Contribution of Indian Philosophers to Mnemonics
Contribution of Indian Philosophers to Mnemonics

Great Acharyas belonging to the tradition of Indian philosophers had remarkable memory and they could reproduce texts orally without referring to them again, after they had just gone through the text just once.

Mnemonics is a learning technique that aids information retention in the human memory. Mnemonics make use of elaborate encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. They help use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization an easier task.

There are different types of Mnemonics such as music mnemonics (Songs and jingles used as a mnemonic), name mnemonics (first letter of each word is combined into a new word), expression or word mnemonics (The first letter of each word is combined to form a phrase or sentence), etc.

Mnemonics is used for remembering lists, numerical sequences, foreign-languages, and in medical treatment for patients with memory deficits.

Most of the modern youths depend on the memory of the computers. It has become a fashion to say, “Something is online”. It is also felt that if something is not online or it is offline the people providing it offline are lagging behind in technology.

Whether we accept it or not, the main objective of Indian philosophers was to make everything online. When one thinks of Indian philosophers and online information we should go to a different context altogether. During the time of ancient Indian Philosophers there were no computers and super computers. But, that did not prevent Indian philosophers from sharing information with each other. For this purpose, instead of depending upon super computers and their remarkable memory of several terabytes for storage, they relied on the extraordinary powers of the human brain. Taking into consideration the enormous memory power of the human brain, Indian philosophers wrote several texts presenting the information in such a beautiful way, that people could remember all that information whenever needed. In other words, Indian philosophers felt that all their teachings and valuable information they had gleaned from the Upanishads should be online.

It is often said the proof of pudding is in eating. In the same manner, the great Acharyas belonging to the tradition of Indian philosophers had remarkable memory and they could produce texts orally without referring to them again after they had just gone through the text once. To illustrate this point we can quote the following incidents from the famous work called Guruparampara Prabhavam.

  1. Kurattalvan – Sri Ramanuja and his disciple, Kurattalvan, travelled to Kashmir to retrieve the Bodhayana vruthi grantham, to write his Bhashya (detailed commentary) on the Brahma Sutras. While they were returning back, some of the local pundits who did not like Ramanuja sent some soldiers who took the script away from him. While Ramanuja was in shock and disappointment, Kurattalvan told him that he had memorized the whole Brahma–Sutra-Vrttiof Bodhayana at night after serving him.
  2. Parashara Bhattar – In his childhood, Parashara Bhattar, the son of Kurattalvar, was playing in the streets instead of attending Gurukulam. When enquired by his father about the reason for not attending the class, Bhattar replied “Every day they are teaching the same santhai again and again”. Usually the same santhai is repeated for about 15 days. But Bhattar could grasp right on the first day itself. When Kurattalvar tested him with a pasuram, Bhattar easily recited it.
  3. Shruthaprakashikacharya (Sudarshanasuri) – Sri Sudarshanasuri went to Kanchipuram to learn Sribhashyam from Nadadur Ammal. In order to reveal the glories of Sudarshanasuri to other disciples who were jealous of him, Nadadur Ammal once stopped in the middle of a lecture and asked everyone what he had explained the previous day on that topic. While everyone else was dumb-founded, Sudarshanasuri beautifully explained everything word-by-word. Seeing that, Nadadur Ammal‘s disciples understood the greatness of Sudarshanasuri.
  4. Venkatadhvari – Venkatadhvari, author of Vishwagunadarsha Champu, was another Acharya who possessed remarkable memory power. While he was traveling in Orissa, he came across two men were quarreling in a local dialect. Venkatadhwari just listened to them quarrel but he could not understand what they spoke since he did not know the language. Later they brought him before the judge as a witness to their quarrel. Upon enquiry, Venkatadhwari said, “I don’t know what these two were talking about since I am not familiar with the language. But I can repeat what they spoke because I remember the sounds of the syllables that they pronounced while talking.” And hence, he repeated their conversation. Such was his memory power.

This could happen just because these Acharyas were educated in the way proposed in the scriptures. Now let us examine the scriptural solutions for enhancement of Human Memory.

Events are ideas which are represented by means of intelligible sounds. These ideas consist of two parts –

  1. The actual sound produced
  2. Content/meaning conveyed by the sound

The actual sound is of two types

  1. Dhvanyatmaka – sound due to vibration – It is just the noise produced by any vibration, without meaning (represents the text)
  2. Varnatmaka – that understandable speech which is generated in the speech box (represents content of the text)

Various techniques were followed for remembering text and remembering content.

Techniques for remembering Text as it is

Remembering the text means remembering the different types of sounds, viz., Dhvanyatmaka and Varnatmaka sounds

  • Dhvanyatmaka sounds are remembered by composing them as lyrics for music of different
    • tones,
    • temper
    • pitches
  • Varnatmaka sounds:
    • May be in the form of prose – in the form of dandakas, etc
    • Or in the form of poetry – Poems are easy to remember because they are in meter
      • A meter (chandas) is a combination of triplets of the binary codes.
      • Anushtup meter is the simplest and has got a great bearing on memory.
    • For remembering numbers, the Kaṭapayādi niyama is used. It is an ancient Indian system to depict letters to numerals for easy remembrance of numbers as words or verses. This system provides the flexibility in forming meaningful words out of numbers which can be easily remembered.
    • For remembering the Keywords in texts, several systems such as:
      • Adivaravu – To remember the order of the verses in a poem, the first word of each verse is collected together and memorized like a verse.
      • Andadi – The poems are constructed such that the ending word of the current verse and the beginning word of the next verse are same.
      • Alliteration systems wherein the 2nd letter in each foot of the verse in Divya prabandhas are same.

In this context, it is necessary to refer to the statement of Sri Ramanujacharya in Sribhashyam, ” ‘Ashta varsham brahmanam upaneeyata; tamadhyaapayet’ iti vedaakhya akshara raasheH grahaNaM vidhiyate” The essence of this statement is, ‘A Brahmin should be initiated into the Brahmavidya at the 8th year of his birth and he should be made to remember the Vedic texts verbatim.’ In this text, Akshararaashigrahana, acquiring the knowledge of the sounds of the Vedic texts appears to be very important.

In the modern education system, most of the students would be exposed to the orthographic representation of the sound first and through this orthographic representation he learns about the sound value of that letter. On the other hand, according to Ramanuja the mind of the student should be exposed to the Vedic sounds and only at a later stage he should be exposed to its orthographic representation. Ramanuja must have realized that music helped commit verses to memory. That is why he appointed a group of people, called Vinnappam Seivaar, to recite verses with music in temples.

In this context, it should be further remembered, the sense organ of sound develops first at the 16th week of the child in the womb. Further, there is an inseparable relationship between sound and ether (shabda and akasha) according to the Shastras.  According to Ayurveda, human being is a combination of Pancha mahabhutas namely, earth, water, fire, air and ether in which ether is at the highest level. Our great Acharyas had realized this truth and tried to educate the students at the highest level of their physical structure in which shabda or sounds especially Vedic mantras could play an important role in increasing their memory power and remove all the viruses in the human system.

Techniques for remembering topics/contents

The techniques for remembering the contents are at various levels

  1. Content at the word level – Amarakosha, Dhatukosha and all other koshas are written in anushtup meter. One’s vocabulary and memory power improves by memorizing these koshas.
  2. Content at the sentence level –
    1. There are techniques based on syntax and semantics of the sentences.
    2. Sangati – links (interconnections between words) is defined at various levels – at the sentence level, paragraph level, topic level, Pada level (section), Adhyaya level (chapters), Shastra sangati (subject matter level)
  3. Content at paragraph level – Tatparya Lingas – shadvidha – the 6 tatparya lingas are –

upakrama upasamhArou abhyAsaH apUrvatAbhava

artha vAda upapatti ca lingam tAtparya nirNayE

Works such as MahAvAkyArtha-nirnaya provide detailed information regarding the content at the sentence and paragraph level.

If one studies Sribhashyam very seriously, one can understand that the knowledge representation in Sribhashyam is highly systematic. Here Ramanuja adopts the Sangraha-vistara bhava – the concept of abridgement and expansion – and also sangatis – links. Highlighting this point, Sudarshanasuri, in his commentary on Sribhashyam, says, “Uktam hi vidushaam loke samaasa vyaasa dharanam – It is said that great scholars should grasp things in an abridged form and in an expanded form” In the modern context this is compression and expansion of information which the modern computer scientists are not yet discussed. Sri Ramanuja has abridged all the information contained in the Sribhashya in one single verse namely, “Akhila bhuvan janma…shemushi bhakti roopaa” Sudarshana Suri, in his commentary, Shrutaprakashika, has extensively shown how this shloka summarizes the entire information contained in Sribhashyam.

Similarly, Ramanuja himself has shown how the first four sutras of Badarayana Brahmasutras epitomize the information contained in the Brahmasutras consisting of 545 sutras. These ideas will not be explained here in detail for want of space.

Similarly, based on Brahmasutras, Sri Ramanuja has also shown how the first Adhikarana or topic is connected with the second Adhikarana and so on. In this way, if one has understood the Sribhashya perfectly, he could remember all the topics without any break since one topic organically leads to another topic. In this way, even though a person may not be in a position to remember the text verbatim he could teach the contents to any person without referring to the text again.

In view of the highly efficient methodologies adopted by Sri Ramanujacharya, his predecessors and successors, it is very much necessary to initiate certain projects to put an end to the physical and mental burden on the physical body and minds of the modern students, following projects could be undertaken:

  1. Semantic analysis of any text based on the ideas and algorithms given in the Mimasa texts
  2. Semantic analysis of sentences in Indian Languages based on the Shabdabodha system advocated by Sri Vedanta Desika
  3. Discourse Analysis of texts utilizing the sangraha-vistara bhava and also sangatis – links highlighted in the works of Acharya Ramanuja
  4. Study of the various sutras like Purva Mimamsa sutra, Brahma sutras, Panini sutras, Narada bhakti sutra, etc to unearth the various methodologies they have used including the encoding system to face the challenges of forgetfulness
  5. Re-orienting our education system giving importance to exposing students to sounds of the texts rather than to their orthographic representation. Many projects have to be initiated in this regard to increase the memory power of the students taking the cue from the Shastras:
    1. Creating Anushtup shlokas which are in the form of 8 bits code / 16 bits code / 32 bits code. Example: ‘Daya tu pity compassion tenderness mercy sympathy’ to teach English synonyms.
    2. Create strings of sounds consisting of limited number of syllables like the Panini sutras and Brahma sutras.
    3. Adopt the Katapayadi method (Alpha codes) along with explanations in verse forms following the footprints Vedanta Desika.
    4. Instead of thinking of data compression methods, adopt the methods of information compression and knowledge compression which would lead to expansion of information and knowledge whenever desired adopting the methods highlighted in the philosophical works of Indian Philosophers.
    5. Using of the Antadi style to facilitate easy remembering, especially when texts are written.

The purpose of discussing this subject is to make the computer scientists and educationalists get interested in the methodology of compression and expansion of information. There is an urgent need to develop new software packages as well as teaching methods influenced by the methodologies and algorithms adopted by Indian Philosophers.

Featured Image: Indian Express

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