oral traditions

thompson at jlc.net thompson at jlc.net
Thu Jun 19 00:51:17 UTC 1997

In re-reading Richard Salomon's recent article "On the Origin of the Early
Indian Scripts: A Review Article" [in JAOS 1995 and on the Indology web
site], I notice that there is a possible reference to writing in Panini
("lipi" in 3.2.21).  Beyond this disputed reference, much of the discussion
centers on possible references in the Pali canon [e.g. the verb likh- and
its derivatives] and in general the conclusions of von Hinueber and Falk
appear to be rather negative about the existence of writing before, say,
the 3th century BCE.

With regard to Vedic in particular let me quote a rather lengthy passage
from Salomon:

"Can we
believe that these dynasties with their legendary riches, and the remarkable
intellectual and cultural life of India in the time of the Buddha and
Mahâvîra, existed in a totally illiterate sphere? It is certainly true that
intellectual activity in India has always strongly favored oral over written
means of expression, and both von Hinüber and Falk have effectively put to
rest the already discredited skepticism about the possibility of oral
composition and preservation of the Veda, Pâ.nini's grammar, etc. (see e.g..
Falk pp.321--7). But the fact that Pâ.nini did not use writing in composing
the A.a.tâdhyâyî does not necessarily mean that he was illiterate (cf. Falk
p.259); it may only mean that writing was not considered an appropriate
vehicle for intellectual endeavors of his kind. Even given the very
different cultural role of writing in India as compared to many other
ancient civilizations, it is hard to conceive that practical affairs such as
the keeping of records and accounts in a fabulously wealthy empire like that
of the Nandas could have been kept in order without any form of writing at
all, or at least without some alternative system of memory-aids like the
Inca quipu. Thus one is tempted to think along the lines of William Bright
(cited by Falk, p.290) of some type of writing that was "perhaps used for
commercial purposes, but not for religious or legal texts."[15]

Johannes Bronkhorst, whose critique of Staal I have cited already, has
argued [in _Indo-Iranian Journal_ 1982] that the RV padapATha was probably
written, and thus was probably "the oldest surviving written book in India"

I wonder whether any of these scholars has attempted to reconcile these
clearly contradictory positions.

Also, an appeal to the list: having poor library access, I have not been
able to obtain relevant articles and books [esp. those published in
European countries]. I would be grateful to anyone who has easy access to
these, who would be willing to make photocopies of them to forward to me. I
would be happy to compensate for copying and mailing costs, as well as
reciprocating by barter or trade [for example for hard to get American

Best wishes,
George Thompson

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