is an Indian American computer scientist. He is Regents Professor and a previous Head of Computer Science Department at Oklahoma State University –
Stillwater who has made contributions to cryptography, artificial neural networks, and quantum information.
Kak is also notable for his Indological publications on the history of science, the philosophy of science, ancient astronomy, and the history of
In 2008-2009, he was appointed one of the principal editors for the ICOMOS project of UNESCO for identification of world heritage sites. He is the author
of 12 books which include “The Nature of Physical Reality,” “The Architecture of Knowledge,” and “Mind and Self.” He is also the author of 6 books of
Describe the premise of Mind and Self. How is it it different from other commentaries on the Yoga Sutra? What would you like the reader to take
away from this book?
Since my own research has touched upon many of the elements that go into the Yoga Sutra, I wanted my commentary to be informed by the newest ideas in
science. In many ways, the Yoga Sutra is one of the most important texts of our times for it deals with the mystery of consciousness that has been called
the last frontier of science. One might ask why, in spite of the many advances of physics and psychology, we are no closer to explaining the workings of
mind and its relationship to matter.
I also wished to place the Yoga Sutra within the larger context of Vedic wisdom and to separate the literal from the metaphorical. The Vedas speak of ṛta, cosmic law, but they also argue that Universal Consciousness is beyond things. Thus the special powers described in part 3 of the Yoga Sutra
are insights that can help one master the outside world but do it in a manner that is consistent with science.
I would like the reader of my book to see the Yoga Sutra as a text not just for spiritual awakening but also to reach the wellsprings of one’s creativity.
Yoga is not just about esoteric and other-worldly things; it is to prepare oneself for living one’s life as fully as possible, and I do hope that my
Introduction to the text and the translations have succeeded in communicating this central message.
How does Patañjali’s deconstruction of the mind and consciousness tally with the findings of modern science? What does this tell us about the notion of
Patañjali’s construction of mind is based squarely on the Vedic idea of two selves, one the detached witness and the other the conditioned individual. This
is described in the famous image of two birds on the tree (the body) where one merely looks on whereas the other is eating the sweet fruit. The
bird absorbed in sensory gratification is part of a causal chain, and really not free. Our minds act paradoxically when it comes to questions of freedom
and knowledge. The Kena Upanishad describes this in terms of the riddle: the one who thinks he knows, does not; and the one who does not, does.
Our capacity to obtain knowledge is due to Consciousness, and ignorance is caused by the coverings that are a result of habits or saṃskāras that obscure.
The Self is like a lamp that shines light in the pool of the mind, but this light is scattered in so many different ways by ripples that distort the image.
The purpose of Yoga is to make the pool of the mind clear so that one can reach one’s true self and become creative. These ideas go beyond either
present-day psychology or physics, but both these academic disciplines may be ready for revolutionary new advances.
Let’s also not forget that Erwin Schrödinger claimed that one of the deepest ideas that led him to the discovery of quantum mechanics came to him from the
Upanishads. This idea of Atman = Brahman led him to the notion of superposition of states which is central in quantum theory.
Why is Sāṅkhya integral to any understanding of Yoga and how are the two intertwined?
The Sāṅkhya is about the interplay between consciousness (Puruṣa) and matter (Prakṛti). Matter has attributes (guṇas) of sattva
(transparence), rajas (activity), and tamas (inactivity). Prakṛti is inert when the three guṇas are in a state of equilibrium but when it comes into
contact with Puruṣa, the balance of the guṇas is destroyed, and this causes life to be created. The first to emerge from Prakṛti is mahat, the
cosmic intelligence, and buddhi, the intelligence of the individual.
Out of mahat, the next lower category, ego (ahaṅkāra), is born; and out of the ego are born the individual mind (manas) and
various organs of perception and action. These senses exist in subtle form as tanmātras.
The evolution of Sāṅkhya is both like modern evolution but also different in that it presupposes cosmic intelligence. Modern evolution implicitly uses
intelligence when it speaks of optimization of function by Nature in its drive to select certain forms over others. In modern science, consciousness is an
emergent local property whereas in the Sāṅkhya it is an all-pervading category. In the Sāṅkhya, abstractions such as beauty are universals that are
potential doorways to delve deeper in the nature of reality.
For consciousness to be incorporated into psychology or physics, process signatures of the Sāṅkhyan tanmātras will have to be first found.
Bhairava, 13th Century. Musée Guimet
What does the Trika Sastra of Kashmir Shaivism have in common with Advaita Vedanta and what are the differences?
One of the central doctrines of Kashmir Shaivism is that of Recognition (Pratyabhijña), where one’s conditioned mind is able to recognize the unveiled
Self. I don’t see any fundamental difference between this and Advaita Vedanta and both consider Universal Consciousness to be the primary element of
reality. If there is a difference, it is that Kashmir Saivism takes physical reality as an embodiment of the Self whereas Advaita takes the phenomenal
world to be the working of māyā, the veil of illusion. But if one were to think further about māyā, it makes the conditioned and temporary emerge out of
the womb of the Infinite. In other words, it is the power that makes the causal world emerge out of the transcendent and therefore it represents the
working of the Self.
The difference between Kashmir Shaivism and Advaita Vedanta is aesthetic more than anything else. If there is a tendency in Kashmir Shaivism to embrace
life and beauty, in Advaita Vedanta the corresponding tendency is that of renunciation.
You are the first to use the term "quantum neural computing" which posits that the brain is a machine that reduces the infinite possibilities of a
"quantum-like universal consciousness", which is a consequence of the "recursive nature of reality". Please unpack your philosophy of recursionism for a
Quantum approaches to mind have opened up ideas that were impossible to think of in classical approaches. Consciousness can be seen as an universal function
that is reduced by the brain-mind of the individual.
Recursionism is an idea that is central in Vedic thought. It begins with the dictum that the outer is mirrored in the inner, as in the statement yat piṇḍe tad brahmāṇḍe (as in the cell, so in the cosmos). This expresses the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm and it is this
that makes both outer and inner knowledge possible.
The idea of recursion is expressed in the story of the churning of the ocean which leads to the emergence of gifts and poisons. This churning is not only
mythical history; it is also the story of each person’s life. It tells us that the asuras and the devas reside within each person.
Describe the premise of your book The Architecture of Knowledge. When did you first begin to draw parallels between Vedic epistemology and modern
science and incorporate that into your work?
I started examining Vedic epistemology as well as the philosophy of science in the 1970's which culminated in my book The Nature of Physical Reality in 1986, of which a revised edition appeared just this year. The central idea that I wished to communicate was that
corresponding to the paradox in modern science, seen both in physics and logic, we have the idea of parokṣa of the Upanishads. The
Upanishads tell us that reality cannot be fully described because all descriptions leave out the experiencing self and, therefore, knowledge is of two
kinds: Aparā (lower, linguistic, outer-object based) and Parā (higher, related to the Self). Language is limited, and though it is all we have, it leads to
paroksa. One needs new languages to describe new phenomena, but all this cannot touch the deepest mystery of consciousness.
I wrote The Architecture of Knowledge at the invitation of Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya who was then, about fifteen years ago, editing the
100-volume Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture. The subtitle of this book is Quantum Mechanics, Neuroscience, Computers and Consciousness and this is a more direct examination of the limits of science in dealing with the
puzzle of consciousness.
What can you tell us about the Sphoṭa theory of Bhartṛhari and what light does it shed on modern linguistics and semiotics vis-a-vis Ferdinand du Saussure?
Describe the concept of Śabda Brahman.
The sphoṭa theory speaks of three parts of speech: paśyantī, madhyamā, and vaikharī, which are the vision, its enlargement in linguistic components, and
the complete utterance, respectively. One may also speak of the reverse of this in the comprehension of speech. But really the sphoṭa idea applies to all
human activity, including societal relationships and different kinds of creative expression and therefore is the foundation of semiotics. Ferdinand du
Saussure saw the applicability of these ideas to a whole range of human sciences including linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.
Remember that there is always a gap between the vision and the final utterance, because the speaker must use phrases that belong to other contexts, and
this is especially so for any new vision and experience. This is where poetry comes in, because the poet uses different poetic devices to create a feeling
that takes one beyond the words. The deepest spiritual experience is a part of śruti (what is heard) and not smṛti (what is remembered).
Śabda Brahman is to follow another path of inquiry where the Source is seen as primal sound that permeates the universe. This can lead to insights not only
in the workings of sound within the mind, but also in the very creation of the cosmos out of this sound. It is important to remember that these all
constitute complementary views.
What do Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī, Bhartṛhari’s Sphoṭa Śāstra and the Śiva Sūtras (Maheśvara Sūtras) tell us about the interlocking structure of speech,
cognition and reality?
Pāṇini and Bhartṛhari discussed possibilities of the uses language can be put to even though we know it can only be Aparā Vidyā. The Maheśvara Sutras was a
rearrangement of the Sanskrit letters so that it was easy for Pāṇini to frame his grammatical rules. But the idea is deeper: sounds and words can be
doorways to deep intuition. Grammatical reflection on words (vyākaraṇa) can also help one understand reality and this becomes a path that is in addition to
the six grand darśanas of Mīmāṃsā, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, and Vedānta.
The sophistication of Indic ideas on speech, cognition, and reality is amazing. They are informed by this central intuition that Reality is transcendent,
and therefore beyond description by words, and can only be apprehended intuitively. Nevertheless, one can by the use of language, sharpen one’s insight
making it possible to make that intuitive leap beyond which one’s insight is personal and inexpressible.
Lokapala relief at the Shiva temple,Tropenmuseum
What are the Matṛkās? What light do they shed on the higher, mystical aspects of the Sanskrit language?
There are two ways to consider reality. The first is the analytical way as in the six darśanas; the second is that of synthesis using language. At the
basic level, the Matṛkās help us see a picture that complements that of Māyā. Just as the power of Māyā is to put a covering on transcendent reality, the
Matṛkās do the opposite task of unveiling. The Matṛkās are the womb of Sanskrit letters that make it possible, to the extent that it can be done, to unveil the
mystery of Reality. The path of the Matṛkās shows how the power of sound and words becomes embodied that leads to the opening of the inner doorways of
perception and cognition.
As creators of meaning, the Matṛkās are visualized as goddesses. The Ṛgveda speaks of seven mothers who oversee the preparation of Soma and there is a
famous Harappan seal which shows seven women who are presumably goddesses. Classical temples have many instances of sapta-matṛkā carvings. The
Devi-Māhātmya adds one more to the list and thus speaks of aṣṭa-matṛkā.
Why are the Vedas so radically different from the Upanishadic canon? When and Why did Indic civilization evolve from rituals, invocations and liturgy to
the deep metaphysics of the Upanishads?
The Vedas appear to be different from the Upanishads only because they have not been studied well and because they use symbolism that is not clear to most
people. In truth, the Upanishads are just the description of the heart of the Vedas in simple dialogues and images. The rituals and the invocations of the
Vedas are merely preparation to comprehend the mystery. One doesn’t need either the ritual or the invocation at the end, but they can be useful in showing
the way at the start.
There is a change of emphasis as we go from the Vedic to the Purāṇic period. In the Vedas there is greater emphasis on the mediatory gods like Indra (the
lord of the senses) whereas in the Purāṇic period, the worship is of the solar deities like Viṣṇu and Śiva and the Goddess. This appears to be reflective
of changes in society in which the political order transformed from one where there was more agency at the level of the individual to that of kingdoms.
The Purāṇic Śiva subsumed the roles of Vedic Indra and Rudra and the Goddess, as personification of Nature and Time, became the agency through which one
approached either Viṣṇu or Śiva. The Moral Order was represented by Viṣṇu and Consciousness (and thereby the experiencing Self) by Śiva (who is Īśvara, the
Enjoyer). Even Ādi Śaṅkara, who spoke of the one Absolute, approached the mystery though the Goddess as evidenced by his composition of the Saundarya
Ellora Caves Matrikas
The academy has posited a dichotomy of sorts between 'Patriarchal-Vedic-Brahmanical' - the mainstream and often conservative stream of Hinduism and the
'Feminine-Tantric-Shakta' - associated with transgressive spirituality, ascetic-yogic and taboo practices often frowned upon by the former. Some Hindus do not agree with the binary while others provide quotes from Abhinavagupta himself who derided the Vaidikas on
more than one occasion. What are the defining characteristics of the two streams and what sets them apart from each other? What is your understanding of
The dichotomy, which is simplistic, arose out of the efforts of the Indian interlocutors to represent the tradition in binary terms that are close to the
cognitive categories of the West. It is indeed true that the tantric path is called the left-hand way in the Indian tradition and in that sense it is the
opposite of the right-hand way. But it is also recognized that all journeying involves suffering and tapas which, in its very nature, is a consequence of
transgression. Abhinavagupta’s criticism of the Vaidika practitioner is the critique of an orthodoxy that does not see beyond ritual for it is the nature
of things for creative action to become the dead hand of meaningless habit.
Even the Vedic sacrifice involves transgression of the existing order to establish another and in that sense there is no way that is entirely right-handed.
Our ordinary conception of who we are is determined by name and form (nāmarūpa), so the inner journey requires challenging most basic beliefs related to
personal and social selves.
The true Vedic way is an open way that is capable of infinite innovation and in that sense Tantra is the very heart of this way. Tantra is the exploration
of the structure of consciousness; it is to turn oneself inside out so to speak, and it is the path of the warrior, a scary path and difficult for someone
from a tradition that is bound only by a prescriptive moral order, as is true of Western religions, to understand.
One needs to travel to the deepest layers of our being wherein spring our desires, some of which are primal and others that are shaped by culture and
experience. Since name and form belong to the realm of time and change, this path is that of the Goddess. This path may be quick, but it is filled with
danger since it involves deconstructing one’s self and arriving at a new synthesis.
Our inner world is like a jungle with its attendant beasts and many kinds of mortal dangers. To travel through it safely requires much preparation which is
why the left-handed way is not the way of the common folk. This journey needs guidance from someone who has been there before and it should not be
undertaken by one who is not prepared. The Tantric way is not for the faint of heart.
The Vedic sage Śvetāśvatara asks in his Upaniṣad whether time (kāla) or nature (svabhāva), or necessity (niyati) or chance (yādṛcchā), or Puruṣa is the
primary cause of this reality and he deconstructs the nature of the experienced self in the shape of a yantra. The Tantric way is a part of the Vedas
because the Gods and the Goddesses as well as the Asuras are a part of our consciousness. It is just that the decoding of the Vedic system in terms of a
modern vocabulary has not been done.