Memory Training in Ancient India

Knowledge in ancient India was passed on from one generation to the next through word of mouth. The oral tradition could not have survived for centuries without effective and efficient methods of memory training.

Years ago, an aged Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) functionary told me a story: He was among around 40 RSS workers attending a “bouddhik”  (intellectual discussion-cum-training class) addressed by Eknath Ranade, the brain behind the Vivekananda Roack memorial at Kanyakumari.

At the outset, Ranade asked each of the participants to tell their names and where they came from and where they were working.

At the end of the class, he told each of them his name, town and work place. Then he told them that what he did was not a miracle or an ability he was born with. The organisation trained him to enhance his memory.

There is another story I heard in childhood from my father. Panditaraya, a famous classical Telugu poet from coastal Andhra, adjacent to Odisha, went to Puri to visit the famous Jagannath temple. He did not know the local language. Those days learned people could go around the country using Sanskrit, as the Adi Shankara did to north, east and west.

As he was walking on the road he saw two men quarrelling and shouting at each other. He stood for some time watching them. Then one of the men stabbed the other to death. The king’s men came and arrested the killer. They tried to find out what was the cause of the fight. All passers-by said they did not witness the fight and did not know what led to the crime (as they do even today, to escape the police harrassment and court attendance). The only witness was Panditaraya. He was presented before the king along with the accused.

Panditaraya  told  the king’s court that  he did not understand a word of what  the two were speaking, but could repeat the entire conversation.  And he did so.  He obviously had a photographic memory. The judgement was delivered based on the narration by the Telugu poet who did not know Odia language.

In Arthur Hailey’s book, ‘The Money Changers’, which is about the banking industry, a girl cashier working in a bank  was kidnapped by bank robbers with a large amount of money, blindfolded and taken to a hideaway. The  girl had a photographic memory  and could rant off the numbers of thousands of currency notes in a bundle and the balances in all the  accounts.

When she escaped her captors, she could lead the police to the place where the money was hidden. As she was taken in a getaway car from the bank, she started counting and remembered at what count the car took a turn to the right or left (obviously it was  not a one-way street).

All these stories make it clear that memory can be trained and enhanced. They also emphasise the importance of good memory. In our education system, it is memory that usually determines academic achievement, rather than understanding and assimilation. We live in a society where knowledge matters more than wisdom.

It is only when we  can remember incidents that occurred decades ago, but forget where the wallet (usually),  the spectacles or house-keys were kept a few minutes earlier, that we realise that there are two types of memory – short and long. This is where mind dynamics and mnemonics come in. A good memory, like communication skills, is a major asset for anyone to achieve leadership position in management.

Ayurveda found herbs like Shankapushpi and formulations that strengthen memory power. Some other devices and techniques have also been developed for this purpose. A ‘memory guru’, who says he studied in a Corporation school and started life as a peon claims he could acquire several degrees and a doctorate, by developing  techniques  of memory enhancement. He started  cashing in on his “art”  by starting an institute  for memory training.

Much of literature depends on memories – sad memories that torment and happy memories that one lives by.  Indian films lean much on unscientific and  wrong concepts of memory loss or different types of   amnesia. A long, boring explanation about functioning of the brain is needed to understand these phenomena and this is no place for it.  Selective amnesia is common in out present-day electoral politics in which politicians make promises and forget them till the next election comes.

The most significant scientific invention after mankind developed the wheel is the memory chip – the tiny device on which not only the IT industry and robotics but also several other gadgets depend. We use many of these gadgets without even being aware that their main component is the memory chip.

Any technique, device or practice that helps us understand, develop and use the processes of memory to our optimum advantage would indeed be a boon to humanity.


Author of ‘A TOWN CALLED PENURY  -the Changing Culture of Indian Journalism’             &                                           ‘JOURNALISM, Ethics, Codes, Laws’

Published by

B. Someswar Rao

60 years of journalism, from the age of 16, and two books later, life has so much more to offer, there is no looking back. Not yet. Unstoppable after 70 is a simple expression of my thoughts, my triumphs, my failures and everything that makes this journey incredible. My books: - A TOWN CALLED PENURY- the changing culture of Indian journalism - JOURNALISM - Ethics, Codes, Laws Working on: - 'THE OUTHOUSE ON THE FIRST FLOOR - Coming of (Old)Age in India'

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