Did you know that the word ‘Yahweh’ — so common in Abrahamic texts — also finds multiple mentions in the Rig Veda?
As India emerged from a week of violent protests by a few of her citizens, over an amendment to an Act which had nothing whatsoever to do with them, her skies were stung by divisive cries.
Some demanded freedom from Hindus; others, freedom from infidels. This is perhaps as good a time as ever, to step back from needless, senseless acrimony, to look at a binding commonality of integrative humanism, which the violent protesters and their supporters wish to ignore.
The common thread is one word – Yahweh, which can be found in both the Rig Veda, and in the Old Testament – the oldest Abrahamic text.
In ancient Hebrew, the word meant ‘God’; in ancient Sanskrit, it meant a great force, or an epithet for a divine being.
In this piece, we shall attempt to unravel two mysteries: first, how the exact same word came to be employed by two apparently-disparate belief systems, with the same intent; and second, why this commonality has not been addressed in satisfactory detail by historians.
According to history, Semitic Israelites of Canaan – the Holy Land of Palestine and Israel – migrated to Egypt in droves during the 18th to 16th century BC. For a brief while, they were powerful enough to have their own Kingdom in the Nile Delta. This opportunity arose out of major disruptions in Egypt, caused by the influx of horse-riding, non-Semitic Asiatics with Indo-Aryan links, whom the locals called ‘The Hyksos’.
Eventually, the Egyptians reorganised, made the horse their own, recovered their crown and subjugated the Israelites into thralldom. Nothing more is heard of the Hyksos. Then, sometime around the 12th century BC, a man named Moses led an exodus of enslaved Israelites out of Egypt, to emancipation and Israel.
En route, he received the fabled Ten Commandments from God – Yahweh – at Mount Sinai, which have remained the bedrock of Abrahamic law ever since. There are no archaeological or historical records for this event, and the first epigraphic references to it are encountered only many centuries later.
Interestingly, at that time, Yahweh was but a junior deity of a divine pantheon headed by El (the creator). His elevation from junior to senior (a common occurrence in Indian pantheons, and thus familiar to us) actually began around the 10th century BC.
Similarly, the shift from polytheism to monotheism too, started to be scripturally codified only around the 9th or 8th century BC.
We also know for a fact that Yahweh didn’t have an Egyptian origin, because historical records of the Nile Delta stretching back to the third millennium BC (roughly two thousand years before the accepted date of the Exodus), record all manner of divine beings except Yahweh.
The easy conclusion, then, is to say that the Israelites brought Yahweh to Egypt, and then also took him back to Israel during their exodus. So, matter closed?
Well, not exactly, because this doesn’t explain why Yahweh is also worshipped in an ancient Indian text, which predates the commonly-accepted time frame for the Exodus by at least five to ten centuries.
If the word Yahweh had been used only infrequently in Hindu scriptures, we might have assumed that it was an orchestrated import. But on the contrary, the word appears dozens of times in the Rig Veda, in multiple declensions, as a noun, a verb, an adverb or an adjective.
Obviously then, the unambiguous conclusion is that Yahweh was a concept-word in Sanskrit, with multiple, layered, meanings and derivatives, applied according to context.
Nothing in the manner of its usage suggests a foreign origin, nor is there any evidence anywhere to prove such a point.
So, who was Yahweh, and how did he become an Israelite god? To answer that, we need to go further back in time and get thoroughly confused!
The end of the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago led to organised agriculture, the metal age, and the rise of urbanised, literate, organised civilisations with sophisticated socio-religious structures.
The first five were the Egyptians, the Peruvians, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (Southern Iraq), the Indus Valley civilisation, and the Yellow River culture of China.
All lasted for about a thousand years, from the 32nd to the 22nd centuries BC. None have left any records for Yahweh, and none had domesticated the horse, before environmental upheavals disrupted continuity. This is where our story starts.
That ecological calamity resulted in widespread, multi-directional migrations. The old kingdoms fell. Mesopotamia (old Iraq) saw the emergence of the first Semitic kingdom, under Sargon the Akkadian. There was still no horse and no Yahweh yet in the records.
On the cusp of the 2nd millennium, the Akkadians gave way to fragmentary Semitic states in Mesopotamia – the Assyrians in the north of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, followed later by the Babylonians in the south.
It is in this period that we get the first historical whispers, of an influx into Mesopotamia and the Syria-Turkey border by non-Semitic horse-tamers with an Indo-Aryan tint.
The entry of the horse changed the dynamics of the Middle East. In some areas, long-settled lands were occupied by the newcomers, forcing the original inhabitants to bring fresh lands under the till; in others, it is the newcomers who opened up new pastures (like the Khabur River on the Turkey-Syria border, or the Kizilirmak in Anatolia, Central Turkey).
It was a slow, centennial process, but by the 18th century, we have records of Israelites, and the horse-riding Hyksos migrating to Egypt.
Contemporaneously in the Turkey-Syria region, we witness the settlement of these non-Semitic horsemen, and the gradual rise, over subsequent centuries, of what some call the Indo-Aryan super-state.
The most prominent was Mitanni in the Khabur valley. Records have been left in stone, in a non-Semitic, non-Aryan language – Hurrian.
One of its many kings was Dasharatha, and Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, Mitra and the Nasatyas are mentioned during its high period between the 15th and 13th centuries BC.
In fact, these divine beings are invoked in a treaty between the Mitanni Hurrians and their neighbours to the north – the Hittites of Anatolia. These Hittites spoke a distinctly Indo-European language, and are believed to have settled in Anatolia by the 20th century BC, from an unknown place.
From the above, whatever else may be true or false, it is apparent that people who spoke a language related to Sanskrit, knew the horse, and worshipped Vedic gods, started to create positions and dominions of prominence in the Middle Eastern region, at least from around the 20th century BC onwards. And if they revered the Vedas, then obviously, they revered Yahweh too.
This is an important point, because it is only a contortionist’s fantasy which would devise a people, who for unknown reasons, and unrecorded anywhere, selectively kept Yahweh – and only Yahweh – out of that very text which has dutifully carried Yahweh as part of its divine pantheon into our current age.
To re-stress: you cannot say that the Rig Veda is the oldest extant text known to humans, and then also say without a shred of evidence, that the word Yahweh alone is a lateral interpolation. That is not deductive reasoning. If the Rig Veda is, then it is with the word Yahweh within, in Sanskrit.
But from the 19th century AD, and doyens of early Indology like Max Muller onwards, there has been a concerted effort to try and prove that these migrants came to the old world from everywhere else but India.
In the process, a far more straightforward linearity, which honours the principle of Occam’s Razor (all things considered equal, the simplest explanation is the most plausible) has been left un-adopted: that fire-worshipping, Sanskrit-speaking people with Indian names left the subcontinent for ecological reasons.
Over many centuries, they dispersed as far as the Middle East and Turkey, mingling and merging with horse-riding people along the way.
Some settled in river valleys like the Khabur or the Kizilirmak, adopted organised farming, and over time, used the strength of the horse to become power centers both there, and in Israel and Egypt. Some returned to the subcontinent – with the horse; the rest were absorbed by history.
To put it in perspective, an historical analogy is the expulsion of the Yue-chi from Northwest China in the 2nd century BC. This movement had a tremendous domino effect on the Bactrians, the Shakas, and eventually, on the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Also, while we have a natural tendency to view such disruptions in negative terms, don’t forget that the Yue-chi migration actually resulted in centuries of flourishing trade, on both the Silk and Spice routes – a period of great prosperity which led to the Kushana Empire, and culminated in the classical Gupta period.
A second example is the illegal immigration from Bangladesh, which as we know, has not been without political consequences.
It is thus a simple thesis. It is logical, it is plausible, and satisfies a number of concepts – including the horse issue, the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation, and the strong bonds between Sanskrit and ancient Greek.
At its root is a truth: the oldest known reference to Yahweh is in the Rig Veda, and this text predates all other available evidence by a millennium or more.
Now, there may be those who reject this thesis by proposing a composition date of 1500 BC for the Rig Veda. Be careful here on two counts: first, this date was set over a century ago in fairly arbitrarily fashion, by European Indologists, on phonetic, linguistic and philological assumptions of a qualitative nature.
It has not been widely questioned. Secondly, even taking this youngest possible date for the Rig Veda, it is still coeval with epigraphic records of patently Sanskrit nouns like Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Dasharatha in the Middle East, as well as being centuries before the Exodus from Egypt to Israel.
Others will raise the horse issue to reject any links between India and the Old World, because the available evidence says that this animal was unknown to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Here, again, we return to a basic point: the presence or absence of the horse in the Indian subcontinent is irrelevant to the matter at hand.
The point is about kings with names like Dasharatha, who worshipped Indra, Varuna and Yahweh, and who already, by the 15th century BC, ruled kingdoms which straddled Southern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Israel.
A third argument would be that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were racially and culturally different from the Aryan invaders who destroyed them. This thesis is being steadily disproven through new research and digs.
But even if we, for a moment, accept the Aryan invasion argument, it automatically pushes the date of the Rig Veda a thousand years back to the 25th century BC, and makes it that much older than both the first Middle Eastern epigraphic references to Yahweh, and the exodus from Egypt.
So back to square one, because you can’t have Aryans coming into the Punjab in the 15th century BC, and destroying an Indus Valley Civilisation that was already into decline for ecological reasons by the 22nd century BC!
What is most confounding in such furious theorising is a persistent refusal by established academia, to even consider the plausibility of a simpler thesis – of a migration out of the subcontinent by Sanskrit-speaking people?
Why can’t we question such hypotheses, especially when their contrary views are supported by exactly the same absence of evidence? Well, well…thereby hangs a tale.
Readers will be interested to know that many such sentiments have persisted into the present, unquestioned and inviolate. For instance, the origins of the Greek language are conventionally dated to the 15th century BC.
Because of its undeniable structural proximity to Sanskrit, and using the colonial Indologists’ favorite date of 15th century BC (for Vedic Sanskrit to have evolved to such high literary levels), the easiest approach would have been to study Ancient Greek as a partly-Prakrit, perhaps-indirect offshoot of Sanskrit.
Strangely though, the most popular hypothesis being plugged (we cannot call it a theory), is for some sort of Proto-Greek being brought into Greece, in some earlier millennium, by someone, from somewhere – all entirely without any historical evidence of course! But no anteceding links to Sanskrit allowed.
A second example is the Roman Mitra cult, which flourished as a counterpoise to early Christianity from the 1st to 4th centuries AD.
The god Mitra is a Vedic one. Yet, historians have rigidly bound themselves into tight academic knots, to demonstrate that the Roman cult was of Zoroastrian origin alone.
Why this reluctance to ignore direct, older Vedic references, or, the fact that Mitra is a common surname in India even today? Do you know anyone who doesn’t know a Mitra?
So, must we ask: what spurs this institutional reluctance to not take analysis beyond a certain point to its logical end? Sadly, the bald truth is, to put it bluntly, that much of such thinking has been influenced by ideological and racial considerations.
In the wake of Hitler and the Holocaust, the last thing anyone wanted was the suggestion of a link between the ancient Israelites and ‘Aryans’.
Similarly, while 19th century Indologists were happy to formally establish multiple, fundamental, scientifically-proven linguistic relations between Ancient Greek and Vedic Sanskrit (Latin came later), it was culturally indigestible to propose that the mother of Occidental speech might have a more-than-fraternal bond with Sanskrit.
Same too with Yahweh, for these historians to ever consider the possibility, that a text so central and sacred to colonising Europeans might include a few bits absorbed from the very same brown natives they ruled over.
Another constraint (and some would call this a legitimate one) is that in many cultures, talking about the addition, deletion, promotion or demotion of gods is tantamount to sacrilege or blasphemy.
But in India, where the old ways continue to exist, undisturbed, we are offered a rare peek into the past: Here, gods and goddesses have their own TRP system.
Perhaps, that is why a farmer from Tamil Nadu can blithely consecrate a temple with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the deity; or, why Babasaheb Ambedkar is as much a God to some as any other deity. Indeed, that is how it often was in the ancient world, and continues to be so today in India.
Consequently, it is probably time for subject experts to start differentiating between theses born of rigorous scientific deduction, and those conceived to conveniently suit racial or cultural sentiments.
History cannot be papered over by wishful thinking, and the word Yahweh is a case in point. Either you make up your mind based on available data, or you say you don’t know.
The more you try to prove that the Rig Veda has a non-Indian origin, the more you prove that selected elements were incorporated from it, into certain Middle Eastern belief systems.
On the other hand, if you try to prove the opposite, then you also prove a migration from India, admixture with horse tribes, the establishment of communities with Vedic-Sanskrit links in the Middle East, and an even older date for the first Sanskrit reference to Yahweh – in linear fashion.
So, either way, the outcome of influence doesn’t change. And yet, these bundles of hypotheses are riddled with arbitrary conjectures and chronological contradictions, which patiently await satisfactory resolution.
At some point then, it has to be understood that one cannot have the cake and eat it too. Is it really so unthinkable that the Indic and Abrahamic faiths might share a common deity? At that point, as the national motto advises, truth must triumph.
One path in that direction begins by rationally questioning long-held assumptions based on conjecture, and, making a distinction between dogmatic articles of academic faith on the one hand, and the primacy of the deductive process on the other.
Therefore, in conclusion, until that path is taken, and the commonality of a civilisational existence at an Indo-European level is better understood, we shall have to endure further painful contests with rather recent, superficial definitions of identity.
Until then, let us not forget that history is too important to be left to historians alone.