The question “when were the vedas written” has to be understood on multiple levels. Let us first understand in a general way without going into too many details.
What consists of the Vedas?
The various mantras, which are śabda. Śabda literally means ‘sound’, but we have to differentiate it from different types of sounds. If a vessel falls on the floor, that too is a sound, but the *clanking* carries no inherent meaning. The vedas are śabda (sound with inherent meaning). In other words, it is intelligible sound that can be communicated, and of course, understood with meaning.
Now śabda has a unique place in our scriptures, it is the property of ākāśa (Space-time). The vedic mantras, you can say, are weaved into the fabric of space and time, not as a separate entity, but as their very property. Before Śr̥iśṭi (manifestation) took place, these mantras were in present their seed form (avyakta), and when the universe flowered into being, so did these mantras, as part of Ākāśa.
The R̥Ṣis were extremely sāttvic jīvas with tremendous amounts of chitta śuddhi (mental purity) and jnāñam (knowledge). R̥Ṣi literally means a seer, the R̥Ṣis could tap into the cosmic order and simply “see” these śabdas.
Take a detour to something more contemporary. If I ask you to listen closely, do you hear any music? Probably not, but if you tune your radio to the right frequency, you can listen to music from all across the world, and if the frequency is strong enough, perhaps from various parts of the universe (the static white and black grains you see on your television comes from microwaves coming in from over 13 billion light years away).
Such is the property of space, that it carries these vedic mantras that have always existed as part of them, and the R̥Ṣis simply had to “tune in”, so to speak. The difference is these mantras aren’t ‘broadcasted’, but form the fabric of jagat. For example, in order to create a pot, there has to first be knowledge of the pot. So too, the knowledge of jagat precedes the jagat, and since every manifestation is preceded by knowledge, this knowledge here is present in the form of these mantras.
Now, these formed the body of the Vedic mantras, which they passed down to their students, and their students then passed it down to their own, and so on. This is the tradition we call the Guru-Śiśya Paramparā (teacher-student lineage). Then one fine day, long after, a great jñāni like Veda Vyāsa comes along and divides the corpus of Veda into 4 (R̥g, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva).
Then much later, writing may have been invented in our civilization, and that is when these mantras would be written down in the form we see today. So to date the Vedas when they were written down does *NOT* mark the beginning of the Vedas, but just the beginning of the ‘technology’ that was created which allowed for their codifying. In these estimates, one can say the R̥g Veda mantras “written” as hard-copies circa 1900 B.C.
Some portions may have been “copied” down earlier, some later, and this is unfortunately the dating that modern Indologists give us, completely ignoring how long back the tradition retraces to. As we know, dating an oral tradition is not only difficult but impossible, as the only place it is recorded is in memory, and the memory of these mantras have always been around as long as the manuśya jāti has walked these plains.
This takes us to the vast and elaborate concept of vaikhari-vāk, madhyama-vāk, paśyanti-vāk and parā-vāka, which are quite detailed but I will just give the condensed gist of it here.
Each of these vākas (types of speech) that I listed go from the level of gross to subtle.
Vaikhari is the gross sound, like the tumbling of a vessel, or the rustling of leaves, sound of the ocean, and even the groaning, sniffing, snoring and inadvertent sounds of living creatures.
Madhyama-vāka is speech generated from one’s emotions (manaḥ), and is subjective in nature.
Paśyanti-vāka is speech generated from the faculty of the intellect (buddhi), and is objective, with greater capacity to define truths that exist
Parā-vāka, however, is not generated from the human mind whatsoever, but are (for lack of a better word) “intuited” from the cosmic blueprint. This is exactly what forms the Vedic mantras, and that is why the Vedic mantras are called apauruśeya- *not* authored by R̥ṣis, but merely received by them.
So, were those ancient Rshis who revealed the Vedas the only Rshis?
Not quite, but they were the most exalted Rishis, for the following reason.
The Vedas themselves have two types of knowledge- parAvidyA and aparAvidyA… aparAvidyA deals with things we discover which are put to day-to-day use, like mathematical theorems, scientific proofs, what kinds of foods to eat for healthier life, and basically pretty much everything you can transact with. This is the knowledge of ‘objects’.
Then, there is parAvidyA, the knowledge of the ‘subject’/self/brahman/AtmA… this is unavailable for ‘proof’, it can only be known to the subtlest of minds with the purest of chittams, the Vedic Rishis.
In the vedic tradition itself, we have many RSis who dealt with matters not only related to Self knowledge, but also other aparAvidyA… vAlmiki, the great jNAni, has written about constructing vimAnas, then we have RSis who have derived the speed of light, spoken about gravity, about the pythagorus theorem (long before pythagorus was even born) to shape the yajNa kundas (sacrificial pyre) using exact mathematical formulas, then RSis who have given us jyotisha shAstra, ashtAnga yoga, the beautiful language of saMskRt, Ayurveda and so on.
Any great discovery that is unprecedented can only be the work of a RSi, but here i CLEARLY mark the distinction of modern day RSis and jNAnis… archimedes, who discovered the principle of density too intuited it, but that is where the intuition ends. Similarly, Einstein intuited the theory of relativity, a beautiful notion that boggles my intellect each time I stop to appreciate it.
Or say Mozart (or was it Beethoven?) the deaf musician who could put everyone to shame with his unique musical gifts… RSis have been countless, but the ones in particular that we exalt are the jNAni RSis, who were experts of both parAvidyA and aparAvidyA, but we equally respect every great being who is born, that contributed something beautiful to our life regardless of the region or time in which they came to be , though as a convention, whenever the word ‘RSi’ is mentioned, it implies a vaidika RSi
Will there ever be more? Can only learn to be a Rshi or is it something imparted by Ishvara?
Though there is no hard and fast rule, it is less likely for there to be RSis associated with Vedic knowledge- though you will continue having scientific/linguistic/musical and other subject prodigies over time, though that is where their expertise end.
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