[INDOLOGY] Orality and memory culture in the transmission of the Vedas: video clips / intended public: students in Indology ...

C.A. Formigatti caf57 at cam.ac.uk
Mon Dec 8 09:01:57 UTC 2014

Dear colleagues,

It is always very interesting and fruitful to read discussions on this 
list, they are a very valuable source of knowledge and information on 
many aspects of South Asian culture. The issue of orality vs literacy 
has been mentioned many times, but I feel that unfortunately very often 
the discussion is still centered around a sort of match between the 
weight of the two aspects in traditional South Asian culture.

> To explain the unique phenomenon physiologically disregarding the 
> Indian context may lead >at best to downplaying it, and worse even to a 
> theory of racial difference. Many earlier >philologists did not admit 
> the oral transmission in case of large prose texts like the >Brāhmaṇas. 
> Now the fact is accepted. So there was a unique development in India. 
> As >belonging to this new conscious generation Professor Houben is very 
> welcome.

True that many early philologists couldn't believe the astonishing feats 
of Brahmin, even now when talking to non-Indologist colleagues often 
they are skeptical about it. Yet I would be more cautious saying that 
"there was a unique development in India."

> The contrary views are inevitable but the given aesthetic explanation 
> does not explain >their non-occurrence in early historical China or 
> Greece. There is no reason to disregard >the relatively late emergence 
> of written literature in India which fits in with the phenomenon.

First of all, there are many different types of oral transmission. It is 
simply not true that there was no occurrence of oral transmission of 
longer texts in early historical Greece. On the contrary, the Homeric 
epic literature—including not only the Iliad and the Odyssey, but all 
literature of the nostoi genre, unfortunately transmitted to us only 
fragmentarily—was orally transmitted. It was, as I wrote, a different 
type of oral transmission (big chunks of formulae and whole episodes, 
though probably not verbatim), but still oral. We simply do not know 
more about it (i.e. to which extent the texts where exactly committed to 
memory verbatim) because these texts have been fixed in writing 
relatively early, during Peisistratos time, between 561 and 527 BCE. I 
wouldn't be so sure and say that oral transmission of long texts is a 
feature almost exclusive of Indian culture, without fearing of making a 
mistake similar to the one made by the early philologists. And moreover, 
the "late emergence of writing" in South Asia is in fact not so late, if 
compared to the introduction of writing in many other cultures around 
the world. In fact, it seems to me that it was introduced relatively 

> Two more points. The pedagogic need and oral transmission both 
> contributed to the >phenomenon. Secondly their continuance in India was 
> most probably caused by both scarcity >and perishability of the normal 
> Indian paper that is palm leaf in late medieval India and >earlier, 
> perhaps, any leaf which was less durable. Birchbark was expensive for 
> the village >scholar.

Are we really sure that palm leaf was scarce "in late medieval India and 
earlier, perhaps, any leaf which was less durable," or that "Birchbark 
was expensive for the village scholar"? Do we have reliable quantitative 
data about this topic? And if these materials were that scarce, how can 
we account for the many millions of South Asian manuscripts that have 
come down to us? (I will not deal again here with the topic of the 
number of South Asian manuscripts still extant, it would be too long). 
Moreover, since these materials are so perishable, we simply cannot know 
more about the number of manuscripts circulating in early and medieval 
South Asia, and therefore I would be again very cautious in making any 
statement about the primarily oral character of South Asian culture. It 
seems to me that it would be more fruitful to try and ask the question 
differently: to which extent oral and written culture were concurring 
and intertwined in early and Medieval South Asia? Was the oral 
transmission of texts at some point crystallized and reserved for 
certain types of texts (for instance, the Vedic corpus and grammatical 

> I tried to treat the matter more extensively elsewhere. I heartily 
> encourage the dialogue >but at the same time can assure that the 
> related problems and issues are of considerable >magnitude not 
> accommodable in a forum discussion.

I agree completely with Prof. Bhattacharya on this point.

Camillo Formigatti

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