Vedic Mathematics is neither truly vedic nor accurate, rigorous maths
Its proponents view it as 'a direct gift of revelation to seers and sages', and are dismissive of 'ordinary systematic enquiry'; this takes away from the true greatness of Indian mathematicians
Vedic Mathematics is a fad among parents and education-sector entrepreneurs. But there is nothing ‘Vedic’ about it. In fact, it has caused more harm than good by being mistaken for traditional Indian mathematics.
‘Vedic Mathematics’ formally came into existence with the release of a book in 1965 with an eponymous title. It was authored by Bharati Krishna Tirtha, a former head of Puri’s Govardhana Matha. While Tirtha had been conducting lecture tours on ‘Vedic’ mathematics across cities for many years, there was no book with such a title. Tirtha wasn’t around when the book was released. He passed away in 1960.
Tirtha was exceptional in many ways. Born in a Tamil-speaking family in Tirunelveli as Venkataraman Shastri in 1884, he excelled in academics and had participated in the freedom movement. He worked with Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mahatma Gandhi’s mentor. In 1921, after he had become a monk, Tirtha was among the seven arrested in what became known as the “Karachi case”, along with the Ali brothers who spearheaded the Khilafat Movement. He was eventually acquitted.
After becoming the Shankaracharya of Govardhana Matha in Puri in 1925, defying the matha’s tradition, he crossed seas and travelled to the west many times to attend conferences on religion and culture.
We can only speculate on what title the remarkable Tirtha would have given if he had been alive when the book was released. The ‘publication announcement’ by NH Bhagwati, the then vice-chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University refers to the book as Vedic Mathematics OR Sixteen Simple Mathematical Formulae. The ‘OR’ implies that the alternative title ‘Vedic Mathematics’ was probably meant for luring people into buying the book. Over decades, the marketing strategy seems to have worked brilliantly.
‘Vedic Mathematics’ is now a rage among math-focused ed-tech firms, middle-class parents, and syllabus makers across the country, though the book actually focussed only on 16 formulae.
The problem with the term
So, why is the term ‘Vedic Mathematics’ problematic?
First, the presumed link with the Vedas is tenuous. The book is claimed to have distilled its content from the Atharvaveda. However, Manjula Trivedi, Tirtha’s disciple who had the manuscript before she gave it for publishing, says in her foreword, which talks about the genesis of the work, “These formulae are not to be found in the present recensions of Atharvaveda; they were actually reconstructed, on the basis of intuitive revelation…”. In other words, if you search in Atharvaveda you won’t find these formulae.
Secondly, the book dismisses rigorous mathematical thinking as a lesser way of dealing with the subject. The promoters of Vedic Mathematics, now a cult, say that its value is not “gathered by the laborious inductive and deductive methods of ordinary systematic enquiry, but was a direct gift of revelation to seers and sages…”
Ordinary systematic enquiry? Well, systematic inquiry based on classical deductive reasoning is the only way for ordinary humans to do mathematics. Rigorously done, that might fetch one a Fields Medal, the highest award in the world of mathematics, but the book’s backers simply dismiss it as inferior to mathematics through ‘revelation’!
The value of the book?
Ok, the title may be misleading. But does the book offer value?
The book deals with quick mental calculation strategies in arithmetic. The calculation techniques are based on 16 sutras (aphorisms), and their upa-sutras (corollaries) described in the book. These are aimed at speeding up calculations in basic mathematics involving the four basic arithmetic functions, fractions, et al. These pertain to middle and high school mathematics and that explains the interest of ed-tech companies in ‘Vedic’ mathematics.
The value of ‘Vedic’ mathematics, as a collection of computational skills, is very limited compared to the hype surrounding its name. It certainly won’t help a learner think like a mathematician.
Worse, even this limited value of the book will diminish over time as institutions allow calculators in classes and examinations obviating the need to do mental calculations. Mathematical reasoning is likely to gain dominance over the ability to compute quickly. Now, Vedic maths provides no help here.
Negatives of Vedic Math
Actually, in contrast to the very limited ‘good’, Vedic mathematics causes immense harm in at least two ways.
The first is the replacement of ‘ancient Indian mathematics’ with Vedic mathematics, not just in popular imagination but also among educational policy planners across the country. The Gujarat government has introduced Vedic maths in the school curriculum this academic year. The Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments have also lined up a Vedic maths curriculum for implementation in schools.
The Centre’s proposed board to promote Vedic education in India would include Vedic mathematics. This fad is expected to catch on with the other governments as well.
Interestingly, the Vedas do deal with mathematics, but of a different kind. Consider, for example, probability. Academician C K Raju, in his paper Probability in Ancient India, (2011) points out how the theory of permutations and combinations was first developed in India, which was basic to the Indian understanding of metre and music. He says Rigveda gives an account of the game of dice, a foundation of the theory of probability.
Pingala’s Chandahsutra (written around the 3rd century CE), is a book of aphorisms on the theory of metre. In the post-Vedic period, the story of Nala and Damayanti in the Mahabharata relates dice to sampling theory (to enable a person to count the number of fruits in a tree).
The explorations were not restricted to probability. Raju says the Yajurveda used a place value system and gave names for numbers up to 1012. SG Dani, Distinguished Professor at the Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences, Mumbai says, in another paper, that a significant body of mathematical literature is available in the form of Shulvasutras, from the period between 800 BCE and 500 BCE or perhaps even earlier, some of which contain expositions of the various mathematical principles involved in the construction of sacrificial vedis needed in performing yajnas.
In the post-Vedic period, several eminent mathematicians from the sub-continent made significant contributions to the domain. The works of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara, Sridhara, Madhava of Sangamagrama, Parameshvara, and Nilakantha are well-known. The author of Vedic mathematics is not in their league.
More recent glory
The second damage that Vedic mathematics has done is to hide the achievements of modern Indian mathematicians, as if glorious mathematics was done only in the distant past in India. Sure, as an exception, Srinivasa Ramanujan is mentioned as a hero in school textbooks. But few high school kids know about his work. The contributions of eminent Indian-origin mathematicians of global repute such as Harish Chandra, Narendra Karmarkar, Alladi Krishnaswami and Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava hardly find any mention in our textbooks.
A vacuous sense of pride in some formulae of unknown origin and diminishing value is no substitute for the significance and usefulness of the long mathematical tradition of this sub-continent.
(The author consults in the education domain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)