“Sanskrit is cool because of the self-awareness of the interaction of language with cognitive experience”- Dr James Hartzell 


Neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher Dr James Hartzell has coined the term ‘Sanskrit Effect’ post his research findings that the brain’s grey matter density and cortical thickness increased in those who had learnt and routinely recited Sanskrit texts.  In his study he compared the brains of 21 male participants with those of 21 professional Vedic Sanskrit scholars who had memorised the Yajurveda Saṃhitā text ( a 3,000-year old oral text of approximately 40,000 words) and associated Vedic Sanskrit texts ranging from a few thousand words to over 100,000 words, and found that their brains had increased capacity in language, memory and visual systems.

This finding could be useful in the prevention of age related ailments. Whether the Vedic scholars are less vulnerable to devastating memory pathologies such as Alzheimer’s, Dr Hartzell has written in an earlier paper that it is not known yet, “though anecdotal reports from India’s Ayurvedic doctors suggest this may be the case. If so, this raises the possibility that verbal memory ‘exercising’ or training might help elderly people at risk of mild cognitive impairment retard or, even more radically, prevent its onset.”

Dr Hartzell spoke to CSP during his downtime moments while scanning participants in Spain for a language and memory experiment. His current research investigates questions, ideas and practices from the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, and understanding how such ideas and practices may relate to modern scientific understanding (continually in development) of brain, cognition, and language.

Western philology warns us against the fallacy of conflating the word with the thing. Shakespeare has pointed out that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. But Sanskrit does things differently. After all, this is the language where the word for a thing, “padaartha”, actually means, the “meaning of the word,” establishing an inseparable bond between word and meaning. What are your views on this?

There are some very interesting and diverse views on this topic in the Sanskrit tradition, and one should be careful not to confound different views into some false idea that the Sanskrit tradition provides a singular perspective on this topic–that would be to impoverish the phenomenal richness of the thousands of years of fascinating developments about language within the Sanskrit tradition itself.  One very interesting perspective that became quite influential is Bhartrhari´s views on language and Sanskrit.  A good summary of some of the key points of his thinking comes, for example, from Ferrante M (2013) Vṛṣabhadeva’s Sphuṭākṣarā on Bhartṛhari’s  Metaphysics: Commentarial Strategy and New Interpretations, J Indian Philosophy: 41:133–149 (NOTE: VP refers to Bhartrhari´s famous work, the Vakyapadiya):

“The well-known first stanza of Vakyapadiya provides a rapid but exhaustive view of Bhartrhari’s philosophical programme, highlighting the centrality of Brahman, its lack of limitation of any kind, its being the cause of reality and, above all, its linguistic nature. Brahman is without beginning and end; it is the cause of all phenomena and, being endowed with specific powers, it is capable of becoming other than itself. In other words, although one, it has the capacity of appearing as multiple. The second stanza defines the relation between the unitary Brahman and the aforementioned powers, in particular discussing whether these powers have or not any existence independent of the Brahman’s. The third stanza introduces the concept of time, the most important of Brahman’s powers: in it time is defined as the regulator of existence, the force that permits and impedes every transformation. Finally, the fourth stanza again discusses the role of Brahman as the cause of transformations, while more specifically taking into account the origination of the concrete entities of the world.”

The Buddhist Sanskrit tradition in India includes some wonderful explorations of the ideas about the relationship of our own conscious experience with words and what words relate to, commonly translated into English as ´names and forms´, i.e., the names we have for things, and the forms of those things. 

What is intriguing, from the viewpoint of the development of western Linguistics, and the idea that there is an arbitrary relationship between words and their referents, is that this idea was given impetus by Ferdinand de Saussuere, the Swiss-French linguist who was also a Sanskrit professor. Careful examination of his thinking as captured in the notes from his lectures published as a book by his students, indicates that the structure of Sausseur´s central model of language and its relationship to conscious function bears striking resemlbances to Bhartrhari´s ideas, except that the key notion in Bhartrhari of the intimate relationship of words to their referents is changed to an arbitrary relationship. 

One significant problem, however, is that Bhartrhari´s ideas (and I am no expert on Bhartrhari) is that he explores deeply a type of perspectivism that reflects thinking by Patanjali, his major predecessor. Various really intriguing explorations of different perspectives on language, cognition, words and their referents continued for a long time in the Sanskrit and related traditions,  so in order to really understand the various perspectives that the Sanskrit tradition as a whole has (still today) about the relationship between words and their referents (whether words in Sanskrit or in other languages) one needs to dig very deeply into the vyakarana and related philosophical literature and teachings. While there are definitely some well-developed perspectives in the Sanskrit tradition about bonds of various types between words and their referents, the topic is not singular nor simplistic, but rather rich, deep, and well worth exploring thoroughly (and using modern scientific methods).

A more interesting perspective on this question (at least in my opinion) centers around the question: why do humans have so many different languages and what is the relationship between these, not just linguistically, but cognitively?  Anyone who is multilingual, typically, has some experience with the fact that different languages can allow one to experience certain things in different ways–languages contain many idioms shared between them, but also usually some that are unique, as also expressions, ways of saying or thinking, culturally-linked language dimensions that may be unique to a culture.  A very rough analogy might be cuisine from different cultures—one has nutritionally balanced meals in traditional cuisine from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, southern China, Nepal, Tibet, northern Bengal, southern Kerala, Ethiopia, Egypt, France, Italy, Spain, etc. The experience of eating meals with these cuisines may be quite different in many great ways but all the meals will provide proper nutrition.  So while a rose by any other name may smell the same, nonetheless our varied languages may provide us differing perspectives on the rose, on its smell, and on the possible experiences we may have when encountering the rose. 

I am quite biased about the role Sanskrit can play in this latter perspective I´ve just gestured towards in the preceding paragraph (otherwise I would never have pursued the extensive studies I did in Sanskrit–BA, MA, MPhil, PhD).  What I think is incredibly cool about the Sanskrit tradition is the self-awareness of the interaction of language with cognitive experience, and the very rich tradition exploring these many and varied relationships. Fundamental ideas about mantra, about yoga (e.g., what is meant by the yoking idea implicit in the term yoga, what is yoking to what, and why?), notions of name and form, notions of mind and language, notions of language and cognitive processes, etc., are all are wrapped up in the Sanskrit tradition, and in my own experience, thinking in Sanskrit, particularly in the terms of the rich yogic-related ideas from the Vedic, Yogic, and Tantric traditions has provided to me many rich and insightful experiences that have had a strong beneficial effect on my life (at least I think so!).

How did your interest in Sanskrit begin? Where did you first start learning it? What are your current research interests?

I was introduced to Sanskrit as a freshman undergraduate at Harvard University. I took an introductory world religions course, covering the major religious traditions of the entire world, and I became quite intrigued by the Asian traditions generally (particularly Hinduism, Buddhist, and Taoism, and the relationship of these traditions to the major western traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).  As part of my studies, I was required to study one or two of the major languages of one or two of the major religious traditions, so I chose Sanskrit and Tibetan for learning about Hinduism and Buddhism.  Shortly after starting this process, in my second undergraduate year, I changed my major to Sanskrit and Indian Studies, and graduated with high honours in that subject. 

My current research interests in the fields of Sanskrit and Tibetan include the following: I am learning more about the vyarkarana tradition itself, and I am continuing work from my first PhD on the Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions, their roots in the Vedic systems of thought, and the evolution of tantric ideas and systems of thinking and practice from the earliest vedic times up through the present.

My current research interests on the scientific front are I am working on projects related to verbal memory–i.e. how do we encode, store, and retrieve memory for language in our brains, what are the underlying maps of the location of such storage and what are the neuroanatomical circuits involved.

These lines of research intersect in questions of whether it is possible to investigate, using modern scientific methods, questions, ideas and practices from the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, and understand how such ideas and practices may relate to modern scientific understanding (continually in development) of brain, cognition, and language.

 How did you research the ‘Sanskrit Effect’?

The study we published in Neuroimage and the associated blog piece in Scientific American relate to a structural analysis we did, comparing a group of professionally qualified Yajurveda Pandits from the Delhi region, and a group of very well-matched control participants. We were interested to find out whether there might be structural brain differences between the two groups, and we found substantial structural differences, as reported in the two publications.

What the study showed is that individuals with professional qualifications as Yajurveda Pandits showed, among other findings, remarkably significant grey matter density and thickness increases in comparison with the control participants, in key neuroanatomical regions associated with language and memory in some very interesting ways.  Such a cross-sectional study (between two well-matched groups of participants, (one group engaging in a particular practice-training-experience not shared by the control group) strongly suggests, but does not prove, that the differences seen between the two groups are related to the distinctive practice-training-experience of the Pandit group.  Nonetheless, follow-up scientific studies are required before one would know what relationship, if any, exists between the observed structural differences and the Pandit practices (e.g., the observed changes could be related to the extensive memorization, independent of Sanskrit per se, but we do not know this one way or the other as of now).

The study suggested that the type of intensive training in memorization and recitation of the Yajurveda as practiced by the Pandit group we examined has a significant impact on brain structure.

Venkatadhvari’s (17th cent) RaghavaYadaviyam- an ‘anuloma-viloma kavya’ that narrates the story of Rama. But the slokas read in the reverse relate an adventure of Krishna. It is a bi-directional palindrome, 30 slokas read left to right are about the Ramayana, and read right to left are about Krishna bringing the Parijata tree from the heavens to the earth. Does Sanskrit lend itself to such great compositions?

Although I never specialized in Sanskrit court poetry, some of this literature was part of our training at Harvard, and we learned about the ability of some highly capable Sanskrit court poets to write pieces that could be read in two different directions, or sometimes in the same direction but with two different meanings, taking advantage of the polysemy of many Sanskrit terms.

Whether such practices exist in other poetry traditions I do not know–I do not know whether or not these practices were in any way unique to the Sanskrit tradition.

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