The necessity of memorization

One of my projects this summer was to start memorizing the verses of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. At cruising speed, I’m able to learn about one verse a day… which is not too shabby considering that in the AIIS program last summer the memorization rate was 2 verses a week. It is an unfortunate fact that during the most part of my Sanskrit studies, memorization was not a priority for me or my teachers. I’m not saying that my teachers did not ever have us memorize anything. I did memorize some vocabulary and some declension tables in my classes in Western universities. However, in the Western setting especially, memorization was a fairly limited and artificial affair. After my experience this summer, I am convinced that the memorization of actual texts is a desirable element of learning Sanskrit and should be present from the earliest stages of learning.

This is not a jab at my teachers. I do think however that Western pedagogical theory too strongly devalues the role of memorization in learning. It does seem that at some point there was too much emphasis on rote memorization. Judging by the way my parents and grandparents describe how they learned various subjects at school, such overemphasis seems clear to me. An history class for instance would just consist in memorizing lists of facts without also engaging in reflection upon the meaning of those facts. A readjustment towards more reflection and less rote memorization was certainly desirable. However, it seems that the pendulum has swung too far away from memorization.

This is particularly problematic in language classes in general and especially so in Sanskrit classes. Memorization of texts is an integral part of traditional Sanskritic learning. If we are aiming at understanding the people who were raised in such environment, then we must also engage in memorization. If nothing else, memorizing verses forces my intellect to process the language, to integrate the structures of the language to my thought structures. I am convinced that it is making me better at understanding not only the verses I am memorizing but also unfamiliar texts.

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