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Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights; An Excerpt

Frits Staal wrote about language, philosophy and ritual but his scientific pursuits have encompassed diverse areas and disciplines. His book, Discovering The Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights, shows that the Vedas have a logic all their own. Accessible, finely-argued and with a wealth of information and insight, this book is for both the scholar and the interested lay reader.

Here’s an excerpt from the new introduction of this highly revered book.

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The Vedas are often puzzling; sometimes abstract or mysterious; they may also be muddled; but those are the exceptions, not the rule. They overflow with information, much of it concrete. Part I of my book extracts such information from the Oral Tradition but also from archaeology. It deals with Vedic people and their language, what they thought and did, and where they went and when. Part II, almost twice as long as any of the others, provides essential information about the canonized four Vedas as we know them. It includes selections and translations. Part III seeks to discover and understand not only the facts and where they come from, but what they mean. It is analytic and attempts to shed light especially on mantras and ritual, about which many absurd statements circulate (ingayanti as the Rigveda puts it: like words moving around in a sentence). Mantras and rituals are the main channels through which Vedic contributions entered what came to be known as Hinduism.

Part III does not arrive at definite conclusions because I do not believe that we know and understand enough. Part IV tries to answer a rarely asked question: what can we learn from the Vedas? I do not advocate a Vedic lifestyle, but believe that there are things the composers of the Vedas knew and we do not. They include the original forms of the Vedic sciences and the meaning of bráhman. Part V, the concluding part, puts the Vedas in perspective in a wide ranging comparison with Indic philosophies and religions, primarily Buddhism.

Before going further, I should say something about myself and my work. In the realm of non-fiction, creativity thrives on specialization, yet I have always been convinced that the distinctions between letters, sciences and other manmade subdivisions and disciplines are arbitrary. The seeds for these beliefs were planted during World War II in Amsterdam. Though I count myself as a citizen of the world, and not a native of any particular country, it is in this cosmopolitan city that I attended a Gymnasium. We did do gymnastics there though we were not naked (Greek gumnos), but concentrated on mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography and several languages. Our teachers were not only teaching us these subjects, they were lively and eccentric men and women who were interested in developing our minds. The number of languages we learnt might baffle an Anglo-American, but not an Indian. In addition to Dutch, we were taught English, French, German, Greek, Latin, with optional Italian and Hebrew. To this I added Arabic which I continued to study at the universities of Amsterdam and Leiden.

Languages are the gateways to civilizations. I did not care for literature, but languages may be studied for a variety of reasons. The primary appeal of Arabic had been the beauty of its flowing calligraphy. Without it, I would not have read al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on algebra under the tutelage of a famous scholar. When I was younger, I had played about with Chinese characters; but did not continue, perhaps because I sensed that it might take a lifetime to learn them. The first three languages we learned to read and write at the Gymnasium were English, French and German. The last was the easiest but was not popular because of the German occupation. At the university, its horrors stayed fresh in our minds; but now we began to see similarities with the Dutch colonial empire. These acts might have been of a milder sort, but were detailed where necessary by the Indonesian students in our midst. The classical languages, five years of Latin and six of Greek, belonged to a more idealized world. But not one of dreams, because it gave access to ancient civilizations and especially to Greek philosophy which became my favourite. I continued with Greek philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where I combined philosophy and mathematics which led to the first subject I studied in greater depth: mathematical logic. It was the time of L.E.J. Brouwer in intuitionistic mathematics, Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski in logic and foundations.

Amsterdam itself was, of course, ‘a center of culture’, though no one called it that. If I now try to remember how that quality appeared to me when I was young—a flavour that has evaporated in the course of more recent visits—I recall only the facts. When I walked from my home to the Gymnasium, I passed the Concertgebouw and sniffed the dusky air beneath the large passage gateway of the Rijksmuseum. I had been at home in the Concertgebouw since I was five years old. My violin teacher took me there during rehearsals when I was allowed to sit on a podium chair. I heard and saw all the great conductors of Europe before my legs could reach the floor. All of it prepared me to play the violin and viola in the student’s orchestra and in string quartets and quintets. These are perhaps the ultimate reasons that I added a fifth part to a book about the four Vedas.
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