ROLE OF “REPETITION” IN SPIRITUAL INSTRUCTION, PRACTICE AND UNDERSTANDING — 2
This is an alternative viewpoint regarding the role of “Repetition” in understanding the core message of advaita. As it often happens, there is nothing like “the right perspective” in these matters. One may use one’s own discretion in evaluating these different points of view.
1. There is no doubt that Repetition helps in getting a thing by heart or to memorize a quote, a mantra, a verse etc.
2. We know ‘Practice maketh perfect’ and practice necessarily involves repetition.
That means, we are making an operation (mostly those that involve neuromotor skills) into a more mechanically executed action – transferring a routine from being a cerebral activity to cerebellar activity.
3. The ‘phala‘ (result) of certain ritualistic karma (like offerings made for the appeasement of gods, gaining merit etc.) is expected to increase proportionally with the number of times the ritual is carried out. (Please see Note: 2 at the end).
There are some mantras specifically recommended for the fulfillment of certain desires. For example: In case of appeasing a malefic planet in astrology, one can do a “japa” (repetition of a mantra) 11 times, 1001 times, 100001 times and so on depending on the intensity of maleficence. Similarly, I can do a particular worship or a yajna (sacrificial ritual) once to reach heaven, a hundred times to achieve something else (Maybe to be able to dance with the divine damsels!?). Repeated chanting of 5-letter, 11-letter mantras, gAyatri mantra, reading Bhagavad-gita (1/2 sloka a day, full sloka a day, two sloka-s a day and so on) yield different results. Reciting a number of times the Sundara kAnda (chapter) of rAmAyaNa for the amelioration of health/wealth problems etc. is also quite common in many parts of India. Such advices/injunctions come from purva MimAmsa, dharma shAstra, folklore etc.
4. In the yogic methods too, repetition enjoys much importance – for example, prANAyAma exercises, donations, pilgrimages, etc. – the more the merrier.
But to grasp an issue, i.e. to understand the ken of a matter, repetition may not help, unless, the candidate has been inattentive. It is particularly so in the case of Vedanta, where the core message itself is simple, straight forward and direct. As JK used to say, it’s like burning your finger in fire. You do not have to repeatedly burn your finger to know that fire hurts.
Having said that, we do have to agree that repeated action may be required to keep the mind away from returning to its past habituated pattern of reaction. The mind may require time to align itself fully with the new understanding obtained from Advaita. This, in essence, means that we are re-training the mind for a new behavioral pattern – reorientating the neuronal connections much like retraining an OCD patient.
Now coming to the oft-cited example of nine times repetition in Ch Up of ‘tatvamasi‘: We may appreciate the fact that Uddalaka teaches the subject in gradual steps to Svetaketu. Affter the 9th step he stops. The upanishad does not fill the rest of the pages repeating tatvamasi.
So the basic message may be repeated by a teacher, but from different angles so that the student grasps the issue. We see that the same technique is adopted in BG too. The Gita could as well have been ended with the second chapter but for the examination of the issue from various nuances. However, repeating parrot like the same words as an “imposition” (when we were children our teachers used to ask us to write 10 times a word with the correct spelling if we spelt it wrongly in our class), IMHO, will not contribute to ‘grokking’ the matter.
Re: BSB 4.1.1. and 4.1.2:
(The aphorism under 4.1.2 has just one word and a conjunction (lingAcca = lingAt + ca). Therefore, the aphorism and the commentary thereon have to be read in continuation to that of 4.1.1 and 4.1.2 cannot stand on its own).
Shankara, in his usual style of attacking a potential argument from an opponent, takes up the issue of repetition in his commentary on these sUtra-s. Let us bear in mind that the brahma sUtra-s are taken up for a study at the manana phase AFTER obtaining the teaching (shravNa phase) from the upanishads. Having come up to the extent of the 4th chapter in the brahma sutra-s, (i.e. after having completed the preceding three chapters) and a study of the upanishads, if the guy has not been able to “get” it, will he get it by any repetition now at this stage?
There is a Telugu language proverb that says – a ladle may be stirring in the cooking vessel a hundred times, but it will never get to know the taste of the curry! So such a fellow will be like a ladle. He better do something else to understand – maybe change the teacher to one who can explain better at his wavelength using a different set of metaphors or perhaps, the Knowledge Path is not his cup.
It’s possible that there could be another reason for Vyasa and Shankara to talk about repetition in brahma sUtra-s.
Most of the people in those days were action-oriented (karma kANDa). As I already mentioned at # 3 above, the prospective student accustomed to karma, values repetition. So he is likely to ask how many times should he practice shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. The brihadAraNyaka up just mentions that the three should be followed but does not mention the number of times that the seeker has to do so.
It is needless to say that the seeker has to go with an inquisitive mind and determination on the path of Self-inquiry and go on questioning from different angles until s/he feels he “got” it. Some times, a student may find it very useful to get clarity in his/her mind if s/he writes an article on the subject or tries to explain it to others. His own understanding will be much sharpened in this process and any kinks will get ironed out.
So it is all a question of the intensity of jijnAsa (yearning to know) of the student, his fortitude and resolve etc. But we can never have an a priori injunction about repetition or the number of times to be repeated.
IMHO, a fresh approach (change the resource (guru, book, CD, Video) or taking a break and a walk in a park may help in arriving at an understanding rather than mechanical repetition like a broken record. We are in the 21st century and our minds/brains come pre-loaded with a different information-base compared to what it was in the 8th century.
[Note: 1. The Part 1 and Part 2 of this Series of articles are prepared by Martin and myself after mutual consultation with each other.
Note: 2. Martin pointed out to an apparent variance with the concept expressed here quoting from “Why Read Rig Veda?” by R. L Kashyap: “According to the Rig Veda mystics, a human being performs an action only because the assistance s/he gets from the devas. As a matter of fact, the contribution of the human to each action is nominal… Yajna is any activity which recognizes the collaboration between the deva and the human.”
Note: 3. Re: The Comment by Dennis on the Part 1 of this article: The verse # 24 of ‘bhajagovindam‘ is supposedly a contribution of one of Shankara’s disciples by name medhAtithira. The verse DOES NOT contain anything about repetition nor did Shankara advise repetition in this verse. A helpless teacher may resort to repeat himself. As I already indicated in the last para of my write up above, it is better to shun such a teacher.]
All very well expressed – I agree entirely. I never took ‘repetition’ to mean literally repeating what has just been done. As you say, if one has failed to follow what has been said/read the first time, repeating precisely the same procedure is unlikely to help. My understanding is really along the lines of reading a different commentary, listening to a different talk on the same scripture (assuming it is a scriptural understanding we are talking about). And of course, as you also imply, manana – asking someone else to explain, asking questions, discussing with someone, or writing down one’s understanding etc – may help.
I added a note to the quotation I gave to point out that it was Swami Chinmayananda who said it, not Shankara.
There is not much to add to yours and Martin’s interesting blogs on repetition. I agree ‘that the seeker has to go with an inquisitive mind and determination on the path of Self-inquiry and go on questioning from different angles until s/he feels he “got” it.’ And that ‘the basic message may be repeated by a teacher, but from different angles so that the student grasps the issue.’
Yet, I would say that even ‘if one has failed to follow what has been said/read the first time, repeating precisely the same procedure is unlikely to help’ (Dennis) may have its place in the teaching. As far as I understand this is part of the eastern way of teaching and I find it beautifully accomplished by Swami Paramarthananda who sometimes repeats two or three times in exactly the same words what he wants to convey. People are no machines and even a keen student may ‘space out’ sometimes during discourse and is likely to be woken up by this method.
Moreover every time a vagueness in the understanding of the student is addressed he will be in a different frame of mind himself. As Pythagoras said ‘there is no way of entering the same river twice’. So even literal repetition may be helpful at times as much as much as studying the same scripture again and again. But learning something by heart and mindlessly repeating it will help no-one. AmritabindhuUp pointing out that the mind is as much the problem as it is the solution means that nothing that is mindless (‘like a parrot’) is ever going to help on the path of knowledge.
Interesting what you say, Sitara, about the frame of mind of a student having possibly changed after a while on reading or listening to the same teaching (something may click this time!).
The saying that ‘one cannot step in the same river twice’ is associated with Heraclitus – also a pre-Socratic philosopher – instead of with Pythagoras. He also said: ‘Nature loves to hide’.
Thanks Martin, yes, it was Heraclitus.