October 27, 2012

De-mystifying Mathematics (Part 1) – Introduction

Mathematics is one of the subjects that evoke a wide range of emotions among students and parents alike. Being one of my favorite subjects, I wanted to understand what is it about mathematics that causes anxious moments? Is it the concepts, the way it is taught or the natural inclination of the student?

This thought stayed with me for many years. In the mean time, I came across a book on Vedic Mathematics as described by Swami Bharti Krisna Tirthaji Maharaj. It gave a new and different perspective to basic mathematical concepts and processes. I learnt these and started teaching it as an introduction to Vedic Mathematics.

However, the original question and others around India’s contribution to mathematics still remained. Over years of reading and exploring, I have understood mathematics more than what I had in my school days. As the case is with memory, I thought it might be a good idea to write down my thoughts and share it.

There is a lot of literature on the internet about the history of mathematics and its main contributors around the world across time that one can read.

Mathematics as a subject
One of the key things that I have learnt is that study of mathematics as a separate subject is not as old as the processes themselves. So, the arithmetic processes of counting, addition, multiplication are very old – but learning them under the banner of a separate subject is relatively new. Even in the Vedic classification, maths (‘Ganit’) does not appear as a veda, but is mentioned under ‘Jyotish’. This may be attributed to the astronomers who used and developed mathematical calculations extensively to determine the panchang (calendar) accurately.

The science of construction also had its basis in mathematics and developed many geometrical concepts. The hymns, music and other sciences also had a good mathematical base.

In all, mathematics was (and is) the basis of the knowledge prevalent in the ancient times across all fields – basic counting/ accounting, ritualistic hymns, music, ceremonies, construction, astronomy, astrology, etc… The question then is – what is this basis called ‘mathematics’ that we struggle with?

One usually thinks of mathematics as completely logical and unambiguous where 1+1=2. What I have now understood is that this is not the case – we will come to that in a separate post. As many great mathematicians have said in different words: Mathematics is an attempt to explain the universe (prakriti) around us. Though the universe is never completely explainable, there are certain rules and patterns that are found in here – and mathematics, as we understand, helps us understand these.

If I was told this in my school, I would have appreciated this subject much more :) I believe that if we have to continue to push the frontiers of knowledge, strong fundamentals are very necessary. Like a good chef can experiment with the ingredients to create a new dish and predict the taste and outcome, a good student of mathematics should feel confident to play around with the concepts and processes to attempt something new.

Next, we look at the basic counting and what does India’s contribution of ‘zero’ really mean – to be continued.