*(In recent months
there has been a lot of discussion on the kind of history textbooks
being prescribed in the BJP ruled states and in the RSS linked and
supported Vidya Bharti and Shishu Mandir schools. Yet the propagation of
an unscientific, chauvinist and obscurantist worldview is not confined
to social science teaching. The kind of havoc that these right wing
fascist Hindutva forces can play with young minds pervades their books
on science and mathematics as well. 'Vedic mathematics ' is not
something being propagated simply 'out there' in RSS shakhas. In 1991
all the four BJP ruled states i.e., Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh,
Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, introduced Vedic Mathematics (VM) into
the school syllabus and intended to do the same in the syllabi of
engineering colleges and polytechnics. While they were forced to
withdraw it from the government schools, the teaching of VM continues
elsewhere, and attempts are being made to reintroduce it again. The
source of this VM obsession is an old book penned by late Sri Bharathi
Krishna Tirthaji Maharaja, Sankaracharya of Govardhana Matha, Puri. Dr.
T Jayaraman's comments on the book are extracted from his ***Science
and Secularism***, a booklet issued by
the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and Frontline.)*

What is this "Vedic
Mathematics"?

It is somewhat difficult to define as
the very terminology is used only by a small set of authors and a
handful of mathematicians. The purveyors of "Vedic
mathematics" are agreed, however, that the landmark work in this
"discipline" is the text Vedic Mathematics, written by
Jagadguru Swami (he died in 1960) and published in 1965 (Jagadguru,
1965). It is instructive to examine this text in some detail.

The title page has the interesting
sub-title, "Sixteen Simple Mathematical formulae: from the Vedas
(For one-line answers to all Mathematical problems)." Passing
through diverse prefatory remarks by various personalities (none of whom
is a mathematician), we come to the author’s preface, arranged in
numbered paragraphs. After explaining the meaning of the word "Veda"(paragraph
2), the author continues in the following vein (paragraph 3): "In
other words, it connotes and implies that our ancient Indian Vedic lore
should be all round complete and perfect and able to throw the fullest
necessary light on 511 matters which any aspiring seeker after knowledge
can possibly seek to be enlightened on." In paragraph 9 the reader
learns that "we were agreeably astonished and intensely gratified
to find that exceedingly tough mathematical problems (which the
mathematically most advanced present day Western scientific world had
spent huge lots of time, energy and money on and which even now it
solves with the utmost difficulty...) can be easily and readily solved
with the help of these ultra-easy Vedic Sutras...contained in the *Parisishta*
(the Appendix-portion) of the Atharvaveda in a few simple steps and by
methods which can be conscientiously described as mere mental
arithmetic."

Having informed us that he has
regularly lectured on the subject at Nagpur University (paragraph 11),
the author unfolds his "revolutionary" findings in paragraph
14 (vi): "As regards the time required by the students for
mastering the whole course of Vedic mathematics as applied to all its
branches, we need merely state from our actual experience that 8 months
(or 12 months) at an average rate of 2 or 3 hours per day should suffice
for completing the whole course of mathematical studies on these Vedic
lines instead of 15 or 20 years required according to the existing
systems Of the Indian and also of foreign universities ."

After all this promise, we find inside
the book mathematics of the middle and high school level, where the
emphasis is throughout on a series of tricks (whose origins are
explained) to solve various problems: for example, faster ways of
dividing, multiplying and factorizing numbers, and ways of dealing with
problems in Comics. Some readers may find the book diverting; some of
the methods described may actually be useful somewhere in school
teaching (though this needs detailed investigation). The real issue,
however, is not so much the level of the contents as the additional
philosophical baggage that is provided. How are we to take the assertion
that the Vedas provide the answers to all questions of mathematics? Is
there any scientific sense, which a particular body of knowledge can be
said to contain the answer to all questions of mathematics? The contents
of the book seem far-removed from this goal, comprising as they do
elementary mathematics; even the list provided of the subjects intended
to be dealt with by the author in later volumes (which were never
published) does not rise above this level.

In fact, mathematics from the high
school level indisputably requires material that cannot be provided by
the "Vedic" or for that matter "Islamic",
"Greek", or "Babylonian". Modern mathematical
teaching requires considerable input that cannot be traced back to
antiquity. The book Vedic Mathematics seeks constantly to prove the
superiority of various "Hindu" methods to "Western"
methods, the reference point often being English texts long fallen out
of use, presumably dating to the author's youth. Nor is the book of any
use in studying the history of mathematics in India; it is simply
unequal to the task.

What, in fact, is "Vedic"
about the mathematics set out in the book? Some of the examples cited
are already well known to historians and adequately described elsewhere.
As for the appendices to the Atharvaveda, the alleged source of the
Vedic mathematical riches described in the book, they appear to be
totally non-existent. No authoritative edition of the text of the
Atharvaveda contains the appendices referred to. The game is given away
in the General Editor's Foreword, where it is noted that these
"appendices" are not part of the established texts but should
be regarded as new and the "discovery" of the author himself!
The General Editor also notes that the style of language makes it clear
that the 'Appendices' are the author's own discovery and that the book
should be judged on its own merits—where of course the book fails
miserably from the standpoint of science.

Despite its absurd claims and
transparently bogus status, Jagadguru Swami's book became the focus of a
National Workshop on Vedic Mathematics held at Jaipur in March 1988 by
the Rashtriya Veda Vidya Pratishthan and various other Government bodies
and universities. The proceedings were published as issues in Vedic
Mathemaics (Khare, 1991). The seminar enjoyed the official patronage of
the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the objectives of the
seminar were spelt out in a letter to all participants by the Special
Secretary, Department of Education. The papers presented at the seminar
scarcely rise above the level of the book that inspired them While some
participants talk about applying the "Vedic" methods to
developing algorithms for computers others prefer to assert that these
methods render calculators and computers redundant. Several of the
articles indeed are, to put it charitably, nonsense from any scientific
viewpoint. The seminar ends with recommendations to the Government: a
second seminar to be held on VM, in which traditional and modern
mathematicians are to study the introduction of VM at different levels;
a committee to study the introduction of VM in schools; research in VM;
multimedia strategies for awareness of VM; the Department of Electronics
to be sounded out on VM applications to computer technology. One
interesting whistle-blowing paper (Shukla, 1991, p. 31) brings to light
the fact that the Sankaracharya's book is not based on what is in the
Vedas.

Clearly the BJP-led Governments rushed
in where others feared to tread: they introduced this material in the
schools. Any doubts about their reasons for doing so were dispelled by
the BJP education Minister of Uttar Pradesh at a workshop in Allahabad
in April 1992: he simply declared that "whatever is very ancient
for India, that precisely is most modern for the world".(see *Seminarist*,
1992). The efforts of revivalist Hindutva in respect of the exact
sciences would indeed be laughable were it not for the potential for
serious damage at the school level.