When I was younger, we’d often go to family friends’ houses for pujas. The kids would hole away in a bedroom upstairs, watching cartoons, playing games, catching up – we didn’t understand Sanksrit, after all, and we just got restless silently sitting cross-legged for hours. Then, just as the aarati began, the parents would usher us downstairs – we’d clap along to the aarati and get to my favorite part, the prasad. That buttery, sugary, nutty dollop was definitely worth the hassle of putting on a frilly frock and tights and schlepping miles away to so-and-so auntie’s house.
After reading about the so-called “Sanksrit Effect,” however, I began to kick myself. Maybe sitting through those pujas would have made me smarter! Neuroscientist James Hartzell, who coined the term, noticed his own verbal memory improving as he began studying and translating Sanksrit. This prompted him to scan the brains of pandits and controls with similar age, gender and multilingualism.He and his team discovered that numerous regions of the pandits’ brains were larger than the others, portions that correlate with enhanced cognitive function.
If you think about it, this is not a huge surprise. After all, the mantras pandits recite require extensive memorization and practice, with the Shukla Yajurveda taking six hours – almost a full work day – to recite. And while to seven-year-old me – and even to me now – it sounds like an impossible-to-understand foreign language, each mantra has a vastly different, specific significance. The Gayatri mantra, for example, seeks to enlighten the chanter’s mind and inspire intelligence, while the Vakratunda Mahakaya seeks the blessings of Ganesh to clear obstacles from the chanter’s path. In fact, there's a mantra for just about every occasion, big or small: from a mantra for before you begin eating to the one before you begin driving.
So, short of learning Sanksrit, how are some ways we can use this to improve our own cognitive function? Meditating and reciting even simple mantras – such as these sung by Baby Ganesh for example, or these – has been found to truly improve memory and cognition and even energy.
Chanting the mantras has other less-obvious benefits, as well, according to the India Times. Chanting vedic mantras puts pressure on the tongue, vocal chords and lips, stimulating the hypothalamus, which is responsible for immunity. In addition, the calm repetition slows the breathing process and helps regulate the heartbeat, assisting in a healthier heart. And, of course, the chanting helps calm the mind and reduce stress, which can help with a host of health issues.
Even the famous “aum” (or “om”) – which has even become a part of Western lingo – has its own benefits. In addition to symbolically acknowledging our own connection with the universe, the vibrations help clear sinuses, slow down the mind, decreasing blood pressure, and strengthening the spinal cord.
So the next time I’m at a puja, instead of retreating to a corner with my iPhone until the sugary, buttery goodness gets served, I’ll make a conscious effort to stay, learn and chant. After all, what parent can’t use five minutes to themselves to de-stress?
Avani Nadkarni is a former journalist who currently works in tech PR and is forever navigating the tricky balance of trying to raise her child in the U.S. while teaching him about his Indian and Sri Lankan roots.