SV: Mnemonics in Ancient India

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Sun May 21 18:02:03 UTC 2000

Lars Martin Fosse wrote:

> A few years ago a saw a TV program (I believe) dealing with a tribe of
> hunters in Siberia. The Shaman of the tribe would every year during a
> sequence of ceremonies that lasted a week or so recite an epic of some
> 40,000 verses, presumably between 200.000 and 300.000 words. The program
>  did not specify exactly how this was done, but I would like to know:
> What are the longest texts known to have been memorized verbatim?
> (Not retelling in the usual oral poetry way, but repeating word for word)

I doubt that this was a word-for-word recitation, Lars Martin. The
comparative evidence suggests that the Parry-Lord type of recitation
(which at a minimum involves minor changes in each performance) was
*normal* in premodern civilizations, unless a written standard existed
to normalize the recitation, as in China. The (more-or-less) verbatim
recitations that existed in Vedic traditions were fairly anomalous, so
far as I can tell. For reasons explained in my previous post, it is my
suspicion, based on neuropsychological studies by KA Ericsson and
Thompson et al., that the unusual word-for-word recitations in
premodern Vedic traditions had less to do with any special mnemonic
techniques (pace Staal and others) than with strong strictures on
incorrect performance, which led to unusually strong rehearsal techniques.

I don't want to reopen this can of worms at present, but I also think
that there is a lot of suggestive evidence that by the second half of
the first millennium BCE, at a minimum -- I'm uncertain about earlier
periods -- Vedic recitation was also being normalized in part by the
existence of written texts, at least in commentary traditions. This is
demonstrated, if no place else, by the large number of quotations from
different Vedic branches in works generally dated from this period. (I
don't think that my view is all that radical, really: in a long
exchange in a private online forum a few months ago, Patrick Olivelle
pretty clearly admitted to me that this was his view as well; I think
that this is also your position in respect to commentary traditions
after c. 400 BCE, correct Lars Martin?) Moreover, besides these
cross-references, there are all those pesky references to early
writing in Vedic texts that can't *all* be explained away by pointing
to ambiguities in Sanskrit. Perhaps the best-known of these is the
reference in Aitreya Aranyaka 5.3.3, which even Staal (see _Nambudiri
Veda Recitation_, p. 15) accepts as referring to writing. As you know,
the reference says -- here I'm giving Staal's translation -- that "A
pupil should not recite and study the Veda "when he has eaten flesh,
or seen blood, or a dead body, or done what is unlawful... or had
intercourse, or written...". However you date that passage, it is
clearly long before the last third of the first millennium BCE.

But again, I'm not a Sanskritist but a comparative historian, and
don't want to get dragged into this debate again -- especially since
not all interested and informed parties to the debate are still
members of this list! The last time I stumbled into this topic, I did
so naively, not knowing how politicized the question was in your field.

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