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The Origin of Brahmi Script (An Old & Rare Book)

The Origin of Brahmi Script (An Old & Rare Book)
Item Code: NAL065
Author: S.P.Gupta & K.S.Ramachandran
Publisher: B.R. Publishing Corporation
Language: English
Edition: 1979
Pages: 154
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
About the Book

The antiquity of writing in India can be traced back to the still undeciphered ideo-or pictograms on the seals and sealings of the Indus Civilization. Between this and the prolific rock and pillar engravings of Asoka in the Brahmi script there is a gaping hiatus of a millennium and more in the history of writing in India.

What is the origin of this Brahmi script which Asoka utilized at its maximum for the propagation of the Dhamma? What are its anticedents, if any? are the vexed problems defying solution? Here, two prominent scholars, a historian and an archaeologist, have put forth their views in two key-papers. To S.R. Goyal, the historian, Brahmi was invented in the first half of the third century B.C., to be exact during Asoka’s time, gaining support for his theory from Megasthanes’ observation that there was no writing in India in his times. Further, Brahmi does not show any regional variation and most of its form appear to have been based on primary shapes representing some material objects. On the other hand, to the archaeologist, Soundara Rajan, there is a possibility that Brahmi passed through a stage of evolution from the Vedic-Brahmanical culture-stream flowering after the Vedic Culture had absorbed non-Vedic tradition and also had imbibed maritime script-impulses. He is of the opinion that in the pre-Mauryan period, between Panini and the Buddha Brahmi should have attained a standardized shape as borne out by its structure which is inspired by the Paninian grammar. To him, Brahmi is not an “instant miracle” but was dormant ‘ for want of actual written contexts of documentation”.

On these two views, some eminent epigraphists, historians and archaeologists have offered their comments, which this book is presenting to the world of Indologists and historians.

Editors’ Note

The Indian History and Culture Society was formed to provide a forum “for a dialogue among like-minded as well as contending historians so that a consensus can be reached, no doubt to give rise to conflict and then a further consensus, in a continuing process”. In pursuance of this aim, and apart from holding annual seminars on selected topics, it was decided to bringforth a few monographs on topics of enduring interest on Indian history and culture, now and then. These monographs, according to our format, would contain a couple of key-papers by eminent scholars, which will be circulated to a selected few working in the field for their considered opinion and comments; and these will be sent to the authors of the key papers for reply. The entire exercise would then be published in the form of a monograph.

In accordance with this, we have tackled the problem of the origin of the Brahmi script, which even today is a topic of fierce controversy. Here, there are two key-papers, one by Dr S.R. Goyal of the Jodhpur University and the other by Shri K.V. Soundara Rajan of the Archaeological Survey, both agreeing in the indigenous origin but contending the time and mode of invention or evolution. Goyal is one of our most ebulient young historians of the country. Soundara Rajan is an eminent field-archeologist and a prolific writer on varied aspects of Indian culture. On these two papers Prof Lallanji Gopal, a distinguished professor of the Banaras Hindu University, Dr Nagaswamy, Director of the State Department of Archeology, Tamil Nadu, Krishnan, Chief Epigraphist of the Archeological Survey of India, Sankaranarayanan, formerly of the Epigraphy Branch of the Archeological Survey and presently heading the Venkateswara Oriental Institute, Tripati, Prof Ajay Mitra Shastri and Dr T.P. Verma of the Nagpur and Banaras Hindu Universities respectively and who are well known epigraphists, have recorded their considered opinions and offered valuable comments. To this, the General Editors have appendid an exhaustive introduction. A review of the papers and comments by Shri M.C. Joshi, Director in the Archaeological Survey has included in the latter part of the last chapter. Our original intention was to send these comments to the authors of the key-papers but unfortunately due to circumstances beyond the control of the editors, it was not possible do so. However, in future this procedure would be followed.

It is hoped that this first endeavour of the Society will be welcomed by the discerning scholars and laymen alike. It is also our belief that the younger generation, particularly, young students of Indian culture in the several universities of this country, would be benefited and acquire an enquiring mind.

In bringing out this monograph the cooperation of several scholars was necessary and we are very happy to record that our contributors have extended their full cooperation to us. To them we are highly obliged. Our thanks are due to the publishers, M/s D.K. Publications, Delhi for their excellent layout and production.


The earliest evidence for written documents in India are the Harappan seals, which till date have not been deciphered. With the disintegration of this vast and highly developed civilization and till the advent of Asoka Maurya, there is a wide gap of several centuries in the history of writing in India. It is not known what script was prevelant and what was the material on which the thoughts or transactions of the people of this intervening period were registered in concrete visual form. It is only during the reign of Asoka that we come across engraved records perpetuated for posterity on imperishable rock or stone surfaces in a script now known as Brahmi.

In this context it is worthwhile to enquire whether, the people of the Vedic and post-Vedic times with a vast literature were ignorant of writing? Western Indologists say yes and observe that these were committed to memory and handed down from one generation to other. On the other hand, a few Indian scholars, particularly, G.S. Ojha, R.B. Pandey D.R. Bhandarkar and others affirm the Vedic Aryans did know the art of writing on the basis of aksharas, varna, matra occurring in the Upanishads and the long numerical references in the Yajurveda. Unfortunately, there are no indubitable evidences to assert that art of writing was known in Vedic and post-Vedic times. It is only when we come down to the Age of Pitakas that we have some references to writing. It appears that a final form for the Pitakas were given in the third Buddhist Council convened after the demise of the great king Asoka. However, inscriptional evidence for the term Pitaka occurs in an inscription at Sravasti datable to 1st century B.C./A.D.

Lekhaka (writer), lekhapita (caused to be written), akkharika (or letter-game), likhitaka Chora (recorded thief) are words indicating the prevalence of writing occurring in the Vinaya texts. There are references in other texts like The Jatakas, Nikayas, etc., to lekhani (pen) lekhasippa, (writing craft). Potthaka (book), phalaka (writing board), etc. All these references of Pali texts would indicate the prevalence of the art of writing and the knowledge letters. But the crucial point is the date of the texts, whether they belong to pre-Asokan times or later is a moot question.

Now coming to specific references of the names of script, Lalitavistara, a late Buddhist text refers to the presence of 64 scripts among which Brahmi heads. The Jain suttas, Pannayana, samavayanga mention 18 scripts where Brahmi again occupies of the top. The Bhagavata sutra begins with a salutation to Bambhilipi. The Chinese encyclopedia, Fan-Wan-su-lin, attributed to A.D. 668 listing out the scripts places Brahmi at the top. It also mentions Kia-lu (Kharoshthi). It also says that Brahmi was written from left to right while the other from right to left.

It is, therefore, evident that none of the early literatures refer to Brahmi script and the script was unknown prior to the times of Asoka. What is its origin and who and when invented it is matter of controversy.

The Brahmi script was successfully deciphered by James Princep in the thirties of the 19th century. Since then, its origin, the source from which it was derived, whether from an alien system of writing directly or through intermediary stages or whether it was autochthonous to India, being the outcome of the native genius, have been the raging problem. Opinion differs sharply. The protagonists are divided into two opposing groups : one vehemently propagating a foreign source of inspiration for its origin and development and other, equally vehement in trying to prove an indigenous innovation. Here are some of the theories.

Indigenous Origin

So far we have recounted some views which derive the Brahmi from scripts alien to India. Now let us narrate some which propound an indigenous or native origin for the script. Broadly the camp is divided into two : (i) those who attribute a Vedic or Aryan invention and; (ii) Dravidian origin.

Vedic: The Vedic or Aryan theory was first put forth by Lassen and was followed up General Cunningham. According to this theory, the development of the Brahmi was based on the symbols representing objects, etc. with which they were familiar in their everyday life. In other words, the phonetic value of each letter of the Brahmi letter was devised from the sound value of the first letter of the objects, names, etc. Thus for example va from vina, ta from tan (stretch) or tala (palm tree) or again Taranga (waves) or tri (three). But as Taylor rightly points out that “such an elastic method may establish anything or nothing”.

Shamasastri, opined that Brahmi was derived from the several symbols and signs used to indicate devas and called devanagari. Since Shamasastri’s postulations are based on late Tantric texts they are not relevant.

Dravidians :

Edward Thomas and others his ilk considered Brahmi to be an invention of the Dravidians, who were the original inhabitants of the whole of India and that Brahmi was subsequently adopted by the Aryans. This theory does not find much favour and is discarded by almost all because of the : (i) divided opinion regarding the original habitat of the Dravidians, (ii) the earliest available specimens of Brahmi writing being only in north India and, (iii) the difference in the phonetic structure between the Brahmi and the Tamil.

T.N. Subrahmanyan is another staunch protagonist of this theory. To him the Brahmi script was originally devised for the Tamil language which was later borrowed by Prakrit; for there are several common features between Prakrit and Tamil. They being :

(i) the simplicity of language and grammar;

(ii) only two numbers, the singular and the plural are present;

(iii) the vowels ri, lu, ai and au are not found;

(iv) the presence of long and short forms e and o;

(v) non-usage of sa and sha which are replaced by sa; and the presence of la.

(vi) the presence of la.

He goes on to say that in all probability Prakrit itself in its original form was a ‘South Indian product synthesising the Dravidian language to make it understood throughout the country’. But confronted with difficulties, he modifies that, “later on Sanskrit elements were introduced to suit the need of the new letters, and in the course of this process, some symbols not required for the sanskritised Prakrit got eliminated. And finally, when it became the official language, it spread throughout the length and breadth of the country with royal authority behind and displaced and then existing variety of scripts”.

Before winding-up the survey of the theories of origin of the Brahmi two more deserve mention. Some scholars, Gadd, Langdon and others, on the basis of figural similarities between the Indus script and the Brahmi letters, believe that the latter could be derived from the former. The opposed direction of writing of these scripts and the fact that the Indus script has not yet been successfully deciphered to the entire satisfaction of the scholarly world are hurdles in accepting this postulation.

The latest in the field upholding the indigenous origin of the Brahmi are Gift Siromoney and Lockwood, both of the Madras Christian College. In a recently published joint paper they maintain that, ‘the Brahmi script was invented at one stroke – possibly by one individual’. They ever that most of the Brahmi letters could be made out of two basic geometric patterns, viz., the cross enclosed in a square and a ‘circle superimposed on a vertical line’ and that the geometric patterns, viz., the square, the cross, the circle and the vertical lines noticed in the forms of the Brahmi letters form a part of these two basic patterns, Letters which do not meet at right angles can be derived, according to them, from either a third pattern namely a triangle attached to a vertical line or more probably from variants of these letters whose angles are closer to a right angle; examples of such variants are not difficult to find.


Editors' Notexi
2Brahmi - An Invention of the Early Mauryan Period1
3Pre-Asokan Writing in India54
In Retrospect116
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