The Antiquity of Indian Writing
The Theosophist, July, 1894
(Re-print from the Madras Mail.)
If the negative argument as to the newness of Indian writing is entirely worthless, can we build up any positive argument in its place? Let us recall for a moment the history of this negative argument. While examining the Homeric poems, Wolf remarked that, they nowhere mention writing, alphabets, or written letters. From this observation he not unnaturally drew the conclusion that in the days of the Homeric poems writing was unknown to the Greeks. It was believed that the Homeric poems belonged to a period some eight or nine centuries before our era; and from this major and minor premise the conclusion was drawn that some eight or nine centuries before our era the Greeks were ignorant of writing. This argument, fairly sound as it seems, at first sight, was applied to India. It was found that in the writings of the Vedic age no particular stress was laid upon writing; no specific mention was made of written letters; while great tress was laid on the importance of learning the Vedic hymns by heart, and handing them down by memory. It was further believed, on very slender evidence, that all Sanskrit literature not of the Vedic age, belonged to period later than the rise of Buddhism, some six centuries before our era. And from this major or minor premise, just as in the case of the Homeric poems, the conclusion was drawn that writing was not known or commonly used in India until this later period of Sanskrit literature which was supposed to take its rise somewhere just outside the threshold of our era; and that consequently the Vedic Indians were illiterate. Then the whirligig of time brought in its revenges. The hard facts of inscriptions in rock, the names of Greek mercenaries carved on the statue of Aba Simbel, proved quite conclusively that the Greeks were familiar with writing in the eighth or ninth century before our era, at the very time when Wolf’s argument had shown them, satisfactorily enough, to be illiterate. From this quite incontestible and uncontested fact two conclusions can be drawn. These two conclusions are either that the Greeks were perfectly familiar with writing in the days of the Homeric poems,—supposing the Homeric poems to belong to the eighth or ninth century before our era;—and that, consequently, the negative argument from the silence of the Homeric poems on the subject of writing utterly worthless; or, that the Homeric. poems, if really belonging to an illiterate age, were immensely older than had been supposed; were immensely older than the eighth or ninth century before our era. The first of these conclusions,—that the Greeks were quite familiar with writing in the days of the Homeric poems, has been excellently discussed by Mr. Andrew Lang; the second conclusion has not yet been sufficiently examined. Then comes the application of the facts to India. If the first conclusion be right, if the silence of the Homeric poems on the subject of writing is perfectly consistent with their origin in an age when writing was quite familiar to the Greeks; then the silence of tho Vedic literature on the subject of writing is perfectly consistent with its origin in an age when writing was quite familiar to the India. As far as the negative argument is concerned, the peoples of India may have been familiar with writing from the very beginning.
Can we build up any positive argument to take its place? The student of the antiquity of Indian writing may be divided into two schools: those who believe that the Indian alphabets, of which the Nâgarî alphabet is the type, came from a Semitic source; and those who believe that the Indian alphabets arose independently of the Semitic alphabets, and most probably in India itself. Of the first school, who believe that the Indian alphabets have been derived from Semitic models, Dr. Isaac Taylor is certainly the most eminent, sound, and scholarly. His arguments are stated at great length, with wonderful lucidity, and abundant illustration in his monumental work, The Alphabet. To discuss the whole argument would demand a volume. But we may roughly trace its outline. Beginning with the hieroglyphics of Egypt, Dr. Taylor shows the various stages which tho hieroglyphic signs passed through; at first pictures they ultimately came to represent sounds. Then Dr. Taylor shows how a selection of these sound signs was made by a “Semitic people”; and that from this selection the well-known type of western alphabet was derived; taking its name from aleph betti, that is ox and house, the first signs in the earliest Semitic alphabet. This typical alphabet found its way to all western countries, chiefly of the Phœnicians; and our European alphabets are all derived from it. In the first Semitic alphabet there are no vowels, properly so called; only consonants and breathings. The western alphabets gradually developed vowels, according to their needs, by a process which we may illustrate thus. Since Sanskrit words have begun to be represented in western letters the western type-founders have had to devise a wider vowel system. Hence have arisen a series of accented vowels, especially circumflexed vowels, which did not formerly exist, in English for example. Much in this way, the western nations developed vowel signs from the not purely vowel signs of the first Semitic alphabet. In this development of vowels, and in the length it has gone in various alphabets, we have a criterion of their closeness to the Semitic original, and therefore of their antiquity. For instance, if we believe that the first Semitic alphabet dates some fifteen centuries before our era, and if we find that five centuries later, another alphabet has developed five true vowel signs, we may roughly generalise and say that it takes five centuries to develop five vowels. If then, we find another alphabet which has developed only two vowels, we shall be justified in placing it nearer the Semitic original; and in saying, roughly, that it represents two centuries of growth, and therefore dates from two centuries after the Semitic Original; dates, that is, some thirteen centuries before our era. This is only an illustration, it must be remembered; but it fair represents the form of argument which may safely be used to establish the antiquity of an alphabet, and the number of centuries’ growth which it represents. So much for this question from the Western side. Let us approach it from the Eastern. The oldest known and certainly dateable writing in India is the famous series of inscription of the Buddhist King Asoka. These inscriptions, beginning with the words, Devânam Piya Piyadasi, “Priyadarshin, the beloved of the Gods,” are in Pali, the second language of Buddhism; and are in what is best called the Morya alphabet. The forms of this alphabet are chiefly squares and circles; the simplest of all signs that could be used to represent sounds. In only one notable particular does this Morya alphabet differ from the typical Nâgarî alphabet of India, and that is in having only one sibilant instead of three. This peculiarity is due to the fact that there is only one sibilant in Pali. But for this, we may say that the Morya alphabet, the oldest we know in India, is the same alphabet as the Nâgarî; which, masked under superficial differences, is the model of all Indian alphabets, from Hindi and Bengali to Tamil and Telugu. So that, in the days of the Morya alphabet, Indian letters were in practically perfect form, and had reached the last and highest stage of development. Now this last and highest stage of development, with its wonderfully perfect system of vowels, represent many centuries of growth from the Semitic model, supposing the Indian alphabet was derived from a Semitic source. There must, therefore, have been a long period of growth between the adoption of a Semitic model by the Indians, supposing such a model to have been adopted, and the days of the Morya alphabet. Now the days of the Morya alphabet can be fixed with great certainty and precision. We have, on the one hand, mention of certain Western rulers in the Asoka inscriptions, and, on the other, we have the chronology Buddhism. We can therefore say that, in the days of the Buddhist monarch, Asoka, and the Morya alphabet, several centuries of development must be credited to Indian writing. Following up this argument, Dr. Taylor concludes, on perfectly sound and intelligible ground that we must date the antiquity of Indian writing some time, probably several centuries, before the rise of Buddhism, in order to allow time for the high development which we know was practically complete in the days of the Buddhist monarch Asoka. Turning again to the Western side of the question, Dr. Isaac Taylor, who believes that the Indian alphabet is derived from the Semitic source, is led to seek for a Semitic alphabet which might have served as the Indian model. This Semitic alphabet must furnish certain characteristics. It must be old enough to allow for several centuries of growth between its adoption and the days of King Asoka and the Morya alphabet. It must represent a fair likenes to the Morya alphabet in the form and shape of the letters. It must further be shown that its adoption by the peoples of India could naturally and easily have taken place. These three characteristics are furnished by a Semitic alphabet of Arabia Felix, which Dr. Taylor places about a thousand years before our era; and which is therefore old enough to allow of a fairly high development before the days of Asoka. In form it fairly resembles the Morya alphabet, being, like the latter, chiefly formed of squares and circles. It is also fairly accessible to India, as we know that about that time,—three thousand years ago,—Arabia Felix was the inter-port between India and the West. One evidence for this is the use of Indian names for “ivory, apes, and peacocks, and almuq or alqum trees,” in the Hebrew story of King Solomon, whose date is supposed to be about thousand years before our era.
Dr. Taylor supposes that the Indian alphabet was actually derived front this Arabian original, some thousand years before our era; or, roughly, three thousand years ago; and that, consequently, the Indians were acquainted with writing some four or five centuries before Buddha. This is an enormous advance on the Indo-Germanic theory, which placed the beginning of Indian writing some centuries after Buddha; and this advance is made by sure and reliable methods; and not by unreliable negative evidence, as in the case of the Indo-Germanic school. Dr. Taylor’s conclusion is, therefore, this: if Indian writing was derived from, Semitic model, the facts of the case demand that this derivation must have taken place about a thousand years before our era; that is, about three thousand years ago. This is a remarkable instance of the tendency which we have more than once noted recently; the tendency of Indian dates to move back slowly through the ages; the tendency of Indian antiquity to expand and open out into wide and wider spaces. And it is certain that this expansion of India’s past, or rather of our understanding of it, has only just begun and will go far further before it ceases; how far, we as yet only dimly guess.