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Brain Damage in Modernity


A recent issue of Scientific American Mind, November/December 2012 (pp.30ff.) gives a random list of geniuses in history. All names are western except one Arab (Ibn Khaldun) and one ancient Egyptian (Imhotep). Obviously, from this ‘scientific’ writer’s point of view, India  and China never produced any geniuses!

Here I take a different approach. While the IQ scores are reported to be rising, the modernity also makes us lose some of the abilities of our brain. We no longer want to do mental work; we want to depend on calculators and computers.

Our parents and grandparents, in the east and the west, did mental arithmetic as a matter of course. Their minds were trained to do so. Now, calculators are allowed in the examination rooms (at least in the Western countries) so that the students no longer need to depend on their memory work of the Tables (pahaRas in Hindi).

Then there is the mnemonic ability. The western priests perform their religious services by reading from a book. Even the village pandits of India perform the entire hours and hours of rituals simply by memory. They recite the Vedic hymns because their minds have been trained to do so from childhood. I have not come across a single western priest who could perform High Mass in Latin by memory alone. I do not know if there are any in the Vatican to do so.  

When I went to the West for the first time sixty years ago, wanting to learn of the Christian culture, I went to the famous St. Paul’s cathedral in London for a Sunday morning service. I was shocked and surprised that the priest read his homily from a written paper. I had been giving spontaneous discourses on the Vedas without writing down a single note to help me prepare for a lecture. Even when teaching at the University of Minnesota, I never used any notes to give my lectures. So, it was indeed a surprise  when I discovered that every western speaker, whether speaking on science or on religion, has to write down his lecture!! I never saw a piece of paper in the hands of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel or Maulana Azad (leaders who escorted India to independence in 1947) when they addressed crowds of thousands and thousands, even from the Red Fort.

Griots of West Africa, the keepers of oral histories, can recite these histories from memory in all night sessions. So do the hafiz recite the entire Quran by heart.

Here I tell you a story I heard in the city of Patiala. The kings of India were well known as patrons of arts and sciences. Guru Granth Sahib is the sacred book of the Sikhs with 6000 ‘songs’ or hymns. The sikh king of Patiala asked the chief granthee ( the one who knows the text by heart) : Is there anyone who can sit in one asana (one posture) and recite the entire holy text ? The learned granthee replied : if you can sit in one asana for all those hours, I shall recite the holy text for you to listen.

On the appointed day the audition took place. Both the reciter and the listener sat still in one posture all the way through, motionless. After the recitation, the king arranged for the venerable granthee to be sent home in the royal palanquin as a gesture of honour.  

On the way the holy man was amazed and surprised to see unusual expressions of reverence of the people. He was puzzled.

When the palanquin arrived and the learned granthee alighted, he was shocked and surprised that the king himself was one of the palanquin-bearers.

It is through such veneration for knowledge that the traditions have continued.

I still cannot understand why the wise presidents and prime ministers of the nations today need electronic cues to give their speeches. More shocking , in the country of Gandhi and Nehru, the present prime minister also reads out a written speech. What has happened here?

However, the pandits still recite the hours of liturgy from memory and most Indian public speakers speak extempore without any notes in front of them.

I came to India after a sixteen year absence in 1968. I knew of the tradition of ‘pandas’, the priests who are the keepers of family genealogies. There are thousands of ethnic communities in India. I knew that our family priests resided in the city of Haridwar. So I went to the sacred spot called har ki pauri  where one is sure to find one or two of these priests. I addressed the first one I saw and asked : I am a Saraswat Brahmin of Kaliya clan; my ancestry is in the town of Nurmahal in district of Jalandhar in Punjab. Where will I find our family panda?

The priest immediately told me which way to go, where the house is and so on. And I could easily find it. I have had similar experience in two other holy places. Once in Kashmir at the Martand  (Matand) temple and  also at Gauri-kund on the way to Kedarnath.  Now, the question is : of the 1.2 billion people of thousands of ethnic communities in the country, in which computer do these pandas keep the records that they can instantly guide a seeker even to the house address of his/her own family’s priests? What is that mental skill? 

I find that many discoveries of mind sciences nowadays are based on the handicaps the people in the West, oops, in the modern societies, suffer; modern India being no exception.

I was walking in the science museum in St. Paul, Minnesota. There was an experiment one could participate in. It was a recording one heard with earphones and at the same time read a few paragraphs that were different  from the recording being played. The assumption was, it was taken for granted,  that one could not read aloud something different at the same time as listening to a different recording.

The ‘scientists’ had not counted on a meditator. I had no problem doing both at the same time and can prove it in any laboratory. It is a simple matter of withdrawing the mind from one sense and applying it to another.
This is nothing! There is an assumption that one cannot be reciting one thing while hearing something else at the same time. We prove that wrong each Shiva-ratri (Shiva’s Holy Night) when we go to the Virabhadra temple around 2 or 3 a.m. The space inside the shrine is about 10 ft by 10 ft. Often, 20  people are squeezed in there. When we arrive, the priests of some yajamana (officiant) are already performing the worship liturgy, reciting the hymns and so on. We go and our priests start reciting their own liturgy. The two groups go on independently but simultaneously and at optimum volume. Nobody gets confused. Each worship liturgy is completed with satisfaction.

This is, again, nothing. We were in the Kedarnath Temple in the high mountains. There was a group of maybe 70 people from USA. We asked for puja (worship ) to Shiva to be performed for us. When we arrived in the sanctum sanctorum, three other liturgies were going on, one on each side of the shrine. Ours was fourth. The recitations are at high volume. All four groups of priests performed their own worship without any confusion. Dr. John Clarke , chairman of our Himalayan Institute in Pennsylvania, even commented about it. Then there are ‘moderns’ who say that they cannot meditate in a crowd!

We have also tested in our Ashram laboratory a traditional reciter (veda-pathin) of the Vedas. It is ‘normally’ unthinkable that one would produce alpha brain waves, symptomatic of total relaxation, while speaking. But the Veda-pathin, when reciting with eyes closed, was also producing alpha waves and we have recorded that in our Lab data.

Now let us take the case of shatavadhanis in Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka and other states. ‘Shatavadhani’ means a person of hundred concentrations. A shatavadhani sits down in a session with people. He may be asked a hundred questions one after the other. In between, someone may ring a bell ten times. Someone may ask that the master recite a verse starting with, say, the letter ‘P’. After all the hundred events have taken place, he answers all questions in the same sequence in which they were asked; at the right place he says that at this point the bell was rung ten times. At another point he recites the requisite verse starting with ‘P’. And I have even heard of sahasravadhanis, those of a thousand concentrations.
These are examples of mind’s capacities in the traditional societies, but there seems to be a conspiracy in modern education and social systems to impair the minds so that this kind of acuteness, intentness and concentration is lost in the on-going generations.

These feats of the mind are achieved without notebooks, calculators and computers. Sadly those with modern education do not even know that these traditions yet continue and there is something to learn from them. There is an attempt in modern India to laugh off the priests who recite many  hours of the liturgy by heart and how many of us do really know about the shatavadhanis?

Now back to the talk of ‘genius’. There is quite an imposing list of  geniuses in the history of India. Varaha-mihira (505-587 A.D.) who wrote on trigonometry, astronomy, astrology, planetary movements, eclipses, rainfall, clouds, architecture, growth of crops, manufacture of perfumes, matrimony, domestic relations, gems, pearls, and rituals (Wikipedia).  King Bhoja of the Parmar dynasty (died 1055 A.D.) who wrote on medicine, architecture, poetics, literary criticism, and even about building of flying vehicles using heated mercuric vapour as fuel. 

But, the purpose of this article is not to count the number of geniuses and polymaths in India or China ( I should ask my friend and initiate Shi Hong about Chinese geniuses). What we are talking about  is the application of mind without the help of any modern ‘apps’ and such.

One prime example is Panini whose date is somewhere around 6th or 7th century BC. (Indian post office issued a stamp commemorating him). He is the founding father of meta-grammar and structural analysis of language. He analysed the entire Sanskrit language in 1959 sutras, or succinct formulae. I memorized this text at the age of 6, as do all the ‘real’ traditional grammarians of India. He invented algebraic markings for his analytical work. He has been called the only human computer ever born. I cannot begin to give you examples of his genius. One example :
I pose a question in English grammar. How does the verb root ‘be’ morph into the formulations ‘is’ and ‘are’. What is the phonetic connection between ‘be’ and ‘is’’?

Panini’s sutras, ‘computer codes’ if you will, have to be applied in a certain sequence. So, to go from the verb root ‘as’ ( meaning ‘be’), to present tense third person singular ‘asti’ (meaning ‘is’) 27 rules have to be applied in proper sequence. Miss out on one link in the chain, you give a wrong ‘computer command’, you will not get ‘asti’, whatever else you might get. These processes are called siddhis in grammar. I had to learn to do these siddhis at the age of 7 with every possible word in the language.
Of the 2000 verbs Panini listed from existing lexicons and his own ‘field researches’, each verb, following Panini’s rules, can form 20000000 words. Multiply 2000 by twenty million (two crores), 40000000000, that is the number of words a Sanskrit grammarian versed in the formulae of morphology, can form if he has mastered Panini. Imagine the riches of such  a language. And one who knows this system, learning a language for him is a child’s game.  People ask me the secret of how I learnt to guide meditation in Italian in half an hour, never having learnt the language before. Once, when I was teaching Latin (somewhere—I need not give you the history), I invented/discovered the rules by which the Latin irregular verbs operate. (An irregular verb is one which does not follow the norms of established rules).

How did Panini accomplish this? Patanjali, the great commentator on Panini’s grammar, says (I paraphrase):

[Our] authority is the master himself who would sit at a pure place, having ritually purified himself, facing east, and brought forth the sutras.
‘Facing east’ suggests that it was a work accomplished through intuitions received in meditative states. It is still common in India to sit facing east for morning prayers and meditations. No computer language of today can yet match the ability of Panini all by itself without the agency of a Sanskrit grammarian trained in Panini’s system.

Fortunately the system still continues to be taught through the self-sacrifice of masters, who live in great austerity and who may not know a word of English and cannot operate a computer key. These are glimpses into a different civilization which I represent.

We use more than two dozen computers in my Ashram, including the meditation research laboratory,  but I do not abandon my Paninian training in analysing all different areas of involvement. That goes to show that there need not be a conflict between the ancient and the modern. Both can enrich each other. Oh, how I wish the ‘moderns’ knew to ask us ‘ancients’.

Modern science has made incredible strides, but in understanding the capabilities of the human mind it is still in infancy. We the ‘ancients’ can help.