04/01/2011 07:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2011

Modernity, Memory and Mantra

I often joke that if I were in Chicago without my cell phone, I would not be able to get a hold of my sister who has lived there for more than four years and whom I speak to nearly every day. Why? Because I still don't have her "new" phone number committed to memory. There's really no excuse after this much time has passed, but it's not my fault -- it's those oh-so-wonderful modern conveniences (or curses) called Caller ID and the cellphone.

Ten years ago, I was one of those people who could could hear a number twice, write it down once and voila, it was locked safely away in that mushy, gray repository that comes with me where ever I go. In fact, most of those old numbers, I still have memorized thanks to enough friends and family who have not moved or changed numbers in the past decade.

But of late, I've noticed that my dwindling knack for numbers is contagious and has spread to things well beyond 10 digits -- basic grocery lists, song lyrics, even the reason why I have entered a room leave me baffled. Is this the cost of modernity? Forgetfulness, diminishing attention-span, inability to center? It seems to be for me, though I know I am not alone judging from scientific studies and a surge of pricey brain-training programs selling "fun and entertaining" exercises to improve memory and focus.

Recently our local center of worship announced a Bhagavad Gita chanting contest, and in light of a growing concern over my shrinking memorization capacity (and shortened attention spans of my boys thanks to hand-helds), I signed us up immediately. The Bhagavad Gita or the Sacred Song is one of the most widely read Hindu scriptures and has inspired countless Hindus and non-Hindus alike, including American legends Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan, to name a few. The Gita is a conversation between Lord Krishna, a manifestation of the Divine (God), and Arjuna, the conflicted warrior, who faces the difficult choices all of us face in our internal struggles between that which is righteous and that which is not. Indeed, spirituality and sport seem an odd combo, but the exercise of memorizing and chanting aloud 20 Sanskrit verses, roughly 280 words, has provided our family benefits well beyond a healthy spirit of competition and free brain-training.

First, we have gained a renewed appreciation for the oral tradition and the contribution of our Hindu predecessors. For millenia, they meticulously passed down, generation to generation, hundreds of thousands of verses of wisdom detailing Eternal Truths. This is no small task when we consider the Bhagavad Gita alone has 700 verses and is part of the larger epic, the Mahabharata, which has approximately 100,000 verses, making it about 10 times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Add to the Gita and Mahabharata the vast library of Hindu scripture, and we're talking the memorization of volumes upon volumes! Though most scripture can be found paper-bound today, the oral tradition continues throughout India in traditional ashrams of learning called Veda Pathashalas.

Second, over the past few weeks of memorizing and practicing, we've felt the power of mantra. Even for my two sons who don't understand what they are chanting --though we discuss the meaning of each verse as we go along -- they too are experiencing an inner rising of positive energy and at the same time a sense of being calm and present.

Mantrajapa (chanting of mantra) simultaneously engages three of the eight limbs of Yoga -- namely pranayama (breath control), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (devotion or meditation on the Divine). It has also been referred to as the Yoga of Sound, with scientific studies enumerating its medical benefits, which include lowering blood pressure to producing endorphins and supporting healthy metabolism. But science is not what is on our minds when we lose ourselves in the power and beauty of the Gita. Perhaps it is the knowledge that these are the words of Lord Krishna. Or maybe there is spiritual power in the intonations and rhythmic patterns in which the Gita is traditionally chanted. Could it be the recognition that we are connecting to millions now and before us who have indulged in this primeval spiritual practice? Whatever the reason, my family is experiencing something deeply moving and profound.

The great Hindu spiritual teacher, Swami Chinmayananda, summarized the cost of modernity long before many of us when he said, "The tragedy of human history is decreasing happiness in the midst of increasing comfort." Modernity has offered comforts that are necessary, simplifying and improving our day to day lives, but certain age-old traditions still have the capacity to uplift our quality of life in a way that technology never will.