Text and Oral Tradition

3 Feb 2014


Baba Rampuri

Text and Oral Tradition

Texts are not limited by what is printed or what is written.  There exist very substantial texts, passed down orally for countless generations. Childrens’ rhymes. Grandmother’s stories.  The Veda is text as well, long before anyone actually wrote it down.

We want to know how to consider a text, how to interpret a text, how to derive meaning and value from a text once it escapes the hand or voice of its author.  And it is argued that once the text does leave its author, the author’s intentions become insignificant.


The Commentary

There is a certain self-reflexive element in Indian culture that has always intrigued me, and it seems that the tradition of “commentary” accounts for historical and cultural influences in the interpretation of the text which certainly must overwhelm the author’s intention, but continues to infuse new life in the text itself.  Derrida goes so far as to proclaim the author “dead.”

Twilight of Oral Tradition

Culture changes.  Oral tradition is ALMOST anachronistic, but one of the very few spaces in which “oral tradition” still continues, at least on crutches, is music.  Many musicians learn their art by hanging out with and playing with more accomplished musicians, and learn the “tricks and licks of the trade” from their “masters.”  At least when I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s.  I imagine all the music theory one can learn from books aren’t really very much help in captivating an audience with musical virtuosity.

I can only consider myself quite lucky to have seen and lived amongst an oral tradition in its twilight.  But, yes, among Brahmins who perform the vedic rities, the oral tradition continues, despite the fact that many of them are now on Facebook.  The less abstract, and the more historical and local a text is, the more sustainability it also demonstrates in terms of its lesser susceptibility to knowledge-killing interpretation, as other texts experience in their re-birthing processes.

About the Author

Baba Rampuri, author of "Autobiography of a Sadhu, a Journey into Mystic India," and frequent commentator on Oral Tradition, Sacred Speech, and Consciousness, is an American expatriate,  the first foreigner to be initiated into India's largest and most ancient order of yogis, the Naga Sannyasis of Juna Akhara.  He has lived in India since 1970, where he practices and teaches the oral tradition of the Sanatan Dharma, conducts sacred ceremony and rites, and hosts workshops and retreats.

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