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India’s next gift to the world could be Vedic mathematics

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The rising popularity of Vedic maths is partly because of a renewed campaign by the nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi Photo: APThe rising popularity of Vedic maths is partly because of a renewed campaign by the nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi Photo: APIndia’s next gift to the world, if its Hindu nationalist government has its way, could be the secret to lightning quick mental arithmetic.

Vedic mathematics, a set of supposedly ancient techniques that help even the most numerically challenged to conquer difficult sums, is surging in popularity as government ministers claim that they could hold the key to better education, reports.

From next month, three Indian universities will begin to offer courses in Vedic calculations while home-learners can watch an entire television channel devoted to the subject on one of India’s digital networks. Several thousand teachers have been recruited for private college courses. Its supporters believe Vedic maths could become a major export like yoga and curry.

The rising popularity of Vedic maths is partly because of a renewed campaign by the nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, to lay India’s claim to the cornerstones of human knowledge. He marked India’s successful mission to Mars last year by claiming its ancient Vedic scientists had conceived of air travel thousands of years before the Wright Brothers made their first flight. It was a reference to a disputed ’veda’ which described ancient air travel between Indian cities and to other planets.

More recently Mr Modi said Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu God, was evidence of early Indian knowledge of plastic surgery.

There have also been claims that algebra, trigonometry, Pythagoras’ theorem, the concept of zero and the decimal system all originated in India.

“Our scientists discovered the Pythagoras theorem but we gave its credit to the Greeks,” said Harsh Vardhan, the science and technology minister. India was familiar with algebra before the Arabs and made pioneering discoveries in astronomy, medicine and earth sciences but allowed others to take the credit, he added.

’Vedic maths’ is a series of short-cut techniques to simplify complicated calculations based on 16 verses discovered in the early 20th century by the Hindu guru Jagadguru Shankaracharya Bharati Krishna Tirthaji Maharaja.. “I want it go worldwide. Students in Singapore, United Kingdom, the United States are very interested because it’s so easy ... mathematics without tears, magic for students who struggle with maths”, said Dina Nath Batra, a Hindu nationalist educationalist who enjoys the support of the prime minister.

The verses are guides to turn difficult sums into quick mental maths using simple rules. The Nikhilam Navatashcaramam Dashatah - 'all from nine, last from ten’ – for example, speeds the multiplication of large numbers by breaking them down to their common bases: To multiply 48 by 52, the numbers are broken into (50-2) and (50+2) and the square of the smaller sum (4) subtracted from the square of the larger (2,500) to reach the answer of 2,496.

Similarly, division is simplified by multiplying the denominator into a base ten number: 44/25 = 176/100 = 1.76.

The government’s promotion of ’Vedic’ knowledge has caused controversy in recent weeks over fears that education and science are being politicised with religion.

Shashi Tharoor, External Affairs minister in the previous Congress-led government and a former United Nations under secretary general, said both sides had done India a disservice. He ridiculed Mr Modi’s claim that India had discovered plastic surgery, but criticised modernists for challenging more probable findings.

He supported the science minister’s assertion that Pythagoras’ theorem was discovered in India and said Newton, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo had also been “beaten to their famous ’discoveries’ by an unknown and unsung Indian centuries earlier”.

Gravity was explained in the Rig Veda, 2,400 years before Newton’s apple injury, while Aryabhata was the first to explain that the rotation of the round earth on its axis was the cause of sunrise and sunset.

The debate has raised an uncomfortable question for Hindu nationalists on how India lost its scientific and mathematical advantages over the following millennia.

Dina Nath Batra said Muslim invasions and British colonial rule were to blame. The ancient knowledge had been neglected “because we’ve been slaves of the Mohammedans and the British for 2,000 years. Nalanda [the ancient Indian university] and other places of wisdom were destroyed”, he said.

Professor H.S Mukunda, who led a 1974 study which debunked the claims of a ’Vedic’ aircraft, said ancient knowledge is only of value if it can be put to current use. “If my father was an outstanding man and I am ordinary, what can I do by carrying on about what a great man my father was?” he asked the Indian Express.

January 8 2015, 15:16

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