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Paradise Found, by William F. Warren, [1885], at

p. 492


"Is memory capable of preserving through successive generations the facts of history, or whatever else peoples are continuously interested in knowing? At first one is apt to say 'No,' remembering how seldom two people can agree in their recollection of even the briefest saying or commonest occurrence. But look into the matter. Note how the power of memory differs in different people, and how it may be cultivated, and especially how it strengthens when systematically depended on, while, when little is left to it, it weakens. It is a small fact, but not without significance, that among the first things which children are set to fix in their memories, apart from any idea of sacredness, are long series of historical names, dates, and events,—English kings, American colonists and presidents,—far exceeding in difficulty those Israelitish histories which Kuenen thinks cannot be trusted because only preserved by memory. This shows that it is less a question of the power of memory than of how far memory is looked on as sacred, and guarded so as to hand on its contents unimpaired. As for evidence of the power of memory, what better can we desire than the well-known fact of the transmission of the Iliad, with its 15,677 lines, for generations, perhaps for centuries, before it was even written? Yet even that is a mere trifle compared with the transmission of the Vedas. The Rig Veda, with its 1017 hymns, is about four times the length of the Iliad. That is only a part of the ancient Vedic literature, and the whole was composed, and fixed, and handed down by memory,—only, as Max Müller says, by 'memory kept under the strictest discipline.' There is still a class of priests in India who have to know by heart the whole of the Rig Veda. And there is this curious corroboration of the fidelity with which this memorizing has been carried

p. 493

on and handed down: that they have kept on transmitting in the ancient literal form laws prohibiting practices that have nevertheless become established. Suttee is now found to be condemned by the Vedas themselves. This was first pointed out by their European students, but has since been admitted by the native Sanskrit scholars. Nothing could show more clearly the faithfulness of the traditional memory and transmission. It has, too, this further bearing on the date of the so-called Mosaic legislation: it shows that the fact of customs existing in a country for ages unchallenged does not prove that laws condemning such customs must necessarily be of later origin. But there is more that is instructive in the transmission of this Vedic literature. There has been writing in India for twenty-five hundred years now, yet the custodians of the Vedic traditions have never trusted to it. They trust, for the perfect perpetuation and transmission of the sacred books, to disciplined memory. They have manuscripts, they have even a printed text, but, says Max Müller, 'they do not learn their sacred lore from them. They learn it, as their ancestors learnt it thousands of years ago, from the lips of a teacher, so that the Vedic succession should never be broken.' For eight years in their youth they are entirely occupied in learning this. 'They learn a few lines every day, repeat them for hours, so that the whole house resounds with the noise; and they thus strengthen their memory to that degree that, when their apprenticeship is finished, you can open them like a book, and find any passage you like, any word, any accent.' And Max Müller shows, from rules given in the Vedas themselves, that this oral teaching of them was carried on, exactly as now, at least as early as 500 B.C. 1

"Very much the same was it with those Rabbinical schools amid which the Talmud gradually grew up. All of that vast literature, exceeding many times in bulk

p. 494

[paragraph continues] Homer and the Vedas and the Bible all together, was, at any rate until its later periods, the growth of oral tradition. It was prose tradition, too, which is the hardest to remember, and yet it was carried down century after century in the memory; and long after it had been all committed to writing, the old memorizing continued in the schools. Indeed, it has not entirely ceased even now, for my friend Dr. Gottheil, of New York, tells me that he has had in his study a man who thus knows the entire Talmud by heart, and can take it up at any word that is given him, and go on repeating it syllable by syllable, with absolute correctness.

"In the presence of such facts, surely we must be prepared to revise our ideas of what memory is capable of,—ideas derived from the very limited uses for which we usually depend on it now. Such facts show that memory, consolidated into tradition, is perfectly competent at least to act as an accurate instrument for transmitting along many generations whatever men are very anxious to have remembered. It is simply a question of being anxious and of taking special care."

After other interesting and impressive illustrations, drawn from the history of peoples in the most diverse states of culture, the writer closes as follows: "If there is anything in these facts which I have collected they mean at least this: that we may take up again the discarded traditions of the old heroic ages, and of the world's morning time, with far more confidence than has been usual of late years. Homer will be read with a new interest, and Herodotus, and—best of all—the world-old histories of the Bible. I know they will not give us detailed narratives by which this or that point can be proved, or names or dates to be learned off as school-boy tasks. But they will give us glimpses of the ancient days; pictures here and there of such men and women as loved and fought in those old buried cities of Hissarlik, or meditated by the Ganges, or wandered from Chaldea with Abraham, or

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followed Moses out of the mighty empire of Egypt into those wild solitudes of Sinai,—pictures of life; landmarks of great deeds and thoughts and worships and laws; a dawn to the history, not of abstract theories, nor of dazzling sun-myths, but of real peoples and real men." (Brooke Herford in The Atlantic Monthly for August, 1883.)


493:1 [See F. Max Müller, Origin and Growth of Religion. New York edition, pp. 146-161.]

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