Masters of Memory: How the ancients learnt the Vedas perfectly

Rigveda manuscript page (Source: Ms Sarah Welch/Wikimedia Commons)

(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)

By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia

Students today have it tough. There is an extremely competitive atmosphere, endless hours of lessons and tuitions, and pressure all around. But just imagine the plight of ancient Indian students thousands of years ago. By the end of their education, they were expected to know a set of texts flawlessly, word for word, but there was one hitch. These texts were not written down anywhere. They could not be referred to, they could not be consulted in case of any doubt. For thousands of years, these books existed only in people’s memories!

Teachers would recite the verses and students had to learn purely by listening. Imagine how difficult that is. They had to listen, question, repeat and chant until they got it. To add to the pressure, it was of utmost religious importance that these texts be passed on absolutely unaltered from one generation to the next, not a word changed.

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These texts were the most sacred and ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas. Of the four Vedas, the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda, the Rigveda is by far the oldest and consists of about one thousand hymns, made up of about 10,600 verses. The others are typically shorter; the Samaveda has about 1,500 verses, the Atharvaveda has about 6,000 mantras and so on.

Marvelous Memories

The Vedas were composed somewhere around 2000 BC, while writing in India began more than 2,500 years later. So how was this crazy feat of passing on this massive amount of information, without even the smallest mistake, accomplished?

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The process of memorisation by listening was called the ‘shruti’, which means "what is heard", and is often used to refer to the Vedas themselves. It was something to marvel at!

Sandhya Vandanam (Source: Rhariram/Wikimedia Commons)

Chinese whispers

We all know that it is extremely difficult to pass on even one sentence precisely among even just five people. Think of the popular game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, where the players site in a row, and have to pass on a message, as exactly as they can, from the first to last person through whispers. The fun of the game is that by the time the last person speaks the sentence out aloud, it is often hilariously different than what was intended.

Chinese whisper (Source: Christopher Morgan/Wikimedia Commons)

Tricks of the trade

To preserve the purity of the Vedas, ancient Indians came up with ingenious techniques. In addition to memorising each mantra the standard way, they would learn the same sentence in many different ways – backwards, forwards, combining two words at a time and so on. There were ten or eleven ways to learn each single verse!

Let us illustrate a few of these ways with a simple phrase like "The sun is shining today (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 words)".

Vakya-patha (Sentence recitation): Firstly, students would learn each verse by simple continuous repetition, like 1-2-3-4-5, repeating "the sun is shining today | the sun is shining today | the sun is shining today" many times over.

Pada-patha (Word recitation): Then they would recite each word of the sentence separately, without any intonation and taking apart any sandhis, as in 1. 2. 3. 4. 5, "The. Sun. Is. Shining. Today."

Krama-patha (Step recitation): Each word was repeated twice, being connected to both the word that came before and after it, like, 1-2 | 2-3 | 3-4 | 4-5, which sounded like "the-sun sun-is is-shining shining-today".

It got even more complicated as the students grew older.

Jata-patha (Woven recitation): Two words were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order, as in, 1-2 2-1 1-2 | 2-3 3-2 2-3 | 3-4 4-3 3-4 | 4-5 5-4 4-5, which would go like "the-sun sun-the the-sun | sun-is is-sun sun-is | is-shining shining-is is-shining | shining-today today-shining shining-today."

There were other even more complex recitation styles such as mala (garland), shikha (peak), dhvaja (flag), rekha (line), danda (stick) and ratha (chariot).

However, one of the most complicated ways was the Ghana-patha. So much so, that in the south, the name Ghanapatim denoted someone who had mastered the Ghana style of reciting the Vedas, and it would take them almost 13 years of full-time study dedicated to learning to get there!

Ghana-patha (Compact recitation): There is an arithmetical system of permutation and combination in the chanting, which goes like 1-2 2-1 1-2-3 3-2-1 1-2-3 | 2-3 3-2 2-3-4 4-3-2 2-3-4 etc. This would sound something like "the-sun sun-the the-sun-isis-sun-the the-sun-is | sun-is, is-sun, sun-is-shining shining-is-sun sun-is-shining "

Reciting the entire Rigveda in the Ghanam style just once could take up to 450 hours!

Family honour

As you can imagine, learning the Vedas flawlessly was considered to be a great feat. Every Brahmin boy had the duty to learn at least one Veda by heart. When they learned more than that, they usually changed their names to reflect it!

The name Dwivedi meant someone who had mastered two of the four Vedas (Dwi= Two), the name Trivedi could be adopted by a person who had flawless retention of three Vedas, while Chaturvedis were families who had an ancestor who had completed mastery over all four of the Vedas.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

UNESCO has designated the tradition of the Vedic chant a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."

So if your child thinks they have a hard time at school today, ask them to imagine having to learn each single sentence of their textbooks in ten or twenty different ways and feel happy about how easy you have it!

(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the recently released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India. Follow on twitter @shrutigarodia_)