Saturday, November 12, 2005

Our ancients couldn't write? (Updated)

The traditional way in which Sanskrit letters are arranged in the varamālā has a phonological significance. A subset:

Labialpphbbh m


In an interesting post, Dr. Kerim Friedman says:
The sounds are listed in order of where in the mouth the sound is produced: gutturals (produced in the throat) first, and labials (produced by the lips) last, with a steady progression in between[1]. I am curious when this ordering became standard.
In response, I referred him to a Hindu report, where one Dr B. S. Ramakrishna attributes this scientific arrangement to Pāṇini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian.

However, Dr. Ramakrishna errs when he makes a reference to Devanagari:

[Pāṇini]'s well-researched arrangement of the alphabet of Devanagiri (sic) script was a unique effort.

The Devanagari script, used these days for Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi, came into existence pretty late - in the 13thcentury A.D. There is no way the 5th century B.C. grammarian could have written in this script. Even the earliest known Indic scripts, Brāhmi and Kharoṣṭhī, are attested only from the 3rd century B.C. So which script did Panini employ?

Or rather, could he write at all?

[Panini] anticipates much of the methodology of modern formal grammar: his grammar is generative and in some respects transformational. It cannot, however, be compared very directly with modern formal grammars, since its form is geared to the needs of oral transmission, and Pāṇini could not avail himself of the mathematical symbols and typographical conventions of the written page. The work was so brief that it could be recited from beginning to end in a couple of hours. [2]
[Emphasis mine.]

It is not known whether Pāṇini himself used writing for the composition of his work. Some people argue that a work of such complexity would have been impossible to compile without written notes, while others allow for the possibility that he might have composed it with the help of a group of students whose memories served him as 'notepads.' [Wikipedia]

We know that the oral transmission of texts was emphasised, but does this mean there was no written form of Sanskrit till the 3rd century B.C.? I think it improbable.

So when Vināyaka broke off a part of his tusk to transcribe the Mahabhārata, to write in which script did he break it off?

* * *

Update: Dr Richard Salomon, via Sunil, provides the answers:

On the phonological ordering:
This is an interesting, but not simple question. The "ka-kha-ga-gha" order, or better, the "varna-samāmnāya," is hard to date precisely. Panini (who himself is hard to date) doesn't use it as such, but his own technically devised special ordering, the Siva-sūtras, is usually understood to presuppose it. It actually occurs as such only in relatively late technical texts such as Prātisākhyas. All of this suggests that the varna-samāmnāya ordering principle goes back well into the BC period, but no more specific or definite answer can be meaningfully given.

If there was writing in Panini's time:
The other question is whether Panini's system presupposes or requires writing at all. This has been quite controversial, but most scholars nowadays would say no; it can be, and probably is, a purely oral/mnemonic system. (Some European "armchair" scholars of earlier decades thought this was impossible, but direct acquaintance with Indian pedagogy and oral traditions have convinced later generations of western scholars that it is quite possible.)

This does not however mean that there was no writing in Panini's time; this question remains open, especially since we don't know exactly what his time was. Most reputable scholars nowadays tend to think about 5th or 4th centuries BC. Writing systems that might have been familiar at the time in his area (Saalatura, now in NWFP, Pakistan) include Greek, Aramaic, and Kharosthi. But since the earliest actual specimens of Kharosthi and Brahmi date only from the time of Asoka (3rd c. BC), it remains uncertain whether they had developed yet by the time of Panini. This is still quite controversial, but the tide of opinion nowadays is that Brahmi, at least, was invented quite late, i.e. in the Mauryan period. A better case can be made for an older date for Kharosthi (5 or 4th century BC), but there's no firm evidence.

These are questions I am very much interested in and have written/am writing about... You can also check my Indian Epigraphy book (esp. ch. 2) from 1998--but it's already out of date. Interesting developments are happening these days in the study of the history of writing/literacy in ancient India.

On writing and the Mahabharata's Vinayaka legend:
[T]he legend of Vinayaka is a late accretion. But then the date of the Mahabharata is--here we go again--a big problem. Most scholars would put its final form to a relatively late date, sometime in at least the early AD period.
[Slightly reformatted.]
- - - - - -

Other posts on language: One, Two.

[1] Palatal consonants are articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate. Retroflex consonants are articulated with the tongue placed behind the alveolar ridge.


Kerim Friedman said...

I know it is hard to imagine something so grand being "written" without a script, but it is in fact entirely possible. Besides the example of Homer, we can also see contemporary examples in the form of Nigeria's Yoruba diviners, whose lengthy sacred text is entirely memorized. The thing is, the minds of most people today has been made lazy by writing, so we can't contemplate such a task. In fact, if you look at the history of literacy, you will find that up until quite recently, literacy was primarily used as a mnemonic device to aid wrote memorization. That is still how many illiterate people learn the the Bible or Koran - they can't spell, but they use the text to help jog their memory.

Srikanth said...

Hi Kerim,
Thanks for the example of Homer! I can understand that one could compose without the aid of writing - the Vedas were not written down till a long long time after they were "seen."

As you point out in the example of Yoruba diviners, a text can be memorised and orally transmitted, as most Indian texts have been. But what I find difficult to believe is that writing did not exist in the time of Panini.

Probably there are no references to writing in earlier texts (such as the Upanishads or Ramayana). But Mahabharata does have the legend of Vinayaka (Ganesha) writing it down with his tusk. Maybe this was a later addition - I don't know.

Manjunatha said...

So when Vināyaka broke off a part of his tusk to transcribe the Mahabhārata, to write in which script did he break it off?

Mahabharata could be written later than 3rd century BCE. Coudn't it be?

I don't know much about linguistics. So I'm not sure of the basis for the antiquity attestation of any scripts.
1. Is it the period of earliest archealogical evidences?
2. Or from the earliest available scripts they do some kind of extrapolation to mark the exact period of its origins?

I suppose we need an archeologist, a linguist and a geneticist to clarify our doubts. However, all devoid of Eurocentric or Indocentirc prejudices.

Srikanth said...

Hi Manjunatha,
Mahabharata could be written later than 3rd century BCE. Coudn't it be?

This article says:
"Panini's grammar (c. 400 BC) knows the Mahabharata. Also, the Epic, in its long descriptions of the religions of the day, does not mention Buddhism, so we can be certain that it was substantially complete prior to 400 or 500 BC. The language of the Epic does not always follow Paninian constructions which also suggests that it is prior to 500 BC."

So it seems Mahabharata was definitely before 3rd century BCE.

Is it the period of earliest archealogical evidences?
Wikipedia says:
"The best known and earliest dated inscriptions in Brāhmī are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka."

This suggests the scripts are dated based on archaeological evidence.

Manjunatha, it may interest you to know that both Brahmi and Kharoshthi are believed to have evolved from the Semitic Aramaic script.

Qalandar said...

Thanks for the kind comment on my blog Srikanth-- I've just discovered your blog and intend to return!

Umair Muhajir

Manjunatha said...

"The best known and earliest dated inscriptions in Brāhmī are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka."

This suggests the scripts are dated based on archaeological evidence.

If that's indeed the case then I suppose it's weird to assume that writing started only in 3rd century BCE.

Manjunatha, it may interest you to know that both Brahmi and Kharoshthi are believed to have evolved from the Semitic Aramaic script.

Yes, and I have read a Semitic script is derived from Sumerian Cuneiform which existed 4th millenium BCE. I suppose North-West Indians were in constant contact with Semites. I wonder what could be the reasons behind late appearance of written records?
1. Is it because Semites actually came into contact with Indians very late?
2. Only few elites were educated and all the traders/farmers who came to India(cultural sense) were illiterates?

Srikanth said...

Mujahir: Welcome!

Richard Solomon's article seems pertinent to our discussion. To summarise it:

* There is no archaelogical evidence of Brahmi and Kharoshthi prior to the 3rd century BC. Some theories of their origin have been proposed (given below), but they are controversial.

Kharoshthi Theory: It was created (not evolved) from Aramaic at one stroke not before 325 BC. (Kharoshthi, like its parent, was written right to left.)

Brahmi Theory: It was a planned invention under Ashoka for his edicts. (Since the alphabets are simple and symmetrical geometric shapes.) It was derived from both Aramaic and Greek scripts (the latter gave the left to right direction to Brahmi).
Some even suggest the origin of Brahmi was influenced by Egyptian and Chinese scripts.

Finally, the author asks the same questions that I did(!):

The heartland of India was preliterate until the 3rd century BC. But can we imagine such a state of affairs, ... Magadha was the site of great and prosperous empires, notably that of the Nandas, decades if not centuries before ... around 320 BC. Can we believe that these dynasties with their legendary riches, and the remarkable intellectual and cultural life of India in the time of the Buddha and Mahâvîra, existed in a totally illiterate sphere? It is certainly true that intellectual activity in India has always strongly favored oral over written means of expression, .... [b]ut the fact that Pâ.nini did not use writing in composing the A.a.tâdhyâyî does not necessarily mean that he was illiterate ...; it may only mean that writing was not considered an appropriate vehicle for intellectual endeavors of his kind.

Srikanth said...

Mujahir: Welcome!
Oops, Umair, sorry for the typo!

Sunil said...

Srikanth.....if you have your questions more specifically defined, i can go down and ask Richard Salomon these questions. He's my sanskrit prof here.......and he specializes in scripts (he works on Brahmi, Gandhari and Pali scripts and derivatives, in addition to Sanskrit itself).

so, just let me know.

Srikanth said...

Hi Sunil,
Thanks, that would be great!

My question is:
1. Which Sanskrit script was in use before Brahmi and Kharoshti?

If there were none before the two:
* How can the legend of Vinayaka transcribing the Mahabharata (whose composition predates the earliest Brahmi/Kharoshti evidences) be explained?

2. How early is the traditional ordering of the Sanskrit letters? Is this ordering defined in any text? Or is there any archaelogical evidence for this?

3. (Slightly unrelated question that intrigues me) When and why did the pitch accent (udatta, anudatta and svarita) of Sanskrit do out of use? If so much pains were taken to preserve the language, why was nothing done to preserve the accent?

Thanks once again!

Anonymous said...

From the language that is used in the classical lit, I get this feeling that Panini could not have been a 'Hindu' at all.He was an outsider who did not get along well with the Vaishnavaites
if at all they were present in any strength.can someone please explain why Panini is portrayed as a villian in the Hindu Mythology? On the lines of Bahubali etc who were Jain or Buddhist followers.

Mani Varadarajan said...

Panini a villain in Hindu mythology? Where do you get that? If anything, there is evidence that he accepted the divinity of Krishna: See this link for more details.