18 May 2014

Swami Vivekananda's Reading Speed And Memory Power

Swami Vivekananda reportedly had eidetic or photographic memory. He himself explained—[Source]
Do you see, simply by the observance of strict Brahmacharya (continence) all learning can be mastered in a very short time -- one has an unfailing memory of what one hears or knows but once. It is owing to this want of continence that everything is on the brink of ruin in our country.
 In this article our topic Swami Vivekananda's reading speed and memory power.

1890 Meerut, The librarian experience
Swami Vivekananda, as a Wanderink monk
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
In November 1890, Narendranath (pre-monastic name of Swami Vivekananda) went to Meerut. At that time, some of Narendranath's brother-disciples were staying in Meerut. One of them was Swami Abhedananda.

Narendranath had been a  "voracious reader" from his childhood and used to spend much time in reading. Now, during the stay in Meerut, Narendranath, through brother disciple Swami Abhedananda, used to borrow and read one book from local library every day and return it the following day.

The local librarian was not ready to accept that Narendranath was reading the books, he thought that he was not reading anything at all and it was only an attempt to impress others. One day he clearly expressed his doubt to Swami Abhedananda.

Narendranath, upon hearing this, went to the librarian and told him, politely— "Sir, I have read all the books very attentively. If you have any doubt, you may ask me any question you like from these books we had borrowed."

The librarian asked him a series of questions and Narendranath correctly answered each of them. The librarian was highly surprised.

Ajit Singh's experience
Narendranath went to Khetri and stayed there between 7 June 1891 to 27 October 1891 (more info)

After the librarian of Meerut, most probably Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri was the second person to witness Narendranath's reading mode. He carefully observed that while reading a book Narendranath just used to turn over the pages of it, very quickly, from beginning to end— and that was his reading, he finished reading the entire book.

A curious Ajit Singh asked Narendranath how was that possible. Narendranath explained that when a child starts reading, he reads one letter or alphabet at a time, and when he reads that one alphabet, his whole attention is focused on it. Gradually the child grows up, and with practice, and now he can easily read one word or two-three words at a time. Likewise, if someone goes on increasing his concentration power, he becomes able to read an entire page of a book in just a glance.
He also told to achieve such power three things are absolutely needed— a) continence, b) practice, c) concentration.

Haripada Mitra, The Pickwick Papers
Haripada Mitra, a Sub-divisonal Forest Officer of Belgaum, too had similar experience. Swami Vivekananda astonished him by reciting a large portion from Charles Dickens' first novel The Pickwick Papers. Mitra was more surprised when Narendranath told him that he had read the book only twice.

Haripada Mitra recounted—
One day, in the course of a talk, Swamiji quoted verbatim some two or three pages from Pickwick Papers. I wondered at this, not understanding how a Sannyasin could get by heart so much from a secular book. I thought that he must have read it quite a number of times before he took orders. When questioned he said, 'I read it twice—once when I was in school, and again some five or six months back.' Then how do you remember,' I asked in wonder, 'and why can we not remember thus?' One has to read with full attention,' he explained, 'and one must not fritter away the energy one draws from food.'

Encyclopædia Britannica
In 1901, Swami Vivekananda was physically unwell and was staying at Belur Math, West Bengal. A new set of 12 volumes of the then newly published Encyclopædia Britannica had recently been bought for the Math's library.

One day Sharatchandra Chakravarti, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, came to his room to meet him. Seeing the large volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica, he told—
It is indeed very difficult to read so many volumes in one lifetime.
Swami Vivekananda immediately replied—
What do you mean? . . .  Ask me any question from the first 10 volumes I have already read.
Chakravarti asked Vivekananda a number of questions from each volume of the Encyclopædia. Every time Vivekananda answered correctly, and not only that, several times he even quoted exact words used in the book.

From Diary of a disciple

Sharatchandra Chakravarti wrote about this event in his book Diary of a disciple
A few days ago, a new set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had been bought for the Math. Seeing the new shining volumes, the disciple said to Swamiji, "It is almost impossible to read all these books in a single lifetime." He was unaware that Swamiji had already finished ten volumes and had begun the eleventh.

Swamiji: What do you say? Ask me anything you like from these ten volumes, and I will answer you all.

The disciple asked in wonder, "Have you read all these books?"

Swamiji: Why should I ask you to question me otherwise?

Being examined, Swamiji not only reproduced the sense, but at places the very language of the difficult topics selected from each volume. The disciple, astonished, put aside the books, saying, "This is not within human power!"

Swamiji: Do you see, simply by the observance of strict Brahmacharya (continence) all learning can be mastered in a very short time — one has an unfailing memory of what one hears or knows but once. It is owing to this want of continence that everything is on the brink of ruin in our country.

Disciple: Whatever you may say, sir, the manifestation of such superhuman power cannot be the result of mere Brahmacharya, something else there must be.

Swamiji did not say anything in reply.


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This page was last updated on: 18 May, 6:12 pm IST (UTC+5:30 hours)
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  1. That is extra-ordinary.

  2. Some time ago, when I was doing research on Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers, I came across an article which mentioned Swami Vivekananda’s remarkable feat of memory concerning that book. My research was for a novel about the origins and afterlife of The Pickwick Papers, which will be published in May 2015, and although it was not possible to mention Swami Vivekananda’s memorising of Pickwick, his feat inspired a little section at the very start of my novel, when one character expresses dismay that another has only read Pickwick ten times, rather knowing it “by heart”. (My novel, for those who are interested, is called Death and Mr Pickwick. Further information can be found at: www.deathandmrpickwick.com )

    Best wishes

    Stephen Jarvis

  3. In the purported quote of Swami Vivekananda, shouldn't the statement read as 'It is owing to this NEGLECT of continence that everything is on the brink of ruin in our country.'
    rather than, 'It is owing to this WANT of continence that everything is on the brink of ruin in our country.'


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