Of all the great civilizations of the ancient world (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China), India has arguably had the most difficult time separating fact from fiction in the historical record. The reason for this is probably due to the lack of written records for most of India’s history. After the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, it appears that writing disappeared from the Indian subcontinent, and we are left with little to no written records of what happened in the ensuing thousands of years until around the fourth century BCE. This does not mean that we do not know what happened, though.
For centuries, the importance of oral tradition in studying history was underestimated by the mainstream academic community, but that view underwent a paradigm shift during the latter half of the 20 th century, thanks to the work of notable historians and linguists such as Walter Ong and J. M. Foley. With this shift in how historians approached oral tradition came the realization that for most of human history, oral tradition was the only way for communities to retain and reference valuable information across generations. And of all the places where oral tradition dictated history, India probably has the most extensive amount of historical information saved in the form of hymns, songs, and epic poems.
In Egypt and the Middle East, the arid and dry climate meant you could leave a large stash of papyrus reeds in clay jars lying in a cave and still read them after a couple of thousand years. Furthermore, mud from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East was used to fashion clay tablets, which were effectively fired and preserved by the very fires that consumed the libraries and cities they were housed in: a regular phenomenon during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
In contrast, India has a climate that is warm and wet for most of the year. In the humid, monsoon-soaked air of the subcontinent, the pages of modern books start to go yellow within a couple of years of owning them, despite storing them in a cool and dry place. Oral tradition was the best, and perhaps the only way to save the stories of great deeds and wars, and the men and women who shaped your society.
For people today, there are countless, easy ways to compose and save information through the written word. The ability of an ancient bard to save information in the form of song might seem extraordinary. But think about it: can you replicate, word-for- word, your favourite passage from your favourite book? Probably not: I know I can’t. But I can sing an entire rock album from memory, without having to look their lyrics up. Listen to an old favourite that you haven’t heard for a few years, and you will be surprised to find that you still somehow remember the words.
Songs, hymns, poems – these literary media probably began as mnemonic devices for humans to save important information. Eventually, full-time bards emerged; people whose entire life was dedicated to composing, telling, and re-telling stories, sometimes just the same story over and over again. Sometimes new information was woven into the narrative, which resulted in events that might have occurred across different generations and different individuals being condensed and synthesized into one story.
For example, from the Iron Age to the modern day, wherever young people are taught the Vedas, they are first trained to recite the words of each hymn with perfect enunciation. It is many years before any of them have any idea of what they’re saying, but they say it with the same flow, diction, and cadence as their Gurus and their Gurus before them, in a tradition stretching back thousands of years. It is hardly surprising that the oral tradition emerged as the preferred medium for transcribing history, in a society where written records decayed within a few years.
India’s tryst with oral tradition is a bit of a chicken and egg riddle. Was the oral tradition a communal response to the climate and geography of the country, which did not allow written records to survive for very long? Or was the other way round, and written history never took off in India because the oral tradition was far more effective? The verdict is not in on this as yet, but with the majority of historians and archaeologists now treating oral tradition as an equal source of information about India’s ancient past, the possibilities of gleaning new histories and finding alternative views to the established narrative are growing exponentially.