epics and oral traditions

thompson at jlc.net thompson at jlc.net
Mon Jun 9 13:19:06 UTC 1997

Birgit Kellner has called our attention to an important issue.

I myself have some sympathy for the skepticism which Ong, Finnegan, and
Goody, have expressed re the extravagant claims that have been made for the
fidelity of Vedic tradition. I think that not only Vedic apologists but
Vedic scholars also have been guilty of inflating such claims. On the other
hand. it is clear that these theorists of orality have little real
understanding of the Vedic tradition, and their distinctions between
literate consciousness and oral consciousness are very crude indeed [as I
think a few others have already suggested]. But it has seemed to me that to
some extent the blame for their incomprehension of the Vedic situation is
in fact due to a failure of Vedicists [besides Frits Staal] to participate
fully in the debate re orality, oral composition,formulaics, etc. Perhaps
we can change that.

But besides failing to contribute in any detailed way to contemporary
theories of orality, Vedic studies has also failed to take advantage of the
insights that can be gained from this new field of research. When you take
a look at what contemporary classicists are doing with these theories of
orality, etc., and the new insights into Homer. Hesiod, and the Homeric
hymns, etc., that have been generated by their serious involvement in
orality theory, well, it makes you think that we Vedicists are several
steps behind.

The Ong passage that criticizes Renou should properly be directed at us,
rather than Renou, who did *so much* to advance our understanding of Vedic
poetics and composition, and whose work cited by Ong [the English
translation of EVP 6: 1960] preceded Lord's _Singer of Tales_, and any work
on orality done by Ong himself. Parry & Lord, and following them Ong et al,
tend to confuse two separate issues: oral composition on the one hand and
oral transmission on the other. Dominique Thillaud is right to point out
that compositional techniques that are applicable to the epic genre
[Parry-Lord] need not apply to the hymn-genre of the RV. Renou in fact has
pointed to evidence for both memorization and improvisation in RV
composition, but of course none of the oralists have noticed this.

Vedic presents an important challenge to the orality thesis because it
appears to be a tradition marked by features [linguistic sophistication,
textual fidelity, logic, and even some kind of generalized rationality!]
that the oralists would like to think are the benefits of literacy alone.
Vedic presents a model of how an oral culture *might* gain access to these
benefits in a more or less oral way.

Even if we date the RV conservatively to 1000 BCE [after Rau], I think it
is safe to say that at this level Vedic is purely oral. I see no traces of
literacy in the text of the RV nor any reference to writing [by the way,
can anyone point to the firt ref, to writing in Vedic?]. Are there
objections to this? A study of the formulaic language of these hymns could
contribute to a general theory of oral poetry. I hope to have time for such
a project.

A more vital issue is the transmission of this and other texts, about which
I would be interested in further discussion. Bronkhorst has proposed that
the RV padapATha was indeed written, and that in fact it is "not unlikely
that [it] is the oldest surviving written book of India" [IIJ 24.1982]. I
take this view as generally accepted. Is it? If this view is correct, we
cannot say that the transmission of Vedic texts was purely oral. In this
sense the skepticism of the oralists has been legitimated.

Nevertheless, the extreme elaborateness of Vedic "mnemotechnics" remains a
problem for these oralists. What is its purpose? It would seem to me that
if writing was relied upon in middle Vedic to preserve and fix texts, then
such techniques, such legendary feats of memorization, would have been
superfluous. *Either* writing was dismissed as a business technology
unsuited to "the Vedas," *or* these vikRtis had some other function.

In either case, it seems to me, the possible presence of manuscripts of the
Vedas even as early as 700 BCE, does not eliminate the problem that the
Vedic oral tradition still poses for orality theory. Even if certain
details of his thesis are wrong, I believe that Frits Staal's general point
is valid: the Vedic tradition shows us how an "essentially" [is this
acceptable to all?] oral tradition could have had its own, rather
remarkable, ways of being analytical, linguistically sophisticated,
descriptive, and in some sense perhaps even scientific. I don't think it is
legitimate to confine this kind of intellectual activity  *exclusively* to
literate cultures or contexts.

I hope that those who are well informed about these issues will help out
those of us who are interested in exploring them further.

Best wishes,
George Thompson

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