The Neuro-Cognitive Science of Itihasa and Purana
The Itihasa and Purana are not just factual history or stories but narratives that cover various aspects of human endeavor. They not just reveal the past but pave way for the future and guide human aspirations. While the phala sruti of these works clearly talk about the benefits that one derive by listening/reciting/reading them, it may be interesting to re-explore the phala in the modern context. Cutting edge research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and genetics creates opportunity for this re-exploration of the benefits of this rich tradition. In this article, we look at the research happening on the neuro-cognitive benefits of narratives and how such research offers insights into the benefits of our Itihasa and Purana.
In 2008, billionaire and co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates started the Big History Project. This idea struck him when he was watching a series of videos by David Christian that blended physics, geology, biology and many other subjects with history to offer a single coherent narrative – “a framework for all knowledge”. David Christian’s lecture was inturn inspired by the Histoire Totale of Annales School of French Historians. Since then the project has gained a lot of momentum with educators integrating it with the school and university curriculum. Promising to provide a super-charged social science curriculum, the project is aimed at teaching 13.8 billion years of history, genealogy, biology etc through engaging videos, simulations and learning material. Quite popular in the western world, this project has captured the imagination of teachers and learners alike. The 2016-17 report on this project demonstrate a number of benefits to learners:
- BHP students report an increased interest in and engagement with history.
- BHP students report a high level of course retention, which shows learning.
- Skills learned in BHP are highly relevant and useful to students, both in and out of school
- BHP can provide students with a framework for all learning, giving them the ability to connect information across disciplines and in life.
Educators, Neuroscientists and researchers in other allied fields have woken up to the impact of projects like Big History on the listeners and learners. They have understood how the Big History project has enhanced the purposefulness of young people making them more conscious of their thoughts, actions and role in the society.
This is not new to the Indian tradition. The Itihasa and Purana which were very much part of the educational process in ancient India provided a holistic framework for learning various sciences as well social sciences. Every Purana begins with the details of the creation of the universe and this is in accordance with the Panchalakshana or five characteristics of a Purana. “Sargascha pratisargascha, Vamso Manvantarani cha, vamsaanucharitam chiva, puranam panchalakshanam”. To be classified as a Purana, the text must talk about Cosmology and creation of life forms (also chapters and sub-chapters), Genealogy, details of the time cycles and Manus, and the various dynasties ruling in that period. In listening to Itihasa-Purana the sadhaka understood the bigger picture and their personal role that fits into the larger context. This understanding strengthens their Swadharma and purpose in life. Sadhakas also develop the cognitive capabilities to handle diverse situations in life. Reading or listening to the Mahabharata, reinforces the Purushartha or the goals of human life by answering the question “why am I doing what I am doing”.
Besides helping us get the bigger picture, the Itihasa-Purana can have a strong impact on the neural pathways too. Neurocognitive scientists have categorized memory based on various functionalities. Of these categories, episodic and semantic memories are relevant to this context. While semantic memory deals with remembering things based on facts, episodic memory helps to remember autobiographical events through feeling i.e emotions are attached to the memory. Though the Itihasa-Purana are not exactly autobiographical events of the sadhaka, they present history blended with rasas (emotions) that assist better retention and transformation of the sadhaka. Neuroscience says that those events that are recorded in the episodic memory trigger episodic learning i.e a behavioral transformation occur due to the event. Tulving has seminally defined three key properties of episodic memory recollection. These are a subjective sense of time (or mental time travel), connection to the self, and autonoetic consciousness. Autonoetic consciousness refers to a special kind of consciousness that accompanies the act of remembering which enables an individual to be aware of the self in a subjective time. Autonoetic consciousness involves processes like mental time-travel, episodic future projection and thinking. Offered in an immersive manner, Itihasa-Purana can enable vicarious learning thereby transforming the behavior of the sadhaka.
The experiment on Neuroscience of Sanskrit Effect became quite popular in social media. The scientist observed, in the pandits who chanted, atleast 10 percent more grey matter and numerous regions in the brain that were larger than normal. The results are amazing in many aspects. This research is interesting and relevant because, though through the phala sruti of the various texts we know that they chanting them lead to chitta shuddi and mukti, to neuroscientifically observe the benefits is exciting in the modern context and this increases the conviction of many who are looking at scientific proofs.
Paul Zak, in his paper titled Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative, talks of his personal experience of watching a certain movie and the neuroscience behind the behavior of numerous people who watched the movie clippings as a part of an experiment. He found that immersive stories release oxytocin in the brain which alter the attitudes, beliefs and behavior of the listener. His current research has shown that oxytocin is responsible for virtuous behaviors, working as the brain’s “moral molecule.” Both the Sanskrit Effect research and Zak’s research give us insights into the benefits that Itihasa-Purana offer, especially when narrated in an experiential mode blended with story-telling, chanting, philosophical insights and historical narratives, similar to Ugrasrava Sauti’s narration of the Mahabharata in Naimisharanya.
While the benefits of the Itihasa-Purana go much beyond neuroscience, furthering research along these lines can help develop a contemporary understanding and appreciation for these deep works. This can also lead to multidisciplinary research areas that combine ancient and modern knowledge to solve problems that society faces today. This will also assist the building of the Indian Grand Narrative by weaving the Indic view of cosmology, formation of life forms, genealogy, time scales and philosophical systems. May be contemporary re-exploration of the Itihasa-Purana can pave way for an Indic Big History project!
Featured Image: Big Think