External references in the Tipitaka: The Vedas

As a spin-off from the discussion about dating the Buddha’s lifetime I’m offering the following topic…

One hint for locating the time of ETB would be looking for external references in the Tipitaka. I guess many things could be researched here, for example the names of kings etc. and there is probably research about it. I would like to focus on the Vedas…

Today we refer to four Vedas. In many places in the Suttas only three Vedas are referenced. The Milindapanha however (between 100 BCE and 200 CE) already mentions ‘our’ four Vedas by name (in 5.3.7). This is not so much the question about when the fourth Veda was composed but rather when people started to refer to the ‘four Vedas’

Early brahmanic sources referring to four Vedas could help establishing the minimum age for the Buddha’s lifetime. I don’t know if these sources exist, but I’m sure Indology had the question of the age of the Vedas before…

Here are Sutta sources which mention a number of (mostly three) Vedas:
tiṇṇaṃ vedānaṃ (as a genitive): MN 91, MN 92, MN 93, MN 95, MN 100, DN 3, DN 4, DN 5, AN 3.58, AN 3.59, AN 5.192, Snp 3.7, Snp 5.1 and the Culanidessa (https://suttacentral.net/pi/cnd7), plus about 12x in the Therāpadāna

tayo vedā: SN 35.132, Mil 2.1 (in the same chapter four Vedas - catubbedā - and later as mentioned the four Vedas by name - ?!, I can’t seem to find another reference to four Vedas)

tevijjā is mentioned often, but I don’t count it as it’s not a literal reference to the Vedas

SN 1.38 mentions 5 vedas (Pañcavedā) - a mistake? there is no other mention of five Vedas. There are only inconsistent references to a ‘fifth’ Veda: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Veda

The PTS dictionary says: “…Dpvs v.62, where the 3 Vedas are enumerated as iruveda yaju˚ and sāma˚”


Intriguing idea. Unfortunately, temporal evidence derived from the mentioning of different Vedas may be circumstantial or merely suggestive. It could only delineate a lower age limit of the current canonical recension of a given text, but not on the root text itself and even less on the lifetime of the Buddha. Work by academic scholars (Buddhist and non-Buddhist, e.g. K.R. Norman, O. v. Hinüber, Ven. Analayo) has shown that many core texts seem to have been faithfully preserved but that, without doubt, there have been redactions of varying degrees…

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I agree, but also the delineation of the lower age might be helpful. And obviously there have been redactions, but I just cannot believe that editors would insert a new passage from a time when it’s normal to refer to four Vedas and say ‘well, let’s use an expression for three Vedas to make it sound older and original’ - some more comments:

  • Do the Chinese parallels mention the three Vedas in the same way?

  • I looked into the Upanishads a little
    Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (dated around 700 BCE) mentions the three Vedas as ṛco yajūṃṣi sāmānītyaṣṭāvakśarāṇi (V.14.2). BUT it already recognizes the Atharvaveda without calling it veda but rather [the verses of] the Atharvans and Angirases (tharvāṅgirasa) yet already in the context of the other vedas. The passage goes: ṛgvedo yajurvedaḥ sāmavedo’tharvāṅgirasa (BU II.4.10).
    The Chandogya Upanishad speaks of the threefold knowledge, interpreted as the three Vedas with the term trayi vidya (ChU I.1.9), the parallel of the Pali tevijjā
    The Kausitaki Upanishad mentions the three by name and also calls them the threefold knowledge (KauU II.6)
    The Mundaka again only refers to a threefold knowledge (MuU I.2.1)

When sources speak of being the fifth Veda, isn’t is right to assume that at that time they accepted a fourth one and thus it must be later than the ETB? These include the Mahabharata (not properly dated because of redactions and different layers), Ramayana (estimates are 4th century BC) and some Puranas apparently. No revelations here as we assumed the ETB are older than those.

From a redaction / edition point of view it’s interesting and doesn’t seem random that the pali references for vedā are in successive Suttas: MN 91, MN 92, MN 93, MN 95, DN 3, DN 4, DN 5.

Whereas the tevijjā references are more scattered and appear in the Samyutta Nikaya as well.

SN 6.5 / SN 7.8 / SN 8.7 / SN 8.9 / SN 8.10 / SN 8.12 / SN 11.18
AN 3.58 / SN 3.59
MN 56 / MN 71 / MN 73 / MN 91 / MN 98 / MN 100
DN 3 / DN 13

(bold references the tevijjā as well as vedas)

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Thanks for some nice Upanishad references. Interestingly enough, the Artharva is also referred to in Pali, but not as a Veda, at Snp 934. This is the only mention in an early text. The practice of Athabba is identified with black magic in the Niddesa commentary on this verse.

By the time of the Milinda, Athabba was considered a Veda.

The use of “fifth” is confusing, however it doesn’t refer to the number of Vedas, but to the para-canonical Vedic literature. Here is the standard passage:

ajjhāyako mantadharo, tiṇṇaṃ vedānaṃ pāragū sanighaṇ­ḍu­keṭu­bhānaṃ ­sāk­kha­rap­pa­bhe­dā­naṃ itihā­sa­pañca­mānaṃ, padako, veyyākaraṇo, lokāyata­ma­hāpuri­sa­lak­kha­ṇesu anavayoti
He recites and remembers the hymns, having mastered the three Vedas, together with their vocabularies, ritual, phonology and etymology, and the mythology as fifth. He knows philology and grammar, and is well versed in cosmology and the marks of a great man.

I’ve adjusted the formatting for your sutta references, I hope you don’t mind. It really helps if we always quote sutta references using the full canonical ID as used on SuttaCentral. That way the links to go to the appropriate place will appear here, and in addition, the links to this discussion will appear in the sidebar for all relevant suttas on SuttaCentral.

If you want to emphasize with bold or italics, make sure the whole of each reference appears inside the bold/italic markup, otherwise our code will be confused.

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Thanks for fixing the links, I try to get more familiar with the referencing…

I think it’s possible to get a little bit of a clearer picture regarding the co-dating of EBT and Upanishads.

Gombrich shows (in: Recovering the Buddha’s Message, The Buddhist Forum, Vol. 1 Seminar Papers 1987 – 1988) how some suttas reference content of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (p.12 ff). He doesn’t mention another Upanishad though.

Hume (in: The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, 1921) follows Müller in that certain sanskrit forms in the Mundaka Upanishad look suspiciously like pali, and concludes “It has long been suspected that the later Śiva sects, which recognized the Atharva-Veda as their chief scripture, were closely connected with the Buddhistic sects. Perhaps in this way the Buddhistic influence was transmitted to the Praśna and Mundaka Upanishads of the Atharva-Veda”

Not surprisingly the Mundaka knows the four Vedas by name (I, 5). Also the Tattirya Upanishad does (II, 3). All the other early Upanishads - as far as I can see - don’t.

The Chandogya Upanishad (in VII, i, 2) already mentions four Vedas, in a phrase similar to the one you mentioned Bhante: “Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharvanas the fourth, the Itihasa-Purana as the fifth”

So however unclear the chronology of the Upanishads is, it seems they can be linked to the EBT. My provisional conclusion is that the EBT can be placed

  • after the Brihadaranyaka Up.
  • probably before the (later parts of?) Chandogya Up.
  • very probably before the Mundaka Up.
  • very probably before the Atharva-Veda

Would this have an influence on dating the EBT?
Also it would be great to have some more serious intertextual research between suttas and Upanishads than my simple reasoning. Who knows some more papers on this?

Yes, but like any other criterion it is only suggestive, and must be used with other factors. It seems to me there’s no reason to assume that there was ever a definitive shift in this, the Brahmanical tradition was too loose and varied. But i think we can clearly say that the EBTs generally fit with the earlier Upanishads.