Sanskrit and Unlimited Memory

by Vyaas Houston, M.A.

Imagine! Thousands of years ago, Sanskrit thrived in an age where there was no written word. No books, no magazines, newspapers, no mail let alone junk mail, no signs, no ads, no computers. Vast amounts of information were committed to memory; great works of literature, the Vedas, the Upanishads, or even entire epics. To a large extent it was the design of the Sanskrit language that made this possible. For example, the final letter of one word must be blended euphonically with the first letter of the next word, often requiring one or both of them to change. This allows for an unbroken flow of sound so fluid that it enters seamlessly into memory. Sanskrit, as much like music as language, brings the mind into a beautiful flow. This is what attracted me from the very beginning. Even without knowing what I was chanting, the sound of chanted Sanskrit relaxed me and energized me. Inspired by the experience of my new "flow", I began to study the language formally, learning its pronunciation and grammar. In order to remain in this marvelous flow for longer periods of time, I also began to memorize various stotra, collections of verses to Shiva, Krishna, Brahman etc., and eventually entire chapters of philosophical texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita. I had never before found memorization particularly enjoyable, but because I loved the sound, and it was strung together so fluidly, I found it easy to learn by heart, or as the Sanskrit idiom goes, have it "remain in the throat a kantha-sthita".

The first longer piece of text that I was able to recite from memory was most likely the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, a tiny section of the world's most voluminous epic, the Mahabharata. It contains 72 shlokas, verses consisting of four lines or quarters known as pada, with eight syllables per pada. Sanskrit verse may be composed in an wide range of meters, but the vast majority of classical Sanskrit literature is in shlokas (shloka may mean simply a verse but more often refers specifically to those with 8 syllables per pada). Much like the 12 fluid (previously 8) oz. containers for contemporary beverages, the shloka delivered information in the most manageable and easily consumable quantity possible. The more ancient of India's two great epics, the Ramayana of Valmiki, consists of 32,000 shlokas. Originally it was only recited from memory, and even today there are those who know the entire work by heart. By comparison, my memorizing of 72 verses hardly seems worth mentioning, except that it contrasts the enormous gap between our time and an age thousands of years back when great epic literature was sung and heard, rather than written and read.

To me, 72 verses was a significant increase in flow time. Encouraged, I plunged into the third chapter, but lost steam about halfway through. I put the Gita to rest, and with time it faded from my memory.

Several years passed and again I felt inspired to take up the Gita. This time, supported by a better knowledge of Sanskrit, I covered the 1st chapter, easily recovered the 2nd and 3rd and moved on through the 4th and into the beginning of the 5th. I may have thought at some point that I would work my way through the 18 chapters (700 shlokas) of the Gita, but the thought was not enough to sustain me. My momentum ground to a halt in chapter five.

Many years passed. I was able to observe the same pattern of learning and forgetting with many works of Sanskrit literature. Of course it's always easy to retrieve something you have learned previously, but at one point, I decided that I wanted to actively retain any text that I took the time to learn...