"Writing" in ancient India & EBT

Now we actually have several references to “writing” or writing tools in Pali texts. Does this mean that writing was used in the time of Buddha? Or that those references in the Pali text are late additions? :thinking: :face_with_monocle:


Both arguments have been made. Obviously writing was widespread in the time of Ashoka, so it’s really about the length of time that it ramped up to that degree.

I think it’s likely that there was writing to a limited extent, but for a long time it was only used for “worldly” matters: trade, personal letters, government. And the materials were not yet developed: no birch bark or palm leaf manuscripts, probably just dried leaves or the like. Enough to tally the contents of a caravan, or send a short notice from king to governor, but not for complex texts.


See also the related discussion about the same topic here: Piṭakasampadā and the written scriptures in the early Buddhism period


Ven. @sujato, friend @seniya,
Indeed it’s puzzling and curious! What could have prevented a sufficiently developed civilisation from using writing even well before Buddha? But we have the Greeks with a very similar situation. Some argue that they just didn’t really care about record keeping and documentation. And there are also speculations about how the brahmins may have viewed the veda in a written form as a sort of blasphemy or serious challenge to their authority, though this is disputed.

@seniya many thanks for sharing the link to the earlier discussion.

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The question of sacredness is, I believe, overblown. Usually notions of the sacred will quietly find a way to conform with what is practical. The real reason why scriptures were not written is, I think, technological. Memory was a superior technology to writing, given the materials available.

The people of the time had, in the Vedas, evidence of large scriptures that were maintained accurately for long periods of time in memory. They had no such assurance when it came to written texts. The leaves in use for writing were transient and fragile. In the Indian climate it is hard to make lasting writing materials; even paper gets old fast in the tropics. Moreover, writing required expensive inks and preparation of materials, and secure, solid buildings. It’s expensive. Getting monastics to memorize things is cheap.


Venerable @sujato … This is quite convincing and attested to by the fact that we’ve lost manuscripts from much much later times even in more hospitable environments.

Though, as I continue my Pali reading and translations, I have been heeding with increasing conviction the observations made by some researchers about how confidence in the efficacy of memorisation is also overblown(!), and how (much) writing must have been involved in both processes of preservation and makeup of what we have today as the Pali Canon!

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