Studies of Vedic mnemonics

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Wed May 17 02:10:38 UTC 2000

George Thompson wrote:

> I for one would be interested in the full reference to the book which you are
> reviewing, as well as to other studies of mnemonics which may be of interest
> to Indologists.
> I will concede this point to you: I do not think that Vedicists in general
> have taken full advantage of the insights into orality and mnemonics that
> have arisen since the pathbreaking work of Parry and Lord.

The volume is entitled _Memoria e memorie_, ed. Lina Bolzoni,
Vittorio Erlindo, and Marcello Morelli (1998). The collection
doesn't deal with the same questions as Parry and Lord, but
(primarily) with the construction of formal mnemonic systems used
in the West to memorize speeches, legal briefs, sermons, and
written texts, etc. The granddaddy of these texts was the
pseudo-Ciceronian _Hortensius_, which was an ancient handbook for
lawyers and rhetoricians. Almost all of these premodern Western
memory systems depended on the construction of complicated loci
(in the Renaissance, 'memory palaces,' 'theaters of memory,' and
the like) that you populated in fixed ways with complicated
images. One variation might be a 'memory palace' with hundreds of
rooms, each containing distinctive furnishings and people dressed
in particular ways; 'memory theaters,' could also be constructed
along the same lines, filled with actors in different costumes
making fixed (mudra-like) gestures. Once you had constructed and
memorized your personal 'memory palace' or 'memory theater,'
etc., the tens or hundreds of thousands of images or loci
systematically placed in them could be associated with individual
sentences or words in the sermons or texts that you were
memorizing. These loci could be reused repeatedly to memorize
different texts. As Stephen Hodge has already pointed out, there
is some resemblance between these devices and the mnemonic use of
mandalas in tantric Buddhism. Certainly mudras have close
affinities with them as well. Same with temple images in general
(in the West, think of Victor Hugo's description of Gothic
cathedrals as 'encyclopedias in stone,' or in Java of the
mnemonic images at Borobodur).

The premodern and modern literature on these Western visual
memory systems is enormous. For overviews and bibliographical
guidance, see:

Paolo Rossi, _Clavis universalis: Arti della memoria e logica
combinatoria da Lullo a Leibniz (Milano-Napoli, 1960).

Frances Yates, _The Art of Memory_ (Chicago, 1966).

Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York,
1984). (Already alluded to by Steven Hodge.)

A.R. Luria's classic study of synaesthesia, _The Mind of a
Mnemonist_ (Cambridge, Mass., 1968) provides some insight into
the neurobiological mechanisms behind these systems. =

Hundreds of works were produced on the ars memorativa from the
later middle ages through the 18th century in the West. Some of
these will show up in a good research-library search engine if
you type in 'mnemonics' for a subject search or 'ars memoriae,'
'ars reminiscendi,' or 'ars memorativa' in a title search. One
classic Renaissance text that contains a detailed description of
the technique (as put forward by Giordano Bruno) is:

_Philothei Iordani Bruni Nolani recens et completa Ars
reminiscendi et in phantastico campo exarandi: ad plurimas in
triginta sigillis inquirende, disponendi, atque retinendi
implicitas novas rationes & artes introductiones_ (London, 1583).

The most interesting thing about formal Western mnemonics, as
mentioned earlier, is that they were almost entirely dependent on
visual imagery. Nothing comparable to the elaborate verbal
combinatory techniques found in Vedic mnemonics is known in the
West. (At least not for mnemonic purposes; an 'ars combinatoria'
was used widely in magic.) My own studies of 15th-century Western
figures who supposedly had eidetic memories and used these
techniques show that the results almost always ended in close
paraphrases rather than in true photographic recall. Nothing
close to the so-called 'tape-recorder' reproduction quality
reported for Vedic reciters shows up in the West.

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