Interview with Jeffrey Armstrong (Kavindra Rishi)

I came across this interview of Jeffrey Armstrong (also known as Kavindra Rishi), the founder of Vedic Academy of Science & Arts (VASA), apparently somewhere in the US. I did not know of him, but based on this interview I would say that he is an insider of Hindu tradition, just happens to be white American.

Some gems from the interview with my comments:

Vedic culture including the Buddhist version are properly called “Dharma Cultures”, since neither are bound by a single “rule book”. Buddha was a reformer of the Vedic culture and not the founder of a religion; the same is true for the Jain Dharma and Mahavira. You could think of the three Abrahamic religions as “people of a book”, whereas the Vedic people are the “people of a library”.

Note – Buddha was a reformer, not a revolutionary who revolted against the Vedas as Pollock would have you believe.

The English term God was originally a Sanskrit word taken from the Vedas and mentioned several times in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Hutam” or the smoke arising from an offering placed into a sacred fire ceremony. Hutam became “Gutam” in German, “Goot” in Dutch, and “God” in English.

wow! I had no idea that the word God has Sanskrit roots.

Like so many words in English, the word “God” is an acquisition of a constantly colonizing culture, too busy trying to look grown up and sophisticated to bother giving credit to anyone else. This would be less problematic if the dogmatic branches of Christianity had not used the word so abusively, behaving as if they were the first and the only tradition to have a single source conception of the Supreme Reality or a name for such a Being.

Well said!

I am almost finished with a Bhagavad-Gita translation that has removed all Christianized English words and insists that the reader learn at least 200 Sanskrit words in order to express the many concepts that have never been explained by English words.

Excellent, much needed!

The historical truth is that Bharat was the wealthiest country in the world when the British arrived. At that time, public education in Sanskrit and regional languages was free for all. That Sanskrit education was purposely destroyed by the British so they could enslave the people of Bharat and steal their wealth. It also explains why the British strategy to destroy India was to stop Sanskrit education of the masses.

Echoes the work of Dharampal.

The point I am trying to make is, if you look carefully at English you will see Sanskrit hidden everywhere!

I am just beginning to see this!

Why bother with Ancient Knowledge when we have Modern Science?

I believe that ancient Sanskrit texts have a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including science, and that it is well worth the effort to study them. A common response to this proposition is:

I doubt there is anything there which might be relevant today. In any case, even if there is something, why should I bother with a whole new approach when I already have something that works – modern science and technology. If it is needed today, modern science will rediscover whatever our Rishis found. 

In this post I would like to challenge this view with two main counter arguments.

Before I present the arguments, let me say that the progress that modern science and technology has made in short 500 years since Galileo is truly mind blowing. The advances in the last 100 years since the steam engine are even more spectacular. I am well aware of the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics and computing. The potential of each of these technology individually is immense, but combining them really takes you into crazy science fiction realm.

In fact, science has come so far that Ray Kurzweil is able to talk about singularity and people actually take him seriously. Including me! I agree with Ray Kurzweil that technology can grow exponentially. But the point he misses, I think, is that exponential growth may not be sustainable forever as it may hit a fundamental bottleneck (think Moore’s Law). And once that happens, you need breakthroughs in basic science, which are completely random and unpredictable – you cannot generate an Einstein by design, just create conditions such that if an Einstein were to show up, he would not go unnoticed. So, yes, singularity is a possibility but it is not inevitable, and most likely not on the time scale that Ray Kurzweil imagines.

Here are my arguments for why we should study the Indian ancient sciences:

Argument 1: We need breakthroughs in Mind Sciences

I believe our ancient knowledge can inform a whole range of fields in both social and physical sciences. But one area where it can have a huge impact is mind sciences or neurosciences. In this domain modern scientific understanding is truly primitive. Needless to say, mind sciences can have direct impact on our emotional and mental well-being. Modern medicine’s understanding of the human brain is at the same level where modern physics was just after the invention of the telescope (I consider functional MRI as the telescope of neuroscience.) Mental health issues have reached epidemic proportions world over – this is better appreciated in the West than in the developing world, but the problem is universal. For most mental disorders, forget cure, modern medicine cannot even diagnose the problem with any confidence. It just comes up with different names. As an example, look at the history of autism described by Steve Silberman in this sobering TED talk.

I believe our ancient Rishis excelled in mind consciousness studies. They certainly thought very deeply about it, and more importantly, very differently from the way modern medicine is approaching it today. The reason for this, I think, is the absolutely central role of meditation in Hinduism. One just needs to read a good commentary on Patanjali’s Yog Sutras to get an idea of the depth of their knowledge (here’s one recommendation: Four Chapters on Freedom by Swami Satyananda Saraswati). In fact, I look at Swamis and Yogis more as psychologists and neuroscientist, than as spiritual or religious teachers! Other Dharmic traditions, particularly Buddhism, would probably also have something valuable to contribute here since meditation is a core practice in those traditions too.

Argument 2: Science is not at the center of the society due to it’s secular origins

My second argument is not about a specific area of science, but about the status of science and technology in today’s society. The spectacular rise of western science and technology has had some serious adverse effects. We have damaged the environment to an extent that some of the damage may be irreversible (watch the documentary Racing Extinction). We now have nuclear and biological weapons which have the potential to wipe out a good fraction of life on earth. I have already mentioned the mental health epidemic. There are other disease epidemics too, for example, auto immune diseases. Though modern science may have created some of these problems, I have no doubt that it can also find the solutions to quite a few of them.

But do we have the social, political and economic structures to enable this?

I would say – No, not by a long shot. In spite of the existential threats that we face today, science and scientists are hardly at the center of the society. If you don’t believe me, ask any researcher in a university or even one in a corporation about the funding situation. But do so at your own risk since the whining can go out of control! You will get sob stories of how screwed up the system is and how they have to beg before politicians and business heads who have no idea about the science and on and on. Most large scientific initiatives would not have materialized without a politician championing it, for example JFK for the Apollo mission and now Joe Biden for Cancer. In other words, regardless of how important or urgent the scientific question is, it does not go anywhere until a politician or a businessman gets on board.

Why is this so? Why does science, in spite of all its successes and potential, get a step motherly treatment?

So far I was talking like a journalist and just describing things as they are. Now let me put on a sociologist’s hat, and present an admittedly speculative theory on how we got here. I feel that the present status of science in society is to a large extent due to its historical origins as a revolt against the almighty Church. You just need to read Galileo’s Daughter to realize how strong the Church was in 16th century Europe and how hostile it was towards science. Modern science arose in the Renaissance period as a revolt against the establishment, which pretty much was the Church at that time. The impact of this secular origins linger on to this date and is partly the reason for science not being truly integrated into the society. Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up well when he said something to the effect that it is ridiculous to see people bad mouth science while talking on their cell phones! I don’t think this is merely due to poor science education or poor out reach by scientists. The conflict between cultures based on Abrahamic religion and modern science continues to this date. Oh, by the way, left leaning atheists who claim to be champions of secularism and science are not doing themselves any favor by mocking religion and spirituality. They need to understand that spirituality does not equal blind faith and superstition, certainly not in the Dharmic traditions. I feel that extreme atheists can be just as obnoxious as religious fundamentalists, for example, Javed Akhtar in this conversation with Sadhguru.  If you come down on the side of Javed Akhtar, all I can say is try to suspend your arrogance for a bit and listen to a few more talks by Sadhguru.

Now, lets talk about the position of science in ancient India. And by ancient here, I mean pre-mughal. This conflict between science and spirituality never existed in Hinduism. Vedic philosophy does not dismiss the modern scientific method. In fact the two can collaborate fruitfully. It is already happening with Ayurveda and modern medicine, though modern science is the one who is more hesitant. In Vedic philosophy the ultimate goal for an individual is to gain a deep and clear understanding of the nature of the self. And the collective responsibility of the society is to create conditions for individuals to pursue this goal. Furthermore, the genius of the Hindu tradition is that it does not prescribe a single path leading up to the ultimate truth. In other words, freedom of thought and exploration is built into the Hindu framework. And science could, and, indeed was, one such path. The subtitle of Dr Alok Kumar’s wonderful book Sciences of the Ancient Hindus sums it up beautifully: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation. There could be a whole series on ancient Indian studies with subtitles like ‘unlocking music in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking trade in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking language in pursuit of salvation’, and so on. In other words, Indian civilization did not need secularism to develop as a culturally and scientifically advanced civilization. On the contrary it was the quest for the sacred and spiritual that motivated individuals to excel in different areas of human endeavor. When Rajiv Malhotra says that ‘Sheldon Pollock is removing the sacred dimension’ he is talking about attacks on this very foundation of the Indian civilization and we should take it seriously.

Now, let’s envision a society organized based on the Dharmic principles. Using the categorization of the varna system, the center of such a society would indeed be the Brahmins as they are the knowledge producers and disseminators. And Brahmins would include not only swamis and gurus, but also artists, musicians and scientists. Brahmins would not have political or economic powers but all other sections of the society would be obligated to heed to the advice of the Brahmins. In fact, everyone else, including politicians and business heads, would consider themselves support staff for the Brahmins!

Conclusion

In summary, we should realize that there is no conflict between modern science and the knowledge of our Rishis, and also that modern science may not be the panacea. By studying the ancients, modern science only stands to gain new ideas and insights. Let me remind you that I am not one of those who romanticize our past claiming that India was an utopia, err Ram Rajya (!), in 5000 BCE. But neither am I dismissive of my past. The way forward is not to try and regress to the past, but to study it with the attitude and humility of a seeker. I hope this post will encourage such exploration.

But why would the outsiders distort our history?

Whenever I suggest that our history and philosophy was first distorted by the Europeans and is now being distorted by the Americans, this question of motivation comes up. Essentially the other person is giving the outsiders the benefit of the doubt in that they might be motivated by genuine love and appreciation of India. Or I might just be a conspiracy theorist!

This short 5min talk by Rajiv Malhotra should clear up any such doubts

 

To put it more bluntly, using an analogy from RM, a biologist may dedicate his whole life to study bacteria, but not because of affection for the bacteria but because he wants to find new ways of killing it!

This is a wonderful analogy because it also explains why the outsiders may intially praise the Indian civilization. Biologists are very impressed by how a bacteria finds creative new ways to escape (that is, develop resistance) to antibiotic drugs. And when they figure how the bacteria does it, they write about it with great pride about how they discovered the escape mechanism and how they can now design new drugs to overcome it.

Likewise missionionaries may initially be puzzled and impressed by the resistance of Hindus towards conversion. This resistance may motivate them to deeply study Hinduism. In the process they may discover some new and intriguing ideas, but that may not lead to a change of heart. The end goal may still remain unchanged. A good example of this is the neo hinduism thesis explained here:

 

 

 

Vegetarianism – pointless or a great idea?

This is my response to the cow in the caste, curry and cows view of India. A sizable population in India do not eat any meat. It is usually not a conscious choice, but just a tradition in most Hindu families. Meat eating has become a highly contentious issue in India where emotions on both sides run high. Any debate quickly gets heated and personal.

First, let me summarize the principal arguments that vegetarian people give and why I think none of them is a ‘clincher’.

Argument 1: vegetarian diet is more healthy

I think this is the weakest of all the arguments. There are plenty of examples of meat eating communities who enjoy good health and have a long life expectancy. Just look at Japan! I am sure one can design a healthy meat based diet and an unhealthy vegetarian diet.

Argument 2: meat eating is cruel to the animals

Consider this – just like strawberry picking, would you advocate taking kids to a slaughter house? After all, where food comes from is part of education. If your answer is no, then clearly you see something wrong with eating meat and the vegetarian sides wins. But if the answer is yes, then the argument fails.

Argument 3: meat eating is bad for the environment

For me this is the strongest argument against meat eating as it is prevalent today. I was shocked to learn recently from this amazing 2015 documentary, Racing Extinction (http://racingextinction.com/), that more greenhouse gases is generated by animal husbandry than all fossil fuel based transportation world wide! Where this argument gets problematic is that it is really a public policy issue related to farm subsidies, trade rules, vested interests of MNC food companies, etc. For an individual, to quit meat in the hope of impacting climate change would be equivalent to driving a Prius with the same motivation. Given the current state of affairs, any impact of either is most likely going to be too little and too late.

Now, before I proceed, lets take a step back and think about how unnatural it is for a whole population to be vegetarian.

Let us first admit that meat tastes good! I know many who tasted meat for the first time in college. And then they did their best to make up for the lost time! Eating meat certainly greatly expands your food options, especially if you travel outside India, and also a lot of creativity has gone into coming up with new preparation. The key factor though, might be that humans are wired to like meat. We have evolved from omnivores. Agriculture was most likely invented to safeguard against scarcity of meat. In other words, in ancient times, the food of choice was most likely meat, and farm produce was likely a fall back option or, at best, a side dish. That is how it is even today in almost all cuisines world wide, except in India.

In spite of the likely delicacy status of meat, India evolved to become a predominantly vegetarian culture. Why?

And we are not talking about meatless Mondays; we are talking about meatless. Period! And this is in spite of plenty of wild life and a conducive climate for hunting all year round. So scarcity of meat couldn’t have been the reason. Also it was also not by fiat of a king. There are vegetarian cuisines from different corners of the Indian subcontinent which were ruled by different kings in different periods.

Essentially a whole population of the scale of India voluntarily took to a vegetarian diet. I think this is truly amazing – vegetarianism is one of the great ideas of the Indian civilization, up there with zero!

The best explanation that I can think of is that giving up meat is one aspect of following the Dharmic principle of ahimsa (principle of least harm).  In particular, the Jain tradition took this idea to its logical extreme, even avoiding eating certain plants.

At this point, I usually hear “oh, but plants also have life and feel pain.” I am not going to give the “plants do not have nervous system” response because I have no idea about it! All I will say is that this argument is more a reflection of your poor understanding of Dharma, than of your knowledge of plant biology or of your debating skills. Vegetarianism is neither an end goal nor a core principle of the Dharmic traditions. It is just one aspect of being compliant with the principles of Dharma. And remember that leading a Dharmic lifestyle is completely a matter of personal choice. No king or guru can, or, rather, is supposed to impose it on you. So if you are interested in why India adopted vegetarianism delve deeper into the different Dharmic philosophies, perhaps starting with Jainism.

And now its time for the disclaimers:

  1. I think this is one of those debates which technology will soon render pointless. Scientists are already growing meat in a petridish. The process just needs to be scaled up. Then growing meat would not involve killing any animal and will be just like farming – add water and chemicals and you have your food. As a colleague said – the future is tumor-on-a-stick!
  2. Finally, let me remind you of my motto – Your moksha is not my problem, and mine shouldn’t be yours! So what you eat is up to you. I have no interest in knowing or changing it.

Protect Kumbh Mela

(5 June 2016)

Just a few weeks back Rajiv Malhotra started a new initiative alerting Hindus to the dangers to the Kumbh Mela posed by the various Breaking India forces. With his books so far RM has jolted the more educated English speaking Hindus out of their comfort zone and forced them to confront these issues. By critiquing Sheldon Pollock in The Battle for Sanskrit he has clearly disrupted the academic study of Indology.

This Kumbh Mela initiative has the potential to take the message to the lay Hindu in the villages, especially in the plains of north India. If successful, this is going to be HUGE! Much more so than the Ram Mandir issue. Because this time it is managed by an independent intellectual who has shraddha and a deep understanding of our heritage, not a political party. The Ram Mandir episode alienated me from Hinduism. But the Kumbh Mela motivates me to learn more about it.

This is a rapidly developing story. If you care about this issue, like RM‘s facebook page. There are regular updates including live video addresses which currently is the primary mode of outreach.

Facebook Live Video Messages

  1. 26 May 2016 (17 min) Part 1
  2. 29 May 2016 (20 min) Part 2
  3. 03 Jun 2016 (32 min) Q&A on previous episodes

 

Additional material

  1. Nov 2015 article by Rajiv Malhotra titled Why is the Kumbh Mela at risk?  This article brought this issue to the forefront for the first time.
  2. May 2016. Sadhguru on Reviving the Kumbh Mela.