Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How Old Is Indian Writing?

It is generally known that modern Indian scripts such as Devanagari, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, are less than two thousand years old and that they sprang from Brahmi, which, in turn, is at least 2,500 years old. Early writings of Brahmi, discovered in Sri Lanka, have been dated tentatively to about 500 BC; the more commonly known Brahmi records belong to the reign of the Mauryan King Ashoka (250 BC). The Indus script (also called Harappan or Sarasvati) was used widely during 2600-1900 BC. It's beginning has been traced back to 3300 BC and its use continued sporadically into the late centuries of the second millennium BC. 

The Brahmi script is the parent not only of the Indian scripts but also of most of other Asian scripts (see map below). It also influenced the development of the Japanese and the Korean scripts. 

We know that writing was prevalent in India prior to 500 BC. Written characters are mentioned in the Chhandogya and the Taittiriya Upanishad, and the Aitareya Aranyaka refers to the distinction between the various consonant classes. The voluminous Vedic texts also contain hints of writing in them. For example, Rigveda 10.71.4 says:

utá tvaH páshyan ná dadarsha vaácam utá tvaH shRNván ná shRNoty enaam

One man has never seen Vaak, yet he sees; one man has hearing but has never heard her.
Since Vaak is personified speech, it suggests knowledge or writing. Another verse (RV 10.62.7) mentions cows being marked by the sign of "8".

The Atharvaveda (19.72) speaks of taking the Veda out of a chest (kosha), and although it may be a metaphor for knowledge coming out of a treasure house, it could equally have been meant in a literal sense.

The traditional date for the Rigveda is about 3000 BC, with the later Vedic texts and the Brahmanas coming a few centuries later. The Aranyakas, Upanishads and the Sutras are, in this view, dated to the 2nd and early 1st millennia. The astronomical evidence in the texts is in accord with this view. Furthermore, the currently accepted date of 1900 BC for the drying up of the Sarasvati river, hailed as the mightiest river of the Vedic age with its course ranging from the mountain to the sea, implies that the Vedas are definitely prior to this date.

It is also significant that the Brahmana texts speak of the drying up of the Sarasvati as a recent event.
This brings the Vedas to the period of the use of the Indus script in India. It is also significant that the geography of the Harappan region corresponds to the geography of the Rigveda.

Even if one accepted the colonial chronology of ancient India, the period of the Rigveda corresponds to the later period of the Harappan culture.

This means that the Indus script is likely to have been used to write Sanskrit and other languages spoken in the 3rd millennium India, just as Brahmi was used to represent north and south Indian languages 2,500 years ago.

I personally disagreed with the late Professor R.N. Dandekar on several of his views on ancient Indian culture, but he was right when he said: "There is, indeed, considerable circumstantial and inferential character which enables us to perceive the existence of writing even in the very early periods of Indian cultural history... It is true that the Veda has been handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. It must not, however, be supposed that on that account, as is often erroneously done, that the art of writing was unknown in the early Vedic age. The practice of oral transmission of Veda was adopted, not because written copies of these texts were not available, but presumably because it was believed that oral transmission alone was more conducive to the preservation of the magico-religious potency and the formal protection of those arts. On the contrary, it may, indeed, be argued that it is almost unimaginable that such an extensive and highly complex literature such as the Veda and its ancillary texts dealing with subjects like phonetics, prosody and astronomy, much of which, again, is in prose form, was produced and propagated without the knowledge of writing."

There are many competing theories about the nature of the Indus script. The main difficulty with "proving" any decipherment is that the texts are very short.

Some historians believe that Brahmi is derived from one of the West Asian scripts and, indeed, there are interesting similarities between their characters for several sounds. On the other hand, there is a remarkable continuity between the structures of Indus and Brahmi. Since a script can be used to write a variety of languages -- even unrelated -- the question of structural relationship is particularly interesting.

Indus and Brahmi connections become evident when one considers the most commonly occurring letters of the two scripts. In a series of articles in Cryptologia, I examined these connections for similarity in form, case endings for inscriptions and the sign for "ten". The parallels are extraordinary and the probability that they arose by chance is extremely small.

Since the technical arguments related to the relationship between the two scripts are beyond the scope of this article, let me reproduce the ten most likely letters from the two scripts (Tables 1 and 2). 

Notice that the three most commonly occurring letters in both the scripts are the "jar", the "fish" and the "man". The number of matches in the ten signs is 7; the probability of this happening by chance is less than 10-12

It is also remarkable that the "fish" sign is used as a symbol for "10" in the Indus (used without the gills; it's such use was determined by a statistical analysis) and the Brahmi scripts, although the Brahmi "fish" for "10" is shown sideways.

Regarding the similarities between Brahmi and early Semitic scripts, it should be noted that Indic kingdoms, in which Sanskrit names were used, were prominent in West Asia in the second millennium BC. Just as in the Vedic system, the Ugaritics, a people closely related to the Phoenicians and the Hebrews, have 33 gods. More importantly, Yahvah, the name of the God in the Judaic tradition, occurs as an epithet for Agni in the Rigveda a total of 21 times (yahva in RV 10.110; yahvah in RV 3.1, 3.5, 4.5, 4.7, 4.58, 5.1, 7.6, 7.8, 9.75, 10.11; yahvam in RV 1.36; 3.3; 4.5; 5.16; 8.13; 10.92; yahvasya in RV 3.2 and 3.28). Indus ideas on writing may thus have, through the agency of the powerful Mitanni kingdom of Syria, been influential in the various Semitic traditions of the second and first millennia BC. 

I hope this note will spur readers to undertake a more extensive study of the statistical and structural connections between Indus and Brahmi writing and also examine the Indic influence in West Asia during the Mitanni age.

External Links:

  • http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/9594/brahmi.html : Brahmi-related scripts
  • http://www.ancientscripts.com/brahmi.html : Brahmi
  • http://www.ancientscripts.com/kharosthi.html : Kharoshthi
  • http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/writ.pdf : My IJHS article on the evolution of writing in India (but this web version lacks figures). For details, see:
  • S. Kak, 1988. A frequency analysis of the Indus script. Cryptologia. 12:129-143.
  • S. Kak, 1989. Indus writing. Mankind Quarterly. 30:113-118.
  • S. Kak, 1990. Indus and Brahmi: Further Connections. Cryptologia. 14:169-183.
  • S. Kak, 1994. Evolution of early writing in India. Indian Journal of History of Science. 29: 375-388.
  • S. Kak, 1996. An Indus-Sarasvati signboard. Cryptologia. 20: 275-279.
  • http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/akhena.pdf : The Mitannis in West Asia

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