When did the gods become literate? Was: Are the gods literate?

George Thompson GthomGt at CS.COM
Thu Nov 4 17:08:56 UTC 1999

In a message dated 11/2/99 10:21:20 PM Eastern Standard Time,
vishalagarwal at HOTMAIL.COM writes:

>  In my opinion, the RV, SV and VYV samhitas do not have any unambiguous
>  evidence of writing. The last mantra of AV (Vulgate) book XIX however
>  to 'placing the Vedas in the kosha'. Since the XIXth book is often taken as
>  the last book of AV (vulgate), with the XXth book as a later addition (of
>  course, even the XIX book could have been added to the first 18 in hoary
>  antiquity), the position of this mantra (and its context) tempts us to
>  believe that some 'written' texts of Vedas did exist at a date prior to
>  attested by archaeology.

>  This particular mantra is actually taken by numerous Hindi and Marathi
>  Bhasyas and Tikas as referring to 'physical texts' of the Vedas (This is
>  true especially of the Arya Samaj interpretations). What is your opinion on
>  this mantra?

I must say that I am not persuaded that AVZ 19.72 provides us with clear
evidence of writing. The key question which this passage raises is the exact
meaning of the term *ve'da* here.  Does it refer to a collection of Vedic
texts such as the saMhitAs, and by implication a tangible, manipulable,
collection, such as a book?

As for the first part of this question, J. Bronkhorst has argued that the
term *ve'da* does not appear to have the sense 'collection of Vedic texts'
even in relatively late passages from the brAhmaNas. In its earliest usages
the term appears to be roughly a synonym of a term like *bra'hman*,
characterizng a type or genre of 'sacred speech', rather than a collection
such as we have in the saMhitAs.   He even argues that terms like *Rgveda*,
*yajurveda* and *sAmaveda* may not originally have referred to the saMhitA
collections as we now have them. See his article "Veda" in ABORI 70, 1989.

AVZ 19.72 [a sUkta consisting of only one stanza] does seem to form a ring
structure with AVZ 1.1, an invocation of vAcaspati and entrance into veda
study. But AVZ 1.1 certainly suggests that veda study is largely a matter of
memorization and recitation [cf. repeated *zrut'am*].  As P. Thieme has
argued in a fascinating article ["The First Verse of the *triSaptIyam (AV,Z
1.1 ~ AV,P 1.6) and the Beginnings of Sanskrit Linguistics" in JAOS 105,
1985], initiation into veda study also involved initiation into phonological
analysis [as Thieme argues, the 'thrice-seven' cryptically referred to in
this verse represents an old varNopadeza].  But the important point is this:
no explicit reference to writing.

As for the curious reference to the dipping of the veda into a koza at AVZ
19.72, the only passage in the RV where the term *ve'da* is attested may be
illuminating.  RV 8.19.5 reads:

ya'H sami'dhA ya' A'hutI    yo' ve'dena dadA'za ma'rto agna'ye
yo' na'masA svadhvara'H

The sequence of instrumentals: sami'dhA, A'hutI, ve'dena, and na'masA
suggests a motif that is rather frequent in the RV: that is,  the tools of
the Vedic ritualist's trade are things like kindling wood, oblations, sacred
speech, and homage.  And there is strong association between offerings of
milk products into the sacrifical fire and offerings of mantras into it.
Here the term *ve'da* serves as the term for sacred speech, analogous by
function with the other tools of the ritualist's repertoire.

Considering the frequent reference to the flow of speech in the RV, and the
bandhu linking milk and soma and speech, it may well be that the dipping of
the veda into a koza at AVZ 19.72 is a metaphorical transfer: the Vedic
ritual koza contains not only milk and honey and soma; it also contains that
metaphorical 'flow of speech' that is the veda. Not a physical collection of
Vedic texts, but rather the genre of sacred speech.

Clearly, there is no claim to certainty about this. Please take it as a
suggestion for consideration.

George Thompson

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list