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
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.