Monday, 17 September 2007

A Report on the Fourth International Vedic Workshop on

Vedas in Culture and History

South Asia Institute, University of Texas, Austin

(24-27 May 2007)

While I was browsing through various websites of South Asia Centers for a glance at their academic programs, providentially I came across the news that the South Asia Institute (SAI) of the College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas (UT) is organizing the Fourth International Vedic Workshop on Vedas in Culture and History from 24-27 May 2007 on their Austin Campus at MEZES Hall Auditorium. Prof Patrick Olivelle, Chair, Department of Asian Studies and Prof Joel Brereton, Chair Designate are the team leaders for conducting the Program. I thought it a great opportunity for me to acquaint myself with the status of research on Vedic studies in the International Centers in general and the US Centers in particular as I got to know through the list of participants (65) that the Conference was well represented by important centers from various parts of the world. About 50 presentations are listed in the final program. Just a week ahead of the Program, I made a request to the Chair to permit me to take part in the Workshop which was very promptly and favorably responded to by Prof Joel Brereton. He had also kindly waived the normal registration fee for me. I gratefully acknowledge the gesture. And, but for Dr Lalith and Sushama, my attendance in the Workshop was not possible.

International Vedic Workshop (IVW) was first held in Harvard University (USA) way back in June 1989. The second conference was held in Japan at Kyoto University (30 Oct- 2 Nov 1999) and the third at Leiden (Netherlands) 30 May-2 June, 2002.

Inaugural on 24 May: Without much fanfare, the Workshop was called to order by Prof Joel Brereton at sharp 9 in the morning. Prof Olivelle welcomed the august gathering and Prof Randy Diehl, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts declared the Workshop open with a brief message. All this was over in 15 minutes and then followed the key-note address of Prof Ludo Rocher, (University of Pennsylvania), who was introduced as ‘guru of gurus’ by the Chair. Prof. Rocher spoke on the life and contribution of H.T. Colebrooke to the Vedic studies in the late 18th century. Colebrooke came to India in 1783 and served the EIC for thirty years. He was attracted to Sanskrit language and literature. He presented a paper to the Asiatic Society of Bengal on Sati. Between 1798 and 1801 he wrote two more articles and translated Sulabsutras into English. Colebrooke gratefully acknowledged the assistance and guidance extended to him in his work by certain liberal minded brahmin pandits. Thus, he heralded studies in Indology. Prof Rocher opines that the early European writings on India focused on the ancient Indian knowledge without much of a bias.

Synopses and comments on select papers:

Georges-Jean Pinault , (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, France) in his paper, About the Concept of ‘Holiness’ in the Vedic Hymns, refers to a feminine noun, dhisana which seems to designate vaguely a supernatural force, being sometimes personified as a beneficial goddess. He tried to show that dhisana is an abstraction based on a noun referring to the ‘sacred place’ or ‘sacred sphere’. He points out that demons or hostile creatures in the Atharvaveda ……. could be explained by the ambivalent nature of something sacred, understood also as dangerous and terrible for ordinary human beings.

Frank Kohler, (University of Tubingen, Germany): Some Thoughts on the World View of Dirghatamas. Dirghatamas is conceived as the embodiment of mystery and one of the most reflective poets of the Rigveda.

But when he was questioned why Dirghatamas got this name and what its meaning was, he said ‘I don’t know. I am not sure’!

Victoria Yareham, (The University of Queensland, Australia) :The Plurality of Usas in the Rigveda. She tries to explain that 30% references of Usas in Rigveda were in plural form and concludes that there might be many dawns as a group of deities.

Indian scholar from Tirupati clarifies that the Usas is singular as a phenomenon and plural in its expressions and functions. There can’t be many deities as she thinks.

Stanley Insler (Yale University) : Visvarupa, asuranam svasriyah: He identifies Visvarupa as asura killed by Indra.

Konrad Klaus (University of Bonn, Germany) : Toward a new Vedic Index of Names and Subjects: He says that he has started a major project to prepare an Index and appeals to the scholars to associate with him in this work.

Tamara Ditrich (The University of Queensland, Australia) : Historical Development and Typology of dvandva compounds in the Rigveda: The paper concludes that the dvandvas could not be viewed as a single category.

As Ramalakshmana or matapitarou are two separate individuals, Indragni also denotes two !

Joel Brereton (University of Texas) : The Funeral Hymn of Brihadukhta : He argues that the Vajin mentioned in the funeral hymn is a horse though metaphorical horse, and it is not the deceased for which the hymn was composed.

I told him that these hymns should be interpreted from the Yogic point of view rather than as simple funeral hymns because the hymns he quoted mention about three ‘lights’ finally merging into One. He received this suggestion positively.

Jarrod L.Whitaker (Wake Forest University) Indrahood (indriya) and the Human Indra:

He spoke eloquently on the masculine (womanizing) and physical and martial capabilities of Indra as the most powerful one terrorizing his enemies. Indra was feared for his brutal power and violent actions. He further says that this perhaps indicate how the Aryan culture spread through out Indian sub-continent.

I stood up and said that Indra was never considered a human and much less as a king by any historian, east or west, and that the Aryanisation of the subcontinent was not done through violent means. There is no historical evidence to make such sweeping generalizations. I finally said, “Such studies will not help either the researcher or the Veda or the society at large.” Then he said, “I did not mean it but I apologize if I have hurt your feelings”. Prof Michael Witzel (Harvard University) was in the chair and he did not allow further discussion on the subject for want of time.

Ramachandra G Bhat (Svyasa University) : A New Revelation of the Vedic Hymns:

He speaks about Maharshi Daivarata of Gokarna, who composed 448 mantras while he was in Rmanamaharshi Ashram. His own preceptor Vasishthaganapathimuni tolk down those mantras and wrote a commentary on them named Anvayabhasyam.

He gives a modern and recent example of how Veda can reveal itself.

Madayo Kohle (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain): The Passage through Fire: He states Agni has two functions, one burns the body and take him to pitruloka only to come back again and the other to immortality through Yanja as sacrificial fire.

M.G.Dhadphale: (Bhandarkar Oriental research Institute, Pune, India) : Vedic salega. After discussing many alternatives, he finally settles to say that the term salega denotes castration of animals like bulls for use in agriculture or men to serve in the royal houses as there was such a practice among the Kshatriyas of Maharashtra.

Thus a senior scholar representing an age old and prestigious institution also tries to amuse the western audience at the expense of the Veda. He claims that he is sharing a great secret with them after many years of research on the term.

Pramod V Pathak: (Houston): The Vedic god Pusan, Karambha and the Wheels of Pusan:

He tries to interpret that Pusan was worshipped by Aryans when they passed the hunter-gatherer stage and became ploughmen (agriculture). A well known Marxian approach!

Sudha Gopalakrishnan (National Mission for Manuscripts, India) : presents a report on the activities of the Mission and that the Mission is attempting to create a Database of Manuscripts since three years and that they have developed a website for sharing the information.

Michael Witzel (Harvard University):Some Manuscripts, Some Colophons, Some Conclusions: He states that Atharvaveda is preserved and practiced by some Brahmin families, like Pacoli or five Brahmin families. Thus the Atharvaveda is mostly prevalent in Gujarat. He argues that the Rama and Krishna cults have spread from 16th century onwards. Dara Shukou, the Mughal Prince had summoned the Vedic Pandits to Agra by an imperial firman to teach him Veda. Sayana did great service to Veda under Vijayanagara rule. Due to political compulsions, the studies were confined to the south because of the royal patronage.

I told him that the south also has contributed much to the Vedic learning and Sanskrit literature from ancient times but because of the Islamic onslaughts, it appears as if it is confined to south. He took the comment positively.

Francois Voegeli (Universite de Lausanne, Switzerland): Hints on the position of Vadhulas among the Vedic Schools of Ritual: He says that Vadhulasakhasutra preceded Anvakhyana and that it is an unfinished work mostly prevalent in Kerala among Nambudris. It disappeared from North.

Timothy Lubin (Washington and Lee University): Formats for the Standardisation of Vedic Domestic Ritual: He makes a distinction between early Vedic Homa rituals where sacrifice is offered to Agni and later worship rituals the offerings are not made to Agni. The offerings are made to deities in image forms but the same mantras are used for these new forms of worship.

I told him that the religious practices have been changing from time to time as per the yuga dharma. But the same Veda mantras are used in the newer forms of worship. Feeding a hungry man also amounts to offering made to Agni as Agni has several forms, like jatharagni. In the later temple worship also Veda mantras are adopted and thus the Veda is a continuous stream though the practices may change. He took the suggestion positively.

Shingo Einoo (University of Tokyo, Japan): Rites for Rain in the Vedic and Post-Vedic Literature: He refers to two hymns in Rigveda and three hymns in Atharvaveda to obtain rain. But he opines that in the later Vedic period, only inauguration ceremonies for water reservoirs are mentioned and the Puranas do not refer to rites for rain. But Buddhist tantric texts such as Amoghapasakalparaja and the Manjusrikalpa give several examples of rites for rain.

He thinks that perhaps Brahmins might have lost interest in the rites for rain!

Boris Oguibenine (Universite Marc Bloch, France) : Crossing the Waters: Buddhist Adaptation of a Vedic Idea: The elements of Vedic tradition survived and absorbed in later Brahminism and Buddhism. In the early Vedic religion, the crossing of water was referring to getting over the obstacles where as in Buddhist speculation it speaks about liberation. Many Vedic metaphors were adopted by the Buddhism.

Shrikant S.Bahulkar (Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, India): Veda and Vedism in Buddhist Tantric Literature: He establishes that Buddhist tantric texts used Vedic terminology, concepts and metaphors though strongly reacted to the authority of Veda. Buddha was interpreted as Brahmacari, Snataka, Brahmavadi, Brahmana, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva etc. Sacrificial terminology like sruva, bhajana, kunda, caru, soma, sura, yajnopavita etc were also used in a different Buddhist tantric sense. But they tried to show the supremacy of Buddha over the Veda and Buddha dharma over the Vedic tradition. Vajrayana and Mahayana had borrowed much from Vedism. Mantras were also formed. OM has the precedence. A mantra has to start with OM and end with SWAHA. Kalachakra tantra gives a number of mantras with OM and Swaha. Homa is considered as inner yajnam in Buddhism meaning meditation. Buddhist tantras consider day activity as external Yajna and the night for internal Yajna.

David B. Gray (Santa Clara University): The Vedas in Tantras: Late Buddhist Reflections on the Vedic Tradition: He states that the Buddhist authors turned to the Vedic tradition to legitimate their own ritual practices. But they constructed alternate myths for the origins of the Vedic tradition. Mostly the Buddhist Tantric texts were written during the early medieval period (7th -13th centuries).

General Remarks:

It is indeed a rare opportunity for me to interact with select international Vedic fraternity which could meet only four times in two decades. For the one who has seen the Vedic meets with dhoti-clad traditional Brahmin pandits in native surroundings, it is a bit amusing to find the ‘White’ Brahmins in Western attires in an alien (for me) atmosphere. The way the Sans‘k’ri‘t’(‘k’ and ‘t’ pronounced as in ‘k’i‘t’e) terms are pronounced and the hymns are quoted by this Neo-Brahmin class sounds strange to native ears.

It seems that the Western scholars have yet to come out of the ‘Jones syndrome’ (that is pursuing Vedic research with language and linguistic tools ). Veda is not just a literary work which is the product of a time, nor a historical text giving a chronological account. It is a knowledge store where every sincere seeker gets what he wants –good or bad, which is of course subjective. The concepts, myths, metaphors and terms are coded and couched in hard shells defying all modern tools to decipher them. Every one’s attempt to understand a Vedic phenomenon is, thus, independent. The expressions of the experiences of such seekers also differ. The Western studies seem to be mostly obsessed with base human instincts like cruelty, sex, aggrandizement and the like. Even the divine forces are not spared from such frivolities being equated with lesser humans.

However, growing interest in Vedic studies is a welcome trend. Whatever be the motives or methods or approaches of those who take to Vedic studies, our tradition says that the touch of Veda itself does miracles for the pursuers. Sadguru Dr Sivananda Murty (Bheemunipatnam, A.P., India) says that a Vedic mantra irrespective of the understanding of its meaning by the reciter, carries him to a destination already ‘seen’ by the mantradrasta. Therefore let us hope that all ends well for one and all.

Sarve janah sujano bhavantu

Sarves sujanah sukhino bhavantu,

Y.Sudershan Rao, M.A.,Ph.D.

Professor of History (Rtd)

Kakatiya University, Warangal,

(506009), A.P. India

On a visit to USA:

9825, Rodeo Dr, Irving, TX (75063)

Ph 972 831 9696


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