The Mahabharata (the Epic) begins with the kavi Suta being asked to tell the story of the Epic as entertainment for the brahmins in the Naimisha forest who are performing a yagna, a Vedic ritual. A typical yagna has many steps with long and short breaks which the brahmins must wait out – they cannot leave the site of the ritual and must be ready for the next step. Suta agrees to tell the story composed by Vyaasa during these breaks.
Almost the first episode narrated by Suta is the story of how the Mahabharata came to be written down. Vyaasa had composed the poem and wanted it written down for posterity’s sake as he recites – he asked Brahma for help; Brahma directed him to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God. Ganesha had some idea of how big the epic was and did not want to do it but Brahma’s instructions to Vyaasa could not be ignored. So Ganesha put a condition that he would leave if Ganesha’s writing caught up with Vyaasa and made Ganesh stop writing, even if only for a short time. The Vyaasa came back with a condition that Ganesha should understand everything that had been recited before he wrote it down. So, from time to time the Vyaasa would compose a difficult-to-understand verse and the God Ganesha puzzled over it to understand it. This gave the Vyaasa, who was only human, breaks for meals, and the other necessities of life.
It is a curious episode. Traditionally, both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Maha Itihasa, or “Great History” as they are called in Sanskrit, are recited. So why does it begin with a story of how it was written down by a God. A simple explanation is that a culture that respects oral transmission might not accept the authenticity of a written work. Written works are easily changed, one palm leaf being replaced by another. A memorised poem cannot be changed as easily – the count of syllables in a section or chapter might be off, the lines may not scan easily, the consensus memory cannot be changed. At the same time, a written work allows one reader to challenge the accuracy of a recitation – an orally transmitted work CAN be changed by consensus. A written work may be modified by anyone with access to a copy – difficult at a time when copies were expensive both in terms of labor and the supplies needed. An oral work could be modified only by a consensus supported by the bards or poets who had memorised the work.
Writing changes the power relationship between the work and its author or memoriser. A written work takes control away from those who have spent a lifetime memorising it. The story of how the Mahabharata came to be written down is an interpolation that seeks to legitimize the written version in the eyes of the kavis/bards – the Mahabharata had been written down by a God working with the original poet!
But why Ganesha? Vyaasa invokes Brahma, the Creator, to write the work and Brahma passes him on to Ganesha. Ganesha is considered the scribe of the Gods, but this appellation comes about because he was the writer of the Mahabharata!
Ganesha is chosen because the Mahabharata is the story of Hastinapur, the Elephant City! Hastinapur is Ganesha’s city, name for him or after him. Asserting that Ganesha wrote down the Mahabharata is equivalent to asserting that the city wrote it down. But cities don’t write epics.
Do cities write stories? It is a rhetorical question. Cities “write” literary works all the time – a metaphor for their sponsoring the work. Ganesha is the right God to write the work because his (the City of Elephants, Hastinapur) city wrote it down!
This brings us to the final question – why did the city want the work written down?
This brings us full circle to the history of Hastinapur. Hastinapur is the only named city in the Puranas that is destroyed in a flood. The flood can be dated for archaeologists have found evidence at the site of Hastinapur of a massive flood in 850 B.C.E., followed by many years during which the city does not exist in archaeological records.
I took this opportunity to speculate that the flood prompted the writing of the work. That many people died in the flood is a possibility. That this included most or all of the poets who had memorised the work is a speculation. The need for a God’s approval indicated that writing was not held in high esteem – this puts Hastinapur at odds with almost every other world culture that held writing in high esteem.
That brings this story to my assumption of a society that had rejected writing for transmitting history and legend as it was enormously successful using oral transmission. This is not a surprise – there are other cultures and organisations that have refused to give up an older, inferior technology because the cost of switching is seen as much more than the immediate benefits. It is not even an ancient dilemma! Some modern examples:
- The dominance of the QWERTY keyboard when a superior alternative called the Dvorak keyboard has existed since the 1920s. Switching over would impose a ten to twenty-five year cost on everyone and this is not seen as acceptable.
- The resistance in the USA to switching over to the decimal system for measures – giving up pounds and miles for kilogrammes and kilometres is an expensive switch.
- The demise of Digital Equipment Corporation as a result of its inability to switch over to manufacturing PCs because of the great profitability of its older “minicomputer” business!
- Socialists with a memory of history might recall Frederic Engels’ argument in Anti-Duhring that a money-free socialist enclave could not exist when surrounded by non-socialist nations, making a socialist revolution an all-or-nothing affair.
The assumption of a prosperous oral island in the midst of a world that writes, gave me the opportunity to explore how an such a culture might work.
Do I think this is what happened?
I don’t know, and I don’t really care. It was truly fun conduct this thought experiment while framing the story from 2000 B.C.E..
Is this how oral cultures actually worked?
I do not know. For all practical purposes, what we call “History” begins in Sumer with writing. Before writing, all was night!
- Anti-Duhring, F. Engels
- Pope’s poem re: Newton (“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in the night. God said ‘Let Newton be’, And all was light.” is the work in its entirety.
Skanda Purana (where the flood is described).
- Wiki pointers for
- Dvorak keyboard
- Digital Equipment Corporation history
- Resistance in the US an UK to switching from the “English” system to the “Scientific” system.
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