by new theories which better explain the facts."15 In other words, we might say, although archaeologists intend to find out much more, they may never know for sure.

Whatever facts and theories the future may hold, archaeology, the empiricist's main hope, has thus far failed to penetrate the darkness that shrouds the Vedic period; the prime record of Vedic culture is, of course, oral tradition. Hence, in the very area where archaeology alone can give the empiricist knowledge, we can seriously question whether archaeology is even relevant. "Religion is a mental or spiritual phenomenon in which the sacred or supernatural word plays an important part. Obviously this essential expression of religion cannot be investigated archaeologically-the remains are wordless."16

Linguistic Research

As we would expect, research has spread to still other disciplines. In fact, among the most important tools in Indological research is the study of linguistics. In the late eighteenth century, linguists in India made a comparative study of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin and concluded that the languages were so similar in vocabulary and grammar that they must have come from a common ancestral tongue. In 1786, Sir William Jones theorized that Sanskrit and other languages had "sprung from some common source which perhaps no longer exists."17 This language received the name proto-Indo-European. Although there is no clear evidence that this language was ever spoken, linguists reconstructed a proto-Indo-European language with the help of archaeologists, who contributed evidence on who might have spoken it and where. Stuart Piggot writes: "The location of a possible Indo-European homeland and the identification of the culture implied by the linguistic evidence with a comparable archaeological phenomenon, has been a matter of debate since the idea was first formulated in the last century."18 From a hypothetical language, a hypothetical human community emerged, its members called Indo-Europeans. Because words like "horse" and "father" were prominent in the vocabulary of proto-lndo-Europeans, the scholars constructed a community of farmers who had domesticated the horse and in whose society the father was dominant.19 Also, the scholars ascribed to them a religion and rites, although no one can say for certain where these people lived. In a recent history of India we find this assessment:

The aboriginal home of the Aryans [the Indo-Europeans are supposed to be the predecessors of the Aryans who invaded India] is again a controversial point, and in the face of the hopeless chaos of conflicting views, it seems impossible to come to any definite conclusion. The most probable theory seems to be that the Aryans migrated into India from outside, the exact region from where they came being still a point of discussion.20

Professor of linguistics Ward Goddenaugh pointed out that chauvinism and racism definitely entered into historical European interpretations of Indo-European origins. Thus, scholars arbitrarily compiled data to prove that the Aryan forefathers came from Europe.21

Despite limited information, linguists tend to construct hypotheses. The prominent Sanskritist A. B. Keith once remarked that by taking the linguistic method too literally, one could conclude that the original Indo-Europeans knew about butter but not milk, snow and feet but not rain and hands.22

Already, it appears, the discipline known as linguistic paleontology has fallen out of favor with scholars. In 1971, the eminent linguist Winifred Lehmann asserted, "Clearly, the linguistic paleontologists had overextended themselves to the point of elimination."23 Dr. Lehmann insists that language cannot be used as a primary source for reconstructing an earlier culture. Still, linguistic theories about the origin and cultural background of the Vedas continue to figure prominently in academic accounts of the Vedic period.

In order to date ancient languages, in recent decades Morris Swadesh has devised a linguistic method known as glottochronology. This method arose from the theory that over the millennia, changes in the vocabulary of a language tend to occur at a regular, measurable rate. Scholars have used this method to date the oral tradition of the Vedas as well as the appearance of specific literatures. However, linguists themselves report that "no matter how much the technique is refined, the only dating that it can yield will be of the likelihood variety."24 Glottochronologists have worked out graphs indicating areas in which there is a ninety-percent likelihood that a particular specimen of language can be assigned a correct date. The greater the time period in which the literature might have appeared (thousands of years for Vedic literature), the greater the variance in ascribing the approximate date. The variance grows so great as to be no more than an educated guess. Linguistic critic Charles Hockett writes, "Obviously it is not helpful to find that, though the most likely date of an event is forty thousand years ago, the nine-tenths confidence level defines a span running from ninety thousand years ago to a date ten thousand years in our own future."25 Although regarded as highly imperfect, glottochronology is the best working tool available today for dating ancient languages. It has not, however, revealed anything definite about the origin and real purport of the Vedic literature.


As we have marked, empirical evidence for the Vedic period seems scanty and fragmentary; the scholars have few hard facts on which to base mature or reliable conclusions. Accordingly, their full and elaborate picture of Vedic history seems hypothetical and conjectural. Of course, drawn as it is from arduous historical, archaeological, and linguistic research, the hypothetical picture surely merits consideration. At the same time, it appears, Indologists would do well to remember that an official photograph is one thing, a hypothetical picture quite another.

Actually, Western scholars have never assessed the Vedic sastras on their own merit. The first studies of the Vedas, for example, were clouded by less than objective motivations. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, pioneer Indologists such as Sir William Jones, Horace H. Wilson, Theodore Goldstuker, and Sir M. Monier-Williams approached the Vedic culture with a view to replacing it with Christian culture.26 This naturally tainted their investigation of Vedic literature. While the missionary motive declined, an effort was made by the American transcendentalist school (Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc.) to appreciate the Vedas as they are. It would be fair to say, however, that the empirical-historical method eclipsed this endeavor before it could shine forth. And because the Vedic system is intrinsically beyond the range of empirical investigation, modern Indologists have also been unable to study the Vedas on the literature's own terms. Thus, it may be appropriate to hear what the Vedas say about themselves. As opposed to the fragmented, highly theoretical, or at best partial appreciations of the Vedas by Western scholars, this approach will aid us in understanding the wide range of Vedic literatures as a sublime and cohesive whole.

53 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page