Dates of written Rgveda

Vishal Agarwal vishalagarwal at HOTMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 11 03:42:20 UTC 2000

----Original Message Follows----
From: Steve Farmer <saf at SAFARMER.COM>
1. Is there indeed a consensus among Vedicists that the Rgveda was passed on
for as much as two millennia through "near-perfect ORAL transmission" (to
quote Michael Witzel) until it "was first written down c. 1000 CE"?
VA responds: Dr. Witzel's argument that the Vedas were probably not written
down till 1000 C.E. on the basis of Alberuni's testimony and absence of
manuscripts are monolateral. First, Alberuni visited only the NW corner of
India, a region that had already seen a massive decline in Vedic study
because of a millennia long foreign depredations. In addition, Alberuni's
account on the Vedas is extremely scrappy and probably based in heresay, in
contrast to his rather lengthy treatment of Yoga Patanjala, the Gita, the
Puranas, the Brihatsamhita and so on. The only things he states about the
Vedas are: There are 4 Vedas, AV has very few followers. The Brahmins learn
the Veda from each other and guard its contents very closely. And that a few
decades back, a Kashmiri named Vasukra got them written down, fearing that
they would be lost. Neither Vasukra, nor Alberuni would have known what was
the situation in Central, Eastern and Southern India. Note that even for the
Gita etc., Alberuni's accounts is not 100% correct (see, in addition to
Sachau's translation, the book "A study in Alberuni's India" by Arvind
Sharma). The absence of manuscripts older than 1000 CE of course does not
mean there there were no manuscripts of the Vedas before that date. In fact,
the eclectic nature of Vedic citations in older works like the Shabara
Bhashya and even before that, in the Apastamba Srauta Sutra, attest to the
fact that Vedic manuscripts did exist much before 1000 CE. These authors
(and many others), quote dozens of Vedic works, and the only way they could
have done this was that they either possessed manuscripts (because it is
virtually impossible to memorise so many texts) or that they were helped by
a 'Parishad' of scholars belonging to different Vedic schools--which is not
attested by tradition. Alternately, the quotations were added in layers and
over several generations, another unlikely possibility because the texts
some of these teachers comment on (the Mimamsa Sutras in case of Shabara,
and the Brahmasutras in case of Shankaracharya) are already eclectic in
nature, drawing from numerous branches of the 4 Vedas. A study of the
available fragments of the older teachers of Mimamsa (there are 70 extant
fragments/citations of Alekhana and Ashmarathya alone) also displays
eclecticism with regard to the Vedic texts.
Steve Farmer:
2. How is this consensus view -- if there *is* indeed a consensus --
reconciled with repeated suggestions in the Laws of Manu that the...

VA responds: Well, contrary to what Dr. Thompson states, old texts like the
Aitreya Aranyaka do allude to writing. I would like to point out that some
non-'mainstream' persons opine that that the Indus script represents an IA
language. The following book, that was released 3 weeks back, might be
useful to you

N. Jha and N. Rajaram
Deciphering the Indus Script; Aditya Prakashan; Delhi; 2000
Price: Indian rupees 950 (1 USD = Rs. 43 approx)

The publisher's address is
Aditya Prakashan
F-14/65, Model Town-II
110009 Delhi, India
Steve Farmer:
were utilized at least at some point in antiquity in literate form? This is
a serious question that requires a evidential response.

VA comments: Despite the mnemonic devices and a host of texts facilitating
the oral tradition (these texts are called Lakshana granthas), the recitors
still use the written text as an aid in memorization, and for occassional
cross checking. The orally transmitted text is considered more accurate, but
is nevertheless supplemented by a written text (some recitors place it in
front of them, some behind them, while others who are perfect, do not use it
at all atleast in public because of the stigma attached to it). The same
thing has been pointed out by you also.

Steve Farmer states:
3. The obvious signs of textual stratification in the received text of the
Rgveda suggests that various hymns were repeatedly *reshaped* in early
stages of the text's oral development. How, this being the case, do
Indologists explain that the text in *later* oral periods remained unchanged
for nearly two millennia? How *can* a textual canon be fixed over wide
geographical and cultural regions in the absence of written exemplars? What
makes the relationship between oral and written traditions in Vedic sources
different from that found in every other premodern tradition?..........If it
is really true that premodern Vedic reciters, unlike those found in
every other known premodern civilization, maintained "near-perfect ORAL
transmission" over two millennia of a highly stratified compilation like the
Rgvedas, Indologists should be prepared with a credible reason to explain
India's .............[..]

VA comments: In my opinion, the compilation of the Koran and an
establishment of its oral tradition provide an interesting parallel. The
traditional Islamic accounts contained in the various biographies of the
Prophet, the histories of Tabari etc., and the Hadith collections are not
very consistent, but in summary, whenever the Prophet had a revelation, he
would call a scribe and the words were recorded by that scribe. Many
followers of the Prophet, in his lifetime alone, committed large portions of
the revelations to memory (since literacy levels were low and memorization
of poetry was a prevelant tradition)and some portions were passed in a
written form. Due to the consonantal nature of the Kufic script, the
prevelance of different dialects in Arabia, the varying inclinations of his
followers and so on, different codices and oral versions of the Koran
appeared soon after the demise of the Prophet. Alarmed, Caliph Othman
standardized one particular text which had the readings in the Quraish
dialect and had been collected from 'writings on bones and hides and from
the hearts of men', and stamped out all deviant versions. This standard
version was copied and sent to all parts of the Arab Empire, and other
versions were burnt out. An oral tradition, (partially stemming from the
pre-Othmanic times), also started and within a century or two, there were
now numerous oral versions of the text. These versions differed in their
accents, minor or major textual differences (due to dialects, consonant
nature of early scripts, interpolations and so on) and again, a Muslim
scholar stepped into the scene. He mandated that only 7 pairs of
recitational modes were authentic and the others were heretical. All these
modes were based on the Othmanic text and the deviations from the same are
termed as 'Tafsir' and so on.

Even to this day, these 14 modes are considered authentic and the oral text
is given primacy over the written text. Many printed versions of the Koran
still bear the seal of a Hafiz e Koran (who has memorized the whole text) to
certify that the printed text is authentic. Thus, we see that 'writing' of
the text of Koran played a crucial role in its initial compilation, and it
was this written compilation that propelled the current recitiational
modes-- a perfect case of the written and oral traditions supplementing each
other. There is actually a modern case of a person (I do not wish to name
him) who composed and compiled a work of 10000 verses without the aid of
writing materials, while imprisoned. But, such a scenario is quite different
from the compilation of a stratified text like RV.

Having said all this, there is no clear evidence in the RV that writing
existed in those days, and the oral nature of the Vedic tradition has been
the subject of study for the last 100 years, starting with the work of the
Repetitions in the Rigveda to the 'introduction' of Saunakiya Caturadhyayika
(Dr. Madhava Deshpande) and works like "The Rigveda as Oral Literature"
(Nilanjan Sikdar Datta; 1999). However, it is really difficult to understand
how the original compilation was done. And there is a strong reason to
believe that the written tradition supplemented the oral tradition certainly
much before 1000 C.E. The 'introduction' of the 'Vedic Concordance" also
states that the written texts have long supplemented the oral tradition.
Manuscripts before 1000 CE are in any case rare from South Asia, except the
well known cases of Jaislamere, Nepal, some from Gujarat and so on. Most
manuscripts, even for the non Vedic texts, are clearly post 1000 CE.

I request references for comparative studies between the Koranic oral
tradition and the Vedic recitations.

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