Dates of written Rgveda

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Sat Mar 11 18:36:36 UTC 2000

I wrote to George Thompson:

>  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:

George Thompson responded:

>  Sure.  I will be glad to 'except' your apologies.  Please 'except' mine too.

Thank God for Freudian slips to lighten things up! (That is, if
humor is your aim in underlining my slip-of-the-keyboard.)

I wrote:

> 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.

Thompson responded:

> Well, I hesitate to speak for everyone, but to my knowledge there is
> consensus on this point.

Curious that you claim this, since I thought that I had run into
a number of references in the literature placing later strata of
the Rgveda as late as the mid first millennium. Even Patrick
Olivelle, who gives me the impression of being a rather
conservative scholar, places the composition of later strata of
the Rgvedas (including, I assume, much of books 1 and 10) in the
early centuries of the first millennium BCE. Beyond this, there
is obviously no agreement on when the work was first written
down, despite your claims that a consensus exists. On this see
your own statements below, which seem to sharply conflict with
Michael Witzel's. So the consensus doesn't seem to be much of a
consensus after all.

> 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.

My views often diverge from those of Havelock, Goody, Finnegan,
Ong, et al. I agree, however, with the views put forward in
Vishal Agarwal's post, for which I've found much evidence, e.g.,
in Western and Indonesian traditions: That even in cases in which
oral transmission was insisted upon as primary, written texts
often surreptitiously served as memory aids, helping "fix" the
canon. My working assumption (just a heuristic stance at present)
is that this was probably true in the case of the Rgveda, which
I'd guess was probably first written down in the last half of the
first millennium BCE. Hence my question about the passages in
Manu that clearly refer to literate uses of the Veda.

Thompson writes:

> As far as I can see, Manu is irrrelevant.

"Irrrelevant" -- I gather from *your* slips that you get rather
emotional about the issue! Is that because you recognize that the
position that you are arguing here is a trifle inconsistent? To whit:

> 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].

Your position here has shifted radically, which hopefully means
that we're getting somewhere. What triggered my original post was
Michael Witzel's remark -- which you represent above as the
consensus view -- that the Rgveda wasn't written down until 1000
CE, well over a millennium *after* Manu. Now I find that you
apparently don't even believe this yourself. I *never* claimed
that any of the Rgveda was written down in the last half of the
second millennium (if that's what you mean here by the "Vedic
period"). If, however, final redaction of the text -- for it does
show internal signs of redaction -- is pushed closer to the mid
first millennium BCE, I do have some questions about the
involvement of literate processes.

The 1000 CE date cited by Witzel, preceded by supposedly 2200
years of "near-perfect oral transmission" is impossible to
accept. But the idea of Brahminical orality being "a type of
secondary orality (influenced by literacy)" is one that I can
live with -- and is in harmony as well with the views that Vishal
Agarwal put forward at length in his post. But it is *not* in
harmony with Witzel's claims, which you earlier represented as
the consensus view in the field.

Well, consensual views can shift quickly.

Thompson writes:

> 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.

If I'm not mistaken, Dr. Thompson, *you* just made a pretty large
admission about the role of literacy in preserving Vedic
materials. In any event, my interest is in discovering the truth,
not in supporting my own models at any cost. My training in the
hard sciences leads me to view models as heuristic devices,
nothing more. If the evidence conflicts with my historical
models, I'm happy to discard or modify them.

I often find that a good place to start an analysis is by
highlighting the inconsistencies or clarifying the views seen in
previous researchers in the field. Let's return to your statement
that "the Brahminical orality of this period" -- i.e., the period
of Manu, in the last half of the first millennium BCE --- "may
have been a type of secondary orality [influenced by literacy]."
Can I take it here that you are admitting that the "near-perfect
oral transmission" of the Rgveda over a supposedly 2000+ year
period may have had a little help from literate processes? If so,
we're on the same page, as it were.

Sorry to add questions to questions -- and thanks much for your
detailed response.

My best,

Steve Farmer

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list