Beginnings: The Oral Tradition

"Science does not smile on those who neglect the ancients."

- Bhartṛhari (5th Century CE)

Perhaps I am infatuated with them because there is no museum to visit. No crowded, musty building where I can jostle with other tourists for the perfect Instagram angle of a black stone pillar that contains the Sanskrit version of Hammurabi's laws.

The Vedic tribes left no pillars. No stone tablets, no primitive temples. No buildings of any kind. No artwork featuring their old gods, most of whom modern Hindus would barely recognize. No jewels worn by the wives of the great horsemen who were their kshatriya warrior-kings.

There is no consensus about their geographic origin. Historians argue viciously about where they came from and when they recorded their great texts; their ideological arguments spill out all over the Internet, crowding out interesting discussions with hair-splitting tedium. Unfortunately, modern tools of archeology can’t help us put precise dates on their texts, because they were never written down. Carbon dating can’t tell us what memories were stored in their neurons.

There is nothing. But, of course, that's not true at all. There is just nothing physical.

They left us far less and also much more than any of their Bronze Age contemporaries. "It was the civilization in which the invisible prevailed over the visible", says Roberto Calasso.

Check Your Head: The Oral Tradition

"He who studies understands, not the one who sleeps. "

- Rigveda 5.44.13

What they did leave us boggles the mind: a small library full of what they deemed important - rapturous poetic expression, detailed instructions for ritual acts, the glories and failures of their gods, a wide range of spells and magic formulas, and timeless wisdom that would become the foundation for a modern religion with 1.2 billion adherents.

In keeping with the precision and simplicity of their language, they simply called it 'knowledge', or 'Veda'.

Unlike other pre-literate Bronze Age peoples, the Vedic tribes were unwilling to allow their words to dissolve into the ether, like their sacrificial fires. To preserve it, they developed rigorous, ingenious systems. These systems ensured that a select few would hold every syllable of the Veda in their craniums - and pass it down through the centuries, with shockingly high fidelity.

This was a prodigious effort, a core focus of the several tribes who shared verses, innovated on methods of memorization, and eventually organized the whole body of work into four canonical Vedas. The oldest of these, the Rigveda, contains 10,600 verses...verses that were not written down for at least a thousand years. Yet, somehow, they survived fully intact. Historians who agree on almost nothing agree that the modern pandit who chants a shloka on YouTube does so with the same subtle intonations of his great-great-great-great-great-(etc)-grandfather thousands of years ago.

When a human brain stores this much material, it grows. Structural MRIs of living pandits show significant increases in the amount of gray matter across both brain hemispheres, most notably in the right hippocampus, which is associated with pattern recognition. Their right temporal cortex regions were also thicker, and there seems to be general cortical thickness in many regions...

Bigger. Their brains were bigger. And evolution tells us that this is certainly an arena where size matters. Matters for what though? We don't know, but we can speculate.

Okay, got it...it was an oral tradition, how impressive, next factoid please. Move on now, perhaps to something else that is interesting, like spoked-wheel chariots or the precise geometry of their altars or the hundreds of steps involved in a sacrificial ritual.

But I can't move on yet.

Because the medium changes everything, doesn't it? How does the nature of knowledge change when it doesn't exist in print or pixels? When the entire library is located exclusively inside of a few select skulls? How does the significance of philosophy change when it is vibrantly alive, when it must be experienced fully and precisely every time it is referenced? What happens when you are engaging in debate and need a citation, and your only recourse is to do a Google search of an old man's brain?

We will never know, but there are clues in their stories.

The Word & Creation

"The Word, imperishable, is the Firstborn of Truth, mother of the Veda and hub of immortality.

May she come to us in happiness in the sacrifice! May she, our protecting Goddess, be easy of entreaty!"

- Taittirīya Brāhmana II, 8, 8, 5

The Vedas contain several creation stories. Over time, the stories evolve through multiple texts, converging and diverging in fascinating ways. They give us no simple answers - and often end with wonder and bewilderment.

A few of these stories begin with a 'cosmic egg', the Hiranyagarbha (golden embryo) 'that was born from the waters that contained everything'. In this egg is born Prajāpati, the first conscious being and the lord of creation. Prajāpati will create the cosmos; he is the father of the world and all of the gods.

Yet, he begins life powerless - he doesn't even possess the awareness of his own existence. His ability to create is dependent on his female counterpart: Vāc, 'the Word', the goddess of language.

Roberto Calasso in 'Ka':

“Prajāpati sensed he had a companion, a “second” being, dvitīya , within him. It was a woman, Vāc, Word. He let her out. He looked at her. Vāc “rose like a continuous stream of water.” She was a column of liquid, without beginning or end. Prajāpati united with her. He split her into three parts. Three sounds came out of his throat in his amorous thrust: a, ka, ho. A was the earth, ka the space between, ho the sky. With those three syllables the discontinuous stormed into existence.”

The Word is not a record of creation; it is the act of creation itself. Language is a prerequisite for human consciousness, the raw material necessary for the building of the universe. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.", says the Bible. The relationship between the Creator and His Word, Vāc, echoes across religions.

Reading this, you can’t help but think that language had a different quality, a deeper power, before the advent of writing. In modern science fiction, the Matrix is composed of computer code. In their world, it would have been composed of language.

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- Sandeep