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A Conversation with Subhash Kak - Interview

A Conversation with Subhash Kak  - Interview

Venkatesh G. Rao
March 28, 2000
Title: A Conversation with Subhash Kak  - Interview
Author: Venkatesh G. Rao
Publication: http://www.sulekha.com/cgi-bin/column.cgi?resource=wa_kak
Date: March 28, 2000

Prof. Subhash Kak, acclaimed poet, historian and computer scientist, is one of those rare people who go beyond merely having a broad perspective of knowledge, to actually contributing to knowledge in a variety of fields. He has published several collections of poetry, of which the latest are The Secrets of Ishbar in English and Ek Taal, Ek Darpan in Hindi. He has published extensively in computer science and ancient history, and is the author of several scholarly articles and popular expositions on both subjects. In this column, Prof. Kak talks about the controversies and issues in ancient Indian history. (For an overview of the main elements of the controversy, read my earlier column, The Aryan Invasion Theory and the Common Man.)

Prof. Kak, let's begin with an article in TOI, Feb. 27th, "Whose history is it anyway?" which says

"While the controversy rages on over the withdrawal of two volumes of the Towards Freedom series by the Indian Council Historical Research (ICHR), this is not the first time that the perceptions of the government of the day has come into conflict with the perspective of historians.  While ICHR maintains that it is within its rights to review the  volumes, the editors, Sumit Sarkar and K N Pannikar, peeved that their volumes have been withdrawn from publishers Oxford University Press, allege that the saffron brigade at ICHR is trying to "invent" history."

Now for the question: Indian History is obviously a political battleground at the moment, whether ancient, medieval or modern. Restricting ourselves to ancient history, from a layman's viewpoint, if the establishment historians like Thapar and Pannikar have an obvious socialist bias, the revisionist historians appear to have a nationalist-chauvinist bias. If the matter is obviously not settled in academia, then how can you demand that school textbooks be rewritten? Wouldn't it be wiser to heed Russell's sentiment that when the experts disagree, the common man had best keep an open mind?  Shouldn't the textbooks simply add your theories to  the several they already mention, rather than  present it as the right theory?

SK: I believe it is more a question of process than details. All history is contentious. In the United States there has been much feuding about how to present the treatment of (American-)Indians and slavery. But there is a fundamental different in process. In the United States there is no federal authority that dictates what is "correct history." History is one, or more than one, view of events past. History in the West is in a process of continual revision, and that is the way it should be. What is published depends on the judgment of the publishers and other scholars. And these judgments change.

One of the worst things that was done in the Nehru-Indira years was the establishments of entities such as ICHR, ICSSR, and NCERT. These were modeled after Soviet originals, forgetting that the history of these originals-- notorious for rearranging the past to suit the present, not only in books but also in photographs-- was ugly. In history, we should have a multiplicity of perspectives and the government should have no role in that. My advice to the government would be to abolish these entities and replace them with a peer-reviewed system of grants to fund new projects.

To view the academic wars in India in terms of the dichotomy of socialist versus nationalist-chauvinist is simplistic. The problem is that one group of historians had exclusive official patronage for a long, long time. They are upset that they have lost their control of the gravy train. But this does not mean that they cannot publish their results. They have as much access to publishing houses and academic journals as their opponents. Let it be a battle of ideas in which the government has no role. Arraigned against the old-style Marxist and colonial historians are a range of views. Many of the revisionists are Europeans and Americans, so by no means is this a nationalist enterprise.

Just who should be allowed to decide what is written as history? Should schoolteachers choose from textbooks written by competing historians? Left to the politicians, we have cases like Laloo Yadav and Jayalalitha writing themselves into the history books, or Shivaji getting a huge chunk of school kids attention in Maharashtra.

SK: There is no single authority that decides what is good history, just as there is no single authority that decides what is good science. Sometimes valuable advances are made by outsiders: Albert Einstein was a patent clerk and Arnold Toynbee was an amateur. But Associations of scholars and educators should do the choosing of textbooks.  A good teacher may use one primary reference, but will recommend other books, with different perspectives, as supplementary reading.

Just so our readers can get an idea about the controversy, let me ask for your expert opinion of the quality of the evidence in favor of revising history. Leaving aside Vedic evidence for a moment, how strong is the evidence that the Ghaggar was a mighty river that began drying up around 1900 BC? Are the alternatives suggested in Afghanistan credible "Sarasvatis?" Also  "no break in the archeological record" seems like a negative argument -- is there strong positive evidence that modern Indian culture is an evolution of Harappan culture? Couldn't an immigrant Aryan culture have mingled in so gradually that you cannot detect any "breaks?"

SK: In considering the ancient world, we must depend on the experts. And the primary experts here are the archaeologists. They look at the artifacts, art, botanical and agricultural evidence, human remains and so on to determine break or continuity in culture. The archaeologists have reached a consensus that there is no break in culture from the Harappan period to the later historical period. This consensus is supported by the textual evidence from India.

The reason why the Sarasvati of the Rigveda could not  be the Afghanistani river is that the text clearly identifies it as flowing from the mountains to the sea, and the Afghanistani river ends up in a lake. It is also called naditama, the greatest river, a term that could hardly be applied to the Afghanistani stream. That Sarasvati (Ghaggar) had dried up by 1900 BC is established by several pieces of evidence. People start moving away from this area around this time and small settlements start appearing in what was the river bed.

Could the immigration of "Aryans" into Harappa have taken place in such small groups that they intermingled with the host population? Well if that happened then they would have adopted the host language, just as we Indians have adopted English in America.

Are there any other plausible theories, such as disease brought along by a small group of immigrants wiping out the locals, similar to the way European diseases were a huge factor in wiping out native American populations?

SK: I have not come across any theories by scholars on this and I know why. If such a thing had happened there would have been no trace of cultural continuity. Furthermore, the genetic evidence based on mitochondrial DNA suggests that the Indic and the European populations broke off at least 10,000 years ago!

Moving on to evidence in the Vedas, Puranas and the Epics, it seems like this evidence is truly crucial for identifying the IVC people with post Vedic Aryans. What, in your opinion, are the two or three strongest concrete clues that ancient literature provides in favor of there being no Aryan invasion or immigration. How much can you trust the largely oral tradition of the Vedas?

SK: The Vedic and post-Vedic texts speak of no geography outside that of India. At the same time, there is astronomical evidence in these texts that takes you back to at least 4th millennium BC. If you put these two facts together the only inference that can be drawn is that the Vedic people were present in India since at least about the 4th millennium BC.

The Vedic texts are believed not to have suffered any interpolations because of separate books of indices that describe the contents and the number of syllables, the meter and so on for each hymn. Further, there are quotations from the hymns in other texts. So there are several checks. The idea that the Vedic texts were written down only recently is a modern myth. It was considered best to orally master the texts, but that did not mean that written versions did not exist.

So when, would you estimate, that a written tradition arose in Vedic civilization? When do you think the Vedas were first written down? Most traditional history books seem to say that writing arose in Vedic culture only about 800 BC, which would be incorrect if the Indus Valley people were indeed post Vedic people.

SK: Written texts have been traced back to 2600 BC in India. These are in the so-called Indus script which I would rather call the Sarasvati script because that is how the Indic tradition remembers it. Recently, some scholars have argued for a beginning of this writing around 3300 BC. This earlier dating is prompted by the discovery of marks on pottery from a 3300 BC layer that look very much like the mature Sarasvati signs.

Let me also say a few words about language. The speakers of Vedic Sanskrit are not to be identified with any racial or ethnic group. Just as modern Indians from all regions write in English, ancient Indians used Sanskrit. Most probably there was much bilingualism. The Indic literature nowhere associates the word "Arya" with a specific language or racial group.

Undoubtedly, ancient India had many languages. But there is no evidence of a clash between the so-called Aryan and Dravidian civilizations. This is another modern myth that arose out of the racist attitudes of the 19th century Indologists. Unfortunately, these attitudes persist.

Among the most interesting ideas in the revisionist history is the idea that the Druids of Europe were descended from the Druhyus clan of India. Many such ideas, which are in Talageri's book, are entirely based on reading the Vedic literature and are unsupported by archeology. Is there any supporting evidence from non Indian sources for the extreme dispersal of old Vedic  culture into Western Europe?

SK: This is clearly speculative and you're right there is no archaeological support for such a dispersal. On the other hand, modern Druidic scholars such as Peter Barresford Ellis, the author of the well-regarded "The Druids'' (1994), find several parallels between Vedic and Druid ritual. We need further work to explore this connection.

There seems to be a strong case for Vedic Indian roots of Persian Indo-Europeans, but what about further west in Greece? Is there strong evidence that the Greek Indo-Europeans who displaced local civilizations like the ones on Crete were actually descended from peoples mentioned in the Rigveda as being from the Sapta Sindhu region? I am actually wondering about evidence other than the linguistic and mythological similarities, which are indirect in that they prove a relation exists without telling you much about the relation itself, rather like some non-constructive proofs in mathematics!

SK: If indeed there was migration out of the larger Indic region, it must have been a very complex affair with intermingling with the host populations in the intermediate regions so that we could not really say that it were the Indic people who entered Greece. But ideas travel faster than people, and Indic ideas are to be found all over Europe.

My friend, the scholar Nicholas Kazanas of Greece, points out that the there is a great deal of diversity in the names of the gods amongst the various European groups. But all these names or their cognates occur in the Vedic texts. This indicates that these names traveled out of India.

How long will it take, in your opinion, for the revisionist ideas to prevail in academia throughout the world, assuming they are right? What are the political forces that might fight these ideas on a global scale? I don't see any important history books like J. M. Roberts World History, being changed anytime soon-- are there  vested interests in American and European academia that will fight these new ideas?

SK: There are several elements of the new picture that have already found broad acceptance. I would say that historians of science, astronomy, art, religion have generally accepted the new results. The main resistance has been from those who either believe in a racist view of history (See Prof. Kak's article Indology and Racism on Sulekha) or those who think that the new work must be suppressed lest it be exploited by politicians. To give you an idea of the measure of acceptance, I have been asked to write major review articles by several encyclopedias and edited books as well as write special overview essays for scholarly journals. I have also been asked to help out with the revision of the school textbooks in California. So there is substantial momentum to get along with the task of updating textbooks.

Moving back to politics, the AIT debate reminds of two other controversies. One is the famous Afrocentrist controversy, the other is the century old mess  in middle eastern archeology revolving around Biblical scholarship, archeology and Arab-Western politics. The former is a fine example of extreme politicization of what at best is a argumentative reinterpretation of slim evidence (for the information of readers, the Afrocentrists argue that ancient Egypt was black rather than semitic, and that ancient Greece and Rome were far more indebted to black Egypt than Western scholars admit.) The latter issue  has been profiled in detail in the January issue of Science magazine. In both these cases, politics has made an unwanted and ugly incursion into what should be pure scholarly work. Now with these cases, along with AIT in mind, don't you think historians should take an extremely strong stand against political use of history? In Longing and Despair, you say that "some material is being kept out of history books out of fear that it will make the youth chauvinistic." Don't you think that this a very valid fear? Shouldn't historians do something about this?

SK: History and politics are intertwined to a certain extent. This is because historians have their own world-views. But this problem is taken care of by allowing the airing of different views. Still, in any society there are views that are considered politically incorrect. So groups must struggle for recognition by universities and scholarly associations. In the West, the universities are autonomous, there exist diverse research institutes, and the publishing industry is mature and it will publish works of different ideological orientation. On the other hand, in India after 1947 the government took charge of all universities and research funding was controlled and on top of it the government decided that there should be just one official history in India!

This said, what happened in the past should not color our treatment of the present. The problem in India arose out of the totalitarian control that the "official" historians exercised over academic discourse. Regarding arcane details of history, that should be left to scholars to debate.

Historians of India can prevent the misuse of history by setting themselves high standards of scholarship and by developing a system with checks and balances which permits the airing and debating of new ideas.

One of the accusations leveled at your "camp" for want of a better word, is a tendency to mysticism. In an interview with rediff for instance, you suggested that with reference to Sayana's speed of light, that it might be possible to  "intuit" knowledge.  How far do you let your religious and mystic beliefs affect your interpretation of evidence when you write popular accounts such as "Cradle of Civilization."

SK: Sayana (14th century) and his mention of the speed of light is an interesting story. If you read my full paper in the Los Alamos Archives, you will see that I present a rational explanation of the number using Puranic cosmology. In most likelihood, Sayana had nothing to do with the number.

Could Sayana, or a predecessor, have intuited this number? I don't know. It is prudent to believe that it was just a lucky guess, obtained using flawed reasoning. On the other hand, we know so little about how we "obtain'' knowledge that the very nature of consciousness, when it is finally understood, is likely to force us to abandon some of the most cherished assumptions on which our present-day science is based! It may very well be that we can intuit knowledge in terms of associations that we already possess.

I think what you mean by my "religious and mystical beliefs'' is my work on the phenomenon of consciousness. You must understand that I work in this field from three different perspectives: quantum theory, models, and critical analysis of ancient texts that claim to describe consciousness. You must also recognize that Vedic ideas on consciousness have provided great inspiration to creators of modern science such as Schrodinger and are becoming increasingly influential in neuroscience. My study of the Vedic texts and the Upanishads has convinced me that the correct interpretation of the hymns is in terms of their spiritual basis. But that is a separate story, of interest to contemporary scientific questions, which has nothing to do with Indian chronology.

Do you think the issue of "who should get credit for what" is extremely important?  Is it crucial that the Backus Normal Form (BNF) of computer science be known as Panini-Backus-Form? Why does the issue of credit arouse so much chauvinism? On the flip side, are Indian historians completely fair in giving others credit? How come we don't hear Indian historians emphasizing that the place value system was invented by Babylonians and Chinese, who also had an incomplete idea of the zero? Why don't they mention that the Mayans independently arrived at a concept of zero  as complete as that of Indians? Shouldn't the modern decimal system be called the Babylonian-Chinese-Hindu-Mayan-Arabic decimal system by the same reasoning that you demand PBF in favor of BNF?

SK: I believe it is futile to seek out priority for specific people. But, on the other hand, it is important, from the point of view of history of ideas, to see how new ideas arise and how they are nurtured in different civilizational areas.

You ask me about the concept of zero. It so happens I have written some papers on it myself. You are not correct in stating that the Mayans "had a concept of zero as complete as that of Indian.'' In addition to my own papers on this subject, let me recommend to you the wonderful book by Georges Ifrah, "From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers'' for further information on this question.  The Mayan system is not a proper place value system because its units are 1, 20, 18x20, 18x20^2, and so on.

Should Backus Normal Form be renamed Panini-Backus Form? I don't know; I haven't given enough thought to it, although my co-editor on the book on ancient Indian computing science, T.R.N. Rao, thinks it should be.

You have a wicked sense of humor in suggesting the new tongue-twisting name for the decimal system. Names are often just convenient labels become popular by long use. The scholars call the decimal system after Indians, whereas in the popular usage it is called the Arabic system. The Arabs themselves call it the Hindi system!

To wrap up historical cross-examination, a question about modern trends in historical thinking. A movement started by Arnold Toynbee with his A Study of History and today represented by such writers as Jared Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel, which might be called 'Analytical History,' tends to view all history as being determined by environmental and accidental factors and unrelated to racial or cultural superiority of any group. Do you like this approach to analyzing historical forces? In a sense, such an approach reduces the argument over credit to irrelevance by viewing matters in a wider way.

SK: Analytical history is one approach. There are others for which also excellent case can be made. For example, there are those who consider technology to be a primary force in the development of science and society. And then there are others who look at innovations in art preceding those in technology and science. Whatever approach one might take, one must ultimately connect it to the vital life of a society as given by its culture and institutions. For example, historians would like to know why China failed to explore the Americas when it was more advanced navigationally as compared to the Europeans in the 15th century.

Diamond in fact answers your question! Apparently the Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships out of fear that the barbaric world outside would corrupt China! Speaking of Diamond's book, he also demonstrates convincingly that the Indus Valley was populated prior to 8000 BC by people from the Middle east who brought several most major domesticated crops and animals with them, with some notable exceptions like humped cattle that were domesticated in India. Does that fit in with your theories? Do we know anything more about when and how pre-civilizational populations in the middle east split off?

SK: I haven't read Diamond's book but I doubt that one can speak with any degree of certainty about the movements of people in Eurasia more than 10,000 years ago. In India itself there is the rock art tradition which some experts have traced back to about 40,000 years ago! Was the Indus-Sarasvati tradition born out of this earlier tradition? We don't know, but we can't rule it out.

A question about contemporary issues, which you rarely comment about. As a Kashmiri Pandit, the weakest of the four voices (Indian, Pakistani, Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Hindu) that demand to be heard, what do you feel about Kashmir?

SK: Jammu and Kashmir is a modern tragedy. It is also an enormously complex situation. It has tremendous ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. If you look at it from a linguistic angle, 85% of the geographical region of the State speaks non-Kashmiri languages. These are the regions which have non-Muslim majorities. The Kashmiri language speaking people are concentrated in 15% of the area. So you cannot use simple religious or linguistic criteria to come up with a political solution.

Personally, I am for political movement in Kashmir, but I don't see how it can be made as long as Pakistan pushes in Afghan and Punjabi mercenaries into the valley for acts of terror. As a Kashmiri myself, I think the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley and their continuing massacres by bands of terrorists is one of the horrors of modern times, to be equated to the massacre of the Armenians early in the last century in Turkey and that of the Jews and the Roma in Nazi Germany. I believe history will judge the West-- in particular Bill Clinton's presidency-- harshly for looking the other way while this horror has continued.

The readers of Wide Angle and I would love to know just how you manage to do so much in such a wide variety of fields. Do you sleep at all? Also, can you tell us about some of the research and creative writing projects that you are currently working on?

SK: I have just been lucky with my choice of problems. It has been an exciting adventure and the research has led me from one area to another. I got into the history of Indian science trying to explore the prehistory of Panini's Sanskrit grammar. Along the way I discovered early astronomy and physics and astonishing and deep Indic ideas on mind and consciousness. By now I have come full circle, via quantum theory and neuroscience, back to what it is that endows brain-machines with awareness.

Apart from this I am working on a book of essays on personal and collective memory.

Your children have obviously followed in your footsteps, Abhinav and Arushi, have both written poetry for Sulekha. Any thoughts on what kind of home life encourages kids to develop a wide range of interests and talents?

SK: As parents we can only create conditions in which children are encouraged to reach their potential. I think Indian values are great for raising children. We believe -- this is the central message of yoga -- that we can transform ourselves by training, discipline and inspiration. Panini and Kalidasa are said to have been fools before they did their tapasya which uncovered their genius.

There is charming story from the Ramayana about the pranks of Hanuman as a young boy. The rishis, who were the victims of these pranks, decreed that he will forget that he could fly unless he was reminded of this power. Hanuman rediscovers this capacity later, when told of it, in the beginnings of the campaign against Ravana. Hanuman represents each one of us. If only we were to believe in ourselves we could do anything! This is what we need to tell our children.

Thank you Prof. Kak, its been a pleasure talking to you!

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