November 14, 2006

A mandala is a memory palace

Maṇḍalas and memory palaces: that's the theme of something I might have written, had I managed to stay in the academic world. The idea is that the intricate visualisations peformed by a Tantric adept during a ritual work as keys to remembering doctrine, in the same way as Roman orators and renaissance scholars used 'memory palaces' to organise their knowledge. And because all these groups relied on their memories more than we do, they were immeasurably better at putting them to good use.

A lot of Buddhists, modern and ancient, would have a hard time understanding the point of a ritual like this one, where they visualise a kind of hideous monster:

terrible indeed, roaring 'PHAT', adorned with skull ornaments, with sixteen legs, naked, ithyphallic, left legs extended, with a great belly, with hair standing upright, causing great fear, roaring 'pheṃ', with thirty‐four arms and holding a fresh elephant skin [From the Vajrabhairava Tantra]

But when you read the commentary, all this is explained in terms of traditional Buddhist doctrines:

he is ornamented with skull ornaments because he is born from the sphere of dharmas...his sixteen legs are the complete ascertainment of the sixteen emptinesses...he is naked because he understands without obscuration all dharmas....he is ithyphallic because he becomes the great bliss...his left legs are extended because all dharmas are individually penetrated by emptiness...His hair standing up is a sign of his freedom from suffering....The thirty-four arms are the complete ascertainment of the thirty-four aspects of bodhi

Yes, some of the connections are a bit dubious (the usual argument is that the commentators were taking bizarre, transgressive rituals and trying to make them seem orthodox) ‐ but the principle is clearly there: visualise something colourful, and it'll help you remember what`s going on.

In fact, this isn't new. Buddhism was designed from the start to be easy to remember. Why do you have four noble truths, a noble eightfold path, five aggregates, and so on? Because lists are easy to remember, and when you're a wandering monk with only a bowl and a robe for company, you need to keep things in your head.

But go back to that odd Tantric visualisation, because things get even more interesting here. It isn't just many-armed gods that were being pictured here, but maṇḍalas with intricate patterns of lines and symbols. One of the underlying themes is the one known in the West by the tag "as above, so below" and in India by "tat tvam asi": i.e. that the maṇḍala represents the world as a whole. And by meditating on aspects of the maṇḍala, you can recall what you have been taught about the universe.

Apart from the Buddhism, this isn't so different from something similar in Europe. Cicero used this 'ars memorativa' to remember his speeches, but the most detailed surviving source is Quintilian, who describes a memory method based on placing symbols of things to be remembered around a home. It's quite similar to the Indian method, except based around a real building not an imagined maṇḍala, and aimed at the law-courts not at religion. It all fits far too comfortably into stereotypes of practical Rome and the mystic East, doesn't it?

This 'art of memory' dribbles on through the centuries, and gets a shot in the arm in the Renaissance, as it's picked by by people like Robert Fludd (who develops a memory palace possibly based on the Globe theatre) and Giordano Bruno (who was famous as a mnemonicist long before the Church burned him as a heretic). These people were still talking about 'memory palaces', but they were moving them away from Quintilian's real buildings and closer to the imagined spaces of Indian rituals.

Now, although I did find one tantilising suggestion of contact between Indian and European mnemonicists, I don't think they're sharing ideas. They've independently come up with similar techniques, because they work.

And that's partly why I'm so fascinated: this is one of the few areas where the modern world lags massively behind the great cultures of history. The mnemonics we retain are laughable shadows. Libraries, computers and cheap paper function as our outboard brains so we don't need onboard brains in the form of maṇḍalas and memory palaces.

In turn, that makes this one of the few areas where humanities scholars can justify their existence. Bringing back these old techniques, and combining for the first time the memory techniques of India, Europe, and anywhere else, is a project that would contribute something useful to the knowledge circulating in our culture. I almost wish I'd stayed in a university, so I could do it.

Mnemonics East and West: I don't seriously think that there was any direct interconnection between Indian and European mnemonic traditions, but I did find this intriguing line in the Ars Memorativa, a memory guide printed in Germany in 1490:

There are some masters who use loci other than doors. Such as chairs, benches, tables, bridges, windows or villages. But they recognise that the door is the easiest to know. Those from India paint in their loci like in a book, like birds, animals, fish. First they have an eagle, then a sparrowhawk, thirdly a hawk, etc. Some from Chaldea use all sorts of strange things. They paint sheep, birds, carts, wheels, horses....

Almost certainly, the author here (who, to be honest, seems to be something of a hack) is just using 'India' to mean 'some wacky far-out place'. But you never know, I could be wrong.

Quintilian: He wrote a full chapter on the art of memory, going through his method in detail. Summarising the crucial bits:

Some place is chosen of the largest possible extent and characterised by the utmost possible variety, such as a space house divided into a number of rooms. Everything of note therein is carefully committed to the memory...
The next step is to distinguish something [to be remembered] by some particular symbol which will serve to jog the memory....
These symbols are then arranged as follows. The first thought is placed, as it were, in the forecourt; the second, let us say, in the living-room; the remainder are placed in due order all round... and entrusted not merely to bedrooms and parlours, but even to the care of statues and the like. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits are demanded from their custodians, as the sight of each recalls the respective details

November 8, 2006

History of printing

This post is brought to you by the awestruck feeling of finding yet another underexplored bit of world history....

We all know Gutenberg wasn't the first person to experiment with movable type; it had been tried in China before. What I hadn't realised was just how international the world was first time round. One of the first examples of movable type comes from the Tangut Empire. They were printing in a language unrelated to Chinese, written in a script inspired by Chinese characters - but with a set of 6000+ totally different logograms. And some of the first texts that they tried to print like this were buddhist text translated from Sanskrit (possibly via Tibetan).

So: this culture created a writing system inspired by the Chinese, a religion from India, and out of them developed movable type 400-odd years before Gutenberg. Impressive, no?

But, there's a flaw. Movable type makes a lot less sense with 6000 characters than it does with an alphabet of 30-something. So for the most part, they just printed by carving wood-blocks, one per page. So when they created a Tangut version of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptural canon, they used 130,000 blocks. Most of them are now in London or St. Petersburg, having been raided by people like Aurel Stein. Here are some papers on Tangut history and language.

[The picture is a fragment from a written Tangur text of the Platform Sutra, taken from the British Library]

November 3, 2006

Nice bit of linguistic trivia/hearsay: mandarin and shaman are ultimately derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit mantrin (advisor, counseller) gets adopted by Malays (because India was historically almost as good at exporting pundits as the USA is now). The Portugese pick it up from the Malays, and apply it to the Chinese (who don't use the word mandarin themselves) - and we take it from the Portugese.

Better yet, how about shaman. Old Mircea Eliade is responsible for this one, getting it from a Russin version of the Tungus sâman. That comes from a Mongolian word for a Buddhist, which in turn came from China, and ultimately from Sanskrit.

Lingustic history taken unquestioningly from here

October 14, 2006

Cambridge stops Sanskrit

I'm breaking off the Georgia blogging for howls of rage that my old university course is being shut down. Apparently, Cambridge university sees no value in teaching Sanskrit to undergraduates.

Right now, I feel like running into the streets and screaming at the imbecility of the world.

June 27, 2006

Planes and pipedreams: India in Central Asia

In a Eurasianet commentary, Stephen Blank asks what impact India's Central Asian expansion will have on its relations with Pakistan.

On the one hand, India is moving into Ayni air-base in Tajikistan, where they will station 12-14 MiG-29 planes. That'll let them threaten Pakistan from the rear, which won't do much to build up confidence.

On the other hand, they're getting involved in several energy projects which might bind South Asia closer together. Two potential pipelines from Iran and Turkmenistan will both pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and India is also keen on America's REMAP plan, which will build energy links between Central and South Asia, while excluding Russia and China. So in the future a war with Pakistan might require India to throw away its energy security, and hence a chunk of its economy.

Or at least, that's the argument. No doubt there is somewhere an academic literature on whether pipeline-building really does improve peace prospects; I'd be interested to track it down one day.

April 3, 2006

Blogs with content

I'd like to point you all towards a few blogs with real content, written by people who know what they're talking about. I'm biased about all three: I'm a contributor to the first (and member of the group running it), I was taught by the author of the second, and the driving force behind the third is a close friend who I spent a year sharing a house with. Despite that, they're all great!

First, the Iraq Analysis Group have just launched their new blog. This is one of the most awesome groups of people I've ever worked with. They've been campaigning and thinking about Iraq since the 1990s, first as the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq, and then as this group after sanctions were lifted. They (OK, we) have accumulated a large collection of resources to learn about Iraq. It isn't yet comprehensive, but it's probably the best listing of it's kind on the web. I strongly recommend this site: of the project I've been involved in, this is one of the few that I believe in 100%, and I'm continually impressed by all the people involved.

Then there's sarasvatam cakshuh, a blog about Sanskrit written by Somadevah Vasudeva. The focus is on primary texts, so this probably won't be your thing unless you read Sanskrit. That that doesn't stop me squeeing about it, I'm afraid. There's a good amount of snarkiness aimed at people who write about Sanskrit based on translations and small selections of original texts. Totally justified snarkiness: Somadevah is one of the few who has read immense amounts of Sanskrit literature. Some of it he's committed to memory, and the rest is stored on his Mac, with copious annotations and some weird geek-fu that lets him instantly find any reference. Reading this blog makes me very aware of how little I know, but it also spurs me on to look at more Sanskrit texts.

Finally, another blog on the borderline between research and campaigning. This one is from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which has been pluggin away at its issue for some 30 years, has kept going through thick and thin, and has a great body of expertise on the basty bits of British foreign policy and corporate nastiness. As with anything focussed on content rather than memes, this might be heavy going if you don't care about the issues.