Author: Vithal C. Nadkarni

Publication: The Times of India

Date: July 31, 2000
The lecture on vedic mathematics
at the Nehru planetarium Vijay Ashar comes as an eye-opener to the jam-packed
audience.

"One did not imagine that ancient
Indians had such an amazingly compact and powerful system of calculation,"
says 38-yearold Lola Vikram from the audience. "Thanks to Mr Ashar, we
now know better."

The system of mathematics Ms Vikram
and her friends are enthusing about is a set of 16 algorithms and 14 sub-algorithms
in Sanskrit meant for performing simple and complex computations (see box).
"Set down in the form of sutrasor aphorisms, it was created for an age
that relied more on memory than paper and pencil," Mr Ashar explains.

"With deceptively simple techniques,
one can shorten tediously long calculations in a manner that seems almost
miraculous to the uninitiated person," he continues. "But in retrospect,
this is only to be expected from a culture that invented the zero and the
decimal system and revolutionised the entire world of mathematics."

A retired professor of statistics
and decision-making, who worked at IBM for many years, Mr Ashar has been
conducting vedic maths workshops during his yearly visits to India. As
he demonstrates short-cut techniques to zip through megadigit computations,
he provides a tantalising glimpse into the probable secrets used by human
calculating prodigies such as Shakuntala Devi.

Mr Ashar's lecture also "highlights
what cynics call the gharki murgi phenomenon", says Suhas Naik-Satam from
the Nehru Planetarium, "One tends to dismiss familiar, home-grown articles
precisely because they're homegrown. We wake up to their value after foreigners
approve of them. Vedic mathematics is a classic example of this trend."

The system was 'rediscovered' from
the Vedas between 1911 and 1918 by Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha (1884-1960).
"Bharati Krishna Tirthaji was a Shankaracharya of the Govardhan Pitham
at Puri, who was also a noted scholar of Sanskrit, mathematics, philosophy
and history. He was provoked when some scholars ridiculed certain texts
called the 'Ganita Sutras' or mathematical aphorisms.

"After gaining insight with years
of solitary meditation in the forests around Shringeri, the Shankaracharya
was intuitively able to reconstruct the mathematical principles enshrined
in the Atharva-Veda," Mr Ashar adds.

The Swamiji is reported to have
written 16 volumes expounding the vedic system of mathematics. "But these
were unaccountably lost and when the loss was confirmed in his final years,
Swamiji wrote a single book, which was published in 1965, five years after
his death," Mr Ashar explains.

"A copy of the book reached London
a few years later and some English mathematician, like Kenneth Williams,
Andrew Nicholas and Jeremy Pickles, became interested," he continues. "They
extended the introductory material given in Bharati Krishnaji's book and
developed many courses and gave talks on the system."