Beliefnet
Dr. Subhash Kak, an authority on ancient Indian science and technology, is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Louisiana State University. Originally from Kashmir, Dr. Kak has authored ten books and over three hundred journal articles in areas as varied as neural networks, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and the philosophy and history of science. This article is excerpted from a longer interview by Rajeev Srinivasan with permission of Rediff.

In your research, where have you been most amazed? Where, in other words, were the serendipitous and wholly unexpected 'Eureka' experiences?

My discovery that the organization of the Rigveda was according to an astronomical plan was a truly 'Eureka' experience. It came upon me rather suddenly, but once everything fell into place it was clear that I had been led to it by the many direct and indirect references in the Vedic texts.

The 'Eureka' of it was the realization that I had the key to unlock the ancient mystery of the Veda. Ritual and mythology made sense! And it opened up a hidden chapter of Indian science with the greatest implications for our understanding of India and the rest of the ancient world.

You have done considerable research on the structure of the fire altars in Scriptural ritual (The Astronomical Code of the Rigveda, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi), and you have demonstrated that there was a very formal and mathematical basis to the construction of these. Could you explain?


Vedic Indians were scientific. They believed in laws of nature. They represented their astronomy in terms of the altar constructions. One problem they considered was that of the synchronization of the lunar and the solar years: the lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year and if we add a round number of days every few years to make up for the discrepancy, we find we cannot do it elegantly unless we have a correction cycle of 95 years or its multiples. This 95-year cycle is described in the earliest Vedic prose books.

The altars were to be built to slightly larger dimensions each year of the cycle to represent the corrections. There were other symbolic constructions. Like building a square altar (representing the sky) with the same area as a circular altar (representing the earth), which is the problem of squaring the circle. This led to the discovery of the earliest geometry. They were aware that the sun and the moon were at 108 times their own diameters from the earth.

These fire altars are at this time obsolete, right? Nobody uses them any more?

It is a great pity that we are letting our cultural and civilizational treasures die right before our eyes. We must do whatever we can to preserve and celebrate this heritage.

You have mentioned a connection, apparently evident in the Vedas, between internal and external things -- for instance between the rhythms in the human body and astronomical cycles. Could you elaborate?

A central Vedic belief was that there are connections between the outer and the inner. The rishis declared that it was due to these connections that we are enabled to know the world. One dramatic aspect of these connections are the biological cycles which run the same periods as various astronomical cycles. For example, the Purusha Hymn of the Rigveda says that the mind is born of the moon. Just recently, by research on volunteers, who stayed in underground caves for months without any watches or other cues about time, it was found that the natural cycle for the mind is 24 hours and 50 minutes. The period of the moon is also 24 hours and 50 minutes. Our clock is reset every day by daylight!

The connections between the outer and the inner were also represented by other symbols. The 108 sun diameters from the earth of the sun were paralleled by the 108 beads of the rosary for a symbolic spiritual journey from the normal state to one of illumination.

I have read the book edited by you and Dr TRN Rao (Computing Science in Ancient India, University of Southwestern Louisiana Press) on some surprising mathematics: pi to many decimal places, Sayana's accurate calculation of the speed of light, hashing algorithms, the binary number system of Sanskrit meters -- are these mere coincidences or is there conclusive evidence of advanced mathematics?

The binary number system, hashing, various codes, mathematical logic (Navya Nyaya), or a formal framework that is equivalent to programming all arose in ancient India. This is all well known and it is acknowledged by scholars all over the world. I shouldn't forget to tell you that a most advanced calculus, math and astronomy arose in Kerala several centuries before Newton.

In particular, I am amazed, as a layman, by the evidence that Sayana, circa 1300 CE, who was prime minister at the court of the Vijayanagar Emperor Bukka I, calculated the speed of light to be 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha, which does come to 186,536 miles per second.

Truly mind-boggling! The speed of light was first measured in the West only in the late 17th century. So how could the Indians have known it? If you are a skeptic, then you will say it is a coincidence that somehow dropped out of the assumptions regarding the solar system. If you are a believer in the powers of the mind, you would say that it is possible to intuit (in terms of categories that you have experienced before) outer knowledge. This latter view is the old Indian knowledge paradigm. If it were generally accepted it would mean an evolution in science much greater than the revolution of modern physics.

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