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Chapter 7 – Writing – The Beginnings

Literature of all kinds laboured under a curious disability. There were, for a long time, no writing materials – that is, none that could be used for the production and reproduction of books. And the Indians not only did not feel the want of them, but even continued, for centuries after materials had become available, to prefer, so far as books are concerned, to do without them. The state of things thus disclosed, being unique in the history of the world, deserves a detailed exposition.

The oldest reference to writing is in a tract called the Silas, embodied in each of the thirteen Dialogues which form the first chapter of the first division of the Suttantas, or conversational discourses of the Buddha. This tract must therefore have been already in existence as a separate work before those Dialogues were put together by the early, disciples within the first century after the Buddha’s death. The tract on the Silas may be dated, therefore, approximately about 450 B.C. The

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tract contains lists of things a member of the Buddhist Order would not do. And among these is a list of games, one of which is called Akkharika (Lettering), explained as “Guessing at letters traced in the air, or on a playfellow’s back.” As the context201 gives a number of children’s games, this was almost certainly regarded as such. And for children to have such a game, and to call it by the name “Lettering,” shows that the knowledge of an alphabet was fairly prevalent at the time in question..

The collection of canon law laid down for members of the Order under the generic name of Vinaya (Discipline) is in its present shape somewhat, perhaps two or three generations, younger. In it there are several suggestive references.

For instance, writing (lekha) is praised at Vin. iv. 7, as a distinguished sort of art; and whereas the sisters of the Order are, as a rule, to abstain from fi worldly arts, there are exceptions; and one of these is learning to write202. A criminal “who had been written up in the king’s porch” (as we should say “who was wanted by the police “) was not to be received into the Order203. In a discussion as to what career a lad should adopt, his parents say that if he adopt the profession of a “writer” he will dwell at ease and in comfort; but then, on the other hand, his fingers will ache204. Were a member of the Order to write to a man setting out the

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advantage of suicide, then, for each letter in the writing, he commits an offence205.

It is evident, therefore, that writing was in vogue at the time these passages were composed: that it was made use of for the publication of official notices, and for the communication by way of letter between private individuals: that the ability to write was a possible and honourable source of livelihood: that the knowledge of writing was not confined to any particular class, but was acquired by ordinary folk, and by women: and that it was sufficiently prevalent to have been made the basis of a game for children. A long period, probably centuries, must have elapsed between the date when writing first became known to the few, and the date when such a stage could have been reached.

But it is a long step from the use of writing for such notifications, public or private, to the use of it for the purpose of writing down any books, much less an extensive literature. And the very same texts we have just quoted show, and show in a manner equally indisputable, that, for such purposes, writing, however well known, had not yet come into use.

For if books had been known and used in India at the period in question, then the manuscripts themselves, and the whole industry connected with

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them, must have played an important part in the daily life of the members of the Buddhist Order. Now the extant rules of the Order place clearly enough before our eyes the whole of the “personal property” of the community, or of its individuals. Every movable thing, down to the smallest and least important domestic utensil, is referred to; and its use pointed out. And articles in ordinary use among laymen, but not allowed to members of the Order, are mentioned also, in order to be disallowed. But nowhere do we find the least trace of any reference to books or manuscripts.

This is really decisive. It is one of those rare cases where negative evidence, the absence of the mention of something where the mention of it would be reasonably expected, is good evidence. But this is not all. Positive evidence comes in at the precise point where it is wanted. There’ is pretty constant reference to the texts as existing, but existing only in the memory of those who had learnt them by heart. Here we have the explanation of how the difficulty was met.

Thus at Anguttara, 3. 107, the dangers that may eventually fall upon the faith are being discussed. One is that the members of the Order will listen and give heed when poetical, pretty, ornate Suttantas are being repeated, and think them worthy of the trouble of being learnt by heart; but will neglect the deeper, more subtle, more philosophical treatises.

So at Anguttara, 2. 147, among four causes of the decay of religion one is that

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“those Bhikshus who have learnt, much (literally, heard much), to whom the tradition has been handed on, who carry (in their memory) the doctrine, and the discipline, and the indices thereto (that is, the tables of contents drawn up to assist the memory) they (those Bhikshus) may not be careful to make others repeat some Suttanta; and so, when they shall themselves have passed away, that Suttanta will become cut off at the root, without a place of refuge.”

Again at Anguttara, 5. 136, we have the “nutriment” of a list of mental states, the conditions precedent without which they cannot be and grow. One of these states is learning, scholarship. One would expect to find that study, the reading of books, would be its “nutriment.” Not at all. It is said to be “repeating over to oneself.” A chance expression of this sort has particular value. For it implies that the basis of learning was what a man carried in his head, in his memory; and that constant repetition was required to prevent his losing it. It is a sort of expression that would have been impossible if books had been in general use.

In the canon law also we find two suggestive rules. In the Vinaya Texts, 1. 267, the rule is that the Patimokkha, consisting of the 227 Rules of the Order, is to be recited monthly in each “residence” or monastic settlement. And if, among the brethren there, none should know the rules by heart, then they are (not to send for a copy, but) to send one of their younger members to some neighbouring fraternity, there to learn the Patimokkha, either with or

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without the explanations of the several rules, by heart.

Shortly afterwards we have a rule forbidding the brethren to travel in the rainy season. But among the exceptions206 we find the case put that a layman knows how to recite some celebrated Suttanta. “If he send a messenger to the brethren, saying: Might their reverences come and learn this Suttanta, otherwise this Suttanta will fall into oblivion?’“ – then they may go, so important is the emergency, even during the rains.

It is evident from such passages. – and many others might be quoted to a like effect – that the idea of recording, by writing, even a Suttanta, the average length of which is only about twenty pages of the size of this work, did not occur to the men 1 who composed or used the canonical texts. They could not even have thought of the possibility of using writing as a means of guarding against such painful accidents. Yet, as we have seen, the Indian peoples had been acquainted with letters, and with writing, for a long time, probably for centuries before; and had made very general use of writing for short communications. It seems extraordinary that they should have abstained from its use on occasions which were, to them, so important. Now the reason why they did so abstain is twofold.

In the first place writing was introduced into India at a late period in the intellectual development of its people – so late that, before they knew of it, they had already brought to perfection, to a perfection

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unparalleled in the history of the world, another method, and in some respects a very excellent method, of handing down literary productions. They would not lightly give up, for a new-fangled expedient, this tried and ancient one.

In the second place, even had they desired to do so, they could not. For they did not become acquainted, at the same time when they came to know of writing, with the necessary materials for writing lengthy records.

We have only just been able to see clearly this very curious state of things. But we now have three different lines of evidence all converging to a certain date as that of the introduction of writing into India: and it is the knowledge of that date which has led to the true explanation.

The first line is that of the oldest references to writing in Indian literature as set out above.

The second line is the discovery, due originally to Professor Weber, and lately greatly extended and confirmed by Hofrath Dr. Bühler207, that a certain proportion of the oldest Indian letters are practically identical with letters on certain Assyrian weights, and on the so-called Mesa inscription of the seventh and ninth centuries B.C. About one-third of the twenty-two letters of the so-called Northern Semitic alphabet of that period are identical with the oldest forms of the corresponding Indian letters. Another third are somewhat similar. And the remaining third can, with great difficulty, be more or less – generally

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less – harmonised. Other scholars have made similar, but not such satisfactory, comparisons between the Indian letters and those of the Southern forms of the Semitic alphabet. And the conclusion hitherto drawn has been either, with Weber and Baler, that the Indian alphabet is derived from the Northern Semites; or, with Dr. Deecke, Isaac Taylor, and others, that it is derived from that of the Southern Semites, in South Arabia.

Now direct intercourse, at the requisite date, was possible, but not probable, along the coast, between India and South Arabia, where the resemblance is least. No one contends that the Indians had any direct communication with the men who, on the borders of Palestine, inscribed the Mesa stone, where the resemblance is greater. I venture to think, therefore, that the only hypothesis harmonising these discoveries is that the Indian letters were derived, neither from the alphabet of the Northern, nor from that of the Southern Semites, but from that source from which these, in their turn, had been derived – from the pre-Semitic form of writing used in the Euphrates Valley.

As to the date, the derivation must have taken place at a time when the resemblance between the forms of the letters is greatest. It must have been, therefore, in the seventh century B.C. or earlier; for a comparison of later Babylonian or Semitic forms shows no sufficient agreement. And it is to be supposed that the origin of the Indian alphabet is previous to the time when the parent script was written from right to left. For the Indian, like our

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Fig. 25. – Eran Coins

[See pp. 321, 322]

own, runs from left to right. Only the legend on one coin (described in Cunningham’s Coins of Ancient India)208 and a few short inscriptions in Ceylon, not yet published209, run from right to left. Certain groups of letters also, in the inscriptions of the third century B.C., are intended to be read, as we should say, backwards210. The direction of the writing was open to fluctuation when these (by no means the most ancient) records were made.

The third line of evidence is that best brought together by Mr. Kennedy in his article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for 1898. It tends to show:–

1. That continued and extensive trading took place in the seventh century B.C. between Babylon and ports on the west coast of India.

2. That it is highly improbable that there was any such trade much before that time.

3. That it is not at all likely that the Indian

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merchants who went to Babylon went also farther inland, from Babylon to the west; or that they continued their voyages as far as Yemen; or that they reached Babylon overland, by way of the passes, across Afghanistan.

There is still much to be done in the working out of the details of each of these three lines of evidence. No one of them is yet conclusive by itself. But the consensus of all three lends confirmation to each. And it may now be accepted as a working hypothesis that:–

1. Sea-going merchants, availing themselves of the monsoons, were in the habit, at the beginning of the seventh (and perhaps at the end of the eighth) century B.C., of trading from ports on the south-west coast of India (Sovira at first, afterwards Supparaka and Bharukaccha) to Babylon, then a great mercantile emporium.

2. These merchants were mostly Dravidians, not Aryans. Such Indian names of the goods imported as were adopted in the west (Solomon’s ivory, apes, and peacocks, for instance, and the word “rice”) were adaptations, not of Sanskrit or Pali, but of Tamil words.

3. These merchants there became acquainted with an alphabetic writing derived from that first invented and used by the white pre-Semitic race now called Akkadians.

4. That alphabet had previously been carried, by wandering Semitic tribes, from Babylon to the west, both north-west and south-west. Some of the particular letters learnt by the Indian merchants

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are closely allied to letters found on inscriptions recorded by those Semitic tribes, and also on Babylonian weights, both of a date somewhat earlier than the time when the Indians made their trading journeys.

5. After the merchants brought this script to India it gradually became enlarged and adapted to suit the special requirements of the Indian learned and colloquial dialects. Nearly a thousand years afterwards the thus adapted alphabet became known as the Brahma Lipi, the Sublime Writing. What name it bore in the interval – for instance, in Asoka’s time – is not known. From it all the alphabets now used in India, Burma, Siam, and Ceylon have been gradually evolved.

6. When this script was first brought to India in the eighth or seventh century B.C., the Indians had I already possessed an extensive Vedic literature handed down in the priestly schools by memory, and by memory alone. The alphabet soon became known to the priests. But they continued as before to hand down their books by the old method only. It is probable, however, that they began to make use of written notes to aid the memory on which they still, in the main, depended.

7. The material on which the signs had been traced in Babylon was clay. They were traced in India with an iron style, on leaves, or on pieces of bark, chiefly birch bark. No ink was used; and these mere scratchings on such fragile substances were not only difficult to make out, but the leaves or bark were apt easily to be broken up or destroyed.

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8. It was not till long afterwards that a method of preparing large pieces of bark or the leaves of the Corypha talipot palm so as to prevent their breaking was discovered. It was not till long afterwards that an ink was discovered, which could be rubbed over such a leaf with letters scratched upon it, and would then remain in the scratches, thus making the writing easily legible. Till these discoveries had been made there were really no materials practically available for use as books. And it was probably chiefly because of the fact that the need of such materials was not felt that the discoveries were not much sooner made.

9. To say indeed that the need was not felt is, as regards the Vedic schools, not nearly strong enough. The priests were, as a body, exceedingly keen to keep the knowledge of the mantras (the charms or verses), on which the magic of the sacrifice depended, in their own hands. There are some pretty rules about this in the later priestly law-books – rules that received, it should be noted, the cordial approval of Shankara211.

“The ears of a Sudra who listens, intentionally, when the Veda is being recited are to be filled with molten lead. His tongue is to be cut out if he recite it. His body is to be split in twain if he preserve it in his memory212.” The priestly view was that God himself had bestowed the exclusive right of teaching upon the hereditary priests213; who claimed to be, each of them, great divinities214, even to the gods215.

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We cannot, therefore, be far wrong if we suppose they were not merely indifferent to the use of writing as a means of handing on the books so lucrative to themselves, but were even strongly opposed to a method so dangerous to their exclusive privileges. And we ought not to be surprised to find that the oldest manuscripts on bark or palm leaf known in India are Buddhist; that the earliest written records on stone and metal are Buddhist; that it is the Buddhists who first made use of writing to record their canonical books; and that the earliest mention of writing at all in the voluminous priestly literature is in the Vasishtha Dharma Sutra216 – one of the later law books, and long posterior to the numerous references quoted above from the Buddhist canon.

It is, of course, not impossible; a priori, that the priests in India had developed an alphabet of their own out of picture writing; and that it was on to such an alphabet that the borrowed letters were grafted. General Cunningham went even farther. He thought the alphabet was altogether developed, independently, on Indian soil. But we have at present, not only no evidence to that effect, but much the other way. All the present available evidence tends to show that the Indian alphabet is not Aryan at all; that it was introduced into India by Dravidian merchants; and that it was not, in spite of their invaluable services in other respects to Indian literature, to the priests, whose self-interests were opposed to such discoveries, but to traders, and to less prejudiced literary circles, that India

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owes the invention of those improvements in the mechanical aids to writing that enabled the long previously existent knowledge of letters to be applied at last to the production and preservation of books.


201. The whole tract is translated in my Dialogues of the Buddha, vol. i. pp. 3–26. The passage in question is on p. 11.

202. Vin. iv. 305.

203. Ibid. i. 75.

204. Ibid. i. 77; iv. 128.

205. Vin. iii. 76. The expression used for writing is here lekham chindati “scratches a writing.” From this Baler (Indische Päleographie, p. 88) concludes that the material implied is wood. But the reference is to scratching with a style on a leaf.

206. Vinaya Texts, 1. 305.

207. In Part III. of his Indian Studies (2d. ed,, 1898), and in his Indische Päleographie, 1896.

208. The coin No. 1 is reproduced here by the kindness of Mr. Head and Mr. Rapson, from the coin itself, now in the British Museum; No. 2 is in Mr. White King’s collection.

209. See Mr. Wickramasinha’s letter in the J.R.A.S. 1895.

210. See Mr. Wickramasinha’s article in the J.R.A.S. 1901.

211. On the Vedanta Sutras, 1. 3. 38.

212. Gautama, xii. 4–6.

213. Manu, 1. 88.

214. Ibid. ix. 317, 319.

215. Ibid. xi. 85.

216. xvi. 10. 14.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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