Oral Tradition and Allen Thrasher's Question
jgardner at blue.weeg.uiowa.edu
Wed Jun 11 23:26:36 UTC 1997
I am grateful to Allen Thrasher for prompting an extension on the memory
issue with his posting which I append below, and to which I reply directly
On Mon, 9 Jun 1997, Allen Thrasher wrote:
> On Sat, 7 Jun 1997, JR Gardner wrote:
> > I would append the last line- Through rhythm, Memory . . . fixates texts.
> > For it is with meter and accent that deviation is easily revealed, even in
> > the arrangement, for instance, of the hymns in the family books of the RV.
> > respectfully,
> > JR Gardner
> > University of Iowa
> > http://vedavid.org
> What do you mean by the last sentence?
> Allen Thrasher
It is such a delightfully sublime system of arrangement, and probably
familiar to some list members, it still warrants repeating, here from my
ever-evolving-to-completion current study of the notion of the self in
Vedic India (with some emendations):
Within each family book of the RV (2-7) book the first principle
of order is the deity addressed. Agni precedes Indra, then follows a
variance of deities which varies slightly according to how many hymns are
dedicated to the given deity (Witzel, The Indo-Aryans of South Asia,
Erdosy, ed., 1995: 309). It varies much more frequently with respect to
which deities are included or excluded by a particular clan (see below).
Each deity's "collection" is, in turn, ordered in descending order based
upon the number of stanzas in the hymn. Where the number of stanzas
remains the same, the hymn with a meter containing a greater number of
syllables--e.g. the jagatii with four 12-syllable paadas--takes precedence
over one with fewer syllables--triSTubh with four 11-syllable paadas--in
terms of relative order (:309). --==
This was the reference which I had in mind re. the last sentence which
Allen T. noted. However, the story becomes more interesting as we move
deeper into the matter. I'v e just finished a long--gruelling--micro-film
session with a most powerful resource for ANY scholar of the RV-- E.V.
Arnold's Vedic Meter in Its Historical Development- 1905, 1967 Motilal
re-print. He provides a humbling 320 pages of dizzying quantitative data
of philological and metrical patterns and deviations across the RV.
Witzel also notes Oldenberg's 1888 findings of how certain hymns can be
identified as a-typical insertions--even later ones--based upon their
violation of this scheme (1995: 311).
There is certainly more to say on this line alone, but I would be in
danger of digressing from the point in question--at least of contention
among some on the list--that of the relative validity of oral transmission
as regards "accuracy." Leaving asisde possible cultural weight placed
upon the term "aacuracy" which may or may not be methodologically sound,
it is clear that the arrangement of the early RV books followed a specific
order which, when it is "violated" stands out to the ya evam veda iva
But the potency of metrics goes further. This has been engagingly
demonstrated in Elizarenkova's recent volume on the Lanuage and Style of
the Vedic RSis (pp. 107 ff.), Witzel's "Tracing the Vedic Dialects
(Dialectes dans les litte'ratures indo-aryennes, 1989, 97ff.), and in my
current favorite treasure trove, Arnold's 1905 offering.
I'm not sure if this "proves" the standard of oral credability viz.
written. However, it interests me that the previous debates on Brahmi
script evolution here and on--I believe--the Vyakarana list posited a date
for written codification not far removed from the dissapearance or general
scarcity of accented texts. Prior to this, as Cardona notes in his study
of the bhaaSika accentuation system (Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik,
Band 18, 1993), and Bronkhorst correlates somewhat in 1982, Heft 8/9 (pp.
77 ff), efforts were made to consciously systematize a growing variance in
systems of accentuation (e.g., and this may be a surprise still to some,
ShB marks anudaatta, not udaatta b/c the many variances of treatment of
jatyasvarita &c. had become problematic in the eyes of some).
All this goes to say that in an oral tradition, the method of recitation
was as much a desicipline as was--if not moreso--the memory of the text.
We can hardly imagine that the wealth of praatishaakhya's and
padapaaTha's--as well as the VedaaN^ga's and much of PaaNini were simply
augments for retentive few (however much they may be treated as such by
modern scholars) A missplaced syllable would stand out--and still does
(sparking things like publications and dissertations :-)). And, lest a
semantic rant be generated by my use of the word "mere"-- It has been
noted on more than one occasion that in absence of oral presentation a
vedic text is not at its full potency (Alper's Understanding Mantras, for
At least, then, in Vedic terms, the oral tradition is somewhat more
complex than a phone-book (even considering how effective the Capote
example was). To memorize a text was much more than etching a sequence of
words into the mind, it was a living performance to be brought forth upon
deman according to extremely precise rules. It is likely that the number
of errors in something like vocabulary are greatly limited by such a
precise metric and accentuation system as cited above.
John Robert Gardner Obermann Center
School of Religion for Advanced Studies
University of Iowa University of Iowa
It is ludicrous to consider language as anything other
than that of which it is the transformation.
More information about the INDOLOGY