Memory and Writing: Recording Literature

Who has not heard of their own culture’s sagas and epics? In India we are brought up on stories from a body of literature called the Itihasa, a corpus that includes the well-known Mahabharata and the Ramayana and several Puranas which were all probably composed by bards. These may have originated as the bards’ paeans to their respective kings and embellished further by generations of state-funded poets have now taken a form that is difficult to interpret in a historic sense. The language of the itihasa is believed to be the vernacular of several regions and times (Prakrit(s)) until they were standardized in Classical Sanskrit at different points after 500 BC. The Vedas on the other hand were regarded as sacrosanct and were composed by different schools in what is now referred to as Vedic Sanskrit, considered much more fluid and adaptable than the strict Classical Sanskrit of the grammarian Panini. Vedic Sanskrit itself had a significant period of evolution from the early hymns of the Rig Veda to the Upanishads.

Using a crude analogy, while the Itihasa can be considered today’s equivalent of dinner-table stories usually narrated to entertain a king or an audience; the Vedic corpus of literature was considered the (meta)-physics of the age starting with praises to various Gods and trying to describe physical reality and the nature of the soul. The needs for preservation were therefore different. The Itihasa could be violated in form and substance which is the reason they are nearly useless in historical studies. There are hundreds of versions of every story each localized to the unique needs of the region where the version originated. The Vedas needed to be preserved as is but due to the nature of its content it is also not a powerful tool to understand the people and culture of the age very well. Writing is the best option to preserve a text but it took hold much later in India as the materials (palm leaves?) were not durable and oral tradition dominated almost until printing presses were introduced. Prior to the advent of the Brahmi script in India, both traditions had to be recorded orally.  What one does not realize or takes for granted is the impact of memory on this process.

Imagine I recite a verse several pages in length and it is your responsibility to ensure you can repeat it without error 5 years later! Now imagine that I will not ask you but ask my grandchild to ask your grandchild to recite the same 50 years later! This led to specialized systems simply to preserve a text. The widely criticized rote system of learning in India today can possibly be traced back to the mnemonic devices needed to preserve the ancient texts. A scholar would memorize the text in several different ways and recite them along with his colleagues several times a month. Backward if needed! Maintaining the integrity of several thousand verses across a millennium until it could be written down takes a lot of doing. Today when we listen to Vedic chants we focus on the rhythm and its capacity to reach the divine. We forget why the chanting came into existence. Chanting was one of the many mnemonic devices needed to preserve literature in the absence of writing when the integrity of the text was the ultimate objective. To ensure the devotion of scholars to learn and preserve the texts there are several verses that only focus on the benefits of the chanting and the divine nature of the rhythm and sound. This stupendous achievement of preserving a text was recognized by UNESCO as valued heritage. This is because there are very few known ancient traditions from cultures dating from times prior to when they assimilated writing into their literature. Copious amounts of ancient literature are therefore lost to us simply because memory wasn’t enough and writing wasn’t available!

The sad part is that while the objective of preserving the Vedas in India was achieved, the numbers of those who can could understand and explain the meaning of the verses has dwindled. In fact, even starting in the late 1st millenium BC, Buddhism and Jainism flourished because vedic chants mingled with ritual were incomprehensible to those who were supposed to benefit from it and even for many who conducted it! These newer traditions in turn also couldn’t hold their own partly because writing was still not prevalent. Today much of what is known about Buddhism and its literature comes from sources in Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Japan where the oral traditions persisted till writing took hold. We learn of the Buddhist Councils held in irregular intervals after Buddha’s passing whose sole purpose was to discuss what was canonical and what was not in the absence of writing. Experts with strong memories were worth their weight in gold! However, a thousand schisms duly ensued and after a not so brief flowering, Buddhism was forgotten from memory for a thousand years in India!

Students of the future who study the modern era will have other problems though. The problems have moved on from preservation to interpretation. There are now several written versions of any event driven by the biases and the memories of the individual writer! Memory even when retrieved and written down within a few hours is a fickle thing.