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From Fuzzy-Edged “Family Veda” to the Canonical Śākhās of the Catur-Veda: Structures and Tangible Traces

Abstract : The formation of the Veda and the development of Vedic schools in ancient India constitute a complex phenomenon that is, from a global perspective, entirely unique in character and extent, even if components of this complex phenomenon can play important roles in the scientific study of what has recently been termed “natural experiments of history.” From the point of view of Indian and Vedic studies, the importance of the problem of the formation of the Vedic schools or śākhās or branches of Vedic learning and ritual practice has been expressed by Louis RENOU in his foundational work Les Ecoles Vediques et la Formation du Veda (Paris 1947). In spite of RENOU’s scepticism about the possibility to reconstruct Vedic history, Prof. Michael WITZEL has proposed, four decades later, a strategy and a methodology to get a better grip on the date and location of authors and transmitters of Vedic texts and of the rituals these texts describe or presuppose. The main parameters in the grids which WITZEL proposes to set up for the Rig-veda (esp. in WITZEL 1995a and 1995b), and, by extension, for all Vedic texts, concern, on the one hand, linguistic and textual structures and regularities, and, on the other hand, textual references to rivers and mountains and references to chiefs and poets who are often mutually linked by family relations representing a limited number of generations. In this article I propose to expand and supplement WITZEL’s grids by two additional parameters – “knowledge transmission” and “ritual” – that are related, on the one hand, to the existing web of relative chronological relations based on observable textual structures; and, on the other hand, to tangible traces that link, or, where further archeological or other research is required, promise to link, the grid of relationships to absolute chronology. With regard to the parameter “knowledge transmission” we observe that the mode of knowledge transmission has an impact on the character of a text, which can be, for instance, “script-o-phobic” or thoroughly script-dependent. In the Vedic milieu ritualists developed the technique of pada-plus-saṁhitā transmission, which could achieve, in a purely oral way, what (near-alphabetic) scripts achieved among their neighbours in the Persian empire (from around the 6th cent. BCE). The mode of knowledge transmission (oral in ritual context; pada-plus-saṁhitā; manuscript writing) had an impact on the development of Vedic schools which is visible in the internal arrangement of their texts and in their systematic mutual relations (complementary and competitive with reference to the ritual). As for the parameter “ritual”, The ancient Vedic people’s ritual and religion system matched its ecological context and had a progress-oriented agro-pastoralist character, to which we can refer with a term from population ecology: r-strategist. In the course of time, the ritual started to gradually mismatch the evolving environment: ritual canons of the four Vedas, the Catur-Veda, became closed collections, the “K-strategist” search for exploitable niches had become necessary.
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Contributor : Jan E.M. Houben <>
Submitted on : Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 1:46:36 AM
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Jan E.M. Houben. From Fuzzy-Edged “Family Veda” to the Canonical Śākhās of the Catur-Veda: Structures and Tangible Traces . Vedic Śākhās: past, present, future – Proceedings of the Fifth International Vedic Workshop, Bucharest, 2011, 2016, 1-888-789-10-7. ⟨halshs-01473584⟩



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