Literacy in the ancient Vedic world
Recently, Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University has claimed that Vedic people were illiterate. A close study of the Rigveda, however, suggests awareness of some kind of writing system in the ancient Vedic times and that the Vedic people were not illiterate:
(1) Rg 1:124.7 This sukta describes Ushas rising slowly in the morning. Her movement is compared to a brotherless widow climbing the steps of a courthouse to claim subsistence
(2) Rg 2:18 This sukta describes a large number of horses of Indra in a manner that suggests familiarity with the decimal system
(3) Rg 8:78.2 In this sukta a plea is made to Indra to bring with him ‘mana,’ which is said to be a gold coin
(4) 10:62.7 Here a rsi is asking for a cow in gift whose ear is branded with a sign or mark that resembles the number 8 (ashtkarnya). A similar branding practice is mentioned in Panini 6:3.11)
(5) 10:65.6 (Vivahasukta). In this important sukta the bride’s decorated garment is described as ‘gatha’ i.e. a dyed garment on which are embossed with certain signs or symbols that are similar to letters. This practice or custom has remained popular all along. Even in modern times we see girls and women (even some pujaris) wearing dyed kurtas embossed with mantras such as Shri Ram.
All references are from the Marathi translation of the Rigveda by Siddheshvarshastri Chitrav, Pune 1996.
Shrinivas Tilak (PhD, history of religions, McGill University, Montreal)