Dating of the Vedas

I can’t find much solid evidence from some Google searches on how the dating of the Vedas is done. I imagine there would be some overlap with the methods for dating the Early Upanisads and Early Buddhist Texts.

One obvious method would be the language strata. Vedas use a much more primitive Sanskrit than the more refined “Classical” Sanskrit of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Another method that kept cropping up in online searches is archaeological evidence. For instance, that the river Saraswati is mentioned in the Vedas and now has some archaeological evidence?.. but I couldn’t find much to back up this claim.

So what are the methods and evidence for a conservative/scholarly estimate of the dating of the Vedas. (10,000 BCE is probably nothing more than wishful thinking.)

This may not be appropriate for this category so the @mods can move at their discretion.

Yes, it is a good point. I am no expert, but I believe the initial dating was by Max Muller in the 19th century. He said the Rig Veda was dated in the 2nd millenium BCE. I don’t have his actual arguments to hand so I can’t confirm the details, but dates of 1200 or 1500 are commonly mentioned. It would have been based on linguistic and cultural evidence, possibly informed by the recent discoveries of the Harappan civilization.

I am not sure how much recent research has been done on this, but so far as I know, Muller’s dates hold up reasonably well. There is a reasonable article on Wikipedia:

I found Witzel’s arguments on the formation of the Rig Veda to be persuasive. He argues that the central portions, or “family books” were maintained by distinct tribes within the Indo-Aryan communities. Only at the time of the classical Kuru Kingdom were these united into a single book, framed by the opening and closing chapters.

The Kuru Kingdom is identified with the Painted Grey Ware culture, which flourished roughly 1200 BCE to 600 BCE.

On linguistic evidence, the books of the Rg Veda are of different dates. It seems that the different books, starting from maybe 1200 BCE, were gradually evolved and added to, and were finally joined together at a later date, maybe 800 BCE or so.

Note that linguistic evidence is quite good for relative dating: we can say with some surety that this text is later than that. But it tells us nothing about absolute dating: how much later? For this we must look to archaeology, comparative history, and the like.

Yes, it seems that so far claims based on the Sarasvati are not reliable.

Indeed. The field is unfortunately subverted by Hindutva nonsense, which has diverted much Indian scholarship from a more meaningful investigation.


Thank you Bhante, for the thorough and reasonable response. It placates some confusion I had and helps me to contextualize the later Upanisadic/Buddhist era (whatever that’s called).

Out of curiosity, if you could briefly explain how we can tell which stratum (earlier vs later) a language belongs to?

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It’s basically laziness. Humans are lazy, and prefer to express the same thing with less complexity. Think about how, say, you might refer to “SuttaCentral” for a few times, then after you get used to it, you might just say “SC”. The same kind of pattern manifests quite generally in language evolution, with the result that phonemes in languages tend towards simplicity.

Thus r becomes l, a doubled consonant becomes a single one, complex gendered endings get lost, p become f, and a whole host of similar changes.

Think about modern English. We use an over-determined phrase like “I am going to go”. Well, that’s not going to last. So we say, “I’m going to go.” That’s polite in received spoken English. But it’s still clunky, so we can say “I’m gunna go.” It looks odd in writing, but in most spoken contexts it wouldn’t be noticed. Finally, we can reduce it to “Imma go”. It seems hard to see the relation of this with the original, but if you follow the steps, it’s quite logical. Purists tend to spurn such forms, but in reality, it’s a more efficient and compressed form of information.

Of course, there are many forces acting on language, and any one instance is not conclusive. But when you can compare many such instances over a wide range of passages, you can usually conclude with a fairly high degree of probability the relative dates of two related languages.


And further to acronyms: gtg or g2g (got to go). And even further, companies are working on neural implants with one of the eventual goals being largely doing away with spoken word altogether: we’ll just broadcast our thoughts to one another. Who knows how long this will take or if it’s even possible…


I catch myself saying “ʌɪŋ gũ go” with a weird nasalized “u”.

It’s probably a Canadian thing.

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It was quite easy for me to date the Vedas. I asked Simone Veda to dinner and a movie, then I asked Angela Veda on a romantic boat ride. Both said yes, and we had a lovely time!


I can warmly recommend
Cohen, Signe. (Ed.). (2017). The Upanisads: A Complete Guide. Routledge.

Her introductory chapters are very good and detailed without being too nerdy or technical (I think the first chapters are freely readable on google books)

A few things to consider: “The Vedas” technically cover the scriptures from the earliest Rgveda up to the Upanisads. So in the literature you sometimes find the term “Samhitas” for the “Four Vedas”. Accordingly ‘late vedic literature’ means the Upanisads.

Another thing is that dating the ancient Indian literature is quite a sensitive topic in India. Many Indians still carry the emotional hurt from colonialism and find it important to argue for an ancient autonomous Indian culture. They often rely on astronomical calculations and arrive at numbers like 10.000 BCE and older. For them the “Aryan Invasion Theory” and the relatively young dating of western indologists of their holy scriptures verges on a conspiracy to (again) de-legitimize Indian culture and to “western-splain” the Indians their own history. So don’t expect too much empathy for western dating in more culture oriented Indian sources.

A third thing that for example Witzel (I think) or the admirably careful Gonda pointed out is that in fact a lot of the dating of Indian literature is based on the dating of Buddhist literature. So they find it almost funny when Buddhists turn to them and ask them when the Vedas etc. were written.


Signe Cohen is awesome. This book is on my shopping list already.