The earliest surviving Indo-European poetry, composed in an ancient and unfamiliar form of Sanskrit, remains undeciphered. Sanskrit scholars struggle to make interpretations found in a mass of derivative scripture, known loosely as “The Veda”, fit. But it’s an impossible task. They don’t fit. The lack of sense that results is reflected in the Penguin selection by Wendy O’Flaherty (1981) and the attempt at a full translation by Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton (2014). Indologists have concluded that the poems are deliberately obscure, and therefore indecipherable. But as Aurobindo Ghose wrote from his study in Pondicherry almost exactly a century ago, “when the hymns seem to us incoherent, it is because we do not understand them.” This ancient poetry is not only decipherable – it is conceptually sophisticated.
Max Müller, the editor of the poems and Oxford's first Professor of Comparative Philology, was decisive in his view:
If all the rest of what is called Vedic literature had been lost, we should not have been much the poorer for it. To the student of the history of Sanskrit literature the other so-called Vedas are no doubt of very high interest, as they form the connecting link between the ancient Vedic period and the later Sanskrit literature. But in the eyes of the general historian they cannot compare with what is really unique in the literature of the whole world, the hymns of the Rig-veda.
(Gifford Lecture 1891)
Website © Karen Thomson: kthomson(at)dircon.co.uk
Ancient Sanskrit Online. A ten-lesson course on the language of the Rigveda, with an historical introduction. By Karen Thomson, web design by Jonathan Slocum. Linguistics Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 2004-2006.
The Rigveda: Metrically Restored Text. By Barend Van Nooten and Gary Holland. 1994. Edited and made available online by Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum. Linguistics Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 2006.
Why the Rigveda remains undeciphered
Thomson, Karen. 2016. Speak for itself: how the long history of guesswork and commentary on a unique corpus of poetry has rendered it incomprehensible. [Review of Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, The Rigveda 2014.] Times Literary Supplement January 8, 3.
————. 2010. The Plight of the Rigveda in the Twenty-First Century. Journal of Indo-European Studies 38, 3 & 4. 422-430.
————. 2009. A Still Undeciphered Text. How the scientific approach to the Rigveda would open up Indo-European Studies. Journal of Indo-European Studies 37, 1 & 2. 1-47.
————. 2009. A Still Undeciphered Text, continued: the reply to my critics. Journal of Indo-European Studies 37, 1 & 2. 59-88.
- Part 1. The Problem and its History. The Outcome of the Hermeneutic Approach. The Influence of the Veda. Test Cases. The Process of Disentanglement.
- Part 2. The Evidence of the Rigveda. Rigvedic ruins. The meaning of the word samudrá. "Did the Sarasvati ever flow to the sea?" (Possehl 1998). The Rigvedic chariot and the Rigvedic horse.
- Part 3. The need for a new approach.
————. 2004. Sacred Mysteries: why the Rigveda has resisted decipherment. Times Literary Supplement March 26, 14-15.
————. 2001. An Ancient Jigsaw. [Review of Manfred Mayrhofer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen [Part I] 1992-1996, and Alexander Lubotsky, A R̥gvedic Word Concordance 1997.] Times Literary Supplement February 16, 34.
The Decipherable Rigveda: Word Studies
————. 2005. Why the Rigveda remains undeciphered: the example of puroḷā́ś. General Linguistics 43, 39-59.
————. 2005. The decipherable Rigveda: tiróahnyam as an example. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15, 1. 63-70.
————. 2004. The decipherable Rigveda: a reconsideration of vakṣáṇā. Indogermanische Forschungen 109, 112-139.
————. 2001. The Meaning and Language of the Rigveda. Rigvedic grā́van as a test case. Journal of Indo-European Studies 29, 3 & 4. 295-349.
From 'The golden bough' by Wenceslaus Hollar