Michael Witzel – World History and The Origins of Mythologies

In the world of language, or in other words in the world of art and liberal education, religion necessarily appears as mythology or as Bible. — Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

Michael Witzel and The Origins of the World’s Mythologies

TOKYO – Harvard Professor Michael Witzel is one of the world’s leading scholars of Sanskrit, linguistics, and comparative mythology, an activist against the efforts of Hindu groups to revise American textbooks in their favor, and he is the author of the ground-breaking book ‘The Origins of the World’s Mythologies‘ in which he demonstrates that mythologies and religions did not arise independently but were subject to a gradual evolutionary process stemming from one shared root.

This process can be reconstructed by looking at the development and spread of language, dialects, and terminologies, and (almost) neatly overlaps with findings in archaeology, architecture, and anthropology. This is all about emulation of cultural models by thy neighbors, but it gets incredible complicated because scripture is difficult to come by before, say, before 2,500 years ago. Before that, who practiced what religion before, say, in the “new territories” of eastern North India before the emulation of the dominant Kuru-Pancala model, is just everyone’s guess, and research must rely on geography, cartography (lately even GIS ‘Geographical Information System’), and archaeology.

For example, the Rgveda is believed to be a “Late Bronze age text,” because there is no mentioning of iron in the Vedas, which we know from archaeologists came into use after 1000 BCE. It is incredible detailed puzzle work and shows that linguistics, which often requires mastership in dozens of foreign languages and dialects (classical and modern) and a thorough knowledge of history, religions, population genetics and sociology, and methods of computational sciences (scriptures are scanned these days and evaluated by computer programs). Because world’s languages at any age are manifested human thought, the study of it becomes increasingly complicated and with such a wealth of data, the study of languages has earned its reputation as the rocket science of the humanities.

Michael Witzel and The Toho Gakkai of Japan

Michael Witzel visits Japan regularly and recently attended the 58th International Conference Of Eastern Studies in Tokyo, May 24th. He gave a talk on the history that preceded the Buddha and what might have influenced the Enlightened One’s thought:

Three Subsequent, Major Developments in Vedic Thought and Religion

By Michael Witzel

There are some major, punctuated equilibrium developments in Indian religion. The earliest discernible one – after the enigmatic Induscivilization – occurred during the early Vedic period (c. 1200-1000 BCE).

After an undetermined period of Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan religious development, there was a short period of consolidation, caused by political developments around c. 1100 BCE. This was the establishment of the supremacy of the Bharata-Kuru kings in and around Kuruksetra: the political, social, ritual and textual setup of early Vedic society was rigorously and remarkably changed, however under the guise of continuing tradition accompanied by artificial archaization. This resulted in dominance of the socio-religious Kuru-Pancala setup on the north Indian scene, of their noblemen and Brahmins (brahma-ksatr), and the complex solemn Srauta ritual.

This seminal setup lasted for a few hundred years, and it was eventually copied as Kuru orthopraxy in the “new territories” of eastern North India (Kosala/Videha), in current N. Bihar. Just as the Kuru kings had instigated marked changes in the small-scale tribal societies of the Northwest, so did the leaders of the emerging large eastern kingdoms in their societies. The kings (such as the Iksvakus or Janaka) brought in Brahmins from the Kuru-Pancala area and set about to codify the floating mass of sacred texts and allied rituals. This resulted din the final redaction of the oldest Indian text, the Rgveda and in the first detailed collection of the solemn Srauta ritual in a “handbook,” in Sutra form: the Baudhayana Srautasutra. Remarkably, the local Kanva ritualist Bodhayana adopted the ritual of his rival school, the dominant Taittiriyas of the Pancala land for that purpose. Both texts could henceforth be used as template for all religious and ritual performances.

The extensive contemporary discussion of the rituals in an eastern text, the Satapatha-Brahmana, formed the link to the subsequent dialogues of the Upanishads. Their focus no longer was the ritual as such but its esoteric discussion as well as that of the human soul and its fate, and that of the underlying order of the cosmos. A decisive step was made from ritualistic to ethicized thinking, stressing personal decisions and their consequences for one’s future life (karma). The combination of karma and the inherited concept of rebirth have set the stage for the subsequent 2500 years of Indian religions.