(GIST OF YOJANA) Oral Tradition and Indian Literature

(GIST OF YOJANA) Oral Tradition and Indian Literature


Oral Tradition and Indian Literature


  • A large portion of ancient Indian literature is a manifestation of the spoken word and it belongs to the oral tradition as far as its preservation is concerned. The Vedas have been preserved without the loss of a single syllable through a complex and intricate system of recital down the centuries. The writing was introduced much later in Indian history due to the influence of the foreign scholars, and literature as writing emerged only during the British regime.
  • We also have to consider the fact that Western civilisation is book-centred, but the book does not exercise the same power and authority in the context of Indian culture.


  • The essential culture of India is embodied by a living individual who not only interprets the norms of culture but also acts as a frame of reference. The norms are meaningless unless they are translated into human speech and action conceptually, at least, the mind, speech, and action form a single, unified entity.
  • Ancient India had both ‘writing’ and ‘speech’ and the basic distinction between them defined their functions too. Writing which is alienated from the writer or the author survives him and therefore is meant for the consumption of the posterity. Speech, on the other hand, which being a living part of the speaker’s personality is meant in order to communicate with a live audience.

Literary works:

  • The works of Patsipa, the first Kannada poet of the 10th Century, have the characteristics of a written work. In one of the introductory verses, which have been distorted due to the brittleness of the palm Deaf, Pampa says that he composed the historical narrative of the Mahabharata and presented it as an ‘inscription’ to the world. The form of Pampa’s great epic closely resembles that of a long ‘inscription’. An inscription is writing in its pure form.
  • The immediate purpose of Pampa’s epic was to commemorate the historical deeds of his patron-prince, Arikesari. Again, Pampa’s poem abounds in the metaphors of ‘inscriptions’, ‘text’ and ‘writing’.
  • Pampa lived during a time when the vernacular languages of India were being raised to the status of writing, and the chief purpose of the writing then was to commemorate. Pampa found contemporary history as exciting as that of the Mahabharata and what he presented in his poem is the metaphorical relation between the two ages.
  • The form of a written poetic text is a ‘closed’ one due to the spatiality of the writing. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The structure of the poem is tight and so accurate that if you add even a word to it or remove something from it, the structure gets disturbed. The meaning of the poem depends upon the structure, and the structure embodies the meaning. The most favourite trope of Pampa, for example, is ‘Sahokti’, which is the expression of two similar events that happen simultaneously.
  • All these poetic devices are possible only in a written text. The writer can stop for a while to think after narrating an event, and thus can depict not only the event that takes place but also can provide his own commentary on that, a process in which both fact and its consciousness gets intermingled. Pampa is conscious of the fact that the meaning of the poem lies in the relationship of the mythological past and the historical present.
  • The oral tradition in India is still prevalent, especially in the area of folk literature. The ballad singers have a rich repertory of a variety of songs which they sing to a large audience.
  • The plays performed by Talamaddale groups are without a dramatic script and even the plays called ‘Sannatas’ are, to a great extent, improvised. Folk stories are, without any exception, tales told by grandparents to children.
  • All Indian languages, except Sanskrit, when they reached the status of writing, continued to develop their literature, drawing inspiration from both written and oral traditions. In India, the oral tradition does not belong to a pre-literate age representing a primary condition of civilisation. On the other hand, both traditions can co-exist in a given period of Indian history. The folk traditions have been alive even during the present century. The main reason for this curious co-existence of these traditions is the fact that these two traditions, although they represent separate sets of values, are not ethically different from each other. Literacy in India is not the only way to cultural and spiritual experiences.


  • We don’t know what will happen to the oral tradition in modem times of urbanisation and industrialisation. Campaigning for complete literacy has gained speed and we know that the purpose is purely political. The best we can do is to preserve some of the skills from total extinction. Some of our religious rituals in which recitals are compulsory and some of our art forms in which eloquence is an inevitable clement can be of great help.



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Courtesy: Yojana