epics and oral traditions

Birgit Kellner kellner at ipc.hiroshima-u.ac.jp
Fri Jun 6 05:22:58 UTC 1997

As the comparison of epics has recently sprung up, I thought it a good
time to ask something that I've had on my mind for quite a while. 

I was reading Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy", where he quite
extensively (and uncritically) reviews Milman Parry's work on the oral
roots of the Homeric epics. The basic line of argument is that certain
properties of the transmitted texts allow to infer a predominantly oral
origin. I shall not reproduce the quite complex arguments involved, but
would like to ask for opinions on what Ong has to say about the alleged
verbatim oral memorization of the Vedic hymns. 

Ong does not question that there was considerable effort for a verbatim
memorization of these hymns, but doubts that these really *preceded* the
writing down of the texts. He quite heavily laments the state of
research and is particularly critical of Louis Renou, who "does not even
advert to the kinds of questions that arise in the wake of Parry's work"

Not being a Vedicist, I would now like to know whether there were really
no attempts to do something similar to Parry's work in the field of
Vedic Studies. Are Indologists aware of the kind of reasonings applied
to Homeric epics, are they critical of them, or do they simply not care? 

Let me just add that I work mostly with philosophical Sanskrit texts,
and it seems to me that oral transmission is quite commonly made the
scapegoat for various textual oddities - not only insofar as it
"contaminates" the pristine text itself, but also, insofar as it
interferes with the philosophical integrity of what the text says.
However, the effects of orality, and how orality makes itself "known" or
"shines through" in a written text, are hardly ever specified. 

Birgit Kellner
Department for Indian Philosophy
Hiroshima University

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list