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Coincidentally, this week's Hindu carries a book review by Sundar Sarukkai, of Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights by Fritz Staal. Romila Thapar who called it a remarkable book says "It untangles the many complexities of the Vedas and combines Staal’s scholarly respect for the texts, with explanations that are lucid and occasionally witty. His insights are thoughtful and perceptive."
Sarukkai has a discursive essay on the book, wherein he points out that the Vedas are not “books” in the sense of other sacred books because they are primarily an oral tradition. They are also not revealed by a divine force. On the contrary, he notes that these verses were composed by poets and there are no hymns or prayers in this corpus.
More significantly, the Vedas are not a “religion.” Gods mentioned in the Vedas “do not dispense grace” nor expect devotion. Staal’s argument is that these verses should be seen for what they literally mean – “storehouse of knowledge.” These verses were composed over a long period of time, by many people, primarily in the regions of North India and Pakistan, with influence from other parts of extended Asia. ....
It is important that we learn how to understand the Vedas in this analytical sense but it is also equally important to ask why the Vedas have remained such an important influence in the daily life of a large number of Hindus in this country and elsewhere. Why and how did these verses, composed by wandering tribals and nomads, become so central to the Hindu civilisation? Is there something in these verses that explains why they have stood the test of time, particularly if they are not divine texts? How did it happen that the Vedas have been so successfully converted into the idiom of religion? What is special to these poems and narratives that is more than just a historical, philosophical or archaeological curiosity? Unless one engages with the experiential, lived experience of the Vedas encoded in the daily lives of millions of people (along with an analytical approach), a book on the Vedas is not really about discovering the Vedas but only about placing it within some categories that are of interest only to a few academicians. But having said that, the kind of analytical approach undertaken by Staal is important to counter-balance the excessive interpretative reading of the Vedas.
The rich historical and linguistic details available in this book, along with an extensive and useful bibliography, make this book an essential reading.
The book is accessible to both scholars and the interested lay reader. In our Philosophy, Culture, and Religion sections. Paperback, 456 pages, Rs 495. ISBN: 9780143099864