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The Rediff Interview/ Dr Subhash Kak

Topic started by SRS on Sun Feb 5 13:22:53 2006.

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November 18, 1999
The Rediff Interview/ Dr Subhash Kak
'Our school books talk about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle but don't mention Yajnavalkya, Panini and Patanjali'
Dr Subhash Kak is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He is also a renowned authority on ancient Indian science and technology. Originally from Kashmir, Dr Kak has worked at IIT Delhi, Imperial College, Bell Laboratories and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He has authored ten books and over three hundred journal articles in areas as varied as neural networks, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and the philosophy and history of science. Dr Kak's websites and provide links to some of his articles.

Rajeev Srinivasan interviewed him by email in connection with his research into Indian science.

You are a practising electrical engineer who holds patents in leading-edge areas such as neural networks. Yet, you are also a published poet and writer, as well as a Sanskrit scholar and expert on ancient Indian science. You are a Renaissance man, in other words. How did all this come about?

I was interested in both writing and sciences in school but when I finished I was leaning toward becoming a writer. My mother warned me it was no way to make a living and she packed me off to an engineering college. I am glad for that because before long I discovered that literary and scientific imaginations are not all that different. For sure there is much that is tedious and mechanical in science, but the same is true of literature as well.

My work in ancient science developed when I tried to find an answer to the question of the milieu in which Panini's 2500-year-old grammar, a work of most astonishing subtlety, arose. The more I consulted the standard texts, it became clear that the paradigm in which Indian history of science, and ancient Indian history in general, had been examined was wrong!

What is your background? Is this C P Snow-like conflation of science and the arts something that happens a lot in your family?

My initial research -- at IIT Delhi -- was on information theory. Now information is something that we all deal with, whether we are engineers, physicists, or businessmen; or even if we are artists or poets. We are in the midst of the information age where knowing how to manipulate information is worth money! Basically, I have applied the idea of information to questions in different disciplines.

It was lucky that I grew up in small towns of Jammu and Kashmir; we moved as my father, a veterinarian, was frequently transferred. My father was a scholar, with interests in a wide range of subjects -- from mythology to history to politics. We also met other people with similar encyclopaedic interests. These were professional people who were also connected to traditional wisdom. Perhaps they followed the old Indian dictum that considered one properly educated only if one was trained in the 64 arts, and sciences besides. I had good role models.

Actually, a lot of people in the West also straddle the CP Snow-divide of the science and the humanities. The best scientists are also competent philosophers, well-versed in their Greco-Roman heritage. Many of them even know more of the Indian heritage than most Indians! It is only the India of the past fifty years that has turned its back on its own heritage and our scientists literally know nothing about our intellectual history, excepting the distorted second-hand accounts written by colonial historians and their Indian followers.

You have done a good deal of research into the history of Indian science. But there will be sceptics who ask, what good is all this? It is in the remote past -- and today's Indian science is at best derivative and at worst grossly behind the times. How would you respond?

There are several reasons. First, curiosity; we should know the facts about our history. Second, there is the puzzle that our ancestors made astonishing advances in certain fields -- as in grammar or in consciousness studies -- where we moderns are yet to catch up! Third, for lessons; so that we may know where we went wrong.

You're right that recent Indian science is derivative and worse. It is particularly true of Indian science post-independence. But look at the first five decades of this century; some of the greatest names were those of Indians: S Ramanujan, J C Bose, S N Bose, C V Raman, Meghnad Saha, S Chandrasekhar, and so on. But these were people who were confident, who thought they were as good as any; most importantly, these people were connected to our own knowledge tradition. A study of history will reveal to us why our own scientific renaissance of the first five decades fizzled out in the next five.

And then there is another reason to study ancient Indian science. One of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, Erwin Schrodinger, was directly inspired by Vedanta in his creation of quantum mechanics, a theory at the basis of all our advances in chemistry, biochemistry, electronics, and computers! Is there more in our ancient science that is yet relevant?

How do you separate the mythology from the real science? Indians are famous for not being observers -- it appears our forebears were content to speculate (admittedly it was interesting speculation) rather than do exact measurements and record them.

We must look at ancient science with a critical mind and be sure to separate hard science from speculation and mythology. But it is a modern myth that Indians did not make exact measurements. This myth has been repeated so often we have started believing in it. In the field of astronomy, it was the Frenchman Roger Billard who showed this belief was totally wrong! We were excellent experimentalists in medicine, chemistry, metallurgy, agriculture, and so on. Before the Enlightenment that took place in Europe in the 17th century, we were still ahead in most intellectual fields. The Enlightenment came as a by-product of the turmoil set in motion by unprecedented wealth that was appropriated from America and by a rejection of Church doctrine. India of that period did not have favourable economic or political conditions for a similar flowering.

In your research, where have you been most amazed? Where, in other words, were the serendipitous and wholly unexpected 'Eureka' experiences?

My discovery that the organization of the Rigveda was according to an astronomical plan was a truly 'Eureka' experience. It came upon me rather suddenly, but once everything fell into place it was clear that I had been led to it by the many direct and indirect references in the Vedic texts. The 'Eureka' of it was the realization that I had the key to unlock the ancient mystery of the Veda. Ritual and mythology made sense! And it opened up a hidden chapter of Indian science with the greatest implications for our understanding of India and the rest of the ancient world.

You have done a fair amount of work on the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and on the conjecture that the Sarasvati did in fact exist, and that what has been known as the Indus Valley Civilization in fact was on the banks of the Sarasvati River. Can you elaborate on this? What new evidence has come to the fore?

Archaeological digs have confirmed that the Sarasvati river flowed down to the sea, parallel to the Sindh (Indus), before a major earthquake in about 1900 BCE robbed it of its two tributaries, the Satluj and the Yamuna, which were captured by the Sindh and the Ganga rivers. Since this river is praised as the greatest river of the Rigvedic times, it is clear that the Rigveda predates 1900 BCE in the least.

There are other scholars who say that 1900 BCE only marks the final drying up of the Sarasvati, and it had ceased to flow to the sea around 3000 BCE. If that were to be the case, the traditional chronology which dates the end of the Rigvedic period to about 3000 BCE is correct.

I have read of a number of new sites being excavated, including Lothal, Kalibangan, Dholavira, Balu, Banavali, Bhagwanpura, Manda, Amri, Kunal.... There is even some speculation that Lothal -- with its port and dry dock for large ocean-going ships -- was the site of the legendary Dwaraka that was submerged after an underwater earthquake and resulting tidal wave.

Yes, an enormous amount of new information is coming in from the new sites. We must not forget Mehrgarh which goes back to about 8000 BCE which was excavated in the late 70s. The most exciting thing is that major sites of Ganweriwala and Rakhigarhi are yet to be excavated. Could Lothal be the Dwaraka of the Mahabharata? It is plausible, but we don't know for sure yet.

You have also argued against the Aryan Invasion Theory. What specific evidence has come to light recently?

There is absolutely no evidence of a break in Indic tradition, going back 10,000 years. No break in ceramic styles, artistic expression, skeletal remains, and so on. Now if you compare that with regions that have suffered invasion, such as the Americas, you will see a clear break in all these things. This apart, all the recent iconographic finds confirm that key elements of what is generally called Classical Hinduism were present in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization before 2500 BCE. Examples are: ritual bathing, vermilion, bangles, conch-shells in religious ritual, a buffalo-killing goddess, abstract symbolism, the centrality of cattle in the economy.

You have argued that the Aryan-Dravidian divide simply doesn't exist, and that the superficial differences between North and South India are overlaid on a unified cultural foundation.

The concept of an Aryan-Dravidian divide is a by-product of the racist discourse of the 19th century. It was this racism that postulated a single language from which all modern languages were derived. Linguists now acknowledge that there must have existed very many language families in the past and what has survived represents complex interactions between different peoples and languages, many of which have left no trace. It is also being recognized that while by one reckoning Sanskrit, Greek and Latin belong to a family; by another, Sanskrit and Tamil and Telugu belong to another. Linguists are now talking of the concept of a linguistic area and the whole of India is one such area.

Culturally, India shows great unity as far back as we can go. If the art historian David Napier is right about Greece having received a major artistic impulse from South India in the 2nd millennium BCE, we find this unity to be at least 4000 years old. Remember also that Tamilian kings in South India and Sri Lanka called themselves Aryan. The word Aryan in Sanskrit simply means ''cultured''. There is a famous slogan in Sanskrit saying ''Make the whole world Aryan''. The term ''Aryan'' has nothing to do with race or language.

One of the things you have mentioned is the Gundestrup Cauldron (Scientific American, March 1992), something that was unearthed in a peat bog in Denmark. Apparently it shows strong evidence -- including goddess-images similar to Lakshmi and Hariti and a god-image similar to Vishnu -- of cross-cultural connections between Indic civilizations and those of far northern Europe. You have also noted the apparent connections between Celtic/Druidic pre-Christian cultures of Europe and Hindu practices. Is this merely circumstantial evidence or does it prove conclusively that there was a migration of peoples westward from India, rather than eastwards into India (the Aryan Invasion Theory)?

There is whole host of evidence that proves that Indian ideas, if not people (that is apart from the Gypsies), travelled from India to Europe. Indic people were apparently present in Palestine, Turkey, Babylon in the 2nd millennium BCE. The names of the ruling dynasties of these places and some Sanskritic inscriptions tell us this. The father of the beautiful Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, was a king of the Near East named Tusharatha or Dasharatha.

The Puranas also say an Indian tribe called the Druhyus emigrated West. Whether they emigrated all the way to Europe, we cannot say. What is likely to have happened is that an Indic element became the political and religious aristocracy in many countries, all the way up to Europe. This may also explain the parallels between Indian and European mythology.

What are the parallels between Indian and European mythology?

We have these parallels at many levels: in names and in the grammar of the myths. Let's begin with names. There are two Rigvedic skygods, Varuna and Dyaus; the corresponding Greek skygods are Ouranos and Zeus. Similar to Agni and Bhaga we have the Slavic Ogun and Bogu. For Aryaman and Indra we have the Celtic Eremon and Andrasta; Ribhu and Ushas are the Greek Orpheus and Eos. The list goes on and on, and the most interesting thing is that the Vedic list is comprehensive and we see parts of it remembered in different parts of Europe suggesting that the Vedic is the original.

The Vedic gods belong to three categories: the terrestrial, the atmospheric, and the celestial, if we see them superficially, as the Indologists of the 19th century saw them. In reality, they represent categories in the spiritual firmament: they are shadows of the One. The Europeans also saw their mythology in similar terms which is why when the Greeks came to India they declared that Shiva and Krishna were like their own Dionysius and Herakles.

There are still deeper connections, and these have been examined by the scholar Georges Dumézil in a series of fascinating books. In Rome, the raj-brahmin dichotomy of India was paralleled by the rex-flamen division. The injunctions to the flamen -- the keeper of the flame -- are very similar to those to the brahmin. The gandharvas in India had a shadowy role related to music and fecundity; in Rome this was assigned to centaurs. Dumézil found enough parallels to fill five or six books. Joseph Campbell also wrote about these connections in his books, as have many others.

After the Old Religion of Europe was extinguished, Indian myths continued to influence Europe. From the lives of Krishna and Buddha a nascent Christianity adopted the stories of miraculous conception and birth, the star over the birthplace, the twelve disciples, and the various miracles. Parables such as that of the pious disciple whose faith makes it possible to walk on water, or the story where the master feeds his numerous disciples with a single cake or bread were borrowed. Medieval Christianity took some Indian Jataka tales and transformed them into accounts of Christian saints. The most famous of such instances is how a Buddha legend from the Lalitavistara became the story of Barlaam and Josaphat!

If there were was no Aryan Invasion, then what exactly happened to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization? A major civilization that spread some thousands of square miles and was apparently quite sophisticated cannot simply vanish.

It never vanished. There was a shift of population after the economy around the Sarasvati river collapsed due to the drying up of the river. People moved to the east and to the northwest and to the south. There was no break in the cultural tradition. The same ceramic styles continued. Only the level of prosperity went down. The Vedic books also speak of a period when the rishis went to the forests, the age of the Aranyakas. The Puranic books speak of a catastrophe in 1924 BCE.

Your work in archaeo-astronomy suggests unambiguously that the Max Mueller chronology of the Vedas must be rejected and that the Rig Veda must be dated not to ca. 1500 BCE, but to ca. 3000 BCE. What is the impact of this?

Well if not 3000 BCE, certainly prior to 2000 BCE. Max Mueller was absolutely wrong. What is the impact of the new dates? It changes the history of ancient India and that of the rest of the ancient world. It gives a centrality to India in world history.

Your recent book with Georg Feuerstein and David Frawley, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization (Quest Books, Indian edition to be published by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi), suggests that in fact India was the site of the very first civilization, not Sumer in Iraq. If this is true, then India has not only the oldest continuous and surviving civilization, but in fact it is the birthplace of civilization. Could you elaborate on this?

Look, India has had cultural continuity for at least 10,000 years. Before that we had a rock-art tradition which, according to some estimates, goes back to 40,000 BCE. Not only are we one of the most ancient civilizations, we have found in India the record of the earliest astronomy, geometry, mathematics, and medicine. Artistic, philosophical and religious impulses, central to the history of mankind, arose first in India.

You have done considerable research on the structure of the fire altars in Scriptural ritual (The Astronomical Code of the Rigveda, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi), and you have demonstrated that there was a very formal and mathematical basis to the construction of these. Could you explain?

Vedic Indians were scientific. They believed in laws of nature. They represented their astronomy in terms of the altar constructions. One problem they considered was that of the synchronization of the lunar and the solar years: the lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year and if we add a round number of days every few years to make up for the discrepancy, we find we cannot do it elegantly unless we have a correction cycle of 95 years or its multiples. This 95-year cycle is described in the earliest Vedic prose books.

The altars were to be built to slightly larger dimensions each year of the cycle to represent the corrections. There were other symbolic constructions. Like building a square altar (representing the sky) with the same area as a circular altar (representing the earth), which is the problem of squaring the circle. This led to the discovery of the earliest geometry. They were aware that the sun and the moon were at 108 times their own diameters from the earth.

These fire altars are at this time obsolete, right? Nobody uses them any more, or is that not so? The only time I have heard of them before reading your work was when I read of an impoverished Nambudiri (Kerala brahmin) family whose illam or house was being sold, and they had fire altars in the shape of a falcon, and the old head of the household said this 5,000-year-old tradition was dying because they couldn't afford the rituals any more.

It is a great pity that we are letting our cultural and civilizational treasures die right before our eyes. We must do whatever we can to preserve and celebrate this heritage.

You have mentioned a connection, apparently evident in the Vedas, between internal and external things -- for instance between the rhythms in the human body and astronomical cycles. Could you elaborate?

A central Vedic belief was that there are connections between the outer and the inner. The rishis declared that it was due to these connections that we are enabled to know the world. One dramatic aspect of these connections are the biological cycles which run the same periods as various astronomical cycles. For example, the Purusha Hymn of the Rigveda says that the mind is born of the moon. Just recently, by research on volunteers, who stayed in underground caves for months without any watches or other cues about time, it was found that the natural cycle for the mind is 24 hours and 50 minutes. The period of the moon is also 24 hours and 50 minutes. Our clock is reset every day by daylight!

The connections between the outer and the inner were also represented by other symbols. The 108 sun diameters from the earth of the sun were paralleled by the 108 beads of the rosary for a symbolic spiritual journey from the normal state to one of illumination.

I have read the book edited by you and Dr TRN Rao (Computing Science in Ancient India, University of Southwestern Louisiana Press) on some surprising mathematics: pi to many decimal places, Sayana's accurate calculation of the speed of light, hashing algorithms, the binary number system of Sanskrit meters -- are these mere coincidences or is there conclusive evidence of advanced mathematics?

The binary number system, hashing, various codes, mathematical logic (Navya Nyaya), or a formal framework that is equivalent to programming all arose in ancient India. This is all well known and it is acknowledged by scholars all over the world. I shouldn't forget to tell you that a most advanced calculus, math and astronomy arose in Kerala several centuries before Newton.

In particular, I am amazed, as a layman, by the evidence that Sayana, circa 1300 CE, who was prime minister at the court of the Vijayanagar Emperor Bukka I, calculated the speed of light to be 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha, which does come to 186,536 miles per second.

Truly mind-boggling! The speed of light was first measured in the West only in the late 17th century. So how could the Indians have known it? If you are a sceptic, then you will say it is a coincidence that somehow dropped out of the assumptions regarding the solar system. If you are a believer in the powers of the mind, you would say that it is possible to intuit (in terms of categories that you have experienced before) outer knowledge. This latter view is the old Indian knowledge paradigm. If it were generally accepted it would mean an evolution in science much greater than the revolution of modern physics.

It is also well-known that the Vedic or Puranic idea of the age of the universe is some 8 billion years, which is of the order of magnitude of what has been estimated by modern astrophysicists. Is this also a mere coincidence?

Again, either a coincidence, or the rishis were capable of supernormal wisdom. Don't forget that the Indian texts also speak about things that no other civilization thought of until this century. I am speaking of air and space travel, embryo transplantation, multiple births from the same embryo, weapons of mass destruction (all in the Mahabharata), travel through domains where time is slowed, other galaxies and universes, potentials very much like quantum potential (Puranas). If nothing else, we must salute the rishis for the most astonishing and uncanny imagination.

You also suggest that that the modern computer science term for context-free languages, the Backus-Naur Form, should more accurately be called the Panini-Backus Form, since Sanskrit grammarian Panini invented the notion of completely and unambiguously defined grammars (and devised one such for Sanskrit) as early as about 500 BCE.

Oh yes, all this is well established and well known, as also the Indian development of mathematical logic.

How has the reaction been in scholarly circles to some of these discoveries and conjectures of yours, which do turn conventional wisdom on its head? In India, you are aware, some of your views would have you branded as "reactionary", "Hindu fundamentalist", etc.

My work has been received most enthusiastically in scholarly circles both in the West and India. I have written several scores of scholarly articles and reviews and am in the process of writing major essays for leading encyclopaedias. School texts in California and other American states have been rewritten. Likewise, new college texts in the US speak of these new findings. We are talking here of hard scientific facts, they can neither be "fundamentalist'' nor "reactionary''. But I am aware that some ignorant ideologues in India may actually pin pejorative labels on this work. This only creates opportunities to bring facts to the attention of such people. I am ever hopeful of converting more and more people!

How has your work in the history of science affected your research in computing science?

Surprisingly, it has strengthened my technical work. It has provided me a focus and a perspective. It has also given me the courage to work on fundamental problems.

What do you attribute this to? Is this because it is a matter of self-image? Indians have always been self-effacing, and perhaps not believing in themselves much?

Self-image is a central factor in our development. We eventually become what we want to become. We need faith in ourselves. That is why a cultural focus is so crucial. I think our current self-effacement is a result of the negative stereotyping we have experienced for generations. Our school books talk about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle -- and rightly so -- but they don't mention Yajnavalkya, Panini and Patanjali, which is a grave omission. Our grand boulevards in Delhi and other cities are named after Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, but there are no memorials to Aryabhata, Bhaskara, Madhava and Nilakantha!

Is self-image, then, sufficient reason for us to explore the past?

It could be a sufficient reason for some. For others, it is one of the many impulses that guides them in their personal journeys.

Is there something that your Web readers can do to take some of this research forward? Any references or other suggestions?

There is so much to be done to spread the knowledge of Indian history. For at least 50 years, Indian intellectual life was stifled by a Stalinist attitude. And before that, for two centuries, colonialist historians appropriated Indian past for their own purposes. What they left for us was a mutilated version of our past. We are barely emerging from that hell. We need more people to actively carry forward this research. We also need institutions -- private foundations, perhaps --that ensure that our historiography will remain vital, critical and devoted to truth.

Any messages from you for your diasporic readers?

Pay attention to Indian and world history, there is much to be learned from the past. Also go to the springwells of Indian tradition, you'll find great treasure. Indian ideas provided central themes to the American transcendentalists in the early 19th century which led to American culture as we know it. I believe even more vital Indian ideas will transform world culture in the coming decades, and if you choose to be the interpreters of these ideas to the modern world you would have participated in the most wondrous drama of our times!

The Rediff Interviews



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