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Thread: Oral vs. Written tradition

  1. #1

    Oral vs. Written tradition

    For some time I was wondering about something,
    knowing that many ancient traditions/schools see the spoken word (oral transmission) as superior to the written one. I was wondering if this is the case in the Hindu tradition as well, and though I'm pretty sure it is, I'd be grateful if someone could provide a Vedic or Upanishadic fragment that speaks about the issue.
    Is there such a thing?

  2. #2
    Join Date
    September 2006
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    Re: Oral vs. Written tradition

    hariḥ oṁ

    svāgata (greetings)

    The oral tradition...

    We find this as standard practice for transferring the veda-s from father to son and/or from ācāryaḥ to śiṣyam ( teacher to student) over the ages.

    Even the itihāsāḥ such as the mahābhārata were treated in the same manner. It is vaiśampāyana-ji we recognize as the narrator of the mahābhārata ( this is called out in the adi parvan); he was the śiṣyaḥ of vyāsya-ji. We know of others too that are called out in the adi parvan who have learned the initial 8,800 verses ... this was expanded to 24,000 then 600,000 . Some are known in the world of men and others in the world of the devata. I mention this because nāradaḥ¹ recited this work in the world of the deva-s (so says the mahābhārata);

    The student learns at the vedapathaśala¹ ; some learn at the teacher’s home (gurukulam). From a vedic point-of-view this ~assignment~ lasts 12 years. The '12' is significant, but will leave it for another time.

    When transferring knowledge from ācāryaḥ to śiṣyam more than just the words are offered. The śiṣyaḥ also learns the meter (chandas), speeds (vṛtti), dwelling on syllables (mātrā), etc. etc.

    iti śivaṁ


    • vedapathaśala is the path, course ( patha) where the knowlege (veda) of brahmā (śala) is taught. Note too that śala is a writing instrument ( a quill ).
      • It too can be looked at as ‘śila’ and the ‘gathering or gleening’ of this knowledge
      • There is one more view... that of śala being = to dravaṇa-samartha ; this means the flowing (dravaṇa ) of forceful words (samartha) or words that have a suitable aim. This would be saṃhita ( joined or put side-by-side) pāda ( verses) we find in the veda-s.

    • nāradá - a devarṣi, considered a messenger between the devata-s and men
    • yadeṣāmanyo anyasya vācaṃ śāktasyeva vadati śikṣamāṇaḥ | rig veda 7.103.5 this loosely says, education is hearing and repeating another's speech

    यतस्त्वं शिवसमोऽसि
    yatastvaṁ śivasamo'si
    because you are identical with śiva


  3. #3

    Re: Oral vs. Written tradition

    Thank you for Rig Veda 7.103.5,
    Do you know of anything else, that talks specifically about the the written word?

    Ananda Cooramaswamy in his book brings a quote of Pandit Shyamaji "[We in India believe that] oral instruction is far superior to book-learning in maturing the mind and developing its powers." Unfortunately, neither of them bring an authoritative traditional verse to support their claim. I'm not doubting that it is true, I just wonder if the Hindu teachers (of old) had something to say about it.

    (just as Plato gave us his take on the issue in his Phaedrus: "[writing] will atrophy people’s memories. Trust in writing will make them remember things by relying on marks made by others, from outside themselves, not on their own inner resources, and so writing will make the things they have learnt disappear from their minds.")

  4. #4

    Re: Oral vs. Written tradition

    Namaste Maa,

    I happened to glance this when reading today.

    Lord Matsya assures King Satyavrata that the Absolute Truth can be known from the words of the Vedas:
    madiyam mahimanam ca
    param brahmeti sabditam
    vetsyasy anugrahitam me
    samprasnair vivritam hridi
    "You will be thoroughly advised and favored by Me, and because of your inquiries, everything about My glories, which are known as param brahma, will be manifest within your heart. Thus you will know everything about Me." (Bhag. 8.24.38)
    The fortunate soul who has been graced by the Supreme Lord with divine inquisitiveness will ask questions about the nature of the Absolute, and by hearing the answers given by great sages, which are recorded in the Vedic literatures, he will come to understand the Lord as He is. Thus only by the special mercy of the Supreme Person does Brahman become sabditam, "literally denoted by words." Otherwise, without the Lord's exceptional grace, the words of the Vedas cannot reveal the Absolute Truth.

    It may be hard to find exact quotes on this subject to say which is higher or lower. Recently I read about Narada Munis perfection where he was already learned in many ways but did not attain to the final knowledge of the Self and he met with SanakumAra who was Skanda, some say Skanda is Vishnu while others say Shiva, the important point is that SanakumAra spoke to Narada and he got full vision, realization of the Absolute Self or the vast unending BhUma Vidya . This is recorded in Shastra, we can learn from this, no need to get so complicated on what is better or higher in written and spoken way. Western approach has become dogmatized, even in spiritual and intellectual circles, if this happens the knowledge doesn't liberate it just crystallizes in the mind. I have full faith, or rather Shraddha~ conviction that if Shastra is read and approached in the right way even a few syllables can inspire one into consciousness.

    " In the purity of AhAra, lies the purity of the stuff of being~sattvA. sattvA being pure, the immediate remembrance (smriti) becomes constant and fixed:

    By this remembrance, there is release from all knots
    To such a one the Blessed SanakumAra
    Shows the shore beyond darkness,
    They call Him Skanda, yea, they call him Skanda" ChhAndogya Upanishad (7.26.2)

  5. #5

    Re: Oral vs. Written tradition

    Namaste Maa,

    Brahma-bindu Upanishad
    Words strung together in compilations, serve only to
    protect and hide knowledge, as husk and chaff the grain ; let
    the wise look for the grain and cast away the chaff of words
    when that grain of truth has been found.'

  6. #6
    Join Date
    December 2007
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    Re: Oral vs. Written tradition

    Namaste Maa,

    Quote Originally Posted by maa View Post
    For some time I was wondering about something,
    knowing that many ancient traditions/schools see the spoken word (oral transmission) as superior to the written one. I was wondering if this is the case in the Hindu tradition as well, and though I'm pretty sure it is, I'd be grateful if someone could provide a Vedic or Upanishadic fragment that speaks about the issue.
    Is there such a thing?
    It depends upon who the teacher is and who the disciple is.
    a) The Truth is beyond words and therefore Truth can only be realised and not read or written. Truth spoken or written in words is actually just a pointer to the Truth which we have to attain.
    b) The importance of a good Teacher / Guru cannot be overemphasized. Bhagwad Gita advises to learn the Truth by approaching a Guru respectfully who knows the Truth. So, oral transmission of Truth when imparted by a True Guru is much better than getting it by reading books.
    c) However, if the teacher has not attained the Truth himself i.e. if he is not God realised or Self /realised we must stay away from such Gurus who can distort the meaning of the scriptures to further their own petty worldly gains by confusing the gullible seekers.

    Until you have found a True Guru, stick to written teachings in the Vedas/Upanishads/other scriptures and you are able to find one, you won't need any book.

    "Om Namo Bhagvate Vaasudevaye"

  7. #7

    Re: Oral vs. Written tradition

    Oh these words are brilliant! It is more than I could have asked.

    Thank you all!

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