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On The Origin Of The Early Indian Scripts: [1] A Review Article

Richard Salomon, University of Washington


(Originally published in the [ Journal of the American Oriental Society ] 115.2 (1995), 271-279. Reproduced by kind permission of the [American Oriental Society].

Copyright © American Oriental Society, 1996.

The current version has been modified for presentation on the WWW. This has meant making compromises in the presentation of accented characters, etc., and may have introduced typographical errors. Finally, the original article included graphical representations of characters from Brâhmî, Kharo.s.thî, Aramaic, Greek, etc., which have all been reduced here to the placeholder "¤".

Readers are referred to the published version of this paper in the JAOS for full accuracy and citation.)


Several recent publications have questioned prevailing doctrines and offered new views on the antiquity of writing in early India and on the source and early development of the Indian scripts (Brâhmî and Kharo.s.thî). Most of the new studies agree in assigning the origin of these scripts to a later period, i.e. the early Mauryan era (late 4th - mid 3rd centuries BC), than has generally been done in the past, and in deriving them from prototypes in Semitic or Semitic-derived scripts. The main works to be evaluated here are Oskar von Hinüber's Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien and Harry Falk's Schrift im alten Indien. Ein Forschungsbericht mit Anmerkungen . [2] Also discussed are two recent articles on similar topics, Gérard Fussman's "Les premiers systèmes d'écriture en Inde" [3] and Kenneth R. Norman's "The Development of Writing in India and its Effect upon the Pâli Canon," [4] as well as some other relevant publications. The authority and significance of this new trend toward assigning a late date of origin for the Indian scripts is evaluated and placed in the context of broader historical and cultural issues.

The development and early history of writing in India of the historical period (i.e. after the time of the Indus Valley Civilization) has long been a controversial problem. Basically, arguments turn around three main issues:

  • The sources and origins of the Indian scripts of the historical period, i.e. Kharo.s.thî and especially Brâhmî.
  • The date at which these scripts, or their prototypes, first came into use.
  • The relationship, if any, of the historical scripts to the writing of the proto-historic Indus Valley Civilization and the explanation of the long gap between them during which writing appears to have fallen out of use in India.

The principal reasons that these issues, particularly the second, are so problematic are:

  • There are no securely datable specimens of writing from the historical period earlier than the rock inscriptions of Ashoka from the mid-3rd century BC. Other early inscriptions which have been proposed by various authors as examples of pre-Ashokan writing are of uncertain date at best.
  • The external testimony from literary and other sources on the use of writing in pre-Ashokan India is vague and inconclusive. Alleged evidence of pre-Mauryan writing has in the past been found by various scholars in such sources as later Vedic literature, the Pali canon, the early Sanskrit grammatical treatises of Pâ.nini's and his successors, and the works of European classical historians. But all of these references are subject in varying degrees to chronological or interpretive problems.

Until recently, the received opinions on these issues, in the west at least, have mainly been based on or at least strongly affected by their explication by Georg Bühler fully one century ago in his highly influential, if somewhat controversial monograph On the Origin of the Indian Brahma Alphabet (Indian Studies No.III) . [5] Bühler argued for an early origin of writing in India and posited an extensive pre-history, going as far back as the 8th century BC, for the Brâhmî script, which he derived from the Phoenician script. Although more recent writers such as David Diringer [6] have tended to doubt such an early date for Brâhmî and have looked to the Aramaic rather than the Phoenician script as its probable source, Bühler's materials and arguments have continued to guide the discussion long after many of them have become outdated (Falk, p.11). The arguments of specialists have largely focussed on evaluations, criticisms, and modifications of Bühler, while presentations by non-Indologists such as Diringer and Hans Jensen [7] in their general works on the history of writing have relied heavily and often uncritically and inaccurately on him (see e.g. Falk pp.96, 123). In general, some form or other of Bühler's essential thesis that Brâhmî was developed out of a Semitic prototype in pre-Mauryan India has been accepted by most scholars in the west, but rejected by the majority of South Asian experts, who generally argue for a separate and indigenous origin for the Indic scripts, often by way of derivation, direct or indirect, from the Indus script.

But what virtually all of these voices have in common is a focus, whether favorable or critical, on the arguments presented by Bühler a century ago. It is thus appropriate and important that the authors of the publications under discussion here, in particular Harry Falk, have finally freed themselves from the shackles of the tired old arguments and undertaken an entirely new look at these issues in light of what we know now of Indian chronology, epigraphy, numismatics, and linguistic and literary history. Although no single decisive document, such as the long-awaited certifiably pre-Mauryan Brâhmî inscription, has come to light since Bühler's time, a vast amount of new material and a far better understanding of what was previously known are now at our disposal. Major discoveries since Bühler's day include the Aramaic and Greek inscriptions of the time of Ashoka from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the very existence of the Indus Valley civilization. Among the improved analyses of earlier materials are a better (though still far from complete) understanding of the chronological development of textual corpora such as the Veda and the Pali canon, and a clearer and more cautious methodology for the paleographic dating of inscriptions.

Previous discussions have also been hampered by a chronic lack of communication and understanding between Indologists on the one hand and Semiticists and other scholars of the history of writing on the other. The former, for the most part, had little or no knowledge of the relevant branches of Semitic epigraphy, while the latter typically had even less awareness of matters Indian (whence their often uncritical reliance, alluded to above, on Bühler). Here too a major step forward has been achieved in that our new authors, and once again Falk in particular, have taken the trouble to familiarize themselves with Semitic scripts, especially Aramaic, in such a way that the possible connections can at last be discussed in an intelligent and objective manner.

The major conclusion shared by the studies of Fussman, von Hinüber, and Falk is that at least the Brâhmî script, and possibly also Kharo.s.thî, originated in the Mauryan period and not earlier. Although they disagree in specifics, especially with regard to the date of the development of Brâhmî, all three agree that Kharo.s.thî, which was a regional script of the far northwest, was older than the pan-Indian Brâhmî and influenced its formation. The three authors share a sharp skepticism about alleged literary evidence for writing in pre-Ashokan India, and are inclined to interpret the situation empirically, on the grounds of what we definitely know, rather than speculating on what might have been. They are inclined to take the absence of incontrovertible evidence for early writing as an indication that it did not exist, rather than, as have earlier writers, adding up the bits of inconclusive hints and theoretical possibilities to reconstruct a hypothetical pre-history for the early scripts.

Among the four studies discussed here, only Kenneth R. Norman's article on "The Development of Writing in India and its Effect upon the Pâli Canon" follows a more traditional path. He analyzes certain patterns of textual variation in Pali texts (e.g. hatthivattika / hattivatika , pp.239--40, and samaya / samâja , p.241) which seem to reflect an early redaction in a script which did not represent geminate consonants or differentiate vowel length, and identifies this script as an early prototype of Brâhmî used in Magadha in pre-Mauryan times (p.243). Norman finds it "difficult to accept that Brâhmî was devised as a single complete writing system at one and the same time during the reign of Candragupta" (p.245), [8] and considers it "even less likely that Brâhmî was invented at the time of Ashoka for the specific purpose of writing his inscriptions" (p.246). His objections to what may be referred to as the "invention theory" of the origin of Brâhmî mainly concern the irregularities and inconsistencies of the graphic system, for instance inconsistencies in the formation of the graphs for aspirate consonants, some of which are clearly based on the corresponding non-aspirates (e.g. ¤ .ta and ¤ .tha ) while others (e.g. ¤ ta and ¤ tha [not cited by Norman]) are not so derivable. Such patterns lead Norman to conclude that Brâhmî " evolved [my emphasis] in a haphazard way, with some of its ak.sara s being borrowed from some other source" (p.245).

But von Hinüber in Der Beginn der Schrift... interprets the patterns of textual variation in Pali which underlie Norman's theory quite differently, noting that geminate consonants were still not regularly noted in Indian inscriptions of the 1st century BC when the Pali texts were presumably first written down (p.64), and that long â was often left unindicated in early Brâhmî inscriptions from Sri Lanka (p.66). Von Hinüber's arguments are persuasive if we can assume that the orthographic standards of early inscriptions also prevailed in contemporary (i.e. pre-Christian era) religious or literary texts in manuscript form. However, although we do not have any manuscripts this old, it is not impossible that stricter orthographic standards, including the notation of geminates, might have applied in them, in contrast to the standards of inscriptions which at this period were often still treated quite casually in terms of orthography and layout. Nonetheless, it must be conceded that Norman's arguments rest on a largely hypothetical basis and that underlying orthographic inconsistencies reflected in much later manuscripts of the Pali canon are hardly cogent grounds for the reconstruction of a proto-Brâhmî of the pre-Mauryan era. Norman's position is essentially an affirmation of the more moderate version of the old school of thought, which places the origin of Brâhmî in or around the 5th century BC. But his arguments for such a position, like the those of others to be discussed below, are cast into doubt by the three other new studies.

Though developed most cogently and completely in these three new publications, the theory of a relatively late (i.e. Mauryan) date for Brâhmî and Kharo.s.thî and the postulation of the former as an "invention" under the stimulus of one or the other of the Mauryan emperors is by no means entirely new. For instance, as noted by Falk (p.163), Max Muller in 1892 (before Bühler!) opined that Brâhmî was probably "das Werk einer Kommission von Gelehrten, die, wahrscheinlich im Auftrage des Königs [Ashoka], aus fremden Quellen ein Alphabet entwarfen,...die Laute der gesprochenen Sprache auszudrücken." The old invention theory, which had largely fallen out of favor after Bühler, were revived by S.R. Goyal in 1979 in his essay "Brâhmî- An Invention of the Early Mauryan Period," [9] who argued "that the Brâhmî script was invented in the first half of the third century B.C., and that the Indians of the Vedic and early Buddhist periods were illiterate" (p.4), and that "in all probability Brâhmî was invented in the age of Ashoka and the idea...of writing came from the west" (p.17). Though not entirely original, the data and arguments invoked by Goyal-- the persistent failure of efforts to find and identify actual specimens of pre-Ashokan writing, the testimony of Greek authors (especially Megasthenes) to the absence of writing in India in the early Mauryan period, the evident influence of Indian phonetic and grammatical theory on the structure of the early scripts, and the primitive and uniform appearance of Ashokan Brâhmî-- prefigure the postions developed at greater length in the newer works. Goyal's essay seems to have served as a stimulus to the recent re-thinking of and revival of interest in these questions, and his essay should be (re-)read in conjunction with those being reviewed here.

Turning now to these new publications, in chronological order: Gérard Fussman in "Les premiers systèmes d'écriture en Inde" briefly [10] argues (pp.513--4) that the Kharo.s.thî script developed in the northwest before the Mauryan empire and provided both the model and inspiration for the development of Brâhmî. This creation was undertaken, probably during the time of Candragupta Maurya, in order to serve administrative needs in Magadha, and was carried out by "pandits qui furent chargés de créer une écriture pur une région de l'Inde qui ne la connaissait pas" (p.514). Fussman's grounds for this chronological reconstruction are principally the testimony of the Greek historians; for while there are references to writing, presumably Kharo.s.thî, in the northwest at the time of Alexander the Great, Megasthenes, who lived in Pâ.taliputra late in the fourth century BC, declared the Indians to have no writing at all. Fussman admits the "faiblesse intrinsèque" of these sources, but declares that they "se combine pourtant de fa,con à former un faisceau de présomptions acceptables" (p.513). Brâhmî, he concludes, is "héritière de l'Iran pour l'idée, tributaire des premiers modèles araméens et araméo-indiens pour sa technique, purement indienne en ce qui concerne sa lisibilité et son adéquation à la langue" (p.514).

In his view of Brâhmî as an artifical conglomerate of Iranian, Semitic, and Indian elements Fussman is in general agreement with von Hinüber and Falk, although his chronology differs, particularly with respect to the time of its development, which they are inclined to attribute to Ashoka rather than to Candragupta. In his monograph on Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien , von Hinüber carefully re-examines the principal sources which have been invoked by earlier scholars in their efforts to prove the existence of writing in pre-Mauryan India, and finds that none of them stand the test: "Fremde Beobachtungen sprechen also in Übereinstimmung mit den Zeugnissen aus Epigraphik und Numismatik eindeutig dafür, daß es in Indien vor Ashoka keine Schrift gegeben hat, wenn man von den indischen Provinzen des Achämenidenreiches absieht" (p.22; cf. also p.72). For example, his analysis of Megasthenes' alleged references to Indian writing (Ch.4) leads him to the conclusion (p.20) that the only authentic one is his statement that they have none (["oude gar grammata eidenai autous" in Greek characters]). This he interprets as a blanket denial, rejecting the interpretation of J.D.M. Derrett and others that it refers only to written documents in connection with legal procedures, which are the immediate context of Megasthenes' discussion. As for the reference by Nearchos, quoted by Strabo, to the Indians' practice of writing letters ([" epistolas " in Greek characters] on cloth, he considers it "sehr wohl möglich, daß Nearch iranische, d.h. wohl aramäische Briefe meint, wenn er 'indischen' spricht, weil er sie eben in Indien gesehen hat" (p.21). Similarly, he suggests that the lipi mentioned by Pâ.nini (3.2.21), if it really refers to a 'script' at all, must be either "eine sehr frühe Form der Kharo.s.thîSchrift," or Aramaic (p.58); but he also suggests that the word lipi here may not refer to writing at all, but rather to painting or the like (p.57).

However, the main focus, comprising 6 of 15 short chapters, of von Hinüber's discussion is the references, real or apparent, to writing in the Pali canon, especially in the Vinaya-pi.taka. Here he explains at some length (including several highly technical excursuses) that terms such the verb likh and its derivatives either do not actually refer to writing, or, if they do, are attributable to later strata of the Vinaya literature (pp.36--40), which in any case reflects on the whole a later stage of development than the Sutta-pi.taka (pp.46--54).

Thus von Hinüber finds no cogent evidence whatsoever for any kind of writing in the Indian heartland in the early Buddhist era or at any other time in the pre-Mauryan period. The creation of Brâhmî thus evidently took place during the Mauryan era, with the erstwhile Achaemenian model of Old Persian Cuneiform as the inspiration for the creation a new "imperial" script, and with Kharo.s.thî as a systemic model: "Die Zentralverwaltung des Maurya-Reiches könnte also in der Phonetik bewanderte Brahmanen mit dem Einwurf einer neuen, für eine monumentale Epigraphik besser als die Kharo.s.thî-Schrift geeignten und zugleich dem Bedürfnis nach einer leichteren Deutbarkeit des Geschriebenen entgegenkommenden Scrift beauftragt haben" (p.59). This undertaking is attributed by von Hinüber, somewhat cautiously (p.60), to Ashoka himself.

Many of the themes introduced and discussed, if somewhat cursorily, by von Hinüber are taken up again in greater detail by Harry Falk in his much more voluminous study of Schrift im alten Indien . The connections are no doubt to be explained by the authors' common participation in Sonderforschungsbereich 321, "Übergänge und Spannungsfelder zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit" at the University of Freiburg. Von Hinüber himself (Vorbemerkung, p.5) refers his readers to the then-forthcoming report of Falk for a more comprehensive study, and Falk (p.12) acknowledges the "sehr Fruchtbar" exchanges with von Hinüber. This is not to say, however, that the two publications are repetitive or imitative of each other. For although they do reflect generally similar points of view and come to substantially the same conclusions, they cover different ground, present different modes of argumentation on some issues, and disagree significantly, if not fundamentally, on several important specific questions.

As the subtitle ( Ein Forschungsbericht mit Anmerkungen ) indicates, Falk's study is arranged in the form of a comprehensive review in chronological order of all the scholarly literature on issues relevant to the origin and early development of writing in India. The summaries of previous writing are supplemented, wherever appropriate, by the author's own evaluative comments ranging from brief notes to discussions ranging over several pages. [11] The basis of the work is therefore a comprehensive bibliography (pp.15--66) which is followed by 16 analytical sections, among which the longest and most important cover such topics as "Theorien zum Ursprung der Brâhmî" (6), "Archäeologische Argumente" (8), "Literarische Zeugnisse für Schrift" (9), and "Berichte von Ausländern zur Existenz von Schrift" (11).

The "Forschungsbericht" format of Falk's book is on the whole successful, though it inevitably has both advantages and disadvantages. Among the latter, Falk's intention to present a comprehensive coverage of all literature ("versuchte ich alle Publikationen zu erfassen, die den Umständen der Einführing der Schrift in Indien gewidmet sind," p.12) leads him to include, not only in the bibliography but also in the analytic text, numerous specimens of the sort of pseudo-scholarship which is all too well represented in this field. While Falk generally manages to dispose of such amateurish efforts concisely and effectively (see e.g. pp. 144--7 and 157--60), considerable space might have been saved simply by skipping over the chaff and concentrating on serious publications; we hardly need another discussion of Cunningham's theory of the hieroglyphic origin of Brâhmî (p.143) or Shamasastry's tantric theories (p.144). Nonetheless, since Falk's main purpose was to set the record straight, the comprehensive approach is justifiable. As he notes (p.11), the literature on the subject of the origins of writing in India (as on many other subjects) is full of misattributions, misinterpretations, and simple ignorance of previous works; see, for example, pp.126--7, showing how Diringer's incorrect accounts of opinions on the Indian scripts have found their way into the specialist literature. Unlike most previous writers on this topic, Falk has obviously taken the trouble to locate, read and understand all of the literature, rather than relying on what others have said about it, and thus has succeeded in authoritatively clarifying, for once and for all, who said what and when. Just for this, we are much indebted to him.

In his review of evidence for the antiquity of writing in historical India, Falk follows, as noted above, the positions of von Hinüber in broad outline though not in all details. Thus he agrees with von Hinüber that "Megasthenes sagt klar und eindeutig, daß in Mâgadha [sic] zu seiner Zeit Schrift ganz allgemein nicht in Gebrauch war" (p.293), and that the writing observed by Nearchos in India was probably Aramaic (p.290). Likewise, he takes the Pâ.nini's lipi to refer to Aramaic, concluding that "Für eine eigene, einheimische Schrift zu seiner Zeit gibt es aber keinerlei Anhaltspunkte" (pp.258--9). But he does not share von Hinüber's doubts, cited above, as to whether lipi in Pâ.nini refers to writing at all. Similarly, in his discussion of alleged early references to writing in the Pali Vinaya, he comes to the same basic conclusion, namely negative, as von Hinüber, but his specific interpretations often differ. The term likhitako coro , for example, was explained by the latter (p.38) as referring to a thief identified by a picture, rather than a written document such as an arrest warrant; Falk, however, quite plausibly suggests (pp.276--7) that the phrase alludes to a branded or otherwise physically "marked" thief. And while von Hinüber (pp.39--40) does accept the expression lekha.m chindati as one of the authentic references to writing in the Vinaya but dismisses it as relatively late, Falk disagrees, cautiously suggesting (p.279) that it may refer to an ascetic practice of cutting off pieces of one's own flesh.

Regardless of the differences in the details of their interpretation of particular passages, Falk is in general agreement with von Hinüber as well as with Goyal and other recent writers that most if not all of the terms and passages in early Indian literature and in the writings of foreign observers which were cited by Bühler et al. in support an early date of origin for the Indian scripts in fact prove no such thing. Their arguments are indeed persuasive, but not completely decisive. For instance, there is no concrete evidence that the writing referred to by observers such as Nearchos and Pâ.nini in northwestern India in and around the 4th century was Aramaic, rather than Indian, i.e. Kharo.s.thî; here von Hinüber (quoted above) has wisely left the door open by allowing for the possibility of a "very early form" of Kharo.s.thî, while Falk, perhaps a little rashly, excludes this possibility. For Kharo.s.thî, according to Falk, must have been created at one stroke at some later not before 325 BC (p.104). The argument for this date is based on the theory that the new script could only have originated when the professional monopoly of the Aramaic scribe-bureaucrats of the Achaemenian empire (cf. pp.78--81) had broken down in the wake of the Greek conquest. While the introduction of social and economic considerations into the discussion of the origin of Indian scripts is a welcome addition, this particular argument is speculative at best and hardly constitutes firm grounds for a late date for Kharo.s.thî. The stronger argument for this position is that we have no specimen of the script before the time of Ashoka, nor any direct evidence of intermediate stages in its development; but of course this does not mean that such earlier forms did not exist, only that, if they did exist, they have not survived, presumably because they were not employed for monumental purposes before Ashoka.

Likewise, Falk's conclusion (p.103) that Kharo.s.thî was a conscious creation loosely modelled on Aramaic, rather than the product of a gradual evolution and differentiation from it, is intriguing and at least partly original, but by no means immune to objections. The most important of these, which Falk himself anticipates, is that in several cases Kharo.s.thî characters have different phonetic values from the Aramaic letters that they most closely resemble in shape (e.g. Aramaic ¤ pe / Kharo.s.thî ¤ a ). This problem he attributes to a hypothetical situation in which the inventor of Kharo.s.thî was familiar with, but did not actually know, Aramaic script: "jemand die Kharo.s.thî entwickelt hat, dem man zwar einmal die Funktionsweise und die Lautwerte der aramäischen Zeichen erklärt hatte, der sich die Erklärungen aber nur teilweise richtig merkte und deshalb später einige Zeichen neu bewertete and andere neu entwarf. Nur ein Entwickler ohne profunde Kenntnis der aramäischen Schrift würde so gro.szügig mit dem Vorbild umgehen" (p.103). I must confess that I find that explanation unconvincing, all the more so in view of Falk's emphasis elsewhere on the important role and wide usage of Aramaic, now so well attested by the Ashokan Aramaic inscriptions, in the eastern regions of the Achaemenian empire. Even if we accept that Aramaic was something of a guild monopoly, its basic syllabary is so simple and straightforward that it is hard to imagine that someone clever enough to invent Kharo.s.thî could have so badly misunderstood it. Hence I am still inclined to accept Bühler's principle of deriving the individual characters of Kharo.s.thî from the phonetically corresponding Aramaic consonants. For the results of the application of this principle, if inevitably not entirely satisfactory, are on the whole successful and persuasive, far more so than in the case of Brâhmî. Bühler's explanations of the alterations of individual Aramaic prototypes into the Kharo.s.thî ak.sara s on the grounds of reasonably consistent principles of inversion, reversal, and differentiation still seem distinctly preferable to invoking the deus ex machina of an ignorant genius inventing Kharo.s.thî out of a vague acquaintance with Aramaic script.

Even more important and thought-provoking are Falk's theories on the origin of Brâhmî. He argues vehemently and not unconvincingly against the existence of Brâhmî before Ashoka. His comprehensive review (Ch. 8, pp.177--239) of the archaeological, i.e. epigraphic and numismatic evidence confirms the recent trend of opinion, developed by such authorities D.C. Sircar and A.H. Dani, according to which none of the several early documents such as the Piprâwâ reliquary inscription, the Sohgaurâ bronze plaque, and Mahâsthân stone inscription which had in the past been presented as pre-Ashokan in date can in fact be proven to be so. Another strong argument in favor of an Ashokan origin for Brâhmî is the formal one adduced by Goyal and others and endorsed by Falk (pp.164--5), which proposes that the simple and symmetrical geometric forms which predominate in early Brâhmî (e.g. ¤ .tha and ¤ ka ) are indicative of a recent origin and an arbitrary creation. Falk thus concludes (Schluß, pp.337--9), like Müller, Goyal, and von Hinüber before him, that Brâhmî was a conscious creation of the Mauryan period, probably designed during the reign of Ashoka for the express purpose of the monumental presentation of his edicts. This new script was designed, according to Falk, primarily on the systemic model of Kharo.s.thî, but with significant input, especially as far as the overall monumental ductus (cf. p.82 and 111) and the left-to right direction was concerned, from Greek. Since both of these latter scripts are ultimately derived from Phoenician (via its derivative Aramaic in the case of Kharo.s.thî), Brâhmî in Falk's view is ultimately an Indian adaptation of Semitic scripts. [12]

However, Falk does not attempt to work out in full detail the derivations of the individual characters of Brâhmî from their presumptive prototypes, as Bühler (following the lead of Albrecht Weber [13] ) and others have in the past attempted to do, albeit with limited success. He does stress the anomalous form of Brâhmî ¤ tha , which not only resembles the Greek theta (¤) in form and phonetic value but also is the only Brâhmî letter, except for initial i ( ¤) that consists of more than one unconnected stroke: "Das heißt, man opferte in der Brâhmî das sonst überall erkennbare Prinzip von der graphischen Einheit jedes Zeichens im Rahmen einer Übernahme" (p.111). I do not find this to be a particularly cogent argument, since it is hard to know exactly what the nature and significance of the alleged "Prinzip von der graphischen Einheit" is, especially when not one but two Brâhmî characters violate it. By the same logic Greek, the script should have a similar principle, also with two exceptions (¤ theta and ¤ xi ), but it is hard to see any special significance in this. This is not to deny the striking similarity between theta and Brâhmî tha , or even the possibility that that the former influenced the formation of the latter, especially since this is one of the Brâhmî characters for which it is difficult to find a suitable prototype in late Aramaic (although similar shapes are available in earlier Semitic scripts). But I doubt whether this single example deserves the special significance attributed to it by Falk, which perhaps overemphasizes the influence of Greek on Brâhmî.

Much the same can be said about his analysis of the vocalization system on Brâhmî. That the basic system of indication of post-consonantal vowels by diacritic marking was originally developed in and adapted from Kharo.s.thî seems well established. But Falk's suggestion (pp.111, 339) that the introduction into Brâhmî of distinct diacritics for short and long vowels was influenced by the model of Greek script is doubtful, since the notation of vowel quantity in Greek operates on entirely different principles. Whereas Greek uses distinct alphabetic characters, mostly derived from Semitic consonants, to represent, incompletely and inconsistently, short and long vowel pairs, Brâhmî has a complete and regular set of matched short/long pairs of post-consonantal diacritic signs. Thus at best one might suggest that Greek provided an example or inspiration for the development of a system of notation of vowel quantity. But I hardly see the necessity for even this much, since, given their well-established tradition of phonetic analysis, the Indians could certainly have thought of this on their own. So here again, the weight of Greek influence seems to be over-emphasized.

A further problem in deriving Brâhmî as a composite of Greek and Kharo.s.thî are the several Brâhmî characters which are more readily explained by reference to the presumptive Aramaic prototype of Kharo.s.thî than to the Kharo.s.thî (or Greek) characters themselves. Among these are Brâhmî ¤ ha , which can reasonably be derived (by inversion) from an Aramaic ¤ he , but hardly from Kharo.s.thî ¤ ha , and ¤ ta from Aramaic ¤ taw , but not Kharo.s.thî ¤ ta ; several other such examples could be cited. What this boils down to is the old problem that each of the proposed prototypes for Brâhmî, viz., Kharo.s.thî, Aramaic, Phoenician, and Greek, can provide models for some of its characters, but no one of them can explain all of them; to do so, one must revert to rather far-fetched combined derivations of the sort proposed by Halévy (see n.). Falk does not address these problems head on, and perhaps would be inclined to dismiss them, as have some others, on the grounds that the characters of Brâhmî were essentially arbitrary creations, with a general input from Greek and Kharo.s.thî but not systematically patterned on either of them. This too is not impossible, but still the resemblance of many of the Brâhmî characters to phonetically cognate ones in one or the other scripts is troubling. It may not ever be possible to fully establish the derivations of each Brâhmî character, and this was clearly not Falk's intention, but I cannot help feeling that in this regard he has over-estimated the role of Greek at the expense of Aramaic.

All of the above discussion assumes that Brâhmî is in fact a derived script, created from or loosely modeled on one or more Semitic or Semiticderived scripts. While it is true that the historical and geographical circumstances point strongly in this direction, it must be remembered that this point of view is not at all widely accepted in South Asia, and should not be taken for granted; with his assumption of a Semitic derivation and especially his strong emphasis on the role of Greek, Falk may leave himself open to charges of a Eurocentric viewpoint. Such questions of indigenous development versus borrowing from outside will also arise in connection with Falk's analysis of the numerical notation system of Brâhmî. Because the use of distinct signs in Brâhmî for each of the digits (1 to 9) and the decades (10 to 90) is "eine radikale Abkehr vom semitischen System" (p.175), he looks elsewhere for its prototype and finds a similar system in early Chinese numerals, which he thinks could have been brought to India by Chinese merchants travelling to Gandhâra in ancient times. But I find it hard to accept archaeological evidence of Chinese wares in the Swat Valley in the early 2nd millennium BC (ibid.) as any sort of evidence for a possible borrowing of a system of numerical notation. It is surprising that Falk does not take into serious consideration the striking similarities, discussed by Bühler and others, not only in system but also (unlike Chinese) in the actual form of several of the numerical signs, between Brâhmî and heiratic and demotic Egyptian. Though I am not convinced that the Brâhmî characters are in fact borrowed from Egyptian, this seems a far more plausible possibility than China. Thus while it is not strictly correct, as Falk states, that "Die enzige Alternative zu einem chinesischen Einfluß auf die BrâhmîZahlzeichen...ist der Annahme einer Neuschöpfung in Indien mit zufälliger Parallität" (p.175), the possibility of an indigenous origin should be seriously considered. Since numerical signs, unlike phonetic signs, are not wholly arbitrary but rather tend to develop by cursive simplification from collocations of counting strokes, coincidental similarities in their forms are not nearly as unlikely as it might seem at first glance. In the case of the Egyptian systems, we have the sufficient materials to see how the separate hieratic decade signs originally developed from the cursive writing of additive groups of the single hieroglyphic sign for 10. A similar system could well have developed separately in India, independent from the influence of any outside system and even apart from the development of linguistic writing (which would explain the persistent problems in establishing phonetic or systemic linkages between early Brâhmî and the early numerical system associated with it, cf. Falk, pp.169--73). Certainly we do not need to look all the way to China.


Such disagreements over details notwithstanding, the studies discussed in this review are works of high scholarly quality which will be of lasting impact and utility. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that these authors, especially Falk, have raised the level of discussion of the old problems of early literacy and the origin of the scripts in ancient India to an entirely new level. All of them have succeeded in casting off the old prejudices and lingering effects of Bühler's outdated arguments, and Falk in particular has brought a wealth of new information and erudition to the field. In particular, he has for the first time looked seriously from a modern viewpoint at the Iranian, Semitic, and Hellenistic background to developments in Mauryan India, while also objectively and perceptively re-evaluating the entire corpus of Indological and classical data. Thus while I disagree on several secondary points of interpretation and method, and while I would maintain that much still remains to be done, particularly with regard to a detailed re-examination of the development of the individual characters of Brâhmî, I find myself more convinced than ever by Falk's arguments, bolstered by those of von Hinüber, Goyal, and Fussman, for a late origin of Brâhmî in the Mauryan, and probably the Ashokan period. [14] In the light of new evidence such as the Aramaic inscriptions of Ashoka and the reinterpretation of the old, faulty claims for evidence of early writing, it must now be admitted that, as long as one agrees to give preference to the empirical evidence, there is every reason to think that Brâhmî did not exist before the 3rd century BC, and that it was created then on the basis of a loose adaptation of one or more pre-existent Semitic scripts, with Kharo.s.thî playing at least a partial role. Kharo.s.thî itself almost certainly did predate Brâhmî, as argued by Falk et al., and probably dates back at least to the late 4th century, and ( contra Falk) quite possibly even before then.

One final and important problem remains. According to the position espoused in these books-- which, given the authority of their authors and the quality of their scholarship, is likely to be hereby established as the currently prevailing point of view, at least in the west-- the heartland of India was preliterate until the 3rd century BC. But can we imagine such a state of affairs, given what we know (admittedly not too much) of the state of society and culture in India, especially in the northeast, before this time? If we can put any trust at all in the traditional lore of the Purâ.nas and the testimony of the Pali canon, Magadha was the site of great and prosperous empires, notably that of the Nandas, decades if not centuries before the foundation of the Mauryan dynasty in around 320 BC. Can we believe that these dynasties with their legendary riches, and the remarkable intellectual and cultural life of India in the time of the Buddha and Mahâvîra, existed in a totally illiterate sphere? It is certainly true that intellectual activity in India has always strongly favored oral over written means of expression, and both von Hinüber and Falk have effectively put to rest the already discredited skepticism about the possibility of oral composition and preservation of the Veda, Pâ.nini's grammar, etc. (see e.g. Falk pp.321--7). But the fact that Pâ.nini did not use writing in composing the A.a.tâdhyâyî does not necessarily mean that he was illiterate (cf. Falk p.259); it may only mean that writing was not considered an appropriate vehicle for intellectual endeavors of his kind. Even given the very different cultural role of writing in India as compared to many other ancient civilizations, it is hard to conceive that practical affairs such as the keeping of records and accounts in a fabulously wealthy empire like that of the Nandas could have been kept in order without any form of writing at all, or at least without some alternative system of memory-aids like the Inca quipu . Thus one is tempted to think along the lines of William Bright (cited by Falk, p.290) of some type of writing that was "perhaps used for commercial purposes, but not for religious or legal texts." [15]

Admittedly, we have not a shred of concrete evidence for this, and it is perhaps better to stick with what we have and assume that business affairs, like cultural ones, were conducted in pre-Mauryan Magadha simply on the basis of the highly-developed memory skills so well attested in ancient and modern India, perhaps with the assistance of a system of numerical notation such as that hypothesized above. This, it would be hard to deny in light of the evidence that Falk, von Hinüber, et al. have laid out before us, is the most likely scenario on the grounds of the unfortunately meager evidence that is left to us. Still, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that the last word has been spoken. Admittedly, it hardly seems likely, after all the years of waiting, searching, and the dashing of false hopes, that some major archaeological discovery will reveal a whole new picture of the origins of writing in the Indian heartland, or reveal a sustainable (rather than purely hypothetical) connection with the Indus script. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to rule out surprises in the future, and we should leave the door open, as does Falk (p.340), to discoveries that could revive theories of an early development of Brâhmî. But we must also agree, if reluctantly, with his final sentence: "Zur Zeit erscheint dieser Fall jedoch kaum zu erwarten" (p.340).


One final note: It is unfortunate that the work of Fussman in French and von Hinüber and Falk in German will not be available to a large portion of their potential audience. These works, especially Falk's Schrift im alten Indien , are of sufficient importance and quality to merit publication in English translation in order to bring them to the wider audience they deserve and permit them to have the influence on future discussion that they ought to.


Note 1 This is a review article of:
Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien. By Oscar von Hinüber. Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse, Jahrgang 1989, Nr.11. Mainz: Akademie Der Wissenschaften Und Der Literatur} / Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden}, 1990. 75 pp; and
Schrift im alten Indien: Ein Forschungsbericht mit Anmerkungen. By Harry Falk. ScriptOralia 56. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1993. 355 pp. DM 136.

Note 2 See [note 1] .

Note 3 Annuaire du Collège de France 1988-1989. Résumé des Cours et Travaux , pp.507-514.

Note 4 Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens , 36 (Supplementband) (1993), pp.239-49.

Note 5 Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, Philologisch-historische Classe 132, no.5, 1895. 2nd revised ed.: Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, 1898. Reprint ed.: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Studies, vol.33; Varanasi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1963.

Note 6 The Alphabet. A Key to the History of Mankind (2nd ed.; New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), p.336.

Note 7 Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (Glückstadt and Hamburg: J.J. Augustin, 1935).

Note 8 Here Norman (n.24) cites Fussman, "Les premieres systèmes...," p.513. His subsequent allusion to the theory of the invention of Br\={a}hm\={\i} under A'soka is made without reference to the works of von Hinüber and Falk, which were evidently not yet in print when Norman wrote his article, though he was probably aware of their ideas on the subject.

Note 9 In The Origin of Brahmi Script , ed. S.P. Gupta and K.S. Ramachandran, (History and Historians of India Series, vol.2; Delhi: D.K. Publications), pp.1-52. (Reviewed in JAOS 102 (1982), pp.553-5.)

Note 10 Fussman's ideas on these subjects will presumably be developed at greater length in his article on "Écritures indiennes," in D. Arnaud's Histoire de l'ecriture , cited in Falk's bibliography (p.31) as "im Druck" and still not available at the time of this writing.

Note 11 The model for the structure of the book is, as the author notes (p.11), George Cardona's Pânini, a Survey of Research (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1976).

Note 12 The composite theory of the development, or invention, of Brâhmî is not, as Falk notes (p.338), entirely unprecedented. The French Semiticist J. Halévy in particular tried to establish a composite derivation from Aramaic, Greek and Kharosthî. Falk feels it was largely he published in French that Halévy's contributions have not received the credit they deserved (p.127); but it seems to me that it was the serious flaws in argumentation, reflecting profound misunderstandings of the Indian cultural background, as well as his intemperate tone of argumentation (cf. p.132), rather than the language of his publications, that cost Halévy much of his credibility.

Note 13 In "Ueber den semitischen Ursprung des indischen Alphabets," ZDMG 10 (1856), pp.389-406.

Note 14 It is not exactly correct, as Falk states, that in my review in JAOS 102 (1982), p.554 I opposed Goyal's position on the origin of Brâhmî in A'soka's time ("Gegen ihn stellten sich z.B. R. Salomon" (p.150). What I actually said was "the invention theory proposed by Goyal...is not without its merits, especially in that it holds to the evidence (or rather, lack of evidence) as we have it... But it falls far short of full cogency for lack of both corroborative evidence and historical parallels." In any case, this lack of corroboration and parallel has, to an large extent, been filled in by Falk.

Note 15 Similar arguments are also presented in K.R. Norman's review of von Hinüber's Der Beginn der Schrift... in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society ser.3, vol.3 (1993), pp.277-281 (esp. p.279).



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