"The Historicity of the Vedas" by Michael Witzel

Prof. Witzel has been a prolific Vedic scholar in Harvard for a long time, with a multidisciplinary approach, open mind, and without an agenda. In this video (THE HISTORICITY OF THE VEDAS - YouTube) he discusses the historical background of the Vedas and concludes that they started to form around 1200 BCE - which is later than many other academic assessments that conclude a time around 1700 BCE.

This would have implications for how we reconstruct the time of the Buddha. Vedic knowledge would have had less time to travel east, especially since the Yamuna river seems to have been an accepted stopper for aryan migration for a long time. It’s quite certain that Brahmanism was not firmly established at the time of the Buddha in Kosala and Magadha, but some pockets were there.

Maybe we have to rethink the aryan expansion into the east, for example rethinking the Yamuna threshold not as absolute (i.e. that it was “forbidden” to cross it) but rather that adventurous, unorthodox seekers of opportunity or spirituality always had the possibility to travel east, and that they always did. This could explain how a slow drip of Vedic knowledge (especially of language and deities) got integrated into the spiritual circles in Magadha and mixed with the local practices based on karmic retribution and rebirth.


This is definitely a question I have been pondering lately. If the Buddha did not grow up in a Vedic culture, meaning Vedic thought was not well established in his region, then is it possible that the use of Vedic vocabulary, along with some polemical content against Brahmins, a later development mostly by the Buddhas disciples (whether immediate or not)? An example of this is the three fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, which Gombrich connects to the three fires that a Brahmin needs to maintain. Another example would be the three knowledges (vedas). I don’t really have an answer to this, but it’s definitely something that has crossed my mind.

Whoa folks, don’t go crazy. If Witzel is right—re the age of 1200BCE for the origins of the Vedas, or more importantly, around 800BCE for the redaction of the Rig Veda in the Kuru country—it gives many centuries for aryan culture to move through India. It’s a months’ walk from Kuru to Rajagaha. People were doing it all the time.


Language is a sensitive measure of influences, migration, and development. The Pali debate is certainly not satisfyingly settled (i.e. how it relates to the language the Buddha actually spoke, if it’s basically the same or a translation). But we have to assume currently that the Buddha spoke some sort of Vedic dialect, and not a completely different language. (For pre-Pali studies in Buddhist texts see the works of Brian Levman).

When it comes to Buddhist polemics against Brahmins, yes, they most probably are post-Buddha, while the Buddha seems to have been largely benevolent towards Brahmins (see Ellis, Early Buddhism and its Relation to Brahmanism)


Buddha knew Vedas. Only place we know of it is in suttanipata. He named a popular chant. But we dont know if it was added by Brahmins who inflitrated in the Sangha or who converted etc

It seems that he knew of the vedas and a bit about Brahminic orthodoxy, but it seems unlikely that Siddhartha would have memorized the vedas given his caste. By “knew vedas” do you mean “knew about” or did you mean “memorized”?

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A very interesting conceptual question, since ‘knowing’ something at that time meant life without writing, papers, books, blackboards, or internet.

How did people refer to ‘texts’ then?
What did it mean to ‘know them’?


I would like to add to what Bhante @sujato said earlier: this is not a big deal.

Actually, Witzel dating is standard. 1.700-1.000 BCE is the standard dating, and lots of people tend to have a cap closer to around 1.300 BCE. However, there are also reasons to be somewhat cautious of these numbers will still using them: the main reasoning behind the upper limit / archaeological record has to do with what the Vedas don’t and do mention. For instance, if Homer mentions Iron, it’s impossible that the text was written in a pre-Iron age.

But if we say “Homer doesn’t mention Iron, and thus it’s pre-Iron Age” this is much more shaky, no? What if Homer just wasn’t interested in Iron. What if it doesn’t make good poetry, or its not traditional, or he despised describing it in comparison to bronzes and golds?

Dating the Vedas due to lack of references is along similar lines. Sure, we have decent reason to do so. But it isn’t that certain. Either way, like I said, these dates are standard and they don’t conflict at all with other evidence in relation to Buddhism. We already knew the Buddha was not in a Brahmin-dominant region, that the Eastern Vedic schools here were later considered unorthodox and were much more contemplative seemingly, etc. etc. In fact, the evidence we have of the Buddha’s Vedic knowledge seems to confirm the same rough idea that he was around Kosalan / Eastern Vedic ideas which were not the authority nor the orthodox. Things are, again, always uncertain to certain :wink: degrees.


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Or what if the word for iron, ayas, at one time meant “metal”? Which (I believe) is a contested issue for early usages.

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If we believe that he lived and studied years under Indian Masters? What else to believe the way had Vedas and Yoga poses etc

He said in suttanipata the name of Gayatri Mantra.

Why its written…

Just to show what it seems to me that he memorized and used Vedas before. So the Brahmin person questioning him to keep asking further in trust but also showing that it doesnt make a real Brahmin.

I think you have an overly simplistic idea of the religious landscape of the time. These “Indian Masters” were hermits who had self-consciously rejected the Brahminic orthodoxy. And Patanjali, of course, post-dates the Buddha by centuries.

To learn about the Buddha’s India you should perhaps start with Rhys David’s (1903) monograph on the subject.


Just for your interest, nothing like “yoga poses” are mentioned for a very long time. Most of what we call “yoga” today is attested no earlier than the 17th century, with much of it being added in the 20th century.


Indeed. The earliest attestation for a yoga pose is the viparītakaraṇī in the ~13th century Dattātreyayogaśāstra… but the pose was still not conceptualized as an āsana but rather as a (rather advanced) mudrā. This helps by showing that the category of āsana (as we think of it) post-dates at least the 13th c… as well as by giving some insight into how “pose yoga” arose out of medieval Tantric practices.

For more, see Mallinson and Singleton’s Roots of Yoga


Good to know Bhante. Same as Vedas. Only written down after. Like pali canon

In pali canon I wonder sometimes in some suttas write that a monk was exercising. And we cant know what that meant. Sometimes its walking meditation. Then its added in the same text after. But I saw sometimes excercise only.

It doesnt really matter. In Ancient wall of egypt they are doing yoga poses. We should assume India or Egypt exchanged these. Or it was a universal thing. Streching… even your dog does it. :rofl:

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Ha ha, so true! Yes, obviously there were exercises for a long time.

The main point of interest for me is that these days folks are concerned about the “cultural appropriation” of yoga. At the very least, it needs to be understood that much of yoga was “appropriated” from the west in the 20th century by Indian gurus. Nothing wrong with that IMHO, but it’s a bit cheeky to turn around and claim the west is appropriating it back.

I don’t really think we should be concerned about borrowing spiritual traditions, it seems to me that to curtail it is only to harm all sides.


M Witzel’s paper " The development of the Vedic canon…" can help in providing a chronology of Vedic texts. That way one can see the spread/creation of the Vedic corpus, esp the Upanishads into Kosalan-Magadhan country - at about a time prior to that attributed to the Buddha.
His paper that seems to specifically address the overlap of Vedic and Buddhist worlds is " Moving Targets? Texts, language, archaeology and history in the Late Vedic and early Buddhist periods."
That will give a better idea of what the Buddha could have known and not. Gombrich and many others have also weighed in on the issue,e.g here.

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Thanks for this! The paper has horrible formatting, but a good short review and great reference! :smiley: