Mnemonics in Ancient India

Shailendra Raj Mehta mehta at MGMT.PURDUE.EDU
Mon May 22 19:21:14 UTC 2000

I thank Steve Farmer for an excellent set of references on memory. I had,
of course read Luria's classic, but the recent literature seems to
interesting in that it overturns William James's conjecture that basic
memory cannot be improved with training.

Farmer also writes:

"I'd like to add a correction to Shailendra Raj Mehta's interesting
recent post: George Thompson clearly wasn't claiming that mnemonic
devices weren't used in Vedic traditions. All that he said was that he
knew of no elaborate mnemonics in India based on the construction of
complex visual associations, like those found in Western 'memory
palaces.' Thompson obviously is well acquainted with Vedic mnemonics,
which are based on modifications of sounds and rhythms in canonical
texts and not on associations (as in the West) between sounds and
visual images."

Here I disagree again. The books from Prakrit Bharati that I cited,
explicity develop memory palace type systems, running into hundreds,
thousands or tens of thousands of entries. You will find that the
Devanagari alphabet lends itself rather well to the development of such
systems, while the Roman alphabet is not quite as natural the same purpose.
The real question is, how old are they? Again, given how naturally they
come to Brahmi based alphabets, as opposed to Roman ones, I would be very
surprised if the Indian systems postdated their Western counterparts.

Moreover, while several individuals might have phenomenal memories, and
even normal memories might be cultivated to astonishing degreess, yet, I
would like to conjecture that, faitful institutional transmittal requires
the creation of formal "memory palaces" and the like. One simply cannot
gurantee that individuals such as Rajan Srinivasan Mahadevan would arise
generation after generation in any lineage.

Shailendra Raj Mehta
mehta at

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list