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1 Svādhyāya: An Ancient Way of Using the Veda

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6 d.h.killingley@ncl.ac.uk

7 ABSTRACT: Svādhyāya in Vedic ritual is the recitation of previously memorized

8 texts, outside the context of yajña, but constituting in itself a ritual which
9 bestows merit on the practitioner. It is described in the Brāhmaṇas, in Manu and
10 elsewhere, in terms which present it as a virtual performance of yajña. The claim
11 that the merit gained by svādhyāya equals or even surpasses that gained by yajña
12 is analogous to claims made for temple worship or for Vedāntic knowledge of
13 brahman.
14 Svādhyāya, by separating the recitation of texts from the context of yajña
15 which is the primary purpose of the Veda, ensured the survival of the Veda when
16 yajña became rare or obsolete. This decontextualization helps to explain how the
17 Veda could be transmitted orally and yet remain a stable text, despite the
18 general view that oral texts are by nature fluid.

19 KEYWORDS: literacy; oral literature; ritual; svādhyāya; Veda; yajña.


21 The Sanskrit term svādhyāya, literally meaning ‘self-study’, refers to the

22 recitation of texts. It has several applications; it is listed, for instance, as the
23 fifth of the six niyamas of classical yoga (YS 2.32). There, it is said to unite a
24 person with their chosen deity (svādhyāyād iṣṭa-devatā-saṃprayogaḥ. YS 2.44).
25 Accordingly, svādhyāya is inculcated as a discipline by several modern yoga
26 movements. However, the term also refers to a distinctive way of using the
27 Veda which is discussed at some length in the Brāhmaṇas, and more briefly
28 in the dharmaśāstras; this is the subject of the present article. As the term
29 implies, svādhyāya is performed by the reciter alone, without any other
30 performer or listener; he (since the reciter is assumed in the prescriptive
31 texts to be male) recites them ‘to himself’ (sva-), and accordingly such
32 recitation is regularly referred to by the ātmanepada (reflexive) verb form
33 adhīte ‘studies [for himself]’ (Renou 1960: 37 n. 4). As a solitary activity, it is
34 distinct from the use of these texts in the śrauta rituals which involve a team
35 of officiants. It is also distinct from the transmission of the texts from
36 teacher to pupil. This process of oral transmission continued after the


1 introduction of writing, and continues still, despite the further innovations
2 of printing, sound recording, broadcasting and the Internet. Svādhyāya, in
3 the sense discussed here, refers primarily to the recitation of Vedic texts;
4 but we shall see that, even in Vedic contexts, it can also include other texts.
5 Svādhyāya is also distinct from the practice of japa, which is the soft
6 muttering of mantras. There is a passage in the Mokṣadharma on japa (MBh
7 12.189-93),2 and it is mentioned elsewhere in the MBh (notably in BhG
8 10.25c), in the Rāmāyaṇa, and in Manu. In Manu, the distinction between japa
9 and svādhyāya is sometimes obscured (e.g. Manu 3.74, cited below). However,
10 while both take place outside the context of śrauta ritual and outside that of
11 transmission, japa is often the recitation of a particular mantra in particular
12 circumstances, such as an expiation (Manu 2.79, 2.181, 2.220-22, 11.78, 11.133,
13 11.143, 11.195, 11.226, 11.253-57), whereas svādhyāya may involve the
14 reciter’s entire repertory, and is not called for by a particular occasion; it is
15 autonomous.
16 We will look first at the prescriptions for svādhyāya in Manu, and in the
17 Vedic texts on which Manu draws, and the motives given for performing it.
18 Later, we will consider the implications of svādhyāya for our understanding
19 of how Vedic texts were and are transmitted, in the light of theories of oral
20 literature.


22 The first mention of svādhyāya in Manu occurs as a digression in the second

23 chapter, which is mainly concerned with the transmission of the Veda and
24 the ritual procedures which protect it, including brahmacarya, the celibate
25 way of life required of the Vedic student. Many of these appear in earlier
26 texts, the Brāhmaṇas and Dharmasūtras. Since the process of transmission is
27 relevant to our discussion, we can consider it before moving on to the topic
28 of svādhyāya itself, using Manu as a convenient source while remembering
29 that much of it is based on the older texts.
30 Before a session of transmission, Manu tells us, the pupil sips water, and
31 clasps the teacher’s feet, with crossed hands, right hand to right foot and
32 left to left, before and after each session. (It seems that the teacher is not
33 sitting cross-legged.) The knowledge must only be imparted to a suitable
34 person (Manu 2.109-15), and a man who overhears the Veda and learns it
35 without permission, will go to hell for stealing it (Manu 2.116). Manu 2.164-
36 247 give further rules for the way of life of the Vedic student, including
37 abstention from various luxuries and from contact with women (it usually
38 goes without saying that the student is male). The student has to be

2. I am grateful to John Brockington for this reference, and for discussing the differences
between japa and svādhyāya.
1 saṃskṛtātman: prepared or consecrated for the process of study. Veda-study
2 itself is described as a form of tapas (ascetic practice): brahmādhigamikaṃ
3 tapaḥ ‘ascetic toil consisting of vedic study’ (Manu 2. 164; trans. Olivelle 2005:
4 103, cf. pp. 251–55.).
5 The process of transmission, involving both teacher and student, is
6 distinct from svādhyāya, which is by definition solitary. Manu does mention
7 svādhyāya in the course of this chapter, but this seems to be a digression. He
8 says:
9 A twice-born man who studies his svādhyāya daily according to his ability is
10 practising extreme tapas right to the tips of his nails—even if he is wearing a
11 garland. (ā haiva sa nakhāgrebhyaḥ paramaṃ tapyate tapaḥ / yaḥ sragvy api dvijo
12 ’dhīte svādhyāyaṃ śaktito ’nvaham //)
13 (Manu 2.167)
14 A garland is an emblem of luxury, and thus incompatible with tapas. Thus
15 the tapas referred to is not asceticism as commonly understood, but a
16 paradoxical kind of tapas which can be performed without the usual
17 austerities, and even in luxury; we can call it virtual tapas, to distinguish it
18 from the usual kind. Manu is echoing the ŚB, which makes the point about
19 luxury at greater length:
20 Indeed, if he performs svādhyāya even while anointed, adorned and satisfied,
21 lying on a comfortable bed, he is performing tapas right to the tips of his nails, if
22 he performs svādhyāya knowing this. Therefore svādhyāya should be performed.
23 (yádi ha vā́ ápy abhyàktaḥ / álaṃkṛtaḥ súhitaḥ sukhé śáyane śáyānaḥ svādhyāyám
24 adhītá ’ā́ haivá sá nakhāgrébhyas tapyate yá eváṃ vidvānt svādhyāyám adhīté tásmāt
25 svādhyāyò ’dhyetávyaḥ //)
26 (ŚB
27 We will look at this passage later. Returning to Manu’s account of svādhyāya
28 as virtual tapas, we should note that garlands are expressly forbidden to
29 students of the Veda, together with other luxuries (Manu 2.177). There is no
30 contradiction, since the prohibition of garlands occurs in the context of
31 learning the Veda from a teacher, while the permission of a garland is part
32 of a digression into the topic of svādhyāya. The performer of svādhyāya is
33 alone, not in the presence of a teacher or a pupil; and, unlike the Vedic
34 student (brahmacārin), he is typically a householder, and therefore entitled
35 to luxuries.


37 David Carpenter points out, in a paper on the notion of a canon of the Veda:
38 ‘The “threefold knowledge”…is defined, at ŚB, for instance, not as a
39 set of three texts, but as three types of mantras’ (Carpenter 1993: 23). ‘We
1 have to do not with canonical texts, but with canonical speech, and with the
2 authority of the speakers, both of which are to be defined more by
3 correctness of form—both linguistic and social—than by limitation in
4 content’ (Carpenter 1993: 30).
5 The canonicity of Vedic speech, and the authority of its speakers, are
6 partly defined by svādhyāya. Though ritual is the context for which the
7 Vedic texts were compiled, and on which they depend for their meaning, in
8 svādhyāya they are recited away from this context. Consequently, whereas in
9 śrauta ritual the mantras are recited in the order required by the sūtras
10 governing whatever ritual is being performed, in svādhyāya they are recited
11 in the order in which we now find them in printed editions. This does not
12 mean the reciters are following the editions, or even the manuscript
13 predecessors of such editions; on the contrary, the text presented in the
14 editions is derived from the practice of the reciters. In the absence of
15 writing, svādhyāya means the solitary recitation of a text that has already
16 been memorized; this recitation serves to reinforce or renew the
17 memorization, as well as demonstrating that it has been achieved. Like the
18 process of transmission, which is bound by ritual rules such as those in
19 Manu, svādhyāya is itself a ritual, with its own rules and rewards, which are
20 described in Vedic texts.
21 A passage in one such text, the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, was studied
22 extensively by Malamoud (1977), and will be referred to below. Another is ŚB
23 11.5.7, which I have already quoted from since it was echoed by Manu. It
24 begins by announcing its topic:
25 The next topic is the praise of svādhyāya. (áthā́taḥ svādhyāya-praśaṃsā́ /)
26 (ŚB
27 It then recounts the physical and other benefits accruing from the practice;
28 these include increase of wisdom (prajñā-vṛddhi), which in turn confers four
29 properties (dharma) on the brahmin: brahminhood (brāhmaṇya), appropriate
30 behaviour (pratirūpa-caryā), fame (yaśas) and social status (loka-pakti).3 This
31 praise of the benefits of svādhyāya is akin to the phala-śrutis, statements of
32 the benefits of reciting a particular text, which are often included in the text
33 to which they refer (e.g. Kaṭha Upaniṣad 3.17; BhG 18.70).
34 The practice of svādhyāya, therefore, is intimately connected to the
35 peculiar properties and status of the brahmin. Like other statements of the

3. Literally, loka-pakti means ‘ripening of the world’ or ‘ripening of the people’; perhaps it
refers to the development in others of proper behaviour towards the reciter. ‘Social
status’ is a free and conjectural translation, suggested by what the text says next: that the
people, while being thus ripened, serve the brahmin in four ways: with worship, gifts,
immunity from oppression, and immunity from being killed. It has been suggested to me
that loka-pakti could be understood differently, perhaps as ‘development [of the reciter] in
the world’. However, the phrase lokáḥ pácyamānaḥ ‘the world [or “people”] being ripened’
which follows soon afterwards indicates that development ‘of the world’ is meant.
1 Brāhmaṇas about svādhyāya, this is echoed by Manu:
2 By svādhyāya, by vows, by offerings in the household fire (homa), by knowledge of
3 the three Vedas, by offerings, by sons, by the mahāyajñas and by sacrifices, the
4 body is made brahmanic. (svādhyāyena vratair homais traividyenejyayā sutaiḥ /
5 mahāyajñaiś ca yajñaiś ca brāhmīyaṃ kriyate tanuḥ //)
6 (Manu 2.28)
7 Later, Manu tells us that without svādhyāya,4 one would be a brahmin in
8 name only, like a wooden elephant or a leather deer (Manu 2.157). A term
9 used elsewhere for such a person is brahma-bandhu, ‘relative of brahmins’:
10 someone who is of brahmin family, but who has failed to learn the Veda
11 (ChU 6.1.1). Thus the creative power of speech is manifested not only
12 macrocosmically in the creation of the world, but also microcosmically in
13 the making of the brahmin. The parallel with the macrocosm becomes
14 explicit near the end of the passage: for the brahmin to omit his svādhyāya
15 for a day would be like the waters, sun, moon and stars failing to move for a
16 day (ŚB; Malamoud 1977: 23). In keeping with the function of
17 svādhyāya as marking or even making the true brahmin, it is described as the
18 highest possible achievement—with the proviso, familiar in the Brāhmaṇas,
19 that it is performed with true knowledge:
20 Whatever labours there are here between heaven and earth, svādhyāya is their
21 summit and goal, whoever studies his svādhyāya knowing this. (yé ha vái ké ca
22 śrámāḥ / imé dhyā́vā-pṛthivī´’ántareṇa svādhyāyó haivá téṣāṃ paramátā kā́ṣṭhā
23 yá eváṃ vidvā́nt svādhyāyám adhīte)
24 (ŚB
25 The passage continues by specifying the rewards of svādhyāya in terms of
26 ritual:
27 Whatever part of the chandas he studies as his self-study, with that same part an
28 offering, with sacrificial ritual, is made for him who studies his svādhyāya
29 knowing this. (yád yad ha vā́ ’yáṃ chándasaḥ / svādhyāyám adhīte téna-tena haivā́sya
30 yajñakratúneṣṭáṃ bhavati yá eváṃ vidvā́nt svādhyāyám adhīte)
31 (ŚB
32 Svādhyāya is thus a virtual performance of Vedic ritual, through which its
33 benefits are gained without the need for an actual performance. As we shall
34 see, svādhyāya satisfies the gods with virtual offerings which are listed in
35 some detail. (The word chandas can mean ‘metre’, but when it refers to a
36 type of text it does not always refer to metrical texts: here it includes the
37 yajuṣes, which are mostly in prose. In this context, what distinguishes
38 chandas from other texts is that it is used in ritual.)
39 This passage on svādhyāya is immediately preceded by one on the five

4. The word used is an-adhīyānaḥ ‘not studying [for oneself]’, using the present participle of
the ātmanepada verb adhīte which is regularly used with reference to svādhyāya.
1 mahāyajñas—which are also mentioned by Manu (2.28, 3.67, 4.21). Just as the
2 virtual tapas which is svādhyāya is not tapas in the sense of ascetic practice
3 (p. 000 above [[p. 3]] <x-ref>), these are not ‘great sacrifices’ as commonly
4 understood, like a soma sacrifice or a horse sacrifice—extraordinary events
5 which can only be put on by a wealthy patron (yajamāna) with the co-
6 operation of a team of specialists. On the contrary, the five practices called
7 mahāyajnas are to be performed daily (ŚB, and they do not require
8 extraordinary material resources. They are listed in ŚB as the
9 sacrifice to beings (bhūta), to humans (manuṣya), to the ancestors, to gods
10 and to brahman.5 They are then described more specifically, in a way that
11 can be tabulated as follows:
to beings to humans to ancestors to gods to brahman
bali as far as the saying svadhā saying svāhā svādhyāya
cup of water as far as the as far as the
cup of water firewood
13 (áhar ahar bhūtébhyo balíṃ haret / táthaitáṃ bhūtayajñáṃ sámāpnoty áhar ahar
14 dadyād òdapātrā́t táthaitáṃ manuṣyayajñáṃ sámāpnoty áhar ahaḥ svadhā́kuryād
15 òdapātrā́t táthaitáṃ pitṛyajñáṃ sámāpnoty áhar ahaḥ svā́hākuryād ā́ kāṣṭhāt táthaitáṃ
16 devayajñáṃ sámāpnoti // átha brahmayajñáḥ / svādhyāyó vái brahmayajñás…)
17 (ŚB
18 Since the main subject of this passage is svādhyāya, the other mahāyajñas are
19 only described summarily. The one to beings, bali, according to Manu 3.87-92,
20 consists of offerings made around the house to various deities, to dogs,
21 crows and worms—and no doubt other scavenging animals—and to people
22 excluded from society. The detail mentioned as the last item in the second,
23 third and fourth columns represents the concluding part of the action,
24 without which it would not be complete.
25 We might not think of all these actions as sacrifices, or as great; indeed,
26 they might not readily have been thought of as yajñas in Vedic times either,
27 for the word is used here in a special sense. These are five virtual yajñas, not
28 actual ones. The ŚB says they are not only great yajñas but also great sattras
29 (páñcaivá mahāyajñā́ḥ / tā́ny evá mahāsattrā́ṇi (ŚB A sattra is a
30 sacrifice prolonged beyond 12 days, in which the priests themselves are the
31 yajamānas: that is, the benefits of the sacrifice accrue to them, not to a
32 patron as in other yajñas. It is doubly appropriate to call svādhyāya a sattra,

5. The word brahman has many meanings, but here it is closely associated with the Veda, if
not identified with it. I translate brahmayajña as ‘sacrifice to brahman’ to reflect the
parallelism with the other yajñas in the set. However, it could also be understood as a
yajña in which brahman (in the sense of the Veda) is the offering (Manu 2.106, p. 000 below
[[p. 11]]), or even as leading to brahman as a goal beyond death (ŚB, p. 000 below
[[p. 11]]; cf. Manu 2.82 with Olivelle 2005: 249). <x-refs>
1 because it continues for an indefinite period from the time the performer
2 learns the Veda, and because its virtual offerings increase his own merit, not
3 that of a patron.
4 The same five mahāyajñas are listed, in a different order, in the TĀ:
to gods to ancestors to beings to men to brahman
offering in fire— svadhā— bali food svādhyāya—
even firewood even water for brahmins even one ṛc, yajuṣ or sāman
(TĀ 2.10.1-6)
7 Again, svādhyāya is called the sacrifice to brahman. Whereas the ŚB account
8 insists on the need to complete each act, the TĀ specifies the minimum
9 which makes the act valid (Malamoud 1977: 12 n. 1), which in the case of
10 svādhyāya can be just one mantra.
11 Manu also lists these mahāyajñas, but places them in a different order,
12 perhaps to fit his metre, and specifies teaching (adhyāpana, literally ‘causing
13 to study’), not svādhyāya, as the sacrifice to brahman (in Manu 3.74 it is
14 specified as japa ‘muttering’). We shall follow the order given in the ŚB,
15 indicating Manu’s order in brackets:
to beings (4) to men (5) to ancestors (2) to gods (3) to brahman (1)
bali hospitality water libation homa teaching
(Manu 3.70)
18 The five mahāyajñas are listed again in Manu 4.21, in a different order, with
19 the ṛṣis instead of brahman, and without specifying the acts which constitute
20 each. The list is an old one, as we have seen, and it appears also in the
21 dharmasūtras.6
22 In the ŚB passage, the first four of these five mahāyajñas are dealt with
23 only briefly, as its main topic is the one to brahman (brahma-yajña): that is,
24 svādhyāya. In a typical device for praising what is literally an everyday
25 practice, it is compared with the elaborate śrauta rituals described elsewhere
26 in the Brāhmaṇas: by practising it ‘knowing this’—that is, with knowledge of
27 its greatness as described in the Brāhmaṇa—one gains an imperishable
28 world, even greater than what one would gain by giving away the whole
29 world, or even three times as much, in a śrauta ritual (ŚB This
30 Brāhmaṇa (using the word in the sense of an individual passage, in this case
31 ŚB 11.5.6) seems to have existed at some stage independently of ŚB 11.5.7,

6. Āpastambha Dharmasūtra 1.12.15–1.13.1; Gautama Dharmasūtra 5.3.9; Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra

2.5.11, 2.11.1-6; Viṣṇu Dharmasūtra 59.21-25; Yājñavalkya Smṛti 1.102 (references in Bühler 1886:
87n.). The order varies in different sources, but the general tendencies are to put brahman or
the gods first, or brahman last, and to put the beings next before humans (cf. Malamoud 1977:
1 whose opening words áthā́taḥ svādhyāya-praśaṃsā́, ‘The next topic is the
2 praise of svādhyāya’, imply that the topic has not been introduced already.
3 There are also some inconsistencies between ŚB 11.5.6 and ŚB 11.5.7, as we
4 shall see. Both passages teach that svādhyāya satisfies the gods with virtual
5 offerings, and confers benefits on the performer which are similar to those
6 conferred by the sacrifice, or indeed greater. The main differences are the
7 inclusion or exclusion of the Atharva-Veda, and the kind of food associated
8 with each class of text. The two passages must have been developed
9 separately and later brought together.
10 One feature which is common to these two ŚB passages, and the TĀ one
11 studied by Malamoud, is the list of offerings of food—what I have called
12 virtual offerings—which are made to the gods by reciting the different types
13 of text, provided the reciter is ‘one who knows this’. In return, the gods give
14 the reciter every desire and every enjoyment (ŚB Each text lists the
15 virtual offerings and the texts which procure them; the lists are similar in
16 much of their content, but differ in details. The types of text mentioned are
17 the three types of Vedic mantras which we usually know as the Ṛg-Veda,
18 Yajur-Veda and Sāma-Veda; the Atharva-Veda; and the non-Vedic texts known
19 as itihāsa-purāṇa (‘histories and antiquities’). The listings may be tabulated as
20 follows:
ṛc yajuṣ sāman ātharvāṅgiras itihāsa-purāṇa
ŚB milk ghee soma fat (medas) honey
ŚB honey amṛta ghee [omitted] rice with milk, rice with meat
TĀ 2.10.8, 2.9.2 milk ghee soma honey fat (medas)
23 The term ātharvāṅgiras refers to the fourth group of texts, the Atharva-Veda.
24 This is regularly referred to by the names of the two classes of practitioners
25 who recite it, the Atharvans and Aṅgirases, not by the name of a type of
26 utterance as in the three other Vedas. Being a relatively late addition to the
27 Vedic canon (if canon it can be called), it is omitted from the second ŚB
28 passage.
29 On the other hand, all three passages include in svādhyāya what is later
30 called the fifth Veda. For convenience, we use the term itihāsa-purāṇa in the
31 above table; but it is evidently a miscellaneous category, for which different
32 texts use different terms. In ŚB 11.5.6 it is referred to by a list: anuśāsana,
33 vidyā, vākovākya, itihāsa-purāṇa, narāśaṃsī and gāthā (instructions, knowledge,
34 dialogue, histories and antiquities, eulogies and songs). In ŚB it is
35 called vākovākya ‘dialogue’; and again in ŚB it is called vākovākyàm
36 itihāsa-purāṇám íti ‘dialogue—that is, histories and antiquities’. 8 In TĀ 2.10 it

7. Perhaps the same as soma (Gonda 1965: 61–70).

8. The same term is mentioned as a way of performing a brahmodya (riddle on brahman) in ŚB (átha vākovākyè brahmódyaṃ vadanti ‘They speak a riddle in [the form of] dialogue’). The
1 is different again: brāhmaṇa, itihāsa, purāṇa, kalpa, gāthā, narāśaṃsī
2 (Brāhmaṇas, histories, antiquities, ritual, songs, eulogies) (Malamoud 1977:
3 107, 125). Despite the variety of terms, it is clear that svādhyāya in these
4 passages does not refer to recitation of the Veda only; it includes the
5 recitation of what Gonda (1975: 409) calls ‘marginal knowledge’, which was
6 not part of the ‘Veda proper’. Brāhmaṇas, elsewhere counted as part of the
7 Veda, are here listed among these marginal texts (cf. ŚB, cited in n. 7).
8 They could hardly be the corpus we now know as the Brāhmaṇas, but they
9 are probably something of the same kind: a collection of reflections on the
10 proper performance of Vedic ritual, with reference to its meaning and
11 rewards.
12 These terms, itihāsa-purāṇa and so on, refer to genres of texts—rather
13 than collections with fixed content—which were cultivated outside the
14 ritual context, though they are sometimes used in particular ritual
15 situations, and fragments of them were accordingly incorporated in the
16 Brāhmaṇas (Gonda 1975: 405). In a list of texts which is repeated four times in
17 the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, we find not only the Atharva-Veda included as a
18 fourth beside the three Vedas, but a fifth, though neither the fifth nor the
19 fourth is explicitly called a Veda:
20 Sir, I study the Ṛg-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sāma-Veda, the Atharva fourth,
21 histories and antiquities fifth, the Veda of Vedas, ancestral knowledge, [etc.].
22 (ṛgvedaṃ bhagavo ’dhyemi yajurvedaṁ sāmavedaṃ caturtham itihāsapurāṇaṃ
23 pañcamaṃ vedānāṃ vedaṃ pitryaṁ…).
24 (ChU 7.1.2; cf. 7.1.4, 7.2.1, 7.7.1).9
25 We cannot say what exactly is meant by itihāsa-purāṇa here, or in ŚB
26 (cited above); but later, the term ‘fifth Veda’ is regularly associated with the
27 Mahābhārata, the Purāṇas, or both.10 Its inclusion shows that whatever the
28 texts referred to may be, svādhyāya could cover far more than the four
29 saṃhitās.

same kaṇḍikā goes on to identify vākovākya with brāhmaṇa. These terms evidently do not refer
to definite bodies of texts, but rather to genres (cf. Gonda 1975: 408–409), which may overlap.
9. The list continues with 11 other bodies of knowledge, or perhaps genres (see previous note);
some are of uncertain identity. Pitrya (‘ancestral’) probably refers to the rituals for the dead,
which are often treated separately from other rituals, having different functionaries and
different books of instruction. Even as early as the Vedic sūtras, some schools have separate
pitṛ-medha-sūtras ‘rules for ancestral offerings’ (Gonda 1977: 469).
10. Śaṅkara in his commentary on BU 2.4.10, where the phrase itihāsa-purāṇa occurs without
indicating that it is part of the Veda, explains the term as referring to narrative passages
within the Veda, not to non-śruti literature. Itihāsa, he says, refers to Brāhmaṇa passages such
as the dialogue of Purūravas and Urvaśī (ŚB 11.5.1, incorporating verses from ṚV 10.95); purāṇa
refers to texts such as ṚV 10.129 (that is, to cosmogonic texts?). He seems here to be reluctant
to refer to non-Vedic literature in a context which deals with authoritative texts. However, in
his commentary on ChU 7.1.2, he accepts the view that itihāsa-purāṇa refers to the Bhārata, and
explicitly states that it is to be understood as the fifth Veda.
1 This marginal knowledge is even credited with similar powers to those of
2 the ṛces, sāmans and yajuṣes. In ŚB, we are told that if the reciter
3 studies ‘dialogue’ (vākovākya), the gods receive rice boiled with milk (kṣī
4 raudana) and rice boiled with meat (māṃsaudana). This statement is later
5 repeated, with the explanation already mentioned that vākovākya means
6 itihāsa-purāṇám íti ‘histories and antiquities’ (ŚB Appropriately, the
7 virtual offerings with which such recitation feeds the gods are less rich than
8 the honey, ghee and amṛta procured by the three Vedas.


10 These ideas about svādhyāya are reflected in a passage in Manu which refers
11 to svādhyāya (the word occurs in Manu 2.105, 107), calling it also naityako
12 vidhiḥ ‘the perpetual rule’:
13 He should go to the forest, near water, controlled, concentrated, and recite even
14 the Sāvitrī, following the perpetual rule. (apāṃ samīpe niyato naityakaṃ vidhim
15 āsthitaḥ / sāvitrīm apy adhīyīta gatvāraṇyaṃ samāhitaḥ //)
16 (Manu 2.104)
17 ‘Even the Sāvitrī’ means ‘even if it is only the Sāvitrī’; Manu regards the Sāvitrī
18 or Gāyatrī mantra (ṚV 3.62.10), recited as a daily duty by the twice-born
19 (Manu 2.78-82), as a minimum for svādhyāya (the term in Manu 2.78 is jap
20 ‘mutter’, but in 2.82 as well as in 2.104 it is adhīte, a term associated with
21 svādhyāya (Renou 1960: 37 n. 4)). The TĀ, as we have seen, is less specific: in
22 the practice of svādhyāya, the sacrifice to brahman is completed even by one
23 ṛc, yajuṣ or sāman (yát svādhyāyám ádhīyītáikam ápy ṛ c aṃ yájuḥ sā́ma vā tád
24 brahmayajñáḥ saṃtiṣṭhate (TĀ 2.10.6)).
25 Manu next explains why he describes svādhyāya as perpetual:
26 For in the case of the supplements to the Veda, perpetual svādhyāya, and the
27 mantras for homa, recitation does not cease on the occasions for suspension.
28 (vedopakaraṇe caiva svādhyāye caiva naityake / nānurodho ’sty anadhyāye
29 homamantreṣu caiva hi //)
30 (Manu 2.105)
31 The occasions for suspension of Veda recitation (anādhyāya) referred to here
32 are listed in Manu 4.105-27; they include noisy disturbances such as wind,
33 thunder and earthquakes, various states of personal pollution, and the
34 presence of śūdras and some animals. The concluding verse, however,
35 implies that these occasions do not apply to svādhyāya, which is only
36 prevented by impurity of the place or of the reciter’s person (Manu 4. 127).11

11. I follow Olivelle (2005: 130, 273) in interpreting this puzzling verse. Bühler (1886: 149)
takes it as summarizing all the occasions for suspension listed in Manu 4.105-26. In favour
1 The verse quoted above says they are inapplicable not only to svādhyāya but
2 to the sciences supplementary to the Veda (vedopakaraṇa ‘auxiliaries of the
3 Veda’, also called vedāṅga ‘limbs of the Veda’), and to the mantras recited at
4 daily offerings in the household fire (homa, also called havana). Here again,
5 Manu is following the older texts on svādhyāya:
6 He who, knowing thus, performs svādhyāya while a cloud rains, while it lightens,
7 while it thunders, while it rumbles (avasphūrjati), while the wind blows, or at the
8 new moon, is thereby performing tapas, for svādhyāya is tapas. (yá eváṃ vidvā́n
9 meghé varṣáti vidyótamāne stanáyaty avasphū́rjati pávamāne vāy ā́v amāvāsyā̀yāṃ
10 svādhyāyám ádhīte tápa eva tát tapyate tápo hi svādhyāyá iti)
11 (TĀ 2.14.2; Malamoud 1977: 127)
12 While the TĀ invokes the concept of tapas to emphasize the efficacy of
13 svādhyāya and its independence of phenomena that would interrupt other
14 forms of Veda recitation, the ŚB makes the same point by invoking another
15 ritual concept, the word vaṣaṭ. This word, like oṃ, svāhā and other ritual
16 words, has no place outside the ritual situation. Nor has it any grammatical
17 inflection, or any syntactical relation to other words. Leaving aside passages
18 such as this, in which it is quoted as something spoken in another context, it
19 occurs only as a complete utterance in itself, whose meaning can only
20 defined by referring to the context of situation in which it is spoken.12 It is
21 spoken by the hotṛ at certain points in the sacrifice, and acts as a signal to
22 the adhvaryu when the offering is to be poured into the fire. Since svādhyāya
23 takes place outside this context, there is no place in it for anyone actually to
24 say vaṣaṭ. However, according to the Brāhmaṇa:
25 This sacrifice to brahman has four utterances of vaṣaṭ: when the wind blows,
26 when there is lightning, when it thunders and when it rumbles [Eggeling (1900:
27 99 n. 2) suggests this means distant thunder, or the rattle of hail]. Therefore one
28 who knows this, when the wind blows, when there is lightning, when it thunders
29 or when it rumbles, should just recite, so as not to ruin the vaṣaṭs; indeed, he
30 frees himself beyond re-death, he becomes identical with brahman. (tásya vā́
31 ’etásya brahmayajñásya / catvā́ro vaṣaṭkārā́ yád vā́to vā́ti yád vidyótate yat stanáyati yád
32 avasphū́rjati tásmād evaṃvíd vā́te vātí vidyótamāne stanáyaty avasphū́rjati ádhītaivá
33 vaṣaṭ[k]ārā́ṇām áchambaṭkārāyā́ti ha vái punarmṛtyúṃ mucyate gácchati bráhmaṇaḥ
34 sātmátāṃ)
35 (ŚB
36 Thus, if the reciter happens to hear one of these noises, he does not stop

of Olivelle’s interpretation is the fact that many of those occasions are not examples of
pollution; in favour of Bühler’s is the use of adhīyīta (Manu 4.112, 116, 120, 123), the
optative of the ātmanepada verb adhīte which often refers to svādhyāya.
12. In being definable only in terms of context of situation, these ritual words are analogous
to the phrase ‘Say when!’ (spoken when pouring a drink), the example used by J. R. Firth
in the classic passage in which he introduces the concept of context of situation. ‘What do
the words “mean”? They mean what they do’ (Firth 1966: 110).
1 reciting; it is only the virtual hotṛ saying his virtual vaṣaṭ. Linguistically,
2 vaṣaṭ has something in common with a noise, since it has no place in
3 ordinary language and is unrelated syntactically to its verbal context.
4 The ŚB’s characterization of svādhyāya as a sattra (ŚB, quoted
5 above, p. 000 [[p. 6]] <x-ref>) is taken up by Manu, together with the topic of
6 vaṣaṭ:
7 There is no suspension in the case of perpetual recitation, for it is called a
8 meritorious brahma-sattra, in which brahman [i.e. the Veda (Bühler 1886: 49)] is
9 the offering, and an occasion for suspension functions as the ritual word vaṣaṭ.
10 For someone who studies svādhyāya for a year in accordance with the rule,
11 controlled and pure, it will flow for him with milk, curd, ghee and honey.
12 (naityake nāsty anādhyāyo brahmasattraṃ hi tat smṛtam / brahmāhutihutaṃ puṇyam
13 anadhyāyavaśaṭkṛtam // yaḥ svādhyāyam adhīte ’bdaṃ vidhinā nityataḥ śuciḥ / tasya
14 nityaṃ kṣaraty eṣa payo dadhi ghṛtaṃ madhu //)13
15 Manu 2.106-107).
16 The author of Manu clearly has the Brāhmaṇa passages in mind, although in
17 the second verse he includes curd among the virtual offerings, which is not
18 mentioned in any of those passages.
19 The practice of svādhyāya is one of two ways in which the Veda is
20 recited—leaving aside the process of teaching and learning which makes
21 these two possible. The employment (prayoga) of the mantras in rituals, as
22 specified in the sūtras, is called viśeṣaviniyoga ‘special application’, while
23 their recitation (adhyāya) outside this context, in the order that we now find
24 in printed editions (p. 000 [[p. 4]] above <x-ref>), is sāmānyaviniyoga ‘general
25 application’ (Gonda 1975: 43 and n. 1). While svādhyāya has no doubt helped
26 to keep the texts available for ritual purposes, it is not subservient to śrauta
27 ritual but autonomous, with benefits of its own. As we have seen, it feeds the
28 gods with virtual offerings, which are perhaps even better than the
29 elaborate and expensive śrauta offerings; further, it makes a brahmin a
30 brahmin. This autonomy of svādhyāya is asserted not only in the Brāhmaṇas
31 and Manu14 but in later periods and outside the context of ritual. According
32 to Rāmānuja (eleventh–twelfth century CE), svādhyāya makes one aware of
33 the four human aims and the means for achieving them (dharmārtha-kāma-
34 mokṣa-rūpa-puruṣārtha-catuṣṭaya-tat-sādhanāvabodhitvāt. Śrī-bhāṣya 1.1.1).
35 Indeed, svādhyāya is itself a kind of ritual, with its own prescribed manner of

13. I understand this to mean that the phenomena which would interrupt other forms of
Veda recitation do not interrupt svādhyāya. This is how I understand ŚB, following
Eggeling (1900: 99); and I assume that Manu gives the same opinion (cf. Manu 2.105 quoted
above). Bühler (1886: 49), however, understands both passages as indicating that these
phenomena do interrupt it. Olivelle (2005: 250) is silent on the matter. His text reads vaśaṭ,
but a variant reads vaṣaṭ (p. 421), as does his translation (p. 100).
14. The dating of these texts does not matter much for our purposes, but we can think of the
Brāhmaṇas as from the tenth to the seventh century BCE (Gonda 1975: 360), and Manu as
from the second or third century CE (Olivelle 2005: 18–25).
1 performance and its own distinctive fruits, as is shown by the passages we
2 have looked at.
3 The Veda, as already mentioned (p. 000 [[p. 4]] <x-ref>), was composed
4 and compiled for the purpose of ritual; and this ritual, though not
5 necessarily the same as the śrauta ritual which developed in the course of
6 the Vedic period, is at least an embryonic form of it. This ritual purpose is
7 apparent in the structure of the Veda, in which each Veda represents the
8 repertoire of a specialist class of ritual performers. The śrauta ritual requires
9 a team of priests of different specialities, working together; it also (except in
10 the sattra mentioned above, p. 000 [[p. 6]] <x-ref>) requires a yajamāna, a
11 patron who engages the priests, provides the sacrificial ground and the
12 offerings, gives gifts to the priests in the course of the sacrifice, and receives
13 its unseen rewards. Stories in the Brāhmaṇas and early prose Upaniṣads show
14 the importance of wealthy patrons, and their demand for highly skilled
15 priests who could command high fees (ŚB; BU 2.1.1, 3, 4.2, 4.3-4; ChU
16 1.10-11; KauU 1.1, 4.1). The śrauta ritual was therefore vulnerable to the
17 decline of patronage; this decline was a complex historical process involving
18 not only changing dynasties but also changes in ideas about the value of the
19 ritual, and in ritual practices.
20 The śrauta ritual faced competition from other activities such as the
21 pursuit of esoteric knowledge and the building of temples—each of which
22 claims to achieve as much as, or more than, the most elaborate sacrifices.
23 The idea that ritual is worthless compared to knowledge is found already in
24 the Ṛg-Veda Saṃhitā:
25 What can he achieve with the hymns who does not know the Syllable in the
26 highest heaven where the gods are seated? Only those who know it are sitting
27 together here.
28 (ṛcó akṣáre paramé vyòman yásmin devā́ ádhi víśve niṣeduḥ / yás tán ná véda kím ṛc ā́
29 kariṣyati yá ít tád vidús té imé sám āsate //)
30 (ṚV 1.164.39; repeated ŚU 4.8 and elsewhere)
31 This theme recurs more explicitly in the Upaniṣads (ChU 6.1, 7.1; KaU 1-2;
32 MuU 1.1.4-5). Later texts similarly extol temple ritual, claiming that it
33 achieves the same aims as Vedic ritual:
34 One who wishes to attain the worlds that are gained by sacrifices and good works
35 (iṣṭāpūrta) should build a temple of the gods. There, both are found. (iṣṭāpūrtena
36 labhyante ye lokās tān bubhūṣatā / devānām ālayaḥ kāryo dvayam apy atra dṛśyate //)
37 (BS 56.2)15
38 According to the Purāṇas, Vedic ritual has declined in the Kali age, but its
39 rewards can be achieved by much simpler and easier means; according to a

15. Kramrisch (1976: I, 139) gives a translation of this verse, but gives the reference 55.2
instead of 56.2.
1 Purāṇic story Vyāsa himself, the mythical redactor of the Veda, makes this
2 point (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 6.2). Thus the decline in active engagement with the
3 Veda which Renou (1960) described as its destiny was known already within
4 the Indian tradition, but was understood through the chronological
5 framework of the four yugas.
6 Like temple ritual or knowledge of brahman, svādhyāya, as we have seen,
7 claims to be as good as Vedic yajña at effecting rewards, if not better.
8 However, it differs from these in one important respect. Neither Vedānta
9 nor temple worship has much use for the bulk of the Vedic texts. As far as
10 they are concerned, not only the śrauta ritual itself but most of the corpus of
11 texts which grew round it is obsolete in the Kali age. Each Vedāntic school
12 selects certain mahāvākyas (‘great sayings’) from the Upaniṣads, leaving most
13 of the Veda untouched; similarly, a temple cult may use a few Vedic mantras,
14 but has little or no use for the rest. Svādhyāya, on the other hand, often
15 involved the preservation of extensive texts, not just of a selection—even
16 though TĀ 2.10.6 allows it to be limited to a single mantra, and Manu 2.104
17 allows it to be limited to the Sāvitrī. By separating the texts from the ritual
18 which was their apparent context and purpose, and which gave them
19 meaning, the autonomous practice of svādhyaya enabled the Veda to
20 continue being recited even when that ritual was largely obsolete. This may
21 provide a solution to a problem that has engaged anthropologists and
22 theorists of literature as well as indologists: the status of the Vedic texts as
23 oral literature.


25 By considering the distinctive way of using the Veda called svādhyāya, and
26 what is said about it in prescriptive texts such as the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas
27 and Manu, we may be better able to understand how the Veda could not only
28 be preserved when its purpose was largely obsolete, but preserved as an
29 unchanging body of texts without the use of writing. This has often been
30 thought paradoxical, or even impossible.
31 The word text, which has been used frequently in the above discussion, is
32 often taken to imply the use of writing (e.g. Ong 1982). In recent years this
33 has been reinforced by the terminology of mobile phones, where text is
34 opposed to voice. However, when discussing the Veda we have to understand
35 that a sequence of words which is available for repetition on different
36 occasions is a text, whether this availability is assured by writing or some
37 other means. Not only does indigenous tradition regard the Veda as
38 consisting essentially of sound, but the general consensus of indology is that
1 it was transmitted orally for many centuries before being written down. 16
2 Oral transmission is well attested both in ancient sources and by recent
3 observation (Scharfe 2002: 8–37, 240–51); it has been found to be more
4 accurate than the manuscripts (Gonda 1975: 18 n. 29; Graham 1987: 72). Its
5 reliability is corroborated by the general conformity of the texts to
6 grammatical and lexical norms which were largely unknown during the
7 period of transmission, and by quotations from Vedic texts in commentaries
8 or other non-Vedic literature. There is also some corroboration from the
9 quotations of mantras from one saṃhitā by another, though this is weakened
10 by variants resulting from the adaptation of a mantra to a new ritual context,
11 or from imperfect transmission. Not all śākhās (‘branches’ of the Veda,
12 representing lines of tradition and the texts which they transmitted) are
13 equally reliable, but the transmission of the Ṛg-Veda Saṃhitā has been
14 especially stable (Gonda 1975: 18–19; cf. Renou 1947: 208–209).
15 Early texts mention only memorization and not reading; the earliest texts
16 to mention the practice of reading the Veda are those which condemn it. For
17 instance, a phonetic treatise of perhaps the early centuries CE places reading
18 from a written text among the worst ways of reciting the Veda:
19 The six worst kinds of reciter are the singer, the hurrier, the head-shaker, the
20 one who reads from writing, the one who does not know the meaning, and the
21 one with a feeble voice. (gītī śīghrī śiraḥ-kampī tathā likhita-pāṭhakaḥ / anartha-jño
22 ’lpa-kaṇṭhaś ca ṣaḍ ete pāṭhakādhamāḥ //)
23 (Sarva-saṃmata-śikṣā 36; quoted in Allen (1953: 16); cf. Holdrege (1996: 536 n. 7))
24 Around the same period, writing the Veda is also condemned in the
25 Mahābhārata:
26 Those who sell the Vedas, those who disparage the Vedas, and those who write
27 the Vedas go to hell. (veda-vikrayiṇaś caiva vedānāṃ caiva dūṣakāḥ / vedānāṃ
28 lekhakāś caiva te vai niraya-gāminaḥ //)
29 (MBh 13.24.70)
30 However, Witzel’s statement (2003: 69) that ‘the Vedas have been written
31 down only during the early second millennium CE’ seems to sweeping; since
32 the practice of writing the Vedas was already condemned well before the
33 second millennium, it was probably not unknown.
34 While indologists agree that the Veda was orally transmitted for
35 centuries before it was written, and continued to be so transmitted even
36 after writing was applied to it, other scholars have difficulty in accepting
37 this consensus. They point out, perhaps in some cases rightly, that
38 authoritative writers on the subject do not seem to have been aware of
39 comparative studies of oral literature, and that the oral preservation of a
40 stable text is highly improbable (Ong 1982: 65–66). Further, as the

16. Some indologists, however, have posited an ancient written text (Renou 1947: 33 n. 3, 222–23).
1 anthropologist Jack Goody wrote (1987: 117): ‘It is difficult to see how any
2 claim of this kind can be substantiated historically, since presumably the
3 first records must date from the time when writing was introduced’. This
4 argument is something of a truism, unless, as is most unlikely, we can find in
5 the written records of observers from outside India clear and accurate
6 evidence of the oral transmission of texts before writing was known there. It
7 also demands a greater measure of certainty than we can have for many
8 statements about ancient cultures—far greater, incidentally, than Goody can
9 find for his claim that a writing system of Semitic origin existed in India in
10 the seventh century BCE (p. 113). Though he gives no reference, Goody seems
11 to be relying on Bühler’s theory (1895), improving on earlier work by
12 Albrecht Weber, that the Brāhmī script was borrowed from a North Semitic
13 script in the eighth century BCE, probably for commercial purposes.17 This
14 theory was given lasting currency by Monier-Williams in the introduction to
15 his dictionary (1899: xxv–xxviii).
16 The oral transmission of Vedic texts in modern times is well attested, as
17 Goody admits; what he denies is that a stable text could have been
18 transmitted without the prior existence of a written text on which oral
19 recitation could be modelled. He also denies, as some others have done, that
20 the ancient Indian devices for the analysis of language, such as the
21 systematic inventory of sounds (varṇa), and the use of arbitrary sounds as
22 codes in Pāṇinian grammar, could have been thought of without writing
23 (Goody 1987: 115–16).18 This argument can be turned on its head: the
24 Devanāgarī alphabet represents the phonology of Sanskrit so much more
25 systematically than any other ancient alphabet represents that of the
26 language for which it was developed, that it could hardly have been devised
27 without a prior analysis such as we find in the ancient phonetic treatises
28 (Filliozat in Renou and Filliozat 1953: 668; Staal 2003: 352). The completeness
29 and symmetry of the system is a product of Vedic linguistic learning, which
30 was closely allied to ritual learning and to the practice of svādhyāya.
31 Goody argues for a fundamental difference between literate and non-
32 literate societies: literate societies have ways of organizing thought which
33 are impossible in non-literate societies. It is in literate societies that
34 verbatim memory flourishes (Goody 1987: 189). He is aware that ancient
35 India, according to the indological consensus, places great difficulties in the
36 way of his theory; Indians are supposed not only to have transmitted,

17. See also Salomon <not in the refs> (1998: 24–28); Falk (1993: 119–27). The theory is open to the
objection that Brāhmī, unlike the Semitic scripts, is phonemic and represents vowels as well as
consonants. ‘Why would then, as the theory goes, Indian merchants modify the Aramaic script
so as to conform to the phonetic theory of Vedic reciters?’ (Scharfe 2002: 10).
18. I call the varṇas ‘sounds’ rather than ‘phonemes’ because at least one of them, the palatal nasal
ñ, is an allophone, not a phoneme. Goody calls them ‘letters’, which is prejudicial in the
context of his argument. Allen (1953: 16) also uses the term ‘letter’, but he makes it clear that
he is using it in a special sense which does not necessarily imply a written form.
1 quoted and commented on stable texts without recourse to writing, but also
2 to have performed feats of organization and analysis of data such as we find
3 in the phonetic and grammatical literature. He therefore tries to undermine
4 the consensus. His account of ancient India has been criticized (Falk 1990;
5 1993: 324–27; summary of views in Lopez (1996: 32–36)). His theory of the
6 relation between literacy and rational thought has also been criticized
7 (Halverson 1992). A part of Halverson’s argument which is particularly
8 relevant to the Veda refers to the Jewish transmission of the Talmud: ‘The
9 tradition of Talmudic scholarship, for example, which for several centuries
10 was entirely oral, requires the recollection of innumerable rabbinic
11 statements and their side-by-side comparison’. His conclusion is that
12 scepticism and rationality depend on what is written and read, not on
13 literacy itself. I will argue similarly that the question whether a text is
14 transmitted through speech or through writing is a separate question from
15 the way in which such transmission is used.
16 Some of Goody’s arguments are curiously essentialist. Not only does he
17 assume that oral and written transmission, and literate and non-literate
18 societies, have certain characteristics, but he asks why brahmins, who are ‘a
19 caste of literate specialists’, should transmit texts orally. Brahmins have
20 indeed been disproportionately represented among the most highly literate
21 classes for centuries; but there is no reason to suppose that they have always
22 been literate. Nevertheless, Goody raises a question as to the relation
23 between a stable text and the situations in which it is recited which deserves
24 an answer. In attempting one, we will consider further the relation between
25 oral and written texts, and then return to svādhyāya.
26 Many non-indologists share Goody’s assumption that oral transmission
27 implies a fluid text, and that only a written text can be stable. Biblical
28 scholars, for instance, are used to the idea that traditions exist first in fluid
29 oral forms, and are later stabilized in a written text. Literary theorists have
30 studied oral literatures in which each performance of a text is in part an
31 improvization (Chadwick and Chadwick 1932–40; Lord 1960; Ong 1982). In
32 Sanskrit, such literature is exemplified by the epics and Purāṇas. These
33 circulate freely in manuscript and print, yet remain fluid, while the Vedas,
34 for which oral transmission has far more authority than manuscripts, are
35 stable. From the point of view of many theorists of literacy and orality, this
36 is a paradox, or even an absurdity; but an understanding of the way writing
37 has actually been used in India makes it credible, though still remarkable.
38 Literacy has different functions in different societies. In medieval Europe,
39 it was the preserve of priests and their associates. In China until the
40 twentieth century it was associated with cultural refinement and access to
41 political power. In Achaemenid Persia, on the other hand, it was the
42 preserve of a class of scribes whose function was merely to record and read
43 out the words of others. In ancient India:
1 It was used in commerce and administration, in other words, for ephemeral
2 purposes; scholars and philosophers disdained it, for to them to study a text
3 presupposed knowing it—by heart. To preserve a large corpus of texts meant
4 simply the proper organisation of the available manpower.
5 (Warder 1970: 205)
6 Warder is referring to the transmission of Buddhist texts, which continued
7 to be transmitted orally even when writing was available, and were written
8 only around the turn of the Common Era, for fear that the oral tradition
9 would die out (Warder 1970: 205, 294). However, his observation on
10 manpower (in today’s parlance human resources, though in this case the
11 masculine term is not inappropriate) is applicable to the Veda also. His
12 second sentence explains how it was possible for Buddhist monks, or in our
13 case Brahmins, to transmit a stable text orally: in each case, there was a
14 body of people who had time for the task, and whose status was enhanced
15 by performing it. As we have seen, brahmin status depended, at least by
16 some accounts, on the memorization of Vedic texts, and specifically on
17 svādhyāya. In view of the widely differing ways in which writing has been
18 used and valued in different cultures, we need to consider its situation in
19 India at the relevant periods, in order to understand why it was used or not
20 used for various classes of text. We should also consider the relation
21 between the brahmins’ dominance of literacy in recent centuries and their
22 undoubtedly more ancient ritual functions—which included the recitation of
23 texts.
24 The notion that oral texts are fluid and written texts are stable, though it
25 holds true in many instances, is a simplification which ignores the fact that
26 oral and written transmission can each have various forms and purposes. In
27 some contexts, for instance a legal document, the purpose of writing is to
28 record the words of a particular person at a particular time, and precautions
29 are taken to ensure that they have not since been changed. As a quite
30 different example of the use of writing, we may take graffiti, particularly the
31 older and more discursive styles of graffiti, typically done with a pencil or
32 felt pen, rather than the modern styles done with spray-cans, where
33 calligraphy takes prominence over the text. Graffiti are by definition a
34 written form; but they can exist in many variants. This is because each
35 graffito, like each recitation of an oral text, is a performance, and also
36 because if one graffiti writer copies the work of another, it is not copied at
37 sight like a typical manuscript, but is seen in one place, held in the memory,
38 and written afresh in another place. In this process, either imperfection of
39 memory or the desire to improve, or to make a personal contribution, can
40 lead to textual changes. Thus, while writing can ensure the stability of a
41 text, it can also facilitate change. To take another example: Christian ritual
42 texts, especially in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, have
43 repeatedly undergone major and minor changes during the past 50 years,
1 leading to the existence simultaneously of variant forms of the same text.
2 Such changes and variants, irksome to those worshippers who hold the texts
3 in their memory, have been made possible by near-universal literacy, the
4 easy availability of print, and a culturally specific tendency to rely on a
5 printed text rather than on the memory. Conversely, ‘in a preliterate society
6 such as Papua New Guinea people are intensely conservative about liturgical
7 texts’.19
8 While these examples by no means represent the range of variety in the
9 use of writing, they are sufficient to bring into question a simple correlation
10 between writing and the stability of texts. Oral and written transmission
11 may facilitate either fluidity or stability, depending on how they are used;
12 neither necessitates the one or the other. To return to ancient India, some
13 scholars have linked the rise of Mahāyāna to the adoption of writing, which
14 enabled the already extensive corpus of Buddhist sūtras, orally preserved
15 through a tightly controlled system of transmission and ritual recitation,
16 and fixed within each school though varying from school to school, to be
17 replaced by a yet more abundant, voluminous and varied output of written
18 sūtras (Gombrich 1990: 21–30; McMahan 2002: 89–99). Here, writing
19 facilitated variation in a textual corpus which had hitherto been relatively
20 stable.


22 One point in Goody’s argument is cogent, though not in the way he uses it.
23 One of the reasons he gives for the flourishing of verbatim memory in
24 literate societies is ‘the school situation which has to encourage
25 “decontextualized” memory tasks since it has removed learning from doing
26 and has redefined the corpus of knowledge’ (Goody 1987: 189). Vedic texts
27 are indeed decontextualized in the process of transmission from teacher to
28 pupil, since this process takes the recitation out of the context of the śrauta
29 ritual, and places it in a new context in which learning is separated from
30 doing. The practice of svādhyāya, which reinforces the learning process,
31 similarly decontextualizes the text. If some of the phala-śrutis about
32 svādhyāya are to be believed—the passages about the rewards to be gained
33 by it which we have discussed (p. 000 [[p. 4]] <x-ref>), and especially those
34 which speak of virtual offerings (p. 000 [[pp. 7–9]] <x-ref>)—it not only
35 decontextualizes it, but allows the practitioner to consider its ritual context
36 unimportant. At the same time, the texts are recontextualized in the ritual
37 acts of transmission and svādhyāya. This separation of Veda recitation from
38 śrauta ritual is especially evident in the Yajur-Veda, where the recitation of

19. Personal communication from Paul Richardson, former Bishop of Aipo Rongo, Papua New
1 Brāhmaṇas about laying out the vedi (the piece of ground marked out for
2 ritual purposes), or making various offerings, is a very different matter from
3 performing these actions, while the recitation of mantras without the
4 actions which they accompany is different from the use of them in the yajña.
5 This decontextualization and recontextualization took place without the aid
6 of writing.
7 Variant versions of the same mantras are found in the Vedas of different
8 schools. Ong (1982: 66) seems to have misunderstood his indological sources,
9 since he supposes that the existence of variants contradicts the notion of a
10 stable text. But the variants listed by Bloomfield (1906) and analysed by
11 Bloomfield and Edgerton (1930–34) are between different occurrences of a
12 mantra in different contexts in the Veda, not between different recitations
13 or manuscripts of the same Vedic passage. These variations in versions of a
14 mantra in different contexts are ‘often of the same general character as
15 those which appear in the various forms of ballads’ (Bloomfield 1906: vii);
16 even before the Chadwicks, Parry, and Lord, Vedic scholars were not so
17 unaware of the typical fluidity of oral literature as some theorists have
18 supposed. The fluidity mentioned by Bloomfield indicates that, at a time
19 when these texts were not yet decontextualized, and thus not yet
20 recontextualized in the processes of transmission and svādhyāya, they were
21 transmitted orally from one ritual performer to another, with the possibility
22 of change. Even so, they are more stable than much oral literature, as we
23 would expect from the way they are described in the Veda itself. The hymns
24 say much about the insight (dhī) and skill of the poet who builds or weaves
25 verses (Gonda 1963); they do not talk about the originality of the performer
26 in reciting those verses. The names of individual poets are carefully
27 preserved, whereas ballads are typically anonymous as well as fluid.
28 Paul Ricœur (1981: 147) argues on similar lines to Goody, as part of a
29 general theory of textuality without specific reference to the Veda. He says
30 that the act of writing at once constitutes the text and separates it from
31 speech, thus separating it also from the context in which the words were
32 originally uttered and in which they had meaning. The task of
33 hermeneutics, he continues, is to recontextualize the text in a different
34 world. Elsewhere, he points out that text does not necessarily imply writing:
35 ‘By text I do not mean only or even mainly something written, even though
36 writing in itself poses original problems that bear directly on the outcome of
37 reference; I mean principally the production of discourse as a work’ (Ricœur
38 2003: 259). Thus Ricœur, unlike Goody, allows for the possibility of a text
39 being constituted by some other means than writing. To apply his theory of
40 decontextualization and recontextualization to the Veda, we have to
41 remember that the Vedic system of transmission, which is analogous to
42 sound recording (Witzel 2003: 68), can constitute a text, as a recording does,
43 without separating it from speech. It does, however, separate it from its
1 original ritual context and place it in another. For an exegete in the Hindu
2 tradition, a Vedic text is not only something to say while performing a
3 yajña; it is eternal. It was breathed out at the beginning of the world (BU
4 2.4.10); according to Bhartṛhari and his school, it is śabda-brahman, a
5 manifestation in sound of the original being (Carpenter 1992: 21). In the
6 Brāhmaṇas, Upaniṣads and sūtras, in Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā and the various schools
7 of Vedānta, exegetes recontextualize the texts in their own ritual and
8 intellectual world. More precisely, they select certain portions from the text
9 and recontextualize them, most of the time ignoring the rest; in doing so,
10 they not only recontextualize the text but in effect reconstitute it. But this
11 hermeneutic process is independent of svādhyāya, as well as of the ritual use
12 of the texts and the process of transmission; it takes place in yet another
13 context.
14 Our consideration of svādhyāya enables us to refine the theories about
15 oral and written culture of Ong, Goody and others. In order to accommodate
16 the example of Vedic recitation, we need to recognize that the crucial
17 difference is not between writing and oral transmission, but between the
18 presence and absence of a technique for stabilizing a text. The same
19 recognition is needed in the case of Buddhist recitation, in which sūtras
20 recording discourses of the Buddha, for instance, are recited as a
21 meritorious act, removing them from the context in which the Buddha
22 answered an enquirer or instructed his followers. According to Buddhist
23 tradition, the texts existed in stable form before writing was applied to
24 them. Writing can greatly facilitate stabilization, but is not necessarily part
25 of it or even a precondition of it; nor is it always used for this purpose, even
26 in modern culture, as the examples of graffiti and liturgical texts have
27 shown.
28 Without going into the history of the Veda, which is beyond this author’s
29 competence, we can broadly distinguish two stages of oral transmission:
30 before and after the constitution of the śākhās, which itself may have been a
31 long process and is certainly undated. In the case of the Ṛg-Veda Saṃhitā this
32 process is taken to have been begun by Śākalya (Gonda 1975: 16). In the first
33 stage, individual poets made texts from traditional materials: verse forms,
34 elements of narrative, images, collocations of words, formulae—though the
35 mantras are less formulaic, less dependent for their composition on stock
36 material, than the ballads and epics that are typical of oral literature. Those
37 who repeated them sometimes introduced variants to adapt them to new
38 ritual contexts. The purpose of these texts was the ritual, and their imagery
39 shows an intense interest in, and thorough knowledge of, ritual matters,
40 including the making of ritual poetry. The second stage is represented by
41 the teaching process and by svādhyāya, in both of which it was essential to
42 repeat the text exactly as it had been heard. Both these practices presuppose
43 the constitution of the text as a permanent object. Here, though the context
1 is still ritual, it is not the ritual envisaged in the texts, but that of the
2 teaching process or of svādhyāya itself. The second stage is untypical of oral
3 literature: it involves the verbatim transmission of texts. That this occurred
4 without the use of writing, whether directly to prompt the reciter or
5 indirectly to inculcate the notion of a stable text, is remarkable but not
6 impossible.


8 BS Bṛhatsaṃhitā. Varāhamihira’s Brihat Samhita with an English

9 Translation and Notes, by Panditabhushana V. Subrahmanya Sastri
10 and Vidwan M. Ramakrishna Bhat. Bangalore: V. B. Soobbiah &
11 Sons. 1947.
12 BU Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad
13 ChU Chāndogya Upaniṣad
14 KaU Kaṭha Upaniṣad
15 Manu Mānava-dharmaśāstra (Olivelle 2005).
16 MBh Mahābhārata
17 MuU Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad
18 ṚV Ṛg-Veda, Ṛg-Veda Saṃhitā
19 ŚB Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa. The Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa in the Mādhyandina
20 Çākhā, ed. A. Weber. Varanasi: Chowkhamba. 1964 (first published
21 1849).
22 ŚU Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad
23 TĀ Taittirīya Āraṇyaka
24 YS Yoga-Sūtra


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