1. The essence of all religions and spiritual paths has come down to us mainly through oral traditions. It was passed on from generation to generation by speaking or singing them to one another, to their children and to their children’s children. The traditions were safeguarded, kept alive and revitalized by the teacher or the story teller or the singing minstrel.
1.1. Besides carrying the core of the doctrine, the oral tradition was luscious with song, poetry, myth, parable and wonder. These appeared to have had a more lasting and a stronger impact than did the codes, dogmas and the formal texts. Consequently, the great stories have become a part our collective- psyche.
2. Let’s take a look at the other worlds before we reach the classical oral traditions of India.
2.1. In the western world, most people, regardless of their religious affiliations, are familiar with the events in the life of Jesus – his forty days in the desert; or changing water in to wine; or his last supper and his crucifixion. Similarly, the events in the life of the historical Buddha are also well known. His life as a prince shielded from harsh realities of life; his renunciation; his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree; his perambulations teaching Dharma and his death have been celebrated in song, dance and visuals.
2.2. The stories of the great ones bring alive, to us, their teachings and traditions. Jesus, in turn, used parables as vehicles to convey his message. His parables were simple stories that brought his tenets closer to the lives of ordinary men and women. The Buddha too had earlier employed such teaching methods.
2.3. Tibetan Buddhism, in contrast, has a more interesting and a complex method of storytelling. The Termas of the Tibetan Buddhism are, in fact, texts in disguise .They are the stories of wonder and awe, concealing within their womb the seeds of true message. Such termasare said to be time-coded, waiting for a designated adept (treasure-gatherer) to reveal itself.
2.3. In Sufism, the clever and entertaining fables of a beloved – seemingly foolish Mullah Nasruddin demonstrate the stupidity of self obsessions of the humans, in a manner that all could recognize and enjoy. The Sufis told stories, made jokes, entertained and offended human sensibilities by holding a mirror to their frailties, in a way that no other one did.
3. In Zen Buddhist tradition, the stories and koans have been in use, for a longtime, as a tool for training the mind ( or dissolving the mind). Koans are designed not to reveal their meaning to the student easily and instantly; but, to throw his mind in to a vortex and a crisis .That crisis should be so intense and overpowering as to break through the barriers of reason and barge into non-conceptual, direct apprehension of reality, the Satori. Such Satori would occur, unexpectedly, in a flash after years of struggle trying to “understand” it.
3.1. Entertainment never was (or is) the object of a koan. One can still read the stories and be amused; but, that is not why the koans were narrated. Within a Zen tradition, the teaching-stories were preserved and passed on a lineage as a part of its training traditions. There is a certain simplicity and purity about those stories; and, they have to be placed, essentially, within the student –teacher relationship and in the context of sadhana. The story finds its fulfillment in the satori attained by the student.
3.2. Going back into the Zen history we find that the seeds of the Zen were in the Dhyana school of Bodhidharma who discouraged mere book learning. He said, Dhyana is not an intellectual exercise one can learn from books. Instead, it’s a practice of studying mind and seeing into one’s nature. The face-to-face transmission of the Dharma was important. That meant, the student and the teacher have to work together face –to – face. That made the student –teacher relation and interaction critical to its success.
4. Before we come to the classical oral heritage of India, let us briefly talk about that fabulous folk tradition of India.
The folk oral traditions of India go back into timeless antiquity. The heroes and heroines of the bygone eras are kept alive through songs and dances of simple rustic people. The nomadic tribes that wandered far into distant valleys in search of pastures and waterholes to tend their herds burst out into poignant soulful songs pining for their beloveds and yearning for the smells, sounds and feel of their motherland. Nehru, in his Discovery of India talks about how tribes that had drifted apart long ago, recognized each other through their songs, after centuries of separation.
4.1. The two major epics that shaped the Indian sensibility, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were preserved and spread as oral epics. The Suthas narrated and sang the glory of its heroes and heroines in divine fervor. Even to this day the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering around a sutha to listen to the ancient stories, rather than read the epic poems themselves, is still alive.
5.1. Though poetry is easier to remember than prose, the oral tradition in Indian literature was not confined to poetic literature. Indian story telling has been molded to suit oral form right from the very beginning of narrative fiction in India. The stories in the Kathasaritasagara and the Jathaka are structured for oral rendering by wandering minstrels.
5.2. India owes a lot of its rich tradition of story telling to its tribal people.
The tradition of story telling evokes pictures of weary travelers, at the end of a long day’s hard journey, gathering around a fire lit on the sands of a river bank under the starry night, listening with rapt attention and amusement to the stories of wonder and awe of distant lands inhabited by exotic people, narrated by an elder, in magical soothing voice with theatrical and lyrical interludes. With each re-telling, the stories gathered additional narrative, becoming more circuitous to enhance the drama of the live recitation.
The power of the spoken language to ignite the listener’s imagination and transport him to the world of ideas, dreams, myths and fables, is truly amazing. And, Myth is a very effective ancient way of teaching. What cannot be conveyed through philosophical discussions and logical debates can be transmitted more easily through myth and metaphor. Ancient myth speaks to us in multiple ways both rational and non-rational.
As a professor of Mass communication remarked, “In the saying of the word, something is also done, and cannot be undone. Indian literature is full of tales in which a word was misused, uttered capriciously or wrongly, with mischievous or even disastrous consequences. And, in some ways the power of words can be seen as magic; but this is not mere magic. “
6. The period around and after the 10th Century, was the glorious period of Indian oral heritage. The groups of inspired poets, charged with devotion and love – Nanak, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath, Tukaram, Kabir, Mira, Allamaprabhu, Akkamahadevi, Purandara Dasa, Narsi Mehta, Surdas and a hoast of others known as the bhakti poets, sang. pouring out some of the very best poetry in the Indian literary history. They created poetry of abiding beauty in the languages spoken by the people.
Before that the Alwars and Nayanmaars of South India sang in pristine Tamil; and charged with devotion and dedication, poured their hearts out to their gods in musical ecstasy,
6.1. The songs of all those bards, permeated with fragrance of devotion, also carried love and concern for their fellow beings. They tried to guide and steer their brethren away from ignorance and superstition. Their messages were a challenge to the established theology and social order. The lines and verses of their poetry, easy to remember and recite , have an amazing range and depth of philosophic, social and moral concerns. In many instances they held their communities together and brought about social integration. Those songs are relevant, even today; and are sung in the villages and cities. Their influence is so profound and pervasive that those songs are now a part of our collective psyche.
7. 1.There has never been a central agency or an organization in India to monitor or diffuse cultural values among its people. The spread of cultural values has always been, at the grass root level, by countless iterant, unassuming bards, fakirs, saints many of them outlandish and exotic. They came from all segments, all divisions of the society. They came from different regions, different religions, different sects and sub sects. They roamed about the countryside without any expectation or reward .They preached and lived what they believed. Those nameless, non-conforming selfless savants have been the guardians of Indian culture.
7.2 . Lets briefly talk about one such group of unassuming bards; the Bauls of Bengal. They belong to a fabulous folk tradition, which has a history that stretches back to about seven hundred years. Their tradition is a delightful amalgam of bhakthi of Vaishana School, tantra of Shajiya Buddhism and the mysticism of the Sufis. The Baul synthesis is characterized by four elements: there is no written text and therefore all teachings are through song and dance; God is to be found in and through the body and therefore the emphasis on kaya (body) sadhana, the use of sexual or breath energy; and, absolute obedience and reverence to Guru.
7.3. Bauls are easily noticeable by their attire, demeanor and way of living. They are wanderers, beggars, poets and musicians praising God in song, dance and mystical poetry. The message of the Bauls is encoded in their song and poetry; and is accessible through the appreciation and understanding of its rich symbolism.
7.4. Baul singer though romanticized in folk art, music and poetry, is a part of the fast vanishing tribe. As wanderers and beggars Bauls are looked down upon; are considered vagrants in polite society; and kept away as heretics by the orthodox. Their religious life is not bound by conventions and rules; but springs from intuition and lived-relationship with the divine. Bauls life is permeated with the fragrance of a passionate yet profound reliance upon the Beloved, the personal god within. The celebration of that relationship with all its ecstasy and heartbreaking agony is the lifeblood of a Bauls existence.
8. 1. As regards other forms of folk art and drama in particular, they continue to thrive in most Indian languages. Even during the ancient times the Sanskrit drama made a generous use of folk elements and folk dialects.
8.2. In the present day, the Kannada and Tulu languages have the Yakshagana theatre, the Gujarati language has the Bhavai theatre and the Marathi has the Tamasha performances. These regional forms do not have a fixed and written text to support the performance. They are spontaneous and depend on improvisation by the actors. And for that reason, when compared to plays with written scripts, they are closer to the audiences. That does not mean they are primitive forms of drama; on the contrary they are sophisticated in technique, presentation and performance.
8.3. The plays of modern Indian playwrights such as Girish Karnad, Habib Tanvir and others are rooted in the oral traditions of literature. They are less marked by the influences of the west and are closer to Indian culture and tradition.
8.4. Even today, access to traditional knowledge of subjects like art, music, grammar or philosophy is widely held to require a direct oral transmission from master to pupil. In India, it is this oral tradition that is held to embody the pure transmission of music; its teachers and students, alike, are still not comfortable in reducing musical sounds in to written notations.
8.5. Among the many traditions (parampara) inherited in India, the tradition of Vishwakarma (the sculptors and architects) is unique. The principles , rules , measurements , proportions as also the aspects of expression of the deities to be sculpted are described in Shilpasastra, Natyasastra and various other texts; and all of which are in Sanskrit. The scholars who could read those texts knew next to nothing about sculpture. While, the Shilpis who actually carved the images had no knowledge of Sanskrit or access to the texts; and therefore could not know the texts or interpret the shlokas. This dichotomy was bridged by the generations of Shilpis who through experience learnt the craft, imbibed its principles and concepts; and passed them on to their succeeding generations and to their disciples
The mode of transmission of knowledge of this community was both oral and practical. The rigor and discipline required to create objects that defy time and persist beyond generations of artists, has imbued this tradition with tremendous sense of purpose, and zeal to maintain purity and sensitivity of its traditions; and to carry it forward. This has enabled them to protect and carry forward the knowledge, the art and skills without falling prey to the market and its dynamics.
8.6. India’s age-old love for the oral found a powerful means of expression in cinema. Indian cinema, with descriptive passages than narrative sequences; as also studded with songs and dances; and with the story always ending on a happy note with the Good and Love triumphing over the bad guys and the Loveless., is more akin to folk tales than to what cinema is in the western world.
9. 1. The most amazing of all the oral traditions preserved in India are the oral traditions of the Vedas.
“The three worlds would have merged in darkness had there been no light called Sabda” said Acharya Dandin (6th century) the celebrated author of prose romance and an expounder on poetics.
9.2. For Indian thinkers, language was primarily the spoken word or speaking itself (vaak). Indian philosophy has been even more emphatic than Western thought with regard to the priority of the oral over the written. The tradition in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy has been to correct the written text with the oral. It is the oral word, carefully memorized, guarded by the discipline of the prathi_shakins, and passed down from teacher to student through succeeding generations that has remained authoritative and authentic in India.
Not merely that; the meaning or the purport of a term in a text is derived and explained based on its precise pronunciation. Because, the written word, inscribed on a surface, is unable to bring out the various shades of the term . For instance, Sri Sayanacharya offered several interpretations to the term ‘Asat’. He explains, the form of Asat – with ascent of the first syllable – in many ways : in the sense of untruth ‘ (asatya); and once each in the senses of ‘ inauspious ‘ (ashubha); ‘ un-manifest (avyakrta), and ‘ indescribable ‘ (nirupdkhya) . The form of Asat –without ascent- is understood as to mean: ‘ goes or reaches ‘ (gacchati, prapnoti), and ‘ fruitful (phala-sadhana-samarthah).
Sri Sankara commenting on symbols and reality, curiously remarks, “ We see that the knowledge of the real sounds a, aa, e, ee etc., is reached by means of the unreal written letters.”(B.S. 2.1.14). He perhaps was suggesting that the spoken language is the real language.
9.3. The ancient Indian philosophers and Grammarians just loved elaborate discussions on all aspects of the spoken word: its origin in the mind and body of the speaker; its articulation; its transmission; the grasp of the sound and the essence of the word by the listener; its ultimate reception by the speaker’s intellect and such other related issues.
9.4.Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy such as Mimamsa, Tantra, Yoga and Prabhakaras viewed and interpreted the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter and as the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.
Panini’s Astadhyayi, the Grammar, is also based on the sound of spoken Sanskrit.
9.5. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida said: The spoken word is given a higher value because the speaker and listener are both present to the utterance simultaneously. There is no temporal or spatial distance between speaker, speech, and listener, since the speaker hears himself speak at the same moment as the listener does. This immediacy seems to guarantee the notion that in the spoken word we know what we mean, mean what we say, say what we mean and know what we have said.
It is only of late we have come to regard that speech and writing are expressions of one and the same language; and that language can be best understood by combining both the form and content of writing.
10. 1. Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was the concern for the preservation of sacred texts and the purity of the language in which they were composed. This concern arose out of the willingness of the society not only to commit the resources (time, effort, energy, enthusiasm and material resources) for this transmission, but also to the development of a technique that would guarantee the purity , entirety and constancy of the texts. The decision or strategy devised was to commit the sacred texts to memory and to transmit the sacred texts orally, but in a highly controlled way that was rightly felt to be the only way to avoid the introduction of error into the texts. As anyone who has witnessed a demonstration of this technique can attest, the outcome seems to be fairly foolproof, better anyway than via literacy and handwritten transmission, where scribal error and individual additions and emendations can often be introduced.
10.2. Tradition accepts that Rishi Veda_Vyasa categorized and compiled four Vedas by splitting the primordial single Veda and rendered the Vedas more amenable to study and to memorize. The task of preserving and perpetuating each branch of the Veda, in its entirety and purity , was assigned to a specified Shakha (meaning branch).The followers of each Shakha , identified as Shakins of that particular Vedic school, were responsible for preserving their assigned part of the Veda. Followers of each Shakha would learn and preserve one the four Veda Samhitas along with their associated Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads and the Sutras such as Grhyasutra and Shrautasutra. Only a small number of these Shakhas have survived; the prominent among them are Sakala and Baskala. [For more on Shakas, please see the link in the comments section]
It is astounding that large bodies of Vedic texts could be preserved in oral traditions for over thousands of years, safeguarding their purity and entirety.
10.3. In order to achieve this difficult task, an elaborate and a meticulous system of recitations were devised. These systems of discipline with their checks and balances , ensured the correctness of a text including the correct sequence of its words; purity of the language; exact pronunciation of the words; precise stress on syllables ; measured pause between syllables; appropriate tone, accent, modulation and pitch of recitation; proper breath control etc. Shiksha one of the six Vedangas (limbs of Veda) that dealt with phonetics and phonology of Sanskrit, laid down rules for correct pronunciation of Vedic hymns and mantras. Please click here.
10.4. Along with this, several patterns of Vedic chants were devised to ensure complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation including the Vedic pitch accent. These patterns called Pathaas ensured correct recital of the Veda mantra by weaving the mantras into various patterns and complex combinations of such patterns. There are eleven acknowledged patterns or Patahaas Viz. Samhitha or vakhyaa, padaa, krama, jataa, maala, Sikhaa, rekhaa, dhvajaa, dandaa, rathaa and Ghana. Please see the links in the comments section
10.5. Among these, The Samhita Paathaa and Pada Paathaa are natural (Prakrithi) way of reciting the words of the mantras, in their normal sequence. The rest are Vikrithi (or artificial) Paathaas. Recently mathematical series have been devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns. For more on this and for greater details on Paathas please click see the link in the comments section.
10.6. By applying such stringent methods of learning and complicated patterns of recital, each generation committed to memory long passages of its assigned texts through incessant practice spread over a number of years, retained the form and content of the texts in their pristine purity; and succeeded in transmitting it, orally, to the next generation. This was how the Vedic texts were retained in oral form, uncorrupted, over the centuries. It was an act of intense reverence, dedication and love.Rarely has any other oral tradition of poetry been so venerated and so well preserved as the Vedic tradition.
11. 1. Because the regimen was already so well established the epics too were committed to the oral tradition. In the mantra tradition, orality was best suited to preserve the purity and the secrecy of the sacred syllables. The primary purpose here was to talk to gods and not merely to know what gods had spoken. The mantra had therefore to be learned in a proper way from/by a proper person and pronounced in a proper manner. Writing the syllables and words on paper (stone , copper , bark or whatever) would not therefore be a substitute for learning and pronouncing the mantra properly. The efficacy of precisely articulated sounds is believed to be in its power to invoke gods and spirits.
As my friend Shri DSampath says the mantras and the dhyana slokas have audio – visual dimensions to them, to enable better retention. And , knowledge transfer in such cases would be effective when it is oral.
As regards the religious life of a community , the oral traditions have a very strong affiliation.
With the invention of the printing press, there was a radical shift away from hearing to the scriptures or Epics, recited by a Suta or a Puranica, the one who recites. The study of a text turned into ‘silent reading’. But, the worship practices, the core of the religious life, invariably, involve chanting Mantras or singing prayer hymns. Further, music is the most refined of all the sound-events; and, is ideally suited for devotional worship. Beautiful sounds have a special capacity to convey ones emotional appeals more eloquently than the written texts can do. The ‘silent reading’ of the written words, in such contexts, just do not have a place.
One has to; therefore, recognize the strong bond that exists between religious practices and oral traditions.
12.1. It was however in the Sutras – the pithy, unambiguous, aphorisms laying out all the essential aspects of each topic and dealing with all aspects of the question, free of repetitiveness and flaw – the oral tradition functioned as key to open a vast treasure
12.2.. Sutra literally means a thread but technically it meant in the ancient Indian context, an aphoristic style of condensing the spectrum of thoughts of a doctrine into terse, crisp, pithy pellets of compressed information that could be easily committed to memory. They are analogous to synoptic notes on a lecture; and by tapping on a note, one hopes to recall the relevant expanded form of the lecture. Perhaps the Sutras were meant to serve a similar purpose. A Sutra is therefore not merely an aphorism but a key to an entire discourse on a subject. Traditionally, each Sutra is regarded as a discourse rather than a statement.
12.3. Problems arose when the sutra-concept was overdone and often carried to its extremes. It is said a Sutrakara would rather give up a child than expend a word. The Sutras often became so terse as to be inscrutable. And, one could read into it as many meanings as one wanted to.
It was left to the genius of the commentator; the Bashyakara to pinpoint Vishesha Vakya the exact statement in the Vedic text referred to by the sutra; to maintain consistency in treatment – in the context and spirit of the original text; to bring out the true intent and meaning of the Sutrakara’s reasoning and conclusions. It was therefore said, each according to his merit finds his rewards. But, it was here the written and printed texts came to rescue of the teachers and learners, alike.
13.1. The oral method of preserving and communicating knowledge had a fatal flaw. There are instances where the collective wisdom of a race acquired throughout the centuries was ruined and wiped out of existence in a flash by catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis , war or whatever. Those unfortunate occurrences demonstrated time and again the risks involved is storing the racial memories in a line of individuals.
13.2. The inevitability of the spoken word has also vastly diminished in today’s world. The reliance on spoken word is no longer necessary, nor it is always possible; and in a large number of instances it is treated not merely as unreliable but also relegated to the status of non-communication. Even in the field of literature oral literature was seen as a sign of cultural backwardness.
14.1. It would be wrong to assume that one type of communication is superior to the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The spoken word can be beautiful and soul stirring in a way that the written word can never be; it alone is capable of preserving the purity of the word, its sound and its form. On the other hand, the written word preserves thoughts in a very meticulous manner for dissemination and further study; and it surely can be disbursed more easily. Each tradition has its value and its place in the scheme of things.
14.2. The unique feature of the Indian classical literature is the interaction between the oral and written texts, Sheldon Pollock in his The Language of the Gods writes:
In contrast to Veda and its strictly oral transmission, large post-Vedic literatures were expressed in writing. Nevertheless, writing did not extinguish the spoken word. Rather, we find new performing styles; recitatives in simple meters without accentuation, songs and dramatic staging.
None of this should be taken to suggest that the rise of the manuscript culture in India, whether diachronically or synchronically viewed, entailed a clean and permanent break between the oral and the written. To the contrary, the ongoing interaction of the oral and literate constitutes one of the most remarkable and unique features of Indian literacy culture.
That is to say; the oral and written texts are relevant and important in their own context. While the Vedic oral rendition has its own status, there would have been no effective distribution of Puranas and epics without the written texts.
References and Sources:
1. Paragraph 10.2: For Shakhas please click here:
2. Paragraph 10.3. For Shiksha Please click on:
3. Paragraph 10.4. For eleven acknowledged methods of pathas , please click on:
4. Paragraph 10.5. For mathematical series devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns please click on :
5. Sources and References:
Unbroken Chain of Oral Tradition by Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna
“Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartṛhari by Harold G. Coward
Mass Communication in Ancient India
Telling a Ramayana by G N Devy