The stupendous powers of memorization in the Indian tradition

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Two days ago, I was going through past issues of Sino-Platonic Papers, all the way back to the first one in 1986.  I was pleasantly surprised to come across this one by my late, lamented colleague, Ludo Rocher:

"Orality and Textuality in the Indian Context," Sino-Platonic Papers, 49 (October, 1994), 1-3 of 1-28.  (free pdf)

As soon as I started reading it, I had a strong sensation that Ludo's paper speaks powerfully to the enigma of the overwhelming dominance of Indians in spelling bee competitions, about which we have so many times puzzled here on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below).

Ludo's paper begins thus:

I would like to preface this paper with a personal experience. One day, many years ago, my wife and I were invited for lunch at the home of an Indian friend, in Poona. I hardly recall the meal, but I clearly remember that, after lunch, we were introduced to our friend's son, a boy of five or six years old. The father was obviously proud of his son, and, to show that his pride was justified, he told the boy, in Marathi, to honor the guests by reciting the famous Bhagavadgītā, in Sanskrit. The boy positioned himself in front of us, and started his recitation:

dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ
māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva; kim akurvata Saṃjaya?

"On the field of Righteousness, the field of Kuru, my sons and Pāṇḍu's were gathered, ready for battle; what did they do, Saṃjaya?"

On and on he went, stanza after stanza, until his father signaled him to stop. The boy's Sanskrit was perfect. It was as clear as that of any Indian grown-up I ever heard, pronounced without any effort, with the right intonations, even with the appropriate facial expressions whenever they were required.

While this recitation was going on I could not help making a number of reflections. First, the boy had not yet learned to read. He had learned the text of the Gītā from his father's mouth, even as his father must have learned it from his father when he was five years old. There may, or there may not, have been a printed copy of the Bhagavadgītā in that house in Poona City. That was irrelevant. When one recites the Bhagavadgītā in my friend's house, one recites it from memory.

Second, not only had the boy not learned to read; he also did not know Sanskrit. When I asked the father whether his son understood what he had been saying, the answer was an emphatic "no": "the meaning of the text I will explain to him later," he said. What that meant was that the young Indian boy was being trained to memorize endless series of what, for him, were nothing more than nonsense syllables.

The Bhagavadgītā obviously was the first and only Sanskrit text the boy had been taught to recite. I regret now that I did not ask my friend many more questions. I might have asked him about other Sanskrit texts he was going to teach his son, how many, and in what order. I might have inquired about his teaching method. It might have been interesting to see the father teach his son a Sanskrit stanza in our presence. However, at that very moment I did not think of asking these questions. I was not even supposed to think of them. I was only supposed to be in admiration at the boy's oral recitation of a famous Sanskrit text.

To be sure, I was in admiration, I was in awe, as I had been in awe before and as I have been in awe since, whenever I was faced with the extraordinary capacity of Indians not only to memorize endless Sanskrit texts, but also to keep that memory securely stored and be able to call it up without the slightest effort whenever recitation is called for. I am also not the only Western Sanskritist to have been in awe before this phenomenon. Friedrich Max Müller noted: "We can form no opinion of the power of memory in a state of society so different from ours as the Indian Parishads are from our universities. Feats of memory, such as we hear of now and then, show that our notions of the limits of that faculty are quite arbitrary. Our own memory has been systematically undermined for many generations." More succinctly, the German indologist Heinrich Luders described some Indian pandits as "nothing but walking, living text books."

But Western scholars went further than being amazed. They also raised the question why Indians resort to memorization "even at the present day when manuscripts are neither scarce nor expensive." Memorization is something one expects in illiterate societies, and that includes India before the introduction of script. But why did Indians continue to memorize so much, even after the time when script came to India?

The age of the introduction of script in India — rather its reintroduction after it disappeared with the Indus Valley Civilization — is still debated, and I will not touch on that problem since it is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that there are inscriptions, all over the subcontinent, as early as the third century B.C.E., which means that Indians still resort to oral transmission more than two thousand years after they could have resorted to written transmission.

Perhaps an equivalent feat of memorization in Chinese culture would be mastering how to write six thousand or more characters.


Selected readings


  1. jhh said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 8:08 am

    Impressive anecdote! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 10:10 am

    This post reminds me of an earlier one, "'Arrival is a tree that is still to come'" (10/10/16), that had very much to do with memory and the memorization of characters (don't miss the comments):

    Also relevant are all the posts about character amnesia, the opposite of successful memorization. There's a partial list in the bibliography here:

    "Kanji amnesia of the week" (7/25/20)

    See as well the much longer list here:

    "The infinitude of Chinese characters" (9/9/20)

  3. Cervantes said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:01 am

    Many Muslims memorize Quran. It isn't compulsory, but it's a widespread practice, considered desirable for the devout.

  4. Daud said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:03 am

    I hadn't read this piece. THank for sharing. Very nice Victor.

  5. Jim Unger said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:13 am

    I recall a time during his intensive Introduction to Sanskrit course (really an introduction to IE comparative linguistics through Sanskrit), when the late Stanley Insler digressed into an explanation of the rote oral learning methods used in India for centuries, emphasizing that sacred texts were not set down in writing until long after they had been composed. He then remarked (as close as I can remember), after a suitable underscoring pause, "When the Germans went to India in the 19th century to compile variorum editions of the Vedas, they found only a dozen or so differences in all the manuscripts they examined. That shows you the power of an oral tradition." Indeed, such stories, I think, tell one more about the power of orality and culture than about abstract properties of brains and cognitive hardware.

  6. Alex said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:41 am

    I am a hobbyist guitar player, mediocre at best. I've been playing for about seven years, and I prefer fingerstyle folk tunes. To me, the process of learning by ear and memorizing a fingerpicking rhythm is not all that special and something that can be done with about four or five days of moderate practice.

    And yet, the coordination that my left and right hand employ is rather sophisticated when I think about it, as it's a sequence of precisely executed motions with exactly the right length and timing using four fingers on the right hand (the pinky anchors to the guitar) and five fingers on the left plus wrist and forearm movement. It must be comparable to the motions of the mouth, tongue, and vocal cords when memorizing an unknown passage in an unknown language.

    Chinese characters, at least, can be reconfigured and used to communicate infinite numbers of ideas, and when you make a mistake you can be corrected and learn what the difference is in context between 士 and 土. Both are valid characters but through communicative context it becomes clear that each has their own place, and over time this becomes second nature. If you don't know Sanskrit and make a mistake on stanza 10 of the Bhagavadgītā, your only option is to review that particular section many, many times until the correct rhythm sticks.

    The same is true for memorizing instrumental musical pieces – if I mess up on the third bar of playing Anji by Bert Jansch, I just have to practice the correct motion over and over until it's closer to the original. (Of course, artistic interpretation is much more forgivable in folk songs than in Sanskrit.) Other songs may have the note sequence I played, and still other songs may copy the correct one. I don't really get reinforcement on each particular note the way a language learner gets reinforcement on the use of every word.

    All that to say, ordinary people are capable of performing feats of memory in every culture, and I wish more people stretched themselves to find out what they are truly capable of.

  7. KeithB said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:43 am

    Isn't this *after* they learn Arabic?

    And memorizing many verses of the Bible was a thing when I was young. I still remember a purple ribbon they gave us that had a letter stuck on for every passage we memorized.

  8. Vasu Renganathan said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:54 am

    While Bhagavadgītā and Vēdās are the texts being memorized in Sanskrit, Tirukkuṟaḷ, a two thousand year old text, is the typical literary piece that is being memorized quite often by Tamil kids, mostly among the Tamil diaspora. There are two thousand three hundred and thirty couplets in Tirukkuṟaḷ and some kids have memorized more than thousand of them. They memorize with their parents reciting for them on a regular basis, but not reading from text, as they don't usually have the skill to read Tamil. Apparently, memorization works only through oral, but not through textual medium.

    They usually participate in the annual Tirukkuṟaḷ competitions being organized by Tamil Sangams of USA in various parts of the country and win prizes. As a Tamil teacher myself I never attempted to memorize that many couplets and it will surely be beyond my capability. But, I am being invited quite often to act as a judge in such competitions and have had a similar experience as that of Ludo when listening to these kids reciting so many Tirukkuṟaḷs without any interruption. Some of the kids even learned to understand the meaning of these couplets through translations.

  9. Rose Eneri said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 11:55 am

    I had not known anything about Sanskrit recitation before reading this post and I could not understand the purpose until I read the Wikipedia page on Vedic chant, which contains the following.

    "The insistence on preserving pronunciation and accent as accurately as possible is related to the belief that the potency of the mantras lies in their sound when pronounced. The shakhas thus have the purpose of preserving knowledge of uttering divine sound originally cognized by the rishis.

    "Portions of the Vedantic literature elucidate the use of sound as a spiritual tool. They assert that the entire cosmic creation began with sound: 'By His utterance came the universe.' (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.2.4). The Vedanta-sutras add that ultimate liberation comes from sound as well (anavrittih shabdat)."

    Now I understand why a father would have his son memorize vocalizations before even understanding their meaning. The sound IS the meaning. The vocalizations themselves are sacred.

  10. Hill Gates said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 12:05 pm

    Splendid achievements for people who never cook a meal, wash a dish, scrub a floor, clean their clothes, and attend to the needs of others. Truly, this should be the first, the human response to such feats. A little tepid admiration might follow. Like the dog walking on two legs… I'm very serious here. Hill Gates

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 12:58 pm

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Fascinating, and some interesting comments.

    The introduction of writing systems struck a blow to the powers of memorization and oral traditions. Homeric tales and the teachings of the historic Buddha were probably not written down until centuries later. Such written texts are probably more error prone due to mistakes made by scribes in copying and recopying the texts.


    October 23, 2020 @ 1:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing this excellent writeup on this unusual skill that kids acquire in traditional families in India. I have known a couple of individuals who memorized all the sutras of Panini's Ashtadhyayi before they started learning what they meant. It's exciting to see how the age-old tradition is being kept up in certain enclaves. I am also amazed at how certain poets are able to recite on demand extempore not only hundreds of their own poems, and pretty long ones, but many many works of other poets also. From Vasu Renganathan's comments above it is clear that the phenomenon is widespread. I think it needs to be studied with all those questions that Ludo wanted to ask but could not.

  13. Scott P. said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 2:35 pm

    Apparently, memorization works only through oral, but not through textual medium.

    This is an odd statement, given how many actors across the centuries have memorized one or more of Shakespeare's plays.

  14. TonyK said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 3:35 pm

    Am I the only one who sees this as a fairly serious form of child abuse?

  15. David Marjanović said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 3:40 pm

    Isn't this *after* they learn Arabic?

    No. It's pretty common to know the whole book by heart and not understand it.

    Apparently, memorization works only through oral, but not through textual medium.

    That is definitely not true even for long texts. There was a fellow in the Congo in the late 19th or early 20th century who had memorized the whole Bible – definitely from a written copy, because who would have sat down and read it all to him again and again and again?

  16. David Marjanović said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 3:41 pm

    Am I the only one who sees this as a fairly serious form of child abuse?

    That depends on a lot of circumstances the anecdote doesn't tell us about.

  17. Joe Fineman said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:12 pm

    Orthodox Jewish children also used to (perhaps still do) learn to recite Hebrew texts fluently before they were taught what they meant.

  18. Terpomo said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:24 pm

    Wouldn't the more comparable phenomenon in China be the literati who memorized the Confucian canon?

  19. suburbanbanshee said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:43 pm

    Young kids love memorization and repetition of catchy sounds. Even English nursery rhymes and Pokemon lists get memorized and repeated ad nauseam. Bardic epics are probably the only force in the universe able to satisfy this childhood need.

  20. AG said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:58 pm

    Thai monks, often quite young, still recite very long Pali texts which they learn mostly as strings of nonsense syllables (since Pali and Thai are so different – although there are a tremendous number of loan-words). However, I think they might often be looking at the text when chanting.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    KeithB: And memorizing many verses of the Bible was a thing when I was young. I still remember a purple ribbon they gave us that had a letter stuck on for every passage we memorized.

    Tom Sawyer memorized [*checks*] 2,000 verses.

    Joe Fineman: Orthodox Jewish children also used to (perhaps still do) learn to recite Hebrew texts fluently before they were taught what they meant.

    Heck, as a Reform Jewish child I learned a few prayers in Hebrew without knowing what they meant beyond the English translations we also said (which weren't always that accurate). Later I learned some but not all of the words.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 10:01 pm

    When I was in high school, I knew a guy two years older than me who memorized "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", and I was simply in awe of him.

    On the other hand, I appeared in several plays and had to memorize whole scripts. And think of all the professional actors and actresses who memorize dozens of playscripts throughout their long careers. When I contemplate that fact, I wonder how they do it. And then there are all sorts of chemical compounds and formulae that chemists and pharmacists master. How do they keep all of them in mind? In college biology, everybody in my large class had to learn the Krebs cycle. How did we do it? Maybe memorization and its techniques are fairly common in our lives, without our even being aware of them.

  23. Kaleberg said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 10:51 pm

    Human memory is episodic. We are designed to remember and recall one thing after another. It can even be fun with a dopamine rush of successful recall. It is common for the mathematically oriented to memorize digits of pi for the pleasure of it.

  24. Not a naive speaker said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 3:45 am

    My two bits:

    As boys we could recite the latin parts of catholic mass Domnius vobiscum

    Anna Akhmatova "She tells how Akhmatova would write out her poem for a visitor on a scrap of paper to be read in a moment, then burnt in her stove."

  25. Kristian said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 5:04 am

    Although it may not have been at the same level as for these Indians, memorizing and reciting texts was part of education in the West too until recently, e.g. Lewis Carroll's Alice is expected to be able to recite poetry on demand.

    So maybe the question is why we think it's so difficult. I think it's probably part of a modern pedagogical philosophy that memorizing things is useless. I remember being told in school that "a long time ago, school was boring and children were expected to learn a lot of things by heart, but nowadays school is fun and children are taught to understand".

  26. Victor Mair said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 6:39 am

    From H. Krishnapriyan:

    I myself am an insider to the tradition of memorization. My older brother and I learned to recite large parts of amarakOsha, a thesaurus kind of work, before we learned to read by reciting after our grandfather. There were some standard techniques that were used:

    Everyday's lesson started with reciting all the lines that had been learned already.
    New lines that were learned were recited twice.
    Any mispronounced lines were corrected until they were correctly pronounced.
    We had to sit close enough to watch our grandfather's mouth as he pronounced the lines.
    (this also helped in being administered a stingy slap on the thigh when the error in pronunciation was especially egregious).

    Apart from this, there were many other things that were expected to be memorized – stOtras (prayers), musical compositions, various lists of astronomical objects like the 28 stars in a lunar month, names of years in a 60 year cycle, etc.

    It is not surprising that in this sort of environment there would be people who would know the about 24,000 verses of rAmAyaNa by heart, as Robert Goldman says about T. S. Srinivasa Shastri, in the preface to his translation of Ramayana.

  27. bks said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 7:16 am

    When younger I knew between 10 and 20 phone numbers by heart. Now I have to look at my phone to remember my own.

  28. david said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 9:54 am

    @Rose Eneri "The sound IS the meaning."

    Yes, that!

    Everything I have memorized I have sounded out or, at least, silently rehearsed the sounds. Not only sacred things but learning to count aloud, learning the Kreb's cycle and learning the names of the muscles in the forearm. And learning nonsense songs and telephone numbers that I remember fifty years later.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 10:08 am

    If I think about my phone number or Social Security number, I cannot necessarily write them correctly, but if I just rattle them off, I always get them right.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 10:28 am

    "learning nonsense songs and telephone numbers that I remember fifty years later". For the latter, 021 559 1629X — the telephone number of the call-box at the end of Marshall Street, Smethwick, where I used to call in order to speak to my girl-friend who lived a couple of hundred yards up the road … That would have been around 1974/5.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 11:10 am

    Victor Mair: On the other hand, I appeared in several plays and had to memorize whole scripts. And think of all the professional actors and actresses who memorize dozens of playscripts throughout their long careers. When I contemplate that fact, I wonder how they do it. And then there are all sorts of chemical compounds and formulae that chemists and pharmacists master. How do they keep all of them in mind? In college biology, everybody in my large class had to learn the Krebs cycle. How did we do it? Maybe memorization and its techniques are fairly common in our lives, without our even being aware of them.

    We remember what we're interested in.

    Learning the Krebs cycle (which I did and then forgot) is nothing compared to your knowledge of Chinese, including thousands of characters and all those idioms, allusions, historical changes, etc.

    My father knew his way around most of the Cleveland area, though maybe not every residential street, and had a useful idea of major streets in some other American cities. Far more impressive are the London "black cab" drivers who have "the Knowledge" of every single thoroughfare in London. (Are they still tested on it in these days of GPS?)

  32. Rich H said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 11:43 am


    Many Muslims memorize the Quran without knowing Arabic. Some memorize the verses necessary for daily prayers while others attempt to memorize large sections if not the whole thing. Given that Muslims only regard the Quran as revelation in Arabic, it is essential to memorize portions of it whether or not you have knowledge of Arabic. This is aided by the fact that the Quran has many stylistic elements that aid memorization (especially the Meccan verses), such as end rhyme, interior assonance, and vivid imagery.

    For a wonderful introduction to the art, and importance, of memorizing the Quran see the HBO documentary "Koran by Heart" (available for free here: The film documents the experiences of three children from Tajikistan, Senegal, and the Maldives participating in an annual Quran recitation competition in Cairo. The 10-year-old boy from Tajikistan, Nabioallah, dazzles the judges and nearly wins the competition despite being largely illiterate.

    All of this is to say that plenty of Muslims who don't know a lick of Arabic memorize large portions of the Quran.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 1:50 pm

    From David Nelson:

    You might be interested in this fun article by Dorothy Sayers 'The Lost tools of learning'

    where she argues for the importance of memorization as part of the learning process and the problem of discounting its importance for advanced thinking. I also note that the highest paid jobs tend to be those that require a lot of memorization which seems to be overlooked, although now the Math Association has endorsed 2+2=5 math.

  34. David Marjanović said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 3:29 pm

    And then there are all sorts of chemical compounds and formulae that chemists and pharmacists master. How do they keep all of them in mind?

    Like Jerry Friedman, I generally find it easy to remember things I find interesting.

    I am unable to take notes, because I can't listen and write at the same time. There's one university exam I had to repeat as often as was allowed (twice in writing, and then orally in front of a commission) because the subject just wasn't interesting enough that I could have remembered what I had just seen the day before.

    When younger I knew between 10 and 20 phone numbers by heart.

    Now you probably know between 10 and 20 passwords by heart.

  35. Philip Taylor said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 4:13 pm

    David Nelson's reference to Dorothy Sayers intrigued me, because the only Dorothy Sayers with which I was even vaguely familiar was Dorothy L Sayers, and although both shared the same year of death I could still not be certain that they were one and the same until I happened upon the photograph that accompanies the article "Dorothy L. Sayers, The Theologian Who Wasn’t" in The Scriptorium Daily, which is identical to the photograph that accompanies "The lost tools of learning". Edgar Rice Burroughs is never (in my experience, at least) plain "Edgar Burroughs", "L Ron Hubbard" is never just "Ron Hubbard", so I am intrigued to know why the Association of Classical Christian Schools chose to omit Dorothy L Sayers' middle initial — she even signs the article "DOROTHY L. SAYERS Witham, Essex", so it cannot be out of ignorance.

  36. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 5:20 pm

    "2+2=5 math" ?

  37. Monscampus said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 6:41 pm

    Remembering things one is interested in seems to make a lot of sense. Fair enough. What really annoys me, though, is that I also never forget any old rubbish I ever heard or was told in my lifetime. Useless bits of information keep haunting me.

    On the other hand I'm faceblind and admire people who recognise other people they only met once or twice. How do they do it? Sometimes I find it hard to follow the plot of films, as I can't tell actors apart who keep changing their outfits or hairdos. I'd make a poor witness indeed, although I could repeat verbatim what the suspects actually said in the situation. I think there are visual and auditory types and one can't always have it both ways.

  38. Bathrobe said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 2:30 am

    If I remember rightly, the Gauls had an oral tradition that transmission of their culture depended on. Gaulish has died out, while Latin, a written language, lived on.

    A Chinese friend once said to me: "Qiang is going to die out because they don't have a written language". The existence of thousands of years of texts is a powerful weapon for the Chinese. I sometimes think that if you were able to physically wipe out the entire Chinese written tradition, China as a culture and civilisation would be dealt a death blow. Without it, the Chinese would be no different from anyone else.

    And yes, memorisation is a great tool. We learnt out multiplication tables in our childhood and never forget them.

  39. David Marjanović said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 6:37 am

    while Latin, a written language, lived on

    Sumerian has died out, and Akkadian is its successor in that way, too. Even Coptic has died out.

    Gaulish was occasionally written, and so were a lot of local languages of Italy that all seem to have left no trace whatsoever in the Italian dialects.

  40. Deven Patel said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 5:13 pm

    In 2002, I traveled to a small neighborhood on the edge of the Indian city of Lucknow to meet a family who had two young daughters, named Sraddha and Sudha. Sraddha at that time was about 4 years old. I went there on a tip that this little girl had memorized the entirety of the grammarian Panini's Astadhyayi (that Dr. Gambhir references in an earlier post). When I arrived, the family had a death in the family (the grandfather) and were in a period of ritual grieving. So I stayed near their house for a week and then visited them again after that period was over. I spent several days with the family listening to this young girl playing a game with her father: he would pick a random sutra (out of 4,000), she would go on reciting the sutras in order until her father would throw a mistake in (on purpose) to see if she would catch it. She caught the mistake every time by crying out "galat" ("mistake!") after which she would laugh and chide her father. It turns out her grandfather taught her these sutras as a kind of game around which they bonded before his demise. She also had memorized a dozen other hymns (stotras) that her grandfather and father had taught her. She was a remarkable little girl who would otherwise just be playing with her little sister, as any little child would. I shot a very long video of her reciting the Astadhyayi with her father there. Perhaps I will publish it someday with her permission.

    I suppose my contribution to this blog, therefore, is to say that so much of the memorization culture is also ludic. If the child is not enjoying the process of memorization, I doubt their parents would force it on them. But, then again, young Sraddha could have just been an exception.

  41. crturang said,

    October 26, 2020 @ 9:02 am

    Deven Patel: It is not unusual for children of that age to go through a phase of feats of memorization and perception. Both my son and nephew had the ability to recognized brands and models of cars in parking lots that they lost later on.

    Also similar is the ability of some children, generally in families of musicians, to recognize hundreds of ragas. An example that comes to mind is Ravikiran, who is now a Karnatak music vidvan.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2020 @ 8:33 pm

    From John Mullan:

    Thank you for sharing this—I always enjoy these posts. I agree with much of what’s been said about the importance of memorization as a skill. Right now I’m in literature class (I’m sure you’ve been in many like it) where one of my professors will quote any number of classical Persian poets effortlessly which, to me, is always amazing.

    Something else you might find interesting is that as far as I know, we have evidence on learning methods used in the late Ottoman Empire for memorizing the Qur’an. Apparently most students learnt it backwards. I have no clue if that’s to do with general ease in memorizing texts backwards, the ease of memorizing the Qur’an in particular that way since chapters get shorter as you go on, the emphasis and thus (?) priority placed on later surahs, etc.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2020 @ 7:49 am

    From Tong Wang:

    I guess there is no equivalent to Indians' feat of memorization in the world, not even the Chinese, though we have similar practices, like what Indians do, making children memorize ancient poems, to whom they are only meaningless syllables. It must be a painful experience for many children, except a few. My daughter was very unhappy at memorizing poems. She refused to memorize any more than what school dictated. Fine. Practice of memorization is useful for one's memory, but a human will never be able to compete with an AI for memorization. So it is fine so long she is an active thinker.

    Still the way of handing down classics through memorization is so peculiar and important. Suppose all the documents were wiped out, memory would be the only way for human to pass on knowledge and experiences. In this respect we still need to keep our memory sharp.

  44. crturang said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

    Other memorization dependent amusements that are around among Indians are

    antAkShari or antyAkShari. This is a game in which each person is supposed to quote a verse or a phrase in a song or a shloka that starts with the letter with which the previous person's contribution ends. People have been known to memorize unusual collections of verse to gain an advantage over others. Prof. Pandurangi who taught at Bangalore University writes that he memorized a recent kAvya called mEghapratisandEsha (a dUtakAvya that sends a message back to yakSha from his beloved) for this purpose.

    Another is avadhAna performance. The performer performs several tasks at the same time. These can include identifying where a verse quoted by an questioner comes from, filling out the spaces in a magic square when asked by another questioner, keeping track of the number of times bell is rung during a performance, composing a verse which satisfies conditions imposed by a questioner while the composition is in progress, etc. An aShTAvadhAni performs eight tasks, a shatAvadhAni performs 100 tasks. These performances are probably available online.

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