Mnemonics in Ancient India - AitAar

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Sun May 21 21:03:36 UTC 2000

> Please consult Harry Falk's article "AA 5.3.3.: Nollikhya Naavalikhya" in
> IIJ 35 (1992), 1-17.
>     The passage you mention can now be cancelled as evidence for early
> writing. Which other 'pesky' places have you come across?
You've picked up on one point in my post and ignored the rest. I know
from reading Falk's monograph on writing in India (I haven't read this
article) that he goes to length to disqualify every reference to
writing before, as I recall, the time of Ashoka. The inherent
ambiguities in Sanskrit make it possible to call every such reference
into question if you are intent on doing so, as Falk is. I'm a
comparative historian, not a Sanskritist, so on this issue I can only
balance Falk's claims against those of other specialists on the topic,
like Staal. Obviously not all qualified experts agree with Falk's
claims, as is evident when you read reviews of his monograph. I have
had a lot of personal correspondence with mainstream Sanskritists in
which Falk's extreme views on writing in India are also called into

Leaving this issue aside, since I don't have the answers: It is much
more difficult to call into question the evidence for early writing in
Vedic sources that exists in extensive quotations from different Vedic
branches in Vedic commentaries from the last half of the first
millennium BCE. This was also noted in my post. Apparently quite a few
mainstream Indologists are also troubled by this evidence, including
Patrick Olivelle. Back on 8 April 2000, in another online forum (the
CGC group run, by invitation, by E. Bruce Brooks), Olivelle wrote:

  About the question:  would the citations of opposing views and texts
  from different vedic schools indicate that the authors were working
  from manuscripts rather than oral tradition?  This is a very good
  point to which I do not have a good answer. On the face of it, I
  would agree with you. It appears difficult to imagine that all these
  were stored in the cranial hard drive of the authors. But when do
  hard drives run out of memory? ... But you have raised an excellent
  point--and down deep I think I would agree with you.

I'm not holding up the 'authority' of Olivelle against the 'authority'
of Falk -- that's a method for scholastic thinkers -- but only
indicating that the argument isn't as closed as you imply. Evidence
from comparative history, I think, is also strongly in favor of early
writing in India: Given the extensive knowledge of writing in every
major civilization in Eurasia *besides* India by the mid first
millennium (China, Persia, Greece, etc.) it is rather a stretch to
believe that writing didn't have an impact on Vedic traditions in this
period as well. This is especially true since the development of fully
developed commentarial traditions emerged about the same time in all
these civilizations as well. India didn't exist in a hermetic shell,
by any means -- there is pretty good evidence of contact between these
civilizations. Proof is tough, but that's true in every scientific
discipline. All you can do when an historical issue is ambiguous is
weigh the evidence on both sides and make a tentative judgment. The
judgment that you make only has heuristic value, but that's the best
we can do at this point. Knowledge of ambiguity is not ambiguous
knowledge, and to claim certainty when none exists runs counter to any
sound scientific method.

In any event, this question was raked over rather fully a couple of
months ago. The opposing positions are by now pretty well-known. Until
new evidence appears on the scene, I don't want to waste time
rehashing the same arguments -- especially when some of the most
important adherents of non-mainsteam views are no longer on this list?
(To everyone's loss, I think: as the Platonic corpus has it, truth is
the offspring of dialectical thought.)

My best,
Steve Farmer

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