Vedic Mathematics


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"Vedic Mathematics": Education Hindutva Style

T Jayaraman
The author is a theoretical physicist at the Institute of mathematical sciences, Madras and an active member of Tamil Nadu Science Forum



(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.



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Last updated: October 30, 2000 .