By Arshia Sattar
Book: The Vedas: An Introduction to Hinduism’s Sacred Texts
Author: Roshen Dalal
Price: Rs 699
Roshen Dalal brings a formidable amount of scholarship and research to bear upon this volume that gathers various kinds of information as well as theories about the Vedas — from their possible dates of composition, to their possible composers, to various linguistic hypotheses that link their content to other ancient texts, to examples of their spiritual and cultic interpretations. Dalal is trained in history and ancient Indian culture, but her further interests include religion and philosophy. All of which inform the volume at hand.
Apart from separating the Vedas from each other and reminding us that the Rig Veda does merit a different kind of attention, Dalal provides detailed analyses of the content, attitude and spirit of these sacred books, all four of which are considered the foundational texts of what we today call Hinduism. Although the volume under review is called an “Introduction,” it is far more encyclopedic — it contains a veritable dictionary of Vedic deities, an entirely useful list of tribes and clans, a catalogue of sacrifices and rituals, a description of archaeological sites and what we can glean from them, speculation on how such sites might be related to each other and what they might tell us about the history of humanity rather than simply about our putative ancestors. I am sure that each of us that reads the book will find something in it that we did not know before, and I imagine that most of us will be glad that Dalal has brought it to our attention.
Using detail rather than broad brush strokes, Dalal collates this information from disparate sources, and presents, among other things, conflicting theories and controversial hypotheses (such as the idea that the Indus region was the Indo-Aryan homeland whence they went further west) with an even and neutral hand. At the end of each chapter, she gently but firmly states her opinion on the matters she has covered and in keeping with her academic training, she eschews rhetoric and plumps for the theory with the most evidence in its favour. Given some of the more recent and widely popular literature on the Vedas, encountering Dalal’s clear-eyed intellectual rigour is a real pleasure.
Nothing quite prepares you for the lyricism of the Vedic verses with their soaring imagination, their delicate images, their expressions of vulnerability, their robust ambitions and desires. Sadly, though, the most beautiful and uplifting aspect of these mysterious and mystical texts — the ‘hymns’ themselves — form the smallest part of this book. To present the so-called hymns, Dalal relies primarily on RTH Griffith’s early translations and rightly so, for Griffith’s work with the Vedas is essentially unsurpassed: his readings of the language and the spirit of these works is as accurate and nuanced as could be hoped for as well as sensitive to their diverse intentions. Still, it is disappointing that there is so little of the verses themselves in a book that tells you everything else that you ever wanted to know about them.
In the end, this is not a book for the faint-hearted, it is not a book that one might browse through before going to bed or read first thing in the morning as one searches for a pithy aphorism to carry one through the day. For some one like myself, however, who constantly needs to refer to credible scholarship about early Hindu texts, Dalal’s book is invaluable. Along with her earlier book, Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide (Penguin, 2010) this one, too, is going to stay close at hand.
Arshia Sattar has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara into English and is one of the founders of Sangam House