Remembering Swami Vivekananda - I
human personality is essentially a bundle of memories. Our
bodies are cast from the genetic memory that lies ensconced
at the centre of every cell making up our tissues. Our psyche
is a template moulded by our past actions, the grooves in
which serve as channels for the flow of our thoughts and actions.
And the huge reservoir of subliminal memories decides our
propensities, innate skills, and the directions that our instinctual
energies take. Consciously or unconsciously, we live our memories.
Vagaries of Memory
the importance of memory in our lives, one would presume that
nature would have given us robust mechanisms for recording
objective facts, assessing the validity of our memory records,
and protecting this record against the vagaries of time. True
it has, but as both brain and mind are material entities,
memory has its limitations. If memory is what we rely on to
get our acts right, our memories also deceive us all too often.
In fact, the very processes that allow the mind to use its
memory capabilities in uniquely resourceful ways are also
responsible for the caprice and frailties of memory with which
we are all too familiar.
human mind’s exceptional capacity to generalize from limited
information and to match patterns are cases in point. No computer
has been able to approach anywhere near this capability till
date. But what the mind gains in terms of extensity, it loses
in terms of accuracy. For generalizations from limited information
are always liable to being incorrect. The last two Australians
I met, and it is not often that I meet Australians, were rather
brusque. I start having a suspicion that Australians, in general,
are rude. Now when I meet another Australian who tells me
to my face that I am not helpful, my suspicion turns into
a firm belief, a belief that may well last my lifetime.
ability to match patterns can also lead us on to false trails.
We might remember losing our way in a residential complex
even though we had been there once earlier. Every street seemed
to be the one we were looking for, and yet it wasn’t. If we
happen to know a pair of twins, we would remember how we often
mistake one for the other. Less innocuous are situations when
the victim of a crime misidentifies the criminal in an identification
parade, leading to miscarriage of justice. Formal studies
have shown that such mix-up of memory is not at all uncommon.
reason for the selectivity of memories and the mix-ups therein
lies in the way our memories are manufactured and retrieved.
What we choose to or are forced to remember is significantly
affected by our emotional disposition. When in good mood we
are likely to notice and recall happy events, while negative
information sticks to our minds more easily during foul moods.
More interestingly, information learnt when one is in a particular
mood is more likely to be recalled when one is in a similar
mood. That is why the whole world seems to be against you
when you are depressed, and everything appears bright and
sunny when you are in good mood.
emotional events are likely to light up our memory rather
vividly, a phenomenon called flashbulb memory. Most octogenarian
Indians are likely to remember where they were when they got
the news of Gandhiji’s assassination, and most citybred youth
will be able to recall what they were doing when they heard
about the attack on the New York twin towers. But very few
of us will be able to list all that we did on a particular
day last week, simply because no strong emotions are attached
to our daily routine.
processes involved in ensuring accurate memory are source
monitoring and reality monitoring; and both of these are prone
to errors. Try to recall the last time you were involved in
a group discussion where many ideas were shared. You are very
likely to remember some statement that was mentioned, of which
you are unsure who said it. But what we are unlikely to notice
is that we often attribute statements to wrong persons due
to a confusion of sources. We may be very sure that someone
made a certain statement, which in actual fact that person
monitoring is the process of deciding if a memory was generated
from external events that we actually experienced or from
our internal world of thought and imagination. Remember how
after a busy hour in the kitchen you rushed back to your room
and were then unsure if you switched off the gas? You seemed
to remember you did, but when you went down and checked, you
found you hadn’t. This confusion of reality could also have
serious consequences during eye-witness testimony. Researchers
have documented that eye-witness accounts of events, which
are given great weight in legal decisions, may not be as accurate
as we take them to be. On occasions eye-witnesses may actually
end up bearing false witness unknowingly.
confusion of sources and the mix-up of objective and subjective
facts, eye-witness errors can be induced through several other
mechanisms. One of these is suggestibility, wherein leading
questions shape our recall and response. For instance, the
question ‘What was the brand of most of the scooters involved
in the melee?’ is likely to elicit a brand name from a distant
witness called to a trial many months after a road accident,
even though, in reality, it was motorbikes that were primarily
involved in the accident. We also tend to construct false
memories unconsciously to give greater logical coherence to
our recall. Children are known to build up elaborate imaginary
stories in their minds which they often take to be real; this
mental propensity may continue throughout our lives in varying
chances that we will get called to testify at a trial are
rather slim, and we rarely notice the distortions in memory
that we suffer from. Even if we do take notice, such mix-ups
are usually innocuous and are more likely to amuse than alarm
us. And this is how it should be if we are to lead healthy
if you are a critical reader, as you go through this and the
next issue - which focus on Swami Vivekananda - you may be
tempted to ask: What is the validity of the rich array of
texts pertaining or attributed to Swami Vivekananda that are
presented in these pages? For many of you, qualification for
publication in this journal is in itself proof of their validity.
For others it is the credentials of the author that grant
the texts their validity. For still others it is the referencing
that ensures authenticity.
more fastidious among you may wish to question the internal
validity of the texts. What, for instance, is the accuracy
of Mrs Hansbrough’s reminiscences of Swamiji several decades
after she last happened to be with him? How does her age affect
her recall? Does it matter who was interviewing her, and what
type of questions he chose to ask her? Are the records likely
to have deteriorated with time? Does it matter who transcribes
the texts and who edits them? Are all these questions likely
to have a bearing on our understanding of the person that
was Swami Vivekananda? Is it going to affect our understanding
of his message?
our individual memories shape our personalities, history is
shaped by our collective memories etched out in different
media - archeological remains, written texts, oral tradition,
and the like - all of which are as likely to be affected by
the vagaries of selective and inaccurate documentation and
faulty reading as our individual memories. It would be interesting
to examine if our understanding of these facts affects our
understanding of who Swami Vivekananda was.