MyInd Interview with Nilesh Oak
Nilesh Nilkanth Oak, is the author of ‘When did the Mahabharata War Happen? The Mystery of Arundhati’ (2011), where he freshly evaluated astronomy observations of Mahabharata text. His work led to validation of 5561 BCE as the year of Mahabharata War while falsifying more than 120 alternate claims. The book was nominated for the Lakatos award; the award is given annually by London School of Economics for a contribution to the philosophy of science. He published ‘The Historic Rama’ in 2014. He writes extensively on ancient Indian history at his blog at https://nileshoak.wordpress.com/
Nilesh studied in India, Canada and USA and holds BS and MS in Chemical Engineering and also executive MBA. Nilesh researches in astronomy, archeology, anthropology, quantum mechanics, economics, naturopathy, ancient narratives and philosophy.
We spoke to Nilesh Oak about his research, body of work and his run-ins with authority.
How and when did you start studying and writing about ancient Indian texts and dates?
I grew up hearing extreme claims about ancient Indian texts; either they had explained everything or they were full of exaggerations and had nothing to do with reality. When I was studying in Canada, I came across BORI critical edition of Mahabharata text in the university library. Out of curiosity, I picked up the thickest of all volumes and started reading it. It was the Bhishma parva of Mahabharata. In no time I came across the astronomy reference of Arundhati-Vasishtha (AV) observation (Bhishma parva 2:31). The year was 1995. My knowledge of astronomy was minimal however I knew stars of Arundhati and Vasishtha (from Saptarshi cluster) very well. And I thought, albeit naively, that this is something I should able to check it out in no time. To my astonishment, I realized that more than 125 Mahabharata researchers had attempted to determine timing of Mahabharata, almost 50% of them (60+) claimed to have done it using astronomy evidence, and only 4 of these 60 have acknowledged AV observation and NONE had solved the mystery behind it! I was possessed by this observation for next 15 years and finally in May of 2009, I solved the mystery behind AV observation. I published my first book, ‘When did the Mahabharata war happen? The Mystery of Arundhati’ in 2011 and my second book ‘The Historic Rama’ in 2014. The rest of the story is being written as latest page of our Indian Itihas.
Your research is based on Indian epics, scriptures and the study of astronomy. Can you please explain to our readers your methodology of research?
The question is very easy to answer. My method is that of hypothetico-deductive method of scientific investigation. The same method employed and eulogized by likes of Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, Johannes Kepler, Sage Patanjali, Sir Karl Popper and others.
It involves identifying a toughest problem, of a given field, to solve. The first step is to guess a solution/theory that might solve the problem. In the second step, one has to list out all the consequences/predictions of one’s theory. This step must clarify what one will not accept as a solution, i.e. constraints on potential solutions due to your theory. In the third step, one compares the actual evidence (astronomy, genetics, archeology, geology, climates, botanical, etc.) with the consequences/predictions of a theory. If an observation agrees with the prediction of a theory, it means one failed to falsify one’s theory. Recognize that this is a good thing, for we can never prove anything but we can falsify. The process continues for the remaining observations/evidence.
A theory that survives numerous such tests and that explains more observations than any other theory is considered a better theory. Then comes the criticism (rational criticism is what is meant by criticism) and this leads to further testing of a theory. The theory also leads to new problems of higher complexity and one may start the same cycle, using same methodology, in solving those newer challenging problems. The process is iterative.
How old is our civilization? Were there competing or co-existing cultures always in existence alongside ours?
We should be careful in answering such questions. Frankly, the question is loaded. We don’t know what we don’t know. It is then amazing that we have discovered so much about our past and about our world with so little at our disposal.
Whatever we say about our past will always remain a guess, an educated guess or a very likely scenario, a guess nevertheless. That does not mean we cannot be convinced of certain things in our subjective mind. The point is we should be clear in stating where evidence takes us and where speculation begins.
My astronomy research, and researches by many other researchers have conclusively shown that our civilization goes back to at least through one complete cycle of the precession of equinoxes, i.e. about 26000 years. This is not to suggest that our civilization does not extend beyond this timeline. Rather, what happens is that our ability to corroborate distinct evidence goes down substantially, prior to this date, for various reasons.
Specifically I have shown, with the help of internal evidence of Valmiki Ramayana and Mahabharata that Ramayana did not take place any time after 10000 BCE and Mahabharata did not take place any time after 4500 BCE. I have also proposed specific years: 12209 BCE for Rama-Ravana yuddha and 5561 BCE (originally proposed by Dr. Vartak) for the Mahabharata war.
We recently interviewed Shri Shrikant Talageri and he had this to say,
“I will not comment on Indian enthusiasts who want to date events in the Epics and Puranas tens of thousands, or lakhs, of years ago. I must also point out here that the Mahabharata dates around 1500-1400 BCE and not 3102 BCE (or even earlier) as many want to believe. For exact dates before this, we will have to wait for more archaeological finds and newer pieces of evidence and methods of analysis.”
How would you respond to his claim of Mahabharata date around 1500-1400 BCE?
I did read your interview of Shri Shrikant Talageri (https://www.myind.net/myind-interview-shrikant-g-talageri). I have had personal communication with him, in the past, on few occasions. He has done fascinating research on the chronology of Rigveda Mandalas.
But coming back to my response to his claim of 1500-1400 BCE as the timing of Mahabharata, I have decisively falsified any and all claims for Mahabharata year that falls after 4000 BCE. AV observation falsifies any claim that falls after 4508 BCE. Set of observations of Bhishma Nirvana falsifies any claim that falls after 4000 BCE. Interestingly, Shri Shrikant Talageri has provided neither evidence in support of his claim of 1500-1400 BCE for the timing of Mahabharata nor critique of my two specific evidences: AV observation and Bhishma Nirvana.
To be fair, he did express certain objections and even alternate theory (I have termed it ‘psychological theory’) to explain AV observation. Regrettably, he turned a testable theory into an irrefutable theory and thus into a metaphysical theory and hence into a non-scientific theory. In fact I used his criticism to advance two other theories (theory of Omens and also theory of Canons) which results in further insights and antiquity for traditions of astronomy observations in India. One of my good friends who should remain unnamed, at this time, is working on the theory of Canons. But I digressed.
To his second point regarding the need to wait for archaeological finds, I would say that, in that case, he misunderstands how archeological evidence is employed, or rather should be employed in corroborating/validating a claim. Archeological evidence may corroborate a given claim but is incapable of falsifying it. For example, if future archeological finds show development of culture as described in Mahabharata text for the time interval of 6th millennium BCE (5561 BCE), that would be a good corroboration for my claim. On the other hand absence of similar archeological evidence does not falsify my claim(s) for 5561 BCE for the year of Mahabharata war or for 12209 BCE for the year of Rama-Ravana yuddha. All it will infer is that my claims have not been corroborated, yet, by archeological evidence.
I do not know what he is referring to when he mentions ‘newer pieces of evidence’ or ‘method of analysis’. Therefore I cannot meaningfully comment on them.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced in mainstreaming your painstaking research?
I will not talk about the role of Indologists from academia. Most of them (with very few exceptions) are pompous fools. They do wield significant clout among ordinary folks but this is because ordinary folks are enamored by their titles and degrees and thus are incapable of seeing through their nonsense. Of course, Indologists, experts and authorities do have a role to play if they strive hard to explain their work in a language everyone can understand so that anyone interested in such subjects, but without specific educational background, would able to understand what is being said.
I have received enormous support and feedback from ordinary and intellectual folks, both from academia and ordinary walks of life, and this is not limited to people of Indian origin.
Pro-India camp of Indologist is a mixed bag. Many of them derive their methodologies from European/American Indologists. Many of them completely lack knowledge of scientific method and get trapped into methods of justification and method of quoting authorities. They also do not recognize the value of multiple proposals and conflicting claims for the same event and helplessly and hopelessly cling to their own claim as the truth. They are scared of engaging into open, rational debates and are scared of discussing testing of evidence. Thus most (if not all) of Ramayana, Mahabharata and OIT/AIT researchers I have come across resort to either keeping mum (stony silence) or run like hell, on some pretext or the other.
What do you see as a desirable state for Indic research to flourish?
I want to see existence of multiple claims for identical events (e.g. Ramayana, Mahabharata, Buddha, Mahavira, Nanda dynasty, Gupta dynasty, etc.) based on similar (e.g. astronomy) and also dissimilar methodologies (e.g. Archeology, genetics, geology, astronomy, etc.). Second, I want to see the researchers behind these theories and proposals, not only willing, but also enthusiastic and eager, to expose their claim(s) to brutal and rational critique and criticism by fellow researchers. And third that both of these desires (of mine) come to a fruition. In the end chips will fall where they ought to fall. As Sir Karl Popper stated, “Good tests kill bad theories, we survive, to guess again.”
While many researchers talk of ‘irrefutable theories/proposals’ in a positive light, you are never tired in stating that ‘irrefutable evidence is never the goal of science, rather the exact opposite’ and that only ‘refutable theories/proposals qualify as scientific theories/proposals’. Could you please elaborate on this?
By ‘irrefutable theory/proposal’ I mean a theory or proposal is stated in such a way that no amount of testing will able to refute it. Here is a good example of ‘Irrefutable theory and proposal’: “If raga Deep is played in a ‘perfect manner’ the oil lamps lit by merely vibrations of the sound emanating from the instrument playing raga Deep”.
Recognize that no amount of experimentation will able to refute this theory/proposal as the claimant can always argue that raga was not played in a ‘perfect manner’, whatever that ‘perfect manner’ means.
On the other hand, ‘refutable theories and proposals’ is a stuff of science, common sense and rationality. ‘Refutable theory/proposal’ is not to be confused with whether a theory or proposal is been already refuted or not.
Theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo/Kepler, Newton, and Einstein were and are refutable. This is precisely the reason another researcher (almost in the sequence stated) could improve over his predecessor and come up with a better theory which in turn was superseded by another theory of another researcher.
How did you determine the timing of Mahabharata war as that of 5561 BCE?
The year of 5561 BCE (and specific days: 16 October – 2 November, 55561 BCE, per Julian calendar) was originally proposed by Dr. Padmakar Vishnu Vartak, more than 25 years ago. I would encourage readers to read his books in the original.
On the other hand, I had begun with AV observation and when I finally solved the mystery of AV observation, it led to a bounded interval of about 6500 years with 4508 BCE as its lower limit and 11091 BCE as its upper limit, for the plausible year of Mahabharata war. I called this interval (4508 BCE – 11091 BCE) the ‘Epoch of Arundhati’. This is when I began testing proposals by previous researchers that fell within the ‘Epoch of Arundhati’ and Dr. Vartak’s proposal was one of the few that fell within this ‘Epoch of Arundhati’. While I could falsify other proposals, year 5561 BCE resisted all my attempts to falsify it as the year of Mahabharata war.
But if all you have done is verified the proposed date of Vartak (5561 BCE) for the timing of Mahabharata war, I fail to understand your original contribution. Have you discussed your work with Dr. Vartak?
I will elaborate on my original contribution in a moment. But here is what Dr. Vartak had to say about my work.
In his words,
“You have done a great job. I requested astronomers to consider if Arundhati had gone ahead of Vasisth in 1971, when I published 'Swayambhu'. But nobody cared. You are the first to do the great job!”
What AV observation did is established a falsifying wall of 4508 BCE for the timing of Mahabharata. This means anyone claiming year of Mahabharata war that falls after 4508 BCE has an onus to explain AV observation for their proposed year of Mahabharata war.
My original contribution is that all astronomy observations of Mahabharata text can be explained using simple theory, viz. ‘All astronomy observations of Mahabharata text are factual and/or visual observations of the sky’. This took away the need for numerous ad-hoc and also subjective hypotheses Dr. Vartak (and all other researchers) had to resort to in explaining these observations.
In addition, I corrected problem of Vartak’s proposal for pre-war and post-war events of Mahabharata war; one of the key and decisive event being that of Bhishma Nirvana, which in turn provided independent validation for 5561 BCE as the year of Mahabharata war, and in the process created another falsifying wall against any claims for Mahabharata war that fall after 4000 BCE.
My work led to solutions of many other astronomy puzzles of Mahabharata text. I will not go into their details since the subject is bit technical in nature. It would be appropriate though to quote feedback of one reader.
The reader wrote…
“I have to thank you for being the cause for a quantum leap in my own knowledge of general astronomy as well as Hindu astronomy / calendrical systems over a very short span of time. In some ways the effect of your book has some parallels with Rajiv Malhotra's 'Being Different', though in a very different context. RM never intended his book as a primer on Dharma / Hinduism - but nevertheless it introduced many aspects of Dharma in a light which would be new even to a practitioner. Similarly, even though I am sure you never intended your book to act as an exploration of key astronomical principles and Vedic astronomy - that has definitely been a key side benefit, at least from my perspective.”
There are numerous other original and significant contributions of my work, but these will do fine for our interview.
Let me bring you back to your comment for a scientific theory to be necessarily refutable. How is your proposal refutable?
Great question! My explanation for AV observation, specifically Arundhati walking ahead of Vasishtha is based on Arundhati crossing the meridian before Vasishtha, anytime during the ‘Epoch of Arundhati’. Other researchers can always come up with another ‘testable’ definition for Arundhati walking ahead of Vasishtha and in that case we would have at least two competing claims to choose from. Still another researcher may show with verifiable/testable evidence that rate of precession is actually different than what I have assumed and thus may show that the bounds for ‘Epoch of Arundhati’ are different than what I have claimed.
In addition, a proposed year falling within the ‘Epoch of Arundhati’ is a necessary condition for it to pass the corroboration of AV observation, however, it is not a sufficient condition. This is because series of 200+ astronomy observations await to test this proposed year further any proposal that falls within the ‘Epoch of Arundhati’ still has to corroborate these additional astronomy observations.
Don’t you think relying solely on astronomy evidence may be dangerous? Shouldn’t we also look at archaeological, geological, linguistics, anthropological, genetics and other such evidence?
One should not rely solely on anything. The single criteria for evaluating evidence is its ‘testability’. And our ability to test a specific evidence changes with time. For example, availability of astronomy software opened up possibilities to test astronomy observations of our ancient texts. Our growing knowledge of geology, sea levels of the past and genetics is opening up new vistas where we will able to test additional evidence from our ancient texts.
More disciplines we can employ to test evidence from the same ancient text, stronger would be our testing and we will feel more confident about our assertions. Since the publication of my book on Mahabharata war and its predicted year of 5525 BCE for the flooding of Krishna’s Dwarka, ample evidence is flooding in from the varied disciplines of geology, anthropology, astronomy, ancient records of earthquakes, floods, sea levels rise and linguistics that is corroborating 5525 BCE as the time for flooding and destruction of Dwarka. This is very exciting and fulfilling.
My work on Ramayana, and specifically due to the time period it led me to (i.e. 13th millennium BCE), I am looking at evidence from global catastrophes that falls in the realms of evolution, sea levels and changes to floors of the seas, shifting of river courses and drying of rivers, shifting of geographical locations of poles and much more.
But let me leave you with my assertion that ‘Astronomy’ evidence is equal to (if not superior) to any other evidence from any other field. Do remember that a researcher should never begin with a priori expectation in mind, either for the solution to the problem he is trying to solve or for the type of evidence he will end up employing in solving the problem.
You said “Archeological evidence may corroborate a given claim but is incapable of falsifying it.” But isn’t it true that newfound archeological evidence for horses in India or other archeological finds from area of Sindhu-Sarasvati civilization, has falsified theories such as AIT? This means archeological evidence can indeed falsify a prevailing theory or a proposed date.
(Laughs). This is because the original formulation of the theory (e.g. AIT, horses, chariots, writing scripts, languages, etc.) itself was based on a faulty logic. For example, based on archeological evidence for a chariot that was found in central Asia for a time period of say 2500 BCE, if someone formulates a theory/proposal that “Chariot technology did not exist prior to 2500 BCE” the chap is only preparing himself for an unpleasant surprise (unpleasant and surprise alright, but only to him) when another excavation shows evidence of chariots, say going back to 4000 BCE.
This is then the problem of poor logic of those who interpret and employ such data; not of the data itself. All we can infer from such evidence is that, based on archeological evidence of chariot in 2500 BCE, it appears that chariots existed, at least in that part of the world, around 2500 BCE. The evidence has nothing to say about the existence of chariots before (or after) this time period or for their existence in some other parts of the world.
I will end my comments on this topic by quoting Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
“It is a very recent disease to mistake the unobserved for the nonexistent; but some are plagued with the worse disease of mistaking the unobserved for the unobservable.”
I notice you love to quote quotes (laughs). It would be great if we conclude our interview with your own quote, if you have one.
Timing of Mahabharata and Ramayana would serve as key milestones in knowing more about our ancient civilization. And while not many researchers have involved themselves on the dating of Ramayana, all of them have to face the question of timing of Mahabharata, for numerous reasons, whether they are researching recent history of India or researching Rigveda or Indian calendric system based on of Indian astronomy. Therefore, I will quote what I wrote about AV observation of Mahabharata text.
“If ‘AV observation of Mahabharata text’ does not qualify as the most unambiguous astronomical evidence in determining the date of Mahabharata War, let’s stop talking about astronomical evidence in Mahabharata.” - Nilesh Oak