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FAQ in Ancient Indian Mathematics

  1. What were the strengths of the ancient Indian Mathematicians

The Indian Mathematicians of  the ancient era were primarily number theorists. Their interest in this field arose from a need to do astronomical calculations, which in turn were needed to advise the farmers on the proper timing to plant crops and for performing rituals . In particular they excelled in Diophantine Equations, algebraic equations in which only solutions in integers are permitted. Examples of  Diophantine equations that the ancients dealt with are


  • ax + by = 1:  this is a linear Diophantine.

  • xn + yn = zn: For n = 2 there are infinitely many solutions (x,y,z), the Pythagorean triples. For larger values of n, Fermat's last theorem states that no positive integer solutions x, y, z satisfying the above equation exist.

  • x2 - n y2 = 1: (Pell's equation) which is named, mistakenly, after the English mathematician John Pell. It was studied by Brahmagupta and much later by Fermat.

Another field or approach which the ancients favored was algebraic geometry, where geometry was studied predominantly using algebraic equations. Again the need was for designing ritual altars and their proper orientation with respect to the heavenly bodies and for following the rules of Vastu sastra (architecture) .

Of course, the most important single concept that they developed was the decimal place value system. While other civilizations like the Maya and the Oaxaca of ancient Mexico developed place value systems independently, there is no evidence that they mastered the technique of using numbers with such facility  as the Vedics did. The Vedics also developed facility with areas such as Trigonometry and there is mention that they manipulated arrays of numbers in the same manner as we use matrices today.

Even with all these skills, it must be recognized that this forms only a small part of what constitutes the corpus of modern mathematics today. It must also be recognized that the Greeks and the Babylonians also had developed mathematical prowess, if one accepts that the axiomatic approach to geometry as primarily a Greek development.

Despite all these caveats, it must be admitted that for the era in which  they lived the Vedic contributions to the sum of human knowledge especially in mathematics was considerable and should therefore be a matter of great inspiration for those of us who consider themselves part of the Indic civilization. Further there is much study yet to be done and many more manuscripts which remain uninvestigated so the quest for what was the state of knowledge of the ancients in fields such as mathematics has just begun

  1. Why do you use the term Vedic mathematics

Strictly speaking the later contributors like Varahamihira did not live in the Vedic era, but the methods used show a continuity in development till the Modern age and hence the use of the term Vedic , signifying techniques which came into use in the distant past seems justified

  1. Why even bother with Vedic mathematics when we have progressed much farther in the intervening millennia ?

    I will quote the answer I gave in a discussion forum (Bharat-Rakshak)a few years ago. "

    First, do we understand the corpus of VM and Vedic Science (i certainly dont know enough about VM to make an authoritative statement). What part of what we know to be contributions, were purely Vedic and what part were contributions by mathematicians like Aryabhatta and Bhaskaracharya who came much later ?

    Second what part of it is already accepted in modern mathematics ( and I am not talking about arithmetical tricks to do multiplication and division). I remember in my Hall and Stevens text on geometry which i used in India, the proof of Pythagoras theorem took up a whole page. I would have loved to have the 4 alternate proofs offered by the VMB. I am interested for example in the development of Astronomy. Ptolemy used a concept called ecliptics (if i recall the use of epicycles - pl. dont harangue me on this, as this is of the top of my head)to get around the fact that the earth went around the sun and not the other way around. Did he borrow that from Vedic or was that a different stream of thought (Ptolemy of course predates al-Khwarismi and his 'Sindhind zij'). Given that Ptolemy post dates Vedic why did al-Khwarismi choose to rely more on Vedic ( a more ancient technology) when he presumably had access to both ?

    Third the point made by James is valid. The point is not to judge Vedic Science by the standards of 21st century and then trash it saying it is outmoded. Of course it is outmoded, in certain respects, you should expect that after 6 millenia. If it was not, that is tantamount to admitting that we have made no progress in the intervening millenia. The point is, does it give an alternate model at looking at nature (e.g. ayurveda) that is equally valid, useful and perhaps more elegant.

    Fourth, these efforts at understanding our past, should not be restricted to Vedic systems but to other systems in India's past such as Yunani (etymology ionian = Greek) which is attributed to Islamic savants. I am interested for example in tracing through the development of algebra (coined by alKhwarismi as al-gibr wal maquaballah) from its ancient Vedic origins because of the efforts of Islamic savants in the middle ages, at a time when Europe was in the dark ages and was struggling with Roman numerals.

    My own view is that Vedic science and math is a forgotten science and for the most part does not contradict what has been discovered subsequently. First let us understand what it says before getting an anxiety neurosis that it is going to replace Western science in Indian schools.


  2. Where are these results to be found in the ancient texts

The earliest works on Mathematics by the Vedic savants are recorded in the Sulvasutras, the sacred books of altar construction in the Vedas, in particular the Apastambha Sulvasutra, the Baudhayana Sulvasutra and the Katyayana Sulvasutra. The Sulvasutras are appended to a particular Veda (see FAQ on Hinduism for the typical contents of a Veda) can be translated as rope rules or "manuals of measurement", the modern term for which would be metrology. But in reality the scope of the investigations in the Sulvasutras is far broader and comprises among other fields, number theory, trigonometrics, algebra, algebraic geometry, series expansions,  the concept of a rational number, etc.etc. The dating of these Sulvasutras, while occurring after  the main corpus of the Veda was compiled, is of great antiquity, greater than that of Babylonian mathematics. It is only now that we are beginning to understand the extent of the antiquity of these ancient mathematicians. See for instance The origin of Mathematics by Lakshmikantham and Leela. in the list of references later in this page.

A word needs to be said about the use of Sutras (Aphorisms) as a means of communication and recording of results. The dictionary says that a sutra is Any of various aphoristic doctrinal summaries produced for memorization generally  during the millenia before the common era and later incorporated into Hindu literature..We must recall that writing materials during that period of history, were not plentiful and had to be laboriously produced probably by the author of the sutras himself . Whatever needed to be communicated had to be in as brief a form as possible. Hence the need for economy in language and the use of sutras. In fact there is evidence from which one can infer that the Vedics were the first to use symbols and mathematical equations and hence their prowess with Algebra . Brevity has its downside however and the charge has been made by Europeans that the Vedics rarely provided proof. The reason was that the proof was generally terse and incomprehensible to the majority of the people. The notion that those who mastered these topics used brevity as a means to restricting this knowledge, overlooks the fact few in the populace would have the capability to pursue this  rigorously without the intellectual discipline that comes from years of study. Then as now Mathematics had the reputation of being a difficult subject to master.

  1. Who were the main contributors to Vedic Mathematics

  2. Why are the contributions of the Vedic savants as widely known as those of Greek, Arab mathematicians

In the early years of colonial rule by the British (the attitude persists among Western Indologists even today, although less so among mathematicians in the West)  there was great reluctance to believe the sacred texts, after they were first recognized  by Sir William Jones in the 1770's. A typical reaction was that of  W.W Rouse Ball in History of Mathematics . I posted the following in the Bharat Rakshak forum in2000

"Typical of the racism exhibited by the Brits and other Europeans is W.W. Rouse Ball in 'A short account of the History of mathematics' Dover Publications,1960, (originally appeared in 1908), page 146'The Arabs had considerable commerce with India, and a knowledge of one or both of the two great Hindoo works on algebra had been obtained in the Caliphate of Al-Mansur (754-775 AD)though it was not until fifty or seventy years later that they attracted much attention. The algebra and arithmetic of the Arabs were largely founded on these treatises, and I therefore devote this section to the consideration of Hindoo mathematics.The Hindoos like the Chinese have pretended that they are the most ancient people on the face of the earth, and that to them all sciences owe their creation. But it is probable that these pretensions have no foundation; and in fact no science or useful art (except a rather fantastic architecture and sculpture) can be definitely traced back to the inhabitants of the Indian peninsula prior to the Aryan invasion. This seems to have taken place at some time in the fifth century or in the sixth century when a tribe of Aryans entered India by the north west part of their country. Their descendants, wherever they have kept their blood pure, may still be recognized by their superiority over the races they originally conquered; but as is the case with the modern Europeans, they found the climate trying and gradually degenerated. Note the blatant racism in the second paragraph and the venom that this author exhibits.[This message has been edited by Kaushal (edited 15-06-2000).] "

Thus there was great reluctance to admit that the dark skinned natives of the Indian subcontinent could be capable of intellectual effort. Even after the advent of the legendary Srinivasa Ramanujam, the great number theorist  in the early years of the 20th century,  from what is now Chennai, Tamil Nadu , such attitudes among British and European scholars were hard to dispel. We will have a lot more to say about Srinivas Ramanujam later in these pages.

With the coming of the internet, and the great proficiency of the Indics in matters related to Information Technology, this state of affairs has begun to change. Both the Indics and Western savants have begun to realize the profound importance of these early developments in mathematics to the advancement of human civilization. See for instance a recent column on Place Value systems.

  1. References on Vedic mathematics

  2. Links on Vedic mathematics


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