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Subhash Kak in Conversation

by Vikram Zutshi July, 2016


Subhash Kak 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 mathematics.

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 verse.

Vikram Zutshi: 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?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: 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 Self?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: Why is Sāṅkhya integral to any understanding of Yoga and how are the two intertwined?

Subhash Kak: 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 Musée Guimet

Bhairava, 13th Century. Musée Guimet

Vikram Zutshi: What does the Trika Sastra of Kashmir Shaivism have in common with Advaita Vedanta and what are the differences?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: 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 lay reader.

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: 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?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: 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.

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: 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?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Shiva Tropenmuseum

Lokapala relief at the Shiva temple,Tropenmuseum

Vikram Zutshi: What are the Matṛkās? What light do they shed on the higher, mystical aspects of the Sanskrit language?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Vikram Zutshi: 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?

Subhash Kak: 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 Lahari.

Ellora caves Matrikas

Ellora Caves Matrikas

Vikram Zutshi: 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 Tantra?

Subhash Kak: 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.

Subhash Kak

by Subhash Kak

July, 2016

Vikram Zutshi

by Vikram Zutshi

July, 2016

About Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is Regents Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. His current research is in the theories of neural networks and quantum information. He has also worked on archaeoastronomy and history of science and on art. He coined the term quantum neural computing which is a theory of consciousness that is partly classical and partly quantum. In this theory, neural networks do conscious and pre-conscious processing whereas the virtual particles associated with the quantum dynamics of the brain are the ground for the unconscious. HIs books include Mind and Self and The Nature of Physical Reality.

His research has spanned the fields of information theory, cryptography, neural networks, and quantum information. He developed the theory of d-sequences for applications to computing and cryptography and he has worked on a variety of problems on data and network security. He is the inventor of a family of instantaneously trained neural networks (for which he received a patent) for which a variety of artificial intelligence applications have been found. He has argued that brain function is associated with three kinds of language: associative, reorganizational, and quantum.

He was the first to look for information metric for a quantum state over thirty years ago. His work on quantum information includes the only all-quantum protocol for public-key cryptography. He has also contributed to quantum computing and proposed a new measure of information for quantum systems. He has also shown how biological memories could have a quantum basis and he has obtained new Bell-type inequalities for quantum mechanics. This work as well as his proposed resolution of the twin paradox have received considerable attention in the popular press.

About Vikram Zutshi

Vikram Zutshi is a writer-producer-director based in Los Angeles. After several years in indie film and network TV production, then a stint as Creative Executive at 20th Century Fox and later as VP, International Sales/Acquisitions at Rogue Entertainment, he went solo and produced two feature films before transitioning into Directing. His debut feature was filmed at various points along the two thousand mile US-Mexico border and has since been globally broadcast.

He is a passionate Yogi and writes frequently on Buddhism, Shaivism, Sacred Art, Culture and Cinema. As a photojournalist, Vikram often travels on expeditions to SE Asia and Latin America and is involved with a number of charities that empower and educate street children in India, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam and Indonesia.

He is currently prepping Urban Sutra - a TV series about the transformative effects of Yoga in strife-torn communities and Darshana: The Aesthetic Experience in Indian Art, a feature documentary on Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Art.

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