Evils of Written Vedas?

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Sat Feb 19 21:02:13 UTC 2000

> Atharvaveda 19.72.1 alludes to getting the Vedic book from a chest
>(koza). The injunction against writing must be properly
>deconstructed: It only means that the student should
>not use the written text as a crutch, and commit it to memory.

Rather, the above sentence must be 'deconstructed' (NB: a fashionable term
of the last, now severely criticized century). It is a prima facie
interpretation by a modern reader, and cannot represent the *original*
intent of the verse. (see now also S. Bahulkar).

As already Roth-Whitney have noted, this verse is indeed used at the end of
Vedic study (as in Kauz.Suutra).  However, Tarak W. would have to shine his
light on three points:

(a) the use of script and 'books' during the Vedic period)
(b) any Atharvaveda and/or  Vedic manuscripts before, c. 800 or 1000 CE (or
of Upanisads by Sankara)
(c) the habit of keeping such hypothetical Veda MSS ('books') in 'chests'.

First, koza just does not only mean 'box, chest' but many other things as
well, right down from the Rgveda; for example 'pail' (cf. the heavenly
'bucket', EJVS 1.1, 1995, http://www1.shore.net/~india/ejvs  )

((For some vague references to speech, mouth, bra'hman in connection with
koza cf., however,
RVKH 2.12.3b. oSThau ca dantaaz ca tathaiva jihvaa me tat zariiram
mukharatnakozam //
AV 10.2.27 =  PS 16.159.10 tad vA atharvaNaH ziro devakozaH samubjitaH /
tat prANo abhi rakSati ziro annam atho manaH // Vadh. Mantra Samhita
prajaapater brahmakozaM, yad vizvakarmaa sahasraakSo 'py aubjad,  tad ahaM
prapadye // As for real 'chests/boxes', with the usual disdain for artisans
((except the contemporary "rocket engeneer", the rathakaara) :  TB
nirRtyai kozakArIm ... ))

Next, one cannot simply use the Vedic and post-Vedic (Skt) term koza and
infer that it means a chest to keep one's manuscripts. Anyhow, where have
MSS been kept in 'chests' in (ancient/medieval) India? Usually, just  in
cloth wrappings, if in any covers at all beyond wooden boards, and anywhere
in the house from chimneys to gaarta-s, as some 19th century people called

As P. Olivelle has already written, there is no evidence at all of writing
even in the EARLY Upanishads. A written Veda text simply could and did not
exist in Vedic times. The Indus  script virtually disappeared after 1900
BCE , and script is not seen again until the 3rd cent. BCE (or, as some
archaeologists now maintain, c. 500 BCE  in Sri Lanka).

Finally, AV 19.72 is a bad candidate for proof of a written AV 'book' in
the Samhita period. It is the last hymn and the last verse of the Shaunaka
version of the Atharvaveda. (For, Book 20 is, as is well known, a very late
appendix to the Samhita, for the benefit of  the Brahmanachamsin priest).

The verse is also not found in the other version of AV, Paipp. Samh., and
for that reason, too, it cannot conclusively be shown to belong to the
oldest level of AV texts.  It rather  seems to be a late addition to the
Shaunaka version, added in order  to indicate closure of study,  just as
the first verse indicates, if we  follow P. Thieme, a reference to
sounds/speech in general,  (and clearly, to properly remembering Vedic
verses in particular).  AV 19.72 may belong to such late Vedic texts as
transmitted in Taitt.Up.1 (Mantras concerned with Veda study).

Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138

ph. 617-496 2990 (also messages)
home page:     www.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/mwpage.htm

Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies:         www1.shore.net/~india/ejvs

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