Thursday, 28 February 2013

Publishing in Ancient India

I wonder about the history of publishing in India. I know many trace it back to the British Raj. But that’s modern publishing, where publishing is almost synonymous with books, periodicals and newspapers. I’m talking about ancient India. You see, simply put ‘publishing’ is a means of bringing the written word to a reader. In the modern era, the medium for this transmission has been paper. We are now at the crossroads of a transformation. The written word is brought to us on digital devices. It’s all binary and bytes.  So we go back to the question. When did India start publishing?


The earliest example of ‘publishing’ in India, as far as I can say is the Mahabharata. Veda Vyasa dictates the story to Lord Ganesha. Ganesha etches the story on palm leaves. In fact Vyasa is considered as the One who split the Vedas into the four components as we know it today. During that partnership with Ganesha, it said Vyasa also had the Puranas and the Upanishads transcribed. The events of the Mahabharata can be dated to 7th – 9th Century BCE. Prior to this era, I am under the impression that all Vedic literature was passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth (please do correct me if I’m wrong).  Anyway, for all practical purposes I believe the first act of publication was engineered by Veda Vyasa and Lord Ganesha.
The minute the spoken word is transcribed to a ‘mobile’ form – in this case palm leaves – it opened a whole industry so to speak. I guess just as paper remained our medium for centuries, palm leaves were the medium then. The palm leaves could be carried around to various royal courts; to be recited, enacted, debated upon. I’m sure many royals commissioned ‘copying’ of the texts – surely the Mahabharata was a best seller – a text so rich in language, so powerful in its characterisations that it had to receive academic attention. And thus, we had the first instance of ‘many editions’. Perhaps there was an abridged edition for the gurukuls? Did the palm leaves reach the superb universities of Nalanda and Takshashila? Did the Greek students of these universities compare the Mahabharata or the Puranic stories with their own mythologies? Did teachers debate over the layered meanings of each and every sentence? Did students receive awards for doing a character analysis of Duryodhana or Krishna? Did the general public flock fields to watch a play on the Mahabharata – crying when Draupadi is molested, or cheering when Bheema defeats Bakasura? Oooh what a thrilling age that must’ve been!
Courtesy -
The fact that complex poetry and stories could be written and distributed must’ve opened the floodgates of literature – the way ebooks have changed the game today. Just the way we sit hunched over pen and paper (okay keypads), I imagine Kalidasa frowning over his palm leaves as he etched the story of Shakuntala or the moving Ritusamhara. This was in the 5th Century CE!  
But slowly, many learned rulers and scholars realized that if messages have to reach the common man, Sanskrit cannot be the choice of language.  Remember only the priestly Brahmins knew Sanskrit while the rest spoke languages such as Pali or Prakrit. So perhaps there was a rush of translations where all these great Sanskrit classics were brought out to a more ‘local’ form that could be adapted to theatre, or even read at home by the commoners. I’m sure translation was a great business at that time given the volume and popularity of such rich literature.
Carved for eternity - Asokan Brahmi inscriptions
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But what of emperors like Asoka who had such spiritual passion inside their hearts that palm leaves were way too small for their words? That’s right – buildings and structures were their mediums. Asoka erected massive pillars and stupas made of sandstone, with inscriptions in Brahmi – his message etched for eternity for the whole world to read.  In fact many rulers who built temples adopted this method of ‘publishing’ – with their words carved on the flagstones, walls, pillars and domes of the structure. If you visit any such temple – for example the Tirupathi temple, keep an eye out for the inscriptions on the flagstones. Temples acted as community centres – a place to congregate or even a place to rest one’s feet as a weary traveller. Imagine sitting in the cool shade of a towering mandapa of a temple, and in the few hours of your stay, you manage to read the king’s message even as you rest your head against the wall or pillar!
How giving and liberating it must be – to just say – “these are my words, dictated by my heart. Here world, read it. Read all you want” – and put it up for everyone to see, revel, relish.  I wonder if I can do that. Write a book with my blood and give it out for free. Ah. Who am I kidding? I want the book deals. I want the accolades and awards.
So in my next post, I will talk about the current publishing scenarios in India.

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