Preserving Long Term Memories

Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)
Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)

Here are few incidents that baffle the mind.

In Odyssey, Odysseus reaches home a decade after the Trojan war to find his wife Penelope being harassed by unruly suitors. Disguised as a beggar, he figures out the suitors’ intention and decides to act. In Book 20, the seer Theoclymenus warned the suitors, “The sun from out the heavens is lost, And clouds of darkness rushing spread.” Plutarch and Heraclitus, thought this line was a reference to a solar eclipse.

Using other astronomical data points in the Odyssey, scholars computed the date of the eclipse, which was total over the Ionian islands, to be April 16, 1178, B.C.E. Another recent attempt, using off-the-shelf planetarium software, came to the same conclusion. The question became this: if the poets who composed Odyssey lived five centuries after the eclipse, how was the memory preserved?

The second mystery comes from Australia. 21 disparate aboriginal groups talk about a time when the Australian coastline was inundated with rising sea levels. For example, the Narrangga tribe remembers a time when they could catch kangaroo and opossum when the area they were living was dry land. Mapping the references in the story to the geography, it was clear that the water level before the flooding was way below the present values. The conclusion by scientists: these memories were of a flooding that happened 7000 years back.

There are many incidents from India, but the one from Rig Veda is apt for the third one. In forty-five hymns, the rishis praised Sarasvati; for them, she was ‘great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers’, ‘limitless, unbroken, swift-moving’ and ‘surpasses in majesty and might all other waters.’ The location of the river is clearly specified in the Nadistuti sukta. The Sarasvati no longer flows as a majestic river, but the memories of it are alive, 4000 years after it dried up.

Going back to the first incident, scholars investigating the Odyssey mystery – how the memory of a distant event was transmitted over centuries — were puzzled. This violated a commonly held theory that oral transmissions lose fidelity after 500 – 800 years. In the Odyssey case, evidence pointed otherwise. Then there was another complication. Greeks were not known to be astronomically inclined during that time period. Looking for alternative explanations, scholars came up with a hypothesis. It is possible that the Babylonians, who were astronomical enthusiasts observed another eclipse in 1124 B.C.E, computed the trajectory of the eclipse that happened in 1178 B.C.E. and transmitted that information back to the Greeks.

The Technique

Convoluted explanations are not always the most elegant ones. The tyranny of simpler explanations suggests that there were techniques obvious to residents of traditional societies with deep civilizational ethos which can explain the preservation of memories over long periods of time.

Memories are preserved when societies have the ability to retell stories across generations and remain unaffected by military, religious and cultural assaults. Indigenous traditions have foundational ways — through stories, art, ritual — to preserve knowledge. Textual studies won’t reveal the secrets; these have to be experienced.

Native Australians had intimate knowledge of the lands they inhabited and the sea that surrounded them. Their authority figures passed that knowledge to the next generation through songs, stories and by recording them on totems. The stories were memorable like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesa. One tribe remembers a giant kangaroo and how its actions caused the flood; another tribe remembers a man who chased his wives and caused the sea to drown them; a third remembers a man who called on the sea to drown a woman stealing wattle gum. At any point, three generations were aware of these unforgettable tales. Similarly, it is possible that the Greeks too preserved it using the same mechanism.

While stories are imprecise and can change based on the story teller, the Vedic tradition has ensured large-scale precise oral memorization of the text over thousands of years. Despite invasions, colonization and desecration, these traditions are alive with thousands of students still learning Sanskrit literature, grammar, logic, philosophy and other subjects. In Sanskrit schools students spends time with a guru up to ten hours a day for a minimum of seven years, memorizing the Vedas. The guru ensures that the student strictly follows the conventions of body movement and arm gestures and articulation. Finally, the student’s mastery of the complex topic is rigorously tested.

This memorization affects brain plasticity as well. A recent paper published a study on the brains of Vedic pandits who have done extensive scriptural studies. Researchers found that the Pandit brains had massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increase in language, memory and visual systems as well as regions associated with long term and short term memories. The gestures — arm, wrist and hand movements — too had significance in learning. Due to these techniques, the memories of the homeland of the rishis who composed the Rig Veda, which has been along the banks of Sarasvati has been preserved unchanged despite the efforts of Eminent Historians to prove otherwise.

The Perils

These techniques have their weakness. Look back 500 – 800 years and it is obvious why memories got erased in that span. Enlightened Europeans, in the name of the God, Gold, King, and Queen, successfully conducted genocide against native populations around the world. Before that monotheism spread violently, pulverizing societies, while advocating love and peace. Many societies were conquered and cleansed. The conquerors imposed their story over the conquered. In some cases, the conquerors adopted the story of the vanquished and modified them to suit their framework.

A simple strategy the colonialists and invaders followed was to rename places, persons or objects to unlink them from the past. During World War I, the British Army with Indian soldiers was advancing towards Salman Pak, outside Baghdad. This place was the resting place of one of Muhammad’s companions. The Ottomans used that effectively to incite enemy soldiers. They printed pamphlets calling on Indian Muslims to leave the British Army and join fellow Muslims in the Ottoman Army. Fearing the impact Salman Pak could have on the soldiers, the British started referring to the place by its Sassanid name, Ctesiphon. In a similar vein, but not for similar reasons, Sargamatha became Mt. Everest, Shivanolipatha Malai became Adam’s Peak and Ram Setu became Adam’s bridge. Chennai became Madras, Thiruvananthapuram got anglicised, along with many other places.

The British dealt with this cleverly in India. They established centralized institutions and used that to launch attacks on Indic ethos. Their pen-wielding mercenaries replaced unique memories with “official history”. 1947 came; the English left and the Indians who took over, who had no idea about the Indic ethos, continued the same tradition. You cannot talk about Saraswati without getting a sign off from an Eminent Historian. They would decide if there was a Ram Temple. The society became bystanders while people whose salaries depended on them not understanding India became authority figures.

It was not any better in other countries. While the native Australians remember an ancient flood and ancient Greeks, an eclipse, most of their memories have been erased. They live on the ruins of forgotten and superseded civilizations. The Australian genocide by the settlers have wiped most of the natives; the Greeks no longer follow the religion and culture of their ancestors.

Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati
Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati

Despite all the trauma that the decentralized memories survive. Each society chose the memories it wanted to preserve, cross-pollinated it with other concepts and came up with paradigms for preserving it. They never outsourced the validation and preservation of the memories to central institutions regardless of their merit. Despite destroying temples and converting people, the memories survived.

Compared to any other country, India is the only place where there is an unbroken continuity between the land, the people and their stories that have been narrated across generations. Despite the propaganda by the colonials and Eminent Historians, Indian society and families practice traditional pursuits and maintain a culture that represents the unbroken narrative of India. Over time Indian society continued to reject what was taught in classrooms because it had little correlation with the culture that they lived in. Thus when Irfan Habib says that Saraswati is an imaginary river, people instinctively feel that he is pulling a quick one. This skepticism prevented the centralized monolithic machinery from gaining wide acceptance in Indian society, thus shielding India’s ethos of decentralized history. But for our memories to be preserved and transmitted, we should not remain bystanders and let centralized history writers decide what needs to be preserved.

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