Why Vedas are critical for modern world
Vedas solves issues which only now world is discovering
This is the second and concluding part of an interview with Subhash Kak, a famous Indologist on Vedic sciences and mathematics. The first part can be read here).
Q. 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)?
A. There is whole lot 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 BC. 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.
Q. What are the parallels between Indian and European mythology?
A. 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 Vedas are original to India.
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 Herakies.
There are still deeper connections, and these have been examined by the scholar Georges Dumdzil in a series of fascinating books in Rome, the rajbrahmin dichotomy of India was paralleled by the rexflamen 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. Dumezil 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 Plaster 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!
Q. If there 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.
A. 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 1900 BC.
Q. 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 1500 BC, but to 3000 BC. What is the impact of this?
Q. Well, if not 3000 BC, certainly prior to 2000 BC. 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.
Q. Your recent book with George 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?
A. 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 BC. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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-yearold tradition was dying because they couldn't afford the rituals any more.
A. 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.
Q. 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. 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 is 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 to the sun were paralleled by the 108 beads of the rosary for a symbolic spiritual journey from the normal state to one of illumination.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. In particular, I am amazed, as a layman, by the evidence that Sayana, 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.
A. 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 skeptic, 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. You also suggest 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 BC.
A. Oh yes, all this is well established and well known, as also the Indian development of mathematical logic.
Q. 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.
A. My work has been received most enthusiastically in scholarly articles 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 toe 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!
Q. How has your work in the history of science affected your research in computing science?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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 schoolbooks 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!
Q. Is self-image, then, sufficient reason for us to explore the past?
A. It could be a sufficient reason for some. For others, it is one of the many impulses that guides them in their personal journeys.
Q. Is there something that your Web readers can do to take some of this research forward? Any references or other suggestions?
A. 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.
Q. Any messages from you for your diasporic readers?
A. Pay attention to Indian and world history, there is much to be learned from the past. Also go to the spring wells 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 wonderous drama of our times!
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