Friday, August 7, 2015

Does Vedic recitation cause loss of creativity? – Mischief mongers think so.

A research paper on the effect of years of Vedic recitation on the brain structure of the reciting person with specific reference to cortical thickness, gray matter density and gyrification is now available for reading in the link

I happened to read about this in a mail with Mr. Steve Farmer’s introduction and a conclusion too, wondering whether such continuous recitation would suppress the creativity of the reciting person! He quotes his observation made 15 years ago:-  “ an equally important, but ignored, question concerns the *negative* neuropsychological and cultural consequences in premodern societies of intense memorization of texts. A number of studies of famous memonists suggest that the construction of extraordinary memories comes at a cost: loss of creativity.”

Aghast at reading his observation, I rushed to read the paper and found that the authors have not thought so! They have done an honest research and have only presented their observation which does not indicate any negative imprint on the brain nor any disorder type of changes in the brain. Thankfully Steve Farmer could not or did not write such a paper by joining those researchers though he had expressed his wish in his mail written 15 years ago, to be the 10th author in such a research. (Read here). It is good that he was ignored – he who wished to co-author this research with a pre-conceived notion that Vedic recitation could suppress creativity.

He draws his inspiration for this notion from one Rajan Srinivasan Mahadevan and thousands of undergraduates he had taught who could reproduce the lectures verbatim but not create any new idea of their own. The problem lies not with their brain power but with him or the teachers who are supposed to inspire them on how to further their lectures with their own ideas.

Similar problem was faced by none other Shwetaketu, the great learner of Vedas. He was back home from his Gurukul where he learned Vedas for 12 years. His father sage Uddalaka asked him what he had learned. He asked whether he acquired the knowledge by which the “Unheard” becomes the “Heard” and the “Un-thought of”  becomes the “Thought of” and  the “Unknown” becomes the “Known”. This means with 12 years of Vedic learning / recital, one must have imbibed knowledge of the unheard, un-thought of and un-known Thing.  This “Thing” is Athamam and the knowledge is Athma gyana. In that context Aruni explains the gyana as Tat tvam asi.

This gyana is supposed to be acquired by one who had learned the Vedas. For Shankara Bhashya for this narration that occurs in the 6th chapter of Chandogya Upanishad, read here.

 Earlier in Chapter 3 of Chandogya Upanishad, it is said that Man himself is the Yagya. “Purusho Vaava yajna” (3 -16). He has to do Mantra recitation every day throughout his life. By that his creativity is not reduced, but his Ayush – longevity is increased. This chapter details how the first 24 years of one’s life is protected by Gayatri; the next 44 years by Trishtup and further 48 years by Jagati. In all these 3 phases one is protected against diseases. MahIdasa, known as Aitareya, the son of Itara lived by this recitation for 116 years free of diseases. (Read here for Shankara Bhashya on these verses)

Here the Chandas - or how the recitation is being done during different stages of life protects one from diseases is emphasized. Chandas plays an important role in any Vedic recital. The basic fruit of Vedic recital is disease free long life. Let Farmer and others do research on this or on how the changed brain structures could impact the health of the Pandits that they have tested.

The complete memory of Vedas owing to constant practice of recital has been a subject of discussion in the ancient times too. There was time that age Narada was not convinced of what he had acquired by the knowledge of Vedas. In the 7th chapter of Chandogya Upanishad, this discussion comes. (Read here)

Narada approaches Sanatkumara to teach him. Sanatkumara asks him what he has known already. For that Narada lists down all that he knows that includes 4 Vedas, the 5th Veda (Ithihasas and Puranas) and all the Shastras. But yet he did not know the Athma gyana . For that Sanatkumara says that whatever he has studied is mere Name (naama)!

Sanat kumara says – Rig veda is a name, Yajur veda is a name and so on. All these are mere names. But meditate upon the name as Brahman. Shankara explains by comparing this with the worship of the image of Bhagawan. Though people worship the image, they think the image to be Vishnu Himself. Like that one who knows a Veda must worship the name of the Veda as Brahman Himself.

But beyond Name comes speech. It is speech that makes known the Vedas and other Shastras. So one must meditate upon speech (Vaak) as Brahman.

But Mind (Manas) is greater than speech. So, one must meditate upon speech as Brahman.

Sankalpa or Will is far greater than Mind. Because ‘when one Wills, then he Minds, then he utters Speech, then he utters it in Name. In the Name, the Mantras become one and in the Mantras, Performances become one’. (Mantreshu karmani).

All these merge with Will and therefore one must meditate on Will.

But Intelligence (Chittham) is greater than Will. So, one must meditate on Intelligence.

But then contemplation (Dhyana) is far greater than Intelligence. Hence one must meditate upon Dhyana as Brahman.

Learning (Vigyana) is greater than Dhyana. So, one must meditate on Vigyana as Brahman.

Balam or Power is greater than Vigyana. Power stands for the capacity to understand, reflect and apprehend things.

Then Balam is also surpassed by Food, water, Fire and Akasha – in that order with one being greater than the other and each one being fit enough to be meditated upon as Brahman.

Beyond them comes Memory (Shraddha) which must be meditated upon as Brahman.

But Hope is far greater than Shraddha. It gives the desire, the wish and propels one to attain that which is beyond one’s scope under normal circumstances. The Upanishad names this as ‘Sukha’. It says “yO vai bhUma tat Sukham”. That which is limitless or exceeding or plenty,  is Sukham.

But Athman is greater than Sukham.

That Athman springs from the Athman.

Sukha, memory, akasha, fire, water, appearance, disappearance, food, power (balam), Vigyana, dhyana, chittha, vaak (speech) and Name – everything springs from the Athaman (here Paramathaman or Brahman)

From the constant recital of Vedas and accompanying meditation on Vedas as Nama and as Brahman, one does not get ‘negative’ neuropsychological side effects or loss of creativity as Steve Famer thinks.

But one gets the ‘purity of objective cognition’, followed by the ‘purity of inner nature’. In that state ‘Memory becomes strong (memory of whom? Of Brahman). And ‘on the strengthening of the Memory, follows freedom from all ties (Moksha).  

Sage Sanatkumara revealed this knowledge to Narada as to how from the recital of Vedas the meditation on Brahman must be done. It is because he had taken Narada beyond darkness, Sanatkumara was aptly known as “Skanda” – the learned one – so says the Upansihad.

The basis of this chain process is recital of Vedas. Learning the Vedas is a mental reception of a collection of syllables and repetition of the same. It is known as the Karma Khanda. This gives rise to the knowledge of the Brahman by meditating on the recitation as Brahman. That is Gyana Khanda

That is how Brahma sutra begins. Having done the recitation, one must start the enquiry in to the Object of the Vedas which is Brahman. The very first sutra of the Brahma Sutra says “AthatO Brahma jinjyasa” (Then therefore the enquiry into Brahman). The words ‘Then’ and ‘therefore’ refers to further course of discourse after one had learnt the Vedas.

By having made memorizing of the Vedas a pre-condition for enquiry into Brahman, it must be understood, that the memorization does not decay the brain nor does it reduce the creativity (!), but indeed helps in knowing the Unknown!

An example of this had happened in the recent past, say, 1000 years ago in the Tamil lands. The retrieval of the 4000 hymns of the Azhwars known as Divya Prabhandam happened thanks to the continual recital by Acharya Naadhamuni.

Similar to Sanskrit Vedas are the Tamil Vedas, the 4000 Divya Prabhandam of Azhwars. (They are also known as Vedas because of the specific rules of Chandas and intonation).They were recited by different Azhwars in different time periods. They did not write them down and sang in the temples. These hymns were instantaneous outpourings from the mouths of the Azhwars in their state of heightened Thought of God. Those verses were not recorded and were lost.

What helped in retrieving them (from perhaps ether/ Akasha) through Nammazhwar was the continuous recitation of just 10 verses of Madhurakavi Azhwar  by Naadhamuni.

Naadhamuni kept reciting the 10 verses starting as “Kanni nun siru-th-thaambu” for 12,000 times. It resulted in him hearing all the 4000 verses. That shows the immense power of the 10 verses when recited with devotion. Here Naadhamuni did that with devotion on Nammazhwar on whose praise these 10 verses are composed. So he meditated on Nammazhwar yearning to know all the 4000 verses and he got them.

This is the essence of Chandogya verses explained above. You get what you contemplate on. For that to happen, a continuous mental conditioning on the object of contemplation must be there. When Vedas are recited with a devotion or contemplation on the Brahman, one gets Brahma Gyana. This is the secret behind the Vedas.

Suppose one recites with no thought on inspiring the listener with creativity, one will get thousands of undergraduate students as Steve Farmer got who could just reproduce what he had taught in the classroom but could not take beyond!


Mr. Farmer’s mail is reproduced below. I didn’t take permission from him to reproduce it here as I could sense mischief in having planted his pet theory in that mail contrary to the findings of the research paper and therefore deserved to be told to the Public. I am mailing this blog-post to him:-

Wed Aug 5, 2015 5:18 pm (PDT) . Posted by:

Dear List,

On the Indology List today, James Hartzell, of the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento, Italy, announced the publication of a groundbreaking paper on changes in the brain structure of Vedic reciters.

With James' permission, i repost his post in full below, which includes a link to the important paper just published by James and his collaborators:

"Brains of visual memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems"

A quick link to the full paper here:

After giving James' post verbatim below, I add a few comments on this meticulous article -- admittingthat I'm green with envy reading it. Way back in 2000, on the old Indology List, we had a long discussion of how rote memorization of texts by premodern reciters changed brain structure.

At one point I speculated on one way to test that idea. Little did I imagine at the time that someone would actually have the chance to do that. Great work, James et al.!

Here is james' post. You can see some of the future here: this is cultural neuroscience at its best.

Originally published on 5 August 2015 on the Indology List:

Dear all,

Herewith a link to the published (in Neuroimage, open access), peer-reviewed study we did of the brain structure of Delhi-area, qualified Yajurveda Pandits from government Vedic schools. I hope this may be of some interest and/or use to some members of the list.

We found very large changes in the grey matter (neuronal tissue) of the Yajurveda Pandits' brains. The evidence we found strongly suggests that 7-10 years of intensive, professional-level training in memorizing and reciting the Yajurveda Samhita (and related texts) is associated with some of the largest changes in brain structure ever reported for a cross-sectional study (i.e. one that compares two closely matched groups, here two groups that differ primarily in the Yajurveda training).

Article Title: Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems

Authors: James F. Hartzell, Ben Davis, David Melcher, Gabriele Miceli, Jorge Jovicich, Tanmay Nath, Nandini Chatterjee Singh, Uri Hasson

• We compared professional Sanskrit verbal memory specialists and well-matched controls.
• We measured cortical thickness (CT), gray matter density (GM), and gyrification (LGI).
• Pandits showed increases in CT and GM in lateral temporal cortices.
• Pandits showed relative decrease in subcortical GM and occipital LGI.
• Findings suggest brain organization supporting intensive oral memorization/recitation.


We studied a group of verbal memory specialists to determine whether intensive oral text memory is associated with structural features of hippocampal and lateral-temporal regions implicated in language processing. Professional Vedic Sanskrit Pandits in India train from childhood for around 10 years in an ancient, formalized tradition of oral Sanskrit text memorization and recitation, mastering the exact pronunciation and invariant content of multiple 40,000–100,000 word oral texts. We conducted structural analysis of gray matter density, cortical thickness, local gyrification, and white matter structure, relative to matched controls. We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

This is the first of two papers from my current PhD project in Cognitive Neuroscience. The second paper will examine in detail what preliminary evidence suggests are extensive differences in the white matter (neuronal axon) tracts in the Pandit brains compared to controls.

We are, by the way, actively seeking postdoctoral funding to continue the project -- our PhD funding finishes in October 2015. Any suggestions for potential funding sources are most welcome (off-list), as are any questions about the published work (either on- or off-list).


James Hartzell, PhD
Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC)
The University of Trento, Italy

End of James' post.

Personally, I first speculated about expected changes in brain structure in premodern reciters back in a book (_Syncretism in the West: Pico's 900 Theses_, p. 135) published way back in 1998.

In 2000 on the original Indology List (which was closed at the end of that year) a number of us (including James, as I saw today) discussed that issue theoretically in a long thread on brain structure and premodern reciters and memorizers -- not only in premodern India, but in China and the West as well.

Here is one of the last posts in that thread, in which I speculated (as i did in my earlier book) that you could expect heavily dampened originality in the thought patterns of premodern reciters simply due to the needs of the continuous overwriting of (plastic) neural networks required due to the process of rote memorization.

The test here proposed involved use of the Wisconsin Card Sorting test -- a standard neuropsychological test of flexibility in human thinking -- not the sophisticated brain imaging techniques used by James' group:

Before dropping out of this thread myself, I'd like to raise a
question that takes the discussion in a very different direction. It
involves a matter that has troubled me for the last decade. Scholars
normally focus on the *positive* aspects of memorizing canonical texts
-- on faithful oral transmittal, etc. But an equally important, but
ignored, question concerns the *negative* neuropsychological and
cultural consequences in premodern societies of intense memorization
of texts. A number of studies of famous memonists suggest that the
construction of extraordinary memories comes at a cost: loss of
creativity. Many memorists (like Luria's famous subject [Solomon] Sherishevskii) apparently perform subnormally when it comes to generalizing
knowledge, with their deficits arising directly from their continuous
rehearsal of concrete data. Luria, for example, notes that
Sherishevskii had difficulty escaping his concrete memories, "making
it impossible for him to cross that 'accursed' threshold to a higher
level of thought" (1968: 133). Thompson et al. note something similar
about Rajan Srinivasan Mahadevan, who on exams tended to paraphrase
lecturer's words (like thousands of undergraduates I've taught!) and
had great difficulty creating anything new. The implication is that
Rajan was drowning in his concrete memories.

Shifting to the historical level, I've always wondered if the typical
overreliance of scholastic writers on "authority" in general wasn't
*directly* related to the amount of time they spent memorizing texts.
Recent studies of neural conditioning (e.g., Michael Merzenich's
famous experiments involving neural plasticity) would seem to confirm
this view.

It is not often that historians can test ideas in the laboratory, but
this may be an exception. Is there anyone on this List who has access
to virtuoso Vedic reciters (I don't) and is capable of administering
to them standard neuropsychological batteries, including above all the
Wisconsin Card Sorting Test? (The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is a
standard measure of flexibility in thinking; poor performance on it
indicates problems in frontal-lobe functioning.) To end my part in
this thread with a testable prediction: I would predict that anyone
capable of reciting any one of the four Vedas (or any similar canon)
verbatim would do subnormally on tests like these. Verification of
this prediction would have important historical implications, to say
the least, given the fact that the majority of premodern intellectuals
spent an inordinate amount of time memorizing texts. (If anyone gets a
paper out of this into _Science_ or _Nature_ on this, please sneak me
in as 10th author.)
Again, great work James! As I've often argued on this list and in lectures and many publications over the years, it is inevitable that cultural and neurobiological studies will eventually meet in revolutionary ways.

James' new paper is a case in point.



krsna said...

What does "meditate on will" mean? How do one follow it?

guru.raghavan said...

Madam JS

I can only surmise vedic recitation did not cause loss of creativity; its non recitation in a prescribed manner and in prescribed environment/location only caused loss of creativity.

In vedic times (we assume vedic recitation was at its best and max during these times), many learned scholars from abroad, visited India to observe and unlearn to relearn. Till recently (about 200 years ago), our goods and commodities were very much sought after and our balance of trade was always positive. Even today our IT soft skills are very much in demand. I need not highlight some of the best brains in the IT world are from a particular community from a particular part of India. This can easily become the topic of yet another study.

May be SF has not been appraised, how knowledge transfer takes place from one generation to another and that too in the same family. It itself is an innovative method or way to learn. This may be beyond the comprehension of SF. If we were/are not creative, we could not have produced goods and services which were and are in great demand. If we were not creative, we could not have conquered many parts of the Eastern world.

Learned SF should understand more than the recitation the environment plays an equal part in stimulating creativity. We will be branching off from the main topic if we focus more on environment at this juncture.

I opine, creativity is a generic term and it takes different forms. Which one gets affected and under what circumstances and in which environment should be the main part and path of the study.

It would be a futile exercise to expect and expose practitioners of vedic recitation to some card sorting test. I believe these basic sorting tests should not be applied to test higher levels of knowledge and practice of life.

Thanks for this opportunity to interact



Saranathan TG said...

The article has brightened me personally! For more than a year smt.Jayasri was inactive and it worried me. This is first article I see after that dormant period. It is good she is active again! I admire her articles for the depth and spread.
Sankara and Ramanuja were all brought up in the community, where memorizing was the first thing the student learns. Can anyone surpass their creativity? In fact, in the legal profession, it is the memory which plays an important role. And, in the past most of the well learned lawyers were from community which practiced repeated chanting of vedas!
I expect soon these modern so-called researchers will retrace their findings.