by Urmila Devi Dasi
Do we need old stones and bones to verify the Vedic view of history?
Were our ancestors ape-like beings, hunters by nature who gradually learned to plow the field? Or were they highly civilized, advanced both technologically and spiritually? What is the real story of human history?
The Vedas and their supplements assert that human beings today descended from far superior human beings and that people have lived in materially and spiritually refined societies for millions of years. If we are indeed heirs to a greater culture of the past, scientifically objective evidence of that culture should be available. But is it?
Some evidence is available, but scholars tend to disagree on what it proves. Their debates have been going on for some time, usually fueled by biases.
For example, when Europeans were trying to conquer India economically and politically, they also often sought religious and social conquest. Many if not most of the early scholars who studied the available scientific evidence—language, histories, ancient ruins—did so to discredit the Vedic view of history.
Today, linguists, astronomers, archeologists, and other scientists disagree about the validity of Vedic history. Some use the same evidence as the earlier European scholars, as well as new finds, to confirm the Vedic view. They point to ancient ruins of sophisticated planned cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, both with advanced sanitary systems. Some authorities claim to have found sacrificial al-tars like those described in the Vedas. Dissenters say that the ruins are very different from any described in ancient India’s sacred writings. The writings must have come from elsewhere and become part of or replaced the culture of India’s indigenous people.
With modern geological instruments, some scientists are certain they have found the course of a mighty river that corresponds to the Sarasvati, described in the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. Others say the Sarasvati would have been much smaller. Still others say it never existed.
Scholars recognize Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, as one of the oldest languages in the world. Linguists debate whether Sanskrit originated in India, was imported, or developed from some unknown, older language.
Others debate whether the sages and scriptures of India originated complex astronomy and mathematics or borrowed them from other cultures, such as Greece and Egypt.
Scholars agree that ruins, artifacts, and so on, show that some type of advanced civilization existed in India at least five thousand years ago. But they disagree on whether the evidence confirms descriptions in scriptures such as Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Unfortunately, relying on empirical evidence can never yield a definite conclusion about the events of the distant past. We can rely on empirical evidence to make many decisions in our present lives, but it may not be helpful—and can be harmful—when reaching conclusions about the past. Why? Because the empirical method of gaining knowledge relies on the human being’s senses, mind, and reasoning ability, which are limited and therefore limit our access to knowledge.
Let’s consider some of these limitations. The apparatus of the human body can’t detect all stimuli. For example, dogs can hear and smell things we can’t. And to avoid mental overload, our mind filters perception; we delete much of our incoming sensory experience. We also generalize about what we perceive, allowing us to recognize an unusual chair as a chair. Yet such generalizing, which usually entails putting things into preconceived categories, greatly limits our ability to discover truth. Finally, we distort our perceptions according to our deep biases and beliefs. Often our beliefs are so deep-rooted we don’t know on what premises we are forming conclusions.
Researchers Postman and Bruner performed a psychological experiment that serves as an excellent illustration of the difficulty we face when confronting evidence that contradicts our beliefs and experience. The researchers flashed regular playing cards at experimental subjects, but mixed with the cards were strange cards, such as red spades and black hearts. The testers gradually increased the time the subjects could see each card. In the beginning, after a short exposure to each card no one noticed the strange cards. They just saw it as something else—a normal card. For example, when shown a black four of hearts (no such thing), they would, without hesitation, call it a four of spades or hearts.
As the time to see the cards increased, most of the subjects gradually realized that there were other categories of cards. At first they would hesitate in their identification and then finally recognize the new type. Once they identified the new type, they could continue to spot similar cards. But more than ten percent of the subjects were never able to identify the strange cards—even at forty times the average exposure time needed to recognize normal cards for what they were. They would sometimes feel acute distress upon seeing those strange cards, but didn’t make the mental leap to understand that there was another category beyond their original bias and expectation.
So we perceive what we want or expect to perceive. Unfortunately, many scholars or scientists think that accepting the Vedic literature as true is an unacceptable bias. And they think that those without such a predetermined world view are as close as possible to pure objectivity. But in fact, all human beings are subjective and biased, filtering experience through their desires and expectations. Although scholars and scientists may understand their own biases and strive for objectivity, they’ll never be fully successful.
Another drawback of empiricism is that we can never know for sure whether our conclusions are correct. In a child’s game, one child hides an object while another searches. The searching child is told, “You’re closer. No, now you’re farther.” But who will tell us whether we have reached the target?
As for Vedic civilization, only the written records, the Vedas, can give us an accurate account of its history. The Vedas themselves claim to be history rather than mythology, and through several lineages of teachers and disciples, we can know the character and motives of the writers and compilers.
In any case, concrete evidence (such as the ruins at Harappa) of some kind of materially advanced civilization in India thousands of years ago is irrefutable. One can interpret such evidence to support the version of the Vedic literature, but the current followers of the eternal religion (sanatana-dharma) described in the Vedic literature don’t depend on empirical proof—except in the sense that they feel the benefits of following the Vedic dharma. Their personal experience with the text is enough to convince them of its validity. They also accept them as accurate historical documents because they respect the integrity of previous adherents of Vedic culture, especially the teachers and students who have passed them down through many generations.