Unbroken Chain of Oral Tradition

By Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna

Didactic ballads and folklore are the most precious remnants of a glorious culture that disappeared from the surface of our globe many centuries prior to the earliest dawn of our present civilization. Religious and spiritual speculations of our most ancient forebears are embedded in these age-old legendary poems. Although this prolific culture vanished in the prehistoric past, we may discern its indelible impact upon the extant universal literature which is invariably the common heritage of mankind. The Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the ascetic poems of the Jains, for instance, perpetuate the ethics and norms that were promulgated by the sages of a forgotten age that is still shrouded in mystery. Valmiki and Vyasa, Homer and Pindar, the Druid bard and the Aztec priest, the Chinese lawgiver and the Egyptian mystic -- all echoed these moral values in their eternal epics and systems of thought.

Literacy was not considered a sine qua non of wisdom by the ancients. It is said that even the great grammarian Panini was not a literate. As each school of thought was built upon the graveyard of the preceding system, these great sages who had transcended time and space were not particularly concerned about leaving their arts and sciences for posterity. Although the art of writing was employed after a fashion to give instructions, it did not become popular, the emphasis of education being on the development of memory and the retentive power. If the expounder of a special branch of knowledge wished to protect his system from falling into oblivion, he rendered it into verse; only on rare occasions did he commit it to writing. Paleographical evidence clearly indicates that the art of writing was extensively employed to record the dynastic histories and the lists of kings by the chroniclers of Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt and India in a period as remote as the third millennium B.C. However, it was not used to impart instructions in mysticism and philosophy, exorcism and religion, for Druid bard and Brahman sage alike considered this a profanation of the esoteric wisdom in that golden epoch of intuition and memory culture no teacher ever attempted to impart the sacred knowledge through the medium of script.

Plato, the greatest philosopher of all times, often stressed this view in his unique dialogues through fables and narratives. In Phaedrus, we come across a striking passage which clearly illustrates his opinion of literary composition:

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them.
It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.
Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Throughout his long discourse Plato explains how writing tends to diminish the power of recollection. He compares it to a painting in which the mute figures cannot reply in words to an earnest spectator who puts a question to them. Truth, he believed, should find lodging in the soul of a learner, not by literary composition, but by oral transmission. The written word can give only an idea of the fact, but the word is not the fact itself. We are not surprised to find that the dialogue form used by the great Athenian philosopher was also favored by the Buddha and the Upanishadic sages to impart wisdom to their disciples and adherents.

Up to now no paleontologist, or any other scientist for that matter, has been able to present a single proof that human language evolved from the primitive ululations of anthropoids. Even in the very remote past early man used a highly developed system of symbols and hieroglyphs to convey ideas to others. Actual writing, in its earliest stages, was mostly applied by the tribal chieftain to give commands and information to the members of his ethnic group. Examples of pictographic writing, on the walls of subterranean caves and on boulders and stone ruins, are found all over the world. It is evident that even in the earliest dawn of prehistory men used a system of international signs and symbols to transmit ideas and impressions -- for without doubt a symbol can more adequately represent a philosophical notion than the written word.

As writing was not encouraged by the ancient educators, the arts and sciences were mostly treated in terse aphorisms which enabled the students to memorize them easily. The immortal epics of Homer, Vyasa and Valmiki were learnt by professional bards and minstrels, who recited them in the courts of kings and in the pleasure gardens of the great cities where they found large cosmopolitan gatherings. Friars and hymnologists wandered from country to country reciting the religious ballads in order to entice a zealous following from among the curious audience. It is believed that at one such gathering Socrates met an Indian sage at the agora in Athens. This would show that the ancient bards and friars traveled far and near, teaching and preaching without any linguistic or geographic barriers. In those days erudition was not judged by a scholar's literary achievements, but by his ability to inspire his hearers to seek wisdom. In every court throughout the world there was a professional royal minstrel who would chant the dynastic history from its beginning up to the time of the living king. Even in pre-Columbian America, in the palaces of the Incas and Aztecs, reciters were employed who had memorized the genealogy of the solar rulers from the most remote eras.

Although in a certain phase of human culture learning by memory and oral transmission was admired by the ancient philosophers both in East and West, we must not fail to consider the magnitude of the disadvantages involved in this mode of preserving knowledge. If a natural catastrophe, pestilence or war were to destroy the line of priests, it would inevitably ruin the collective wisdom of a race acquired throughout the centuries. This is the exact cause of the sad disappearance of most of the spoken languages and literatures of the archaic past, before the emergence of the Sanskrit, Sumerian, Hamitic and Semitic languages which, according to our modern philologists, can rightfully claim to be of very early antiquity. How many of such ancient languages with their voluminous literary treasures vanished from the surface of our planet is still an unsolved question. We know from partially deciphered inscriptions that some dialects, like Illyrian and Ligurian, faced extinction even before the gradual rising of the Germanic, Celtic and Italic tongues of the Centum (Western) group of the Indo-European linguistic family. However, all these dialects which we now know only by name have left their imprint on the grammatical structures and the vocabularies of our modern languages.

The above sufficiently shows the grave risk involved when the racial intellect is mobilized to stock the rich tradition of a nation within the memories of a line of individuals who had sharpened their retentive power to learn the extensive works of human wisdom by rote. The hoary Vedas and the non-Vedic literature of India have been safely passed from generation to generation by word of mouth for many thousands of years. A skeptical European reader might well question the purity of these texts, but his doubt would be unfounded. Even today if traveling through India, Ceylon or Burma, one could come across thousands of individuals who can dictate for days the great works of scripture, grammar, astrology, medicine and those of other branches of knowledge. Some of these are still orally transmitted, having never been recorded. It seems apposite in this context to quote from a reliable account given by a famous European historian, Prof. Stuart Piggott, who writes in his admirable book Prehistoric India:

Not long ago in Benares an illiterate Hindu priest appeared who dictated a very long religious work in verse, until then unknown and unrecorded, which on internal evidence of style and language belonged at least to the Middle Ages, since when it had been passed on orally through a certain line of priests.

In Ceylon and Burma it is customary for every Buddhist novice to learn the Pali grammar, lexicons and Dhammapada by heart. Of course, most of these works are metrical compositions which makes the memorizing of them quite easy. We rarely come across a Buddhist monk in Ceylon who cannot recite the Dhammapada without making the slightest mistake. In the same way the Vedic and other literature in India were handed down from one generation to the next with the utmost preservation of their purity, until in later times they were recorded and printed in book form. Even geographic barriers and linguistic differences did not cause much distortion. The text of the Rig Veda found in Northern India is quite identical with that of the Dravidian country in the south. This holds also for the Buddhist and Jain scriptures still extant throughout India, Ceylon, and Burma.

I have dwelt on this subject at some length because most of the European critics argue that centuries of passing on orally the ancestral traditions must have resulted in many extraneous interpolations. However, we must keep in mind that priests, monks and compilers even today consider it a great blasphemy to alter anything in the original texts, unless it is agreed upon in a general council. In one such international Buddhist council, held in Burma some years ago for the purpose of ascertaining the pristine purity of the Pali texts of Theravada, some of the elderly monks began to dictate from memory huge volumes of the scripture with their copious commentaries. Some of these works are larger than the Holy Bible. Any European spectator would have marveled at this preternatural feat, but it is a commonplace occurrence in this area of the world. The inborn conviction that any addition or omission, even of a single word or phrase, would bring about sinister results, has at least indirectly contributed to the perfect preservation of the sacred texts.

 (From Sunrise magazine, November 1971; copyright © 1971 Theosophical University Press)

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