By Swami Veda Bharati October 2003 The ancient understanding of memory was less physical and more psycho-spiritual. In the modern world, this is one mental faculty you might find enriching more the illiterates than the literates. In what the author calls Smrti-Yoga or yoga of memory, he gives some refreshing insights into why this is so, and suggests ways to hone memory skills Our contemporary science defines many different types of memory, depending on different types of brain functions, and based in the neuronal connections. The ancient understanding of memory was less physical and more psycho-spiritual. Memory, in the ancient traditions, is not merely located in physical cerebrum but becomes deeply ingrained in the subtle body in the form of samskaras, processed conditioning and modulations of the subtle body. It is on the model of the subtle body, as on a mould, that our physical bodies are then formed, de-formed, re-formed, all these processes in one lifetime or in many successive ones. Here we shall not discuss the hidden world of samskaras and vasanas and the karmic fruition. So we shall eliminate the discussion of past life memory. The Sanskrit word for memory is smrti (pronounced in different parts of India as smriti or smruti; `r` here is a vowel). In the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali, the word occurs in two different meanings : anubhuta-vishaya-a-sam-pra-moshahsmrtih (Sutra 1.11), meaning an experienced object not being lost from the mind is memory. This definition is limited so as to explain it as a vrtti, or an operation of the mind to be brought under control to attain samadhi. In sutra 1.20, a view parallel to the Buddhist one is enunciated. Samadhi may be attained by following five different methods, including smrti. Here smrti is no mere memory but the practice of mindfulness. We need to view these two denotations of smrti as interlinked. When Krishna says: From anger arises stupefaction (sam-moha); From stupefaction the confusion of smrti He is talking of the loss of mindfulness. So at the end of the Bhagavad Gita we hear Arjuna exclaim: My stupefaction (moha) has vanished; mindfulness has returned. Mindfulness is a very refined form of attention, a state of awareness. Here it is not possible to go into the details of all the practices taught in yoga for (a) cultivating mindfulness and (b) enhancing memory. We shall explain the subject selectively. Emotional confusions Our memory and emotional states are closely linked. All our confusions are emotional ones; they befog the mind and rob it of its pleasant clarity, prasada-guna. This prasada-guna is developed, cultivated and maintained by practising the four brahma-viharas, frolics in God, as prescribed in sutra 1.33 by Patanjali. It is these practices that aid us in stabilising the mind (sthiti-ni-bandhana) whereby concentration, that is the prerequisite for memory, improves. Actually, concentration is no effort; just clearing the mind of its emotional confusions. Once the fog is lifted, the sun shines clearly. A clear mind remembers; a confused mind forgets. The primary archetypical reason for the weakness of memory is prevalence of tamas. This may manifest itself under many categories. However, here let us just ask the simple `why` and `how` questions. The `why` first: First, a Shiva-child is often forgetful. His/her tamas does not indicate stagnancy but stability from the past lives` purification through tapasya. Because of a deep inward urge the interest in outward matters is absent and the child appears dull but may excel in spiritual attitudes, and in certain arts that can be practised in solitude, and so forth. One of the four major disciples of Shankaracharya, named Hastamalaka, is the highest example although there are many even today in some families, much misunderstood, but not with such excellence in spiritual realisation. The second reasion is dullness of intelligence as a past karmic effect. For example, a person with much pride in his scholarship and intelligence may be born `stupid`. Intelligence is of many types but memory and intelligence are closely linked. This just about sums up the `why`. The `how` is a little more detailed. Memory is not merely located in physical cerebrum but becomes deeply ingrained in the subtle body in the form of samskara o Lack of spiritual preparations on the part of the parents, to be defined below. o Mother`s malnourishment during pregnancy so that the foetus does not receive all the nutrients needed to develop the strength or even the morphology of the neuro-cerebral systems. So also during lactation. o Child`s malnourishment so that, again, the nutrients required to develop the cerebral systems are in dearth. o Lack of training in education as to how to use the mnemonic faculties. o Overdependence on technology, so that `mental mathematics`, so common up to the time of our grandfathers, is no longer known and without the calculator one cannot cube 25. Everything is noted down in a computer and nothing remembered. I find this phenomenon more among my western associates and assistants. o Overfeeding so the energy is needed to digest food and not spared for sharpening the mind that keeps becoming dull and less perceptive. o Sleep deprivation that is a common phenomenon in the urban industrial countries and communities. o Alcohol and mind-altering drugs; these have long-term effects. o Tension, lack of relaxation. o Poor circulation. o Lack of training in associational memory triggers. o Lack of training of analytical faculties resulting in non-comprehension. o Emotional confusion and befogging; this, even if the neuro-cerebral systems are well developed. o Lack of interest in or love for the subject, person, etc., to be remembered. o Information overload. But this can be overcome by increasing one`s (a) emotional and (b) intellectual capacity-especially the latter. The emotionally weak or impaired cannot carry the load and become confused. Problem of recall The problem is not often so much in memorising, in mnemonic faculties, but in recall. Everything we perceive even unconsciously, with any of our senses, is stored in our instruments of consciousness. But when we need any part of these stored data, we cannot get to the right file. This for lack of training, and through emotional befogging. We know that the human mind is capable of enormous feats of memory. Even now there are thousands who memorise entire epics. The number of the Hafiz-who recite the entire Quran Sharif by heart-in India alone is over 45,000. Those who recite portions of the Veda are at the last count reduced to 2,250. Millions in India recite the entire Bhagavad Gita or the Chandi-patha daily. Among the 3,000-odd who register Sanskrit as their first language, there must be several hundred who memorised all the 4,000 sutras of Panini`s grammar at a very early age (as this author completed this entire memory work by the age of six and half). There are again thousands who know the entire Lexicon called Amar-kosha, and the most popular text on prosody, the Vrtta-ratnakara, by heart. The `illiterate` mothers and grandmothers of ours sang entire kandas of the Ramayana as we slept in their laps. As the women plant or transplant rice, as they grind on the janta (Bhojpuri pronunciation jaaNTaa, from yantra) chakki ( from chakra), millstones, as the kumhar (potmakers) swirl or beat the vessels to shape them, they sing entire epics, to their work rhythm, containing stories related to their work. After lugging bricks on their heads whole day, the Bhojpuri-speaking labourers sit around a fire and sing vast epics like Lorikayan, six versions of which have now been edited and published but the brick labourer does not know that some people got doctorates on what he, a mere `illiterate`, recites from memory! The `literate` person seems happy with his inability to memorise a single poem from Macbeth-no brick layer he, nor an epic-singing kumhar, for he is a civilised urbanite! (The ignorant urbanite`s definition of `illiterate` worldwide: one who can sing an epic by heart without being able to sign his name!). The transfer of the oral form of literature to the written form has been one of the instruments of memory impairment. But not quite. The opera singer at La Scala, the Chakyar who plays entire Kalidasa by heart, the Gerot who recites the genealogical epics in West Africa, the grandmother who recites Ramayana by heart, the bricklayer who sings the Lorikayan or the Alha, the nanad-bhaujai (sister-in-law) grinding wheat together on the millstone and singing what this author calls `women`s tragic work epics`, the katha-vachaka who knows the entire Bhagavata Purana by heart, the Sanskrit grammarian who recites the 4,000 `linguistic computer commands` of Panini-they all have something in common. They did not go to learn memory-sharpening techniques but they have found in themselves the inherent faculty that others neglect. The human mind is capable of enormous feats of memory. Even now there are thousands who memorise entire epics Then there are those who have thus continued to treasure and pass on the art of sharpening the faculty of memory like the shatavadhanis and, rarer, the sahasravadhanis. The persons of `hundred concentrations` and those of `thousand concentrations`. The North Indians did not know of their existence until the former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, a Sanskrit scholar, mentioned it to the public. There is quite a tradition of these in South India, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. It goes as follows: gather a group of people anywhere. The shatavadhani walks in and takes his seat. Someone asks a question. Then someone requests, say, ‘please compose a verse on `rain` without using the letter `p` and `d`,’ or whatever. Then someone rings a bell, and so on. A hundred events take place as the shatavadhani sits in concentration. After the hundredth event, he re
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