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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are different methods of achieving the same goal. Most of us from Western educational systems have learnt mathematics in a very similar way right from primary school to undergraduate level. However that doesn’t mean it’s the best way and there are certainly alternatives especially in the field of mathematics. One of the most famous is the method known as Vedic Mathematics, which I first learnt about in the remarkable BBC documentary – The History of Maths. You may be able to still access on the BBC iPlayer however you will need a residential IP based in the UK to be able to watch it. There’s more help on this at the end of the article if you need it.
What does Vedic mean?
The Vedas are perhaps the oldest known ‘texts’ and form the source of spiritual, philosophical, moral, ethical and secular teachings of the Hindus. It is not possible to determine their age because they were handed down by word of mouth, although they are thought to be more than five thousand years old. The Vedas were originally consisted of three texts – Rigveda, Samaveda and Yajurveda – each dealing with different aspects of human development and conduct. A fourth Veda, Atharvaveda, was included at some ancient epoch. At a time when the power of memory became insufficient amongst the protectors of these verses the Veda were written down. This may have been earlier than 1000 BC.
Each Veda has two portions, one dealing with prayers and mantras and the other (Brahmana) describing the meaning and procedure of the prayers and mantras. The sutras of Vedic Mathematics are supposed to be within an appendix portion (Parishishta) of the Brahmana section of the Atharvaveda. Sri Tirthaji did not give a precise reference for the sutras and to date nobody has found all of them. There are a number of possible reasons for this discussed below.
The second meaning of Veda is true knowledge which is alive today and relevant to our lives. There are certain principles of conduct, for example, which would appear to be common to all races and religions and applicable at all times throughout history. To cite one example, there is a law written in the hearts of men by which it is natural not to seek harm of anyone. Both the Hindu principle of Ahimsa and the Christian ethic, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, are direct expressions of this law.
This great principle is as relevant today as ever, irrespective of the date when it was first expressed. What really matters is its permanence and its relevance to the society in which we live. Similarly, with the Vedic mathematical sutras, it does not matter when they were first expressed. The important questions are, are they relevant and how can we not let them be forgotten?
What Sri Tirthaji appears to have discovered is how these sutras apply to the mathematics of his day. This is no doubt the reason for a good deal of arithmetic and algebra. He also applies the sutras to differential calculus, a relatively modern mathematical tool. This fact alone suggests that although the laws expressed by the sutras are unchanging the application of those laws changes with time just as the understanding and nature of mathematical expression evolves or devolves.
Recent research has discovered that the Vedic Mathematical sutras are applicable to any area or topic within mathematics, ancient or modern. The reason for this is that the sutras describe common mental processes of the human mind rather than particular mathematical fashions. For example, the sutras can be found at work within classical Greek geometry, the theory of determinants, in Chaos theory or even in Catastrophe theory.
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