The latest rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is Orality and Textuality in the Indian Context (1.7 MB PDF), by Ludo Rocher of the University of Pennsylvania.
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.
The most recent reissue from Sino-Platonic Papers is On Attitudes towards Language in Ancient India, by George Cardona of the University of Pennsylvania. Cardona discusses how grammar “became part of a soteriological system, with linguistic usage a means to acquiring merit and the ultimate good.” [I had to look that one up.]
“In this respect,” he concludes, “the Indian attitude towards language is probably unique.”
He gives several examples from early writings, including this one:
“The demons, with speech taken away from them, said he’lavo he ‘lavaḥ and were thus vanquished. They uttered this indistinct speech there. That is barbaric speech (mlecchaḥ). Therefore, a Brāhmaṇa is not to utter barbaric speech (na mlecchet), for this speech is of the demons. One who know thus takes the speech of his competitors who hate him; they are vanquished with their speech taken from them.”
Now, the contrast here is not between Ārya and non-Ārya pure and simple. Instead, the emphasis is placed on usage that is correct according to an accepted norm and usage that is considered barbaric because of its deviation from the norm. Thus, the demons are said to have been vanquished because, incapable of uttering the correct form he3arayo he3arayaḥ, they said he’lavo he’lavaḥ. That is, instead of the accepted form arayaḥ, with –r– and –y-, they used a dialectal and unacceptable form alavaḥ, with -l- and -v-; and instead of using a prolated (trimoric) -e3 that is exempt from phonological alternation, they used an ordinary vowel -e and followed the rule of phonologic alternation whereby word-final -e and word-initial a- together give -e-.
Although some of that may sound complicated, depending on your familiarity with that field, the essay as a whole is aimed at nonspecialists.
This was first published in January 1990 as issue no. 15 of Sino-Platonic Papers.