The science of consciousness

Padma awardee in the field of technology, Subhash Kak is one of India’s greatest minds in the field of artificial intelligence, cryptography, neural networks and quantum information. His writings show that Indian Vedic technology was a precursor to many of the developments in Artificial Intelligence today

You were among the pioneering modern writers seeking to re-establish or restore the value of Indian Vedic heritage. How has the journey been and would you say that significant gains have been made in the last 10 years?

Subhash Kak: It’s been an exciting ride. There are several aspects to it. First, is a proper appreciation of India’s contributions to scientific subjects. I believe I have been able to convince a vast majority of scholars who work on the texts and also those in the general scientific community who want to understand the role India played in the rise of science. A part of this work was bringing findings from the scholarly world to the general public, and then I have done some analysis of Indian scientific topics myself.

Everyone acknowledges that Panini’s grammar anticipated the computer program in its logical structure, and in the formulation of a metalanguage about rules. Likewise, it is generally accepted that the binary numbers were first formulated in India and Navya Nyāya, which is equivalent to mathematical logic on which modern machines are based, arose several centuries prior.

It has been a greater effort and time to make people understand implications of ātma-vidyā since it is so much outside of the modes of thinking familiar to Western scholars and to naïve people. But science is increasing accepting that the mystery of consciousness is the frontier of research in neuroscience, physics, psychology, and computer science. Therefore, there is much more understanding of the Vedic view, where this is its central focus.

Basically, the Vedas speak of two kinds of knowledge: aparā (lower, amenable to linguistic analysis) and parā (higher, which is related to consciousness). Traditional sciences that one learns through formal training (śikṣā) is aparā, whereas deeper knowledge that arises out of inner inquiry is vidyā or parā.

In Western academia there are still deeply entrenched Left wing Anti-Hindu pockets. Have they been losing legitimacy?

Subhash Kak: The Left dismisses the idea of higher knowledge related to consciousness, so it has deep antipathy to Hinduism. But the Left’s campaign is losing legitimacy as the idea of Consciousness Science is accepted by the scientific world. After all, all that we do occurs in our consciousness, so finding how it arises is most important.

The anti-Hindu attitude arose partly to justify colonialism and racism. The world is rapidly changing and India’s economy is already the third largest in the world based on PPP (purchasing power parity), and is rapidly growing and become one of the two largest within the next decade. Western academia will listen to Hinduism’s self-characterization much more seriously as these changes unfold.

You have spoken about consciousness change when we engage with our Vedic texts and practices. Yoga, Sanskrit, Yagnas all of them transform the Sādhaka. How does one explain this change in modern scientific terms when modern science is inadequate to such study such phenomenon?

Subhash Kak. Although modern science is inadequate to deal with the process of transformation, it has developed evidence that makes it impossible to ignore the question of agency, or freedom of the individual.  For example, how do you make sense of the discoveries of mathematical formulae Srinivasa Ramanujan would report on waking up from sleep? The process of discovery anywhere cannot be fitted into a machine-like framework. But we do need gifted scientists and authors to bring these ideas before the scientific world.

Is there a correlation between Indic Knowledge Systems and AI?

Subhash Kak. The Indic tradition goes to the very heart of the question: what is Self? We have a body which is machine-like but within it lies the Self, who is pure and untainted by what we do. This creates a paradox. It’s our ignorance caused by a covering on our pure self that makes us take our embodied self to be the real thing.

We are a machine with the Self within. A computer, on the other hand, is just a machine of dead parts. A computer, therefore, will not be conscious. We may rest confident that AI will not lead to conscious machines, and AI will not be creative the way humans are.

In your article on Yoga, you say that the diverging positions of whether the spirit arises out of the material ground or whether the spirt is different from matter, is responsible for a lot of misunderstanding of yoga among laypersons and yoga practitioners. Is it possible to resolve this conflict between mind and matter? Why are Indians not putting this debate to rest?

Subhash Kak. Sometimes it is not a question of misunderstanding, but rather of a different starting point. If one approaches reality from a materialistic and reductionist perspective, then one sees everything through that prism. But that view leads to despair and unhappiness about the pointlessness of life. Consider the current opioid epidemic in the United States which took over 70,000 lives this past year (more than the dead in the Vietnam War, which went on for over a dozen years). People seek opioid prescriptions for physical pain, but in many cases the underlying problem is deep psychological pain.

Is it possible to go back in time and understand the Vedic mind – the mind of the Rishis. Would you be able to throw light on how they thought and analysed things?

Subhash Kak: The way the Rishis obtained their insights was through a direct connection to the ātman within. How can one do it? First, by getting away from the supposition that we are nothing but the contents of our mind. If we are not the contents, which is what we normally suppose, then who are we? Can we be one with the dispassionate sākṣī (witness) within us? This is where spiritual practice and sādhanā comes in. All that is in the domain of yoga, which is the lived Sanātana Dharma. As curtains that separate us from our true self fall, we gain exceptional powers and understanding.  

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