Examining oral tradition in India and its impact on society, from Vedic literature to larger-than-life actors, politicians

Orality is not simply the absence of literacy, and oral cultures have their own characteristics. In India, for over a thousand years, orality dominated. The Mahabharata, for instance, is known to have existed and been transmitted in oral form for over a millennium before it was committed to writing in the form we know it today. It is generally believed that all oral cultures yearn to move to literacy, but in India, Brahmin priests drew their authority from their ability to recite the sacred Vedas (written in about 1500-1000 BCE) with the correct intonation; it is has been noted that there were Brahmin groups (like the Namboodiris in Kerala) until as late as the early 20th century who discouraged their male firstborns from learning to read and write. Knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit in which correct intonation was most important held sway, since it was believed to confer power upon the reciter.

DNA data now available suggests that there was indeed an influx of pastoralists from the Central Asian steppes into the Indo-Gangetic plain around 2000-1500 BCE, which was also the time of the end of the Harrapan civilisation. Other events becoming more probable are that these pastoralists (once called ‘Aryans’), while they were thought civilisationally lower that the urban denizens of the Indus Valley, had knowledge that empowered them to become priests in society. A possible reason is that they had knowledge of astronomy; the capacity to predict celestial events would empower a people within primitive society. The treatise Jyotisa-Vedanga, apparently written around 700 BCE, is attributed to the sage Lagadha, a Brahmin. This work is a guide to determine the right time for Vedic sacrifice and was used by Brahmin priests who followed the Rig Veda. We recollect that astronomy and astrology are not separate in India, giving people with celestial knowledge more power over the others.

While North Indians today have a larger proportion of Steppe-Pastoralist DNA, the higher level of this DNA among Brahmins suggests that some descendants of the Steppe-Pastoralists became the priestly category. Intermarrying among various jati groups was not uncommon until around 70 generations ago (around 200 CE), when it stopped and this coincides with the supposed writing of the Manusmriti. We may take this as the age in which the varna system was instituted. Hinduism as we know it, in terms of most of its social practices, apparently originated at this point and gained strength under the Guptas.

Rather than existing society divided into the four varnas, it seems more probable that the varna hierarchy was created by Brahmins around this time, placing themselves at the top. It is significant here that while the varna category that an individual jati belongs to is usually a matter of debate, Brahmins are the varna category never in doubt; their varna identity is always secure. This implies that despite intermarriage being permitted prior to circa 200 CE, Brahmins had remained a powerful, cohesive group for over 1000 years with exclusive control over ritual. The only reliable way to achieve this, I propose, was to pass down their knowledge orally.

Knowledge transmitted orally can only be to those the teacher chooses (the Gurukul system) and this may have been how Brahmins retained their position; Vedic knowledge could only belong to them.

Authorised people alone could receive instruction and the tragic story of an unauthorised seeker of knowledge, from a Brahmin teacher, is related in the tale of Ekalavya in the Mahabharata. Karna too similarly came to grief, though for pretending to be a Brahmin to receive instruction.

A question that could rightly arise at this point is how a Brahmin Dronacharya could be chosen to teach the martial arts to princes since one would expect only a warrior to know about battle. The answer, it would seem, is that the Brahmins, while what they possessed was primarily priestly knowledge, were believed to have ‘theoretical knowledge’ in the other areas as well. Empirical knowledge, we may gather, was traditionally placed lower than ‘theoretical knowledge’ gained from the sacred books. While Brahmins were ritual specialists, they appear to have successfully laid claim to theoretical knowledge in many other fields as well perhaps because ‘knowledge’ in this case – regardless of the field it applies to – is never seen as wholly belonging to the material world and ‘objective’ in the Western/modern sense; the self and its aspects are implicated in every kind of understanding.

But while ‘theory-down’ understanding was most valued, it has several disadvantages, and the primary one is that it treats the theories and their originators with too much reverence.

Where empiricism allows for revision and encourages a healthy scepticism towards installed authority, the theory-down approach treats received wisdom as infallible and therefore undermines independence on the part of the inquirer.

The reverence with which Vedic texts in India are treated as the ultimate source of valid knowledge substantiates this. Orality, I propose, exacerbates the problem since what is important is not only the literal meaning of the text but also its supposed magical properties associated with intonation in its recitation. Also, empiricism admits that while we may approach the truth about the world in our efforts to cope with aspects of it or to understand it, it is ultimately unknowable; but with faith in the infallibility of a text the world itself is fully known and this inhibits further inquiry.

The reliance of the upper-most caste on orality as a way to transmit knowledge may have influenced the other castes as well, since there is a tendency of those placed lower in the hierarchy to imitate the higher. Moreover, if superior theoretical knowledge in most fields was claimed by the uppermost caste, what incentive would there be for those lower down doing the physical work to record their experiences? This led, I propose, to an undermining of the recording of events and the impersonal passing down of physical skills. To this day, people are also hesitant to pass on their knowledge in India – under the misgiving that rivals will be empowered by it, perhaps mimicking the jealous way in which Brahmins protected what they knew. William Dalrymple (White Mughals) in investigating the Nizam’s Hyderabad in the 18th century, laments the condition of libraries and museums in India and the non-availability of records, which (in contrast) appear to have been kept scrupulously by Muslim travellers from Persia. A Chinese maxim is relevant here – that the faintest ink is better than the best memory – but Indians have traditionally relied more on memory than ink to preserve knowledge.

A factor associated with morality is memory, and in order to retain what is orally transmitted the transmission itself must have certain properties. In the first place, the phrases in oral recounting are additive in that they are strung together without one subordinated to the other by causal conjunctions like ‘because’; causality is thus weak and it would also be difficult to produce rigorous argument in oral cultures. Secondly, language in the oral tradition is not analytical but colourful and often repetitive, to facilitate retention. Thirdly, it needs to be more musical than in writing, which people read silently.

Many of these characteristics are exhibited by Indian languages, and scholars (for example, Amartya Sen on Tagore) often complain that literature in Indian languages cannot be translated into English without losing much of its appeal. Literature in the Indian languages relies on the musical element and, more than that, there appears to be an intimate relationship between the meaning and the sounds associated with the recitation/reading that English does not promote. Translations into English of writing in the Indian languages hence tend to sound prosaic. When Indians wrote poetry in the English language, the earlier ones like Sarojini Naidu tried to make their poems musical as English poetry is customarily not. Indian readers also favour the familiar as against novelty – in terms of both themes and sentiments – which may be attributed to the valourisation of traditional knowledge. Also, one could propose that association between sound and meaning would be strongest when the cultural contexts and sentiments are familiar; novelty might be difficult to accommodate in this schema.

 Examining oral tradition in India and its impact on society, from Vedic literature to larger-than-life actors, politicians

Rajinikanth on the sets of Kaala. Firstpost/Sachin Gokhale

Orality’s influence on cinema cannot also be underestimated, and most popular films were about larger-than-life characters whose traits can be located in the epics. Characters and situations that proliferate in popular films involve transparent emotions without subtlety, since subtlety is the product of literature, in which one can reread a passage. Art films and middle cinema, which use stars like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, cater to a literate public accustomed to reading novels. The new, subtler popular films are the result of cinema increasingly catering to a literate public consequent to the multiplex revolution. Kerala being a highly literate society, it may be expected that its film stars (like Mohanlal) will also be more subtle in their styles of acting – acting out smaller emotions (from the novel) instead of broader ones favoured by stars like Shivaji Ganesan and Rajinikanth, products of orality. This brings us lastly to the attractions of political stars being made stronger by the oral tradition.

How Indians vote has been one of the great mysteries of psephology but it is generally conceded that jati is an overriding factor, alongside religious affiliation and identity group. Secondly, a jati with a leader is more powerful than a jati without one, since the leader, in a sense, embodies the jati as its most visible representative. Jatis and identity groups are therefore constantly on the lookout for leaders – the same way habitual film fans need to seek out film stars to whom they can exhibit devotion. Given this scenario it is likely that the chosen leaders are those in whom followers can project themselves; one does not project oneself into someone like oneself or someone who addresses us rationally, but someone gigantic seen as if on the screen, the archetypal hero. When Mayawati as chief minister of UP put up a gigantic statue of herself, it was perhaps done with good reason: with the aim of making herself larger than life to her followers, and if it invited political wrath, it was not from them. If one looks at the film stars who became successful as politicians, they were those who belonged to dominant jati groups (NT Rama Rao was a Kamma) or represented existing political identities (MGR and the Dravidian movement). Consequently, one could propose that although India is a democracy, the leaders that large segments of the voting public favour are those seemingly of heroic proportions; a Mohanlal, a Nawazuddin Siddiqui or even an Amir Khan would not stand a chance.

Political leaders are not seen by their followers as individuals likely to undertake political actions but as archetypes and emblems, which is why personal scandals have a small effect upon their popularities.

They are not rounded personalities in whom weaknesses – or complexities – can be discovered, but fully formed by belief, two-dimensional projections taken to be what they seem to be. India and the US may both be democracies, but American politicians try to comport themselves publicly to look like one’s friends from the same social circle, in danger of losing one’s trust, which is why even their marital fidelity has a bearing on their careers. Indian politicians are like epic heroes out of the oral tradition, two-dimensional, never to be doubted and carrying the same stable meaning to all their followers.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2019 17:30:31 IST