Dates of written Rgveda

George Thompson GthomGt at CS.COM
Sat Mar 11 12:49:30 UTC 2000

In a message dated 3/10/00 2:27:19 AM Eastern Standard Time, saf at SAFARMER.COM

>  It wasn't my intention to be impolite. If I seemed so, please except my
>  sincere apologies. Nevertheless, my scholarly questions remain. Here they
>  are, rephrased, I hope, less polemically:

Sure.  I will be glad to 'except' your apologies.  Please 'except' mine too.
>  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"? If
>  true, this would be a unique situation in premodern thought; that is the
>  source of my skepticism.
Well, I hesitate to speak for everyone, but to my knowledge there is
consensus on this point. As for your skepticism, we have encountered it
before in the work of Goody, Finnegan, Ong, and others.  Please understand: I
think that it is good that comparatists want to confront the Vedic material,
because it does pose a serious problem for at least the cruder forms of the
orality thesis.  Perhaps it is time to abandon such crude distinctions as
"the oral mentality" on the one hand, and the "literate mentality" on the
other.  I don't know where you stand on this, but I myself am deeply
suspcious of attempts at hypostasizing human mentality into merely two
convenient types like this.

>  2. How is this consensus view -- if there *is* indeed a consensus --
>  reconciled with repeated suggestions in the Laws of Manu that the Vedas
>  were utilized at least at some point in antiquity in literate form? This
>  is a serious question that requires a evidential response. Are there
>  textual strata in the Laws of Manu that date from as late as 1000 CE,
>  providing conservative Vedicists with an easy way out of the problem? If
>  not, how do they face this and similar counterevidence?
As far as I can see, Manu is irrrelevant.  Nobody denies that writing was
commonplace by the post-Vedic period [and Manu is clearly post-Vedic].   That
the Brahminical orality of this period may have been a a type of secondary
orality [influenced by literacy] does not negate the fact that in the Vedic
period itself we seem to have primary orality [no influence of writing].

>  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?

We recognize a certain amount of pre-canonical fluidity in the text of the
RV, of course.  But once it was canonized the RV was subjected to rigorous
methods of text preservation.  We do not claim that this process occurred
"over wide geographical and cultural regions."  No, it occurred within small,
isolated, intensely focussed, Vedic schools.  As for the length of time,
which apparently staggers you, once it was fixed, the text was fixed.
Period.  I fail to see what is impossible about this.  As for length of text,
remember that the RV is a collectioon of over a thousand hymns, the longest
of which is only a few hundred lines.
>  Thompson further writes:
>  > the Vedic tradition developed, very early, a remarkable system of
>  > mnemonic devices intended to assure the accurate transmission of  the
>  > traditional texts
>  Every premodern society that I've studied created its own elaborate
>  systems of "mnemonic devices intended to assure the accurate transmission
>  of the traditional texts" (think of the methods described in the West in
>  the pseudo-Ciceronian Hortensius) -- and in every such society,
>  nonetheless, traditions drifted conceptually in largely predictable ways.
>  Much evidence on this topic has accumulated in dozens of studies of oral
>  and early-literature traditions in Africa, the Mediterranean, Southeast
>  Asia, China, Japan, and Mesoamerica. My own studies have uncovered cases
>  of such drift involving supposedly "near-perfect" memorization of
>  canonical texts in the premodern West. There is good evidence that
>  neurobiological constraints on memory systems probably have something to
>  do with this drift.

Have you studied Avestan?  It is another preliterate oral 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 uniqueness. Alternately, they should be able to point to
>  other instances of "near-perfect transmission" in premodern societies
>  outside India. (I'd be extremely interested in what evidence they try to
>  cite.)

I know that Vedic and Avestan both exhibit the behavior that I describe.  I
don't make any universal claims at all re uniqueness.  That is your worry,
not mine.  If you wish to attack my claims re Vedic and Avestan, then I think
that you are obliged to study the Vedic and Avestan material.  If your
objections are based merely on preconceptions about what preliterate cultures
are capable of remembering, then I would suggest that you reconsider, instead
of dismissing evidence that strikes you as 'curious' or 'unique.'

>  Thompson also writes:
>  > that the date of the RV, for linguistic reasons alone, cannot be
> reasonably
>  > put very much *after* 1000 BCE, so that in fact there has been an
>  > period of time during which it was transmitted purely by oral means
>  You are missing the point elaborated in #3, above. Abundant internal
>  evidence demonstrates that the received text of the Rgvedas is itself
>  "layered" (stratified) -- just like virtually every other known Eurasian
>  compilation from this level of antiquity. It would certainly be curious if
>  the Rgveda in its *earliest* stages of oral development were continuously
>  reshaped by processes of transmission and then, magically, in *later*
>  stages it became "fixed" in the absence of written exemplars.
Facts are facts, and curiosities are curiosities.  If you find something
curious and magical about Vedic oral tradition, then it is *your*
responsiblity to demonstrate this. If it is your view that all cultures must
behave like the ones that you are familiar with, then it is *your*
resonsibility to demonstrate this. Like Goody, you have to come to terms wih
the Vedic evidence and establish that Vedic bears the marks of literacy, in
spite of the complete absence of reference to writing in the texts and the
absence of writing of any kind in the Vedic period.

As I see it, the Vedic material clashes with Goody's model of oral mentality.
 His solution was to explain that material away by insisting that literacy
must have played a role.  But he did not demonstrate this.

I'd be glad to consider your attempt at doing so.

Best wishes,

George Thompson

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