Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Our metrosexual pantheon

Ages ago, my friend Vijayanand asked me something for which I still don't have an answer:
Why do our gods look so feminine?

Is it Ravi Varma's legacy?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Our ancients couldn't write? (Updated)

The traditional way in which Sanskrit letters are arranged in the varamālā has a phonological significance. A subset:

Labialpphbbh m


In an interesting post, Dr. Kerim Friedman says:
The sounds are listed in order of where in the mouth the sound is produced: gutturals (produced in the throat) first, and labials (produced by the lips) last, with a steady progression in between[1]. I am curious when this ordering became standard.
In response, I referred him to a Hindu report, where one Dr B. S. Ramakrishna attributes this scientific arrangement to Pāṇini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian.

However, Dr. Ramakrishna errs when he makes a reference to Devanagari:

[Pāṇini]'s well-researched arrangement of the alphabet of Devanagiri (sic) script was a unique effort.

The Devanagari script, used these days for Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi, came into existence pretty late - in the 13thcentury A.D. There is no way the 5th century B.C. grammarian could have written in this script. Even the earliest known Indic scripts, Brāhmi and Kharoṣṭhī, are attested only from the 3rd century B.C. So which script did Panini employ?

Or rather, could he write at all?

[Panini] anticipates much of the methodology of modern formal grammar: his grammar is generative and in some respects transformational. It cannot, however, be compared very directly with modern formal grammars, since its form is geared to the needs of oral transmission, and Pāṇini could not avail himself of the mathematical symbols and typographical conventions of the written page. The work was so brief that it could be recited from beginning to end in a couple of hours. [2]
[Emphasis mine.]

It is not known whether Pāṇini himself used writing for the composition of his work. Some people argue that a work of such complexity would have been impossible to compile without written notes, while others allow for the possibility that he might have composed it with the help of a group of students whose memories served him as 'notepads.' [Wikipedia]

We know that the oral transmission of texts was emphasised, but does this mean there was no written form of Sanskrit till the 3rd century B.C.? I think it improbable.

So when Vināyaka broke off a part of his tusk to transcribe the Mahabhārata, to write in which script did he break it off?

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Update: Dr Richard Salomon, via Sunil, provides the answers:

On the phonological ordering:
This is an interesting, but not simple question. The "ka-kha-ga-gha" order, or better, the "varna-samāmnāya," is hard to date precisely. Panini (who himself is hard to date) doesn't use it as such, but his own technically devised special ordering, the Siva-sūtras, is usually understood to presuppose it. It actually occurs as such only in relatively late technical texts such as Prātisākhyas. All of this suggests that the varna-samāmnāya ordering principle goes back well into the BC period, but no more specific or definite answer can be meaningfully given.

If there was writing in Panini's time:
The other question is whether Panini's system presupposes or requires writing at all. This has been quite controversial, but most scholars nowadays would say no; it can be, and probably is, a purely oral/mnemonic system. (Some European "armchair" scholars of earlier decades thought this was impossible, but direct acquaintance with Indian pedagogy and oral traditions have convinced later generations of western scholars that it is quite possible.)

This does not however mean that there was no writing in Panini's time; this question remains open, especially since we don't know exactly what his time was. Most reputable scholars nowadays tend to think about 5th or 4th centuries BC. Writing systems that might have been familiar at the time in his area (Saalatura, now in NWFP, Pakistan) include Greek, Aramaic, and Kharosthi. But since the earliest actual specimens of Kharosthi and Brahmi date only from the time of Asoka (3rd c. BC), it remains uncertain whether they had developed yet by the time of Panini. This is still quite controversial, but the tide of opinion nowadays is that Brahmi, at least, was invented quite late, i.e. in the Mauryan period. A better case can be made for an older date for Kharosthi (5 or 4th century BC), but there's no firm evidence.

These are questions I am very much interested in and have written/am writing about... You can also check my Indian Epigraphy book (esp. ch. 2) from 1998--but it's already out of date. Interesting developments are happening these days in the study of the history of writing/literacy in ancient India.

On writing and the Mahabharata's Vinayaka legend:
[T]he legend of Vinayaka is a late accretion. But then the date of the Mahabharata is--here we go again--a big problem. Most scholars would put its final form to a relatively late date, sometime in at least the early AD period.
[Slightly reformatted.]
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Other posts on language: One, Two.

[1] Palatal consonants are articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate. Retroflex consonants are articulated with the tongue placed behind the alveolar ridge.