Theosophical Forum, May, 1902
“It holds through all literature, that our best history is still poetry. It is so in Hebrew, in Sanskrit, and in Greek.”—EMERSON.
A curious chapter of the fallibility of human reason might be written on the study of ancient Indian Chronology in Europe during the last century. At this day it is almost as difficult for us to look at Indian Chronology, and the history of the ancient world in general, from the standpoint of only a hundred years ago, as it would have been for the grandsons of the Patriarch Noah to look back to the long, careless days before the Flood, when the water had not begun to rain upon the earth. Between us and the first European scholars who laid the foundation of Indian Chronology is a gap wider than the Deluge a flood of knowledge and insight the like of which no single century has ever seen. It is curious, indeed almost grotesque, to look back to the pages of the first students of Sanskrit, Colebrooke, Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkins, Colonel Wilford, and Colonel Tod,—to see the absolute trust—a trust which no doubt had ever touched—with which they constantly recur to the figures 4004 B.C. as the unquestionable and unquestioned limit of the age of the world and man. It is difficult for us to realize the absolute authoritative character which these figures once held in the minds of the whole of Europe, adopted as they were from the traditions of the Hebrew Rabbis, who had derived them, whether rightly or wrongly, from the Hebrew sacred books. It would be an interesting study to trace the gradual growth of these universally accepted figures for the beginning of all things, 4004 B.C., and to follow the steps by which, from being a mere deductive hypothesis, drawn from the Hebrew books, they little by little crept under the ægis of authority, and came in time to share the unquestioned acceptation of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. But to do so would demand too much time and research for the purposes of this article. It need only be repeated that a century—I might almost say half a century ago, they met with an acceptation almost as unquestioned and universal as the multiplication table, or the number of hours in the day.
It is easy to see what effect this acceptation would have on the minds of all students of ancient history and chronology; how it would fetter the imagination, destroy the conception of gradual growth through long ages, and absolutely incapacitate the minds which accepted it from duly weighing the evidence for any antiquity which went beyond that period, or even approached too nearly to the limit which had been set up as the utmost age of man and the world. I need not prove the reality of this warping influence by citations from the pages of Sir William Jones, and Colebrooke, and Colonel Tod, nor from the early volumes of the Asiatic Researches; the fact is too well known, and too evident to require any proof beyond mere statement. It happened, therefore, that when the Sanskrit scriptures, the Vedas, the Epics, the Puranas, were first given to the West, through the labours of this famous band of workers, the whole world of European thought was under the yoke of the Rabbinical Chronology of 4004 B.C. Now, many of the epochs of Indian History stretch back for thousands of years, the central point of all Indian Epic and tradition, the Mahabharata, or Great War, being dated almost exactly 5,000 years ago; while behind the Mahabharata War stretches a vast perspective; the ages of the Vedas, their Brahmanas, and Upanishads; and even behind the Vedas, beyond the Rig-Veda’s earliest hymns, lie untold ages of Indian’s past, till that distant day, hidden in the mists of time, when the Aryan first descended from the Himalayan snows. Besides these traditional dates, we have a vast system of greater and lesser ages, of cycles within cycles, stretching back for hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years, which form a distinctive feature in the Puranic epoch, and which, more than anything else, have proved unpalatable to European students of Sanskrit thought.
It happened, therefore, when the pioneers of European Sanskrit study came upon these traditions of the Mahabharata War, the Ramayana behind that, and the vast Vedic space beyond the Ramayana; when they came upon the system of ages and cycles in the Puranas, with their hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years; that these scholars—into whose heads it never entered to doubt the absolute certainty of the date 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world; into whose heads it never entered to doubt the absolute certainty of the date 2349 B.C. for the Universal Deluge—had only two alternatives in dealing with the dates of Indian history and tradition,—either to discard the dates while accepting the reality of the events recorded, or to deny both together, and, labeling event and date as grotesque Brahmanical exaggeration, to consign them at once to the limbo of exploded fallacies. The former fate befell the tradition of the Mahabharata War, and the wanderings of Rama; the latter, the whole system of ages and cycles in the Puranas. The universally accepted eras of India, the dates that had been handed down from generation to generation, were summoned before the bar of Hebrew Rabbinical tradition, before the bar of Archbishop Ussher’s chronology, and condemned. It became an aphorism with our early Sanskrit students that all Indian dates must be cut down to the Rabbinical level; must be distrusted and discarded as exaggerations; and from this wholesale distrust of Indian historical tradition sprang another aphorism, that “India has no history.” The practical result of this was, that the utmost limit assignable to the oldest Sanskrit works, the terminus a quo of Sanskrit literature, was fixed at some 2000 B.C., just this side of Noah’s Flood. As this seemed too old to many early students, the date of 1500 B.C. became generally accepted as the terminus a quo of Sanskrit literature. Then followed another conclusion, that, as the Rig Veda, dated, as we have seen, about 1800 B.C. or later, was deemed to be the first outburst of song of the Aryans descending upon the plains of India, it followed that the Aryans must have entered India not long before this date; so that the period of a millennium and a half before the Christian era became gradually accepted as a certain and well ascertained period, at which, and not before, the Aryan invaders must have begun their gradual subjugation of the aboriginal tribes.
I suppose that, writing so many years after the deluge of thought and insight I have referred to, I need not insist on the fact that the year 4004 B.C. can no longer be accepted as the absolute beginning of the world and man; can no longer be considered as the fixed and certain boundary within which all human growth and development must have taken place. Perhaps the latest opinion on the age of the world, and one which represents broadly the conclusion of all thinking people at the present day is that of Sir A. Geikie, who, speaking before the British Association, concluded that the hundred thousand feet of the earth’s crust have been laid down in a period of from seventy-three million to six hundred and eighty million years. Of course, behind this lie the vast ages while the earth was cooling, before sedimentation began; and the vaster ages that saw the primal fire mist condensed into rings; the rings broken and closing up to become cloud-globes, and the cloud-globes worlds. How many ages were needed to form a fire-mist? How many to form the early space-breaths from which it sprang? To answer these is to step into the pathless halls of infinity. It is clear, therefore, that we are dealing with periods which, in sober earnest, dwarf into inferiority the widest span of the Puranic ages and cycles; which are vastly broader and more comprehensive than the longest sweep of the Yugas that earned for the old Indian writers, from our earliest Sanskrit students, a sweeping condemnation for grossest mendacity and exaggeration. In the face of statements like that of the famous geologist, Sir A. Geikie, giving the mere crust of the earth an age of from seventy-three to six hundred and eighty millions of years; in the face of the far longer periods claimed by the astronomers, who take up the thread where the geologist lays it down, can we any longer venture to overlook the fact that, while only a century ago the whole of the Western World was cramped within the four milleniums before the Christian era for the utmost limit of the world; the ancient philosophers of India had attained far truer ideas of the vast ages of time, and had assigned to the world an antiquity far more nearly approaching the truth than that which still fettered their critics, the early Sanskrit scholars at the beginning of last century?
Then as to the age of man; it is so well known that I need hardly repeat it, that the certain traces of man, bones, implements, pictures, have been found in geological strata of the Pleistocene age. Now, taking the thickness of the strata formed since that period, and comparing it with the total hundred thousand feet of the earth’s crust, we should have for the proved and unassailable antiquity of man a period of from seven hundred and thirty thousand years to six million eight hundred thousand years,—as we accept the longer or shorter period put forward by Sir A. Geikie—as the minimum limit of man’s existence on the earth. Now, the skulls which belong to the very earliest human remains are as large as, if not larger than, the general average at the present day; that we stand in the presence of a fully formed man, a skilled hunter, and an artist of admirable power, at a period that cannot possibly be less than about a million years ago, and may quite possibly be six million, and more. But the biologists claim even longer periods than the geologists. Professor Huxley puts the beginning of sedimentation at a thousand million years ago; and this, proceeding on the same proportions, would give for the fully formed and perfectly developed man of the Pleistocene period an antiquity of something like ten million years.
Here is a very different terminus a quo from 4004 B.C. Of the last generation; which held absolutely canonical authority when the first Sanskrit scholars became acquainted with the tradition of India; in obedience to which authority these traditions were cut down and crushed forward with such force as to bring the period of classical Sanskrit down to the very verge of the Mussulman conquest of India. The conclusion of the whole matter is this, that the foundations of Indian chronology, as understood in the West, were laid under an absolutely false idea of the age of man and of the world; that all subsequent conjectures of the European schools of Sanskrit students have been built upon these foundations; and therefore that all conclusions based on the major premiss of 4004 B.C. for the creation of man are necessarily vitiated from beginning to end. The whole edifice of Indian Chronology, as accepted in Europe, was built on a false foundation of Rabbinical conjecture, and, as a necessary result, the whole pile will need to be erected again on the firm ground of scientific truth. It is evident that a true scientific method demands, not that we should fix an arbitrary maximum limit, an arbitrarily decided terminus a quo, and then make our chronology fit in with it as best we may, by lopping off centuries, and crushing ages into years; but by beginning with the present, and reasoning slowly back to the past. A splendid beginning has been made in this direction. by the labours of distinguished scholars in Bombay, with the result that the last great milestone of Indian Chronology, the Vikramaditya, or Samvat era, and the period of Sanskrit literature which it marks, have been driven back from the verge of the Mussulman invasion, to which the pressure of Rabbinical tradition had forced them, and have been firmly settled outside the limits of our era, where ancient Indian tradition had always held them to be.
The reaction in thought has begun to make itself felt; the magnificent discoveries in the history of man and of the world, which mark the middle of last century, have begun to take effect on our understanding of Indian antiquity; and it may be confidently predicted that, within a few years, other cardinal points and milestones of Indian History will follow the example of Vikramaditya and be gradually reinstated in their ancient limits, where the universal voice of Indian tradition placed them ages ago. A proof of this is already present in the admirable work of a learned scholar in Madras, who, discussing the connection between Babylonia and Old India, takes up a line of argument which, if logically followed, would place the whole of Vedic literature which precedes the legend of Manu’s deluge at a period anterior to the Noachian Flood, which Archbishop Ussher’s chronology assigns to the year 2348 B.C. The reconstruction of Indian traditional chronology on true scientific lines has begun; and it is certain that it will soon be released, once for all, from the fetters of Rabbinical tradition, and placed on a firm ground of scientific truth.