Dates of written Rgveda

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Mon Mar 13 05:50:07 UTC 2000

Dear Dr. Witzel,

Thanks very much for your last note. I obviously stumbled unwary
into a hornets' nest, since I've received over two dozen off-List
messages in the last two days on the subject -- rather
astonishing (and disturbing, since this all came in the middle of
a publication deadline). I didn't know that I was hitting an open
scholarly nerve when I asked an innocent (I thought) question
about oral/literate transmission of the Rgveda on the List. Such
is the fate of the comparative historian, who is perpetually a
neophyte and clumsy disciplinary intruder.

I will, in the next few weeks, take a close look at the mnemonic
literature specific to India, as you suggest. I do know quite a
bit about the literature on mnemonic traditions applicable to
other civilizations, so the comparison should be fruitful. I
already know the philological work of Falk, Fussman, et al., and
that of other figures who you mention in your note. I appreciate
the time that you took in answering my note; much of the
information in it I've found invaluable.

That being said, I'll cut to the chase; you wrote:

> I have no doubt that some 'progressive' Brahmins and others *may* have
> tried to use written Veda texts during the time of the Smritis (NB: no one
> knows the date of "Manu" for sure; the Manu Smrti used to be dated, based
> on certain overlaps with the Mahabharata, which also is not exactly datable
> as such). This much is clear from the injunction NOT to use written texts.
> But it did not become the main, major way of transmission until much later.

Thanks -- that is the *only* admission that I was really looking
or hoping for. I can live with this view. What you write here is,
I think, a considerable move away from your original claim
(possibly made polemically, and in haste) that the first written
text of the Rgveda came no sooner than c. 1000 CE. As Lars Martin
Fosse has pointed out, in some ways our work may not really be
all that far apart. (I'm still not certain.) I still have doubts,
as I have expressed before, about the fidelity of oral
transmission in the total absence of written texts. But I'll
reserve my judgment about the supposed uniqueness of Indian
mnemonics until I look at the collection of specialized studies
in Staal et al. and others (Lars has sent me a useful
bibliography). Thanks to the other messages people have sent me,
I now have over sixty Indological studies in a half dozen
languages that I will try to work through in the next month or

As to the proposed links between the language of the Rgveda and
Indian Valley civilizations argued for by Vishal Agurwal and
others  -- part of the bloody internecine war that I've unwarily
stumbled into -- I have insufficient data at this point to form
any kind of judgment at all. I only hope that the war doesn't
destroy this List [internecine = equally murderous to both
sides], since all of you have furthered my understanding of the
basic issues in the past few days. I will be watching the List
closely for data in the coming month while I take time to read
the scholarly literature that people have kindly directed me to.

I note looking at my computer desktop that over a dozen more
unanswered messages, some still unread, carry the title "Dates of
written Rgveda." I will hold off for now in responding
immediately to any publicly posted messages -- Luft! as
chessplayers have it -- but I invite continued private
correspondence with all those who have approached me off-List. I
suspect that I may have something further to say about the issue
-- and surely more questions -- on-List at a later point.

To George Thompson: Thanks for your last much more conciliatory
message in INDOLOGY. One clarification: Vishal Agarwal isn't my
new-found "ally," since I've taken no sides in this currently
mutually destructive scholarly war. Vishal has, however, provided
me with a lot of interesting and useful information that I plan
to evaluate in the coming weeks, along with the other useful data
that I've received from you and those on your side of the issue.

On Vygotsky and Luria (also mentioned in Dr. Thompson's note): I
admit to being an admirer of their classic study of rapid
oral/literate shifts in Central Asia in the 1930s, and even more
so of Luria's groundbreaking works on cortical function, which
still plays a surprisingly big role in the field. But I agree
with you that Vygotsky/Luria do not shed light on the kinds of
oral/literate interactions that are relevant here. More relevant
are studies involving the relationships between oral and literate
traditions seen throughout the manuscript age, stretching for a
minimum of two millennia everywhere in Eurasia starting in most
areas around 400 BCE. (Please NB that I am referring here to the
incremental accumulation of *manuscript traditions*, not to the
first introduction of literacy, which is a very different issue.)
This is the period that I study most extensively in my work --
originally just in the West but, more with collaborators and
recently, in China and Southeast Asia as well. The complexity of
these oral/literate interactions in this extended period were
just as complex in other parts of Eurasia as they were in India.
(Also in Mesoamerica, incidentally, on which we have a surprising
large body of data on oral/literate interactions in the late
pre-Columbian period.)

My best to all,
Steve Farmer

Michael Witzel wrote:
> Dear Dr. Farmer, here is the rest, in which you are much more interested.
> And which should have come together with the last one.  It was sent
> yesterday evening, but refused by the list as the Liverpool server accepts
> only 3 message per (UK) day per person. So I had to wait until midnight UK
> time to resend...   More on your last post later. There still seems to be
> some misunderstanding. I suggest to take a look at the menotechnical
> treatises first before asserting written tradition well *before* what I
> detail here:
> ------------------------
> Script is, indeed, *not* used, as Falk, von Hinueber, Fussmann  etc.  have
> discussed,  after the Indus civ. (ended c. 1900 BCE) until Asoka, in mid
> 3rd Cent BCE (some news from Sri Lanka points to an  earlier use of Brahmi
> there at c. 500 BCE; needs countercheck). The first to actually use a word
> for 'script' is the grammarian Panini, (variously dated in the 4thc. or in
> the late Brahmana period). He a native of the Panjab, Gandhara -- which
> probably was Persian during his time. Indeed, he uses the Persian word for
> script, dipi  (pron. thipi with 'th' as in 'the'), but he also knows the
> EAST Iranian one, lipi, which has become the standard Indian term. (Why, if
> not a new, foreign term?)
> I have no doubt that some 'progressive' Brahmins and others *may* have
> tried to use written Veda texts during the time of the Smritis (NB: no one
> knows the date of "Manu" for sure; the Manu Smrti used to be dated, based
> on certain overlaps with the Mahabharata, which also is not exactly datable
> as such). This much is clear from the injunction NOT to use written texts.
> But it did not become the main, major way of transmission until much later,
> -- and taking into account modern recitation, not even until today. A
> proper Brahmin (Veda reciter) did not rely on books. (I think the Chinese
> pilgrims - Fa Hsien - of mid first mill. CE also have such statements, need
> to re-check). We do not hear about written Veda texts, as far as I have
> seen, throughout early medieval 'classical' Skt. literature.
> There are, however,  some clearly delineated exceptions:
> Grammatical texts such as that of Patanjali (c. 150 BCE) quote Vedic lines,
> which thus have received a written tradition. (Nobody has checked out,
> however, the stemma of Patanjali which I urged to do already in 1986). Or
> the Mimamsaka philolosophers (often real philologists) did so. Again no one
> has checked on their stemmata. Or, the  Vedanta comm. by Sankara (of the
> later 1st mill. CE) depends on materials which *might* have been collected
> in a 'Upanisad corpus' (note however that he still can pinpoint their exact
> source inside a VEDIC text/recension). This has not been tested either. I
> myself have concluded (1985) that, by great exception, one version of the
> Atharvaveda, Paippalada Samh., *must* go back to a written archetype of c.
> 800-1000 CE.  But this  exception seems to be due to the fact that the
> Atharveda reciters were a very small minority (c. 1% among the reciters,
> according to inscriptional evidence). They may have taken special measures
> early on to preserve their weak line of tradition. - And, finally,  there
> are some mid-1st mill. (by all appearance, written) commentaries  on
> certain post-RV texts. In any  case, we do not get the RV, and certainly
> not all of the Vedas, in (a) surviving MS(S), or see such MSS mentioned in
> literature before c. 1000 CE.
> The matter could be tested also in another way: by pointing out (as I have
> done for Paipp.Samh.)
> that our received text shows typical mistakes that could arise only when
> the *supposed* Veda  MSS have actually gone through one or two  of the
> major changes in Indian scripts, one around 1000 AD from post-Gupta
> Siddhamatrika, etc. into Nagari, etc., or the earlier one,  from Brahmi
> into Gupta script. Nobody has taken up my note/challenge of 1986.
> No written Vedas, in short, until the great Choresmian scholar Albiruni
> (1030 CE). He knows quite a lot about the Panjab and also about Kashmir,
> for which he must have relied on Kashmiri Brahmins (who traditionally
> traveled a lot, pace V.Agarwal, see my paper of 1994), since Kashmir was
> off limits for Muslims then, as A. himself underlines.
> At the same time, the first surviving Vedic MSS occur in Nepal. The even
> older Hsinkiang/E.Turkestan MSS are never Vedic, but Buddhist, etc. Nepal
> is a special case, as old MSS were and could be well kept there. The
> earliest dated one just after A PERIOD OF DISRUPTION and political
> reshaping, is 810 CE, but there are some undated, earlier ones. The bulk of
> the early MSS comes from the Nepalese 'renaissance' period of the 11th
> cent. Yet, the first  RV MS is still later. The earliest I have seen or
> heard of is at Benares, dated 1380 or so (under glass, so could not check
> myself). But the one of the Vajasaneyi Samhita on the cover of "INSIDE..."
> rather points to 1200 CE.
> Hence my earlier statement. There MAY have been some specific earlier
> manuscripts (such as Paipp.etc mentioned above), earlier by one, two, even
> three centuries (Sankara?), but not much more.
> The gap between Sakalya, say 600/500 BCE, and Sankara/Paipp.S. around 800
> CE, remains.
> And, of course,  recitation *still* is better than any surviving
> manuscript... (though very little used in studies!)
> If all of the above does not fit the framework of comparative studies, too
> bad. Comparativitists would have to show WHERE there is evidence in India
> that supports their general claims.
> ------------------------
> I hope that clarifies some of your questions.
> Best wishes, Yours MW>
> ===============
> Michael Witzel
> Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
> 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138
> ph. 617-496 2990 (also messages)
> home page:
> Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies:

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