Gujarati. Hindi. Marathi. French. German. Mandarin. Spanish.
Pick a language. And learn it in less than four months. Can you?
Joshua Foer, a freelance journalist from Connecticut, learned Lingala, a language indigenous to the northwestern regions of the Republic of Congo, in under four months. While in the Ndoki Forest to report about an interesting population of chimpanzees for the National Geographic, Foer and a translator came across Monguosso, a member of the hunter-gatherer society known as the Mbendjele pygmies. Although Foer was curious to learn more about their society, a simple language barrier that prevented him from explaining to Monguosso basic concepts like the ocean made explaining more complicated concepts an elusive dream. To make the dream a little less elusive, Foer decided to learn Monguosso’s language – Lingala.
For some people, learning a language may not be much of a challenge. But what if there existed only one copy of the language’s 1,109-word dictionary? And what if the only textbook about the language was a small handbook published in 1963? That’s all Foer had at his disposal. Despite these limited resources, Foer was able to learn the language by relying on Memrise, a method of memorization that focuses on creating memes for learning new information. For every word he learned, he created a meme to help him memorize it. For instance, to memorize the word motele (meaning, engine, in Lingala), Foer imagined a rusty engine revving in a motel room. He associated the word with a past experience of his – the cheapest room he’d occupied, during a cross-country roadtrip. He then used an online tool to test himself – in essence, repeat – the words and their meanings over the next ten weeks. This continual repetition ultimately led him back to the Ndoki Forest, except this time, without the need for a constant translator.
Although Foer didn’t know it at the time, he used the process that Shriji Maharaj described in Vachanamrut Sarangpur 3. In this Vachanamrut, Maharaj discussed a four-step method to achieving realization of any Satsang principle. The first step, shravan, is to listen to a talk. The second step, manan, is the act of contemplating to retain that part of the talk which is worth retaining, and discarding that part of the talk which is worth discarding. The third step, nididhyas, is the practice of continuously recalling the points of the talk that were retained in one’s manan. If one continues the nididhyas long enough, one will attain realization, or sakshatkar, of the talk.
To understand Sarangpur 3, how it relates to Foer’s story and our own spiritual journeys, we will analyze the following incident, using the approach given therein.
It was a humid afternoon in Gadhada. Shriji Maharaj was seated on a beautifully decorated seat and surrounded by devotees. Shriji Maharaj, observing a woman approaching from afar, called out, “Jai Swaminarayan! How is Patel?” The devotees in the assembly were surprised by Maharaj’s sudden question, and they began looking around. Just then, a woman carrying a large pot arrived before Shriji Maharaj. After bowing, she responded to the question, “Jai Swaminarayan! Maharaj, Patel was happy, and now he is even happier!” Pleased with the woman’s response and her offering of a potful of ghee, Shriji Maharaj explained to the baffled devotees: “Recently, Devji’s son passed away. Instead of lamenting the loss, he understood it as my wish, and has sent his wife to offer ghee!” Because Devji Bhakta is a farmer, the most valuable item he could offer to Maharaj was the ghee he had made from his cows’ milk. This devotional offering earned him Maharaj’s blessings. Devji Bhakta’s spiritual understanding awed the devotees present. How could it be that the very day following his son’s death, Devji Bhakta sent an offering to Shriji Maharaj? Devji Bhakta had said to his village folk when they enquired about whether he had not wished to see his son happily married with a family of his own? Devji Bhakta firmly replied, “No. Instead of having my son deal with the misery of worldly life, my son is sitting with Shriji Maharaj in Akshardham! He was Maharaj’s to begin with, and he’s in the right place.”
The first step in realizing a satsang teaching is shravan. In Sarangpur 3, Shriji Maharaj explains that “listening to a talk through one’s ears is known as shravan”. Thus, the simple act of listening to Devji Bhakta’s incident was shravan. However, shravan is broader than just listening to a satsang teaching; the act of consuming a satsang teaching, whether it be in the form of katha varta, satsang reading, goshti or informal discussion, is called shravan. Foer, the National Geographic journalist, when trying to learn Lingala, would do shravan by having conversations with the locals of the Ndoki Forest as well as by reading the Lingala handbook.
After reading the incident as part of shravan, one has to perform manan. As Shriji Maharaj explains, “Having heard this talk, to mentally ponder over the talk, and to discard that part of the talk which is fit to be discarded and to retain that part of the talk which is fit to be retained is known as manan.” To discard and retain the relevant parts is to summarize the incident to its essential core. To “mentally ponder over the talk” entails identifying the message of what one has heard, and in effect, asking oneself what the value of the incident is and what relevance it has to one’s life. In performing manan of the above incident, one could go through the following thought process:
Shriji Maharaj became pleased with Devji Bhakta’s genuine devotion and well-found understanding of Shriji Maharaj’s kartapanu (the understanding of God as the doer). Because Devji Bhakta did not lament over the loss of his only son, and sent his wife with a pot of ghee to Gadhada as an indication of joy and contentment, Shriji Maharaj praised Devji. In this way, I must cultivate the understanding of Shriji Maharaj and Pramukh Swami Maharaj as the doers. I must also accept the obstacles I face on the path of satsang, maintaining the understanding that whatever happens or occurs is due to the will of God, and that God knows and does what is best.
However, the process of pondering over the incident does not end with isolating its essence. Later in Sarangpur 3, Shriji Maharaj has described manan as “having mentally retained the talk with conviction”. In effect, Shriji Maharaj explains that the process of manan is not to simply understand the message, but to develop conviction in it. Thus, as part of performing manan on Devji Bhakta’s incident, one critically engages with the concept of Maharaj as the all-doer to develop firm conviction in it.
Foer performed manan in his process by creating memes for different words. To make associations with the new vocabulary he was studying, Foer would have to connect the word to some past experience or memory. Then, he would make a card with an image on it that would remind him of the memory or experience that the vocabulary word triggers. Foer’s manan was isolating the essence of these words by stripping down their layers of meanings to a simple meme.
Manan is an essential step in the method to attaining sakshatkar, because the results of manan are helpful in performing the third step, nididhyas. To practice nididhyas, you must continually engage your mind in the essence of the incident you have read. For instance, it is much easier to contemplate continuously on the paragraph above, a mere summary of the longer incident above, than memorizing the entire incident, word for word. Nididhyas, for Foer, is the constant repetition of viewing the cards he has created. By perusing, repeatedly, the cards, Foer was strengthening the connection his mind made with the experience or memory attached to the Lingala word he was studying.
The final stage of Shriji Maharaj’s model is sakshatkar. To better understand the fourth and final stage, one must recognize that there are two levels of sakshatkar. The first level, intellectual sakshatkar, refers to the ability to recall a satsang teaching. For instance, upon reading an incident in a book, if one engages in manan and nididhyas, then one will be able to recall the incident when retelling it to another person. The second level, applied sakshatkar, refers to applying a satsang teaching. For example, if one’s efforts in studying for an exam yield no success, but one maintains the understanding of Devji Bhakta that God is the all-doer and thus is undisturbed by the failure, then one has attained sakshatkar of that principle.
For Foer, sakshatkar was his ability to understand Lingala in real-life conversations when he returned to the Ndoki Forest. After hearing, memorizing and repeating Lingala words, he was able to recall the words he learned as they were used in everyday conversations.
If Foer wanted to learn Lingala, would he simply hear the words whenever he hears them and put in no further effort? Could he really expect to learn Lingala that way? Likewise, if we really want to attain our version of sakshatkar and practically apply the teachings of satsang to our lives, can we really just do shravan? Just like Foer took the time to do manan and nididhyas, our spiritual journey requires us to do the same as prescribed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan in Vachanamrut Sarangpur 3.