[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 16:25:15 UTC 2014

Dear colleagues,

Since I have raised a couple of questions about the status of orality 
and literacy in ancient, medieval and modern South Asia that sparked a 
lively and interesting discussion, i would like to clarify a couple of 
points, in order not to be misunderstood.

On 2014-12-08 12:13, Viktoria Lysenko wrote:
> Colleagues,
> In my opinion, the question is not about perishable nature of some
> materials or about aesthetic experience as factors that contributed to
> the development of orality in India, it is about  religious or
> sacrificial status pertaining to the exact  transmission of sound
> vibrations ( ritual exegesis, phonetics and grammar were developed to
> realize this task), and in this respect India is unique.

As far as I know I completely agree, in this respect South Asian culture 
is unique. But I would like to stress the "as far as I know," for I am 
not an expert in all cultural traditions all over the world, and it 
might well be that during the last four millennia and across the whole 
world other people belonging to other cultures (of which I know 
nothing), might have developed an oral culture similar or comparable to 
the South Asian, and we are not just aware of it. But maybe I'm wrong 
precisely because of my ignorance.

> As for epic
> oral traditions like that developed in Greece etc.it is quite another
> story, they  cannot be compared  with the transmission of the Vedic
> texts.
> There are many excellent works about this subject (F.Staal, H.Scharfe,
> H.Falk).

Well, that was exactly my point as well. The advocates of the 
importance, nay predominance of oral culture in South Asia focus almost 
always and almost exclusively on one type of oral transmission, i.e. the 
memorization of whole texts, be they versified (like the Vedic hymns or 
the verses of the six dar'sanas) or in prose (like the grammatical 
suutras). However, epic literature and Buddhist literature clearly bear 
traces of an oral transmission akin to the one of the Greek epics, i.e. 
based on formulae and not on whole texts (this point has already been 
noted by Scharfe in his 2002 book, p. 19-20). It was this type of oral 
transmission I was referring to.

On 2014-12-08 10:04, Dipak Bhattacharya wrote:
> I have no time to go into detail. Suffice it to say there has been
> misunderstanding. Oral composition by Homer is not denied. Even
> Confucius betrays transition from an erstwhile oral literature. But
> did scientific treatises of the potential maginitude of Paa.nini's
> work come out in the sister civilizations? That was my point.

As I have tried to explain, that was not what I intended. I just wanted 
to stress the fact that this type of oral transmission is not the only 
one present in South Asia, and we have to disambiguate.

> True that palmleaves were available in plenty in late medieval times. I
> wanted to point to their relative perishability and probable late
> invention of the processing towards durability. Note that; Sakuntalaa
> wrote to her lover on lotus leaf with her nail.
> I admit that writing was scarce in all civilizations till the end of
> the earely medieval period. Note Walter Scott's description of the
> embarrassment of even priests, not to speak of kings, when writing was
> called for. Jews keeping business records had to come to rescue.
> This was universal. India had something more.
> Best
> DB

Again, I would like to stress the fact that we have no reliable data 
about literacy rate and diffusion of manuscripts for any period of South 
Asian history. I believe moreover that one has to distinguish between 
ephemeral writings like letters (already mentioned by Nearchos, if I'm 
not wrong), and other types of manuscript documents (be they literary or 
official documents). I am well aware that orality played and still plays 
a major role in South Asian culture, and I do not want to deny it, but I 
also have the strong feeling that the impact and importance first of 
manuscript culture, then of print culture in South Asia is very often 
downplayed. The estimates of the number of South Asian manuscripts are 
in the millions, see for instance the recently published article by D. 
Wujastyk on "Indian Manuscripts" (in Jörg Quenzer et al., Manuscript 
Cultures: Mapping the Field," Studies in Manuscript Cultures, volume 1, 
Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), where two estimates are given: "The National 
Mission for Manuscripts in New Delhi works with a conservative figure of 
seven million  manuscripts, and its database is approaching two million 
records. The late Prof. David Pingree, basing his count on a lifetime of 
academic engagement with Indian manuscripts, estimated that there were 
thirty million manuscripts, if one counted both those in public and 
government libraries, and those in private collections."

Well, I have to confess that even the more conservative estimate of 
seven million of manuscripts does not sound to me as the mark of a 
culture where literacy played a secondary role. But probably my opinion 
is biased by my own research interests.

I am really looking forward to read more opinions and contributions on 
this topic.

Best wishes,

Camillo Formigatti

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