Vedic Reciters/Wisconsin Card Sorting Test

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Tue May 23 18:08:13 UTC 2000

Luis Gonzalez-Reimann writes:

> I have been following this thread and Steve Farmer's interesting and
> informative posts, and I have a question for Steve.
> You quoted P. Olivelle in support of the possibility that:
> "the citations of opposing views and texts
> from different vedic schools indicate that the authors were working
> from manuscripts rather than oral tradition..."
> But your following description seems to confirm just the opposite: that
> texts along with commentary can be memorized and discussed without a
> written text. I understand that the teacher had a written text, but
> the process you describe seems to have worked mainly using memory.

The question that I asked Patrick Olivelle had to do with the
quotations from dozens of *conflicting* schools that show up in later
Vedic traditions, many of which apparently originated in widespread
geographical regions. To all appearances, this began to occur in the
last half of the first millennium BCE. This is exactly when similar
cross-references begin to appear in Chinese and Greek traditions, when
manuscripts from opposing schools became widely available in those
civilizations. Another way of putting this: there was 'leakage' across
school boundaries at some point, even when there were strong
injunctions *within* the schools to stop all such leakage.
(Esotericism wasn't an exclusively Vedic phenomenon: think of the
Pythagoreans and other so-called mystery religions.) In the sutra
literature, e.g., see the extensive list of cross-school citations
collected by Makoto Fushimi for the Apastamba Srautra sutra, located
(in the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies) at:

> From a comparative historian's perspective, what is striking to me is
how similar the cross-referencing found here is to cross-referencing
seen in Chinese and Greek documents from roughly the same period.
Computational measures of the *number* of such cross-references might
even provide an estimate of the relative age of a manuscript
tradition, which needs to reach a certain level of maturity before
such cross-references are possible. (My colleagues and I are now
developing this idea in computer simulations.)

So the question only partly revolves around the issue of memorization:
it also has to do with easy of contact between different schools. It
is easier to explain that contact as occurring through manuscripts
than orally, as I see it -- especially since we see similar things
happening contemporaneously in the civilizations to the East and West
of India. If you insist on 'saving the thesis' that this was all
taking place orally in India -- as opposed to everyplace else on the
planet -- you could, of course, imagine grand pan-Indian Vedic
conferences in which everyone memorized everyone else's samhitas,
brahmanas, aranyakas, upanishads, etc., and then went home and orally
composed and memorized sutras quoting all these conflicting schools.
(Whew, lots of work.) But I personally find that far-fetched: it
reminds me of Ptolemaic epicycles, which can successfully -- but not
parsimoniously -- explain planetary motions in a earth-centered
universe. Why not instead embrace Ockham's razor and assume the
obvious:  that at some point manuscripts of opposing Vedic schools
began to circulate broadly enough to allow these cross-references to
occur? That doesn't mean that Vedic traditions abandoned oral modes of
transmission. It just means that at some point sufficient numbers of
manuscripts began to appear to allow such cross-referencing to become
common. No matter what strictures existed against writing the Vedas
down, people at some point still wrote them down: humans aren't in the
habit of rejecting new technologies for long. Even premodern societies
produced rebels, after all. Why else -- as many people on this List
have pointed out -- the recurrent demands in the smrti literature that
the Vedas *not* be written down.

In any event, this was the argument that Prof. Olivelle was reacting
to, leading to his obviously tentative conclusion that 'deep down, I
think I would agree with you.' Obviously the question *can't* be
settled right now, or every in your field would agree on it -- and
they obviously don't. But the case for early Vedic manuscripts is far
from being a closed one, as Falk and some others would have it. The
fact that so many interesting open questions like this exist is what
makes Indology such an utterly fascinating field.

I wrote (this was my 'Wisconsin Card Sorting Test' argument):

> >Shifting to the historical level, I've always wondered if the typical
> >overreliance of scholastic writers on 'authority' in general wasn't
> >*directly* related to the amount of time they spent memorizing texts.

Luis responded:

> Very interesting idea.
> It could also be the other way around: they spent so much time memorizing
> texts because there was an "overreliance" on authority.  Serious dissent
> was not tolerated for religious texts, and even for other literature, who
> dared question Aristotle?

Actually, they were still burning people for reading Aristotle in
1215. It was only later in the 13th century that the Aristotelian
corpus became dominant in the western university. (What a difference a
few decades makes: at the beginning of the century they were roasting
people for quoting _De anima_. By the end of the century, they were
giving them endowed chairs for doing so.) But my point is that pretty
good neurobiological evidence is around that if you *do* spend a lot
of time memorizing texts -- no matter what culture you are in -- that
your adhesion to the concept of 'authority' in general will be
intensified. And that, of course, is what we find in every manuscript
culture known. It is only after printing becomes common that that
attitude changes -- after memorization of texts becomes less common. I
wrote a little on this in _Syncretism in the West_, e.g., p. 135, and
discuss it at length in a new book I'm writing on neurobiology and the
evolution of premodern cultures.

> But more along your line of thought: maybe they spent so much time
> memorizing texts because written texts, although they did exist, were nor
> so widely available, or/and because if they wanted to find a particular
> quote it was easier to go over the text/chaper in their heads.  Things are
> different when you have concordances and indexes at the back of books (or
> when you can do a word search in a word processor).
You are of course partially right here. But premodern traditions often
assumed forms that *did* make it easy to look things up in --
especially in scholastic periods -- and indices existed as well.
(Think of the granddaddy of all indices, the Anukramani.) Similar
things existed in the West -- e.g., in the tens of thousands of
commentaries written from the mid 12th through mid 16th centuries on
Peter Lombard's _Sentences_ (the main theological textbook in medieval
Christianity). Do you want to quickly find out what *any* random
medieval theologian thought about whether or not angels exist in
space? Go to that theologian's comments on _Sentences_ bk. 1,
distinction 37, and you can find out immediately -- no word-processor
"find" function necessary!

I'm learning a lot from you Indologists: thanks for indulging me.
Unfortunately, deadlines are slipping....

Steve Farmer

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