Science and Spirituality: Subhash Kak
In conversation with Ruchi Kak
Science and spirituality have a deep connection. The origin of the cosmos and the mystery of life has kept scientists and spiritualists occupied for centuries. While mainstream science is just starting to delve into the workings of the universe at the metaphysical level, the eastern spiritualists have written much on the purpose of life, explaining that the answer is wrapped up within the illusory power of maya. We can discover this power through knowledge which is obtained by reflecting on ourselves, by going within to unlearn the habits of common experience.
Subhash Kak has spent a lifetime to bridge this gap between science and spirituality; “All my work is an attempt to show that there is no fundamental difference between science and spirituality. Indeed, science itself is understood in consciousness. The ultimate mystery is universal.”
Dr. Subhash Kak is Regents Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. He completed his B.E from Regional Engineering College, Srinagar (Presently National Institute of Technology, Srinagar) and Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. His research has spanned the fields of information theory, cryptography, neural networks, and quantum information. He is the inventor of a family of instantaneously trained neural networks that have been used in a variety of artificial intelligence applications. He is also a Vedic scholar and archaeoastronomer. His discovery of a long-forgotten astronomy of ancient India, has been called "revolutionary" and "epoch-making" by scholars. In 2008-2009, he was appointed as one of the principal editors for the ICOMOS project of UNESCO, for identification of world heritage sites. The Pantheon project of MIT lists him as one of the 33 most famous computer scientists of all time.
Subhash Kak is also the author of 20 books which include The Astronomical Code of the ?gveda, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, The Gods Within and several books of poetry in English and Hindi. His autobiography The Circle of Memory, covers a broad canvas about his childhood in Kashmir, his scientific career in India and the West, and how he became a part of a new movement trying to develop a science of consciousness. He has proposed the principle of veiled nonlocality to explain the nature of our cognitions. Interestingly, he calls all of his discoveries “accidental” and “spontaneous.” He is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant polymaths of our time.
1. Your research on cryptography, artificial neural networks, quantum information and Indology are path-breaking and offer invaluable insight into the workings of the world. What is your secret to being such a powerhouse of creativity?
I believe creativity requires getting out of the box and the way it works is counter-intuitive. Some of my best scientific insights just came to me, as if from nowhere. My work on the discovery of instantaneously trained neural networks is an example of a creative idea coming in a flash. Neural networks are models of how the brain works and are very important in science, technology and finance. I was teaching a class and a student asked me an obvious question that I hadn’t thought about. So, in that moment of panic or heightened awareness, I had to come up with an answer and I said something which turned out to be that discovery!
In my book The Prajna Sutra I talk about intuition. The sub-title of this book is “Aphorisms of Intuition”. I was flying from Washington DC to Houston, and the previous evening I had given a talk about the Vedas. During the flight, the stewardess came to me with some tea and suddenly I experienced an epiphany in which these eighteen sutras (aphorisms) came to me.
Now, why aren’t we creative more often? As individuals, we mostly operate on an autopilot mode and follow scripts in our conversations and thinking. Education and culture conspire to make us see reality in a specific way. While this is great to help us navigate through the world, it boxes in our thoughts that prevents us from seeing things as they are. Creativity is about getting out of the box that is defined by neurobiology and our habits.
Just as medieval explorers were looking to conquer unknown lands, modern technology is about conquering the inner spaces of the human mind. The media, the films, and TV are trying to chart out our inner spaces so that they can sell things to us. Most people simply repeat what they hear on TV and radio. And then there is the issue of neurobiology. According to latest research, the brain makes up its mind a few hundred milliseconds before we believe we made the decision or are even aware that we have made one. This is analogous to sitting backwards in a chariot where the vista unfolds after the chariot has already moved forward.
There is also a paradox at the basis of creative search: you cannot see things if you don’t know what they are; you have to know in order to see, but in order to know, you have to see.
There are incredible psychological insights in experiencing creativity, especially when it emerges from a dance of the opposites which expand one’s mind and help in thinking outside of the box. These opposites are described by polarities such as Shiva and Shakti, freedom and materiality, Eros and Thanatos, and Yin and Yang.
There are two principles which guide us in our life: morality and freedom. The principle of moral law is expressed through Vishnu in our literature, whereas the principle of freedom is Shiva. In order to get out of the box you have to dance with Shiva- but this dance is dangerous because freedom without morality can lead to ruin.
2. The ultimate objective of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is to create machines which function like human beings. The more technology develops, the more human labor is rendered unnecessary — and millennials could be the first generation to duel the droids for jobs. What advice do you have for us – with the advent of AI?
Most researchers in AI do believe that eventually machines would be conscious just like us, which I do not personally agree with. But even if machines do not become conscious, since most of what we do is machine-like, most jobs will indeed disappear. For instance, in the teaching profession, you will not need as many professors for most lectures can be replaced by online courses. If you look at the transportation sector in America, 40% of American jobs involve some form of transportation – these will be the first to go with the advent of self-driven cars. AI will lead to job-losses in every area of employment.
Society will have to adjust to loss of jobs. In the short term, there will be conflict and the current problems in Europe are a manifestation of that but in the long term the population must go down.
Some thinkers are proposing that everybody should be given a guaranteed minimum wage eliminating the need to work to earn a living. This is a terrible idea because it will kill initiative and lead to a dystopic future.
3. The Copenhagen Interpretation is an inside-out view of the universe, where reality is constructed out of the perceptions of the experimenter. The Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) supporters believe that the Universe itself has its own wave function that evolves in a deterministic way. These theories seem to have influences from eastern philosophies. Which one of these two theories do you believe to be true and is it possible to understand reality through mainstream science?
You are right! The two interpretations are similar to certain philosophies that emerged in India. In fact, 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! Schrodinger credits the slogan ayam atma brahma (or this atman is brahman, from the Upanishadic Mahavakya) for inspiring him to the idea of superposition which is central to the theory.
The phrase atman is brahman is saying, quite simply, that the individual self is the world self. The standard understanding of quantum theory is through the Copenhagen Interpretation and it turns out to be quite like Vedanta. It views consciousness as being apart from matter.
On the other hand, the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) supporters believe that the mathematics which describes quantum theory is the primary reality. In this view, human observers are secondary, without any true freedom.
I must add that it is impossible to fully understand reality through science. Reality is intuitive. If one views knowing as a linguistic dialogue with oneself, then this dialogue must make use of concepts related to things. But knowing isn’t anything about a thing for it takes place in the conscious mind. It is an intuitive flash.
The Vedas classify knowledge in two ways: the para, the higher or unified and the apara, the lower or dual. The higher knowledge, para, is about the experiencing self, whereas the lower knowledge, apara, is about things. The para appears to lie beyond scientific theory. In my view, the Copenhagen Interpretation offers the more persuasive understanding of reality.
4. A study of hagiographical literature shows that advanced yogis have been able to decode universal truths through self-realization and yoga. Astral time travel, changes of meta-physical states, telepathy, premonition, and an expansive ability to view the universe from a birds-eye point of view are commonly observed across biographies. How close is modern Science today in understanding the cosmic self?
For a long time, physics was only focused on objects and this culminated in classical physics. Now the question as to who the observer is, is being addressed and this overlaps with the concerns of the yogi. Some scientists believe consciousness arises because of the complexity of the interconnections of the brain and that is all there is to it. On the other hand, the Vedic texts claim to be the atmavidya, the “science of self” or “consciousness science.” They say that the foundational ground of reality is consciousness. According to the Vedas you can obtain uncommon knowledge through introspection, by travelling into the inner spaces of an individual’s mind.
If it were possible to establish this to the satisfaction of discerning people, that would be the greatest revolution in history. Mainstream science’s acceptance of the Vedic view, would mean that the foundations on which modern society is based are incomplete. It would mean that life needs to be lived differently, schools need to emphasize something else and maybe this could lead to a new golden age.
5. Erwin Schrodinger’s cat experiment and Young’s double-split experiment contribute to a perplexing understanding of modern science. In Young’s experiment it is almost as if the electron does not wish for the experimenter to know how it has travelled. How close is quantum theory today in its understanding of the observer?
Quantum physics cannot explain the observer. There are two schools of thoughts: the first one says that the observer is forever outside of physics. Purists, who are looking for a unified mathematical theory, are unhappy with this view. The other one maintains that the only thing that exists is mathematics and everything else is just a trace of events, and this includes consciousness.
I personally believe that physics is close to a crisis point. For people in the technological world, the physical world constitutes the only reality. If you follow that conception to its logical conclusion, then humans (after their inner-spaces have been totally controlled) along with machines (which would be able to mimic the inner spaces of the humans) will function the same way, and there is no real meaning to life.
6. For decades, historians thought Sumer in southern Mesopotamia to be the cradle of civilization. Conventional scholarship held that Aryan civilization came to India by way of invasions from the north. But in your book, “In Search of the Cradle of Civilization” you show that there was no Aryan invasion, and that India, not Sumer, is the cradle of civilized humanity. Could you share a few highlights from your work presented in this book?
The concept of invading hordes of Aryans conquering northern India around 1500 BC arose in the nineteenth century for a variety of reasons. Linguists had established that north Indian, Iranian, and most European languages were structurally related and belonged to the same family, which was given the name Indo-European. The question then arose: how are these languages similar? A homeland was postulated and it was assumed that the residents of this homeland spoke a common language called “proto-Indo-European” (PIE), which was the ancestor to the historically known ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and so on.
However, astronomical references in the Vedic literature refer to events in India as early as the fourth millennium BC. The Puranas remember migrations out of India; such migrations are invoked by some to explain the reference to Vedic gods in treaties between kings amongst the Mitanni; but the supporters of the Aryan invasion theory see these references as traces of the migratory path of the Aryans into India. The Aryan invasion theory was a way through which the English could appropriate India’s past itself and continue with colonization of India and claim that they were like the earlier invaders. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization challenges these notions to establish a more nuanced view of the ancient world. The book didn’t discount ancient migrations; it claimed that the Aryan invasions of the second millennium BC were not possible for the Aryans know of no land but India and the astronomical references require that if there were large scale migrations into India, these must be older than six or seven thousand years ago.
7. In your book, “The Gods Within”, you have looked at the Vedic system from the perspective of neuroscience and suggest that Vedic gods represent elements of the “structure of consciousness.” Could you please elucidate this concept for our readers?
In patients that have undergone brain trauma, we see cases of alexia – where they lose the capacity to read, because a certain part of the brain has been damaged, even though they have perfect eye-sight and are able to see the letters. But, interestingly many of these patients can still write. This is called alexia without agraphia. This is incredible because this means these capacities are to a degree independent.
The Vedas refer to these capacities as the devas. The cognitive doors to consciousness (devas) and the capacities related to materiality (asuras) are all within us. We are free to choose to be an asura or a deva or a combination of the two. The Vedas express this in the Sanskrit sentence – aham brahmasmi – “I am Brahman” or "I am the Infinite Reality." In other words, the universe is here for us, to create it in whatever way we want to create it.
Still, to a certain extent, we are like a machine – but it’s a machine not in physical spacetime. We are not entirely in the brain, for consciousness as awareness is larger than our physical self, although thoughts are material vibrations in the brain. Who perceives cannot be a thing, it has to be a part of something else. Is there a world which is connected to itself outside of the space time we are normally in? I don’t know, but it does appear so if we accept the accessibility to uncommon knowledge.
Here’s evidence that seems to support the view that consciousness can provide extraordinary knowledge. The first quantitative estimate of the speed of light is seen in Indian Vedic scholar Sayana’s commentary on the Rig Veda written in the 14th century. It says that sun light travels 2,202 yojanas in the time span of a nimishardha (half a nimesha). When converted to modern units, the speed equals 186,000 miles per second, which is the correct value. The speed of light was first measured in the West only in the late 17th century. So how could the Indians have known it - for there is no evidence that Indians had instruments that could make such a measurement? If you are a sceptic, you’ll say it is just a coincidence. 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.
Yoga Sutra 3:26-28 states that through samyama (concentration and unbroken mental absorption) on the sun, moon, and pole star, we can gain knowledge of the planets and stars. Sutra 3:33 clarifies, saying: "Through keenly developed intuition, everything can be known." Highly developed intuition is called pratibha in yoga. It is accessible only to those who have completely stilled their mind, focusing their attention on one object with full intensity.
8. In your book, “The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda”, you write about a discovery you made about a long-lost astronomy of the Vedic texts. Could you share with us some of the fascinating aspects of your research on Archaeoastronomy? Also, what is the significance of the number 108 as per Vedic literature?
In November 1993, I was reading the New Yorker magazine and came across an essay on how the sun and the moon are similar in size when viewed from the earth. The moment I read it I had this overwhelming feeling that it had something to do with the Rig Veda. I rushed to my study, opened the Rig Veda and looked at its contents and soon discovered that the organization of the Rig Veda coded aspects of the motions of the sun and the moon.
Researching this further, I discovered that many rituals of the Vedic period were a dramatic representation of these motions. I wrote about these discoveries in my book The Astronomical Code of the ?gveda. I also discovered that the rishis had found that the sun and moon are 108 times their respective diameters from the earth. This pleased me a lot for this knowledge lay forgotten for over 3000 years.
Mirroring the outer in the inner, if you go from Earth (which represents your body), the inner Sun (or divinity) is 108 units away. When you take a mantra and repeat it 108 times, you are making a symbolic journey from Earth (body) to the deity or lamp of consciousness. Each time we chant another mantra as our mala beads slip through our fingers, we are taking a step towards our own inner Sun.
9. When did you last visit Kashmir and in your opinion what is the future of Kashmir? What is the word for “consciousness” in Kashmiri?
I last visited Kashmir in 1986 as a UNDP visitor to the engineering college. Kashmir is a heartachingly beautiful place and it is sad that it is no longer at peace. But the turmoil in Kashmir is a part of what is happening in the general Islamic world. I do not see a resolution to the problem of Kashmir until the worldwide revolt of Islam against modernity is resolved.
Consciousness in Kashmiri is chitta-shakti and there is an amazing, thousand-year old Kashmiri book on this subject called the Yoga Vasishtha. It is the deepest philosophy narrated within a web of frame stories that could also be seen as a novel. In my opinion, it is the most astonishing novel ever written and a definite must-read.
10. Hinduism has given us the concept of Brahman, which unites the entire universe in a single transcendental reality and is hidden behind a materialistic veil or “illusory energy” we see in the world. We are asked to meditate on the aspect of self to unlearn what we have learned in this material life. This knowledge of internal self or soul is referred to as Consciousness. Has Meditation helped you to bridge the gap between understanding science and spirituality?
Meditation is dhyana, which means “attention”. But if you are paying attention to the wrong things, then it doesn’t really help you. What is attention? The general idea is you empty your mind. As a little boy, growing up in Kulgam, I asked my father “How do I meditate?” He said: “Sit still and think of nothing.” But this is difficult to do. Mind is a vessel, and how can you empty out this vessel? Even if you did, what would that really mean? So, thinking of nothing does not mean what it appears to say at the surface.
If you look at the essence of Indian thought -- let’s say Yoga or Vedanta -- it is generally accepted that everything is in the mind and that the material world is transient. The secret of the Vedic way is expressed with the greatest clarity in a philosophy that comes from Kashmir. According to this system, which is called Kashmir Shaivism, the world exists in our mind but it also exists outside. Materiality and consciousness are two complementary aspects of reality. If you say the body doesn’t exist, you are missing out. On the other hand, if following mainstream science, you say that consciousness is just a trace, then that’s also not true. Both aspects are a part of the mystery. This may appear counterintuitive but that is so because this mystery cannot be communicated in neat logical categories.
The Upanishads proclaim “neti, neti” which means “not this, not this”, which points to the limitations of language and symbols. My work is an attempt to validate the deep intuition that the difference between science and spirituality can be bridged.
| Author, story-teller, portrait photographer, travel and yoga enthusiast.
Ruchi, believes in the power of story-telling as a way to introduce the next-generation of Kashmiri Pundits t o its “collective consciousness”. She is interested in learning more about “Millennial Kashmiris” and their interpretation of the ever-evolving Kashmiri culture in today’s global context. Through her own experiences, she feels it is up to the millennials to keep the culture vibrant and valid.
She is a Senior Technical Writer and her career combines her interest in writing, with information architecture and content strategy. You can connect with Ruchi Kak through her profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ruchikak
Enlightening. There is so much to learn still. Informative and thought provoking.
Added By Maharaj Dhar
Masterpiece. Compliments to the interviewer and interviewee. Thanks to Shehjar.
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