Bharatanatyam artist Prakruti Prativadi recently published a book ‘Rasas in Bharatanatyam’. ICP’s daughter portal shared an interesting introductory article written by the author. I got a copy of the book from Amazon.com a couple of weeks ago and ended up reading it multiple times. The work is an outcome of several years of research and a first-person experience of living the tradition. The book is intended to be the first of a series.
The author states that the book is aimed at the serious Bharatanatyam artist and connoisseur, and is also beneficial to those who want to learn more about Indic art traditions. An in-depth discussion of the different elements of Bharatanatyam including Abhinaya, Rasa, and Bhava is provided. The book also presents a brief and well-researched history of Bharatanatyam and related traditions in Hinduism, a topic which has endured much distortion and confusion in recent years. The author goes deep into the ancient roots of natya, and succinctly explains the concepts relying on primary sources in Sanskrit and Indic languages. The clarity and authority required to write in a crisp question-answer format, the shraddha, the attention to technical detail, and the reinforcement of key learning points give the book a stamp of authenticitythat perhaps only a dedicated practitioner and teacher can produce.
Where to Buy
Readers can set up a discount code ($8.00 off) which is available only from the Createspace page (not the amazon.com page) by following these steps:
Add the Book to the Cart, this will take buyers to the checkout page
Add this discount code: PYTKY7GV in the ‘Discount Code’ field and click ‘Apply Discount’ to get a discount, the price of the book will be $28.99.
Please note: Users will have to sign up for a Createspace account (if they don’t have one). Createspace is owned by Amazon.
Bharatanatyam: Embodied Learning & Direct Experience
Poet, Indic scholar, and computer scientist Prof. Subhash Kak has said that the best way to understand India is through its art , and the book reaffirms this point. Why art? India is the land of Vedas, so can’t one read Vedic text?
The author discusses the worldview underlying Bharatanatyam and notes that direct experience is central to Hinduism. Through sadhana and shraddha, potentially anyone can transcend their ordinary level of consciousness . This is an amazing and powerful discovery by India’s ancient seers. The armchair-acharya (like the theoretical martial artist and air guitarist) tries to convince us otherwise, but Hinduism recognizes that textual knowledge is useful but it cannot fully delineate the scope of Dharma and Vedas, and we provide two independent explanations regarding this.
Prof. Kak quotes Yaaska , the author of the ancient Sanskrit treatise Nirukta: “One who reads the Veda but does not know its meaning is like a draught animal”, and explains that “the idea of knowing the Veda is not merely to read it, but to understand its meaning in one’s heart. This is paradoxical, since one cannot understand the text unless one has already had the experience of its deepest intuitions. The text of the Veda cannot in itself be used for instruction”. We have Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra, revered as the fifth Veda, that has the wisdom of the four Vedas embedded within, which is available to all people, cutting through all barriers of social and economic status, gender, race, and geography.
In his book Indra’s Net , Rajiv Malhotra poses a related question: “How did the rishis ‘see’ the shruti in the first place? Unlike the Abrahamic religions, in which prophets hear from an external God, in the Vedas there is no external voice. There is no entity equivalent to Yahweh who speaks the Vedas to the rishis… Vedas are a-purusheya, i.e., beginningless and authorless. They existed before the rishis ‘saw’ them…Hinduism does not regard the rishis as inherently different in substance or essence from the rest of us…. each human has the same potential as the rishis, and that this potential is realized through disciplined sadhana (the inner sciences of adhyatma-vidya)”. In the Indian context, Rajiv Malhotra coined the term ‘embodied knowing’ to refer to adhyatma vidya, and Indic art forms that employ this inner science surely occupy a pride of place in India’s grand narrative . The deepest authentic ‘ideas of India’ are embedded in Bharatanatyam. We owe a debt of gratitude to dedicated artists who tirelessly practice, promote, and preserve India’s sacred art forms.
Bharatanatyam as Yajna
The book has a brief but insightful discussion of Bharatanatyam as Yajna, which has been explained as a sacred process that establishes links (bandhus) between the inner and the outer world . The material world is not considered separate and discarded but is harmoniously united with the spiritual within Bharatanatyam. Indic art forms are rooted in this Vedic view where consciousness is the basis of ultimate reality itself . Such a Bharatanatyam is unacceptable to the enticing “sweet-speech” Charvaka School  that totally rejects Yajna, Puja, Bandhus, and the transcendental domain since they believe that consciousness emerges from neural matter . Bharatanatyam is also incompatible with the irreconcilable duality of history-centric Abrahamic dogma that accepts the transcendental and the transactional domains but keeps their existence independent and infinitely apart .
Actively participating in Yajna leads to an internal transformation that is like undergoing a ‘rebirth’ . This leads us to a second, and equally remarkable observation that anysensitive and attuned viewer (Sahridaya) immersed in a Bharatanatyam performance  can also potentially attain a higher state of consciousness and transcendental bliss, and this communication is possible due to Rasa. The book explains this process in-depth.
Dharmic thought employs a finite and limited number of levels to manage quantities/qualities that may appear to be unlimited or huge in number, or even indivisible or continuous. How does it work?
On Rasa, Prof. Kak remarks : “An aesthetic attitude is a combination, in varying measures, of the different essences (rasas) of it. It is one of the great insights of the Indian tradition that these essences are supposed to be discrete, and perhaps this idea emerged from the Vaisesika atomic doctrine as well as the idea of Nyaya that mind operates sequentially”. Like Panini and his rules of grammar, Bharata, using only a finite number of sutras, covered the profound topics of Rasa and Bhava and spanned the virtually unlimited expanse of dance and drama.
Paanini has been credited for a grand unified theory of language, and Bharata too can be credited for a similar theory of aesthetics thousands of years ago. The author notes how a danseuse can skillfully conjugate various dance elements such as movements, gestures, etc. mentioned in the Natya Sastra to generate innumerable permutations and combinations to artistically express the myriad emotions and situations that has occurred, or will occur in the future, and convey that meaning to the audience. Bharatanatyam does not limit but encourages unselfish self-expression.
Rasa Awakening in the Audience
In her book, Prakruti ji takes us on a fascinating journey through the Rasa awakening process in Bharatanatyam. The idea of Rasa is ancient and present in the Upanishads . According to the author “Rasa is the supreme aesthetic experience and absolute aesthetic relish that the audience feels when witnessing an artistic performance… Rasa is a heightened state of consciousness and bliss… This experience is called Rasasvada, which is akin to Brahmasvada, a supreme knowledge… Rasa is a Sanskrit word that no equivalent word in English”. A simplified arrow-diagram view of the Rasa awakening sequence/combination given in the book can be described as follows (the interested reader should refer to the book to obtain a complete and correct picture).
(Author dancing selected Paasurams from the Vaarinam Aayiram)
In Bharatanatyam, for example, the process can be triggered by witnessing the Abhinaya of the skillful artist, and given the right conditions, culminate in a heightened state of consciousness within a receptive audience. In an interview, Dr. Ramachandran Nagaswamy confirms this important point about Rasa while correcting the mistaken conclusion of a western Indologist.
Another crucial point made by the author is that the generation of Rasa in a performance is not guaranteedand it requires the harmonious integration of multiple inter-connected factors. The author likens it to a complex and rich recipe. Rasa is not awakened by sensory stimuli such as personal sadness experienced in mundane life, or by artists using the stage to make purely political and social statements. And even if the performance is of the highest caliber, it still requires an attuned viewer (Sahridaya)  within whom the ‘aesthetic vibes’ of the performance can resonate. The author quotes Bharata “without Rasa, there can be no meaningful communication”.
Engineering Design Example
Natya Sastra ideas can find applications in diverse fields, including entertainment, advertising, public-service messaging, etc. Given its integral view, teaching Natya Sastra concepts authentically in schools and colleges will benefit not only young artists, but also engineers and scientists. As an analogy and example, modern highway design relies on the PIEV theory of driver response to visual stimuli:
PIEV is used to measure the perception-reaction time of a driver. Triggered by observing an event, the driver first perceives (something happened), grasps the implications (danger to self/others), and this triggers one or more emotions (what to do?), before converging on a final, stable action (brake, steer, or accelerate). PIEV duration differs for a distracted versus fully conscious driver. When deciding where and how to install and calibrate a traffic light, one has to evaluate the combination of all inter-related factors – PIEV, visibility, topography, traffic conditions, etc., in order to maximize the percentage of drivers that will have sufficient time to go through PIEV and make the right decision. PIEV and Rasa may be two different things (although when in danger, even the most materialistic passenger and driver will invoke the divine transcendent charioteer to ensure fast PIEV so they can remain in their transactional world); however, there appear to be similarities – the importance of an integral perspective, a scientific approach, and understanding the roles of emotional states, cognition, and consciousness.
Bharatanatyam & Artificial Intelligence
Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems can generate cooking recipes, write mournful poetry, and has even started writing musical scores. Can machine-generated artistic performances evoke Rasa?Can it replicate the transcendental leap  that is possible through a Yajna? These are interesting questions to be answered by experts. Machines are not conscious because they cannot have Bandhus , and their art output appears to be generated by algorithms using preset rules distilled from prior art, which were created by highly skilled human artists, not machines. The book has clearly established that the Rasa awakening process and the dance elements of Bharatanatyam are not mechanical.
While machine art may match humans and eventually do better in terms of purely materialist aesthetics, the sacred Indic art-as-Yajna rooted in an integral unity via bandhus that bind the inner and outer worlds, will not only survive, but thrive and give humanity a sense of hope and a glimpse of divinity. This makes it all the more important that Bharatanatyam and classic Indian art be preserved and taught in their authentic form and context. Prakruti Prativadi’s book is a welcome step in this direction.
Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami (1906-2001), the creator of Malgudi was one of India’s greatest storytellers and thinkers. Writing under the shortened name R. K. Narayan, a small sample of his works include Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts, Guide, and Gods, Demons, and Others. His equally illustrious brother Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Laxman (RK Laxman) brought Malgudi to life with his magical illustrations. The siblings were recipients of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor. The popular 1980s TV series Malgudi Days, directed by the great Kannada artist Shankar Nag was based on the works of RK Narayan, and the 1965 Hindi movie Guide, a favorite of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was based on his book.
The Financial Expert
RK Narayan’s 1951 work ‘The Financial Expert‘  is universally regarded as a classic, and has been the subject of several excellent reviews from a western literary perspective, by both Indian and western writers. The book was made into a successful Kannada movie ‘Banker Margayya’ starring actor Lokesh in 1983, which went on to win multiple awards.
Here, we explore some of the themes in this WW2-era Malgudi story using an Indic perspective, and in doing so, are rewarded with insights that would not be obtainable using a purely western lens. In particular, we discover that the timeless lessons in Neeti and Dharma that used to be orally transmitted from generation to generation in India are embedded within the ‘Financial Expert’.
In ‘Financial Expert’, RK Narayan brilliantly encodes in simple English the sophisticated nuance and wisdom of Indian Itihasa and Purana, even as he unravels the multiple threads of thought running through Margayya’s mind. Margayya, like many a character in itihasa, undergoes intense penance in order to acquire some special power. His aim is to please Goddess Lakshmi, so that she will bless him with wealth and financial success. The story of Margayya’s journey from 14D Vinayak Street to 10 Market Street and back is rich in the symbolism and subtle suggestion that characterizes Indian art.
Margayya was named Krishna at birth, and his professional name (pronounced ‘Marg-Ayya’) reminds us of Arjuna’s charioteer who showed the way (Marg) of Dharmain the Mahabharata. Margayya employed his financial Ganitaprowess to game the system. He presented the peasants within a 100-mile radius of Malgudi a financial roadmap that enabled them to secure a endless sequence of cash loans from the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank (est. 1914). The ‘Cooperative Bank’ part was an oxymoron as it neither co-operated with its poor shareholders, nor performed its banking duties with a sense of seva. Margayya, aged 42, made a living by aggressively filling this gap from his service location under a banyan tree right opposite the co-op, much to their irritation. Imagine a smarter Alan Greenspan in a topi, torn shirt, and brown dhoti.
Margayya wanted to progress beyond this tension-ridden low-end job. A tipping point is reached when the stained-dhoti clad financial jugaad master is humiliated by the rich, boorish bank secretary dressed in European attire, top to bottom. We can see in Margayya’s subsequent reactions, the self-loathing, and frustration, sense of inferiority, and confusion that infested many Indians in the 20th century. A transition of people who were progressively less grounded in the forest civilization  traditions of Dharma and harmony that India embraced during its prosperous history; a mindset increasingly attracted to a desert civilization’s zero-sum modes of survival and self-preservation that appeared more pragmatic in a once-flourishing land, but now looted and scorched by the British Raj, abounding only in scarcity.
Margayya’s natural entrepreneurial drive was in sync with the Vidura Neeti that promoted the virtue of self-employment. His mind constantly tinkered with ideas for startups. He wanted to secure the financial future of his wife Meenakshi, and son, Balu. When Margayya witnessed impoverished townspeople using an unclaimed corpse to extract small-change from passersby for a funeral (and booze), and when he observes people risking life and limb to earn a few paise, he is struck by the power of money. “People did anything for money. Money was men’s greatest need, like air or food…Money alone is important in this world. Everything else will come to us naturally if we have money in our purse.“. Here, he appears to gain some intuition about Chanakya’s words (dharmasya moolam artha). Indeed, a prosperous and developed nation is best equipped to preserve and propagate Dharma and harmony, else the rule of the desert will reign. His goal from the day he quarrels with the co-op secretary is to reach the top of the wealth pyramid and through this wealth, acquire everything else. And right there, Margayya parted ways with Vidura and Chanakya and followed his own path and rules.
Like a Yogi, but for all the wrong reasons, Margayya constantly meditated on money and through this manthana emerged all kinds of discoveries. His analysis enabled him to delineate the subtle differences betweenmoney, riches, wealth, and fortune. Wealth, in particular, contained elements of transcendence as well as Jugaad. “Riches any hard-working fool could attain by some watchfulness, while acquiring wealth was an extraordinary specialized job. It came to persons who had on them the grace of the Goddess fully and who could use their wits“. If Ramanujan‘s amazing ganita results were achieved through the blessings of Lakshmi as Namagiri Amman in his dreams, Margayya’s self-serving schemes too (in his mind) were due to the blessings of Lakshmi. Through the mind of this ‘financial mystic’, we get to see the infinite recursive patterns hidden within ‘interest’.
“There was probably no other person in the whole country who had meditated so much on the question of interest. Margayya’s mind was full of it. Night and day he sat and brooded over it. The more he thought of it the more it seemed to him the greatest wonder of creation. It combined in it the mystery of birth and multiplication…Every rupee, Margayya felt, contained in it seed of another rupee and that seed in it another seed and so on and on to infinity. It was something like the firmament, endless stars and within each star an endless firmament and within each one further endless … It bordered on mystic perception. It gave him the feeling of being part of an infinite existence.”
Such was Margayya’s devotion to the process of managing interest rates and accumulating wealth, that he was even able to give up his old addiction to snuff so that he could pursue his ‘yoga’ on all four cylinders which would free him from all worldly wants. A side-effect of this one-track meditation is Margayya’s general cluelessness and disdain for topics unrelated to his money, and therein lie the seeds of his downfall.
Margayya is never really happy throughout the story. He obtains wealth and power, but is never able to conquer his senses, and always yields to moha, lobha, and krodha, which ultimately combine to ruin him.
Margayya has no use for the Dharma that accords to the elder brother the respected position of a second father , being far more interested in grabbing his share of the family property. He is quite sad that the Hindu Samaj prevented a complete takeover of the house and had to make do with a half-share (“he would willingly have seen his brother’s family perish without water by closing it to them, but public opinion prevented the exercise of his right.”).
He has no use for Saraswati and learning, which is dismissed as a derivative product that can be purchased on-demand (“‘A man with whom the Goddess of Wealth favours need not worry much. He can buy all the knowledge he requires.“. The dharmic concept of profitability, Shubh Labh, is rejected in favor of amassing wealth regardless of all consequences to others, to his family, and even to himself.
He has no qualms about misusing kama and rejecting dharma in order to hoard wealth and acquire power. Moha blinds his eye like a Dhritharashtra to his son’s faults, and in any case, he convinces himself that a single-minded pursuit of Artha is the key that unlocked all the doors in this world for himself and his family. Every minute of his life is invested in this material quest, and it begins to acquire almost a spiritual quality. In short, Margayya’s misunderstanding of the priorities and implications of the Purusharthas leads him astray. Grihasthashrama Dharma takes a back seat. Moral relativism and a materialist clamor for rights overrides duties, replacing Hinduism’s contextual Dharma ethics  at every decision making fork in Margayya’s life journey.
Ultimately, Margayya begins to make money by the sackful. The more he made, the more it consumed him, until this activity completely drained him of his capacity to think straight. In a momentary lapse of reason, the coldly calculative Margayya is replaced by an angry, panic-stricken father. He loses control of his senses and strikes out against Dr. Pal, the very instrument that brought him all the wealth, and in one stroke, Dr. Pal ensures that all those earnings are taken away. Without the firm guidance of Dharma, Margayya the path finder himself loses his bearings, and returns to square one, financially bankrupt. There is some recognition in the end by Margayya of what he lost in his obsessive pursuit and why. The readers get a story filled with lessons from Dharma traditions.
The book has several memorable characters, but for brevity, we’ll focus here on Margayya’s friend, Dr. Pal.
Dr. Pal, Social Scientist
First, a brief introduction to Dr. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). He was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Unlike India, where Kama was always recognized as one of the Purusharthas and celebrated in poetry, song, dance, painting, and sculpture, the Europeans in Dr. Ellis’ time were repressed by the strictures of Victorian morality. Ellis boldly shattered several taboos although he was indifferent to the dharmic/adharmic impact of his work. He appears to have been a proponent of Eugenics and oddly okay with the Nazi sterilization program. Freud appears to have borrowed some ideas from Ellis for his psychoanalytical theories .
Dr. Pal is the instrument that befriends, makes, and finally breaks Margayya (It’s unclear how he became “Dr”). He is a journalist and an author and a sociologist who is influenced by Ellis’ work. Like India’s eminent journalists, authors, and social scientists today, Pal too is a scientific expert.
He mashed together Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra and Dr. Ellis’ liberating ideas to create a scientific cocktail and distilled this wisdom into an illustrated book titled ‘Bed Life’. Margayya here represents the mentally colonized and under informed native who is overawed by ‘modern science’ label that claims to enhances and elevates an ancient Indian treatise. Margayya’s Lobha overcomes his instinctive disgust for Dr. Pal’s work and he benefits immensely from the proceeds obtained by publishing this bestseller (renamed ‘Domestic Harmony’ to avoid legal scrutiny and obscenity lawsuits). Margayya’s growth is seeded by the ill-gotten gain obtained from this salacious ‘digestion’ of Kamasutra.
Dr. Pal is the western-influenced free-thinking rebel for whom ‘anything goes’. Later, he brings to Margayya the steady supply of clientele required to sustain the latter’s Ponzi scheme. Dr. Pal is a double-edged weapon that Margayya tries to control. Despite Margayya’s best attempts to keep Dr. Pal away from his family, his corrosive influence begins to consume Margayya’s married son, and drives him to debauchery. At this point, Margayya loses his composure and beats up Dr. Pal who hits back by completely ruining Margayya, thereby completing the karmic cycle.
Lighter Side: Margayya versus Modi
Margayya loved cash, and only cash. “‘What am I to do with property?’ he said. ‘I want only money, not brick and lime or mud,’ he reflected when he reconverted his attached property into cash. Margayya seems happy only when he is counting cash. “…. the moment he reached home, he counted the notes again, bundled them up in tidy little batches, the lovely five-rupee and ten-rupee and the most handsome piece of paper – the green hundred-rupee note” .
Per RBI records, the thousand rupee note was introduced in 1938, withdrawn prior to independence, and reintroduced in 1954 . It is possible there wasn’t a significant percentage of high denomination notes (500/1000) in circulation during a time when these amounts were princely sums. Margayya’s Ponzi scheme attracted so many greedy and shady investors that nearby banks began to lose their deposits. However, no one in his office had any clue about his net worth. Margayya would’ve preferred higher denominations to hundred-rupee notes since he was running out of space for his cash stash at home (“there were currency bundles stacked up a foot high all over the floor.“). We’ve read in the newspapers how certain Indian co-op banks operate in present times, and why they’ve become a target for tax evasion investigators. Modi with his demonetization and push for a less-cash society could’ve badly dented both Margayya and the Malgudi co-op.
RK Narayan’s Writing
It is interesting to compare RK Narayan with Shashi Tharoor, another Indian writer whose English novels are popular. RK Narayan’s works are popular all over India for their relatively straightforward rendering and simple English, while Tharoor’s target audience appears to be the westernized elite in and outside India.
Maybe she's trying to learn English. I salute her spirit and am proud to contribute to her goal, despite your condescending elitist tone. https://t.co/MerK9HT557
It is not surprising that Tharoor chose to focus on, and expressed contempt for Narayan’s simple English, and was frustrated by RK Narayan’s indifference to a language that colonized Indian minds. Mocking his English as a ‘translation’ is actually a compliment, because when I read RK Narayan, it is like reading a timeless story in my mother tongue about our civilization, people, and way of life. On the other hand, the well-written prose in Tharoor’s ‘Great Indian Novel’ based on the Mahabharata gives it kerb appeal, but cannot mask its alienating lack of authenticity.
A purely intellectual view of itihasa is reductionist and guaranteed to fall short. While Tharoor has spoken eloquently about India’s heritage and its wisdom, he remains confused about the differences between religion and Dharma, and intellectual versus the adhyatmic . An entire generation of mentally colonized Indian writers in the last few decades, armed with excellent English, and indoctrinated in the Euro-centric humanities remains proudly clueless about the sacred art traditions of Bharatvarsha.Even if they wrote in an Indian language, it would still sound foreign. In contrast, RK Narayan as a child imbibed India’s Itihasa and Sanskriti from his grandmother. Perhaps it is this learning that is reflected in his stories.
There is no independent existence for, and artificial demarcation between, the secular/outer world and the sacred/inner realm in the ‘Financial Expert’. This reflects India’s unified view of reality. Preserving this integral approach  gives RK Narayan’s simple prose its powerful universal appeal. Injecting sophisticated western structures would actually interfere with, and diminish this impact. Just as Ananda Coomaraswamy noted in The Dance of Siva  that inserting western harmony in order to ‘enhance’ a sangeetam recitalwould be unnecessary and detrimental. Indeed, this integral perspective indicates that RK Narayan’s writings are part of a long, unbroken artistic tradition that follows the Natya Sastra (itself rooted in the four Vedas).
Bharata’s Natya Sastra  is the most influential ancient exposition on dramaturgy, performing arts, and aesthetics in the world , which was accessible to all sections of the society without geographical or linguistic restrictions. Rajiv Malhotra notes (emphasis mine) that the Natya Sastra “treats ‘natya’ as the total art form, including representation, poetry, dance, music, make-up and indeed the whole world. It is an organic and integral view encompassing the Vedic rituals, Shaivite dance and music, and the epic tales. The eight traditional rasas (love, humour, heroism, wonder, anger, sorrow, disgust, and fear) mirror the real world and come together in pursuit of the ‘purusharthas’ (human goal).” One can find all traditional rasas within the pages of the ‘Financial Expert’. We will end with RK Narayan’s own words in his 1964 book Gods, Demons and Others , where he shares his views regarding literature. He emphatically affirms the integrally unified perspective of Natya Sastra over a synthesizing approach (emphasis mine):
“Everythingis interrelated. Stories, scriptures, ethics, philosophy, grammar, astrology, astronomy, semantics, mysticism, and moral codes – each forms part and parcel for a totallife and is indispensable for the attainment of a four-square understanding of existence.
Literature is not a branch of study to be placed in a separate compartment, for the edification only of scholars, but a comprehensive and artistic medium of expression to benefit the literate and the illiterate alike. A true literary composition should appeal in an infinite variety of ways; any set of stanzas of the Ramayana could be set to music and sung, narrated with dialogue and action, and treated as the finest drama, studied analytically for an understanding of the subtleties of language and grammar, or distilled finely to yield esoteric truths“.
The fundamental characteristic of Bharatiya culture is that it looks upon life as an integrated whole. -Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya pic.twitter.com/zbUKILUIKh
Part 3 (below): Ganita prevailed over Math in their encounters, but what did it really win? While Ganita’s results were absorbed into Mathematics, the underlying pramana and upapattis were rejected. We explain why this happened, and its implications.
Digestion Of Ganita, the Needham Question, and the Road Ahead
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less - Marie Curie.
The Digestion of Ganita
It appears the ancient Babylonians had something in common with the Indians: they were pattern-seekers. As far as trying to understand how the world around us works, Richard Feynman rejected (Greek) Mathematics in favor of what he recognized as a Babylonian method, as discussed in this lecture below. Despite this endorsement, it is the Greek approach that drives Mathematics today, while the Babylonian culture can be found only in famous museums today. Why?
It would not be a problem for any civilization to view and benefit from imported knowledge by employing a nativelens, without denigrating and destroying the external source tradition, and based on mutual respect. However, when knowledge from another culture is deliberately cannibalized and appropriated as a predator, it is a serious problem. It turns into a process known as’digestion‘. We now describe how Ganita was digested into Mathematics after their encounters.
The Digestion of Ganita into Mathematics
This process of digestionhas been laid out by Rajiv Malhotra in . We apply this description step-by-step to see how Ganita was digested into Mathematics.
Step 1. “The less powerful culture is assimilated into the dominant one in such a way that: the dominant civilization dismembers the weaker one into parts from which it picks and chooses which pieces it wants to appropriate“. During their encounter, all the important results of Ganita, starting from the place value system with zero, to algebra, trigonometry, algorithms, combinatorics, … to calculus were accepted by Europe to obtain real-life benefits. However, the underlying epistemology and approach of Ganita that has worked so well for 2000+ years, and could be used to generate such astonishing results in the future were amputated from Ganita. Only the results were retained within Mathematics.
Step 2. “appropriated elements get mapped onto the language and social structures of the dominant civilization’s own history and paradigms, leaving little if any trace of the links to the source tradition“. The formal Math rooted in the Greek tradition was enhanced and expanded so that the Ganita results could be systematically re-derived and reinterpreted in a compatible manner. Later, the beneficial features of the native Encuvati system of pedagogy was appropriated into the British teaching approach, and ‘undesirable’ features were deleted to ensure compatibility with ‘Christian values’ . Once this process was complete, the source tradition of Ganita was expendable.
Step 3. “the civilization that was thus mined gets depleted of its cultural and social capital because the appropriated elements are modified to fit the dominant civilization’s own history, and these elements are shown to be disconnected from, and even in conflict with, the source civilization“.
A. The credit for a re-engineered calculus was given to Newton/Leibniz and not Madhava and the Kerala School. We are taught the Pythagoras theorem and proof, not Baudhayana’s result and validation procedure. Fibonacci numbers, not Gopala-Hemachandraseries. The IEEE journals recognize Arab numerals, not Hindu numbers, and so on. The list is long. In almost all these cases, the standard reason is that the Indians had not proved their results using the formal system devised by the west, even though each of these results were generated first by Ganita and also satisfactorily validated within the source tradition, often centuries earlier. The Ganita tradition was erased from the history of Mathematics.
B. On the other hand, the following types of claims are created:
Vedanga Jyotisha was full of astrology and religious mumbo-jumbo
Ganita was some kind of elite “Vedic Mathematics”
Hindu tradition was backward, caste-ridden, superstitious and incapable of producing such advanced scientific results.
Whereas, the exact opposite is true.
Vedanga Jyotisha is the science of time-keeping, and “the entire Jyotisa does not have a single sentence relating to astrology or prophecy” , whereas the main goal of European calendar reform was to advance the cause of organized religion 
Ganita was pragmatic and accessible to ordinary Indians including vegetable vendors who taught the greatest Arab scholar of their time , while today’s formal Mathematics is indeed the preserve of an elite few .
Hinduphobia is rampant in the Humanities departments of Western universities, which is subsequently exported to Indian universities, even as the digestion of Hindu science and technology results continues unabated .
Step 4. The final result is catastrophic for the source civilization: “the depleted civilization enters the proverbial museum as yet another dead culture, ceasing to pose a threat to the dominant one. After being digested, what is left of a civilization is waste material to be removed and destroyed.” A mathematical monoculture was imposed on India during the colonial era after uprooting the ‘beautiful tree‘, India’s indigenous decentralized education system whose Ganita curriculum was sensitive to local requirements. Few students and teachers in Indian schools and universities today are aware of the source Ganita tradition. Among those who recognize the word, few realize it is not an Indian neologism for Mathematics. Is this not an instance of cultural genocide?
How can we protect and revive the authentic and practical Ganita tradition that was the head of all the Indian sciences? To do this, we must identify the nature of the civilizational ‘Poison Pills’ within Ganita.
Civilizational Poison Pills
Rajiv Malhotra introduced the idea of civilizational poison pills from an Indian perspective in ‘Indra’s Net’. . “Poison pills are those elements or tenets that cannot be digested into the DNA of a predator, because consuming them would lead to the destruction of the predator’s constitution. If a predator absorbs such an element, it will mutate so profoundly that it will lose its original identity and qualities.” We now try to identify the poison pill in Ganita that needs to be preserved.
Ganita’s Poison Pill
The Indians achieved a smart reduction in uncertainty in calculations to a contextually admissible level, instead of beating themselves up trying to attain complete certainty. Ganita and Vedic thought recognizes that human understanding of the cosmos is never fully complete. In , the Indian and western mindset is compared thus: “Indians indeed find it natural to engage in non-linear thinking, juxtaposing opposites and tackling complexities that cannot be reduced to simple concepts or terms. They may be said even to thrive on ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty, multitasking, and in the absence of centralized authority and normative codes. Westerners, by contrast, tend by and large to be fearful of unpredictable or decentralized situations. They regard these situations as problems to be fixed. As we shall see, there is in fact some scholarly evidence that demonstrates this view of Western attitudes.” For a mindset that revels in perfection, this element of uncertainty that was acceptable within Ganita is a poison pill. This anxiety was evident in all stakeholders in Europe during the Ganita-Math encounters.
Western Fear of Uncertainty
Practically every Western point of view from the ultra-secular, to the religious during the Ganita-Math encounters was in conflict with Ganita’s poison pill:
In the abacus-algorismus battle, Ganita’s idea of ‘one manifesting as many’ in its place value system and the way it managed non-representability was suspect, given the scope for ‘chaos’ and ‘fraud’.
For a reasoning mind like Descartes, measuring the ratio of curved to straight lines involved an irreducible uncertainty, an understanding of which was beyond the human mind. This gave rise to the term ‘irrational numbers’ . Not surprisingly, he rejected the idea of infinitesimals too.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes was no friend of the Jesuits. But he too found the absolute, perfect order found in Euclidean geometry was its most appealing aspect and reflected his own perspective. As noted in  “in their deep structure, the Jesuit papal kingdom and the Hobbesian commonwealth are strikingly similar. Both are hierarchical, absolutist states where the will of the ruler, whether Pope or Leviathan, is the law.”
The Jesuits, Protestants, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicans, and a vast majority of Christian sects may have disagreed on some theological points, but all subscribed to the history-centric truth claims of the Nicene Creed . At least three aspects of Mathematics would’ve appealed to them:
Calendar and time-keeping helped preserve history centric dogma and reestablish the importance of clergy.
The top-down, hierarchical perfect Eucliean order.
Proving theorems without need for empirical demonstration. History-centric Christianity treats the body as a vessel of original sin. Embodied knowing is problematic for this mindset.
Pioneer Jesuat monk Cavalieri underwent an inner struggle  after ingesting this poison pill, and all but disowned his Ganita-based idea of ‘indivisibles’.
Scientists who championed the cause of the infinitesimals, and their successors could never come to grips either. The Tagore-Einstein conversation is a good example. As mentioned in  “Not even Einstein was able to reconcile himself to the uncertainty inherent in quantum mechanics, prompting him to remark: ‘God does not play dice with the universe.’ But Shiva and Parvati, the Hindu cosmic couple, do happily play dice. Indian philosophy is receptive to the uncertainty theories of physics.“
However this poison pill does not negatively impact the Indian mindset. Why? Our Ganita Postdiscusses in detail, but we briefly summarize here for the sake of completion.
Ganita’s Comfort in Dealing with Uncertainty
The Indians were comfortable working with contextually accurate estimates for non-quantities like √2 and π, recognizing that the result could be improved upon. Hindu society has no central authority that could ban innovation or the exploration of the realms of uncertainty. Its decentralized structure produced independent thinkers and innovators in every era. Dharma systems have built-in safeguardsagainst Hobbesian/Church absolutism. As Rajiv Malhotra explains in  “Chaos is entrenched in the Vedas, the Puranas and Hinduism in general for a reason: its role is to counterbalance and dilute any absolutist tendencies as well as provide creative dynamism through ambiguity and uncertainty.” Ganita inherits all these features, and must retain all these properties for best results.
The inevitability of uncertainty was no cause for panic. It even opened up a degree of freedom for (dharmic, ethical) optimization using Yukti. This comfort with uncertainty is visible right throughGanita’s storied history from Paanini‘s Ashtadhyayi before the common era, to the Aryabhatiya in the 5th century C.E, within the calculus results of Madhava in the 14th century, to Ramanujanin the 20th century. This perspective placed the Indian creation of all its algorithms, interpolations, calculus, etc. on solid epistemological ground. Let’s look at the Aryabhatiya, as an example.
Aryabhata‘s R-sine difference table shown below required an algorithmic package that managed uncertainty every step of the way in a transparent manner: one method for estimating square-roots, another for interpolation, and yet another non-mechanical exception step to generate an optimal final estimate for each value in the table. The Kerala Ganita experts extended such prior work to infinite series, including their own innovative exception terms .
Western mathematicians who reviewed Ramanujan’s notes found that he often used the terms “nearly” and “very nearly”. Ramanujan came up with clever, non-mechanical approximations for specific quantities like π. Some of his approximations eventually lead to exact results. His exact infinite series for π triggered the most dramatic leap in accuracy since Madhava. Some examples of his approximations are shown below .
The Indian approach seeks balance between chaos and order  and represents a dharmic optimization under uncertainty.
Eliminating uncertainty and deleting Yukti, Upapatti, and Pramana from Ganita to digest it, drains it of keyfeatures that make it a powerful and reliable approach for solving real-life problems. Furthermore, lack of Pramana can lead to pseudo-science and fraud, as we will see shortly. Preserving these features within an Indian approach to Mathematics has the twin benefits of recovering pragmatism and making the subject understandable and usable by everyone. It protects against further digestion and denigration of the source tradition.
Finally, How can Ganita preserve this poison pill while continuing to retain its open architecture  and confidently exchange knowledge with other cultures?
The need of the hour is a thorough and systematic purva paksha of Mathematics and Modern Science, employing an Indian lens.
We don’t have to be a Manjul Bhargava to experience some differences between Ganita and Math. We can simply try out the basic instruments employed within each subject.
Indian Rope vs Euclidean Geometry Box
One of C.K. Raju’s most important contributions is his cogent argument for a fundamental change in the way math is taught in Indian schools and colleges.
The rope is a key entity in Ganita and the Darshanas. A fundamental feature of the rope is its flexibility, reflecting the idea of ‘one manifesting as many’. The night-time confusion between a rope and a snake is an example that has been used Dharmic seekers to communicate the deep ideas about the nature of ultimate reality.
The knotted rope is a critical component of the ancient Indian navigational instrument known as the rapalagai or kamal . The ‘Sulba’ in the Sulba Sutras means ‘cord/string/rope’, and the rope served as a measuring tool since ancient times. Consequently, as C.K. Raju notes, the circumference can be the independent quantity measured quite naturally using a rope, with the straight line radius derived from this. A mathematical mind measures the straight line (Euclidean distance) first. A geometry box consists of an assortment of rigid straight-edged tools, and each one is used for a specific operation.
A knotted string can measured curved lines. When it is stretched taut between pins, it becomes a straight line, and with one of the pins freed, it behaves like a compass. This strings-and-pins set can be used to construct squares, rectangles, circles, etc, i.e., its flexibility reproduces the functionality of an expensive geometry box at a fraction of the cost. It unlocks the creativity of Ganita and is available even to the poorest student.
Indian Nyaya versus Aristotelian Logic
From the Indian point of view, two-valued (Aristotelian) logic can play a supporting role (e.g. like tarka ) but does not enable a person to attain a higher level of consciousness . Note that such reductive logic is different from the holistic logic of Nyaya,which accepts multiple pramanas. In fact, no major school of Indian thought directly mentions deductive logic as pramana . On the other hand, all major Indian schools of thought accept pratyaksha pramana, which in rejected by Mathematics . Misusing two-valued logic (that has no place for uncertainty) as pramana negates Ganita’s poison pill.
Mathematics in India Today
The current approach to teaching mathematics in India appears to be a stressful and boring mixture of bits-and-pieces of Ganita mashed up with partially understood formal Mathematics imported from the west. This digested teaching approach has been successful in confounding multiple generations of Indian students. The modern rote/mechanical mode is a distortion of the original approach of recollective memory, which was a distinct mode of learning that cultivated the amazing computational (Ganita) abilities of the Indians .
Repeat after me:
“An acre is the area of a rectangle
whose length is one furlong
and whose width is one chain” – Pink Floyd, The Wall.
The 2016 Hindi movie ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ (~ 0/0) dramatizes this state of confusion. The movie claims that Math is a natural enemy of girls (“Ladkiyon ko Maths se purani dushmani hain“). While this may or may not be true, the daughters of Lilavati should not experience any difficulty with Ganita. For the great Shakuntala Devi, Ganita was a bandhu, not an enemy. The sophisticated Ganita within Kolam designs attests to the embodied learning capability within women. Let us also not forget thewomen engineers of ISROwho mastered the Ganita of rockets and spacecraft (yes, Ganita’s calculus without limits can do this well ).
The intrepid mother in the movie tells her daughter that “maths yaad karne ki nahi, samajne ki cheez hai“, while the maths-savvy classmate advises: “ek baar maths se dosti karke dekho, usse majhedaar aur kuch nahi“. A key scene in the movie shows everyday, familiar objects from real life being used to convey this ‘samaj’ – clearly a Ganita rather than an Euclidean solution to an Indian problem .
In formal math, even something as simple as a point (Bindu) gets hairy. (Euclid: A point is that which has no part, then graduate to this). A blind import of western approaches into the Indian classroom without subjecting it to a thorough purva paksha, is a folly not just restricted to Ganita, but one that been repeated in different areas of study including social sciences, economics, religion, art, etc. The net result is years of misery for most Indian students followed by a trip to the west to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. S. Gurumurthy has repeatedly noted the negative impact and the poor track record of such a reductive mathematics in solving practical problems in the Indian economic context. We close with a discussion on contemporary mathematics and the way forward.
The Needham Question
"With the appearance on the scene of intensive studies of mathematics, science, technology and medicine in the great non-European civilisations, debate is likely to sharpen, for the failure of China and India to give rise to distinctively modern science while being ahead of Europe for fourteen previous centuries is going to take some explaining” - Joseph Needham.
Many Indian scholars have attempted to answer this complex question. However, virtually all of these responses that try to provide social/religious explanations offer little insight due to a shallow understanding of dharma and Ganita traditions, and the inability to do a systematic Purva Paksha of the western approach using an Indian lens. We quickly summarize three perspectives below noting that we are only scratching the surface here.
A. Several centuries of foreign occupation
This occupation of India ranked among the worst and longest-running genocides in history and was characterized by violence that specifically the Indian intellectuals. Such a strategy is likely to have taken a heavy toll on Indian R&D output and institutions. When there was a sustained break from this violence, e.g., the time period of the Vijayanagara empire, we observe that Ganita, Ayurveda, astronomy, and other sciences achieved significant progress.
B. Civilizational inertia: complacency or weariness?
The sharpest debates in India occurred internally, between the various darshanas, which may have shifted the focus away from the study of external cultures entering India. There appears to be no evidence of a thorough study of the axiomatic approach from a native perspective. The Indians may have identified the lack of integral unity in the western approach and rejected it without any further examination of possible useful features. CK Raju notes in  that it was only in the 18th century that India got the Elements translated from Persian into Sanskrit (by Jai Singh). This lack of a systematic Purva Paksha is not limited to Ganita alone but is also seen in many other areas, as pointed out by Rajiv Malhotra , suggesting an overly inward focus, careless disunityagainst an external threat, and a lack of strategic thinking.
C. The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics
Roddam Narasimha’s analysis examines a question complementary to Needham’s: what are the reasons for a sudden European resurgence after 1400+ years of backwardness in science and technology? He cites a key reason for their resurgence in the 17th century: the mathematization of science. Galileo is his study of the motion of falling bodies, used the calculus (via Cavalieri) to came up with the ‘law of the parabolic fall’. This is considered the first ever quantitative representation of motion using mathematical equations . Scientists thereafter began to develop effective quantitative models relating different physical quantities like velocity, momentum, etc. using abstract models and calculus.Newton titled his famous scientific work as ‘Principia Mathematica‘. These mathematical models, however ‘wrong’ they may be, helped in new discoveries.
Indian Ganita experts too may not have anticipated this unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics when they rejected it for centuries. Narasimha summarizes this in : “Modern science seems to have acquired, perhaps by fortunate accident, the property that the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna called prapakatva: i.e., it delivers what it promises; it may not be the Truth, but it is honest“.
The Road Ahead
Ganita, in the more recent interactions with modern science and math has made positive contributions, e.g., Satyendranath Bose and Narendra Karmarkar. The Bose-Einstein statistics comes out of counting exercise and is a significant contribution to Quantum Mechanics. Karmarkar is famous for inventing the first practically effective algorithm for solving linear programs that is also theoretically efficient. Karmarkar’s proof of convergence demonstrates Yukti in gradually reducing the level of uncertainty in the solution quality in way that is both practically viable, and theoretically rigorous (a teeny bit of uncertainty remains in the end but it can be safely ignored). Clearly, interacting with and exchanging ideas with other cultures can be beneficial, provided it is done with eyes wide open. Scientists and applied mathematicians today employ a variety of different methods, including deduction, induction, inference, etc., along with empirical validation, etc., to come up with new findings and inventions.
Per Roddam Narasimha, the Indians paid a price for rejecting the axiomatic approach, but their stance was vindicated later by the 20th century developments in Quantum/Classical Mechanics and Logic . Furthermore, modern science is being increasingly plagued by a variety of harmful ‘viruses’ that would not affect a ‘Ganita OS’.
Unreasonable expectations from Mathematics
The mathematization of science has succeeded, but onlywhen the order it brings is honestly balanced by the reality check of an unpredictable nature. The unbalanced mathematization of economics has resulted in a series of spectacular failures when applied in real life. Indian thinkers like S. Gurumurthy have studied these economic models in depth, and opted for a balanced Ganita-like method, bringing in empirical validation and Yukti to determine practical solutions anchored in Indian reality. Western social science, which mimics the axiomatic approachis degenerating into a self-serving pseudo-science that offers little insight. A sizable proportion of results published in modern scientific journalsare not reproducible. This highly cited 2005 article discusses the implications. And then there is the issue of fraud that is peculiar to the western modeling approach based on Aristotelian logic.
Falling for Supermodels
Supermodels sell an advertising pitch, not reality. Yet the temptation of falling for the perfection of abstract math models and ignoring the uncertainty of the real world can be too strong. As  notes: “The history of Western science is shot through with the idea of theories and models and of fraud. Ptolemy himself has been accused of fraud; so in more recent times have Galileo, Newton, Mendel, Millikan and a great variety of other less well-known figures. I believe the reason for this can be traced to faith in two-valued logic.” All models approximate reality. When this gap gets too wide, it makes sense to reject that model. However, it is tempting to reject reality in favor of a pet model or preferred hypothesis by cherry-picking data, fudging results, or tweaking the model in ‘creative’ ways to ‘make’ it work (e.g. some ‘AIT’ models in the Indian context).
Ganita does not suffer from this issue. Why? As noted in  that when “observation is the starting point and one has no great faith in any particular physical model, which was the prevailing norm of Indian scientific thought, the question of fraud does not arise. Indian scientists, even classical ones, do not appear to have accused each other of fraud. This could not have been mere politeness, as they did make charges of ignorance or even stupidity against each other (as Brahmagupta did on Aryabhata, for example). We could say that fraud is the besetting sin of a model-making scientific culture“.
Synthetic unity has its advantages and has revolutionized modern science, but progress based on Integral unity is more sustainable.
Some western scientists and mathematicians may have sensed this lack of Pramana. Poincare explored the role of intuition and inference in his candid 1905 essay . We even get a hint of integral unity here. Albert Einstein was aware of the limitations of Math when he noted “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Contemporary mathematician Terrence Tao recognizes that there is more to mathematics than just rigor and proof . Thus, we see a limited move by Math toward the Ganita position while remaining firmly grounded in its native western tradition. Ganita can reciprocate in mutual respect, anchored in its own epistemology. We conclude with an informal discussion on emerging technologies.
Digestion by Machine: Math versus Ganita
Ganita is well-suited for this era of decentralized internet, analytics, big data, and digital computing which is algorithm driven. The emerging world of Artificial Intelligence is also very interesting. We touched upon AI citing an important observation of Subhash Kak  in our post on Ganita. As AI becomes highly sophisticated, it will be able to automate many human capabilities. It may eventually master the axiomatic approach and digest the Euclidean mathematician.
On the other hand the Indian approach to knowledge is rooted in the correspondence principle of Bandhu. Potential fallibility is acknowledged. Machines cannot replicate embodied knowing since they lack Bandhus, and they will not have the ability to attain a higher state of consciousness. For example, machines cannot chant mantras. Next, this ‘Euclidean’ robot will be able to master scriptures, and emulate all text-prescribed functionality of a cleric. It can function as a virtual holy establishment by delivering impeccable discourses. It will become an expert of theology by encoding history-centric truth claims as axioms and applying two-valued logic. However, it cannot become a Yogi. Learning Ganita and internalizing the Dharmic worldview offers job security in the world of robots! India can lead the way forward by carefully reintegrating useful features of modern science and math into its Vedic framework .
Cultural foundations of mathematics: the nature of mathematical proof and the transmission of the calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE, C. K. Raju. Pearson Longman, 2007.
This is the Second in a Set of Posts as a follow up to our ‘Introduction to Ganita’.
This Set of Posts on the Indic Perspective to Mathematics is the third installment of our continuing Series on Ganita. Our first article in the Series celebrated Srinivasa Ramanujan. The Second provided an Introduction to Ganita. Emphases within quotes are ours.
In Part 1 of this Set of Posts on the Indic Perspective to Mathematics, we provided a background on the historical paradigms that drive the engines of Ganita and Western Mathematics respectively.
Part 2: (below) Ganita-Math Encounters. Ganita and Math came face-to-face when Indian Algorithms and Calculus traveled to Europe to help solve two critical problems: calculating with big numbers and managing the infinitely small. In a tense battle, Ganita’s balance of order and chaos prevails over the top-down Euclidean order backed by the church. We become aware of the massive contribution of the Vijayanagara empire to modern science.
Part 3: We adopt anIndic civilizational perspective of the Math-Ganita encounters. This gives rise to interesting questions like ‘What was lost when Mathematics digested Ganita?’. We also look ahead, exploring the importance of Ganita and its Indian approach in a futuristic world.
Experts have their expert fun
ex cathedratelling onejust how nothing can be done. - Piet Hein.
In the Introduction to this Set of Posts, we studied the Greek origins of ‘Mathematics’. The abstract nature of Mathematics resulted in a drastically reduced practical output and Europe plunged into a 1000+ year dark era. During this period, Ganita contributions from Dharma thought systems helped keep math practically relevant in other parts of the world, right up to the 17-18th century CE. In particular, this injection of Ganita helped resolve two Math crises in Europe . For the purpose of this post, we oversimplify and classify these problems as the ‘big’, and ‘small’ number’ crises. By helping resolve these crises, Ganita played a leading role in the birth and progress of modern science.
Big Number Crisis (Abacus vs Algorismus)
Here is example of a 10-digit Hindu number and its Roman numeral representation.
There are several such websites that allow us to perform this conversion and three aspects stand out. First is the reference to ‘Arab numbers‘ in many sites. Second, is a maximum limit on the input. Third, ‘0’ or negative numbers are not valid input. The idea of ‘Arab numbers’ is of course, deep-rooted in the western STEM community to this day (IEEE journal publication guidelines still refer erroneously to ‘Arabic numerals’) since a large body of Ganita knowledge made it to the west via Arab translations of Sanskrit works. As can be gauged from the conversion tool, the Roman system is cumbersome for doing actual calculations. Its representation is additive in nature and there is no place value for zero, and the idea that placing a ‘0’ after a number would increase its value was befuddling. The west relied on the abacus / counting board, which was adequate for simple arithmetic calculations (the Indians did most of their routine arithmetic mentally). The introduction of ‘algorismus’ from India via Arab sources around the 11th-12th century CE provided the merchants of Florence with an incredibly advanced way of quickly and accurately performing all kinds of numerical calculations .
Although traders found it to be practically useful, resistance to the alien method was stiff and it was several centuries (16th century) before the Hindu system gained unanimous acceptance. Well, almost. The British treasury preferred to place their money in the ‘secure’ hands of the abacus and held out until the 17th century . By that time, the second math crisis in Europe was well underway.
‘Smiling Boetius‘ works with Hindu numerals to prevail over his opponent, Pythagoras, who is sadly stuck with a counting board abacus. This depiction of the victory of ‘algorismus’ is on the cover of Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica (1508) .
Aside from the suspicion of an Arab source in a crusading world, a technical reason for the distrust appears to be Ganita’s approximation techniques combined with the fear of zeroes being added to make sums bigger. To a mind accustomed to the perfection of Euclidean math, not even the tiniest quantity could be discarded. Such unacceptable imperfections could open the door to fraud and chaos . The Indian approach, since the Sulba Sutras, recognized the non-representability of certain quantities (e.g. √2) and employed pragmatic and epistemologically secure approximation methods without anxiety, in order to reduce uncertainty (round-off error) to within an acceptable level . ‘Algorismus’ was absorbed into European practice in order to resolve real-life calculations, but not the underlying pramana and empirical rationale (e.g. upapatti). Why?
Small Number crisis (Infinitesimals and the Indian Origin of Calculus)
The Indian Background Story
Brothers Harihara and Bukka, with the blessings of Rishi Vidyaranya, laid the foundation for one of the most important empires in Indian and world history in 1336 CE. In particular, the global scientific community owes the Vijayanagara empire a debt of gratitude.
While most regions of 14th century India reeled from the attack of fundamentalist invaders who had already destroyed India’s top universities and institutions, the Vijayanagara Empire became an oasis that protected and nurtured the Dharma. In particular, a school of Ganita was etablished in Kerala thanks to the prosperity and security enjoyed by the region during the Vijayanagara period, between the 14th and 16th century CE. An important member of this Ganita tradition was Madhava of Sangamagrama (~1350-1425 CE). This school produced a illustrious line of scholars who were the genuine adhyatmic and intellectual successors of Aryabhata, Bhaskara, and other great seekers. A major part of the foundation for modern science was laid by the Kerala school and the Ganita tradition they carried forward.
Recall that Aryabhata had already come up with finite difference equations for interpolation by 499 CE to generate fine-grained sine values. His practical approach essentially translates into Euler’s 18th century method for solving ordinary differential equations (ODEs). These results were subsequently improved upon by Brahmagupta (his second order interpolation result is known as ‘Stirling’s Interpolation Formula‘ today),Bhaskara-2, and others . Today, Indians are familiar with the phrase ‘Tatkal booking’ of train tickets. The ancient Ganita experts had developed algorithms to calculate the Tatkalika gati of planets, their instantaneous velocity (an important quantity in Newtonian physics), as shown below.
We can observe a continual progress in India toward calculus, right from Aryabhata . For all practical purposes, the Ganita school in Kerala during the Vijayanagara period can rightfully claim to be the developers of Calculus (from a formal mathematics perspective, western historians credit them for ‘pre calculus’). C.K. Raju has demonstrated the all-around practical viability of this epistemologically secure calculus without the use of ‘limits’ .
Madhava gave the world some beautiful and important results in infinite series by 1375 CE, centuries before Newton/Leibniz/Gregory/Taylor/McLaurin & Co.
In the derivation of these calculus results we can observe a smart management of the non-representability of infinitesimals based on order counting, along with a judiciously chosen exceptional / end-correction term (right side of the picture above). This is a really cool and important innovation that serves twin purposes, as explained by C. K. Raju below .
There are many other novel ideas and instances of such Yukti within the Indian approach. The interested reader can refer to  for a detailed description of the techniques employed.
It is worth comparing the meaningful Sanskrit non-translatable abhiyukti(expressing, or translating one’s Yukti in action) to its nearest English counterpart ‘algorithm’. The latter from the Latin ‘algorismus’, which in turn came from Al-khwarizmi who had translated Sanskrit texts of Ganita (see the picture at the top of this post). Jyesthadevapublished the Ganita Yuktibhasa around 1530 CE in Malayalam, which provides the detailed mathematical rationale validating the Calculus results.
Why was Calculus Important to India?
Madhava’s infinite series with end-correction terms, allowed him to quickly calculate estimates for trigonometric values and π (pi) to very high levels of accuracy. For example, Madhava was able to calculate π to 11 decimal places, which represents both a quantitative, and methodological leap over prior brute-force type approaches (the next such dramatic leap was also due to Ganita, via Ramanujan) . A natural follow-up question is: why were precise trigonometric values useful? Isn’t calculating π to many decimal places purely an academic exercise? We summarize the reasons below, referring the interested reader to  for a detailed description.
Agriculture and Trade were key contributors to an Indian economy that played a dominant role on the world stage from 0 CE (and earlier) through 1750 CE.
Krishi was and is a dominant component of the Indian economy. It was (and still is) dependent on a successful rainy season, which means that accurately calculating the arrival time of monsoons is important. A couple of weeks ago, the Indian government announced a $60M supercomputer project to better predict monsoons.
Vedanga Jyotisha is primarily a science of time keeping that has numerous applications and has been recognized by researchers as a key source of knowledge in the ancient world . It enabled the Indians to maintain an accurate calendar. Thus, from a Krishi perspective, the Ganita of Jyotisha acted as a decision support system for planning and scheduling key agricultural activities.
The Indian calendar date and time was calculated with respect to the prime meridian at Ujjain(long before Greenwich), which was then re-calibrated to obtain local times at locations all over Bharatvarsha that covered a vast area (ancient India was united by time too!). This local re-calibration:
⇒ required the calculation of the local latitude and longitude (lat-long)
⇒ which (in the Indian approach) used the size of Earth as input
⇒ this required a value for π
⇒ trigonometric values were also needed for lat-long calculations
Precise numerical values were required since tiny errors get magnified after multiplication by big numbers (in the order of the Earth’s radius). Thanks to the Ganita tradition, the Indians had access to good estimates that were continuously improved upon.
India has a culture of calculation and embodied knowing that goes back thousands of years. Many ordinary Indians even today take pride in their ability to think and calculate on their feet, or pull off some Jugaad without the aid of electronic devices. The pattern-seeking Indian nature is visible in their traditional approach to navigation, reflecting an ability to discover sufficient order even within an ocean of chaos. The metaphor of the Samudra Manthana truly comes alive here.
India, thanks to its manufacturing and technological prowess, had established lucrative trading relationships as a net exporter with several countries, from ancient Rome to the far east. Much was this was done through open sea routes, and not just sailing close to the coast .
Prior to the 11th century CE, accumulated navigational knowledge included seasonal wind patterns (‘wind lore’), nature of ocean currents (‘current lore’), etc., and the empirical wisdom of sea-craft. The ancient Tamizhseafarers made use of the Saptharishi mandalam (Ursa Major) in the southern hemisphere. This database of seafaring wisdom and best practices were preserved, improved upon, and transmitted from generation to generation via the oral traditions of the seafaring Jatis .
Thus, the Indian sailors had already established a tradition of navigation and deep sea voyage without written charts (they rejected the method of ‘dead reckoning‘ in order to stay alive). Their approach included an empirical understanding of ocean patterns, Ganita, and instrumentation like the rapalagai (kamal) for celestial observations. Tamizh navigators deciphered currents using a simple device known as mitappu palagai .
Such historical data further debunks the theory that oral traditions were ‘pre-rational’ and the sole preserve of Vedic scholars. Hinduphobic Indologists like Sheldon Pollock are dismissive of such priceless oral traditions . The western universal idea of history begins with written text and it is tough for this mindset to imagine open-sea navigation without written charts.
Accurately determining the local lat-long using celestial observations (solar altitude at noon, pole star at night, etc.) was part of this approach.
More reliable navigation in the open seas is possible if the 3L: latitude, longitude, and loxodrome can be accurately obtained for any given location. These were indeed calculated in multiple ways by the Indians using trigonometric values .
Continual Progress in Calculating Accurate Trigonometric Values
Aryabhata’s astounding publication of his R-sine difference table along with an interpolation method stepped away from the geometrical approach that was employed until then . The Aryabhatiya was a prized intellectual property of its time. It significantly improved the accuracy of trigonometric values (given the sine value of an angle, one can use elementary identities to calculate all other trig values).
Aryabhata’s work paved the way for Calculus. Over the next 1000 years, the Indians steadily improved upon prior estimates.
Calculus was a natural outcome of this process of deriving ever more accurate trigonometric values. The Kerala school’s calculus extended the finite series based trigonometric results to a highly accurate infinite series based approach.
We refer the reader to this essay  by D.P. Agarwal for his summary of the Kerala School, European Mathematics, and Navigation. It is highly likely that this Ganita knowledge traveled to Europe via European missionaries in Kerala and played a key part in revolutionizing physics and mechanics via Newton’s Principia Mathematica and other works. This story serves as background for the question: why did the idea of ‘infinitesimals’ which was a non-issue in the Ganita world, spark a crisis in Europe?
The European Background Story
Ancient Greek math hit a roadblock after encountering paradoxes tied to infinitely small quantities. Mathematics could not deal with the irritating uncertainty around infinitesimals and the problem of non-representability: For example, an infinite number of threads of minuscule but nonzero length, joined end-to-end should yield an infinitely long thread. On the other hand, combining even an infinite number of threads of ‘zero’ length would only yield zero. Aristotle believed that continuum could be divided endlessly and could not be made up of ‘indivisibles’.
A famous paradox (which used to be popular among those preparing for engineering school entrance exams in India) is that of Achilles and the Tortoise. Around 500 BCE, Zeno of Elea came up with several such paradoxes that exposed the gaps in a seemingly perfect mathematics and two-valued logic. Unable to satisfactorily resolve such contradictions and deal with non-representability of certain quantities (a fundamental requirement for numerical calculations), Greek progress halted. The dark ages robbed the west of native expertise and appears to have hurt them in key areas including, but not limited to [1, 27]:
Astronomy, Navigation, Instrumentation
Calendrical Systems, Ship Building
Medicine and Botany
After more than a thousand years, between the 12th-16th century, we can observe the emergence of a new kind of Mathematics in Europe, which was fundamentally different in its epistemology from the Euclidean approach. This knowledge first arrived via Arab/Persian translations of Ganita works in Sanskrit, and later through Missionaries who had direct access to Ganita’s latest results in Sanskrit and local Indian languages. We kick off this discussion using the European calendar as a case study.
Trick question: What came after Thursday, October 4th, 1582 in Europe?
The answer is Friday, October 15th. The European (Julian) calendar was slow by about 11 minutes per year for about 1200 years across their dark age. Church and Biblical dogma reigned supreme from the time the Nicene creed was formalized in 325 CE. This dogma can be best understood as an instance of history-centrism , and a key to preserving the credibility of this ‘history’ of unique divine intervention is proper time keeping and dating of these events. This was a key motivation behind the European quest for a better calendar.
The Indians had maintained accurate calendars since ancient times thanks to Vedanga Jyotisha for use within multiple applications, and Buddhists even helped with calendars in China  (helping the Chinese is an old Indian habit…). The Roman Church realized in 1582 that their calendar was trailing the correct date by 11 whole days. This key project of calendar reform was taken up by Christopher Clavius (1538-1612 CE), a Jesuit priest. Thanks to his painstaking work, Pope Gregory was able to press the fast-forward button on the calendar (thereafter named after him), recommend a leap year correction, and the rest is history.
C.K. Raju has uncovered the Indian source of this calendar bug fix [24, 1]: “Jesuits, like Matteo Ricci, who trained in mathematics and astronomy, under Clavius’ new syllabus [Ricci also visited Coimbra and learnt navigation], were sent to India. In a 1581 letter, Ricciexplicitly acknowledged that he was trying to understand local methods of timekeeping from “an intelligent Brahmin or an honest Moor”, in the vicinity of Cochin, which was, then, the key centre for mathematics and astronomy, since the Vijaynagar empire had sheltered it from the continuous onslaughts of raiders from the north. Language was hardly a problem, for the Jesuits had established a substantial presence in India, had a college in Cochin, and had even started printing presses in local languages, like Malayalam and Tamil by the 1570’s.“. The Jesuits have continued to exercise their influence on the Indian education system to this day. They also played a key role in the second Math-Ganita tussle.
Jesuit (Euclidean) Order versus Indian (Ganita) Chaos
The Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, an organization founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and rooted in Roman Catholicism. Per  “In the broadest sense, imposing order on chaos was the Society’s core mission, both in its internal arrangements and in its engagement with the world.”
This painting of Ignatius of Loyola is richly symbolic. It depicts the victory of a perfect top-down hierarchical orderover chaos. Loyola and his back-robed Jesuits are in the middle, watched over by angels at the top. Loyola is calmly performing an exorcism, expelling the chaotic evil spirits possessing the bodies of terrified people at the bottom of the picture.  provides an insightful description of this picture, noting the role of the black robed Jesuits of Loyola’s Society of Jesus: “They are Ignatius’s army, there to learn from their master, follow his directions, and ultimately take over his mission of turning chaos into order and bringing peace to the afflicted. For that was indeed the “miracle” of St. Ignatius and his followers. Like no one else, they managed to restore peace and order in a land torn apart by the challenge of the Reformation.“.
The Church gained immensely via this decisive mathematical triumph of calendar reform, and Clavius who played an instrumental role, realized the benefits obtainable by investing in mathematics. This was a time period characterized by fissures and dissent in Christianity, with several alternatives and reformations (e.g., led by Calvin) cropping up that challenged the exclusive authority of the catholic church. In this climate, Clavius felt that the top-down hierarchical perfection within Euclidean geometry would be a great fit for the Jesuit curriculum, and in sync with the primary goal of their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola.
As mentioned in  “It was clear to Clavius that Euclid’s method had succeeded in doing precisely what the Jesuits were struggling so hard to accomplish: imposing a true, eternal, and unchallengeable order upon a seemingly chaotic reality. Just as Ganita was recognized as the foremost of the sciences in India since ancient times, Euclidean Mathematics became a most important subject in Europe after the calendar reform. The Society of Jesus embraced Math and all was well for a while. The focus had shifted to other pressing topics. For example, navigational challenges had to be overcome in order to ‘discover‘ reliable sea routes to new lands.
Calculus created a rather sudden splash into Europe within 50 years of the calendar reform . By that time, the calculus, which was rooted in Indian epistemology had already been developed and studied for two centuries. Bonaventura Cavilieri (1598-1647), a Milanese Jesuat monk and a student of Galileo was an early adopter. While the Jesuits were more like a MNC, the Jesuats were a local group of Italian monks lower in the pecking order. However, Galileo’s endorsement boosted Cavalieri’s profile significantly. Cavalieri introduced the ‘method of indivisibles’, in which “planes and solids had an indeterminate number of indivisibles” and authored the book Geometria indivisibilibus (Geometry by Way of Indivisibles) in 1635 .
While the idea of indivisibles was embraced by the Galileans, the Jesuits were not as welcoming. Those who worked with infinitesimal quantities did so for its practical value in generating realistic new results and could not really establish any logical consistency needed to prove infallible theorems. Unlike Euclid’s Elements which used top-down deductive logic to prove specific theorems from axioms, the use of infinitesimals required the ground-up Ganita approach: to start from physical reality and work toward generalized results, which could lead to innovation and potentially unpredictable discoveries. Clearly, Yukti was not welcomed by the church whereas Galileo’s methods were more compatible with Ganita.
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642 CE)
Galileo had become a formidable opponent by that time. He had earlier discovered the moons around Jupiter, and as a prashasthi  to a rich grand duke who ruled Florence, named the moons after him and his family. In return, he was rewarded with benefits that included the post of ‘Chief Mathematician’ to the Duke in 1611, which also freed him up to pursue his work as an independent researcher. As  notes, “The Galileans also sought truth, but their approach was the reverse of that of the Jesuits: instead of imposing a unified order upon the world, they attempted to study the world as given, and to find the order within.” This started a conflict between the Galileans and the Jesuits.
For the church, the idea that matter could be broken down into infinitely small indivisible atoms was unacceptable. The archives of the Society of Jesus in Rome records for posterity the ruling of their leaders in 1632 on infinitesimals :” “Judgment on the Composition of the Continuum by Indivisibles”. …The permanent continuum can be constituted of only physical indivisibles or atomic corpuscles having mathematical parts identified with them. Therefore the said corpuscles can be actually distinguished from each other.” The church basically ducked the question of non-representability and banned the idea and the mathematical study of ‘indivisibles’.
Among the critics of these indivisibles was Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher author of the Leviathan, who deeply influenced Western thought. Hobbes was also an excellent mathematician and a devotee of the Euclidean approach. He was bitterly opposed in this battle of the infinitesimals by John Wallis of England, one of the founders of the Royal Society, the new science academy . Wallis had little time for eternal proofs, and was firmly rooted in what we can unmistakably recognize as the pragmatic Ganita approach for solving real-life problems. Hobbes had tried in vain for several years to prove that he could ‘square the circle‘, and each attempt in this futile exercise was eagerly demolished by Wallis and exploited to the hilt in their public feud . Eventually, Wallis’ team ‘won’ the contest (possibly in terms of cultural and scientific acceptance) and Newton came up with his famous work Principia Mathematica that relies heavily on calculus. Interested readers can refer to [12, 1] for a detailed discussion.
The Ghosts of Departed Quantities
It is worth noting some logical inconsistencies in the positions of both sides in this battle. The church was fighting to save their dogmatic belief in an infallible and orderly Euclidean math against a group injecting a practically useful but poorly-understood imported concept into this math. Every researcher seemed to have his own pet model showing how the math of the infinitely small worked. In an important and devastating piece of satirical writing, Anglican church bishop Berkeley ridiculed the questionable fluxions of Newton, and Leibniz’s ‘infinitesimal change’ as “the ghosts of departed quantities”. CK Raju concludes (as do others) that this calculus was not on firm epistemological ground.
The European approach appeared to be mechanical and did not, for example, employ the end-correction terms that had helped keep Indian derivation transparent and anchored in a valid pramana . Mathematicians could not accept, understand, or were unaware of the Ganita rationale behind the amazing calculus results derived by the Kerala School. For example, it is known that “Newton later became discontented with the undeniable presence of infinitesimals in his calculus, and dissatisfied with the dubious procedure of “neglecting” them” . Mathematics was enhanced so that calculus was eventually placed on a firm formal foundation in the 20th century .
Transmission of Calculus from India to Europe
The etymology of ‘calculus‘ (17th century CE, Latin) relates to ‘reckoning’ and ‘accounting’. This focus is entirely empirical and on calculation, far away from the Euclidean world of theorems and proofs. On the other hand, it is directly corresponds in meaning, intent, and usage to Ganita. So far, research has uncovered three kinds of evidence linking Indian Calculus transmission to Europe: documentary, circumstantial, and epistemological. The interested reader is referred to [24, 1] for details. A primary, initial motivation for appropriating Ganita’s calculus results appears to be the practical problem of navigation: to obtain accurate trigonometric values required to calculate the 3L mentioned earlier .
A note in  on the circumstantial evidence is worth stating: “Unlike India, where the series expansions developed over a thousand-year period 499-1501 CE, they appear suddenly in fully developed form in a Europe still adjusting to grasp arithmetic and decimal fractions“. The 1400+ year discontinuity in the study of infinitesimals in Europe was followed by a sudden upsurge in results in the 16th-17th century , right after Ganita’s documented achievements in Kerala and the establishment of European missions along the west coast. In fact, this was also a period when results from Ayurveda and Siddha began traveling to Europe giving birth to modern Botany, and similarly revolutionizing western medicine, health-care, and sanitation.
The epistemological evidence is fascinating to read . A barrier in the western mindset as far as dealing with uncertainty manifests itself clearly in both the first and second math crises. As noted in : “The European difficulty with zero did not concern merely the numeral zero, but related also to the process of discarding or zeroing a “non-representable” during the course of a calculation—similar to the process of rounding. Though the Indian method of summing the infinite series constituted valid pramana, it was not understood in Europe; the earlier difficulty with non-representables zeroed during a calculation reappeared in a new form. This was now seen as a new difficulty—the problem of discarding infinitesimals… In both cases of algorismus and calculus, Europeans were unable to reject the new mathematical techniques because of the tremendous practical value for calculations (required for commerce, navigation etc.), and unable also to accept them because they did not fit in the metaphysical frame of what Europeans then regarded as valid“.
Another instructive story (see page 3 of this essay), highlighting the outcome and unintentional humor caused by a borrow-copy-paste of Ganita without fully understanding its epistemology, is about how ‘sine’ and ‘cosine’ entered Europe. These mistranslated terms destroy the insight behind the original Sanskrit terms jyaand kojya , baffling generations of Indian students studying Trigonometry.
To this day, neither organized religion and its theology, nor secular mathematicians, have been able to fully embrace the epistemology and validation procedure of Ganita. Why is this? And examining this question from the other direction, why did the Indians not take Euclidean math seriously for two thousand years? What is the future of Ganita? We study these civilizational perspectives in the third and concluding Post of this Set.
Cultural foundations of mathematics: the nature of mathematical proof and the transmission of the calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE, C. K. Raju. Pearson Longman, 2007.
This is the first of a 3-part set of Posts that follows our ‘Introduction to Ganita’
This Post studies from an Indic perspective, the path taken by Mathematics from ancient Greece to reach its present form. We compare and contrast Math with Ganita (introduced in our previous post) and in this process, also gain a better appreciation for Ganita. In some places, oversimplifications are employed for ease of understanding, and to bring into focus certain latent aspects of the discourse. All emphases within quotes are ours.
For convenience, this Post has been divided into a set of three, to be published consecutively. The first part is presented today, but the entire set is previewed below:
Part 1: We study the origins and motivations of Math and the pivotal roles of Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid (via Elements) in shaping the initial course of Mathematics. We compare the Indian and Greek logic, noting the non-universality of logic. To each civilization and culture, their own: Pramana versus Proof. A fundamentally different understanding of the nature of ultimate reality guides the Math and Ganita approaches: The integral unity underlying Ganita versus a synthetic unity in which Math lives as a separately independent component.
Part 2: We observe and learn what happens when Ganita encountered Math. Sparks fly in a tussle between order and chaos when two sharply different approaches clash.
Part 3: We adopt anIndic civilizational perspective of the Math-Ganita encounters. This gives rise to interesting questions like ‘What was lost when Mathematics digested Ganita?’. We also look ahead, exploring the importance of Ganita and its Indian approach in a futuristic world.
Dolores Umbridge: It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations, which after all, is what school is all about.
Harry Potter: And how is theory supposed to prepare us for what's out there?
(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J. K. Rowling).
Mathematics is the ‘science of learning’ that originated in ancient Greece, and comes from the Greek root mathesiz, or learning . Plato’s Republic (~375 BCE) mentions the five specific disciplines of mathematics as: Arithmetic, Astronomy, Plane and Solid Geometry, and Harmonics . Plato founded the Academy in Athens and gave Western (Greek) philosophy to the world. ‘Learning’ had a specific meaning in this philosophy. His ‘theory of recollection’ indicates that ‘mathesiz’ is all about a soul recollecting the knowledge it has forgotten. We cannot learn anything new, and only recall what we forgot . His teacher was Socrates, and Aristotle was his famous pupil. Plato took as ideal that which was perfect, unchanging, abstract, even spiritual, and regarded the phenomenal world riddled with uncertainty as inferior. He favored the rational over the empirical, and the goal of uplifting the soul as superior to the task of performing mundane calculations. For example, when it came to arithmetic, his views as the narrator in the Republic were pretty clear:
“I must add how charming the science of arithmetic is! and in how many ways it is a subtle and useful tool to achieve our purposes, if pursued in the spirit of a philosopher, and not of a shopkeeper!’
‘How do you mean?’, he asked.
‘I mean, as I was saying, that arithmetic has a very great and elevating effect, compelling the mind to reason about abstract number, and rebelling against the introduction of visible or tangible objects into the argument.”
Several elegant results came out this Greek approach which can be broadly viewed as a sequence of axiom/model followed by the use of deductive logic to prove an infallible theorem . The exemplar for this approach is Elements, the treatise on geometry attributed to Euclid (~300 BCE), and this ancient work played a very powerful role in shaping the course of Mathematics. The impact of Euclidean geometry is visible to this day. However, progress in the realm of practical application and calculation was curtailed by the downgrading or even the elimination of the empirical. While logic and deductive reasoning are indispensable in detecting inconsistencies in arguments and help in viewing existing ideas more clearly, scholars have recognized the limitations of logic when it comes to understanding the nature of ultimate reality:
Logic can be misused when it is employed to find Truth. About Aristotle : “it was, for him, a tool for finding truth, but it didn’t keep him from making the most profound errors of thought. Nearly every argument and conclusion he made about physical science was wrong and misguided. Any tool can be misused, and in these pre-scientific days logic was misused repeatedly“.
Deductive reasoning can help us analyze existing ideas better and lead us to a different way of tackling a problem, but in itself cannot lead us to new knowledge. “deduced conclusions are just restatements and repackaging of the content contained in the premises. The conclusions may look new to us, because we hadn’t thought through the logic, but they contain no more than the information contained in the premises. They are just cast in new form, a form that may seem to give us new insight and suggest new applications, but in fact no new information or truths are generated. This is especially noticeable in mathematics…“.
This Mathematics lived in an abstract infallible world divorced from reality. One cannot also overemphasize the impact of Aristotle’s ‘law of the excluded middle’ on western thought – a law that leaves no room for uncertainty. The intellectual ideas of Greece were eventually digested  into Christianity via the so-called ‘Hellenic-Hebraic’ synthesis. This should come as no surprise given the motivation for the studying mathematics included ideas of absolute perfection and ‘uplifting of the soul’. Mathematics thus became intertwined with the theology of an organized religion. A comparative study of the Indian and the Greek approach bring out the sharp differences between the Ganita and the Mathesiz approaches. Ganita, the integral science of computing, is not the same as mathematics. Unlike the five categories of Mathematics laid out by Plato, Ganita is all pervasive.
In , Rajiv Malhotra comments on the influence of Aristotle on western thought: “The Law of the Excluded Middle dictates that the principle ‘P or not-P’ separates one thing from another in an absolute sense. All physical and logical entities are invariant units, mutually exclusive of each other. This is not just a pragmatic criterion for distinguishing one thing from another; it is the very nature of reality in both concrete and abstract realms. The law eliminates the possibility of things being mutually dependent, interrelated and interpenetrated. It is diametrically opposed to the intertwined and fluid relationships characteristic of integral unity…”.
There appears to have existed a state of tension between the fallible-and-real and the infallible-and-perfect domain in the western thought since the time of Plato, which manifests itself today as the anxiety-filled binary of ‘religion versus science’. Since this gap was never breached, only a synthetic unity was ever possible , and the resultant western approach is reductionist. The independent parts have to be subsequently synthesized to achieve unity. For example, we read in  that “much of Western civilization is based on separating the parts. One date is separate from another, history separate from math which is separate from biology. It’s a world view we inherited from Newton and Descartes, so useful in many ways and disastrous in others. However, there has always been an alternative view of the universe as a single, totally interconnected system. You’ll find that in Eastern traditions.“. To this day, Mathematics and Science are treated and taught as two different school subjects. A key tussle here is between the ‘lower’ empirical world we can experience, and the ‘higher’ abstract-theoretical domain, with the latter being considered superior. This western view is even being taken as the universal approach to knowledge.
Today, we can observe the promotion of the notion of a western universalism that traces its origin to the intellectual tradition of ancient Europe. For example, the choice of the logo for UNESCO, a world body, reflects a desire to preserve the memory of Parthenon in ancient Greece, which was damaged in wars eons ago. Key buildings in several prominent universities in the United States are designed to remind viewers of the glory of ancient Rome and Greece.
The belief in the dominance of Euclidean Mathematics is reflected in the argument between the ancient Greeks and Epicureans.
The Epicurean Ass
The Epicureans opposed the followers of Euclid who, from their perspective, appeared to be proving obvious results. For example, consider the following proposition in Elements as discussed in :
“Any two sides of a triangle are together greater than the remaining side.
In other words, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points!
If anyone wanted to ridicule mathematics for its insistence on the axiomatic method of orderly proof, this theorem offers a wide target. In fact, the Epicureans (those Athenian free-thinkers, who defined philosophy as the art of making life happy) did exactly that. They said that this theorem required no proof, and was known even to an ass. For if hay were placed at one vertex, they argued, and an ass at another, the poor dumb animal would not travel two sides of the triangle to get his food, but only the one side which separated them.”
C. K. Raju explains both sides of the argument : “Proclus replied that the ass only knew that the theorem was true, he did not know why it was true. The Epicurean response to Proclus has, unfortunately, not been well documented. The Epicureans presumably objected that mathematics could not hope to explain why the theorem was true, since mathematics was ignorant of its own principles..” In the end, the Greek response cites the authority of Plato that mathematics “takes its principles from the highest sciences and, holding them without demonstration, demonstrates their consequences.“ .
Let us now introduce an Indic perspective.
In contrast with this Greek view, all Indian schools of thought accept empirical means of verification (e.g., pratyaksha pramana [1, 22]) while acknowledging the potential fallibility. All darshanas would reject any axiomatic approach that lacked valid pramana. The use of empirical rationale has existed in India since ancient times, including the Sulba Sutras (800 BCE or earlier) and is different from the axiom-theorem approach. C. K. Raju puts this in perspective: “Because no proof was stated it does not, of course, follow that the authors of the sulba sutras did not know why the result was true. But the method of proof that convinced them may well have differed from the current definition of proof. Thus, it is incorrect to assert that the constructional methods used in the sulba-sutras implicitly lead to a proof in a formalistic sense. It is incorrect because the rationale for the formula for a right-angled triangle, from the constructional methods of the sulba-sutras right down to the 16th century Yuktibhasa, explicitly appeals to the empirical“. 
The Epicurean Ass argument has been kept alive in some form or the other to this day in a western worldview. From an Indian point of view, a Ganita expert like Srinivasa Ramanujantoo was deemed a ‘wizard’ [14, Lecture 1] who did not know why his results were true, despite his point that he employed his own valid method, which produced so many astounding new and true results. He had to move from Kumbakonam to work in the U.K. to prove his results to the satisfaction of the formal math community in order to gain acceptance.
Indian Gurus, Yogis, Siddhas, and Tantriks who, through years of practice and sadhana, demonstrated amazing results in transcendental meditation, mind sciences, and medical sciences are sometimes labeled pre-rational Indian ‘mystics’  as opposed to western ‘scientists’ who came up with sophisticated instrumentation that subsequently confirmed these results. Universities like Harvard periodically comes out with a research report ‘proving‘ prior findings in Yoga and Ayurveda from the Dharma traditions, which have been practically employed for centuries.
Public intellectuals like Rajiv Malhotra also ask: How often are these Hindu and Buddhist monks, who are the primary producers of this knowledge, credited as co-authors in the journal papers? This bias is propagated subtly by western scholars who study Hinduism. For example, Phil Goldberg who teaches at Loyola Marmount University, an institution rooted in the Jesuit Catholic tradition, compares ‘Indian philosophy and Western science’ in . He also endorses the rejection of the ‘orange’ [saffron] robe of Dharma in favor of the authoritative western scientific garb of a ‘white lab coat’ in order to increase the credibility of Yoga and meditation techniques in the minds of westerners. Note the approach is one of extracting the benefits, and then rejecting/denigrating the Dharma source. Such biased attitudes have also helped feed an increasing Hinduphobia within western academia.
Two-valued logic is not universal. India had not one but several different schools of thought that also studied logic , including Nyaya and NavyaNyaya, as well the Buddhist Catuskoti, and JainaSyadavada. In fact, the Buddhist understanding of integral unity as encapsulated in Nagarjuna’s brilliant arguments has been recognized as nothing short of a “death-blow to all synthetic unities that start with different essences and then look for unity” .
Indian Logic vs Greek Logic
There are several papers available that discuss the Indian approach to logic. For example see this work of Subhash Kak  and this discussion of Indian and Greek logic. In the popular textbook example for Indian syllogism versus that of Aristotelian logic, the first thing we notice are the ‘five steps’ in the Indian approach versus three in the Greek template . The steps in the Indian rules of inference are not redundant and serve as a reality-check based on the correspondence principle of Bandhu , whereas the Greek argument is restricted to the infallible abstract domain. As Roddam Narasimha notes in  where he compares Greek Axiomatism and Indian Computational Positivism, the Indian distrust of deduction-based logic “appears to have been based on the conviction that the process of finding good axioms was a dubious enterprise. Note that logic in itself was not something that was shunned in India; without going into a detailed discussion of Indian systems of logic, it is enough to note here that time and again Indians use deductive logic to demonstrate inconsistencies or to refute the positions of an adversary in debate, rather than to derive what western cultures have long sought through that method – namely, certain truth.“.
The intellectual prowess of the ‘deductive logician’ has been promoted in popular western culture. For example, Sherlock Holmes is recognized foremost for his superb deductive reasoning, and is considered the most portrayed literary human character in history. However, an analysis of his stories show that Holmes relied a lot on anumana (inference) including the so-called abductive and inductive methods, and Conan Doyle did consider Holmes’ methods to be fallible, which resembles a Ganita approach to sleuthing!
CK Raju  calls out some flaws in the claim to universality of two-valued logic.First, the Hindu darshanas, Buddhist Catuskoti, and Jaina Syadavada offer solid alternatives from a different culture. These alternatives have always been compatible with the latest developments in science at every point in time, including Quantum Mechanics. We do not find any serious ‘religion vs science’ problem in India . Even the materialist Charvaka school would reject this reductive logic for not accepting a Pratyaksha Pramana [1, 22]. Finally, it is tough to justify two-valued logic citing empirical evidence if its claim to dominance lies in its empiricism-free perfection .
A remaining argument in favor of a universality of two-valued logic and axiomatism is the endorsement by ‘higher authority’, representing a distorted version of Sabda pramana . Indeed some proofs published in journals today are so abstract and technical that they can only be decoded by top formal mathematicians. The remainder of the global math community take it as truth based on the verbal authority of an elite few.
Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true - Bertrand Russell.
“The fundamental condition for congruence is that two sides and the included angle of one triangle be equal to two sides and the included angle of the other.”
This result can be easily verified using empirical rationale (proof-by-superposition, as Euclid himself did), and would be perfectly acceptable in Ganita, but not in mathematics. This is because superposition involves moving one triangle and placing it on top of the other, which is considered a ‘fallible’ process. The SAS result is difficult to prove using logic alone and thus the SAS theorem was demoted to the status of an unproven postulate.
We conclude Part 1 by delineating a key, irreconcilable difference between Ganita and Mathematics. This difference also manifests in virtually every other field of study.
Summary: Fundamental Difference between Ganita & Mathematics
The ancient Indians recognized Nyaya (logic) and employed Tarka (reasoning) and even mastered it, but did not put it on a pedestal because of certain limitations. Results in Ganita, like all other Indian disciplines, are tied to a valid Pramana and rooted in reality, rather than an axiom-based proof operating in a separate abstract domain. The empirical approach can elevate the practitioner to a higher state of consciousness (The Bhagavad Gita recognizes it as a valid way to transcendental knowledge ).
Subhash Kak summarizes the Indian approach to acquiring knowledge based on bandhus : “The universe is viewed as three regions of earth, space, and sky which in the human being are mirrored in the physical body, the breath, and mind. The processes in the sky, on earth, and within the mind are taken to be connected. The universe is mirrored in the cognitive system, leading to the idea that introspection can yield knowledge“. It is worth repeating what has been said before: In nature, the western civilization is intellectual, the Chinese civilization is philosophical, and the Indian civilization is spiritual (adhyatmic).
Ganita is rooted in an integral unity whereas Mathematics exists as a separately independent part of a synthetic unity.
This integral approach produced some of the most important contributions, from Hindu numerals, place value system with zero, to symbolic language for managing equations  and calculus. On the other hand, the abstract nature of Mathematics resulted in a drastically reduced practical output while Europe drifted into a 1000+ year Dark Age. During this entire period, Ganita contributions from all Dharma thought systems proved to be crucial in keeping mathematics practically relevant in other parts of the world, up to the 17-18th century CE. We discuss these Ganita-Math encounters in the upcoming second part of this set of Posts.
Cultural foundations of mathematics: the nature of mathematical proof and the transmission of the calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE, C. K. Raju. Pearson Longman, 2007.
This introductory blog provides the background for an upcoming Ganita series here at ICP. All emphasis within quotes is by this author.
Losing one glove is certainly painful,
but nothing compared to the pain,
of losing one, throwing away the other,
and finding the first one again.
—Piet Hein, Danish Mathematician
Though often compared with the field of Mathematics, Ganita is best defined as the science and art of computation that originated in India. This is based on the definition offered by Ganesha Daivajna in his commentary (1540CE) on the classic Ganita treatise Lilavati of Bhaskara-2 . Other descriptions of Ganita include ‘computing science’, ‘reckoning’, ‘science of counting’, ‘science of calculation’, etc. Although Ganita is related to Mathematics, they are not the same. The practice of Ganita cuts across multiple areas including Mathematics, Computing, Science, Logic, Analytics, etc. The term ‘Mathematical Sciences‘ may be closer to Ganita. There is no exact English equivalent for the Sanskrit word Ganita, and it is better to use ‘Ganita’ as is.
An ancient extant work of Ganita is the Sulvasutras (Sulbasutras), which are the oldest texts of geometry dating back to 800 BCE or earlier . A verse in the Vedanga Jyotisha (1100 BCE or earlier) attests to the pride of place occupied by Ganita in ancient India.
Like the crest on the peacock’s head, Like the gem in the cobra’s hood, So stands Ganita*, At the head of all the sciences.
The Ganita Culture of India
Indians are famous for their Ganita prowess. The greatest Persian scholar of his time, Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna, 10-11th CE) found that an Indian vegetable vendor’s calculating skills were superior to anything he knew . European visitors during colonial times were astounded and remarked that “the natives of India are remarkable for the facility with which they acquire the mathematics; and indeed they excel in anything in which figures or numbers are concerned”. The East India Company promised a reward of twenty pounds to its soldiers if they could learn arithmetic from the Indians . It is well known that the word ‘algorithm’ comes from Algorismus, the latinization of ‘Al-Khwarizmi’, the person who translated several Sanskrit texts of Ganita (e.g. those of Brahmagupta) into Arabic. Thus, an algorithm implies the Indian method of computation, i.e., ‘Ganita’. Much of Ganita and its methods made its way to Europe, first through Arab translators, and later through Jesuit priests stationed in India .
The Ganita curriculum in Indian schools prior to European colonization was functional, pragmatic, autonomous, and also guided by, and customized to local needs. The method of teaching Ganita in schools was ahead of its time. Researchers attribute this success to: “a culture of pedagogy grounded in a form of memory very different from the modern associations of memory with rote or mechanical mode. This could be characterized as recollective memory where memory practices constituted a distinct mode of learning and not merely aids to learning”.
To this day, the Ganita prowess, ability to recall, and the computing literacy of Indians is second to none. It is no coincidence that Indians excel in STEM disciplines. Understanding how Ganita works and what lies at its core is useful and interesting. Ganita can be a refreshing complement to the dull and dry Math taught in schools today. Training young minds to apply the Ganita approach to problem solving can offer them a competitive advantage. Manjul Bhargava, Fields Medal winner, is an example of a contemporary scholar who scaled the peak of Mathematics and is also well versed in Ganita and aware of its Indian tradition.
Above all, Ganita is a precious part of India’s heritage and culture. It is inevitable that India will regain its lost political and economic freedom. But this can and must be achieved without selling out or forgetting its traditions and indigenous knowledge systems like Ganita, Yoga, and Ayurveda. The trauma of a civilization that realizes that it squandered away its priceless cultural treasures will be unbearable.
The Scope of Ganita
Thisintroductory video of an excellent IIT lecture series on Indian contributions to mathematics provides a good overview of Ganita. It was recognized that Ganita’s applications span the secular and sacred domains without any artificial distinction between the two. This integral nature of Ganita was embraced by all the great Buddhist, Jaina, and Hindu scientists and astronomers since ancient times.
India’s Rishis and Ganita experts attributed their astonishing insights to a sacred source. The practice of Ganita offered a valid means of attaining this infinite, transcendental knowledge, and through this process, skilled practitioners also came up with ingenious practical solutions to a variety of problems.
Sacred Source of Ganita
The Siva Sutras in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, which one can consider as an early example of the Indian approach to science, were revealed to Panini (pronounced: Paanini) via the sacred sounds from Shiva’s Damru. In fact, some scholars consider the Indian approach to math and science to be the ‘Paninian approach’ . Indian kids traditionally start their exam papers with a small notation above the top of the page as an invocation to Ganesha (e.g. Tamil kids draw a tiny ‘Pillayaar Chuzhi’). This is an ancient practice of a tradition that reveres wisdom and learning, and one that is worth preserving. From Panini to Ramanujan, we see a great line of Ganita scholars beginning their works with an explicit tribute to a divine deity and their sacred cosmology.
Aryabhata (499 CE)
In his Aryabhatiya, the great astronomer Aryabhata who’s statue today adorns UNESCO, begins by paying obeisance to Brahma who is recognized as “the god who is the one and the many” . This is a pertinent point from a Ganita perspective which we shall see later. We learn the following from the commentaries on Aryabhatiya:
Bhaskara I : “It is said : ‘(Aryabhata) who exactly followed into the footsteps of (Vyasa) the son of Parasara, the ornament among men, who, by virtue of penance, acquired the knowledge of the subjects beyond the reach of the senses and the poetic eye capable of doing good to others’.”
“Aryabhata’s devotion to Brahma was indeed of a high order. For, in his view, the end of learning was the attainment of the Supreme Brahman and this could be easily achieved by the study of astronomy”.
Aryabhata is obtaining new results by navigating through an existing ocean of knowledge: “Having taken a deep plunge into the entire ocean of the Aryabhata-sastra with the boat of intellect, I have acquired this jewel, the Karana-ratna, adorned by the rays of all the planets.“
Nilakantha Somayaji (1444-1544 CE)
He was a great Ganita expert and astronomer from the Kerala School (who can be viewed as Aryabhata’s intellectual successors). Nilakantha was also recognized for his mastery of all six darshanas of Hinduism . His great work Tantrasamgraha begins with an invocation to Vishnu. Commentators on this work note that the invocations recognize Vishnu as both the material and the efficient cause of the universe .
Srinivasa Ramanujan (1877 – 1920)
Ramanujan attributed his amazing results to Goddess Namagiri. His statements reveal a firm belief and appreciation of Hinduism and its understanding of ultimate reality. The source of his knowledge was beyond anything cognizable by ordinary senses. Thanks to his biography , there’s a lot of material describing, from a western perspective, Ramanujan’s amazing ability, and the following samples provide clues about his methods. Ramanujan is a role model for aspiring young Indian mathematicians and scientists, and this was acknowledged by the Nobel Laureate Astrophysicist, S. Chandrashekar.
“Ramanujan’s belief in hidden forces and the powers of the supernatural was never, at least back in India, something about which he felt the need to apologize or keep quiet“
Ramanujan “had grown up on the Indian gods and the relaxed fluidity of Hindu belief. In him, the natural and the supernatural, Jacobi and Namagiri, Number and God, found a common home, stood in something like an easy intimacy.“
“…the mystical streak in him sat side by side, apparently at perfect ease, with raw mathematical ability may testify to a peculiar flexibility of mind, a special receptivity to loose conceptual linkages and tenuous associations.“
“his openness to supernatural influences hinted at a mind endowed with slippery, flexible, and elastic notions of cause and effect that left him receptive to what those equipped with more purely logical gifts could not see; that found union in what others saw as unrelated; that embraced before prematurely dismissing“
Each of these independent Indian thinkers freely moves between the transactional and the sacred domains without anxiety. Their work was firmly anchored in Dharma, and serving this integrated unity. The deities invoked include the celestial Hindu trinity and the Devi. Dharma is not the same as religion , and this is not theology or missionary zeal working overtime to fudge mathematical models in order to make it compatible with religious scripture, prophecy, and God. Rather, Ganita’s findings arise from a seeker’s quest to learn the truth about the nature of ultimate reality. The Bhagavad Gita (verses 9.4, 3.40-41) recognizes the empirical to be rooted as well as culminating in the transcendental . Ganita is a sacred and valid path to reach the transcendent, and the continuity in the views of four great scholars from different time periods in Indian history drives home this point. Given the importance attached to this sacred source by its foremost practitioners, it is more accurate to view Ganita as the integral science of computing. Attempts to equate Ganita to a purely pragmatic and secular science or math is inaccurate and reductionist.
The creation stories in the Vedas lend themselves to a rich interpretation that trace out a fundamental Ganita template which was adopted by all these great practitioners. Toward this, we start with an algorithmic interpretation of Prajapati’s efforts to create a stable, self-organized universe .
Prajapati employs an algorithm to create the cosmos. An iteration in this algorithm consists of an experimental trial, followed by an observation of the output data, which triggers a review and validation phase, followed by an adjustment of ‘design parameters’ and re-trial, if necessary. This process converges to Prajapati’s satisfaction within three iterations. However, no attempt is made to prove or claim with absolute certainty that among all possible universes, his is the most perfect and infallible. Since time is cyclical, such universes are dissolved and recreated with no beginning or end. The Rig Veda explicitly recognizes the inherent uncertainty associated with any answer to such questions .
The first empirical trial produces a cosmos which is observed to be full of entities too similar in nature and they simply merge into each other, so that there is practically nothing to unite. This is a homogeneous and ‘over-ordered’ universe where there is nothing left to know, and this system quickly becomes unmanageable. From a statistical perspective, there is little or no variance in this first universe.
Prajapati increases variability in his second try but the output shifts to the other extreme. The world is now way too heterogeneous and there is no commonality between beings to relate to, and to unite. Nothing is certain and can be known, and chaos reigns.
Learning from the first two attempts, Prajapati is able to achieve a good balance in his third version that overcomes prior problems, and the algorithm terminates with a stable universe.
How does Prajapati accomplish this task? In his book ‘Being Different’, Rajiv Malhotra says “Prajapati recognizes that all life should be situated between these opposing excesses of too much identity difference and too much homogeneity. Ultimately, he succeeds in producing just such a universe. He does so through the power of resemblance, known as ‘bandhuta’ or bandhu, which was discussed in Chapter 3. The Vedas abound in attempts at finding connections among the numerous planes of reality. This serves as a cardinal principle of all Vedic thought and moral discourse”.
Every entity created is unique, while also bearing some form of resemblance to each other. Some resemblances may be more easily spotted, while others may be subtle and identifiable only after considerable effort. These Bandhus are the ‘conceptual linkages and tenuous associations’ revealed to Ramanujan after intense tapasya, and he is able to find “union in what others saw as unrelated” because the cognizable world is mirrored and mapped into the transcendental world, and vice versa via these Bandhus . These strands of resemblances intertwine the elements of the universe into an integral unity, where every individual element’s identity is real but provisional, while always being rooted in the independent whole. There are no separately independent realities for individual elements and the methods of Ganita mirror Prajapati’s algorithm.
"The bandhus represent the laws that hold the universe together (Vishnu), paroksha is the dance of consciousness that is ever changing (Shiva), and Yajna is the process ofchange (Devi)" - Subhash Kak, Pragnya Sutra [PS, 12].
The idea of ‘resemblance’ is fundamental to the acquisition of knowledge that is required to make ‘risky’ and useful predictions about the future with a measure of confidence. This concept can be illustrated using the analogy of a modern business forecasting system. Suppose a company launches a brand-new product in the market and needs to know now how many units it is likely to sell in the next 6-12 months. Since no prior sales data about this product is available, no statistical method cannot be employed to directly calculate this number. To overcome this limitation, the new product A is mapped in terms of its selling attributes to that pre-existing product B which it resembles most. B’s data is borrowed to generate an initial sales forecast for A. Machine learning and AI techniques can be used to learn such recursive patterns, even deep ones, from unstructured data.
However, a machine has its limits. Computer Scientist and Sanskrit scholar Prof. Subhash Kak notes  “… knowledge emerges from a familiarization with its inner space and it may be seen to be a consequence of the bandhus (bonds) that exist between the outer and inner worlds. If there were no such bandhu, it would be impossible to make sense of the world. Machines only follow predefined rules and they don’t have bandhus, which is why they cannot be conscious. The bandhus are the ground that make awareness possible“.
Bandhus can be in the form of numbers, biological rhythms, sounds, lights, touch, etc.. Or via Meghadutam? A study of the applications and motivation of ancient Indian geometry reveals the traditional Hindu approach of coexisting in harmony and synchronizing with nature by recognizing certain auspicious and sacred ratios and numbers (e.g. 108). Two examples are stated below, which also bring to light the continuity and commonality in thought between the Harappan and Vedic time periods. We will discuss this in depth later in our series.
The ratios and measurements used in Harappan architecture at Dholavira (2500 BCE or earlier)
The dimensions and numbers of bricks used in Vedic fire altars.
Two of the three key notions of dharmic cosmology are recursionand paradox. The former, via the principle of resemblance, injects a sense of order and certainty into our view of the transactional world, whereas the latter preserves the mystery and uncertainty about the true nature of ultimate reality. It is convenient in the Ganita context to understand this recursion using the Vedic metaphor of Indra’s net.
Self Organizing Patterns: Vedic Metaphor of Indra’s Net
"The Vedic deity Indra is said to have an infinite net consisting of a jewel in each node, arranged so that every jewel reflects all the other jewels; there is no separate self-existence of any jewel. Each is unique in its reflection of all others. Indra's Net symbolizes a universe with infinite dependencies and relations interwoven among all its members, none of which exists apart from but only in the context of this collective reality." - Rajiv Malhotra, Indra's Net.
The links in this self-organized network are precisely the Bandhus. Since the ultimate reality is like Indra’s Net, Prajapati’s world allows order and information to emerge from what appears to be nothing but chaos and uncertainty (even soccer matches!). Such an Indra’s Net becomes a limitless source of useful ideas for Ganita. We provide three examples from Mathematics to illustrate this.
The ‘Rule of Five’  states that: “There is a 93.75% chance that the median of a population is between the smallest and largest values in any random sample of five from that population.” Just five random samples are enough in nature, with no preconception about its probability distribution, to achieve a significant reduction in uncertainty – from being totally unsure, to knowing a lot about any group’s median behavior. This order has been hiding all along in plain sight.
The world around us is full of (approximately) normal distributions or bell curves, allowing a certain statistical order to emerge out of seemingly disorganized groups.
Of course, not everything in nature is normally distributed. There are plenty of exceptions . In , Lyon tries to understand how such normal distributions come about in nature. He argues that it is not because of the central limit theorem. He uses inference (which Indian logicians recognize as anumana) to understand how these patterns are generated in nature. By using the idea of ‘entropy’ to denote the degree of chaos (or disorder), we learn: “A further fact, which serves to ’explain’ why it is that this ’order generated out of chaos’ often has the appearance of a normal distribution, is that out of all distributions having the same variance the normal has maximum entropy (i.e. the minimum amount of information).” The balance between order and chaos in nature produces approximate bell curves, whose statistical properties can be gainfully employed to better understand this world. Sometimes, this Indra’s Net manifests itself as spectacular visuals.
In the brief video below, we can observe fireflies synchronizing. Thousands of fireflies light up at the same instant by simply doing their Dharma of flashing ‘strobes’ and sending out a visual signal, and in turn appropriately responding to incoming signals . This was first noticed by western researchers in the jungles of Thailand. After the first sync-up, they remain synced. Self-organization is quite natural in the Vedic universe, and now we are beginning to see rigorous mathematical proofs reaffirming this reality. Inference and intuition was used by mathematicians in tandem with logical reasoning to understand the process of ‘sync’ and prove that synchronization is guaranteed in nature under certain conditions. Strogatz notes in  “The implication is that in a population of fireflies or brain cells, the oscillators have to be similar enough or nobody will synchronize at all.” A certain balance between order and chaos is required for sync, and evidently, this is not uncommon in nature. After all, the dance of the universe is synced to the dance of Nataraja. Out of these self-organization principles emerge the beautiful equations and results of Ganita.
The Ganita of self-organization shows up prominently in Hinduism and in India.This decentralized ‘sync’ by insects could be quite naturally viewed by Hindus as a firefly Kumbh Mela. Pre-colonial India was largely decentralized. Self-organization reduces transactional costs and is environment friendly. Hinduism’s resilience and even a degree of ‘antifragility’ are due to built-in error-correcting mechanisms and the ability to constructively balance order and chaos . The fidelity of Vedic chants has been orally preserved over several thousand years via embedded layers of data redundancy that resemble ideas within modern methods of information transmission over a noisy communication channel. In the video below, Manjul Bhargava provides an example of Ganita in Sanskrit Kavya, which embeds an error-correcting code.
Several notoriously hard-to-solve mathematical problems (see example picture below) recognized in computational complexity theory are routinely managed in practice. Problem instances that actually manifest in nature appear to have certain data patterns and organization that allow them to be solved fairly quickly to the level of accuracy required by the practical application.
Along with resemblances and patterns in nature comes paradox. Per Subhash Kak , “paradox is the recognition that the bandhu must lie outside of rational system, leading to the distinction between the “higher” science of consciousness and the “lower,” rational objective science“. How does Ganita deal with paradox and uncertainty?
Ganita: At Ease With Uncertainty
A bit beyond perception’s reach
I sometimes believe I see
that Life is two locked boxes, each
containing the other’s key.
(and in the words of Clint Eastwood, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster“).
In the Vedic period, there used to be enigmatic exchanges between scholars, known as Brahmodya, where a riddle about the nature of ultimate reality (Brahman, in Hinduism) was posed. The respondent remained silent if they could not decipher it, or countered with a deeper riddle if the hidden Bandhu was recognized . (An entertaining version of this contest is the silent exchange via hand-gestures between Kalidasa and the scholar-princess Vidyottama). Dharma traditions recognize that our understanding of reality is likely to be incomplete. For example, Rajiv Malhotra notes in : “There is equivalence in the relationship between sunya (emptiness) and purna (completeness or integral wholeness), the paradox being that the void has within it the whole“. With new knowledge and its associated benefits invariably comes uncertainty and ‘side effects’. There is no ‘free lunch’. Consequently, man-made algorithms are not infallible and dharma systems explicitly factor this in.
It is well known that Smritis have to be updated periodically while always serving the unchanging Shruti. Similarly, Ganita practitioners come up with increasingly better Siddhantas that progressively improve our understanding of natural phenomena. What is also important to remember is that the Indian approach to any field, including Ganita, is one of shraddha that is grounded in the sacred. We can be transformed by this experience and attain higher levels of consciousness that bring us ever closer to experiencing the ultimate reality. This view is apparent in Aryabhatiya : “the end of learning was the attainment of the Supreme Brahman and this could be easily achieved by the study of astronomy. In the closing stanza of the Dasagitikasutra, he says: “Knowing this Dasagitikasutra, the motion of the Earth and the planets, on the celestial sphere, one attains the Supreme Brahman after piercing through the orbits of the planets and the stars“.
The Integral versus the Synthetic Approach
We briefly compare two alternative approaches to dealing with paradox and uncertainty:
Recognize reality with all its inherent diversity as is, as the ideal, and treat knowledge acquisition as a systematic process of reducing uncertainty.
Inference and intuition is useful in gaining new knowledge, and ingenuity is prized in such a tradition. Such knowledge is fallible, and new and improved methods are continually developed to reduce error to an acceptable level. Pragmatism rules, and the layman is familiar with the Ganita required for his/her own profession .
The validity of a method is demonstrated via Upapattis  that are rooted in reality. From a logic perspective, the validity of knowledge is tied to the specific Pramanas it relies on, which may not be universally acceptable.
Synthetic approach [10, 3]
Reject chaos as undesirable and consider ‘perfect order’ to be the ideal, and reality as subservient to this ideal ‘model’.
This binary mindset prefers to view reality as a bunch of separately independent systems where knowledge acquisition is preferably beyond doubt and free of empiricism.
Every new result is proven conclusively and universally using logic, starting from a minimal number of ‘self-evident’ axioms.
This distinction does not automatically imply that Ganita (example of integral approach) and modern science/math (largely synthetic approach) are in a state of irreconcilable conflict. As Roddam Narasimha notes : “Modern science seems to have acquired, perhaps by fortunate accident, the property that the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna called prapakatva: i.e., it delivers what it promises; it may not be the Truth, but it is honest“. What is undeniable and supported by fact is that by the 16th century CE, Ganita results had already laid the foundations for many crucial developments in modern science and mathematics . Ramanujan is an example of an Indian who practiced the integral approach, and found a way to work constructively with western mathematicians so that his results could benefit the world.
It is interesting to see how Mathematician Hardy and Ramanujan reacted to each other’s approach as noted in .
When Hardy asked for proof, we excerpt Ramanujan’s response: “…. I dilate on this simply to convince you that you will not be able to follow my methods of proof if I indicate the lines on which I proceed in a single letter. You may ask how you can accept results based upon wrong premises. What I tell you is this: Verify the results I give and if they agree with your results, got by treading on the groove in which the present day mathematicians move, you should at least grant that there may be some truths in my fundamental basis.“
Professor Hardy’s description of Ramanujan’s approach: “It was his insight into algebraic formulae, transformations of infinite series and so forth, that was most amazing. On this side most certainly I have never met his equal, and I can compare him only with Euler or Jacobi. He worked far more than the majority of modern mathematicians, byinduction from numerical examples; all his congruence properties of partitions, for example, were discovered in this way. But with his memory, his patience and his power ofcalculation, he combined a power of generalisation, a feeling for form, a capacity for rapid modification of his hypothesis, that were often really startling, and made him, in his own peculiar field, without a rival in his day.”. Prof. Hardy was careful not to tamper with Ramanujan’s mysterious ability, which was rooted in Ganita.
On Ramanujan’s approach to the partition problem: “… the uncanny accuracy of their results attested to the power of the approximating technique they had used to get them ..So subtle and inspired were the approximations it permitted that it went beyond approximation to promise exactitude. …. Selberg, in fact, argues that Hardy’s insistence on certain methods of classical analysis actually impeded their efforts; and that lacking faith in Ramanujan’s intuition he discouraged a search for the kind of exact solution Rademacher produced twenty years later.”
Commentators have often termed this integral Indian approach as ‘Paninian’. We try to better understand what they mean by that.
The Real is the Ideal, and the Perfect is its Approximation
If the west has Euclid as the pioneer and exemplar for mathematics, India follows Panini. In , Dr. J. J. Bajaj explains this statement by using the commentary of Patanjali on Panini’s work: “In providing this characterisation of the science of grammar Patanjali laid his finger on perhaps the most essential feature of the Indian scientific effort. Science in India seems to start with the assumption that truth resides in the real world with all its diversity and complexity… As Patanjali emphasises, valid utterances are not manufactured by the Linguist, but are already established by the practice in the world. Nobody goes to a linguist asking for valid utterances, the way one goes to a potter asking for pots. Linguist do make generalisations about the language as spoken in the world. But these generalisations are not the truth behind or above the reality. These are not the idealisation according to which reality is to be tailored. On the other hand what is ideal is the real, and some part of the real always escapes our idealisation of it. There are always exceptions. It is the business of the scientist to formulate these generalisations, but also at the same time to be always attuned to the reality, to always to conscious of the exceptional nature of each specific instance. This attitude, as we shall have occasion to see, seems to permeate all Indian science and makes it an exercise quite different from the scientific enterprise of the West.”
This discussion tells us that Panini’s is an integral approach rooted in the ultimate reality. On the other hand, the synthetic approach mentioned is popular in the west. Advances in modern science have been attributed to this approach. However, this approach can allow false assumptions to creep if the reality-check step is missing. There is an interesting story about the US Air Force set in the 1950s when they discovered that many of their pilots were losing control of their planes and crashing at an alarming rate.
The investigation eventually narrowed down the cause to the design of the cockpit, which was precisely engineered to a precise standard in the 1920s for the average American pilot. The USAF theory was that the average pilot had gotten bigger in the prior three decades and so the cockpit dimensions need to be re-sized upward. More than 4000 pilots were measured across 140 dimensions to compute a new standardized design. During this process, an analyst who was sifting through this data discovered that the total number of pilots who were average or near-average across these dimensions was exactly zero. The ideal pilot simply did not exist.
A similar survey was conducted a few years earlier to find a lady in Cleveland who would closely match the ideal normal figure (‘Norma’). Among the nearly 4000 contestants, there was not one lady in the survey who matched Norma’s perfect vital statistics. Assuming that reality will conform to a non-existent ideal model is a recipe for disaster. USAF quickly realized that it was far better to design and periodically update designs based on the observed reality by explicitly taking uncertainty into account. This is exactly what the USAF did thereafter and switched their cockpit design philosophy to ‘individual fit’. It was a pragmatic response to an important problem that was jeopardizing pilot safety and costing millions of dollars. From an Indian perspective, the USAF chose the Ganita approach. Every US military branch embraced this idea soon after. A similar revolution is ongoing in healthcare, with allopathic medicine representing the synthetic alternative, and Ayurveda being the integral method. This integral approach to computing produced amazing results such as the decimal place value system and Algebra.
Integral Unity of Indian Place Value System
The Indian decimal place value system that is now used all over the world is startlingly simple and elegant. It arises from the sacred idea of ‘the One that manifests as many’ that exists in all Dharma thought systems (and Aryabhatiya paid obeisance to). Just like Panini was able to encode the infinite possibilities of pre-existing and all future utterances using a small number of rules, the Indian place value system too can represent all previously used and yet-to-be-used numbers in the universe using just a few symbols and rules. Every digit in an N-digit number is denoted by its symbol that has a provisional reality, and through an established place value, it acquires a manifested form that unites into the whole number. As shown in the picture below, some two thousand years ago, Rishis explain that the same symbol ‘1’ can realize different values, e.g. in the unit, tens, and hundreds place just as a lady can be a daughter, sister, mother, etc.
Algebra and Sanskrit
The place value system is essentially algebraic in nature. Bijaganita (Algebra via Arabic Al-Jabr) is a natural extension of this idea that arose independently in India (early algebraic results can be found in the Sulvasutras). Here a single symbol like ‘x’ represents an unmanifest quantity that can potentially take one of many values. It eventually takes a fixed numerical value that is feasible to the equations representing the reality which it is part of. In , we find this algebraic concept mirrored in Sanskrit : “When a word with a contextually determined meaning is reduced to only one of its many meanings, it is akin to assigning a specific constant value to an algebraic variable, thereby eliminating its usefulness as a variable.”
These context-sensitive meanings in Sanskrit, and the Contextual and Universal Dharma ethics are other well-known concepts that resemble this idea. For example, the word ‘Lingam’ which means symbol or icon has multiple contextual meanings . The idea of equations and the introduction of a symbolic processing language to manage such equations also existed in India. The Bakshalimanuscript provides evidence of this . Aside from the decimal system, there were also the Katapayadi, Bhutasamkhya, and the Aryabhata notation that encoded numerical data in exquisite sacred verse . Here are some bewitching examples.
This Paninian approach naturally motivates the generation of permutations and combinations while are fundamental to the idea of mathematical ‘probability and chance’, and finds application in Sanskrit Kavya . The infinite-series results achieved by Madhava of the Kerala school long before McLaurin/Taylor/Leibniz, etc. also resemble this generating principle. The game of chess (Chaturanga), and snakes and ladders (Moksha Pata, Vaikuntapalli), etc. also have a similar structure and not surprisingly, originated in India. German Sanskritist Paul Thieme noted that a civilization that produced Paninian grammar could easily have produced also the game of chess, which it did . The potential chaos that can arise from permitting multiplicity is ingeniously managed via the guiding principles of Dharma to produce harmonious order. All these discussions raise an obvious question – why are Indians so ‘tuned in’ to this integral approach?
Forest Civilization’s Pattern Seekers and Algorizers
The multiplicity of numbers, cascading permutations, infinitesimals running amok, and the never ending decimals of irrationals seemingly paralyzed the binary mindset at one point in time. On the other hand, this chaotic prospect caused little anxiety among the ancient Indians who were grounded in Dharmic view where such diversity are but natural forms of the One. In general, the practice of Ganita is appealing to those who seek recurring patterns and inter-connections in nature.
India is a forest civilization . A significant portion of the narrative in two of its major works of Itihasa, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, occur in the forest, which is a complex ecosystem where the inter-dependency of its members is Omnipresent. It is but natural that the Indians are attracted to the infinitely repeating patterns that abound in nature and draw inspiration and inferences from them. On the left is a picture of the tessellations drawn by ancient Indians on rocks  several thousands of years ago (possibly upper Paleolithic period. This may remind some of Kolams). On the right is a visualization of the theta function  that Ramanujan may have studied while coming up with his equations for the ‘mock theta’ functions that he made famous.
Based on an intuition and deep contemplation about certain connections and resemblances observed in nature, a Ganita expert comes up with a sequence of calculations. Scientist Roddam Narasimha describes this Indian approach  as that of pattern seekers and algorisers and that the Indian astronomer (like Aryabhata) can “discern patterns in planetary motion and make computations, and proceeds to devise clever algorithms to carry out such calculations“. He describes the Indian approach via the following sequence: observation → algorithm → validated conclusion. Several Sanskrit keywords are used within this approach, for which no exact English equivalent word exists. We briefly summarize these keywords based on the discussion in .
Key Ganita Non-Translatables
Pramana – correct cognition, a means of acquiring valid knowledge. Pratyaksha and Anumana are two important Pramanas in Ganita.
Anumana – inference, the key reasoning component in Indian logic. This is not the same as deduction, but is a derived conclusion from the observation of patterns.
Pariksha – careful comprehensive observation. e.g. yantra pariksha: observation using instruments. An extension of Pratyaksha (direct observation and perception), the oldest and most universal Pramana among darshanas.
Drg-Ganita – ‘seeing and computing’. This is an important method introduced by Parameshwara of the Kerala school, which looks for agreement between what was computed and what is observed.
Siddhanta – a validated conclusion, or a validated algorithmic package. What happens when there is a clash between Siddhantas? In , “Nilakantha recommends that under such conditions more observations need to be taken with instruments and compared with calculation, and that the numerical parameters should be changed (or the algorithms tuned) so as to improve agreement. In other words a new siddhanta has to be created. Siddhantas are thus human creations, and the best at any time may not remain so for long—it is valid only for some finite periods of time.”
Yukti – skilful and ingenious practice. Ganita gives the pride of place to Yukti, sometimes overruling the primacy of the Agamas. Verse (2.5) from the Bhagavad Gita says “yogah: karmasu kausalam“, yoga is skill in action . It appears that the Ganita tradition had little time for ‘pure’ theorists who lacked the Yukti or intent to deliver realizable results.
Anveshana – ‘wild goose chase’. In general usage, this word has a positive connotation but in the context of Ganita it represents a futile exploration.
Upapatti – a rigorous validation of results to the satisfaction of peer experts. Yukti is employed to constructively demonstrate how a result can be correctly reproduced by anyone else. This is not the same as the synthetic notion of abstract proof . An important book in this regard is the Ganita Yukti Bhasa of Jyeshtadeva hailing from the Kerala school. It is a myth that Indian mathematicians provided no proof of their results. One has to read the accompanying commentaries on the results stated in Sutra form in order to understand all aspects of a Ganita result, including the validation step. The tradition of providing Upapattis is an old and well established one.
We conclude this introductory post by excerpting some passages from an essay on Mathematics by Henry Poincaré. In this essay, we get to read his independent views on the nature of reality. He also provides a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of different approaches that can be employed to generate new results. It is worth comparing his views with the ancient Indian perspective. This discussion also sets the stage for the next blog in this series.
Poincaré on ‘what is reality?’
We excerpt a couple of paragraphs from a 1905 essay  by the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré. From a Dharma and Ganita perspective, Poincare alludes to the integral unity of reality rather than a synthetic ‘artificial assemblage’. He also talks about the need for a ‘direct sense’ of the internal unity of a piece of reasoning in order to possess the ‘entire reality’. He also uses the principle of resemblance to explain his ideas.
“The physiologists tell us that organisms are formed of cells; the chemists add that cells themselves are formed of atoms. Does this mean that these atoms or these cells constitute reality, or rather the sole reality? The way in which these cells are arranged and from which results the unity of the individual, is not it also a reality much more interesting than that of the isolated elements…?“
Well, there is something analogous to this in mathematics. The logician cuts up, so to speak, each demonstration into a very great number of elementary operations; when we have examined these operations one after the other and ascertained that each is correct, are we to think we have grasped the real meaning of the demonstration? …. Evidently not; we shall not yet possess the entire reality; that I know not what which makes the unity of the demonstration will completely elude us.”
“…often a very uncommon penetration is necessary for their discovery. The analysts, not to let these hidden analogies escape them, that is, in order to be inventors, must, without the aid of the senses and imagination, have a direct sense of what constitutes the unity of a piece of reasoning, of what makes, so to speak, its soul and inmost life. When one talked with M Hermite, he never evoked a sensuous image, and yet you soon perceived that the most abstract entities were for him like living beings. He did not see them, but he perceived that they are not an artificial assemblage, and that they have some principle of internal unity.”
What we don’t know about India’s Ganita heritage is much more than what we currently know. Only a minuscule fraction of primary source texts of Ganita have been studied and interpreted so far. We have to thank researchers like the late K. V. Sarma for their tireless work in this regard.
"Our youth are hungry for a sensible knowledge of our past, but are denied an opportunity to acquire it by a marvellous educational system that shuns history in science curricula, and by the paucity of attractive but reliable accounts of the fascinating history of Indic ideas. Our academies, universities, museums and other institutions need to make such a project a national mission. Anything less would be irrational blindness to a unique legacy." - Roddam Narasimha .
Acknowledgment: I thank the ICP editor and bloggers for their constructive feedback and corrections.
* Indic epistemology traditionally places Ganita under Jyotisha. The original quote in Vedanga Jyotisha refers to Jyotisha in its enlarged meaning, hence the popular direct translation today of that word as referring to 'Math', used above as Ganita.
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Vilasamanimanjari: a 19th century chess manual in Sanskrit. Shrinivas Tilak. 2011.
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Kripa Shankar Shukla, in collaboration with K. V. Sarma. 1976.
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Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins. 2011.
Art and Cosmology in India. Subhash Kak. Patanjali Lecture given at Center for Indic Studies, University of Massachusetts, 2006.
The Pragnya Sutra: Aphorisms of Intuition. Subhash Kak. Baton Rouge, 2006.
Kolams are curved line patterns drawn by the women of Tamil Nadu every morning in front of their houses after sprinkling water and cleaning the ground. Traditionally, this is done using rice flour and is not intended to be a permanent design. Over the day, birds, ants, and tiny insects feed on it, and the wind and footsteps disturb it. The Kolam is disturbed and eventually erased, and the whole cycle is repeated the next day, and the Kolam is reborn.
Kolam patterns are quite fascinating and have caught the attention of researchers worldwide. ‘Ethnographers’ study the Kolam and compare it to ancient designs from other world cultures, while scientists seek to better understand the computing, linguistic, and mathematical rules embedded within these ‘mysterious’ curved lines. Many admire the aesthetic aspect of this female artistic expression. Some are moved to poetry. But it is the Indian woman, from vegetable vendor to ISRO rocket engineer, who have actually practiced and kept the tradition of Kolam alive across centuries. They are connecting with the sacred and the auspicious while creating a new Kolam in front of their home to start off another busy day.
Here are a couple of beautiful Kolam websites that you must visit. Kolams can be done in a variety of different ways. They can be something really simple that takes only a couple of minutes, or they can turn into serious art projects like the one shown in this video below.
In other regions of India, Kolam, especially with colors (e.g. see above video) is known as Rangoli, Rangavalli, etc. Each region has its own distinct version of Kolam or Rangoli. An incomplete list is provided below .
Muggulu (Muggu): Andhra
Chowkpurna: Madhya Pradesh
Rangoli: Maharashtra, Karnataka
Kolam: Tamil Nadu
Sanjhi: Uttar Pradesh
Women artists in each of these Indian states create Kolam themes that are distinctive and reflective of their regional culture.However, one cannot fail to notice the commonality and consonance between the Rangoli patterns spread all across India, exemplifying India’s unity in diversity. In southern India, Kolams are often drawn daily, while in other places, women may choose to do so during festive occasions. There are also Kolam variations within any given region. For example, in Tamil Nadu, we have Pulli (dot) Kolam, Padi Kolam, etc. Here is a video of a step-by-step construction of a Padi Kolam.
The Kolam structure naturally lends itself to a rich artistic expression. Indeed, the word ‘Kolam’ itself suggests ‘beauty’. It has certain fascinating mathematical properties, as well as a sacred cosmology associated with its construction. Let’s look at all these ideas after a brief review of its history
History of Kolam
Creating paintings on a natural surface has a really ancient history in India, as evidenced by the Bhimbetka frescoes that are at least 15, 000 years old. This news article  talks about the use of Rangoli in the Mahabharata while another forum mentions the design in the Ramayana. Other floor designs, such as the endearing floor drawing of the footprints of little Krishna walking into the house during Janmashtami are well known in Indian tradition. One of the 64 arts mentioned in ancient India is तण्डुलकुसुमवलिविकाराः , i.e. Tandula (rice) Kusumavali (array of flowers), Vikara (transformation). This is an art form of organizing an offering of rice and flowers. Rangoli appears to be an instance of this art form. Rangoli is mentioned in the Chitralakshana , one of the oldest Indian treatises on paintings, attesting to its ancient origins. In Tamil Nadu, Kolam floor designs were popular during the Chola rule .
An article summarizing the amazing work of Dr. Gift Siromoney, a pioneer of Kolam research, comments on the historicity of the Kolam patterns in Tamil literature : “Contrary to popular belief, the common threshold patterns are not very ancient. The practice of decorating the floor may go back to about six hundred years and not more. A few designs may be traced to the Jain temples of South Kanara and at least one to Mahayana Buddhism“. The first conclusion is incorrect. While it may be possible that the usage of the word ‘Kolam’ in Tamil to denote these sacred designs may have been no earlier than 16th century, the actual practice of such floor drawings in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India is ancient, as mentioned earlier. The author is quite right in his second observation that the sacred practice of Kolam is common to all three dharmic systems of India.
Another interesting point mentioned here is that: “To save time in “drawing” the Kolam, many women use devices such as perforated rolling tubes and perforated trays“. We find that attempts to automate Kolam generation were made several decades ago. Of course, such a mechanical device would reproduce a single pattern.
The global research community appears to have noticed the Kolam of Tamil Nadu in 1929 via the work of Mrs. Gnana Durai .
A few years later, American anthropologist Layard published a detailed treatise  that has been cited extensively. More recent studies done by researchers have covered a wide range of areas including art, computer science, math, sociology, etc.
Dr. Gift Siromoney at Madras Christian College co-authored a series of articles on Kolam in the 1970s-80s  by analyzing Kolam patterns as a ‘picture language’ in the context of computer graphics, image processing, and theoretical computer science topics. Dr. Siromoney was by all accounts, a remarkable multi-talented personality. His key contributions include:
A systematic analysis of Kolam that breaks down the construction of any complex design into a finite sequence of simple ‘Kolam moves’, which remains a key idea in Kolam pattern research even today. Based on this analysis, he was able to develop one of the earliest computer programs that could generate multiple Kolam designs.
Identifying the initial placement of Pullis (dots) to create a grid as a key facilitating step toward rapid Kolam creation.
A method to determine whether a given Kolam pattern is made up of a single curve (kambi) or multiple lines (multi kambi). He showed how single-line Kolams could be transformed into multi-line Kolams and vice versa, using certain elementary operations that are also noted in Circular DNA Splicing Theory (!). We also note here the single-kambi Kolam connection to an Eulerian graph.
Experiments that empirically demonstrate that Kolam creation requires skill that can be learned and improved via experience. Seasoned Kolam practitioners were able to store, recall, and more quickly create sophisticated patterns compared to novices.
Determining that a Kolam practitioner’s skill level had little correlation with their attained level of academic education.
After the pioneering work of Siromoney, a variety of western and Japanese research contributions were published. One of the common goals was the design and analysis of algorithms that could efficiently generate a variety of Kolam patterns. Innovative ideas from math topics ranging from knot theory to topology were employed to come up with methods for generating valid Kolam patterns. Some others tried to enumerate the number of single-kambi Kolam combinations possible for a given number of dots in a grid (not surprisingly, they grow exponentially).
Since the earliest works, several researchers have remarked on the ‘endless lines’ within some Kolams, which we discuss in the next section. Contemporary research is also trying to better understand how single-strand Kolam patterns can be encoded via a ‘sequential language’, i.e. the sequence of gestures employed by Kolam creators. Recently (2011), researchers at SASTRA university in Thanjavur patented a steganographic method (encrypting and transmitting data using an image or pattern), using a pulli Kolam. Note that FIG 2. below resembles a single kambi Kolam. There may also be beneficial applications in the analysis of the Traveling Salesman Problem, a famously difficult problem in Computational Complexity Theory. Clearly, we have a long way to go before we fully decode its magic.
Whereas the western approach to art, science, and math is based on a separate and independent existence of the material and the transcendental world, the Indian approach sees no such dichotomy. Indian art, including Kolam, is rooted in a sacred cosmology, which we examine next.
Cosmology of the Sacred Kolam
Why do Tamil women draw Kolams daily at the threshold of their homes? Why not do something else?
This informative article poses such questions and provides an explanation from a western universal perspective. I present an alternative point of view from my Indian perspective. The linked article also has a nice discussion of the significance of a Kolam’s location at the point of entry into a home. It is clear from this discussion, as well as the history of Rangoli, that these designs involve a sacred transcendental dimension. In Itihasa , Rangolis were drawn by the Gopis anxiously awaiting the return of their beloved Krishna, and by the joyous citizens of Ayodhya in anticipation of Rama’s return. Why did they do it?
We can see from Dr. Siromoney’s research, that 16th and 17th century Tamil works record Kolams being drawn prior to a puja invoking Ganapati, the deity who is a remover of obstacles. Today, Kolam drawing in front of their houses remains an integral part of daily life for many Indians, and is also a part of sacred Hindu festivals across India. A deeper understanding of Kolam (and Indian art in general) can be obtained via the traditional Indian approach that views art, science, etc. as not merely secular aesthetic-intellectual subjects, but also as a link to the sacred realm and worthy of reverence. We can recall that the Ganita genius Srinivasa Ramanujan employed this approach while generating truly astonishing results.
From an Indian perspective, we can find not one but several key dharmic ideas embedded within the observations made by various researchers about Kolam. We discuss some of them here.
Order and Chaos: The harmonious existence of a Kolam and nature within an endless cycle; a gradual dissolution into chaos followed by an equally inevitable restoration of order the next day. Furthermore, there exists within the seemingly complicated ‘spaghetti’ patterns, some really simple and orderly moves that generate them.
Recursion: for e.g., the fractals identified in the kolam 
The idealized Kolam: a single, unbroken line used to create the entire kolam
The embodied skill required to recall and create complex Kolam designs
The reader is referred to  to better understand the first idea. As far as the second concept, many have observed a recursive generating rule pervading Indian art. A similar inductive approach is apparent in various fields such as Sanskrit Grammar (Paninian rules), and Ganita (e.g., Pingala‘s Mount Meru, Hemachandra series, etc.). For example, consider the Hindu representation of the cosmos as the Sri Yantra, which clearly exhibits this recursion. Here’s a simple DIY Sri Yantra Kolam.
The third feature suggests dharma’s integral unity: the externally visible plurality of designs in a single-strand Kolam have no independent existence of their own, but exist within and as a single line (cycle) that has no beginning and end. This also represents the cosmological idea of a Brahma Mudichchu, or Brahma’s knot. Dr. Siromoney travel notes mention that “The South Canara district of Mysore region is studded with Jain temples and each temple has an ornamental flag-staff or dhvaja stambha. The Thousand Pillared Basti at Mudabidare built in the fifteenth century has many ornamental pillars. In some of the pillars there are some complicated designs similar to the Kolam patterns made of unending lines….The unending lines are clearly depicted showing a line superimposed and going over another line at the crossings..” Note that idea of integral unity is common to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist dharma traditions. In fact, it appears that the Buddha may have been an expert at this art.
Today, multiple independent lines are often used to quickly complete Kolams that become too complex to be completed using a single line. However, mathematicians have been able to recreate elaborate integral Kolam instances (e.g. Pavithram (sacred) is the term used to denote kolams that have ‘never-ending lines’. See the Pavithram design below from ) by employing the principles of symmetry and recursion. Similarly, in Indian art, reconstruction of lost art traditions (actual examples include classical dance and poetry) is achieved via the resemblance principle of bandhu. In  we learn that “integral unity is not expressed only in terms of divinity and devotion; transcendence to such a state is also available through art. Since time immemorial in India, art has been a way to connect the manifest and the un-manifest, evoking through form the experience that is beyond form.”
This cosmic knot is not only present in Kolams. The knot that binds the three sacred threads (‘Poonal’ in Tamil), as well as the joining together of the ends of the garments of the bride and groom during a Hindu marriage ceremony symbolizing their seamless and unending union, are other instances of a Brahma Mudichchu. The Brahma knot is also present as the deep and sacred Yogic concept of Brahma Granthi in Kundalini Yoga.
A simple answer to the question of ‘why Kolam?’ is ‘why not Kolam’? All Indian art traditions seek to connect with the sacred transcendental and the Kolam is no exception. This reverence has a practical impact. Traditions rooted in sacred practice endure, while those that exclusively rely on the aesthetic or the intellectual become ephemera. Our closing discussion on the fourth and final point shows how sacred Indian practices such as Kolam are preserved and transmitted.
Here is an interesting statement by a Japanese researcher praising the knowledge of Kolam practitioners : “In southern India, there are many great female mathematicians who solve a complicated line pattern every morning, with white rice powder on the ground. The pattern is drawn around a grid pattern of dots so that the lines minimally encircle each dot, which is so called “Kolam” pattern in Tamil.”
Dr. Siromoney was able to practically demonstrate that a Kolam practitioner’s skill is an outcome of what we recognize today as the important Indic tradition of embodied knowing . Dr. Siromoney’s experiments show: “… Expertise in Kolam drawing is, thus of the nature of a skill and exhibits all the attributes that psychologists associate with skill-acquisition and performance.” However, immediately after saying this, the article concludes that “Although the performance of this skill results in products (i.e., Kolam patterns) that possess complex grammatical properties, the practitioners of the skill are themselves unaware of this fact since a large proportion of the practitioners are nonliterate.”
This conclusion can now be recognized as inaccurate. Such decisive dismissals have been repeated by several western researchers, who, after using sophisticated instrumentation to record the amazing results achieved in Yoga and transcendental meditation by Hindu and Buddhist Yogis and monks, labeled them as eastern ‘mystics’ , in direct contrast to academy-trained ‘scientists’. Even Srinivasa Ramanujan was not spared since he did not provide a deductive proof for his results. Later, of course, almost all his results were proven by western researchers to be true to their satisfaction.
This confusion can be resolved when we understand that embodied knowing does not require literacy  or knowledge of scriptural text, and can be systematically accessed and transmitted in-person from Guru to Sishya, and mother to daughter. This is exactly how Sangeetam and Nrityam (traditional Indian music and dance) is taught via repeated demonstration-replication, where no dance-move textbook or musical score sheet is essential. Arguably, the depth of awareness, knowledge and skill acquired via embodied learning may be more than that achieved by tunneling through mountains of text.
Embodied knowing also democratizes and decentralizes the transmission and reception of knowledge. In fact, it appears that India’s scientific and technical prowess since ancient times until the 1700s was a result of the embodied knowing traditions being passed down from generation to generation by its artisans and engineering communities . The assumption that text-parsing ability is vital to acquiring the deepest knowledge appears to be more typical of Abrahamic tradition, which has been internalized by both secular and religious scholars trained in western academia.
If you haven’t done so before, draw a Kolam at home and teach your kids. Let us rediscover this beautiful Indian tradition, and bring the sacred right to our doorstep and connect to infinity, and beyond!
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Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions of the Author, and should not be considered a reflection of the views of the Indic Civilizational Portal. The Author is responsible for ensuring the factual veracity of the content, herein.