Friedrich Max Müller noted: “We can form no opinion of the power of memory in a state of society so different from ours as the Indian Parishads are from our universities. Feats of memory, such as we hear of now and then, show that our notions of the limits of that faculty are quite arbitrary. Our own memory has been systematically undermined for many generations.” More succinctly, the German indologist Heinrich Lüders described some Indian pandits as “nothing but waking, living text books.”
But Western scholars went further than being amazed. They also raised the question why Indians resort to memorization “even at the present day when manuscripts are neither scarce nor expensive.” Memorization is something one expects in illiterate societies, and that includes India before the introduction of script. But why did Indians continue to memorize so much, even after the time when script came to India?
The age of the introduction of script in India — rather its reintroduction after it disappeared with the Indus Valley Civilization — is still debated, and I will not touch on that problem since it is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that there are inscriptions, all over the subcontinent, as early as the third century B.C.E., which means that Indians still resort to oral transmission more than two thousand years after they could have resorted to written transmission.
I will argue in this paper that the question of oral transmission versus written transmission in India is far more complex than it has often been presented. There are a number of factors at work, and these factors are different for different branches of the extensive literary legacy of classical India.
This is issue no. 49 of Sino-Platonic Papers. It was originally released in October 1994.