Interview with Subhash Kak, 21st-century Rishi

skWe recently invited Professor Subhash Kak to speak as part of the Science and Hinduism lecture series we co-organize at Duke University. Dr. Kak is the Regents Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Oklahoma State University. He has worked in the areas of neural computing, information theory, cryptography, philosophy and history of science, ancient Indian astronomy and mathematics, and has published over 15 books. As a Vedic scholar and a modern rishi, he authored The Prajna Sutra:  Aphorisms of Intuition, a set of 18 sutras that cast light on the cosmology underlying consciousness. Before his talk, we had the opportunity to sit down with him to ask about his foray into the world of Vedic science and how he reconciles that knowledge with his scientific career.

Like us, you are trained as a Western scientist but you also have an extensive background in Vedic knowledge. Can you tell us how you got your Vedic training and when you started applying it to the work you were doing in the U.S. as a computer scientist?

My father was orphaned and was raised by his uncle. He became a veterinarian. After that, he became a disciple of a Vedic master. He decided to dedicate his life to this knowledge. He lived in the house of his master. So my father had a very strong background in Vedic knowledge. I learned a lot from my dad.

I went on and got my PhD and then became a professor in the mid-eighties at Louisiana State University where I started working on Artificial Intelligence. I recalled my father used to tell me stories about Sanskrit grammar. It’s 2,500 years old, and it expresses the entire Sanskrit language in four thousand rules. That intrigued me. If you could express grammar so succinctly, then maybe you could do it for other languages also. And the implication for Artificial Intelligence is that you could go from one natural language to another using the medium of this grammar. This would perhaps make the translation process much more efficient and accurate. I studied and meditated and thought about all of this. So I had probably been prepared for my childhood, by my father’s instruction. I had set it to the side, and now I came back to it.

We would argue that one of your most important academic contributions is to show the West how many of the ancient Indian texts contain a lot of scientific information. How did you discover the science in these texts?

I went through the Sanskrit literature layer by layer. You have the Sutras, the Puranas, and the Mahabharat, the Ramayan. Prior to the Sutras you have the Upanishads, then you have the Aranyakas, then you have the Brahmanas, then you have the Vedas. I would read the translations and the original. There I found amazing science. I realized that no scholar had studied the astronomy of the Shatapatha Brahmana, which is connected to Yajur Veda, which describes the great agnicayana rite.

I discovered that there was this wonderful astronomy, of the motions of the sun and the moon. Those texts had other implications, such as allowing me to quantify the age of this tradition. If Indians had astronomical knowledge, then you cannot discount the dates that you get from the texts. These dates are 2000, 3000, 3500 BC because of the precession of the earth. The seasons change. And because of the descriptions in the text, they encode this information.

A lot of the knowledge in Indian texts is thought to have come to the rishis in some higher state of consciousness. They didn’t have the physical tools to measure the diameters of the earth or distance to the sun. So how did they do it? Is the mind a tool?

Many of those things they found are true and correct, which is incredible! I think all creativity requires going through the doorway into this infinite potential of consciousness. Whether you’re a businessperson, a scientist, an artist – that’s what you’re trying to get back to. It’s an altered state, and people do it in different ways.

These 18th– and 19th-century European writers would speak of how they were very poor, they worked very hard, people were starving. But it’s a heightened state. That’s when you get ideas. It’s the concept of tapas, suffering. You can’t get knowledge without suffering. If you’re comfortable, it means you’re not doing anything at all. You’re not pushing at the boundaries. The rishis got there through this whole system of tapas and mentorship. It was easy for the ones who were naturally gifted to learn how to do it. Today it’s much harder. But anybody can do it.

Even modern scientists who are the very best, they also connected to this potential within them, through epiphany, if I may use a Christian word. It was a great desire. In Sanskrit, this idea is sankalpa. Kalp means ‘creation,’ and sankalpa means ‘good creation.’ If you really want something, the world changes.

If we are connected at the source, we are the devas. If you really are connected, then what you do changes the world. We are not helpless witnesses.

You’ve done lots of work to show that Hinduism contains profound scientific insights. But Hinduism also has a rich variety of rituals associated with it. How would you respond to those who say that science and rituals are contradictory?

Rites are really what I call sacred theatre. All ritual is a way to excite, surprise, or create astonishment among the participants so that they can get out of their skin, so that they can get out of their normal, hum-drum, routine ways of living. We’re running on ‘automatic’ most of the time. Through these rites, we can then get out of our skin and into a deeper stage of awareness. That is the real purpose of ritual.

It is a process of sacrifice, of letting go of who you were in order to become new. That is rebirth. Life itself is a sequence of rebirths. For some, ritual could be the way to achieve it. But Hinduism is not just ritual. Ritual is sacred theatre. In fact, one could have an amazing epiphany. You can have an epiphany doing something else, or you’re watching a play or a musical performance, and then something clicks. That is sacred theatre. That changes you.

What insights can a Vedic perspective give Western science about big questions like ‘what is consciousness’?

Western science tells us that we are the body. The body is governed by laws of physics. Yet physics has no place for observers. Physics goes through chemistry. Chemistry goes through biology. But then, where does the power of observation come in? Of course there is this naïve view that eventually computers will become self-aware. But I think that’s nonsense.

That takes us to the very heart of the vedas. The Vedas are the science of the atman, atma-vidya. Should we take it for what it claims to be? Can we investigate it? Can it have implications for our own individual journeys? Could it have implications for society, for the world?

Yes, we want to know! What are those implications?

There is disaffection right now in the world. That’s probably a reaction to the excessive materialism which society has pushed on everybody: you are nothing but your body, sensations, pleasure. But maybe that’s not enough. People are still unhappy. Or maybe that makes people unhappy!

Wherever one might be, you can connect to that consciousness. If you are on the search for that connection, then every place is a sacred place. The difference between sacred and profane is this: a sacred place is wherever you are doing something heroic. You have to be a warrior. It’s a dangerous path. It’s a scary path. That’s what dharmakshetra is. It is the battle for oneself. If you are doing that battle, then wherever you are, that is the right place.

So you think it’s possible – or even useful – to integrate Vedic knowledge into Western science? Have Western scientists pushed back against your efforts to do this or accused you of failing to separate ‘religion’ from ‘science’?

Vedic knowledge will provide you amazing perspectives for your research insight. What’s the difference between the greatest scientist and the second- or the third-tier scientist? The greatest scientists are able to step back and think outside of the box. This journey itself provides you the tools to step out of the box. Not only do you get insight into life, but you also get insight into whatever else you might be doing.

I’ve not taken note of anybody who’s carping about what I do. I think it’s worked, to do both. I’ve gotten grants from the National Science Foundation. I’ve published papers in Western journals and Indian journals. I think those scientists are aware of all the Vedic stuff that I’ve done. It’s all out there. These days you can’t hide anything!

There could be some narrow-visioned people in the academy who think that you must only do science, you must be like a horse with blinkers, you must only be on the highway – that we are running with the chariot of science behind us. But if you come across the top-tier scientists, they’re open-minded.

What advice would you give to young scientists who are interested in Vedic knowledge?

Don’t abandon whatever science you’re doing. There’s a famous dialogue in the Bhagavad Purana. Yudhishthira is the eldest of the five Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata story. He goes to Narada, this mythical rishi. He asks, “What is a good person to do in his or her life?” What Narada says is this: “Firstly, be a good human being. Have compassion. Do good work. And whatever your sphere of activity in your life might be, do that to the fullest.”

When you do it to the fullest – whether you’re a scientist, a businessperson, whatever – you will come across a paradox in the belief system which undergirds what your life’s activity is. Whenever you come across a paradox in whatever you are doing, you will be ready to take the leap, the next step.

Vedic knowledge is all universal knowledge. It’s not sectarian. We’re not saying this is only knowledge if you believe in X, Y, or Z, or that you have to convert to something in order to receive it or understand it. As universal knowledge, you can speak to anybody and they will be moved.

Author: Amol and Lauren

Amol is a neuroscientist at Duke University with a penchant for Indian philosophy. Lauren is a PhD candidate in sociology and research fellow for Hindu life at Duke University, vegan, yogini, crazy cat lady, pursuer of wanderlust.

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