Rig Veda

Rig Veda

A previous chapter discussed Shruti, and how it could be processed by an AGI/SSI system. This chapter discusses the Rig Veda, which is the oldest work of the Vedic literature.

Western indologists frequently portray the Rig Veda as being merely a work of rituals, with some mythology and philosophy thrown in. But this is a gross misunderstanding of what the Rig Veda is.

The Rig Veda is a difficult “text” to understand because it is so ancient, and comes from an oral tradition. The transmission of the Rig Veda was maintained with great fidelity for thousands of years by the Vedic pandits, using very exacting memorization techniques which served as “error correcting code” to preserve the Rig Veda as it was meant to be heard.

As Indologist Michael Witzel puts it, “The Vedic texts were orally composed and transmitted, without the use of script, in an unbroken line of transmission from teacher to student that was formalized early on. This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like a tape-recording …”[1]

Western indologists do not have a good explanation as to why the Rig Veda needed to be transmitted across the generations with such high fidelity. Certainly there is little evidence of any other oral tradition that emphasized such exact memorization. It seems there is something different about the transmission of the Rig Veda from such things as the Greek memorization of the epics (Iliad and Odyssey), or the Australian aborigine stories of the Dream time.

Since the Rig Veda is so ancient (and “pre-literate”), there are no contemporary documents that would provide word meanings, so understanding the Rig Veda is a difficult task[2], and all attempts at translation (so far) are unsatisfactory[3]. The early European translators (of the 19th century) thought they could derive the meaning of Rig Vedic words from the later Brahmanical texts that purported to be exegesis of the Rig Veda (as used in rituals). However, translators have since realized that the word meanings found in ritual manuals do little to provide meaning to the Rig Veda itself.

Another approach to translation uses philology and linguistics, and searches for what appear to be cognate words in other languages. For instance, the first two syllables of the Rig Veda, “agnim”, are believed to be cognates of comparatively recent words such as the English “ignite” and “cognize” (after passing through Latin cognate words). Such analyses have led to the hypothesizing of a “proto-Indo-European” language that was the mother language to Sanskrit and Latin (and a lot of other languages). This might well be true, but as of yet there is no physical evidence for this hypothesis, nor can there be such evidence for a language that precedes the invention of writing.

Also, the sounds and syllables of a language can change meaning over the centuries. And to make matters more difficult, Sanskrit (and other ancient languages) do not have any “word” separators like a “space” character. And Sanskrit has a mechanism called “sandhi” whereby phonemes are transformed when two syllables join, thus making a “sentence” even more ambiguous.

Another approach to meaning is to examine modern languages that derive from Sanskrit, such as Hindi. One might assume that if “agnim” means “fire” in Hindi, then it means the same thing in Sanskrit. However, Hindi has lost the tones and accents of Sanskrit, and has changed the pronunciation of some letters; thus it’s hard to prove that a similar-looking words in the two languages mean the same thing (and have the same connotations, and invoke the same experience).

This brings us to another point. Most Western indologists have studied the Rig Veda only from the written text, in spite of the fact that it was composed in an oral and tonal language (and never intended to be written down). To understand a language like Vedic Sanskrit it is necessary to hear it recited (i.e. chanted). Obviously it’s easier to analyze a language from written texts; but writing is a form of ‘lossy compression’ and cannot capture the full range of intonation and nuance of sounds that are intended to have a direct impact on the human brain.

The above points demonstrate how advantageous it would be if the Rig Veda could be approached directly from the sounds themselves, and be allowed to speak for itself. And this is what the Susiddha project aims to do, using techniques from fields like computational audition, deep learning, and neuroscience, as discussed in the chapter on Shruti. The understanding of Rig Veda thus gained will belong to the AGI/SSI system that emerges from the project.

It obviously will take a while before all the pieces come together that will enable an AGI/SSI system to learn aurally and gain knowledge from shabda. But given the rapid progress in the above mentioned fields (as well as the exponential progress in hardware and software, discussed in the chapter on superintelligence), we expect that the Rig Veda can be heard and understood by an AGI/SSI system in a couple of decades.

But for the moment, there is already plenty of knowledge, hardware, techniques, and software tools for the Susiddha AI project to make a good start on the computational processing of the shabda of Rig Ved.

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Notes and References

  1. Vedas and Upanishads (chapter): The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, ed. Gavin Flood, Michael Witzel, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pages 68-71
  2. Purāṇaveda, chapter 4 in Authority, Anxiety, and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation, Lauri Patton (editor), Frederick Smith, SUNY Series in Hindu Studies, July 1, 1994, pages 97-139
  3. A Still Undeciphered Text: How the scientific approach to the Rigveda would open up Indo-European Studies, Karen Thomson, December 18, 2015, http://www.rigveda.co.uk/