Memory culture

Through sophisticated mnemonics and error-checking mechanisms the Vedas, the canonical religious texts of Hinduism, have been transmitted orally for three and a half thousand years with shocking precision in both word and sound.

William Dwight Whitney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the 600th regular post on this website! My tradition for the “00” posts is to write something about the nature of knowledge. Today, I wanted to write a bit about oral tradition.

 A lot of 20th century scholarship ignored or undervalued the role of non-written forms of knowledge transmission. The written text was king, and everything else – oral tradition, especially – was irrelevant. In many cases this was a convenient way of discounting knowledge from colonised peoples, which is of course nonsense: many of the foundational texts of literature, religion, law, and history have their origin in oral tradition, so we ignore it at our peril. Some other time I’ll write about the Homeric Question (to what extent can we say that Homer wrote The Odyssey and The Illiad?), but this post is about something much much older.

The Vedas are the foundational “texts” of Hinduism. I put “texts” in quotation marks deliberately. They’ve certainly been written down, but the primary and authoritative form of the Vedas is not text. Instead, the oldest parts of the Vedas have been passed down orally, from teacher to student, for an incredible three and a half thousand years. And even more incredibly, they are thought to have changed very little in that time.

How do you ensure that a spoken text doesn’t shift with the retelling? Well, the integrity of the Vedas is sustained through a sophisticated set of processes that are so ingrained in Hindu tradition that it can be described as a “memory culture.” Students spend years memorising the Vedic chant, more than ten thousand separate verses. And they learn it in several different ways – called Pathas – creating a kind of built-in error correction mechanism.

The Vedic chant is learned as Samhita – something like natural connected speech, as one might talk. And it is learned as Pada – each word alone, enunciating and focusing on the words separately. And it is learned as Krama – to enhance memory, the words are recited in pairs, the second word becoming the first of the next pair so that the whole text forms a long chain (“the rain in Spain” would become “the rain, rain in, in Spain”). Here’s an example of that one:

Other pathas shift the text around in interesting ways – reversing the order of words, for example – with the goal of creating as many redundancies in the memorisation process as possible. And it’s not just the ears and the voice that are involved here: teachers and students use their bodies too. The teachers who are teaching the chants will move their hands to indicate the Sanskrit tones used, and the students will tilt their heads in response. It’s all carefully designed to ensure that the Vedas are passed down completely intact, words and sounds and all. Amazing.

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