Buddhism Oral and Literate Traditions
Daniel Veidlinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0120


The Indian world in which Buddhism arose was an oral world. The general scholarly consensus is that writing was not used in India until the Mauryan period sometime in the 3rd century BCE and that it was not used to record Buddhist texts until the 1st century BCE, when the Pali canon was written down for the first time in Sri Lanka. Every Sutta starts with the phrase evaṃ me sutaṃ (thus have I heard), which reflects the oral lineage of these texts. Specialized monks, known as bhāṇakas, were charged with the task of memorizing the texts and this tradition continued for many centuries after the texts were committed to writing. Mahāyāna texts, on the other hand, were written down from the start of this tradition and Mahāyāna reverence for writing is probably a reflection of that technology’s important role in the dissemination of its ideas. Since the 1960s there has been a growing amount of scholarship on the differences between oral and literate forms of communication, some of which has been directed toward examining this topic in the context of the Indian environment and Buddhism specifically. Major questions include the following: Were the early Buddhist texts improvised around a core set of ideas or transmitted in a fixed form? How did the structure of the texts reflect the methods of their transmission? What techniques were used to help memorize the texts and later to write them down? What was the relationship of the written to the oral tradition during the long period when they existed together? How did the medium affect the way the ideas of the religion were assimilated by its adherents?

General Overviews

A book-length introductory study of orality and literacy in the Buddhist world is still a desideratum, but a number of such studies examine the topic as it applies to European countries such as Greece, of which Havelock 1986 is a fine example. Other general studies of writing (Martin 1995) and orality (Finnegan 1977) are also relevant because they prepare the student to approach this topic through more specialized works on India and Buddhism. Rocher 1994, a short paper on orality and literacy, focuses mainly on the Brahmanical tradition, which brings up many points salient to the Buddhist world as well. For a general introduction to early Indian manuscripts and their artistry, no better work can be found than Losty 1982, which includes learned text and numerous full-color plates, and for Buddhist texts specifically that also includes texts and plates, Grönbold 2005 is the most complete volume available. Berkwitz, et al. 2009 is a superb collection of articles covering a wide range of subjects related to the life of Buddhist manuscripts in different regions. Wynne 2004 outlines the basic arguments that have been articulated over the past few decades about the manner in which early Buddhist texts were composed and transmitted.

  • Berkwitz, Steven C., Juliane Schober, and Claudia Brown, eds. Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual and Art. London: Routledge, 2009.

    The best collection available of articles on literate culture, manuscripts, and their relation to the oral tradition. Contributions include discussions by excellent scholars on manuscripts from China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Gandhāra, Nepal, and Mongolia.

  • Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    Well-written and lucid introduction for undergraduates to the literary and sociological features of oral poetry, although India is only rarely mentioned. Discusses a wide range of topics such as the ideas of composition during performance, the uses of repetition, as well as the stylistic and structural features of oral poetry.

  • Grönbold, Günter, ed. Die Worte des Buddha in den Sprachen der Welt/The Words of the Buddha in the Languages of the World: Tipiṭaka, Tripiṭaka, Dazangjing, Kanjur. Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 2005.

    Catalogue of an exhibition of Buddhist manuscripts at the Bavarian State Library from 27 January 2005 to 20 March 2005. Includes 152 examples from the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan canons as well as rare modern printed editions from Asia and the West. Color plates accompany most entries. Text in German and English.

  • Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

    A cogent introduction to the many theoretical and empirical questions related to orality and literacy by one of the doyens of the field. A very useful book for undergraduates beginning their study of the topic. Focuses on Greece but most points are salient to ancient India as well.

  • Losty, Jeremiah P. The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library, 1982.

    Richly illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of Indian books at the British Library from 16 April 1982 to 1 August 1982. Introduction and the first chapter provide a good guide for the layperson to the development of Buddhist (and other) manuscripts in the region. Topics such as attitudes toward writing, materials used, and artistic features of the manuscripts are covered.

  • Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    Translation from the French of his encyclopedic 1988 book Histoire et Pouvoirs de l’Écrit (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin) dealing with writing from the earliest phases of cuneiform and hieroglyphics to the computer monitors of today. Simply a must-read for everyone interested in this topic.

  • Rocher, Ludo. Orality and Textuality in the Indian Context. Sino-Platonic Papers 49. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

    Explores why orality remained so important in India even after writing was introduced. Suggests that technical literature such as grammatical works had to be memorized in order to be useful. Although the focus is on the Vedic tradition, these issues are salient to the Buddhist world as well.

  • Wynne, Alexander. “The Oral Transmission of the Early Buddhist Literature.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1 (2004): 97–127.

    Very good survey of the literature and thus an appropriate place to begin a study of this topic. Presents arguments for both the improvised and the fixed nature of early texts and suggests that they have been transmitted with enough fidelity to allow for fruitful text criticism.

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