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The Neuro Cognitive Science of Itihasa 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 in turn 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: 1. BHP stu­dents report an increased inter­est in and engage­ment with his­to­ry. 2. BHP stu­dents report a high lev­el of course reten­tion, which shows learn­ing. 3. Skills learned in BHP are high­ly rel­e­vant and use­ful to stu­dents, both in and out of school 4. 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. Some of the Puranas have addi­tion­al com­po­nents includ­ing: Utaya: karmic links between the deities, sages, kings and the var­i­ous liv­ing beings, Ishanukatha: tales about a god, Nirod­ha: finale, ces­sa­tion, Muk­ti: spir­i­tu­al lib­er­a­tion, Ashraya: refuge

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 works like 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, at least 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!

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