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Philology vanished: Frawley's Rigveda — I

Like all scholarship, Vedic philology is constantly updated, tested and re-examined. Peer review and criticism alone take care of this. Authors of Frawleyan type `innovative' interpretations usually do not carry out a countercheck of other possibilities and of gaps in the evidence, causing severe criticism.

In the Open Page of July 16, Dr. David Frawley, "American Institute of Vedic Studies", has tried to sustain his interpretation of samudra `ocean' in the Rigveda. Let us see where a close study of the texts, that is the well-tested method of philology, will take us.

Understanding old texts

Philology is the investigation of a civilisation based on its texts; it takes into account all necessary information from other sciences, from astronomy to zoology. Reliance on its principles has worked well in deciphering the texts of long lost cultures such as those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, or the Maya. The method has been tested and retested over the past 200 years. So why not with regard to ancient Indian civilisation?

For, the past is an alien land. Rigvedic culture is not the same as that of modern Indians, just as little as modern Taiwan Chinese have the culture of Confucius or of the Shang realm. In India, the undeciphered Indus script has disappeared early in the second millennium BCE and many of the ancient subcontinental languages have disappeared, just as Sumerian, etc., from Mesopotamia. However, those of the ancient Panjab are still visible in the c. 4 per cent of non-Sanskritic loan words in the Rigveda (F.B.J. Kuiper, Aryans in the Rigveda, 1991). Largely, they represent a prefixing language ("Para-Munda", Witzel 1999), like the Austro-Asiatic Munda (Jharkhand, etc.) and Khasi (Meghalaya). This means, incidentally, that R. Nagaswamy's assertion (Open Page, July 2) that I support Parpola's claim for a Dravidian speaking Indus civilisation is wrong (EJVS 5-1, Witzel 1999). A Dravidian language substrate appears only in the later parts of the Rigveda. Contrary to Frawley's claim, the direct link to the Indus civilisation has thus been lost both in script and in language.

However, the archaic language of the Rigveda has been preserved by Vaidik Brahmins. But the Vedic language, like all others, did change, from the Rigveda to the Upanishads. Compare modern English with that of Old English of some 1000 years ago (fader ure, du bist in heofnum... "Our father, you are in heaven"). The Rigveda has many grammatical forms that had simply disappeared by the time of Panini. He and Sayana do not know, e.g., of the injunctive (e.g. han: Indro 'him han). The same kind of changes is found in the meaning of Vedic words (pace Frawley): brihat does not mean `big' but `high', pur not `city' but `small fort', graama not `village' but `wagon train, circled when resting', raajan not `king' but `chieftain', paapa not `sin' but `evil'. The same can apply to samudra: etymologically, it means nothing but a collection (sam) of water (udr-). This could be a pond, a lake, a confluence, and (later on) "the big pond' (as we call the Atlantic), the "ocean." Close study is required of the whole range of meanings in the Rigveda and of their context. We cannot simply plug in the desired result into the very formulation of the question, and then force each passage accordingly, as Frawley does consistently, without any countercheck. He simply feels that the `logical meaning' of a word suffices. To translate graama by `village' may seem `logical', but it will not fit the Rigveda, nor even the much later Brahmana texts! (W. Rau, Zur vedischen Altertumskunde 1983; Rau, in: M. Witzel, Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. 1997).

The deciphering process

Our aim should be to represent what the authors of the texts themselves thought, the "spirit of the times," not what we (want to) see in them now. Our personal and civilisational maayaa has to be overcome by using philology: by constantly re-examining proposals, by countercheck of other possibilities, and by well-founded worldwide peer criticism. We do not stand still as Frawley so nicely puts it: "Witzel, like a fossil in time, is just carrying on Nineteenth century European scholarship, ignoring the new evidence..." Like all scholarship, Vedic philology is constantly updated, tested and re-examined. Peer review and criticism alone take care of this. Authors of Frawleyan type `innovative' interpretations usually do not carry out a countercheck of other possibilities and of gaps in the evidence, causing severe criticism.

It has always proven better to start from the premise "we do not know", especially in a case (samudra) that has been controversial for long. Plugging in a modern concept (`ocean') leaves too many loose ends (below). Each one of them must be explained, and well within the realm of reason, not by added, auxiliary assumptions. Occam's razor will speedily apply. Further, we have to cross-examine all contemporary "witnesses". If a new interpretation does agree with the same basic meaning at all occurrences, and if any exceptions cannot easily be explained, the new theory does not hold. Spotty discussion, be they by Sayana, Max Mueller, Aurobindo, or Pt. Frawley, does not count. If readers or Frawley do not believe, say, the latest detailed studies by K. Klaus (Samudra in: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlaendischen Gesellschaft 1989), Altindische Kosmologie nach den Brahmanas dargestellt 1986, Die Wasserfahrzeuge im vedischen Indien 1989) then they have to check all Rigveda passages themselves, and come back for detailed peer criticism.

Importantly, the (immediate) context of each passage has to be studied, which is seriously lacking in Frawley: at first in the Rigveda, then in "neighbouring" texts, e.g. the Yajurveda or the closely related Zoroastrian Avesta, though with a great degree of caution. A straightforward jump to Epic, Classical (Kalidasa) or modern Sanskrit is not allowed. All must fit in as to form a coherent body of reliable translations. A wrong one will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, such as the combination of Frawley's samudra `ocean' with the Rigvedic small river boats and mythical imagination about God Varuna's heavenly palace (below). A thorough study will then tell us, in each case, whether the new/proposed assumption is (a) correct, (b) wrong, or (c) that the materials available do not suffice to decide.

The now increasingly touted "adhikaara defence" maintains that only (traditionally educated) persons of Indian descent can understand their ancient texts. There are certain conservative, patriotic or chauvinistic elements in all civilisations who claim such unique access to their texts, as if understanding had come with their mothers' milk, not with serious (and cross-cultural) study. Being a local person in any such culture has its advantages, — and its disadvantages. This tension would need a detailed discussion at another time. If the adhikaara defence were true, it would not have been possible to have successfully interpreted Egyptian and Maya texts. Or are only ancient Indian texts to be exempted from any such study? The philological method helps to overcome any civilisational biases, and worldwide peer criticism leads to confirmation of results.

Samudra revisited

To return to the Rigvedic samudra. Last time, I had proposed four or five individual meanings (seriously misrepresented and cut short in Frawley's answer on July 16), basing myself largely on Klaus (1986-9) and by taking into account the other very detailed book by H. Lueders (Varuna, 1951-9), a 720 page study of Varuna and the ocean, and also my own studies, summarised in "Sur le chemin du ciel" (Bulletin des Etudes indiennes 2, 1984). This, incidentally, includes many of the religious and spiritual concepts that Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet (Open Page, July 9) missed in my last article.

The field of meanings of samudra starts from the main and etymological (sam-udr-a) one, a "collection of waters", indicating : 1. confluence of the (Panjab) rivers, 2. terminal lake (in the Rajasthan/Cholistan desert, like the Afghani Hamun lakes, cf. Avest. apo han-jagmana, han-tacina), 3. heavenly "pond," heavenly "ocean", 4. mythical primordial (salty) ocean and the mythical ocean at the end of the world, 5. some vague notes about a very distant ocean (Arabian Sea?). As late as in the Buddhist Pali Canon (c. 3rd century BCE) samudda still meant "a (large quantity of) water, e.g., the Ganges," next to "sea, ocean." These meanings must be compared and tested with Frawley's "innovative" interpretation of "ocean everywhere in the Rigveda." His interpretations, in his selected "star witness" passages and in his other writings, indicate a complete lack of method: Rigveda passages are discussed without regard to the (immediate) context; they are read ad hoc in splendid isolation, just like fundamentalist (Bible, etc.) interpreters do everywhere. Further, there is no literary and mythological study — not to speak of comparative literature, mythology, or linguistics. Instead, modern and medieval concepts are plugged in. The auxiliary sciences, of course with the exception of his "Vedic astrology," are disregarded, even his hobby, medicine. There is lack of simple nature observation, of Vedic ritual, of previous Vedic research (Rau 1983), and of some recent archaeology (M. R. Mughal, Ancient Cholistan 1997). Instead, we get "logical", "spiritual", "astrological" or "yogic" interpretations (Frawley, Hymns from the golden age: selected hymns from the Rig Veda, with yogic interpretation, 1986). Worse, Frawley's arguments conform to the classical vicious circle: he already knows what samudra means and plugs it in everywhere, regardless of context. The predictable result is: input = output. QED.

(to be concluded)


Harvard University

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