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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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