By Swami Veda Bharati
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.
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 responds to each in the same sequence. And, at this point the bell was rung 17 times, and here is the verse on rain without using the letters `p` and `d`. He goes on sequentially till he has answered all 100 questions or requests. Well, how about a World Cup for Concentration and Memory Olympics?
What do we have to say about those who have impaired memory faculty because of malnutrition, neural disease or other illness? What about those who have never heard the adage `use it or lose it` and have been too lazy to use the faculty of memory and now it has atrophied? Also, how can we prevent the increasing impairment of memory faculty in the world society? There are many remedies, all interdependent, mentioned below.
Japa of special mantras such as (a) Gayatri, (b) Medha-mantra, (c) Saraswati-mantra,(d) Brhaspati-mantra (e) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition Manjushri-mantra (which, incidentally, is identical to one of the Saraswati-mantras). There are also Shabara and Muslim pra-yogas for the same purpose. If the parents do an observance of 24,00,000 japa of Gayatri before invoking a soul to be born through them, the would-be child will never need to go to school or have a tutor; she will have such a sharp intellect and memory.
o One looks deep within to see what emotions like anger, angst, fear, remorse, self-doubt, uncertainty, jealousy and insecurity are befogging the mind. One learns to clear the mind by the methods like chitta-prasadana, making the mind clear and pleasant through maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha-universal friendliness, compassion, love and indifferance (Yoga sutras of Patanjali 1.33) or the practice of manasa-tapas or mental asceticism. The mental ascetic practice consists of making the mind clear and pleasant, a moonlike innocent and pure quality, nature of a meditative contemplative sage, silence, control over oneself, purification of emotions and sentiments, holding only pure sentiments. (Bhagavad Gita 17.16)
o Certain yoga-asanas, especially the inverted ones that supply extra blood flow towards the brain. The headstand is the supreme one of these but it is not for everyone.
o Practices of concentration. These need to be learnt from a yoga master.
o Pranayamas, not all, but the ones appropriate for memory improvement.
o Shavasana relaxation practices.
There are many well-known psychological methods for the improvement of memory such as creating mental associations with words or forms. For example, you are trying to remember a person`s name. You had met him in the rose garden. You establish a memory trigger. Remember the rose garden and you remember his name. This is rather simplistic. The psychologists have devised many such methods and we need not go into them here. However, these methods only help trigger the memory of the `little` factors and do not much contribute to the general improvement of the mind-brain relationship.
Shankaracharya, with his four major disciples: spiritual preparation and practice, so much stressed in earlier times, leads to mindfulness and memory enhancement
Also, one tries to find out whether one has an unconscious aversion to some aspects of whatever one is failing to remember. Renouncing the aversion will help remember it better.
These are suitable for a mother to take in preparation for a pregnancy and during pregnancy, to help form a child`s brain; during lactation, to nourish the same; and after that for the child. For example:
o Judicious use of almonds and saffron in milk. Saffron at night, almonds in the morning-prepared in the traditional Indian way. (But, drink Coca Cola instead of badam-thandai, to help support the WTO regime, and keep hoping for improved memory!)
o Certain applications of ghee, in defined quantities, especially the many kinds of ayurvedic herb-infused ghee. Ingested and/or massaged into the head.
o Certain ayurvedic herbs such as Brahmi, Jyotishmati and Vacha. A qualified ayurvedic physician can prescribe the correct doses and frequency.
There are many complex mental exercises for improving the attention span and memory.
o Count the numbers, or preferably, count the breaths. Up to an arbitrary number (108? 51? 11?) and count backwards again. Do many times over for one week.
Next stage: Count up or down by skipping one number at a time. For example 2-4-6… and 108-106-104… Or, 1-3-5… and 109-107-105… Do this for one week.
Next, skipping two numbers both ways. For one week. Increase the numbers at any stage. From 108 to million and eight if you prefer and can handle it.
Next stage: Count multiplying the numbers by an arbitrary figure. 2-4-8-16-32-64-128-256-512-1024… up to whatever limits you set (up to 10008 or more) and backwards 1024-512-256-128-64-32-16-8-4-2; and then all over again.
Or do multiples of 3; 3-6-9-12 etc. and back: or (very difficult) 3-9-81-6561-43046721; and backwards.
So keep increasing the complexity and permutations, (deductions, divisions, squares, cubes, square roots, cube roots) till you can play chess mentally without looking at a chessboard.
The best is to do these with counting of breaths. In that case one cannot go to very high numbers but the cerebral systems respond better. There are many scientifically proved reasons for that.
o There are a number of other methods using words (especially the Vedic ones). There are primarily eight verbal permutations in the traditions : jataa, maalaa, shikhaa, rekhaa, dhvaja, danda, ghana, ratha. These may be learnt from the Veda-pathins. These mnemonic devices have been used for the thousands of years that the Vedas have been memorised by heart.
Sleep deprivation, fatigue, overfilled stomach, shallow breath, over talkative habit, lack of fresh air, lack of exercise, constant worrying and so forth are all contributory causes of lapse and weakening of memory. So also are certain brain diseases, like Alzheimer`s.
Here we return to the total philosophical concept of the equation of mindfulness, memory and practice. Let us look at some words. We have already seen how the verb root smr means both remembering and practising mindfulness. Without mindfulness there can be no remembering. One can go into this equation in great detail but here we must restrain ourselves.
Another connection is between remembering and practising to memorise. Phonetically the verb, man (contemplating, meditating, from which are derived the words Manu, manushya, mantra, manas-Hindi man for mind-manana, muni, mauna, English man, human, woman, mind, mental, mentate, Latin mens, Greek menos) is related also to the verb for practising to memorise. The Paninian verb root is mna (pronounced mnaa) cognate to the words like `mnemonic`, `something related to memory`.
Zeus and the goddess Hera had a temporary liaison from which was born Mnemosyne (or Mnamosyna), the Titanic goddess of memory. It is she who is the inventor of words, in the Greek mythology, and the mother of the nine Muses (nine aspects of Saraswati, one might say). She is the memory or remembrance (mneme) herself. I have also come across a European goddess Menothea, a goddess of the mind, the armoured and sword wielding goddess of knowledge and wisdom. So, purely phonetically an equation is clear between deep thinking, contemplation and meditation on one hand and the fact of memory and remembrance itself for which mind, manas, is the instrument and mantra an invariable aid. The relationship with other words derived from the verb root man can be seen above.
The tradition has it that after a text is revealed to a sage or rishi, and he has recited to the disciples, they `sit facing him` which is the literal meaning of `abhi+asa=abhyasa` and practise to memorise the same. Then they go off on their own to sit under a tree or by a river, or by the sacred fire of homa, facing the river or the fire
In yoga-nidra, one may learn a language or any subject, do quick memory work, recall forgotten facts
(abhi+asa) and recite to memorise. This process is known as svadhyaya, studying on one`s own. But in the Yoga-sutras the word is used for mental recitation of a mantra in meditation, because, as the text is recited, slowly it is assimilated into the mind. At which point the practice becomes japa. Thus listening, mentating, contemplating, reciting, memorising, doing japa for concentration and for purifying and clearing the mind (pra-sadana) are all different shades of the same spectrum. Memorising without contemplating will be futile.
Thus it was that preservation of texts, improvement of memory and practice of contemplation and japa, as well as all the practices of mindfulness, altogether formed what we may now term as smrti-yoga.
This is one direction of interiorisation. There is another. It is called yoga-nidra, yogic sleep or conscious rest, converting sleep state into a step towards samadhi. It is referred to in Yoga-sutra 1.38. However, true yoga-nidra is not easy to come by. It may be defined in several stages and the ways of practice:
o Being aware of one`s sleep state and directing it.
o While producing delta brain waves, that indicate non-REM deep sleep, one remains aware of one`s surroundings.
o One`s meditation and sleep are simultaneous; while the surface mind sleeps, the deeper mind meditates.
o Entry into the heart cave, permitting neither mantra nor thought. This can be fully entered only through initiation although the foretaste may come during the various breath preparations that are taught to train the mind to enter yoga-nidra.
In yoga-nidra, by the fourth definition, one may learn a language or another subject; do quick memory work; remember forgotten facts; become a master of sleep, needing no more than two breath cycles (three and a half hours) of sleep every 24 hours; may heal certain ailments or alleviate acute pains in oneself; may write a new Constitution or compose an epic (see it in a few minutes and then take years to write it down); may receive intuitive knowledge such as a new scientific theory or a mantra.
The depth in yoga-nidra depends on how well one has been prepared, how deep the teacher`s own experience is, how emotionally balanced and self-controlled the practitioner is.
I will narrate the story of my two experiments.
I had leafed through English grammar books in India but had not learnt to compose or speak the language. After spending a little over one year at the request of the Indian community in Kenya I arrived in London in November 1953. In Mahatma Gandhi`s autobiography I had read the name of the London Vegetarian Society and that was my only starting point. I asked to meet the general secretary who offered to organise a lecture tour of the vegetarian societies of UK. But the tour was yet nine months away as in the western countries such events are organised well in advance. I could barely understand the English of the general secretary, leave alone feel ready to lecture! In the meantime a contact was established with the then Hindu Association of Europe and I began to lecture to the Hindu community in Hindi. But the absence of English was irksome.
If one is used to taking short cuts to knowledge one has no patience for the slow and laborious class room methods that waste years and decades of one`s life. One born with Sanskrit grammar and yoga-nidra combined can understand the processes of Java, the computer language, in a few days, leave alone a simple language like English. Attending one English language class at the Regent Polytechnic in London taught me to abandon that approach forever.
I needed to concentrate. I left London in April 1954 and rented a room in Hamburg, Germany, for two months. During that time I read through the works of Shankaracharya, especially his voluminous commentary on the Brahma-sutras. I kept no English books with me, not one!
After two months I sent a message to the Hindu Association of Europe asking to have the lecture series resumed. I arrived back in June. The members gathered to hear the lecture and expected the usual Hindi-Sanskrit. They were surprised at the fluent English. ‘What did you do in Germany? Did you attend an English course?’ they asked.
Here is the explanation. All the words one has seen in the English books, all the headlines of English newspapers of London, all the sentences that have been spoken in one`s vicinity, and a touch of the basic principles of (Sanskrit) grammar (the mother of grammars), all these are stored in one`s unconscious mind. In other words, they are all in one`s memory. All one has to do is to recall. Mental information retrieval, one may call it.
A mnemonic gadget for mental exercises to improve attention span and memory
Two of the most precious segments of our 24-hour day that we waste are: while we are falling asleep-the time is wasted in unnecessary reverie and fantasy. And while we are waking up-the time is wasted tossing and turning.
These are our most creative times. If one understands the processes of consciousness in these two segments of time one can create immortal works. I was well used to utilizing that time since the age of five or six. So, in that Hamburg room, I had ample opportunity to use the familiar method.
While one is falling asleep, one`s mind is freed of all exterior distractions, but one has not yet entered the sleep state. This twilight period is akin to yoga-nidra without having to learn it; one does need to learn how to use this time!
The consciousness in this transition from wakefulness to sleep, when freed of reverie and fantasy, is also a variety of yoga-nidra and may be utilized for the same purposes. The deep sankalpa, power of intent, inherent in the very consciousness-chit-shakti-gives a slight nudge to the layer of mind that is just next underneath the common chattering mind. It is told to take a certain direction, to channel thoughts of a particular stream into consciousness. Thus, one may create whatever one wishes.
In my Hamburg room I would lie down in bed at night, and establish this state of consciousness, the pure unadulterated transition towards but not yet into sleep. Then nudge the mind to what I wished to create. I visualized the hall in London (Caxton Hall near Victoria Station), visualized a crowd sitting there. I would begin in the mind (there should be no physiology of speech involved): ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, today`s topic is the Hindu Concept of God.’ The mental lecture would proceed as an unhindered flow. All the words that had been unconsciously imprinted on the mind, all the rules of syntax integrated with the same, would come flowing forth. An hour`s lecture does not require an hour of mental production; it may not take more than 15 minutes, or, after some practice, even less, as the thought operates at a much higher frequency than articulated speech. Once the final `Thank you` was said to the audience, I would fall asleep.
Dream control practices
Better at this time to keep one`s mantra and/or go through the dream control practices in the mind, and then fall asleep. Many of my poems, and constitutions for various organizations, and articles to be published, or important lectures to be delivered the next day, are composed in this way.
The problem is that next morning one may forget everything. Remember that the transition from sleep into wakefulness occurs through the same states in reverse. Here, just as soon as one gets the very first flicker of self-awareness, of being, immediately begin the process of recall of what was created in the night. Once that recall has been done, the created piece is yours forever.
In 60 days of stay in Hamburg I thus composed 40 lectures and upon returning to London was able to surprise everyone.
Next, skipping the many successful experiments made during the intervening 42 years, here is one more, in 1997.
I arrived in Florence, the city of the Medicis. The lecture was scheduled for the next day at the cathedral, the Basilica di San Minyato della Monte, as part of a series titled `Tempio di Pace` (Temple of Peace), sponsored by the city of Florence.
Normally, where one does not know the language, the hosts arrange for an interpreter. That works very well. However, there is a vibration to leading a guided mediation and untrained interpreters are in no position to lead the minds of thousands into meditation. It is the meditation guide`s own state of mind that is conveyed through his body, speech and voice, creating a common mind field among the audience and everyone present is taken for the same dive into the interior stillness.
I expressed my concern to the director of our Himalayan Institute in Florence, my personal host, a person of German background, as to how to guide the meditation the next day as I knew no Italian. He offered to be the interpreter, but I was not convinced. I proposed to do it differently.
I lay down in shavasana, went into the yoga-nidra cave and spoke sentences, which he translated into Italian. One set of meditation processes was thus translated. Only once, no repetition. I thanked him and he offered: ‘We can do a repetition before leaving for the Cathedral tomorrow.’
A light stomach and freedom from emotional disturbances through the practice of inner calm and equanimity are important to develop a good memory
I assured him that it was not going to be necessary. I could see incredulity on his face. That night I repeated the process in the yoga-nidra transition phase. Next day, I was before the packed hall and led a 25-minute guided meditation. No one believed that I had never taken a lesson in Italian before. They did, however, ask: ‘Why does your Italian have a little German accent?
After that first session, the next day`s meditation was 45 minutes; the following day more than one hour, and so it progressed. I do now teach Dante Alighieri`s Il Paradiso as a text of the different degrees of the experience of light in higher meditations-and I do so without German accent.
Knowledge of Sanskrit
Here I must give credit not only to yoga-nidra but also to the knowledge of Sanskrit, which teaches the structure of every language. However, without yoga-nidra, a Sanskrit scholar would not be able to duplicate the performance. That is why I can read 17 languages with varying degrees of fluency. All the mantras in my Vedic language composition, Chhandasi, have been received in the yoga-nidra state.
Just the knowledge of Sanskrit and yoga-nidra as a mere technique will not do. A light stomach, freedom from emotional disturbances
through the practice of inner calm and equanimity, keeping the mind unwrinkled, these are equally important. Keeping the stomach light helps keep the mind unbefogged.
But that is not enough; there is more to it. To clear the mind and to keep it unwrinkled, the conquest of anger is the first step in `emotional purification`. All these accomplishments may take years and decades to perfect. If you have done 20 years of meditation practice in a cave but you still speak loudly, get angry, get jealous, speak ill of others, belittle others, become defensive with a compulsion to `protect yourself`, you are not a yogi. Only a yogi can practice the true yoga-nidra.
Human mind is a creature of habit. Whatever is habitual to us we consider it to be `natural`. It is in fact only a small part of its natural potential and power. All one needs to do is trigger it, activate it. Any habit can be changed. The mind can be re-trained.
In the theory of neuroplasticity it is now known that even the functions of the different parts of the brain can be altered and those parts re-trained. It can be done through abhyasa. Sit down, face your goal, and practice. Whatever the mind is taught to do repeatedly, through a quiet interior resolve, sankalpa, that will become mind`s habit, the discovery of another hitherto concealed treasure in the nature of mind.
A disciple of Swami Rama, Swami Veda Bharati is a renownwd spiritual teacher and author. He memorised 4,000 sutras of Panini at the age of six and gave his first discourse on Yoga-sutras of Patanjali when he was nine.
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