Benefits of studying religious texts

For the faithful, this question does not arise. For them, it is a sattvika yagya, that has to be performed without desire for results. Gita Ch 17.11 says this elegantly.

Here the final sattvika refers to the yagya, not a sattvik person. It is karmani prayoga.

The students of such yagya do it because it has to be done. Even if the practice increases the medha shakti, they don’t talk about it, nor do they publish papers to convince others.

Now we know that learning Vedas has an effect on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in improvements in  language, memory, and visual systems. Practicing formalized oral knowledge systems, such as the Vedas, resulted in improvements in  long-term and short-term memory.

The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World gives the following example of a student of Rabbinic Judaism. It is few paragraphs long, but worth reading.

To better understand how one masters the art of deep work, I suggest visiting the Knesses Yisroel Synagogue in Spring Valley, New York, at six a.m. on a weekday morning. If you do, you’ll likely find at least twenty cars in the parking lot. Inside, you’ll encounter a couple dozen members of the congregation working over texts—some might be reading silently, mouthing the words of an ancient language, while others are paired together debating. At one end of the room a rabbi will be leading a larger group in a discussion. This early morning gathering in Spring Valley represents just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews who will wake up early that morning, as they do every weekday morning, to practice a central tenet of their faith: to spend time every day studying the complex written traditions of Rabbinic Judaism.

I was introduced to this world by Adam Marlin, a member of the Knesses Yisroel congregation and one of the regulars at its morning study group. As Marlin explained to me, his goal with this practice is to decipher one Talmud page each day (though he sometimes fails to make it even this far), often working with a chevruta (study partner) to push his understanding closer to his cognitive limit.

What interests me about Marlin is not his knowledge of ancient texts, but instead the type of effort required to gain this knowledge. When I interviewed him, he emphasized the mental intensity of his morning ritual. “It’s an extreme and serious discipline, consisting mostly of the ‘deep work’ stuff [you write about],” he explained. “I run a growing business, but this is often the hardest brain strain I do.” This strain is not unique to Marlin but is instead ingrained in the practice—as his rabbi once explained to him: “You cannot consider yourself as fulfilling this daily obligation unless you have stretched to the reaches of your mental capacity.”

Unlike many orthodox Jews, Marlin came late to his faith, not starting his rigorous Talmud training until his twenties. This bit of trivia proves useful to our purposes because it allows Marlin a clear before-and-after comparison concerning the impact of these mental calisthenics—and the result surprised him. Though Marlin was exceptionally well educated when he began the practice—he holds three different Ivy League degrees—he soon met fellow adherents who had only ever attended small religious schools but could still “dance intellectual circles” around him. “A number of these people are highly successful [professionally],” he explained to me, “but it wasn’t some fancy school that pushed their intellect higher; it became clear it was instead their daily study that started as early as the fifth grade.”

After a while, Marlin began to notice positive changes in his own ability to think deeply. “I’ve recently been making more highly creative insights in my business life,” he told me. “I’m convinced it’s related to this daily mental practice. This consistent strain has built my mental muscle over years and years. This was not the goal when I started, but it is the effect.”