Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Socrates had objections to Written words

In Sanskrit there is a statement: “sahasram vada; ekam abhi ma likha” which means “Say 1000 words; but do not write even one”. Vedic tradition grew up on verbal recital and memorization. Greek tradition was also following the same course – until written words appeared at about the time of Socrates. It appears that Socrates was worried that students will obtain information from written words, but will not know how to think critically. We know he was wrong.

At present, we the “digital immigrants” worry the same way about our young “digital generation”. We worry that in the midst of these images and bits and “bytes” of information, the next generation may have problems with critical thinking skills. There are a few studies to substantiate such a concern.

The new generation of “technology-assisted” learners, are somewhat akin to the “book-assisted” learners that Socrates worried about. Our young ones learn from images and sound-bites and rapid summaries. There is no helping hand. Students multitask. They skim through information. They want instant answers. They forget that information is not knowledge and that they have to take an active part in making knowledge out of this information.
As pointed out by Maryanna Wolf in her book on Proust and the Squid (HarperCollins 2007) and in a recent issue of Science (August 19, 2011), writing and learning from written words was not natural for the human brain. It took several centuries for the human brain to evolve and adapt its structures and networks to this uniquely human activity. Will the neural networks developed over the past two millenia be useful in the new learning environment? Or, will the brain evolve new strategies to adapt to the new world of learning through images and streaming bits of information? How can we help the new young generation develop their reasoning and analytical skills and improve the so-called executive functions of the brain?

Socrates was of the opinion that spoken words are full of meaning and emotions, with added stress and nuances during the delivery. Written words are rigid. Written words “cannot talk back” if you ask a question. Nor can it offer clarification. Written words can be mistaken for reality if not examined critically with the help of a teacher, he thought. Decoding the words and their meanings is not the same as knowledge acquired by thinking about the thing words stand for with all their connections and implications. Socrates thought that reading from books might lead to superficial, false knowledge and “empty arrogance”.

The vedic teachers had similar opinion. They thought too that if students learnt purely from texts they may get arrogant with their superficial knowledge. That is one of the reasons for insisting on “gurukula” syle of learning and respect for the teacher (guru). Even now, an initiation by a “guru” is considered essential for spiritual enlightenment.

The second objection was that written books will be harmful to memory formation. We all know that it is true to some extent. It does not destroy memory; but there is less need for it. It is not all bad. Computers can store memory better than we humans can. They can store lot more facts and more important, they can recall in fraction of a second and without ever forgetting. So why use the brain like a “filing cabinet”?

The benefit of the arrival of written words and books is that the brain needed less territory and energy to store memory. That allowed the brain to develop its correlative and analytical functions. The other advantage of written words is that accumulated knowledge could be transmitted to the next generation. Clearly, the arrival of written words is the basis of human civilization.

With information technology, we can store more information in less space than in books. We can look for correlations and patterns with simulations and complex calculations. However, information is not knowledge. By focusing on information, looking at moving images and disappearing screens and with the use of immediate feedback and quick rewards, are we losing our ability to stay focused and think through a problem?

The answer to this last question happens to be “yes’ and “no”. Yes, our youngsters are not focused, they multi-task and are quick with joy-sticks but not with executive functions. At the same time, children’s ability to think analytically and creatively and to stay focused can be improved with the use of the same technology. It is interesting to note that working memory is an important component of creative and analytical thinking and this can be enhanced by specially developed computer programs.

What are the executive functions of the brain? These are the qualities needed to control our impulses, focus on a problem, think creatively, assign priorities, make proper judgments and plan for a course of action. These functions depend on development of neural networks which connect the sensory, motor, emotional and rational parts of the brain. Many of the circuits are not fully connected till late adolescence.

All of (Most of us) develop these functions over the course of our young lives. Can we facilitate the developments of these functions in children? Sure, we can. Recent studies on helping young children to develop executive functions show that approaches that seem to work include “computerized training” with specially developed lessons, hybrid computer-noncomputer programs, special “Tools of the mind” and classroom curricula. (Science 333:959-964, 2011). Yes, information technology can be used to maintain those functions which we are afraid our younger generation may lose.

Finally,Socrates thought that written words will result in loss of control over language. I do not know what he meant. Socrates probably thought that learning from written mode will lead to superficial understanding since there is no teacher to push the student to ask questions and ask for clarifications, make sure the student understands the meaning of words and the structure and the beauty of the language. The student is likely to move on with incomplete knowledge (not looking up the dictionary and ask for clarification) and thus lose control over knowledge. He said that “Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it but equally of those who have no business with it…..”. In essence, we know how when a word is put on print, we lose control over it. We do not know who will use it and for what purpose. Is it not true even more when something is written into cyberspace?

As a physician-educator, I know that those concerns are still valid. Look at text messages, e mails and Twitter. There is no need for spelling or grammar. In medicine, when a clinical question arises, the students are able to get a reference or two about the subject in a second by signing into Pubmed or Google Scholar. But they read only the abstract. Very few go to the original and read it carefully and critically assess the quality of research and the validity of the conclusion. Much less time is spent on deciding whether the “information” in that article is relevant to the specific situation.

This problem is even worse when patients search the internet and come up with everything that can go wrong with their condition. When they read everything available on that subject in the internet, they do not realize that most of the material is unfiltered and untested and there may be even some dangerous ideas. The anxiety generated becomes worse than the disease itself.

We all know that Socrates was wrong in opposing written words and “books”. If he were alive he would admit his mistake. We also know that his concerns are of relevance once again. However, the age of information is here to stay. It has unleashed an explosion of available information. But information is not knowledge. The technology of acquiring information should not become an end in itself. Like all new technologies, information technology comes with its strengths and weakness. Like all new technologies, we will not know the full impact of this technology on individual learning and on the society for several decades to come. We do not know how this will alter the need for our brains to rearrange its circuitry for analytical thinking.

We have to adapt the information technology and adapt to it wisely and with prudence.

Proust and the Squid. Maryanne Wolf. HarperCollins, New York 2007.
Science Issue of August 19, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Recently, I was asked to speak about Upanayanam, one of the Rites of Passages in the Vedic tradition of the Hindus. I did not give the talk. But, having collected some interesting information I decided to share it with all of you.

The word upanayanam in Sanskrit is composed of two parts – upa, meaning near and nayanam meaning to bring. (There are other meanings also, such as nayanam, meaning the eye). The Sanskrit word for rites of passage is samskara. The literal meaning of the word samskara is “to make perfect”, “to polish”. The ceremony is one of 16 major rites of passages. Actually there are 40 rites of passages from birth to death.

All cultures have rites of passages. These are rituals full of symbolism. They are meant to re-enact myths, to connect the individual to the community and society and to connect the individual to nature and universal principles. In addition, they are the best way to teach the children about the myths and the culture of the traditions.

Upanayanam is traditionally performed for the boys in the Hindu Brahmin families and is supposed to be completed at about 7 years of age. After the upanayanam, the boy is initiated into the study of the Vedas. The first birth is physical. Upanayanam is the second birth, birth into the spirituality. (Hence the name dwija, twice-born)

In olden times, girls also had upanayanam. In addition to the brahmins, kshatriya and vaisya varnas also were and even now are allowed to perform upanayanam. However, the age at which upanayanam is performed is 12 to 13 for kshatriyas and 13 to 16 for vaisyas.

What is the significance of the age of the ceremony? Age 7 is chosen for brahmins, because the boy should be able to read and recite so that he can be initiated to the Vedas. Our ancestors thought that the age of 7 will allow margin for the slow learners. But, they wanted to get the boy interested in spiritual matters before his hormones came into play and distracted him.

The brahmin boy was supposed to stay in his teachers (guru’s) house for 12 years after the upanayanam so he can be proficient in all the vedic rituals and other matters. Ksahtriys and vaisyas had to learn other skills and therefore their age for initiation was delayed.

The sudras belonging to the fourth varna were excluded from this. (In spite of all the explanations given for their exclusion, personally I find it a major mistake of our ancestors. As I have mentioned in other places, all systems of religion exclude one group or another resulting in the mistreatment of that group)

This initiation into adulthood and study of religious texts is not special for the Hindu religion. Other traditions have similar ceremonies. For example, in the Jewish tradition, it is called Bar-Mitzvah for the boys and Bat- Mitzva for girls. The age for the girls is 12 and for boys, it is 13. This is when adolescent maturation starts. This is also when most children become capable of abstract thinking. They are considered to be ready to take care of their adult functions and duties, including religious ones.

In Christianity it is called Confirmation. This is one of 7 sacraments, similar to our 16 samskaras. The age is set at 13.

The most relevant one is the Navjote ceremony in the Zoarastrian tradition. Upanayanam might have had its origin in this ancient Persian tradition. This is for both boys and girls and is usually performed after the age of 7 and before they attain maturity. In this ceremony the adolescent gets invested with a shirt called sedreh and a waist-band called kushti which they are supposed to wear all their lives. A waist-band akin to kushti made of straw is tied in the Hindu upanayanam but is discarded the same day. The three threads that are given in upanayanam are considered to be a variant of the Zoroastrian sedreh.

Upanayanam ceremony is celebrated for the boys in all parts of India and Nepal. But the names are different. It is called Poonool ceremony in Tamizh, Odugu in Adhra Pradesh, Munji in Karnataka, Janeu in Hindi-speaking areas, Munja in Marathi and Pravibandha in Nepal.

The upanayanam ceremony has two parts.The main part is the introduction to spirituality and religious studies in the form of OM and Gayatri mantra. This is called brahmopadesam. The other part is the investiture of the sacred thread which is called yagnopavidam. The sequence, however, is wearing the sacred thread first and then the learning of the Gayatri mantra.

What is the meaning behind the three threads? These threads are made of cotton for brahmins, hemp for the kshatriyas and linen for the vaisyas. Why three threads? There are several explanations. That is understandable knowing that three is such a holy number in many traditions. The three threads represent the three Vedas (Rk,Yajur and Saama), say some. Some say that mind (Gayatri), words (Sarasvathi) and deeds (savith) are represented. Other possibilities are: the three states of wakefulness, dreamless sleep and deep sleep; three gunas,namely sattva, rajas and tamas; the three primordial substances of thejas (fire), aapah(water) and anna (food,earth) and so on. Some ayurvedic people think that the three dosahs, humors of vaada, pitta and kappa are represented.

I prefer the explanation given in Brahmopanishad, one of the minor Upanishads of Atharva veda. I prefer this text because, this Upanishad gives adequate explanations for the upanayanam, names the three threads as trivit sutra and explains the meaning of the word sutra and of the three threads. But the most important reason is that the mantra that is used even now when wearing the scared thread is taken from this Upanishad.

Let us start with that mantra first and then look at the meaning. It starts with:
Hrdistha devatah sarva hrdi pranah pratishtithah
Hrdi pranah cha jyotih cha trivitsutram cha yanmahat
Hrdi chaitanye thishtathi.
This means: “In the heart live the Devas. Pranas are installed in the heart. In the heart reside the Supreme Prana and the Light, as also the immanent cause with its threefold constituents and the Mahat principle. It exists within this heart, that is within the consciousness”. This clearly refers to the Samkhya philosophy according to which the universe comes out of the modification of the three gunas (satva, rajas and tamas) in the Prakriti (primordial Matter) and the first evolved part is the Mahat. If you interpret the three parts as that of Prakriti, it will be fire, water and food (earth). The three threads represent the three original substances or principles.

In a subsequent sloka, it says “sutrat sutram ithi aahuh” meaning that it is called sutra (or a thread) because it is the warp and the woof of this universe. Then it says,
Yagnopavidam paraman pavitram
Prajapatheh yatshajam purastat
Aayushyam agryam pratimuncha shubram
Yagnopavidam balamasthu thejah.
This translates as: “Put on this sacrificial thread which is supremely sacred, which became manifest long ago with Prajapati, the first created being and which embodies longevity, eminence and purity. May it bring strength to you”. This mantra has to be uttered while putting on the sacred thread.

The practice is to wear the thread(s) so that it crosses the left shoulder, middle of the chest and then goes under the right arm. The knot which ties the three threads is placed in front of the heart, on the left side. (Ramana Maharishi says that the vedic heart is not on the left). The idea is that the sacred trivit sutra worn outside the heart is an external symbol of the three primordial principles which are inside the heart with the knot lying just in front of the heart.

In a later passage, this Upanishad says that although this sacred thread is essential for those who want to perform vedic sacrifices, it may be discarded by the realized souls (true gnanis).

After investiture of the sacred thread, the boy is ready to learn the secret of the Vedas, in the form of the pranava mantram (OM) and Gayatri mantra. The first guru is the father who teaches Gayatri to his son. In olden days, the boy went to the house or ashram of a guru after initiation by the father. During those 12 years with the guru, the boy is supposed to learn all the vedas, live simple life on food given as alms by householders. This is not “begging” in the modern sense, but in essence it is. The first person, he asks for food soon after wearing the sacred thread and learning the Gayatri is his own mother. This is still enacted in modern day Upanayanams.

Let us get to the famous Gayatri mantra. The derivation of the word Gayatri is : Gayantham thrayate yasmat gayatri ithi abidhiyate. This means: It is called Gayatri because it protects the one who sings (says) this mantra. The sloka is directed at Goddess Savitha. The name comes from the chandas (prosody) or meter in which this poem is set. This consists of 3 lines (called pada) in the stanza and each line has 8 syllables (akshara). Please do not look for the eight syllables, as in English. Sanskrit syllables are counted differently.

There is also a Rk gayatri mantra with 4 lines to a stanza and 6 syllables in each. This meter is called anushtup. I am aware of at least 27 types of chandas or meters and I am not even a Sanskrit scholar.

The Gayatri of Atharva veda is completely different.

Each line of the Gayatri mantra is supposed to represent the essence of one of the three Vedas. The three lines also come from a, u and m, which combined together become the OM sound. Therefore, here is how Gayatri mantra reads:
Om Bhuh Bhuvah Suvah… This is the pranavam and the three parts of the Universe.
That savithur varenyam ……. From the A sound of Om and Rg veda
Bhargo devasya dimahi………..From the U sound of Om and Yajur Veda
Dhiyo yonah prachodayat…….From the M sound of Om and Sama veda.
The meaning is: OM, earth, intermediate universe and the higher universe
That adorable splendor of The Savithr, the originator of the universe, (is to be sought by one seeking the Atman)
(Let us meditate on Savita) who is the Light of the Devas
And may He inspire our thoughts (too).

There are many more parts to the ceremony including the rituals a boy has to practice three times a day after upanayanam etc. They are for a different occasion.

Let me close with a passage from Ramana maharishi on the significance of Upanayanam. I quote: “Upanayanam does not mean just putting around the neck three strands of cotton thread. It means that in addition to the two eyes we all know about, there is a third eye. That is the gnana netram (wisdom eye). Open that eye and recognize your swa –swarupa (own from)”.

Brahmopanishad. Commentary by Swami Madhavananda Advaitha Ashrama Publication. 1973
OM – Gayatri and Sandhya. Svami Mukhyananda. Sri Ramakrishna Math. 1989
Daivathin Kural (Tamil) Lectures by Jagadguru Chandrasekhara Saraswathi of Kanchi. Part 2. Vanathi Padhippakam. 1978. Pages 822-861.
And. Several others.