Mnemonics in Ancient India

Shailendra Raj Mehta mehta at MGMT.PURDUE.EDU
Sat May 20 22:32:49 UTC 2000

George Thompson write:

"Many thanks to Steve Farmer for the interesting and informative post

I agree that there does not seem to be anything comparable in Vedic with the
'memory palace' devices that you describe.  I myself am unaware of anything
as elaborate as these in India."

That is not quite correct. Any civilization that has
produced "taperecordings" unchanged over several thousand years, as Michael
Witzel has suggested many times, must have had a very powerful mnemonic
apparatus. I can testify to this. from personal knowledge. I apologize for
resurrecting an old post of mine, but here is what I wrote five years ago.

Date: 14 Sep 1995 20:00:46 -0500
Francois Quiviger wanted to know if there was a history of mnemonics for
India. I suspect there ought to several mini-histories available by now,
though most of it would be in the Indian languages. Two small bookleta
which detail part of a Jain tradition are available in Hindi from Prakrit
Bharati in Jaipur. They might have some references to other works.
The first details several schemes for memorization which are rather old.
The writer was a Shatavadhani sadhaka, who, as the name indicates had a
hundred special skills including the ability to remember a list of several
hundred (or thousand) items, listening to a passage in a foreign language
and reciting it back verbatim, the ability to do long mulitiplication in
the head using algebraic short cuts, and so on. In a public forum he could
sit and listen to these one hundred challenges presented to him in
sequence. This would take several hours. He could then provide the
responses to these challenges, also in sequence over the next several
hours. He indicates, incredible though it might seem, that there were Jain
monks who were known to be Sahsravadhanis. If I remember correctly the
author's name was Dhirajbhai Shah. He had written the original in Gujarati.
I had reviewed the manuscript of the Hindi translation which was then
published in Jaipur. I remember one particular difference between the
Indian and Western techniques (as described in books such as those by
Yates). It was the heavy emphasis that the Indian techniques placed on
developing ekagrata.
The other booklet was more historical in nature and was written by a Jain
monk who was also a Shatavdhani. It too was published by Prakrit Bharati in
Hindi but the title and the name of the author escapes me. I remember being
disappointed when I first read it since, unlike Dhirajbhai Shah, he gave
away few of his secrets.
Shailendra Raj Mehta mehta at
In response, Allen Thrasher came up with the following:

Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 11:53:47 -0400 (EDT)
From: Allen Thrasher <athr at>
To: Indology list <indology at>
Subject: Indian art of memory
Message-ID: <Pine.A32.3.91.950918114457.83757A-100000 at>

I think I have got a little more information on the book on
the art of memory discussed by Shailendra Raj Mehta. A computer search of
the Library of Congress database (LOCIS) turned up the following:

Tripathi, Rudradeva.  Bharatani eka virala vibhuti Sri Dhirajalalal
Saha. Mumbai: Satavadhani Pandita Sri Dhirajalala Tokarasi Saha
Amrtamahotsava Samiti, 1981. In Gujarati. LCCN 81-903830, LC call
no. BL1373 .S48 T74 1981 (Orien Guj). See especially section
Smaranakala (on a work of his by that title), p. 245-246 and
chapter Satavadhanakala, p. 285-32. In the bib. of Shah's works,
the title Smaranakala is listed and it is said that a Hindi trans.
is forthcoming.  There is no citation of a publisher of either the
Gujarati or the Hindi ed.  As far as I can make out it says that
Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai (a prolific Gujarati author, according to
LOCIS) was the translator, but I do locate any title that sounds
like this from a search under his name.  I will ask the Delhi
office of LC to try to track down whether the book was published
and will advertise the publication information on the net if it is.

Satavadhana is apparently a genre of extemporaneous composition in
Telugu poetry, and persons capable of it are called Satavadhani.
See the following works:

Rajamannaru, Karyampudi. Satavadhani Rajammannaru (1846-11916)
jivita sahityalu.  Haidarabad: Sudharma Pracuranalu, 1990. In
Telugu. Biography of Karyampudi Rajamannaru.  LCCN 91-909125, LC
call no. PL4780 .9 .R2652 Z85 1990 (Orien Tel).

Subbanna Satavadhani, Si. Vi. Satavadhana prabandhamu. Proddutturu:
Sri Rayala Sahitya Parisattu, 1977- <1991  >. <v. 1-2, more
expected.>. Poems. In Telugu. LCCN 78-905799, PL4780 .9 .S746 S2
1977 (Orien Tel).

Subbanna Satavadhani, Si. Vi. Avadhana vidya. Hairabadu: Telugu
Visvavidyalaya, 1987. In Telugu. Study of extemporaneous poetic
composition performances (Satavadhana) in Telugu. LCCN 88-903070.
PL4779 .S83 1987 (Orien Tel).

I found no hits under Sahasravadhana/i.


Nakaracan, Karu. Avatanakkalai. Cennai: Tamilp Patipppakam, 1982.
On the art and practice of avadhana (attentiveness to develop
miraculous memory); includes brief biographies of scholars endowed
with great memory.  In Tamil. LCCN 83-903152. BF385 .N25 1982 Orien

Perhaps someone could get some of these works published in English,
or visit the authors and persuade them to publish some tips.

I have also found several titles in English from India that look as if
they may have some information on the art of memory, but will page and
examine them to see if they indeed do so before I post them.

Allen W. Thrasher
Senior Reference Librarian
Southern Asia Section
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20540-4774
tel. 202-707-5600
fax  202-707-1724
Email: athr at

A public performance of a subset these skills was given in the Bay Area by
a visiting ashtavadhani
from Andhra Pradesh, several years ago. Performances like these are quite
common in India.

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