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Discuss the relationship between literacy, orality and sacred texts with particular reference to South Asian society.

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Introduction

25.05.04 Jenny S�derlind Discuss the relationship between literacy, orality and sacred texts with particular reference to South Asian society. Traditionally, the relationship between literacy and orality has been regarded in what have are arguably quite simplistic and ethnocentric terms. Lack of literacy was viewed as signifying a lack of a literary tradition and an inability to think in abstract, objective terms. Oral traditions were generally given little attention, and even when they were, they were at times subjected to sweeping generalisations. It is not until relatively recently that alternative approaches have been put forward and the perspective towards orality has changed. This new view rejects the dichotomy between 'literate' and 'oral' societies and their supposed distinctive modes of thought, challenges the idea of literacy as a neutral and purely technological entity, and attempts to explore literate and oral expression as part of their own social context. I will begin by exploring the 'simplistic' view of literacy and orality, before presenting the arguments against such a perspective, illustrating the usefulness of a more nuanced, culturally specific approach with reference to the epics and sacred texts of India. One view explicitly or implicitly shared by many social scientists is that literacy is a neutral technology which can be detached from specific social contexts. Street (1984) delineates the arguments for this perspective, referring to it as the 'autonomous' model of literacy. Those who regard literacy in this way consider it a more useful distinction to make than the older divisions of societies into primitive/modern or logical/pre-logical. While the older versions of this 'great divide' theory were based on now rejected notions of race and biological determinism, this new incarnation is based on technology, the 'technology of the intellect' as Goody (1968, cited in Street) phrases it. While Levy-Bruhl's (1926) version of the great divide theory proposed differences in cognitive capacity between members of different cultures, those appealing to literacy are merely pointing to differences in cognitive development. ...read more.

Middle

Firstly, as Street (1984) convincingly argues, the concept of literacy is not neutral, it cannot be viewed in isolation from its social context. The practices and concepts of reading and writing in a particular society depend on the context, they are embedded in an ideology. The skills and concepts that accompany literacy are not caused automatically by its inherent qualities, and there is no simple relationship between the advent of literacy and the development of logic, science, and 'civilisation'. Thus the distinction between literate and non-literate societies rests is no more tenable than earlier versions of the 'great divide' theory, as it rests on the assumption that our particular social conventions regarding literacy are superior to those of other societies. The claims made by academics about the importance of literacy for cognitive development derive from their own social context, and serve to reinforce their practices and beliefs in relation to alternative practices in other cultures. Thus Street argues for the adoption of a more 'ideological' model of literacy, taking into account the social contexts and complexities of literacy and orality in each society. As Street (1984) shows, the assumptions in the autonomous approach to the study of the impact of literacy render the 'evidence' that oral language prevents abstract thought useless. Rather than testing for some objective ability, that of being able to think abstractly, what is being tested in the studies cited by Hildyard and Olsen is explicitness. Street argues that the differences displayed in schooled and unschooled children in this has nothing to do with cognitive capacities but instead reflect the convention of explaining explicitly and 'adopting a detached role' that schools instil in its pupils. Thus Greenfield and Bernstein, without realising it, are testing for conformance to conventions, the conventions of their own system. Work by Labov (1973, cited in Street) supports this interpretation of the studies. He found that the unfamiliar and authoritarian test situation discouraged response in less well schooled children who were not used to such test situations. ...read more.

Conclusion

An example of such a use are the sacred texts of the Jains, the agamas. These derive their meaning from the oral, ritual context they are presented in, and less value is placed on their actual content. As Dundas (1992) emphasises, the agamas are not taken to be the literal words of the Mahavira (one of the founders of the Jain tradition), but as existing without human or divine origin, as fixed truths without beginning or end. Thus the original religious texts are not the sole component of the agamas, but the commentaries on these texts are also revered as sacred. The study of these texts is not recommended, it is dangerous and unwarranted if not done in the right context. The language they are written in, ardhamagadhi, furthermore, is understood only by few, which increases their inaccessibility, and maintains their exclusivity. Rather than texts to be studied, they are seen as sacred objects, and performed as spectacle. When the Kalpasutra texts are performed, for example, they are told at such speed that it is impossible to follow the narrative. Altogether, it is clear that the actual content of the texts is not so relevant. Fuller (1984) further stresses that in the rare cases that the agamas are taught to priests, this is done orally, and it is not thought that learning from books can give any deep understanding. This illustrates the complexity of the relationship between written and spoken word and shows how culturally specific their uses are. Literacy and orality are thus both context-dependent and variable. Their uses differ depending on the society under study, and thus literacy has a range of different meanings and consequences. It is therefore of greater use to look at these practices as part of a whole, rather than attempting to extract the practice of writing as a neutral technology that separates some societies from others. Reality is more nuanced and complex than such a dichotomy and simplistic perspective would suggest. ...read more.

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