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The Art of Writing in Ancient India

The Art of Writing in Ancient India

The assumption that the ancient Hindus could not read or write probably 
springs from the fact that no writing material was excavated on Indian 
soil. That pictographs await excavation in India does not undermine the 
importance of literary evidence to the existence of writing skills of the 
Vedic folks. Also, it is suggested that no script was developed in 
RgVedic India since the verb "likha-to write" is not mentioned in the Vedas.

RgVed is acclaimed as the oldest extant literature available to humans. 
It is definitely older than the Ramayan (atleast 5500 B.C) and some 
internal evidence takes it as far as 23000 B.C. There are a number of 
references in the RgVed which allude to the art of writing. That the 
seers wanted to "inscribe, engrave" words (on some material) itself 
points that they knew how to write. One more verse (RgVed 1-164-39) 
states," In the letters (akshara) of the verses of the Veda...". If the 
RgVedic folks could not read or write, what then was the necessity to 
develop and refering to "akshara - letters; non-withering, permanent"? Also, 
there are a number of compositional chandas (metres), lines in a metre 
and specific number of words in a line available from the RgVedic text. 
It will take a tremendous amount of mental effort to compose and to 
commit to memory the vast amount of lines with all the intricacies 
involved. Unless these are reduced to writing and given a specific 
concrete shape, it would not facilitate oral transmission. Yet another 
verse (RgV 10-62-7) mentions cows being "marked" by an "8-eight" which 
again shows that the ancients possessed the art of writing. Also, RgVed 
10-71-4 refers to a language which can be "seen"; that is a script. If 
there was no script, preferably the verb "to pronounce" rather than "to 
inscribe/write" would have been utilized. However, such a distinction has 
been made obviously because a written form of language existed during 
that time.

Even during the Mahabharat era the art of writing was prevelant. The verb 
"lekhi (writing)" in all its forms (lekhako, lekhani, etc.) appears 
numerous times in the Mahabharat text (Aadi 1.77/78). On the arrows were 
inscribed the names of specific persons to whom they belonged. 
Distinction has been made between "to write" and "to read" (Harivansha 
.50)  indicating "what was written was being read". How could a text with 
a monumental 100,000 verses could be composed, preserved and transmitted 
through memory alone? This incredible feat may have been performed by a 
few, but that does not suggest that the art of writing was not developed. 
The Atharvasheersha (from the Upanishads) symbolizes Shree Ganesh as an 
"omkar", a combination of "g-aakar, m-aakar". How can there be an "aakar 
- shape" to a syllable only transmitted orally? The "omkar" is mentioned 
in the Mahabharat text as well indicating that the art of writing was 
prevalent during the Mahabharat times, that is around 3100 B.C., as a 
continuing tradition since remote antiquity. 

The Mahabharat text (3100 B.C) contains quotes of Rishi Vasistha of the 
Ramayanic Era (alteast 5500 B.C) on the meaning of the "granth(a)" 
(manuscript), its value and other literary attributes. Discussions on 
skills required to writing and evaluating a "granth(a)" were already in 
vogue during the Ramayanic era. How is this possible if "writing" was not 
known in that era? The Yujurvedic Taittiriya Samhita and also the 
Atharvaveda utilize the word "likha (to write)", although not as ancient 
as the RgVed, atleast are of the Ramayanic era. The art of writing was 
known by ancient Vedic peoples since remote times.

Inspite of the evidence presented above, it has been continually stressed 
that the ancients passed on their knowledge through oral tradition alone 
and no art of writing was available -- the earlier part ofcourse is 
probably true. On the deliberate stress given to oral transmission, R.N. 
Dandekar remarks, "There is, indeed, considerable circumstantial and 
inferential character which enables us to perceive the existence of 
writing even in the very early periods of Indian cultural history ... It 
is true that the Veda has been handed dowm from generation to generation 
through oral tradition. It must not, however, be supposed that on that 
account, as is often erroneously done, that the art of writing was 
unknown in the early Vedic age. The practice of oral transmission of Veda 
was adopted, not because written copies of these texts were not 
available, but presumably because it was believed that oral transmission 
alone was more conducive to the preservation of the magicoreligious 
potency and the formal protection of those arts. On the contrary, it may, 
indeed, be argued that it is almost unimginable that such an extensive 
and highly complex literature such as the Veda and its ancilliary texts 
dealing with subjects like phonetics, prosody and astronomy, much of 
which, again ,is in prose form, was produced and propagated without the 
knowledge of writing." How correctly stated!

Vedvyasa simply organized the Ved(a) into 4 categories -- not necessarily 
putting them on paper for the first time. The Ved(a) have been handed 
down, as R.N. Dandekar observes, through oral tradition as well in a 
written form since hoary antiquity.

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