Kak review part 1

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Sat Oct 21 16:35:54 UTC 2000

Indeed, Dominik! Since she sent me a file of out last year, I post it below
(formatting and all), though a little long, in two parts.

I may add my own points, separately, tomorrow.

> important review by Kim Plofker
>of Kak's Rgvedic Astronomical Code book:
  _Centaurus_ 38 (1996), 362--364.


KIM PLOFKER, Brown U.,  in: Centaurus 38 (1996)

%%%%% kakreview.tex %%% %%\magnification=\magstep1 %%\baselineskip=18pt
\let\*=\d \hangindent=1in \hangafter=1 Review: Subhash Kak, {\it  The
Astronomical Code of the \*Rgveda}, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi 1994
\medskip ({\it Centaurus}\/ 38 (1996), 362--364) \bigskip \bigskip
\bgroup \baselineskip=12pt \centerline{Kim Plofker} \centerline{Department
of History of Mathematics} \centerline{Brown University}
\centerline{Providence, RI~~02912~~~USA} \egroup \bigskip

In his preface to {\it The Astronomical Code of the \*Rgveda}, Dr. Kak
remarks, ``My
inquiry began in seeking answer [sic] to the puzzle: How can the Vedic
texts suggest a subtle understanding of the nature of consciousness and yet
had no quantitative science.'' The very formulation of such a question
implies a conviction that the attainment of ``subtle understanding'' is
dependent upon the goals and methods of modern scientific practice.

Hence it is not surprising that Dr. Kak believes he has solved his puzzle by
discovering that there is indeed ``quantitative science'' in the Vedas
(although without any direct relevance to the problem of the nature of
specifically, that certain combinations of some numbers enumerating the
syllables, verses and hymns in the {\it \*Rgveda}, {\it Atharvaveda}, and
Bhagavadg\={\i}t\=a}\/ coincide with numbers approximating the periods of
various celestial motions.

It is claimed that these numbers (some of which
are also found in specifications given in the {\it Br\=ahma\*nas}\/ and
{\it \'Sulbas\=utras}\/ for sacrificial altars) were obtained in the Vedic
era by a
prolonged and highly developed program of astronomical observation, and
that they constitute an ``astronomical code'' in accordance with which the
structure of these texts and the construction of the fire-altars were
determined. The knowledge of this code, it is suggested, disappeared very
shortly after
the composition of the texts and thus has remained entirely absent from
every exegetical tradition up to the present.

 Dr. Kak's efforts to explain and
support his theory involve him in a number of other hypotheses sharply at
variance with the views that most Indologists hold on the basis of
overwhelming linguistic evidence that Dr. Kak dismisses or ignores.

First and foremost, astronomical references in the {\it
Taittir\={\i}ya\-br\=ahma\*na}, {\it \'Sata\-patha\-br\=ahma\*na}, {\it
Maitr\=aya\-\*n\={\i}ya\-br\=ahma\*nopani\*sad}, and {\it
Jyoti\*sa\-ved\=a\.nga}\/ (all of which are lumped together with many
others under the heading ``Vedic texts'') are interpreted (p. 35) as
literal and
accurate chronological indicators, presumably in order to sustain the Vedic
Indians' character for competent and careful observation.

This yields a greatly
expanded chronology for the ``Vedic'' era, in support of which are adduced
equally uncritical reconstructions from Pur\=a\*nic king-lists and
to the Bh\=arata War (pp. 56--67). It is not explicitly stated what the
estimated dates of this era under these new constraints should be, but it
is clear at
least that they extend the ``Vedic'' period back for many centuries beyond
the time commonly believed to mark the entry of the Aryans into India.

 This discrepancy is circumvented by pushing back the time of the Aryans'
arrival to the seventh millennium B.C. (pp. 20--22), and identifying the
early Indus
Valley civilizations as ethnically Aryan (p. 39) with an Indo-Aryan
language (pp. 47--49). The identification of the Vedic with the Indus
civilizations permits the hypothesis that their scientific achievements, as
reconstructed by means of the ``astronomical code,'' may have provided the
inspiration for later Babylonian and Greek astronomy (pp. 3, 119--120).

Unfortunately, the actual evidence presented in the book is neither
abundant nor
convincing enough to justify such drastic revisions. It consists entirely
of noting equivalences between certain selected astronomical constants,
many of
them very approximate, and numbers that either appear in the ``Vedic''
texts or can be extracted from their verse and hymn numbers by arithmetic

A few of these numbers, in no way ``encoded,'' unquestionably do reflect
the astronomical knowledge that the early Indians are generally
acknowledged to have possessed: thus when it is pointed out (by no means
for the first time) that there is an explicitly astronomical reference in
the {\it
Aitarey\=ara\*nyaka}\/ to the 360 days of the (ideal) year (pp. 78--79), or
in the {\it \'Satapathabr\=ahma\*na}\/ to the number of muh\=urtas in a
thousand years (p. 84), or in the {\it Kau\*s\={\i}takibr\=ahma\*na}\/ to
the times of the solstices (pp. 86--87), these may be legitimately termed
``Vedic astronomy.''

(to be continued)

Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138, USA

ph. 1- 617-496 2990 (also messages)
home page:  http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/mwpage.htm

Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies:  http://www1.shore.net/~india/ejvs

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