Witzel On The Essential Coterminities Of Vedic And Later Hindu Religion

Something I have often shouted in the course of my work is the fact that Hinduism – the ‘modern’ Hinduism – is not some sort of ‘new religion’ built up atop the ruins of the old Vedic religion.

People seem to think that the two things are fundamentally different, almost irreconcilable – and that even if we were to acknowledge any degree of ‘carrying forward’ of concepts between the two … it would be in the manner perhaps of how Italian fortifications of the Middle Ages were formed from the plundered masonry of Roman marvels; a castle of the Colosseum, Triumphal arches (Titus’ springs to mind) integrated to walls. 

Now, as I say – this is really not the case; and I have demonstrated repeatedly how often, what may look like a ‘new’ religious concept, a ‘foreign’ [i.e. ‘non-Aryan’, ‘non-Indo-European’] integration … is actually most usually a Vedic, a deeply-rooted Indo-European concept, in slightly different clothing. The exterior expression may look a little different (and often not even particularly much) – yet the essence has remained true. And is still actively called upon, utilizing the same religious formulae, mantras, hymnals, worshipful offerings, as we find set down in the ancient Vedic rites and manuals. 

Yet I am just a devotee out here in the wilderness (an apt place, it may be said, for my sort of devotion to be found) – so I do understand, if ruefully and with not inconsiderable bitterness, when the actual facts of the matter are disregarded in favour of what some highly-paid, highly-prominent ‘talking head’ with a book deal or tenure, deigns to put forward something else instead. 

So I was therefore pretty immensely pleased to happen across these remarks of the great Professor Witzel, of Harvard, one of the best living academic authorities upon the Vedic Hinduism, and other related matters of linguistics, mythology, etc. 

“When I was working in Nepal during the seventies (1972-77) and occasionally later on), I noticed that many elements -as well as structures – of rituals, customs, and beliefs have continued from the Vedic period into modern Hinduism; nevertheless, I was also aware of the fact that such correspondences are not recognized very easily. What is necessary is a Vedic specialist who takes a close look at the practices of modern Hinduism. This, of course, is usually not done, as the myths and ‘theology’ of Hinduism seem to be that of the Epics and the Puranas, and these are regarded as something intrinsically different from the preceding Vedic period. 

We may, however, easily find individual examples where Vedic concepts and beliefs have been perpetuated into modern times.”

Or, phrased another way – Witzel has hit the nail upon the head. That the correspondences, the fundamental coterminies of practice, custom, and belief are there … if you know where and how to look for them; yet so often, the people who are supposed to be doing  the ‘looking’, are not so adroit: and instead de-contextualize things and are surprised  when what they have seen in their minds through this manner no longer seems to align with the Vedic context from which it sprang. 

Because there is an artificial ontological separation in much of academia and elsewhere between “Vedic” and “Epic/Puranic” era Hinduism – which, as anybody who has actually spent serious time looking at the elements of both canons can tell you … is at best wildly overstated; if not actively confounding in terms of our comprehension – especially given the lesser-known phenomenon of more ancient and indeed fundamentally Indo-European elements being ‘carried forward’ into the Puranic canon, despite warranting barely a mention in cryptic terms in the Vedic canon itself [see my recent work on Demeter Erinyes in relation to Saranyu Chhaya, for a good example – Saranyu IS briefly mentioned in the RigVeda; yet the shadowy ‘horse form’ is majorly a Puranic concept – as well as an Ancient Greek one]. 

So why does this occur? Well, the scintillating diversity of ‘appearances’ appears beguiling. To quote Witzel again – 

“Levy’s analysis allows us to view Hinduism, just like any other religion, on its own terms, as a rather well-organized system of beliefs, rites, and customs. Western scholars sometimes do not see it this way. They are often dazzled by the endless array of gods, images, motifs, stories, mythical cycles, and so on, and by the infinite number of gods, images, motifs, stories, mythical cycles, and so on, and by the infinite number of smaller and larger rituals and festivals. The problem is compounded when these elements are set free from their selection and interrelations in a particular community and are set adrift in some unlocalized historical space. Scholars get lost in catalogs of the multitude of gods, symbols, and customs of Hinduism. Hindu (or Vedic) mythology is not just a jungle of tales that seems to sprout ever new shoots and branches like a jungle creeper or banyan tree. The tales are variations on a number of well-established themes and structures. It is just their effulgence and their multitude that confound.”

He also makes the rather interesting if obliquely phrased point, that Hinduism seems to come in for especial levels of frustration upon this basis of alleged fundamental difference between archaic roots and modern flowerings; as part of a determined effort to try and have Hinduism declared to be a ‘different religion’ to the Vedic one; noting that: 

“A thorough comparison of, say, early Buddhism in Bihar and its modern forms in Sri Lanka or Japan would result in a large number of incompatibilities, even though all these forms are bad on ultimately, the same set of teachings.”

And yet we do not hear people insisting that Buddhism is not Buddhism , whether in Japan or in Tibet or in India a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, amidst the Indo-Greeks .. or even, perhaps inadvisedly, amongst the Californian post-Hippy demographics. 

Buddhism is held to be Buddhism, even despite evidently rather widely diverging if not outright incompatible internal divisions of content and character across both time and space … yet when it comes to Hinduism, despite the increasingly well apparent deep roots to the modern tree, we find people wanting to pretend that the branches and the roots are not actually the same tree; that the leaves must be some other creature entirely and the roots no longer exist nor run anywhere except into musty academic tomes and Internet Edgelord misappropriations. 

The final point I shall make note of, with regards to this decent work by Witzel – is that he observes that Nepal is something special, something quite different to much of the rest of the Hindusphere; for whereas India Herself (particularly the North) had to contend with centuries upon centuries of Muslim invasions and then European ones, with the accompanying cultural-influential inflections of each … much of Nepal is quite the opposite – having never come under such (direct) foreign dominion (up until, it might be suggested, very, very recently) , and therefore facilitating the strong preservation of an earlier (and more ‘conservative’) ‘flavour’ of Hinduism than found out elsewhere in lower and more accessible climes. 

Fitting. The High Himalayas are, after all, Lord Shiva’s Abode – and the realm also known upon occasion as ‘DevaLoka’ : the Demesne of the Gods. It is only right (and righteous) that Heritage be so strong there ! And as Mountains are also Trees via longstanding Indo-European mytholinguistic concordancy – so, too, do we find up in those high reaches, the flowerings of undeniably ancient roots. 

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