A RE­NAIS­SANCE MAN

Padma awardee Subhash Kak talks about sci­ence

Deccan Chronicle - - Sunday Chronicle - SWATI SHARMA

Asci­en­tist and Vedic scholar whose re­search spans the fields of in­for­ma­tion the­ory, cryp­tog­ra­phy, neu­ral net­works and quan­tum in­for­ma­tion, Subhash Kak says he was sur­prised when his name was an­nounced for a Padma Shri.

“The Padma Awards are nor­mally given to those whose

karmab­humi is In­dia. I was in Mi­ami with fam­ily when I got the call. And while it is a recog­ni­tion of my sci­en­tific work, it is just one of those things that your friends speak of for a day, after which ev­ery­one moves on,” says the In­dian-Amer­i­can com­puter sci­en­tist, who has au­thored The Pra­jna Su­tra: Apho­risms of

In­tu­ition, a set of 18 su­tras that cast light on the cos­mol­ogy un­der­ly­ing con­scious­ness. In­ter­est­ingly, Kak has also writ­ten books of verse in English and Hindi and an­other 14 on a wide va­ri­ety of sub­jects, in­clud­ing the his­tory of sci­ence and art.

Talk­ing about his foray into the world of Vedic sci­ence and how he rec­on­ciles that knowl­edge with his sci­en­tific ca­reer, Kak ex­plains, “My sci­en­tific re­search cov­ers many as­pects of com­puter sci­ence and physics. I have had the good for­tune of de­sign­ing new kinds of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) ma­chines and to in­ves­ti­gate the cut­ting-edge fields of quan­tum com­put­ing and cryp­tog­ra­phy. This re­search got me think­ing if there were threads that went fur­ther back than was gen­er­ally known.”

He adds, “The Vedic tra­di­tion, which is re­ally just an­other name for In­dian sci­ence, is a repos­i­tory of in­cred­i­bly so­phis­ti­cated ideas not only about the outer world but also about the mind and con­scious­ness.” De­scribed as a Re­nais­sance man, Kak’s in­ter­est in Indic Stud­ies was trig­gered by an es­say writ­ten by a West­ern lin­guist, who claimed that Panini’s 2,500-yearold San­skrit gram­mar had an­tic­i­pated the ab­stract form of the

There are many sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers who believe that com­put­ers will even­tu­ally be­come con­scious. Many prom­i­nent voices in the sci­en­tific and tech worlds are claim­ing that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is lead­ing hu­man­ity to­wards a catas­tro­phe

mod­ern com­puter.

“The ear­li­est In­dian script is the In­dus script (about 3000 BC) that re­mains un­de­ci­phered and Brahmi, which was used in Em­peror Ashoka’s in­scrip­tions (300 BC). I did some com­puter and sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis which showed that the Brahmi script was de­rived from In­dus,” says the Re­gents Pro­fes­sor of Com­puter Sci­ence at Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity in Still­wa­ter.

What be­gan as a sys­tem­atic study of the In­dian texts took him not only to math­e­mat­ics and as­tron­omy, but also to texts on art and ar­chi­tec­ture, phi­los­o­phy and Pu­ranic en­cy­clopae­dias, mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture.

“From scripts, I went to the study of ear­li­est as­tron­omy which is in the text called

Vedanga Jy­otisha (1300 BC). It con­tains the most in­ter­est­ing anal­y­sis of the mo­tions of the Sun and the Moon. I also dis­cov­ered

The ear­li­est In­dian script is the In­dus script (about 3000 BC) that re­mains un­de­ci­phered and Brahmi, which was used in Em­peror Ashoka’s in­scrip­tions (300 BC). I did some com­puter and sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis which showed that the Brahmi script was de­rived from In­dus

that early Vedic rit­u­als had an as­tro­nom­i­cal ba­sis, and that the Vedic rishis dis­cov­ered that the Sun and the Moon are about 108 times their re­spec­tive di­am­e­ters from the Earth. That’s why this num­ber is so im­por­tant in In­dian cul­ture,” says 71-year-old Kak, who is also an ar­chaeoas­tronomer. Not sur­pris­ingly, his dis­cov­ery of the long-for­got­ten as­tron­omy of an­cient In­dia has been called “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” and “epoch-mak­ing” by schol­ars.

“Vedic wis­dom can be a pow­er­ful in­spi­ra­tion for our times. It pro­vides us as­ton­ish­ing in­sights into the na­ture of our minds and how we can use our in­tu­ition to un­der­stand re­al­ity not only at a per­sonal level but also in sci­en­tific dis­course. The two are per­fectly com­pat­i­ble be­cause Vedic knowl­edge at the deep­est level is about the mys­tery of con­scious­ness,” says the ac­claimed poet, his­to­rian and com­puter sci­en­tist.

Born in Srinagar, Kak was ed­u­cated in var­i­ous places in Jammu and Kash­mir. “I grew up in the small towns of the state. My fa­ther was a ve­teri­nary doc­tor in gov­ern­ment ser­vice who was trans­ferred to a new place ev­ery two years. So I stud­ied in many schools in­clud­ing the one in Leh, Ladakh,” re­calls Kak. “I wanted to be a writer but I was also good at math­e­mat­ics and ended up do­ing engi­neer­ing and then got my PhD. Al­though I had ex­plored cer­tain Vedic texts in my ado­les­cence, I com­menced a very se­ri­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion into them only after com­ing to the United States,” Subhash says.

As for his cur­rent area of study, Kak ex­plains, “The world is go­ing through in­cred­i­ble change. Au­to­ma­tion and AI are lead­ing to a per­ma­nent loss of jobs. There are many sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers who believe that com­put­ers will even­tu­ally be­come con­scious. Many prom­i­nent voices in the sci­en­tific and tech worlds are claim­ing that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is lead­ing hu­man­ity to­wards a catas­tro­phe. All this raises fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tific, philo­soph­i­cal, and eth­i­cal ques­tions that con­cern me the most at this time.”

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