Interview: Dr Ramakrishna Puligandla -Part I

Editor’s Note: Below is a transcript of the interview with our new Medha Gold personality, our Resident Philosopher. We will also make available the audio of this interview, which has more details on each conversation. Please keep coming back to check.

The interviewer’s relevant comments, which are a part of the conversational flow, are shown in brackets, in gray font.

Thanks for reading on…

Ravi of Medha Journal went and interviewed Dr Puligandla at his home. Gracious host as ever, he spent the better part of a relaxed afternoon answering the curious seeker, the new Medhavi, as it were.

The Interview Session Begins…

(Introduction to the Medha Gold IntervieweešŸ™‚

Dr Ramakrishna Puligandla is a Professor Emeritus at the Univ of Toledo , and after a long and distinguished career in both Physics and Philosophy, with a PhD from Rice University, he is an authority comfortable in both worlds. He was born in pre independence India and came to the US after his electrical engineering degree to pursue further studies. In the intervening four plus decades, he’d had a lot of experience and wisdom, and many achievements. I’m sure Medhavis would love to share his wisdom.

So I’d like to introduce our Medhavi readers/listeners to Dr Ramakrishna Puligandla.

And maybe we can start by asking some simple leading questions.


(Questions and Answers)

Q: Dr Puligandla, you’ve written many books, . Which one was the one you enjoyed writing the most, & why?

A: That’s a very interesting question. It is difficult to choose & pinpoint “these are the most important books". However, some books I wrote as Texts for colleges and universities. Others were put together in the form of a book, and as lectures, and delivered at various universities, & so on & so forth. So, by & large I would say that I consider, for example, my book on the interpretation of Quantum Theory, as a very clear contribution to the understanding of Quantum Mechanics. And my book on Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy, originally published in 1975-76 is still very widely used in the United States, Australia, Europe, India…(It’s a University course book) Yes.

And then I wrote a subsequent work; it is called as Jnana Yoga, the way of knowledge & analytical interpretation. Which is also regarded by many scholars here and abroad, as a very unique approach to the whole subject of Jnana. (To be honest, for people like us who are laymen, who are not practicing professionals in Philosophy, I think it is very accessible. If the three books you have mentioned, that is the one book I have read a little bit) And one of the books more recently published 4-5 years ago, is ‘That Thou Art’ .It is basically on Vedanta with special emphasis on Advaita. And it is written with the larger general reading public in mind. (That’s the other book of yours that I’ve also read. I feel it is very accessible, cause when we read other books of philosophy, sometimes the jargon and the terminology just takes over, and sometimes we feel lost as a lay reader) So these are some of the books

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Q: When you write these books, especially these last 2 books, "Jnana Yoga", and “That Thou Art”, they’re not necessarily aimed as a University Public. So you are consciously making an effort to be accessible to the public?

A: The Jnana Yoga, is used in Graduate Seminars, here as well as outside of the country. (So you didn’t take any special efforts to make it less technical? Compared to the other books that I read in philosophy, it sounds very clear, without the many new words that I have to struggle to understand.) Yes Yes. My main aim there is to approach the whole subject of Jnana Yoga from a very unique point of view. Yes there are several books on Jnana Yoga, as you know. But I thought that somehow, the essential principles that constitute Jnana Yoga have never been singled out and articulated very clearly. And interestingly enough, one reviewer of that book said that I have not kept apart, separately, the Vedanta and Madhyamika Buddhism to that person observed that I have not clearly kept them separate. Somehow I have ‘blended them and put them together’. And he is correct in his observations, although he considers it as a criticism of me, (but somehow from your point of view..) my point of view…yes…because Jnana Yoga is not just confined to Vedanta, JnanaYoga is what you find in Madhyamika too. And even in Tibetan Buddhism, but I dealt with Madhyamika, Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika.

Q: Based on the way you have defined Jnana Yoga in the book, i.e the three categories of knowledge, Jnana Yoga meaning going beyond categorical frameworks, studying the frameworks themselves ?

A: Right. And therefore my friend Prof Srinivasa Rao, who also had a big hand in editing the essays for my Festschrift, it is he who came up with the title, "Breaking Barriers". (This is the book that I’m holding in my hand, Breaking Barriers, Essays in Contemporary Philosophy in honor of Prof Ramakrishna Puligandla..) Yes…if you wanted to keep the barriers, Madhyamika Buddhism would be on this side, Vedanta on that, etc. Srinivasa Rao told me, “You know, what you have done is really…that is how one should approach Jnana Yoga. So he said, in light of that book, let’s even title this book this way. (So it’s a testimonial to the transcending of barriers, or the frameworks which make barriers possible) Yes, right.

(Great! So we’ve had a nice start to the interview, thanks.)

So Vedantins, and Madhyamika Buddhists, including of course the Tibetan Buddhists, they can all sit down and have a conversation, and come to see that they’re all on the same path.

Q: This can lead into the next question, which is…fast forwarding to today’s world, …again most of my questions come from a layman’s point of view, and especially because the audience is also non-practitioners…The second question is basically…

The nature of knowledge is treated in such a fragmentary way by today’s society. With your insights into both modern, i.e. post-Newtonian Physics, and what is often called as mysticism, i.e. Yoga Vedanta and so called Esoteric traditions, what would you say is urgently required in our educational system? Meaning, is there something missing, or is there something that needs to be changed, in order to go back to the level that you were talking about, i.e. Jnana Yoga, from the current state where the barriers are in place right now?

A: You see, today there is a lot of interest in the study of religion, especially in the west. I have heard some close friends of mine, Indian scholars, and some Western scholars of the Indian tradition. They said that somehow, Colleges, Universities, etc in India are not placing much emphasis on the study of religion, or what they call as religious traditions. Yes, certainly of course they have a point to make. But in the West, there is enormous interest in the study of religions, and if you just go any bookstore & see, there are hundreds of books on traditions, and world religions are taught in all colleges and universities.

Nevertheless, for someone who teaches religions, that person should be quite conversant with all the traditions, at more or less at an equal & good level. But quite often it is not the case. (Because the system doesn’t always require one to be. Is that fair to say?) The system requires it. But unfortunately, the Universities & Colleges, in order to save money & so on, they have what they call part-time and adjunct people, and some of them are ministers, and even those who have degrees, PhDs, etc, they also do not have equal & firm footing in all these traditions. (They are committed to one particular framework) …and see all from that particular framework.

The next point in this context is, people still think that science & religion are separate, i.e. Religion deals with Faith, God, & so forth, and Science of course, deals with testable aspects & other aspects of the world of experience. Although it should be granted that in recent years some efforts were made to put science & religion together. And you know some work was done and is being done at University of Pennsylvania. They call it Neuro-Theology, studying Neurosciences, and studying the people engage in meditation, prayer, & so on, and finding out what parts of the brain are active during those sessions. And they’re trying to show -I think it’s Andrew Newberg- and trying to show that whether one is engaged in prayer or meditation, or some form of Yoga or the other, somehow they all activate the same parts of the brain. They call it Neuro-Theology. (Laughs)

So these things are going on. Certainly these are commendable attempts. At least to see the correlations between religious practices and Neurophysical processes. While I certainly encourage those kinds of studies, what I want to emphasize upon is that we should be able to demonstrate that in the last analysis there is no real hostility, or enmity, or incompatibility, between the pursuit of best science, and the pursuit of the commendable religious practice.

And this requires a complete overhauling of how these disciplines are to be studied in the first place, and taught. (Right…Because people like you are in a unique position, someone who has got a deep Physics background, and Philosophy background. And in normal thinking, Physics belongs to Science, and Philosophy, I suppose , belongs to Humanities. And they generally choose one stream) Right. And I might mention in this context, my friend Prof. George Sudarshan, at University of Texas, Austin, nominated for the Nobel prize three times. He is one of those rare Physicists. He is a great Theoretical Physicist, but he’s also very learned…in Sanskrit and the Upanishads. Oh yes..thorough!

And he is one of those few people, he’s a scientist, who has taken the approach I have in mind, as to how to put (..He ‘s a practical exemplar of what you’re talking about)Yes. And as you look into this book, you will find that he contributed an essay ( the Festschrift…"Breaking Barriers"…) on Quantum Mechanics & Vedanta. ( Yes I saw his name there…that should be interesting to read & learn from)

Q: The third question…Taking you back to your childhood…Could you share some of your childhood details? Especially since…occasionally you’ve shared with me some of these things, specially about your experiences, unique by today’s standards. These include the fact that you also studied with a traditional Guru, in a Gurukul style environment in India …and how that shaped you as an adult, and later as an accomplished Physicist / Philosopher?

You used to tell us that your parents, in your formative years sent you to study with a guru.

A: Yes. Because, especially in those days when I was a kid, yes, there were Sanskrit colleges, and there were some Gurukulas, but most parents were interested in having their child educated in the Western Occidental schools, and very few people sent their children to study Sanskrit, the language, the texts, the traditions, and so on.

That was true in my case also. Yes, in the high school I went to, there was a Sanskrit teacher. And some kids took Sanskrit as their second language. So by the time I was about 12 & a half, thirteen, my parents thought that it is important that I learnt Sanskrit language, and traditions, & so on.

So they entrusted me to a family friend. His name is Madabhushy Krishnamacharya, and he was also the president of the local Sanskrit college (and you grew up in Nellore) Yes…and he was a great Yogin. And so they entrusted me to him and said “Teach him this..& this..& this..thing” (So they certainly felt that this was not something that would happen in the school) Right. So that’s how I studied under this guru. There were also three other boys with me. Their parents also felt the same way. So we would go and visit the guru Friday afternoons after school, stay at his place, and come home Sunday afternoon. Twice a month. And I had been with him until I left the country. (I see..for an extended period of..) twelve thirteen years.

So it is when I studied with him, that I have learnt the language, and the texts. Where it be the Vedas, Upanishads, Vedanta Sutras, Shankara’s commentaries, Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika. All those things I studied under him.

(You studied the originals, and that was the scholarship you did with him) Yes. (Along with that, you also mentioned that it shaped you in a very important way.) Yes a very important way. With the result that I never took any courses, either in Sanskrit, or in Indian Philosophical & religious traditions. (When you say “not taken any courses”, you mean College / Universities) Yes. I don’t have a single course in my transcript. (So you took it the old fashioned traditional way) Right.

And the teaching that the guru offered me, I consider it extremely valuable, (emphatically) one of the best things that came to me in my life. And without having to study those things in Colleges & Universities & so on, I am very happy to say, quite modestly, that my accomplishments in those areas, are equal to, or even superior to those who have taken those things in Colleges and Universities. And that only of course is a testimony to the uniqueness and the effectiveness of studying with a (proper guru) ..in the old traditional way (and he taught you the way a Guru teaches, I suppose)Yes.

And so after 2 or 3 years of studying with him, I also asked him to initiate me, and he gave me practical disciplines and so on. This he was kind enough to agree and do. So he also gave me the various exercises & so on..

(So this is what ideally a guru is supposed to do, right? To first understand the student, and then give what is appropriate specifically to that student) Yes. And you are quite correct in that respect. What he gave me was different from..well there are a few overlaps…from the exercises he gave the other fellows. There are some overlaps, there are some (He made sure there are crucial differences, to treat each person uniquely) Yes.

(For people like me who have been to your classes, some of the evidence is probably seen there, because you don’t seem to need any notes when you teach. Is it part of your early training?)

Yes, well, (laughs) Not only for that. I do not prepare for classes (Even when you go to the University?) No. I never prepare for classes (laughing) I just go to the class, that’s all, and pick up where we left. Last time. (because the knowledge is so part of you? ) Right. It’s only when I want to give someone a reference or something, then I want to make sure that I do give the correct reference. Only then I would look up the Bibliographies & so on. And sometimes when I teach advanced courses, either in Electromagnetic theory, or Quantum Mechanics, I would sometimes spend a little bit of time to make sure that all the equations & those things are fine. (So not only is it true for philosophy courses, but even for Physics courses?) and mathematics and logic and all those things. Plus , once one has been a professor for such a long time, you don’t need anything!

And I might mention in this context to you…I’m sure you have heard of S Bhagavantam? Suri Bhagavantam ? The world famous Physicist. (Ok…) He is my wife’s grandfather. He was also the director of the Indian Institute of science, Bangalore. And he was Raman’s boy. (Ohh..C V ) Yes, CV Raman the Nobelist. When CV Raman was in Calcutta, went there as the Professor of Physics. Then Bhagavantam, with a BS from Osmania University, went there as Raman’s assistant. And Raman got the Nobel prize in 1930. Bhagavantam never had any degrees beyond that BS. Then in 1929 they established Andhra University, and Radhakrishnan was Vice Chancellor. And when Raman was Physics professor in Calcutta, Radhakrishnan was Philosophy Professor in Calcutta. Ashutosh Mukherjee is the one who appointed both of them. Then Radhakrishnan called him and said “I want a first class professor of physics here. Send someone.” Then Raman said “Take Bhagavantam”. Then Dr Ranga Rama Rao, Dr K Ramakrishna Rao, PhD from Cambridge, PhD from Berlin, they all applied for that position. And when the question came that Bhagavantam does not even have a master’s degree, Raman said “Don’t worry about it, I will arrange for it.”

And then he came as Professor of Physics, and of course Ramakrishna Rao & others , they were appointed as lecturers in Physics, with their PhDs. From then itself there were some bad feelings. Over a period of time. But Bhagavantam was an incredible Physicist. He has produced more than 75 Doctorates. In every field from microwave spectroscopy to Geophysics, atmospherics, & so on. (Wow..so he never had a Phd, but he produced 75 PhD s !) And he wrote a classic book on Group Theory & Quantum Mechanics. And before I was married to his grand daughter, I took one course from him. In classical Electromagnetic theory. And it’s incredible; he would never come to class with any books. He would just come in & ask “what were we doing last time?” and then he’d just take it from there. (Laughs) (So he was a ‘Shishya’ of CV Raman ..) Yes

(A ‘Guru Shishya’ relationship there) Oh Yes. So later he became director of the Indian Institute of Science, and then he went to London as scientific liaison officer, and came back and became defence science advisor to Jawaharlal (Nehru).

And during the last years of his life, he was also a close disciple of Sai Baba, of Puttaparthi. (So when you get to the Jnana, i.e. the category free level, mysticism and science, and all that sort of comes together.) Of course. In the first place, these people have to have the natural gift for learning & so on. Then a fine Guru, whether he is a Physicist, or a Sanskritist, or whatever, that Guru will be able to channel it, hone it, nourish it, & so on.

So that’s how it happened in my case also.

[Editor’s Note: Next few minutes not transcribed…Bhagavantam on Sai Baba, etc..See audio]

(Very interesting. As incidents are coming to you, it is nice to hear. But let me try to put in another question here…)


[Editor’s Note: We will continue this wonderfully stimulating interview with Dr Puligandla in a subsequent Part II. Please come back & check Medha Gold soon!

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