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Interview/ Dr Subhash Kak
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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
ftp://www.ee.lsu.edu/pub/kak provide links to some of his
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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",
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
It could be a sufficient reason for some. For others, it is one
of the many impulses that guides them in their personal
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!
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