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The Sanskrit Effect

Submitted by on January 8, 2018 – 12:33 am5 Comments

By James Hartzell, originally published at Scientific American.

A hundred dhoti-clad young men sat cross-legged on the floor in facing rows, chatting amongst themselves. At a sign from their teacher, the hall went quiet. Then they began the recitation. Without pause or error, entirely from memory, one side of the room intoned one line of the text, then the other side of the room answered with the next line. Bass and baritone voices filled the hall with sonorous prosody, every word distinctly heard, their right arms moving together to mark pitch and accent. The effect was hypnotic–ancient sound reverberating through the room, saturating brain and body. After 20 minutes they halted, in unison. It was just a demonstration. The full recitation of one of India´s most ancient Sanskrit texts, the Shukla Yajurveda, takes six hours.

I spent many years studying and translating Sanskrit and became fascinated by its apparent impact on mind and memory. In India’s ancient learning methods textual memorization is standard: traditional scholars, or pandits, master many different types of Sanskrit poetry and prose texts; and the tradition holds that exactly memorizing and reciting the ancient words and phrases, known as mantras, enhances both memory and thinking.

I had also noticed that the more Sanskrit I studied and translated, the better my verbal memory seemed to become. Fellow students and teachers often remarked on my ability to exactly repeat lecturers’ own sentences when asking them questions in class. Other translators of Sanskrit told me of similar cognitive shifts. So I was curious: was there actually a language-specific “Sanskrit effect” as claimed by the tradition?

When I entered the cognitive neuroscience doctoral program at the University of Trento (Italy) in 2011, I had the opportunity to start investigating this question. India’s Vedic Sanskrit pandits train for years to orally memorize and exactly recite 3,000-year old oral texts ranging from 40,000 to over 100,000 words. We wanted to find out how such intense verbal memory training affects the physical structure of their brains. Through the India-Trento Partnership for Advanced Research (ITPAR), we recruited professional Vedic pandits from several government-sponsored schools in the Delhi region; then we used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at India’s National Brain Research Center to scan the brains of pandits and controls matched for age, gender, handedness, eye-dominance, and multilingualism.

What we discovered from the structural MRI scanning was remarkable. Numerous regions in the brains of the pandits were dramatically larger than those of controls, with over 10 percent more grey matter across both cerebral hemispheres, and substantial increases in cortical thickness. Although the exact cellular underpinnings of gray matter and cortical thickness measures are still under investigation, increases in these metrics consistently correlate with enhanced cognitive function.

This article was originally published at Scientific American and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

5 Comments »

  • Das ist gut

    Following the link to read the original article in the journal Neuroscience, I see one major weakness in the study. It compared professional Vedic pandits, who spoke precise Sanskrit for hours daily, with a control group that simply knew the same number of languages as the pandits.

    As such, there is nothing in the study that definitively sets Sanskrit apart from other languages. A genuine control group might have compared the Vedic pandits to Muslims who have memorized the Qur’an and recite it daily, or might have compared them to individuals who can recite Homer’s poetry by heart.

    Having said this, I must admit that in my own Sanskrit study I experienced a subjectively similar consequence. I studied Spanish for five years, and studied German for two years. Yet it was only after beginning to study Sanskrit that I found my overall verbal acuity to increase markedly. However, that may be the consequence of learning any language with a grammar far more highly inflected than my native English. Perhaps experts in Greek experience something similar?

    Furthermore, the article necessarily neglects one of what I consider the most profound effects of Sanskrit study. As a white male English-speaker, my early language training taught me to perceive the world through language in a particular way that I took for granted as the only way I knew. Neither Spanish nor German was far enough from English to change that view. Only in learning Sanskrit did I begin to experience firsthand an entirely different way of organizing my thoughts and perceiving my world. I had read Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Sri Siksastakam thousands of times in several English translations before I knew enough Sanskrit to encounter it directly. Learning Sanskrit brought me so much closer to the text and to its writer. The same is true of Srila B.R. Sridhar Dev-Goswami’s Sri Sri Prema Dhama Deva Stotram.

    I realize that until fairly recently students were usually taught Latin and Greek before they learned Sanskrit. As a result, many of the classic Sanskrit primers may be intimidating to monolingual English-speakers. For them, Prof. Robert Goldman has done a great service in preparing his Devavanipravesika — a first-year Sanskrit primer designed specifically for those without other language background. If you have thought of trying to learn some basic Sanskrit but have been intimidated or overwhelmed at the prospect, I cannot strongly enough recommend Goldman’s text as a great place to start.

    https://www.amazon.com/Devavanipravesika-Introduction-Sanskrit-Robert-Goldman/dp/8120832949/

  • sastra-vani dasa

    jayatu samskrtam.

    Such mantra chanting can create a divine environment, a glimpse of which is seen through the author’s description of it. Apart from the chanting of the Vedas at large by trained priests, there are many Sanskrit hymns that are chanted by a good part of the lay public in India daily. Some of them are the Vishnu-sahasra-nama, the Bhagavad-Gita, Venkateshvara-suprabhatam, Narasimha-kavacha, chapters of the Srimad Bhagavatam, and many more.

    The Sanskrit language has an inherent mystic feel to it.

    Also, Sri Das ist gut makes some nice points in his comment about the possibility of effects like increased memory etc. by languages like Greek, etc. I would also add Russian to this list of possible languages that could maybe have similar effects. But as far as I know, none of the reciters or scholars of these languages claim that these languages have that power. So, I think that Sanskrit is a unique language in this regard. Actually, Sanskrit is much more than just a language. It encapsulates a divine culture and philosophy. Much more can be said about the wonders of Sanskrit.
    Haribol.
    Daso’smi.

  • annapurnadd

    Very good article shared and more the comments that enhance it for the mentioned key points and experiential-sensorial acuity… I do not know if I understood well this finding that is mentioned in the article when the panditas are reciting the mantras do movements of the right arm to mark the tone and accent. If this is the case, it makes a lot of sense because several senses are integrated or maybe all, I’d just like to know how are eyes movements?

    Could this also help better listening and communication? Thank you very much, a great contribution to inspire us for those who have these deficiencies at one level or another. Haribol! =)

    • Sastra Vani Dasa

      Annapurna Devi,
      For knowing this one would have to personally go to these pandits in India and ask them about it. Such recitation is preserved in a tradition, and only those who practice such recitation can tell about the exact thing you want to know.
      However, you can see that singers of Indian classical music also use hand movements, but these are more natural than orchestrated. When the pitch rises the hands rise a little, etc.
      Thanks for your interest in the subject.
      Dandavats.
      Daso’smi.

      • annapurna dd

        Thank you very much for answering and accepting my dandavats. I’ll arrange it for someone to go soon because in my case I’m going for long.
        Apologies for the poorly written of my English, I saw that the translation is different from what I wanted to say, another deficiency more than the many that I have for some time, hence my interest and gratitude to everyone and everything that helps me improve it with the intention of trying to serve better. =)

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