[Advaita-l] Chronology and Traceability

jaldhar at braincells.com jaldhar at braincells.com
Fri Jun 11 03:07:33 EDT 2021

I have been wanting to respond to this post for some time but it has taken 
me a long time to formulate my thoughts on this subject.

On Sun, 18 Apr 2021, Anand N via Advaita-l wrote:

> I was a little hesitant about posting this question in a Vedanta group, but
> I am doing it anyway. Ishwara is Brahma Sahita Maya, and this question can
> be ignored too :-)

On the contrary this is a very good question and one more students should 
ask if they wish to increase their understanding.

> We say that Vedas, being Apaurusheya and timeless are the basis from which
> even Smrutis and Puranas have developed.

Apaurusheyatva is orthogonal to timelessness.  We speak of Newtons law of 
gravity.  Isaac Newton was a devout Christian who lived in England in the 
17th century.  But gravity existed long before Isaac Newton and would 
exist even if there had never been an Isaac Newton.  We call it Newtons 
law because he was the first to "see" it.  So too, the Rshis are not the 
authors of the mantras but the ones who first "saw" them (the literal 
meaning of rshi is mantradrashta) Or they "heard" them  (Shruti = "that 
which is heard") in any case this was not a deliberate mental act.  We see 
a similar mindset in other ancient cultures too.  For instance, the Greek 
poet Homer does not begin his Illiad "now I'm going to sing about the 
wrath of Achilles" but "Sing Muse of the wrath of Achilles"  (The Muses 
were the nine Goddesses of the Arts in Graeco-Roman religion.)  In other 
words Homer did not think he was composing a poem but that divine 
inspiration was posessing him and speaking through him.  Divine 
inspiration could have made the Rshis see or it could have been the 
hallucinogenic properties of the Soma plant or a state of samadhi caused 
by yogic practices.  Whatever the cause, for the Mimamsakas (from whom 
Vedantins take the doctrine of apauresheyatva) it is clear that Rshis are 
not authors.

Smrti deriving from Shruti is for a different reason.  Take for instance 
Sandhyavandana.  Everyone will agree even if they don't practice it 
themselves that this is the basic daily ritual obligation for a Brahmana. 
Yet in the Shuklayajurvedic tradition which is the one I am familiar with, 
the only mention of sandhya is in the Shatapathabrahmana, 
aharaharsandhyaamupaset "From day to day he should practice the sandhya. 
But what does that mean "from day to day"?  And how exactly do you 
"practice sandhya"?  The Rshis pondered on subjects such as these and 
these are the vedangas.  The vedanga kalpa deals with rituals and there 
are different works in this genre for different shakhas (more of 
which below) In shuklayajurveda it is in the paraskaragrhyasutra that you 
can learn that sandhya is to be done at morning, noon and night, it 
involves offering arghya, reciting Gayatri etc.  Other Rshis thought about 
the big picture and worked to consolidate these particular traditions into 
grand theories of Dharma.  These are what we normally call Smrtis, by 
Manu, Yajnavalkya, Parashara etc.  As that literature became volumninous, 
there developed nibandhas or digests such as Nirnayasindhu etc.  Then for 
people who just wanted a practical guide to e.g. sandhya, there developed 
prayogas which just give the facts without much or any discussion.  One 
project I've been working on and off for my own benefit is a comparison 
between different prayoga books.  And so the general-particular cycle 

> Ramayana and Mahabharata being events which actually took place.

So that was a description of the Smrtis that deal with karmakanda but 
another important class deals with the events mentioned in the shruti. 
The terms Purana and itihasa are used in the Veda itself.  During sattras 
(yajnas lasting three days or more) it was the custom to pass the time 
between sessions telling stories of old.  And the frame story of the 
extant puranas is usually that of a 100 year sattra held in Naimisharanya 
by Shaunaka Rshi.  In the chandogyopanishad, Narada tells Sanatakumar of 
the various subjects he has studied including Rk, Yajus, Sama, and 
Atharva veda "and itihasapurana which is the fifth."

While astikas do believe the events in itihasa and puranas did take place, 
according to the Mimamsakas it is a mistake to treat them as "history". 
These kind of statements whether in shruti or smrti are arthavada - 
auxilliaries to injunctions to act (or to know according to Vedantins) 
Another example:  the scientist Schrodinger came up with a thought 
experiment involving a cat in a box to illustrate a theory about quantum 
physics.  And "Schrodingers cat" has been much debated by physicists since 
then.  It has even entered popular culture.  But if you ask "Is the cat 
striped? Does it like milk?" you are missing the point.  Yes, cats do have 
different colours of fur.  Yes they do eat different things.  But these 
details are irrelevant to the task of explaining a principle of physics. 
In the shatapathabrahmana it is said that Janamajaya Parikshita performed 
the ashvamedha.  The idea is to extol the ashvamedha. i.e. if someone as 
illustrious as Janamajaya performed the ashvamedha, you should too.  In 
the Bhagavatapurana it also says that Janamajaya the son of Parikshita and 
the grandson of Arjuna the Pandava performed a great yajna as he was about 
to die from snakebite.  (in fact this is the occasion for the first 
recital of the Bhagavata.)  Both sources are presumably talking about the 
same event but actually you cannot compare them as they are being told for 
two different purposes.

> I was interested to know if there is a linear chronological development of
> these works.

Yes there is. Even according to the astika point of view.  At the 
beginning of each creation cycle, Chaturmukha Brahma "breathes" out the 
mantras.  The Rshis "see" them.  This could be a process that takes many 
generations.  For instance at the end of each kanda of the 
shatapathabrahmana (of which the Brhadaranyakopanishad is a part)  there 
is a vamshabrahmana that gives the parampara of that section.  In the 
Dvaparayuga Maharshi Krshna Dvaipayana forseeing the decline in abilities 
of people in the upcoming kaliyuga collects all these vedic texts and 
arranges them into four (hence he is called Veda Vyasa - the arranger 
of the Vedas) and teaches them to his students who teach them to 
their own students thus founding the shakhas we have today plus many 
others which did not survive for whatever reason.  And out of compassion 
for the dvijetara who have no adhikara for Vedas, he took their essence 
and composed the Mahabharata and the 18 Mahapuranas.  This illustrates 
another principle of our chronology.  The passage of time is not seen as 
progress towards a final or even merely greater levels of revelation but 
as a degeneration.  We have more  shastras in number and volume now not 
because we are more spiritually advanced but because we are less.  What 
took one word in "the good old days" takes one thousand now.

> For  example:
> If we look at Rudra Prashna, we see Rudra as wielding bow and arrow and
> other weapons. The same Rudra then transformed into Shiva who is wielding a
> Trishul. So if we take the Veda's Rudra Prashna as the source, and then the
> source gets multiplied by the later literature, we are arriving at what we
> have today as the Pradosha Puja, Shivaratri etc.

We have hardly stopped referring to Shiva Bhagavan as a bowman though. 
In the Ramayana it is told how Shri Rama won Sita ma's hand at her 
svayamvara by successfully drawing (and breaking) the Pinaka bow which had 
temporarily passed from Shiva Bhagavan into the Mithila royal families 
hands due to events.  The Rudri also mentions his blue throat, matted 
hair, snake ornaments not to mention the name Shiva itself in the context 
of the panchakshari mantra no less.  Why does it not mention trishula?  As 
mentioned before the Shruti does not necessarily give all the details.

> We could take any other God too. For e.g. Garuda who is there in the
> Shatapatha Brahmana, further in the Mahabharata as the son of Kadru. There
> is the whole Garuda Purana too.

Garuda is in the samhita too.  The mantra suparNo'si... in the Vajasaneyi 
samhita is used in smarta prayoga for ghanta puja but the shrauta 
application is for the agnichayana.  In this yajna a vedi made of bricks 
in the shape of a bird and this bird-altar is honored with this mantra. 
It is called Suparna, Garutman (Garuda,) and Tarkshya which are names of 
his in Puranas too.

> So can we do a bidirectional traceability between our current image of Gods
> and the Vedic Gods? Is there a clear chronological development and
> transformation of our Gods and our practices?

This implies that the material in the puranas is later which is not 
necessarily a settled fact even if we accept the editorial shape of the 
Puranas as we have them is later.  But as this post is already really long 
I should write about that separately.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

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