Dates of the written Rgveda

L.S.Cousins selwyn at DTN.NTL.COM
Tue Mar 21 11:42:37 UTC 2000

Dr. Farmer wrote:

>  > There are what appear to be references to writing in the Pali
>>  scriptures -- same as references in Manusmrti. I know that ways
>>  exist to discount such citations, just as in the case of
>>  references to script in Panini. But at a minimum the prima facie
>>  evidence has to be dealt with, I'd think. E.g., in Nighanikaya 27.23,
>  > we read:

As was mentioned at an earlier point in these discussions, Pali
evidence as to writing has been dealt with in detail in:
Hinüber, Oskar von, _Der Beginn der Schrift und fruhe Schriftlichkeit
in Indien_, Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen
Klasse / Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur ;
Jahrg.1989/Nr.11, Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur,
Mainz, 1990?, 3515056270 .

As to the passage in the _Aggañña-sutta_ (D III 94), there is no need
to be concerned here with the date of that. Gantha (in this sense) is
a rather rare word. It does not occur at all elsewhere in the first
four Nikaayas. It does occur in the Vinaya and Suttanipaata once each
and it is clear from the passages in question that it means something
like 'composition' i.e. it does not in the early period imply
something written down.

The passages are:

Vinaya-pi.taka IV 15: anaapatti ekato uddisaapento, ekato sajjhaaya.m
karonto, yebhuyyena gantha.m (Ee gandha.m) bha.nanta.m
opaateti, osaarenta.m opaateti, ummattakassa, aadikammikassaa ti.
(I.B. Horner, _Book of the Discipline, Part 2, p. 193, translates:
'There is no offence in making (him) recite it together, in studying
it together, if while speaking he drops a phrase usually familiar, if
he drops it while expounding, if he is mad, if he is the first

There are perhaps problems with some parts of this rendering, but it
is in any case clear that a gantha is something you say and in which
you become proficient.

Sutta-nipaata v. 303f. = 306f.:  braahma.naa te tattha mante
ganthetvaa, Okkaaka.m tadupaagamu.m.
(Norman translates: 'Having composed hymns for this purpose, they
went up to Okkaaka again.')

Here we see the verb gantheti lit. 'to tie' or 'string together', but
in this usage 'to compose'.

The transition from '(oral) composition' to '(written) book' is of
course a very natural one.

One mention also in a very late portion of the Canon:
Apadaana II 503:

  <205> Na ciren' eva kaalena sabbasattavisaarado Buddhavacane ahosi.m gu.nisammato. ||

  <206> Tadaa catasso gaathaayo ganthayitvaa subyañjanaa,

  santhavitvaa tilokagga.m desayissa.m dine dine. ||

Here the reference is to composing (ganthayitvaa) four stanzas.

More generally, similar discussions of orality and oral literature
arise for Pali too. See the bibliography to:

Allon, Mark, _Style and Function. A study of the dominant stylistic
features of the prose portions of Påli canonical sutta texts and
their mnemonic function_, Studia Philologica Buddhica. Monograph
Series XII, The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, Tokyo,
1997, 4-906267-40-8 .

According to Sinhalese works (extant from the late third or early
fourth century  onwards) the Pali Canon was first put into writing in
Ceylon in the first century B.C. (after an invasion and famine). This
used to be thought rather early, but has gained credence from the
recent discoveries of written texts from the area of modern
Afghanistan. These belong to the parallel Canon of another Buddhist
school and appear to date to the first century A.D.

This would not preclude the use of some written texts earlier than
this. Probably some of the verse texts of the Khuddaka-nikaaya
existed in written form at an earlier date. Some too of the latest
Canonical works (whose canonical status was disputed in early times)
may have been added a little later.

None of this invalidates the basic facts of the case. The major part
of the Canon existed first of all (and for some time) in an oral form
without being written down and this was almost certainly initially in
a period when writing was unknown in the Gangetic area.

I am uncertain whether the Vedas can really only have been written
down as late as the end of the first millennium A.D. and would not be
surprised if evidence for a somewhat earlier date should eventually
surface. In any case not much hangs upon this. I would have thought
that even 300 years of accurate oral preservation is quite remarkable
enough. For the .Rgveda we can certainly be sure of a much longer
time-span than that.

Lance Cousins

L.S.Cousins at or selwyn at

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