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Oral Traditions in Hinduism

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Oral Traditions in Hinduism

The influence of the present day print-dominant culture overshadows the ancient oral traditions in favor of written scriptures in world religions. Even though its true essence may have been lost, it is important to be aware of the fact that in each religion scripture began orally. Hinduism is one of those religions where primacy of the oral is the clearest. Hindu traditions propagate the idea that language can be fully experienced and comprehended only in its oral form and so the "written word" was introduced only as an aid to the oral and not as the main authority. In the light of this belief, the only authoritative way of transmission was oral.

In the Vedas, speech is described as "the creative power of gods and people" (qtd in Coward 163). So, oral speech is not solely for communicational purposes; it is in fact the voice of God. The Hindu tradition understands this as 'daivi vak' or the Divine Word of God. This is the revealed word "spoken by the rsis, heard by the people, and passed on by word of mouth through traditions of highly trained teachers and students right up to present day" (Coward 162). The rsi having rid himself of ignorance and bias through meditation, seeks the Divine Word in all its truth and then voices it as a scripture. Voicing of the scriptural words by the rsis in this way is what led to the practice of mantra chanting. This practice is believed to have the power to "remove ignorance (avidya), reveal truth (dharma) and realize release (moksha)"(Coward 164). The power of speech in Hinduism is not limited to the recitation of its oldest scriptures, the Vedas alone, but it extends to all language and encompasses all scriptures in Hinduism including the Bhagavada Gita and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The 'guru-shishya' tradition, which Coward mentions in his work, is based on fundamental orality and this is responsible for the passing on of the Hindu cultural and religious traditions from one generation to the other. It is a mentoring tradition where the guru or teacher imparts scriptural, moral and ethical knowledge regarding Hinduism, to his student. This is how the original scriptures were upheld and maintained until later when they recorded in writing.

When scriptures are transmitted orally in this way, it is important to make sure that the transmission is extremely accurate and precise because if not, then the meaning can change.

Based on this, the knowledge of the Vedas includes not only its memorization but also the ability to speak the text with correct accent and meter. So, in Hindu oral traditions, special attention is paid to the correct pronunciation of the scriptural verses. Since the "eternal meaning" (Coward 164) is to be revealed, misrepresentations through oral delivery need to be avoided because such distortions can be misguiding in the larger context. For this reason, the Hindu traditions provide the Pratisakhyas, which play an important role

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