An Indian-American computer scientist, a philosopher, a historian and a mathematician, Padma Shri Dr Subhash Kak is known for his contributions to maths, philosophy, computer science and astronomy of ancient India. In an exclusive interview with our Editor-in-Chief Aarti Tikoo, he explains why India holds the key to the questions of artificial intelligence, consciousness and the world’s future.
Aarti Tikoo: You have worked extensively in the field of computers and technology, so my question is: what is consciousness? Is it possible for scientists to create and manufacture computers with consciousness?
Dr. Kak: This topic is extremely important, especially now since we live in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and there are many people who believe that computers will eventually become consciousness. But first, we must know what consciousness is. Consciousness is not a thing. It is a certain property associated with our experience and therefore, from the scientific perspective to deal with it, is not as easy as one imagines. Nevertheless, it is now centre stage in science and generally accepted that it is the frontier of all of science.
Aarti Tikoo: If consciousness is connected to all the aspects of life, is it possible that it is connected with genetics as well? Can you explain it?
Dr. Kak: First, computers are not conscious machines while the brain machine is conscious. The brain machine is created by our genes. I say this as an expression of how the genes create the whole architecture of the body and the brain. It’s how the genes express themselves. And that depends on a variety of things on the environment as also what goes on in the mind. So there is a connection between mind and body, and it is of relevance to so many different fields, including modern medicine. Especially, because modern medicine is facing what is called the crisis of reproducibility. A lot of the research cannot be reproduced, and that’s because the research just does not normally take into account the role that the mind plays in the wellness of the individual.
Aarti Tikoo: Does language have any role in shaping the neurology of humans? Is it possible that languages could be creating different cultures and different consciousnesses?
Dr. Kak: Animals are also conscious, but unlike humans, animals lack rich language. Our mind rehearses/processes a lot of stuff using language. Because of this, our consciousness is influenced by the language that you use. Therefore, one could say that languages and cultures have an influence on consciousness. For example, the Chinese language is a kind of a sign. It’s not language or script which converts words directly into sound. That’s why you can, and you do, have hundreds of languages in China. They use the same signs that offer certain uniformity to the culture. However, this also makes the Chinese look at reality in a way which is different from those cultures where languages are inflected like Indian languages. So there is a relationship that is well recognised in psycholinguistics, although it’s a contested feeling and there is a whole spectrum of opinions on how exactly this functions.
Aarti Tikoo: Can we say that there is Sanskrit or Kashmiri or Bengali or Tamil, or, for that matter, a broader Indian consciousness? Would it be correct to say that there’s something called Indian consciousness?
Dr. Kak: I would say yes. That’s because the Indian subcontinent has had tremendous interaction within — across the languages spoken by the people and the literary language or the language of philosophy, namely Sanskrit. We have huge amounts of text. And there is a certain commonality to all of this. This commonality can be traced to the belief, for example, in that we are more than just bodies. I think this is what makes the Indian cultural area unique and different from other cultural areas.
In other cultural areas, like that of Europe or the Arabian civilizations, you have bodies and you also have souls, but the soul is in the religious understanding. The soul sort of resides in the body, and the body itself is to be viewed completely as something which is controlled by this agent. In modern science, on the other hand, you are primarily just the body because the mind is something that emerges on the brain and this is different from the Indian consciousness area, where the Ishwara and the body, the Ishwara is the enjoyer within. To put it in modern terms, you have the body, you have the mind and you have consciousness. The mind, in contrast to the other superstational areas, is only an instrument. In other superstational areas, the mind is an agent. For example, in the Western tradition, the mind is only an instrument because the true agent is consciousness itself as it gets reflected in the mind.
This was the dominant view in most of Asia and Central Asia, because we know that Sanskrit influenced Central Asia greatly, as also the Slavic world. The Slavs converted to Christianity rather late after 1000 AD or so, and it was a very slow and protracted contest. But now we know that the chief divinity of the Slavs was a four faced divinity and seems to have been borrowed from the idea of Shiva. For example, Shiva is supposed to have five faces, but the fifth is facing upwards. And these four faces of this divinity that the Slavs called Svetovid have a beautiful Sanskrit etymology of width. The meaning of Svetovid is white, or it can also mean light and as we know Shiva as consciousness is also known as light or prakasha. So the four faces of Svetovid are in the north is swaroga which is swarg, on the west is parjanya which is parcunis, in the south is lada which in sanskrit means the earth and on the east is moksha. Well, the north is moksha and east is swarga, so you find that persistence of Sanskrit. This is something that has not been researched very broadly.
Aarti Tikoo: What role has Kashmiri language, Kashmiri Shaivism and Sanskrit played in shaping up the Indian consciousness? Can we even ask this question?
Dr. Kak: Sanskrit is central to all Indian experience and is related to the deepest questions emerging from across all regions of India. In fact, as greater India expanded into Southeast Asia, to a great extent by people from the South, the vehicle was still Sanskrit. So it didn’t really matter which region you came from. The ancient Javanese language for example, or the Balinese have a huge element of Sanskrit vocabulary. From there, it went up to Champa (which is Vietnam), Thailand and Philippines, and all the way to Japan and Korea. There’s also a movement from Kashmir and Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan.
According to the University of Pennsylvania sinologist, a well known scholar named Victor Meyer, this plays a very fundamental role in the shaping of Chinese culture and language. It’s estimated that about 35,000 words of the Chinese language are derived from Sanskrit. For about 1000 years, all the Sanskrit documents, which covered aspects of philosophy and sciences, were translated into Chinese and other Asian languages. There was a whole movement and much of this was done by Kashmiri scholars, such as Kumara Jeev and others who followed him.
Since you mentioned Kashmir Shaivism, people don’t quite realise that even Mahayana Buddhism worships Shiva and one of the most popular worship which is done in Sanskrit even now in China, Japan and all those countries is called Neelkanth dharini. Neel Kanth as we know is the name for Shiva, the blue throated one. This, in fact, is worship by Avalokiteshvara, who is one perfected Bodhisattva. The feminine form of Avalokiteshvara is represented in images all across East Asia. In this worship, Avalokiteshvara himself is depicted as worshipping Shiva, the Neelkanth, as the most compassionate being. Because as the belief goes, Shiva swallowed the poison which emerged out of Samudra Manthan and protected the whole universe. Had that poison spilled on the universe, the universe would have been destroyed.
These may be symbolic expressions, but we see tremendous influence on all of Asia. The fact that Shiva is still worshipped, and Vishnu as well, by the Buddhists is not broadly known. This division between Buddhism and Sanatana Dharma is to a great extent the creation of modern academic Buddhologist or scholars, who were motivated by seeing these two as two different currents. As the great scholar of Indian culture, art and civilisation, Anand Kumara Swamy and his book, Hinduism and Buddhism said: the deeper you go into the study of these, you realise that there is really no difference. So, all of this does belong to what is recognized as Indian consciousness.
Aarti Tikoo: India has been accused of forgetting the distinction between science and pseudoscience, myth and reality, myth and science… Is there a danger of intertwining science and mythology here?
Dr. Kak: Before Christianity, in fact, much before any such came into being, religion was a relationship with nature and perceived reality. For example, the old Greek religion was no different from the Roman, Slavic or even ancient Arabic religion. Contemporary scholars today speak of how these images represented fundamental truths. So religion, from the Latin religion perspective, is what binds and a kind of a social phenomenon that is true of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The same, however, is not true, to some extent, of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma because Sanatana Dharma is really not about confession of a certain belief. It’s about knowledge, whose understanding changes as we grow up or as our relationship with reality deepens. So it’s more about what we do, then what we believe in, because after all, what we believe in is something that is always a mystery… Because, there’s no simplifying this… Because, reality in itself is enigmatic, paradoxical. And this is something that is very well recognized in the entire Vedic tradition. For example, the famous Isha Vasu Upanishad speaks about these poles: Vidya and avidya, materiality and spirit. It believes life is like Shiva’s dance, between these two poles, between living and death, between transition, transformation, and life.
So, the recognition that the Western scientific understanding of reality was limited became very clear with quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, as we know, is the deepest theory in science. It’s the basis of all great stuff that science and technology has done in the last 100 years. You cannot have IC and ICs and computers and modern communication without the knowledge of quantum mechanics. Very few know that one of the founders of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrodinger, an Austrian, was a Vedantin. In his own autobiography, he credits upanishads for his inspiration in arriving at the central notion of quantum mechanics.
This line between science and religion is a line between knowledge and sociology of power. In my view, that is not of relevance to the Indian civilizational area. Because in this, there could be many different schools that one would be connected with, or choose one amongst these for one’s life. India has always been a knowledge centric civilization. As the West and the rest of the world moves towards this objective, you will see that the West will increasingly adopt all of this. For example, yoga is sweeping the entire globe. Whether in cities, towns or villages in Europe, South America, Russia, China or even Saudi Arabia and Iran, you will find yoga studios and people practising yoga in a big way.
Yoga is the technology of self knowledge. It is Hinduism in practice. In fact, Bhagavad Gita speaks of yoga of different kinds. You do not only have Hatha Yoga which is physical asanas, because there is only preparation of the body. There is also Gyana Yoga, Raja Yoga or Karma Yoga… There are various kinds of yoga that you can practice, which bring you to consciousness within you and this consciousness is called Shiva in Kashmir Shaivism.
Kashmir Shaivism is one expression of Vedanta, the very heart of Vedas. Shankara’s Vedanta speaks of how you could look at Jagat as mithya, or illusion and reality being Brahman, which is consciousness. Kashmir Shaivism says that this universe, physical reality, is also an embodiment of consciousness. So it’s Shiva embodied. And therefore, there is a slight difference of focus because you can also say that the idea of illusion is only to emphasise the transitory nature of physical reality, which is certainly true. So these are two different forms of Vedanta. Where in Kashmir Shaivism, we also embrace reality as it is our bodyness, in the Southern tradition of Shankara, there is more emphasis on the journey towards knowledge.
Aarti Tikoo: Is it possible to really draw lines between science and philosophy? Because, a lot of what you really say is both philosophy and science… To me, it seems like philosophy on one hand and science on the other hand.
Dr. Kak: In the Indian tradition of consciousness, we do not make a distinction between science and philosophy. Philosophy is just the interpretive mechanism that we have to understand science. That is true of modern science as well — you have quantum mechanics and then you have interpretations of quantum mechanics, which are philosophical and there can be a lot of debate amongst these interpretations. Likewise, you have the various darshanas within the Vedic thought. And these darshanas look at different aspects of reality, through logic or through yoga or through tatvas which is Sankhya, or through tradition, traditional ritual or traditional categories, and Vedanta itself. You can have others and certainly Kashmir Shaivism, with its focus on consciousness is one of those.
Aarti Tikoo: Why should the younger generation study ancient texts or Indian scriptures? What exactly can they gain from it when we hardly have any jobs related to ancient texts? Why is it necessary?
Dr. Kak: Indian knowledge and tradition is of extraordinary richness. Indian texts, especially the Sanskrit texts, are available in all other world languages, and there are many more that have not been translated. India is not just about religion and bhakti. India is about sciences – from logic to physics, medicine, Ayurveda, animal sciences, geology, or what have you, and certainly other sciences, where architecture and art comes in. Unfortunately with the coming of the British, they shut down the Indian traditional system of education – the pathshalas and other schools that existed. So the Indians, slowly over the years and over the generations, became separated and alienated from their own tradition.
This is of extraordinary richness, and part of it is consciousness, which is also the frontier of modern science. In order to make further advances, I believe Indian insights would still be useful, not just for those who are interested in philosophy, or their personal spiritual growth, but also to scientists as well. In fact, my own research has benefited a lot because I do work in all of these fields. I work on consciousness and quantum mechanics, among others. And I benefited immensely from my understanding of the Indian tradition on this.
Aarti Tikoo: What does it matter what history was… what India was 5,000 years ago? Or what our Scriptures said 5,000 years ago? The young Indians might turn around and ask, how is it relevant to them today? Why should they be interested in this to begin with?
Dr. Kak: We are in the age of AI and beyond AI comes consciousness. For us to be ready to deal with the complexities that this age is going to bring to all of us, because these complexities would be related to the fact that a lot of jobs for which routine work is required will be done by machines in the future, new kinds of jobs or professions or disciplines will have to be created. And they will be created by those who are in touch with the subtleties of the working of consciousness. So I think India will be ahead if we get connected to our own tradition, and it’s ultimately a universal tradition. Our tradition does not distinguish between people, their gender and preferences. It is a tradition of an expansion of the mind, a tradition of relating oneself to the deepest mystery, which asks questions as to who we are, just to step back and see how important all this is.
Take for instance, the US. It is the richest nation that has ever been — not only because of its recent history but because the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. It sucks up the wealth of a lot of the other lands. In this rich country where people live in beautiful houses, 100,000 people last year died of opioid or drug overdose. The reason behind this is that people are extremely unhappy. You could be living in the best of the houses or could be a good looking person or a successful one, but you could still be unhappy because you are nothing but a body! Because that’s what the mainstream media and school system has taught you to be. That’s the paradigm within which the western system operates.
In my view as a scientist and as a scholar of history and Indian tradition, that paradigm is limited and wrong and it’s being slowly replaced by one where consciousness is central to our understanding of reality. We don’t go to all these planets and stars and galaxies which lie beyond our solar system but all of this experience exists in our consciousness. Consciousness is central reality.
Certainly, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing but consciousness. There is also this physical reality — body and consciousness which in the vedic tradition was called vidya and avidya. Vidya is consciousness and avidya is materiality and the Vedas recognise that there are two kinds of knowledge — aparavidya and paravidya.
Aparavidya is the language or the knowledge associated with the things that go through transitions or materiality for which language is an important component for understanding. These are the subjects that we study in the schools and colleges. Paravidya is the knowledge of consciousness. The Vedas say that you must do aparavidya to sharpen your mind followed by paravidya. Paravidya is what would set you free.
I think it’s wonderful. I do wish and hope that more people, irrespective of their background and caste can take to this. Everybody is equal. Each individual is the same Purush. Purush is the embodiment of consciousness within each individual. In Kashmir Shaivism, you have this great slogan — Shivo aham, aham Shiva (I am Shiva). Every human being is fundamentally the same. If we were to throw off these scales of ignorance created out of habit and conditioning and forget our true selves, one would find immeasurable abilities, creativity within ourselves and that’s true of every individual.