The Art of Writing in India

By Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna, Ceylon

Part I

Though the art of writing was known to the ancient Vedic sages, it was used extensively only in the inscriptions of the Indus civilization. Excavations at Harappa, somewhat south of Lahore, and at Mohenjo-Daro show that the pictographic script was well-developed. Careful investigations have indicated that it is comprised of four hundred characters with a variety of diacritical marks, symbols and other signs. Most archaeologists opine that this script is far superior in its practicability to that employed in ancient Mesopotamia and in Egypt. The Harappa inscriptions have been found engraved on copper plates and seals, and painted on pottery. But as no one has been able to decipher them to this day, it is quite impossible at this juncture to evaluate the intellectual life of this buried culture.

It is feasible to assert that the civilization of the Indus valley, which is said to have flourished between 2500 and 1500 B.C., was highly evolved, literate and urban, although, except for the scanty inscriptions thus far discovered, no written records are left. Perhaps its literature was recorded on perishable scrolls which did not survive the long centuries and the natural disasters such as floods, pestilences and typhoons, which are known to have swept away several literate cultures in this part of the world. There is little doubt that the wisdom of these prehistoric forebears was put in writing, but that it inevitably suffered extinction after reaching its acme. For this seems to be an inexorable cosmic law.

Imagine the extent of the lost literature all over the world which was not preserved by way of oral tradition. And how many of the hoary inscriptions that are extant are still undeciphered? What we consider today as the masterpieces of world literature may well be but a drop in the ocean. For example, except for the calendric texts of the Aztecs, our philologists as yet have been able to translate only a small part of their hieroglyphic writings — and these are supposedly of comparatively recent date.

We know that the civilization of the Indus valley was destroyed by the Aryan hordes which poured into India through the northwestern passes; it is not possible, however, to give a fixed date for this invasion because successive waves of nomadic tribes had entered the fertile plains of India in different periods, perhaps even many millennia before the final destruction of the existing culture. There may also have been semi-sedentary pastoral tribes which colonized the northwestern plains as early as the tenth millennium B.C., consisting mostly of herdsmen, who adopted the agricultural life through contact with the original inhabitants. But when — probably in the second millennium B.C.— the fierce Aryan invaders penetrated the Indus valley, the already declining civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro was extinguished. From that time on, until the advent of the Buddha, we do not find any direct evidence of written language in India. The general results were as devastating as those after the Spanish invasion of Peru in the 16th century.

Aggression, invasion and expansionism are some of the characteristically Aryan attributes, and students of history recognize these hereditary psychological instiricts which propelled this race to migrate all over the globe. We all know how Alexander the Great sacrificed his life in striving to realize this racial ambition of building a world empire; and other megalomanias, generated by the doctrine of racial and linguistic supremacy, have occurred even in more recent times. The immortal slogan voiced throughout the ancient Vedas is Krinvantu Visvam Aryam, which means, "Aryanize the whole universes." This clarion call has repeatedly echoed in the hearts of this race, even at the peak of its spiritual and moral culture, and despite its wonderful systems of religion and philosophy. Moreover, it has always been customary for the Aryans to absorb the high cultural patterns and the enviable ethics of their captives; at times the more militant among them also attempting to represent the alien arts and sciences as their own invention.

After the fall of the Indus civilization, the victorious Aryans may have learned the art of writing from the native population. As early as the tenth century B.C., cultural and commercial connections between Greece and India existed. Eminent European Indologists and scholars have frequently pointed to the fact that in succeeding centuries both Indian sages and Greek philosophers used to assemble in the courts of Asia Minor and Persia for the interchange of ideas on medicine, astrology, religion, philosophy and science. We have every reason to believe that the art of writing had already reached maturity in India by the time the Greeks became acquainted with the Phoenician alphabet (even the very word is Phoenician) somewhere in the middle of the sixth century. For the Ionians it was of great benefit in their dealings with Phoenician traders to learn the "Phoenician letters," as they called them. Contracts could be drawn up, and also navigational instructions for the guidance of sailors. Professor F. Max Muller tells us in one of his memorable lectures:

Writing at that time was an effort, and such an effort was made for some great purpose only. Hence the first written skins were what we should call Murray's Handbooks, called Periegesis or Periodos, or, if treating of sea voyages, Periplus, that is, guidebooks, books to lead travellers round a country or round a town. Connected with these itineraries were the accounts of the foundations of cities, the Ktisis. Such books existed in Asia Minor during the sixth and fifth centuries, and their writers were called by a general term, Logographi, or Logioi or Logopoioi, as opposed to Aoidoi the poets. They were the forerunners of the Greek historians, and Herodotus (443 B.C.), the so-called father of history, made frequent use of their works.

But, as Professor Muller points out, from written contracts and guidebooks to genuine literature is still a great step; and this step had to be taken in every civilization. Northern Germanic races carved their runes on tombstones and drinking vessels — but their inscriptions were not literature.

India went through a similar phase after the Aryan invasion had destroyed the Indus civilization. Perhaps, during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., the pictographic script was employed side by side with the syllabic script in recording commercial activities and issuing royal commands. Most of the European Indologists are of the opinion that the alphabet was introduced to India by the non-Aryan Dravidian merchants who had maritime trade with Babylon and various ports on the coast of South Arabia. Professors Albrecht Weber and J. G. Buhler attempted to prove that many of the letters in the Northern Semitic alphabet are quite similar to the oldest letters used in India during that period. Prof. Weber and his colleague did not live long enough to verify their hypothesis with the newest discoveries. It may be that in the not too distant future some archaeologist will succeed in deciphering the mercantile memoranda and the short inscriptions found on the seals and pottery of the Indus civilization. This would undoubtedly open a new chapter in the prehistory of India.

The oldest form of alphabet in India is called the Brahmi Lipi, and it may be rightly regarded as the progenitor of all the Indian alphabets, both Aryan and non-Aryan. Some experts believe that the Indian system of letters originated in India itself, with possibly a few letters having been borrowed from the Akkadians. Our extensive researches have convinced us that the Aryans who migrated to India in different periods between the tenth and the second millennia B.C. may well have inherited a system of writing based on the notches of their Cro-Magnon forebears.

The art of writing, however, had to face another crisis in India during the ensuing centuries — that of exclusivism. The Brahman priests monopolized for themselves the religious hymns of the Vedas and the ballads which the Aryans sang in praise of the deified natural forces, thus usurping as much power as possible. Dr. T.W.Rhys Davids writes:

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 so it was that with the advent of the Buddha the art of writing was given renewed impetus, and began to rise in leaps and bounds from the gloomy limbo where it had been concealed for so long by the Brahman priests.


Part II

We have seen in the preceding article, there was a very long intervening blank period between the extinction of the Indus valley script and the emergence of a new and highly evolved form of writing. It seems to have been a transitional time during which the pictographic system developed into a sophisticated syllabic one. Some centuries prior to the advent of the Buddha, this syllabic alphabet had been invented by Indian sages, attaining its highest maturity in the edicts of Emperor Asoka (274-237 B.C.), which he had had inscribed on huge pillars and rocks throughout the length and breadth of his extensive empire.

Even at the time of the Buddha himself, which was a glorious epoch in many ways, writing was at a discount. Therefore it is all the more startling to find that he used this means of communication when responding to the entreaty of a young princess of Ceylon to enlighten her in his sublime doctrine. This legend of Muktalata ("Pearl-creeper") was put into lucid Sanskrit by the reputed poet Kshernendra (11th century A.D.) and was entitled, "Avadana Kalpalata." It is of great historical interest, since it clearly shows the high degree of literacy prevalent in India and Ceylon during that period. The following selection (the whole poem consists of 24 stanzas) may give an impression:

Merchants from Sravasti's town,
Happily it so befell,
Crossed the vast and perilous sea,
Came to trade in Lanka's isle.
And they sang the sacred Gathas,
As their nightly sleep they sought;
Sang the lay which doth proclaim
Precepts that our Master taught.
From her inner palace chambers
Mukta heard the beauteous song,
Bade the merchants to her presence,
Asked them what it was they sung.
And they told the raptured maiden,
"Princess! it is Buddha's word,
He is bounteous to all creatures,
Of all creatures he is Lord."
. . . . . 
Eagerly the pea-fowl hears
Thunder's sound, presaging rain;
Eagerly she heard the name;
Who this Lord? — she asked again.
. . . . . 
By the merchants' tale reminded
Of her previous humble birth,
Unto them she gave a letter
For great Buddha, Lord of Earth.
And the traders crossed the ocean,
Reached their own, their native land,
Spoke to Buddha of the princess,
Gave her letter in his hand.
. . . . . 
Thus our Master, blessed Buddha,
Briefly read the loving note,
And a gentle smile betokened
All the workings of his thought.
And with skill and knowledge wondrous
Which the painters never knew,
For the princess of Simhala
On a sheet his likeness drew.
By his mandate all the merchants
In their vessels sailed anew,
Reached Simhala, to the princess
Gave the sheet our Master drew.
. . . . . 
Written under that sweet likeness,
All the people, wondering truly,
Saw the holy Three Asylums,
Saw the Five Instructions holy!
And the Noble Eightfold Path,
Sweetly writ, with wisdom rife,
With the Doctrine of Causations —
Life to death, and death to life!
. . . . . 
And the monarch's noble daughter
Viewed the likeness fair and holy,
And was freed from all the longings
Bred of ignorance and folly.
. . . . . 
Bowing, till the budding blossoms
From her ears and ringlets rained,
With them earthly joys discarding,
Truth supreme the princess gained.

This legend of the "Pearl-creeper" is not known to many Buddhist scholars, and the poet Kshemendra should ever be remembered for preserving this unique epistle, for it gives us some idea of the cultural atmosphere prevalent in India and Ceylon during the sixth century, B.C. It also attests to the literary skill of the Buddha himself, who was undoubtedly the greatest academician among the world teachers. Countless other sources tell of his studies of the many syllabic and pictographic writings of his day. From the vivid descriptions in ancient Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhistic works, and even from those in the rival literatures of the Jains and Vedantins, we may safely deduce that the Buddha had mastered all the sciences, arts and languages known in India at that time. No better
biographical sketch of the education of Sakyamuni can be found than that given in the charming poem of Sir Edwin Arnold in the Light of Asia, in which he so skillfully preserved the pristine beauty of the original Sanskrit. As teacher for the young prince the king had chosen Viswamitra, "the wisest one." And when the prince, with ox-red sandalwood slate and writing stick, stands before the sage, Viswamitra says:

"Child, write this Scripture," speaking slow the verse
"Gayatri" named, which only High-born hear: —

. . . . . 

"Acharya, I write," meekly replied
The Prince, and quickly on the dust he drew —
Not in one script, but many characters —
The sacred verse; Nagri and Dakshin, Ni, . . .
The pictured writing and the speech of signs,
Tokens of cave-men and the sea-peoples, . . .

Then his teacher changes subjects:

"Let us to numbers.
After me repeat
Your numeration till we reach the Lakh,
One, two, three, four, to ten, and then by tens
To hundreds, thousands." After him the child
Named digets, decads, centuries; nor paused,
The round lakh reached, but softly murmured on,
"Then comes the koti, nahut, ninnahut, . . .
. . . unto padumas,
Which last is how you count the utmost grains
Of Hastigiri gound to finest dust;
But beyond that a numeration is,
The Katha, used to count the stars of night;
The Koti-Katha, for the ocean drops;
Ingga, the calculus of circulars; . . ."

The rest of the poem gives a clear idea of the extent of the curriculum which this crown prince of a state in Northern India had to master. We have here an interesting parallel between the King Suddodhana of Kapilavastu appointing the sage Viswamitra as teacher for Prince Siddhartha and King Philip of Macedonia selecting the great philosopher Aristotle to be preceptor to Prince Alexander. In both of these Aryan princes the age-old dream of establishing an invinsible universal empire was engrained in their racial soul; but while the one spent most of his short life in military expeditions in an effort to expand the borders of his kingdom, Prince Siddhartha bade adieu to a worldly realm in order to establish an imperishable eternal empire of the spirit. However, King Suddodhana strongly believed in the prediction that his son would be a world monarch and therefore had him instructed in all the Vedas, systems of mysticism, arts, sciences and languages. It is noteworthy that the young prince was taught to decipher even the pictographs and sign language of cave dwellers and those plying the seas.

All the above serves to show that the art of writing was not at all in a primitive state in Southern Asia when the Buddha came upon the scene, and that a knowledge of several scripts was extant. In breaking the overruling strength of the Brahmin priests, who for so long had kept in their exclusive control the knowledge of writing, the doors were opened wide. It is difficult to imagine what Buddhism had to overcome in the way of entrenched prejudice and indifference, but changes came rapidly. Even in the earliest treatises on Buddhist discipline (Vinaya Pitaka) the Chief Elders or Theras highly praised the profession of the scribe as a very respectable occupation.

Just as some of the zealous Christian missionaries in the not too distant past invented alphabets in some parts of the world to disseminate the wisdom of the Bible among illiterate communities, so the Buddhist missionaries went in all directions of the compass and became the earliest champions of literacy far beyond the borders of India. They were the promoters of the art of writing, if not the actual progenitors of some of the alphabets in vogue even at the present time throughout Southern Asia.

 (From Sunrise magazine, February, 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)


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