Dates of written Rgveda

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Thu Mar 16 01:59:19 UTC 2000


>a very general question that has always intrigued me ...
> How is a "mistake" determined in a
>transmission that is wholly oral? Evidently, the transmitted "text" could only
>be checked against the memory of other "transmitters", so one would
>presume the
>stability of an orally transmitted text to increase with the number of people
>who memorize it, but this still leaves open the question of how such stability
>(or instability) is ascertained - aren't all such ascertainments, in a
>manner of
>speaking, post mortem declarations about oral cultures, pronounced already on
>the basis of available written records? Just wondering ...

Good point. I discussed this several times  in 1983/6, I believe. (*see
note below)

Our experience with less  known Vedic schools (zaakhaa) shows precisely
what you refer to.
Very few variants in texts that are spread over a large part of South Asia,
e.g. in the Yajurveda,
Vajasaneyi (Samh./ Satapatha in Madhyandina version) all over northern
India and Nepal,
or Taittiriya  texts found all over S.India, where according to the
proverb,"even the house cats know the YV"  (gRR, gRR...)

But when it comes to Maitrayani texts (Gujarat, NW Maharastra, a little in
Nagpur), they were transmitted only by a small section of the 100 clans of
Gujarat Brahmins (Pancoli), and mistakes and differences in  the (written)
transmission abound (the oral one has hardly been studied; in M. Haug's
time c. 1860, Brahmins still recited the whole Samhita by heart... Another
loss, due to neglect by scholars, see HOS OM 2, intro.)
The same applies to the Katha school (only Kashmir), or to other small
schools (Vadhula, Agnivesya, Jaiminiya, etc.) And the Atharvaveda (which
seems to have been learnt only by less than 1% of the Vaidika Brahmins,
acc. to inscriptional evidence).

The point is precisely your point: In such small schools/zaakhaa-s, there
was little possibility to countercheck, once a mistake was introduced in
recitation/writing during the period of decline of such schools in the
middle ages. I remember one such typical case in Maitr. Samh. (in my
thesis). Or, what could actually happen (in the even less studied
Atharvaveda) is nicely described in S.P.Pandit's (unread!!) preface to his
ed. of the Atharvaveda, Bombay, end of 19th. cent. Luckily, Madhav
Deshpande has unearthed  and discussed this case in his ed. & transl. of
the AV Pratisakhya
(HOS Volume 52. Saunakîya Caturâdhyâyikâ. A Prâtisâkhya of the Saunakîya
Atharvaveda, with the commentaries Caturâdhyâyîbhâsya,
Bhârgava-Bhâskara-Vrtti and Pancasandhi, critically edited, translated &
annotated by MADHAV M. DESHPANDE. 1997. Pages, vi, 815)

Imagine a southern Rgvedin or Samavedin coming to Benares and reciting his
text (same zaakhaa) in public in front of a, say, Gujarati. Any mistake
would immediately be spotted,
etc etc.;  and of course, there are and always have been public
recitations, during the 2nd mill. CE often in comnnection with temples,
especially in the South. And rituals such as a (post-Vedic) Laksahoma where
one has to recite all 4 Vedas in public. ... Not to speak of Grhya rites,
as in marriage, or sraddhas where your colleagues can butt in and scold
you. No ritual without a ritual discussion...

Footnote:  discussion in:

* Regionale und ueberregionale Faktoren in der Entwicklung vedischer
Brahmanengruppen in Mittelalter. (Mat. zu den ved. Schulen, 5). Regionale
Tradition in Suedasien, H. Kulke and D. Rothermund (ed.) (= Beitraege zur
Suedasienforschung 104), Heidelberg 1986, 37-76

*On the Archetype of Patanjali's Mahabhasya. IIJ 29, 1986, 249-259

Also in:
Die muendliche Tradition der Paippaladins von Orissa. Festgabe fuer K.
Hoffmann, I. = MSS 44, 1985,  259-287
 Die Atharvaveda-Tradition und die Paippalada-Samhita. ZDMG, Supplementband
VI, (XXII. Deutscher Orientalistentag, Tuebingen,  March 1983),  Stuttgart
1985, 256-271


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

ph. 617-496 2990 (also messages)
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