epics and oral traditions

Dan Lusthaus dlusthau at mailer.fsu.edu
Fri Jun 6 16:33:16 UTC 1997

It's curious how - perhaps because we have already let writing rot our
memorization skills - we seem to draw an automatic equivalence between
written text and fixed text, while oral texts we assume must be variable.
This is curious since it contradicts the experience of every one of us.

First of all, as anyone with even a smidgeon of philological training
knows, the most characteristic quality of written texts is that there are
always different versions, recensions, variants. How many scholars have
spent their lives correlating variant texts in the pursuit of that phantasm
called the Ur-text (or, more modestly, that other odd goal, the "best
reading")? The variations are as likely (or maybe even more likely) to come
from scribal errors than from different oral transmissions.

Tell a child a fairy tale or story or song for the first time, and woe to
you if you change even the smallest detail the next time.

Sit down and carefully read Genesis 1:2-3 with anyone orally reared in the
story, and you will have a tough time convincing them that there is no
apple in the story, the serpent is not treated like anything demonic much
less the devil himself (in fact, the serpent is the only character in the
story who sticks to the literal truth!), Eve already the difference between
good and bad before she ate the fruit (she determines it is good for eating
before taking her first bite), etc.; the more carefully the story is read,
the more discordant it becomes with the sunday school (oral) version. Even
when you remind someone that the oral version requires the written version
for its own authority, you will have a tough time trying to convince them
to abandon their oral interpretation and instead embrace the written

To speak correctly of the Vedas we should probably not call them texts (if
that implies to someone that they were originally written) but
compositions. They were musical recitations, memorized and recited not only
word for word but note for note, intonation for intonation. It has
frequently been argued that Indians resisted writing as long as they did
precisely because they believed (rightly) that writing will make the memory

The Indians were famous in the ancient world (especially China) for their
feats of memory. The Chinese, long addicted to writing, were, like us,
skeptical of the claims of Indian pundits to have entire huge Buddhist
sutras memorized.

Years ago Richard Robinson told this story (I've never run into the text he
drew it from, but then I haven't looked for it):

Some skeptical Chinese challenged an Indian pundit who had claimed to have
memorized vast quantities of sutras. They chose the Lotus Sutra, and with
two scribes following along in a written text. He recited all day, they
went to sleep at night, and the next morning picked up where he left off.
By midday he had finished. The scribes were impressed, but said he got two
words wrong. Confidently, he asserted he was right, he had not gotten
anything wrong, the written text must be in error. He was so insistent,
that the Chinese sent to another city for another copy of the sutra, one
with a more solid pedigree. When it was checked, lo and behold, the pundit
was right. The Chinese were so impressed, that memorization of sutras
became de rigueur. Even today some Korean Buddhists memorize humunguous
sutras like the Avatamsaka sutra (which is huge), until they are able to
recite it backwards and forwards.

One last example: How many of us remember even a single word of any
textbook we read in third grade? Yet if we hear some meaningless commercial
jingle from that period, or some song we utterly hated at the time, how
many of us almost involuntarily begin to sing along and perhaps feel like
we are meeting up with an old friend? Memory, not ink, fixates texts.

Dan Lusthaus
Florida State University

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