Q&A #4320

Teachers' Lounge Discussion: Ancient math

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To: Teacher2Teacher Public Discussion
Date: 2002031603:23:08
Subject: Re: Ancient Math

Let us frankly admit that there is a tendency to exaggerate the
achievements of our ancestors.  Hindu religious fanatics have gone to
extreme lengths to prove the greatness of Vedic Mathematics i.e. the
Mathematical knowledge that developed 3 to 4 millennia ago when the
Hindu sacred books were written. In fact the author of the 1965
publication on Vedic Math (he pre-deceased the publication by 5 years)
had said that he obtained his formulae (called "sutras" in Sanskrit)
 from the appendix to the Atharva Veda. Searches and researches
conducted by scholars have not revealed a single copy of the supposed
appendix!  Such an appendix does not exist.

Modern treatises on Vedic Mathematics contain only about sixteen
elementary school level formulae that can merely help quick mental
calculations in arithmetic. I had used Trachtenberg’s Basic Speed Math
with my children in the sixties.  This was published a full decade
before the first Vedic Math book came out! 

Trachtenberg was supposed to have worked out all his formulae mentally
in a Nazi concentration camp just to keep his faculties intact and to
remain sane in the midst of so many dying or losing their senses.

Vedic Mathematicians of today claim that the ancients knew the
Pythagoras theorem long before the existence of Pythagoras himself. 
The fact is that they knew a few Pythagorean triplets – 3,4,5; 6,8,10
etc.  Though we must credit them with the discovery of the property in
some cases, it is now confirmed that they did not know that the
property (that the square on the hypotenuse equals . . . etc.) was
universally applicable to all right-angled triangles.

Their handicap was that they did not have definitive, logical proof
for any of their theories - scientific thinking and ergo, scientific
logic, was not part of Indian culture. 

Only five planets plus the sun and the moon and the stars were known
to ancient Indians. Yet they wrote vast treatises on astronomy. There
were many geniuses in mediaeval India in spite of the Brahminical
religious slant to all knowledge. The word 'veda' itself means
knowledge. Indian astrology however had no scientific base and like
all religious theories it is based on mere faith.

Today, the argument rages in India about the scientific base of Vedic
Astrology.  The Hindu nationalist government has brought this subject
into the ambit of the curricula much to the chagrin of the
intelligentsia.  The stock of schoolteachers and college professors is
so low that they have not risen as one man to object to the
introduction of this obscurantist theory into India's modern

Topics like Mayan Math, Vedic Math and so on should be of great
interest to archaeologists and historians, but I think stress on their
importance undermines the value afforded to modern knowledge of
Mathematics with all the developments that have resulted from it.

- - - Prasan Wilfred

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