So what is there to this Indian Brahmin birdsong pre-oral tradition thing I just heard?

I happened on this “Story of India” documentary on Netflix, and I thought, hey, let’s watch something pretty and vaguely educational that won’t require too much thought, right? Well, the very first thing in the documentary is this - in the darkest swamp in Southern India there is evidently a Brahmin oral tradition, passed down through generations, of mantras that are not in any known language, that in fact sound like birdsong. The narration actually explicitly suggests that they are pre-language. This is… bullshit, right? Utter bullshit?

I was intrigued by the mantra/birdsong thing but was disappointed when the presenter, Michael Wood, did not expand upon the subject. I read the series’ companion book, but it did not expand upon the subject and I was left wondering where I could learn more.

A minor nitpick: the mantras do not sound like birdsong, but instead, there are mantras with sections that are in no known language. Linguists studying those sections say that the patterns of the vocalizations are similar to bird songs. Not sure how this affects things technically, but Dopers demand nitpickiness and who am I to deny this august body? Regards,

The thing is, the narration does very specifically lead the listener to the conclusion that parts of these specific rituals date back to a time before human language, which is clearly unsupportable. So what does the research actually say and what conclusions may we draw from it if a) we were sober, or b) we were drunk?

Yes, it is utter bullshit. Or at least utterly unprovable.

Option A: It is a pre-linguistic inheritance, that is, at minimum 40,000 years old and probably more like 100,000.

Option B: It is a linguistic inheritance from an older substrate language, maybe 1000–5000 years old.

Option C: It is a musical string of nonsense syllables added to the language sometime in the last few hundred years.

I’d vote C and I wouldn’t be surprised at B, but A seems vanishingly unlikely, at least until you disprove the other two possibilities.

Well, obviously by definition it’s impossible to prove anything is prehistoric. But what is the research on this specific phenomena?

I’m not sure what your question is. On the specific phenomenon, I don’t know—if you can provide more information, maybe a link to the story, I can look into it.

If it is on the notion of an oral tradition of songs / poems that are nonsense in the contemporary language, that’s a well-established phenomenon across many languages. So the idea of “traditional mantras that are not in any known language” is an absolutely ordinary claim. Usually you need to know more about the source language, if a borrowing or inheritance, to be able to date it.

As far as the relationship with birdsong, I really don’t know what specific claim your source made other than that they are pre-language. That’s such an extraordinary claim that I’m afraid the burden of proof is on them.

Here’s a link to a site on the program, with some discussion of the claim. Apparently there is a claim that some chants preserve Bronze-Age language.

It’s entertaining to contemplate that people in the far future might think this about the theme from the Andy Griffith Show.

And here’s the script. The claims referred to in the OP can be found on pages 2 and 3:

Without the language being understood by those speaking/chanting it, it would drift away from the original really fast - a bit like the childhood game Chinese whispers, only more so.

More likely (and as others said) it’s just some form of mouth music.

I agree. I was very frustrated because in neither the program nor the companion book did Mr. Wood identify who claimed the structure of the “untranslatable” parts of the mantras were paralleled in bird song.

Ever since I first saw the program, I have tried to find out what the research was, who performed it, what were the results and whether it has been peer-reviewed. So, many thanks Colibri for the link, in which Mr. Wood states, “Have a look at Frits Staal’s Rules Without Meaning, which is a lengthy analysis of the implications of these particular mantras within the Agni ritual.” I shall be perusing Mr. Staal’s work, anon.


Many mantras aren’t in any language at all. They are repetitions of linguistic fragments, holy syllables, and the mere utterance of them is their purpose. Lines like

  • Aim Shlim Hrim klim klim hrim hrim

carries no linguistic meaning. There may be ways of interpreting the mantras (such as "A is the first letter, H is the last letter, M is the main nasal, therefore “AHM” signifies the totality of the entire universe), but they are not language utterances.

Some mantras does have linguistic meaning, like the Gayatri Mantra which comes from hymn 3.62.10 in the Rg Veda, but it is often used in ways that focus entirely on the *ritual act *of (repeated) utterance, essentially making the literal meaning of the text subordinate.

ETA: Frits Staal’s Ritual and Mantras - rules without meaning and Harvey Alper’s Mantra are fine places to start.

From the Michael Woods quote:

But he also says they were only recently recorded for the first time. How does he know they are exact in every sound?

An exemplar of hyperbole.

Thanks, Colibri. This particular ritual is in fact well-studied. I’m not an expert on it by any means, but I’ve certainly come across discussions of it without the particular linguistic claim. I had wondered if they might have been using “brahmin” casually, but apparently not. I’ll contact a couple of Sanskritists and see what the response is.

I saw this program months ago and I meant to post about it. Some of the claims in the early part of the program seem very dodgy, including the claims about the M130 gene.

Hyperbolic, perhaps, but probably less so than you think. The oral recensions of texts and mantras show a remarkable stability on the subcontinent. Orally transmitted recensions from completely different parts of India often have much more similarity than written versions.

There are many reasons for this, one of them is the extremely hard training regime young initiates go through - some of them practice the memorization of a single text or family of texts for decades, committing everything to memory using quite complicated mnemonic techniques.

I haven’t seen this program but I’ve studied Vedic recitations in some depth. While I personally do not believe that any of the mantras being spoken anywhere are “pre-language” (whatever they mean by that) it probably popped up in this program because it is a pretty important theological point in Sanskritic Brahmin Hinduism.

In this context (the status of the Veda varies enormously within Hinduism) the Veda is the Word, the essence of the divine principal that is the fundamental building block of reality; true, unlimited, and eternal. It can be defined with the creator principle that brought forth our present reality and functions as the “divine language” that serves as the blueprint for the universe. When the Creator uttered the Vedic mantras, this brought all of the aspects of creation and the universe into being by calling them forth by name. As sounds, it existed at the moment of creation, and so theologically, it can be seen as a language before men. It makes sense, then, that mantras could be characterized as pre-dating human language, even if they were not first recited by humans until after humans were already capable of speech.

According to tradition, the Veda was first articulated by the rsis, great seers who lived long ago. It wasn’t consciously given to them by any divinity, rather, because they just happened to be really awesome, these guys were able to hear the echoes that continually reverberate through the world of the mantras spoken during the creation of the universe. Anyone could do it but they just happened to be the ones living in the right time and acting in the right way, and they were able to understand them and repeat them.

Repeating them is absolutely essential to the faith because, as the building blocks of the universe, these mantras represent the reality that is currently going through decay. By repeating the primordial sounds of reality, reality itself is perpetuated. Other benefits, like sanctifying places, helping individuals, or even understanding the meaning of the mantras, come second to this duty.

So you can see how transmission of the specific sounds of this oral tradition would be of utmost importance. Indeed, the Brahmins who are concerned with this are amazingly committed to techniques of oral transmission that boggle the mind. I think there are 4 different schools of memorization, but all of them extensively drill their subjects to know the Veda in all sorts of different ways, forwards, backwards, mixed up, rhyming, I know it’s more than 10, I want to say thirty something, but anyway, it’s a lot of ways. Even when writing came to India, the Veda continued to be purposely transmitted orally. Written copies only date to the medieval period, as a response to the Islamic invasions and Muslim leaders who were not really prepared to deal with a totally oral tradition. According to a professor of mine, studies of the written history of the Veda show that the oral transmission has actually been more accurate than the textual transmission, but I don’t have a study on hand to cite.

Because the proper expression of reality is the Veda’s sound, and oral transmission is so important, the meaning of the mantras is often seen as a distraction for most of the learners. This isn’t to say that studies and reflections on the meanings of the mantras don’t have a rich history in this Hindu tradition, but as Panurge pointed out (in a couple of great posts), it is subordinate to the act of recitation. It’s not a surprise, then, that there are certain ancient mantras where the meanings have been forgotten; for many individual reciters, this is already the case.

To sum up: The “pre-language” claim was most likely meant to be a theological claim rather than a historical one, and got twisted around by the program. That said, these mantras are really really old, and are learned in such a way to make consistent transmission possible over very long stretches of time even without a deep understanding of the meaning, so still pretty awesome. As for the “birdsong” mantras, I think Dr. Drake’s “Option B” is the most likely, and that these mantras would be at least somewhat understandable to some people in the distant past.

A nice book that goes over this in exhaustive detail is Veda and Torah, by Barbara Holdrege. Her class was my source for the above info.

I hope it’s okay to re-animate this thread. It’s taken a while to assemble the information I wanted to post. Even so, I couldn’t get everything I wanted. :frowning: So, if anyone is interested in following up on this…

As far as I have been able to discover, the source for the claims appears to be Frits Staal’s article, “Mantras and Bird Song”, published in:

Journal of the American Oriental Society
Vol. 105, No. 3, Indological Studies Dedicated to Daniel H. H. Ingalls (Jul. - Sep., 1985), pp. 549-558
(article consists of 10 pages)
Published by: American Oriental Society
Stable URL:

(I have not read the article as it is not available to me on-line. Nor does my local library system have an account with the publisher allowing access to its patrons.)

Frits Staal filmed and recorded an Agnicayana ritual held in Kerala in 1975. More than 20 hours of film were edited down to a 45-minute-long documentary called, Altar of Fire. He also wrote a 1,548-page book (with audio recordings on cassette tape) about the ritual, Agni - The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar: (Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley, 1983). The mantra/bird song claim is not explicitly made in this book. What seems to have happened is that the concept occurred to him some time after completing the film and the book. FWIW, on another web board (sorry, I closed the tab and now have no idea which web site it was), someone posted that the “bird song” chant could be heard at ~4m33s in the first episode of The Story of India. Don’t know how they know that, just thought I’d throw that out there.

Since 1975, other communities have observed major fire rituals similar to the Agnicayana (they go by different names and to be honest, I don’t understand why which rituals are named what they are). One was observed in 2006, which may be the one pictured in the first episode of The Story of India. A major fire ritual was observed from April 5-16, 2011 in the same village where Staal filmed in 1975. Although he is in frail health at age 81, Mr. Staal was able to observe the ritual and give a lecture. This time, he was greeted as an honored guest, as opposed to 1975, when he was viewed with suspicion as a possible defiler of the sacred grounds. What a difference 36 years makes, huh?

The gentleman talking about mantras and bird song in The Story of India, P.V. Bhattathiripad, is not a scholar by profession, but a cyber-security engineer (and apparently, a well-respected one). He hosts a website with information about the Namboothiri (aka “Nambudiri”) culture and links to other information about his culture.

I haven’t been able to find any follow-up to Staal’s 1985 contention about mantras and bird song. Don’t really know where to start looking. A good place might be those issues of JAOS that followed the one in which Staal’s article was published (but as I said earlier, the JAOS isn’t available through my local library system).

Hope you find this info useful. And if you get a hold of Staal’s article, PM me cuz I wants me a copy. :smiley:

I can’t watch any of his shows anymore. His wildly exaggerated enthusiasm is almost as annoying as his wild claims about things that simply can’t be proven. He’s a step above The History Channel, but I expect more out of PBS.

Wow, thank you very much ñañi! I’ve registered on this board just to say how much I appreciated your informative and sensible answer. You’ve clarified what I now see was a misguided and misleading comment by Michael Wood in an otherwise interesting intro to Indian history. Cheers!