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Personalities: Savitri

savitri

After the great King Sagara, the time has come to study the life of yet another exquisite Royal Personality in Bharat’s great tradition. Not just men, but inspirational women too, have set an example on how to balance personal dreams and aspirations with familial and national duties.

Our next Personality in our Continuing Series is none other than the legendary Savitri.

Background

More than just a timeless, girl-saves-guy love story, Savitri & Satyavan is nidarsana katha in its highest form.

Savitri is among the five Satis of Sanatana Dharma and is held up as being a role model for pativrata. The story of Savitri and her husband Satyavan, first occurs in the Mahabharata in the Vana Parva. Her story is recited by sage Markandeya when Yudhisthira asks him if there is any woman who is as devout a wife as  Draupadi.

Princess Savitri was the daughter of the King of Madra, Asvapati, and his wife, Queen Malavi. Asvapati was a childless ruler, and as he grew older he began to feel anxious that he did not have an heir to succeed him. He thus undertook all sorts of penances and prayed to the goddess Savitri, residing in the sun, to bless him with a son to carry on his line. 18 years of hard penance earned him the goodwill of the goddess who appeared to him and told him he will be blessed with a spirited daughter. Soon, a daughter was born to him and he named her Savitri in honour of the goddess who blessed him.

Aryavarta

Savitri grew into a beautiful young woman and her beauty was so bedazzling that suitors got intimidated by her. Hence no one came forth to ask for her hand in marriage. Finally, her father told her that since no one was coming forth to marry her, she must go out and find a husband for herself. She set off on the search for a husband, and soon fell in love with Satyavan, the son of the  blind and impoverished king Dyumatsena. This ruler had been exiled from his kingdom (Salva desa) and was living as a hermit in the forest.

Savitri’s father was very displeased with her choice and wanted her to make another choice, but she refused to change her mind. Her father wished to hand over the kingdom to the groom so that his daughter would have a comfortable life. However, she refused this too and was adamant that she would stay in the forest with her husband and his parents.

But there was something even more dire than all the previous issues with the choice that she had made. Satyavan was destined to die one year from the day they got married. This was unbearable for Savitri’s father, who tried to dissuade her from going ahead with her plan. But Savitri, being the ever independent minded person said to him, “Once only one gets one’s inheritance, once only a daughter is given away and once only a father says, ‘I give her”’ These are three ‘once only’ acts. I have once chosen my husband, long-lived or short-lived, virtuous or wanting in virtue, I have chosen my husband once, and I shall not choose for the second time”. Faced with such strong resolve, Savitri’s father could only give in to his daughter’s wishes. Thus were Satyavan and Savitri married.

Savitri had not the slightest hesitation in giving up her royal robes and riches for the simple and humble attire of a hermit’s wife. She settled into her new life as wife and daughter-in-law and won the hearts and minds of all in that hermit’s abode, with her conduct. However, she never lost sight of the fact that in a year from the date of her marriage she was destined to lose her husband. She kept close watch on the count of days passing by and when there were but four days left to the date of Satyavan’s death, she undertook a fast for three days and three nights in order that her husband might be spared.

AchievementsPhoto: kidsgen

  • Saved her husband’s life
  • Restored her father-in-law’s health and wealth
  • Safeguarded her father’s future and her native kingdom’s security

On the appointed day of his death, when the day was halfway through, Savitri’s in-laws told her that she should break her fast. But Savitri refused, saying that she would eat only after sunset. Satyavan, in the meanwhile, had picked up his axe and was going out of the hermitage when Savitri came to him and told him that she would accompany him into the woods. Satyavan tried to dissuade her from accompanying him, telling her that her fast of the past three days would have tired her out. This, however, did not deter Savitri, and she followed him into the forest.

As Satyavan was working, he suddenly felt his head beginning to ache and began to sweat profusely. He felt so weak that he felt unable to stand. Savitri immediately took him in her arms and sat down, letting his head rest in her lap as he began to collapse. Yama, the god of death (and Dharma) appeared before her said that Satyavan’s life on this earth had reached an end and he was going to take his lifebreath away. So saying, he took a thumb length of Satyavan’s sookshma sareera even as his material body lay lifeless on the ground, and started proceeding southwards.

Savitri began to follow Yama and seeing her follow him, Yama asked her why she was following him. This was Savitri’s answer. She said, “I must go wherever my husband goes. It is established by the eternal ancient law that the wife should always follow her husband wherever he goes or wherever he is taken. By virtue of the austerities I have practised, and by the power of my love for my husband, as also the potency of my vow, and by your grace too, unimpeded I would go.” This was the Pativrata Dharma (one echelon of Stree Dharma) that she had been taught and what she lived by. Savitri then began to converse with Yama in her most elegant and refined manner, which gladdened the heart of Yama though he disapproved of her accompanying him. At last, her cultured and refined behaviour wore down his defences and he told her she could demand a boon of him as long as it was not the life of her husband. She demanded that her father-in-law’s eyesight be restored and that he be allowed to become “strong and shining in spirit like the sun and the fire.” That boon was granted and yet Savitri continued to walk with Yama.

After a while, seeing she had no intention of turning back, Yama inquired of her why she was still trailing him and whether she wasn’t tired. To that, the ever virtuous Savitri replied, “Why should I be tired when I am with my husband? I go wherever he goes. Besides, even a solitary meeting with the great is desirable; it never goes in vain. It is always beneficial to be in good company.” Now, Yama is not a welcome entity, normally, because he is the harbinger of death and hence grief. But Savitri living by her Dharma of seeing the goodness and greatness in everyone and stating that, made the normally bad tempered Yama feel honoured.

He asked her to name a second boon that did not involve bringing her husband back to life and she promptly asked that her father-in-law’s kingdom be restored to him. That wish was also granted and they continued on their way. In her pleasing manner, Savitri thus received additional boons; the third was that her own father should be blessed with a hundred sons, the fourth that she herself would be blessed with a hundred sons. Yama smiled, and said so be it.

As Yama began walking away, Savitri again followed him. Finally enraged, Yama asked how Savitri could continue to follow him after he had blessed her with so much. The clever Savitri then said “Oh Yama deva, you have graciously blessed me with a hundred sons, but how can I conceive them without my husband?“. Realising he had been out-witted, the Deva of Death praised this wise and devoted wife as an example for all time, and happily told her to ask for final boon (but this time he omitted his previous injunction against asking for Satyavan). She naturally asked for Yama to return her husband to life, which he did. Yamadeva  blessed Savitri and Satyavan, and disappeared.

In all the above chronology of the wishes expressed by Savitri, we see her selflessness shining through. Though her burning desire was to see her husband brought back to life, she was always aware of her duties a as a daughter-in-law and daughter to the elders that made up her family. Her concern for her in-laws and her own parents was placed before her own concerns and this alone was enough for Yama to understand the depth of her love for her  husband and her deep understanding of the values that a woman has to uphold and live by. Both women and men are expected to be unselfish under Dharma.

What is the lesson to be drawn from this story?

Satyavan_Savitri

The lesson of Savitri is that even the Gods bow before a woman who is forever protecting her husband and safeguarding his well-being. What she achieved through wisdom and prayer, other women may also do through the sword and strategem. But more than that, Savitri is a model for how husbands and wives are expected to be devoted to each other—that is the true driver of love.

We all are governed by the karmas we have accumulated over our many lifetimes and hence our destiny is pre-ordained. But, while that is the broad grand plan, how we respond to them and the dignity and unselfishness with which we conduct our lives, determines who we really are.

However, there are no short cuts or quick fixes to achieve it. Only by upholding dharma in the highest possible way and living life according to the Dharmic principles prescribed for each one of us, as daughters, women, wives, daughters-in-law, mothers and so on (in the case of women, with a similar list being there in the case of men), can we hope to overturn destiny. The greatness of Dharma lies in the fact that there is a possibility to make changes in our destiny but that it requires great will and tapasya to actually be able to accomplish it. The most meaningful lives, for both women and men (yes, I mean you too, boys..), are those that are lived for others. The selfish existence is the empty existence. Savitri stands as a shining example for all time. She was an empowered woman who charted her own course in life, but while she asserted her rights, she never forgot that rights go together with duties.

Such selfless women are rarely ever matched by men, and fewer still are the stories where the girl saves the guy. Savitri is one such heroine who commands our respect and admiration.

Legacy

SavitriVsYama

Contrary to modern debutantes, Savitri is a strong character and embodiment of Bharatiya Stree Shakti. Neither passive nor aggressive, she is assertive. She is intelligent, knows both her duties and her rights, and is not afraid to live up to the former while asserting the latter. But she does so with maryada (courtesy & propriety)—this is the true mark of culture and refinement.

Like the Great King Sagara, whether she too is Legendary or not, Savitri is an example and exemplar of Dharma. She exemplifies the very concept of ardhangini, which demonstrates that women cannot and should not be trod and trampled upon, but have 1 half of the share of responsibilities and rights in society. They are not worth only half of men like other cultures, but in fact the other half of men, and entitled to their share of respect and influence in society. Savitri personifies precisely how real strong women command respect.

vat_savitri_vrat_sms_wishes_3735098624

Savitri is an extremely wise woman from our epics who outwitted Yama himself and brought her husband Satyavan back to life through her intelligence. This was truly the ultimate girl-saves-guy love story. She is revered as a pativrata, as one of the pancha-satis and “Women worship Savitri by tying colored sacred threads to the Vata (banyan) tree as part of observance during the rainy season in many parts of India, the occasion being called Vatasavitri”. [2] This festival is to this day honoured, so that women too can hope to gain the wisdom and character of such a complete woman.

mahaSavitri

Beyond movies in languages such as Hindi and Malayalam, the English composer Gustav Holst was even inspired by the story to write an opera on it in 1916. What inspires even foreigners, Bharatiyas take for granted.  From the ancient Puranas to modern Popular culture, Savitri of Madra is one of the dazzling lights of our sanskriti, who attained eternal fame, and even gave the very name “Sati-Savitri”.

It may be a common joke in today’s jaded, pub-hub, dance club age for “liberated” girls to say “don’t be such a Sati-Savitri!“. But if Savitri means being an empowered woman who chose her own husband, saved his life, and secured the happiness of her family, in-laws, and nation, maybe we in fact should be.

References:

  1. Sarma, Bharadvaja. Vyasa’s Mahabharatam. Academic Publishers. 2008. pp. 329–336. Vana Parva
  2. SarDesai, D.R. India: The Definitive History. Westview: Boulder, Colorado. 2008

Personalities: Sagara

Sagara,_a_Vedic_King_and_ancestor_of_Rama

 As we’ve argued before and as we’ve seen from the last few articles, the time to put an end to this Colonial Narrative of the “Invasions Idea of India” has arrived. The history of the Pratiharas and the Paramaras and the Vijayanagara Rayas are all forgotten for those who wish to downplay notre histoire militaire. Can’t let those yindoos get uppity, n’est pas? Ironically, British history is itself the story of invasions, beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Brutus (legendary Exile of Troy), and on to the Romans, the Angles & Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans (and apparently now, the Pakistanis…).

From the Chinese to the Persians to the Greeks to even the propaganda heavy Brits & continental Europeans, all major civilizations have faced invasions at one time or another. The question has been whether they went extinct like Zoroastrian Persia and Pagan Rome and Pre-Norman Britain, or whether they fought and lived for another day, like Dharmic India.

For all their complaints about the Puranas, the same British colonial propagandists, I mean, historians, had no problem using some apparently forged “Yuga Purana” as proof of some imagined Indo-Greek campaigns in Northern India (bolstered by possibly forged coins, no less). As we demonstrated in our previous article, the Yavanas of the Puranas didn’t refer to Greeks, but excommunicated Vedic Indians who lived in Afghanistan, and later spread West to Persia and beyond. The British colonial historians purposefully interpreted things in a way to ensure their purposes of self-glorification.

But since our anglicised Indians—and even a few odd man-children moonlighting as internet hindus— still operate within various colonial and neo-colonial boxes, let us give one Purana for another. Yavanas are in fact mentioned long before the Yuga Purana, in the Harivamsa Purana for example, and a mighty monarch of the Solar Dynasty, the Great King Sagara, is recorded to have defeated the Yavanas.

One wonders if western “Indologists” will insist that this Great, Great Grandfather of Bhagiratha (who brought down the Bhagirathi) and ancestor of Sri Rama, was in fact fighting these same Yavana/Indo-Greeks. “Of course not, dear boy, these ‘Yavanas’, were defeated by Indians…how the devil could that be possible?”. Umm,  Wadgaon? Chillianwala? There are, of course, more “historical” examples of Indian victories over invaders, not just temporary, but even permanent (i.e. Huns, Sakas, Battle of Rajasthan, etc). But the benchmark for all of these must necessarily begin at the beginning.

Now that foreign double-standards have been exposed, we may now start with the Story and Achievement of the Great King Sagara of the Suryavamsa: Repeller & Humiliator of Invaders.

Background

SuryaDev

Maharaja Sagara was more than a mere Emperor or legendary King. He was not just the ancestor of the noble Bhagiratha and the divine Sri Rama. Sagara was a Dharma-rakshaka in the true sense, and set an example as to how one must single-mindedly defeat, uproot, and punish those who dare set eyes upon our sacred lands, let alone invade them.

Previously we discussed Svayambhuva Manu of the Svayambhuva Manvantara, who is the progenitor of all mankind per our tradition. The present manvantara, however, is the Seventh, and is called Vaivasvata. It is named after Vivasvaan whose son Vaivasvata Manu, from Dravida desa, is the present Manu. His son Ikshvaku is the namesake for the illustrious Ikshvaku branch of the Solar Dynasty. From this lineage came many a mighty, noble, and truly Dharmic King. The names Harischandra, Ambarisha, Raghu, and above all, the towering Rama Dasarathi himself, dot the tree of this family. But one name has not received its due in the present time, and that is the name of Sagara.

Lineage

IkshvakuLineageIkshvakuSagara

It may often be wondered whether it is the Solar Dynasty that itself produces such illustrious kings or whether illustrious kings themselves naturally seek out the Sun. In any event, the son of King Bahu (a.k.a Bahuka) and Queen Madhuravani (also called Kalindi), is a towering figure in an already towering lineage. The dynasty which began with Ikshvaku and leaves off at Sumitra(at least officially…) , had yet another worthy in the Sagara of Sixty Thousand Sons. From Legend to History, it is Niti and Dharma which stand the test of time. These are the examples, the nidarsana katha, that educate us on proper conduct, both private and public. If adversity is the test of men (and women), then let the ambitious prove themselves on their own merit, like mighty Sagara. He, whose deeds earned him his place in this brilliant vamsa, had many worthy forebears and successors.

After his father was driven out of Ayodhya by the Haihayas and their Yavana, Saka, and Pahlava allies, he went into exile in the forest. There he eventually took to penance and passed away. His chief wife wished to join him on the funeral pyre, but was prevented by the Rishi Aurva, who stated she was pregnant. She was to give birth to a mighty Emperor who would avenge his father and restore his dynasty to greatness. He was named Sagara as he was ‘one who could absorb poison’. His jealous step-mother attempted to poison his mother Madhuravani when she was pregnant with him. Nevertheless, due to divine grace, poison was turned to nectar, and he was born healthy.

He was a gifted student and a talented prince, mastering the Vedas, Vedangas, Politics, Arts, and the Art of War. Appropriately for this dynasty, he was a master archer, perhaps a sign of greater things to come. A great bhakta of Lord Vishnu, he attained success at a young age, becoming virtually invincible in war, and a conqueror in his own right, ruling righteously. He married Princess Sukesini of Vidarbha and the lady Sumati, daughter of Maharishi Kashyapa. He would become the father of 60,001 sons.

SagaraSons

Nevertheless, while he remains celebrated for his descendants, he is worthy of remembrance and respect for his own righteous valour.

Invasion

Now that the motivated nature of “invasions of India” has been illustrated for neophyte readers, it is important give an example of exactly why we must not be so naïve and conventional in order to be thought of as “credible” in the present time. When the history of the Kings of Britain can begin with a Trojan Prince, when Rome begins with Romulus & Remus (reared by a wolf), when Homer himself made reference to Greek gods on the plains of Ilium, the time has come for the legendary history of Hisarlik to be matched and exceeded many times over by our own. That foreigners have long cast their eyes on the sona chidiya of India is not news; but it needs to be understood that many from the Yavanas of Yore onwards, were made to pay the price for their insolence and audacity. Sagara is the proverbial patron Pitr for that.

MaharajaSagara

Oath and Victory over the Yavanas

When Prince Sagara came of age and was crowned King of Kosala, he learnt of the invasion of the Haihayas and their Yavana allies, and swore an oath to defeat and drive them out.  With the blessings of his teacher, Rishi Aurva, he set out on campaign and was victorious.

But Sagara did not just defeat and forgive the Yavanas, like so many proverbial Prithiviraj Chauhans of the present age. He crushed them, utterly uprooted them, and taught them a lesson they would never forget. He sent a clear message that there is a price to pay for those who plan to try to take our territory. Read for yourself:

SagaraDefeatsYavanas

 

Achievements

Despite the fact that per the traditional Pauranic reckoning Sagara came from a very ancient period of Sacred History (the Satya Yuga), he nevertheless, provides a steely example of resolute opposition to invasion, castigating those who would dare transgress our lands and cast designs upon us. He also demonstrated fortitude in the face of formidable enemies.

But although the Haihayas received a set-back, they grew in power, and their dominions stretched from the gulf of Cambay to Ganga-Yamuna Doab, and thence to Banaras. They overthrew the kingdoms of Ayodhya and Kanyajubja, and many other kingdoms in the north-west, with the co-operation of various foreign tribes. The king of Ayodhya driven from his throne, took refuge in the forest, and died there, leaving a child Sagara. Sagara, on reaching manhood, defeated the Haihayas, and regained Ayodhya. He extended his campaign, crushed the Haihayas in their own territories, and subdued all the other enemies in North India. India was thus saved from age-long struggles and depredations, bringing ruin and carnage in their train.” [1,69]

War

He is said to have warred with and conquered the Saka, Yavana, the Kamboja, the Parada, and Pahlava [6]

In war, Sagara was a veritable Indra, so much so that Indra himself is said to have been concerned, and disturbed his Ashvamedha. He did so by tying the white horse beside Maharishi Kapila, resulting in the misunderstanding by the 60,000 sons of Sagara.

Skilled in archery and the other arts of War, the stern Sagara destroyed his enemies, drove them out of Ayodhya and restored the glory of his Dynasty. He conquered numerous kingdoms and became an Emperor.

Empire

Per R.C.Majumdar, Sagara ruled a vast empire across the Aryavarta:

When Sagara established his empire over Northern India, the only noticeable kingdoms that survived were the Videha, Vaisali and Anava (descendants of Anu) kingdoms in the east, Kasi in Madhyadesa, and the Yadava kingdoms in Vidarbha, and on the Chambal. After the death of Sagara, the overthrown dynasties seem to have extended their authority northward over the Haihaya territory.”[2, 69]

Jain sources refer to him as one of the Chakravartins (Universal Emperors).

Ashvamedha

SagaraAshvamedha

Despite his great accomplishments, Sagara is perhaps most famous for the Ashvamedha yagna, which raised to prominence his own descendants. The privilege and aim of every great Dharmic king is to assert his supremacy by guarding the sacred horse that travels as it pleases. Kingdoms which do not pay homage must face war against the army accompanying the ashva.

As previously mentioned, Sagara’s 60,000 sons were known to be quick-tempered, and so when Indra fooled them into thinking the venerable Sage Kapila was responsible for stealing the horse, they aggressively approached and berated him. The tapas and punya of this muni was so great, that by merely opening his eyes, these sons of Sagara were burnt to ashes. Sagara was initially devastated, but was told that one of his descendants would redeem his sons by bringing down the Ganga through penance. His heir apparent Asamanjas proved unworthy of the throne, and so he forced to abdicate in favour of his son Anshuman. Anshuman failed to bring down the Bhagirathi, as did his son Dileepa (the first one). Finally, the Great Great Grandson of Sagara succeeded, to eternal fame. Sagara himself therefore was the paramount sovereign, but also, the fountain of the family who changed the face of India itself.

Legacy

 SagaraDescendants

Standing tall among the tallest line of India’s illustrious kings of past, Maharaja Sagara is more than an epic ancestor or a literary reference, he is a great figure of our Pauranic history in his own right, and deserving of his rightful place in it.

He will forever be associated with the name Bhagiratha, and in the process, the Ganga itself. Legendary though these days are, they are intertwined with the story of India’s most sacred river and the Solar race that is eternally associated with her.

Bhagiratha

 Ramayana

return of rama

It is perhaps unsurprising that in a lineage consisting of such noble figures as Satya Harishchandra, Ambarisha, Bhagiratha, Raghu, and Dasaratha, that Sagara would feature so notably, so early on in the Ramayana. That Rama is the Ikshvaku-kula-thilaka is beyond a doubt, but that he represented the peak of an already majestic mountain of maharajas is oft-forgotten.

Beyond the Ramayana, Sagara is mentioned in other texts such as Harivamsa (attached to the Mahabharata) and the Vishnu Purana.

Exemplar

Sagara may not be considered an “historical personality” per our modern history, but is undoubtedly a figure worth of veneration from our Sacred History. When the British start with the legendary Trojans Aeneas & Brutus, the Romans with Romulus and Remus, and the Chinese with the legendary Xia Dynasty, there is no reason we cannot start with Sagara. Sagara may not be the first of our kings even in our Legendary history (that credit goes to Svayambhuva Manu), but he was arguably the first in the present age to provide an example on the attitude to have and how to deal with foreign invaders.

More than the grandsire of Bhagiratha, more than the ancestor of Rama, the great King Sagara is an example of stern, serious, and strategic defense of Dharma and its sacred lands, that is required in the present time. It has no time for boorish babbling, pedantic piffle, idle talk, self-righteous moralising, counter-productive caste obsession, cowardly silence, or childish infighting . It requires, instead, single-minded focus to root out those who would do us and our Vedic heritage harm.

It requires understanding how to work together and collaborate internally against those who cooperate externally against us. But above all, Sagara provides a shining example of how since even legendary times, we have tales of successfully defeating invaders. India is not a product of Invasion; India is a product of victory over Invasion…(no matter how long it takes). If those who control the past, control the future, let us take back control of our past, by taking control of our present. Reject those weaving colonial and neo-colonial memes by hook-or-by-crook, and do your duty to Dharma first. Otherwise,  you not only will have no seat at the table in the future, but you will have no legitimacy while  pontificating like paper-tigers now.

Let the Legacy of the Mighty Emperor Sagara be our example, and let us redeem ourselves, by vindicating our forebears, not through boastful claims, but great and dharmic deeds.

ShriRam

 

References:

  1. Kota, Venkatachalam Paakayaji (Pandit). The Age of Buddha, Milinda, and Amtiyoko. Guntur: Sri Ajanta Printers.1956
  2. Majumdar,R.C.Ancient India. MLBD: Dehli.2003
  3.  Ramayana. http://www.valmikiramayan.net/ayodhya/sarga110/ayodhya_110_prose.htm
  4. Srimad Bhagavatam. http://srimadbhagavatam.org/canto9/chapter8.html
  5. Wilson, Horace Hayman (Ed.).The Vishńu Puráńa: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition.
  6. Balfour, Edward. The Cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia. London: Bernard Quarditch. 1885

Personalities: Srinivasa Ramanujan

The following Post was composed collaboratively by N.R.I.pathi & Shivoham


srinivasaramanujan

With the occasion of his Vardanthi last week, and the premiere of his new international movie this week, we inaugurate our comprehensive Series on Indic Personalities with self-taught genius, devout Shakti bhakta, and quite possibly India’s most brilliant mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

But the story of this great figure of Indic Civilization is one that is as touched by spirituality and tragedy as it is hard mathematics. In his brief lifetime, he would leave an imprint on Modern Maths that both the Academic and Cinematic worlds are only beginning to unravel.

Background

Born in Erode to a poor Tamil brahmin family, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar spent his early years in what is now Tamil Nadu. His father was an accountant in Kumbakonam to a cloth merchant. Nevertheless, the family would face financial difficulties for long periods.

He studied in a “Pial” school, which was the traditional institution for boys of his background. The young lad was noted for being quiet, but frequently asking about the distances between stars [1] (much like ancient Indian mathematicians once did). Despite growing up in trying poverty, the precocious boy would develop an impressive mathematical faculty in relative isolation and with focused self-study. “He had a prodigious memory, and at school he would entertain his friends by reciting the various declensions of Sanskrit roots, and by repeating the value of the constant ‘pi’ to any number of decimal places.” [7]

But that was not all. Innate ability aside, it was an unmatched drive and focused concentration as an autodidact that would forge his name in the annals of history.

Srinivasa Ramanujan displayed advanced mathematical ability since age 11 after reading a book on advanced trigonometry written by S. L. Loney, lent by two college students, who were lodgers at his home, which he mastered by age 13 and discovered sophisticated mathematical theorems on his own. [5]

He used an introductory book to study Trigonometry and even basic Calculus even before his teen years. Once in his teens, he would master 18th and 19th century mathematics with another book. G.S. Carr’s work, “A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics”, is credited with providing him with exposure to modern Mathematical methods, in tandem with his existing foundation. Ramanujan mastered it all on his own. If ever there were proof that our education does not end with school work, it is this.

A brilliant student, he received various awards and certificates from his early teens onward.  He would later go on to Government College in Kumbakonam but famously did not succeed in earning his B.A. in Maths. This was later repeated at another Chennai College. Though he scored hundred percent marks in Maths, he failed in his F.A., known as First Intermediate Examination in Arts.

Ramanujan “really scored a very high percentage of marks in mathematics. His failure was due to poor marks in the other subjects. This is the true story.” [6] In fact, according the acclaimed biography “The Man who Knew Infinity”, this uncontested genius and intellectual giant appeared for his exams four times and was unsuccessful each time!  He lost his scholarship, and failed out of college. Compare that to today where students are committing suicide even after getting into college…

He finished a three hour maths exam in thirty minutes, but due to his lack of interest in other subjects, was unable to perform on the others.[6] What gave him the strength to go on and endure?

He would later marry Kumari Janaki at the age of 22, and barely subsist by tutoring other students. To support his family, he obtained a job at the Madras Port Trust Office. A local mathematician named S.N. Aiyar encouraged him to correspond with Western Mathematicians; Ramanujan eventually clicked with one an entered into a friendship with G.H.Hardy of Cambridge. A letter with 120 Theorems was what secured the attention of this academic from Trinity College. Invited to study there, Ramanujan was initially reluctant, as his family resisted. It was here that the one of many spiritual experiences would intervene in the course of his magnificent life.

Eventually booking a ticket to England in 1914, Ramanujan would disembark from his ship only to find himself dogged by health problems, which would claim his life years later. Long thought to have been Tuberculosis, exacerbated by the dreary British climate, his health problems were a mystery then, though the present consensus is that a parasitic liver ailment was the actual cause. Unfortunately, this curable disease was not properly identified by doctors at that time, and hepatic amoebiasis would periodically assert itself when minor illnesses would give it cause. Ramanujan would heroically carry on his research both in collaboration with Hardy and on his own. In the process, he would earn an A.B. from Cambridge and be inducted in the Royal Society. Health (and dietary) problems, nevertheless, proved too much. He would return to India in 1917.

In a terrible loss to not only the Indic world but the mathematic as well, Sri Ramanujan passed away in 1920, only in his early thirties. One can only imagine how much more cosmic the contribution of this meteoric mathematician would have been had he lived a natural lifespan.

Spirituality

All sources, even mathematic academics, recognise that Srinivasa Ramanujan credited his remarkable work to the Goddess Namadevi, an incarnation of the Mahalakshmi aspect of Shakti. Particularly in an era where scholarship is intensely ego-driven, to the point of a new law being developed, Ramanujan’s lack of ahankar and respect for the divine is refreshing. Although critiqued by outsiders as “unrigorous” due to lack of “formal training”, Ramanujan is emblematic of a different sort of tradition that recognises not only the value of discipline and training, but realises that there is a significant space for ’embodied knowledge’ as well.

Ramanujan was deeply spiritual and credited his mathematical ability to his family goddess, Mahalakshmi of Namakkal. He apparently claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolised her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes. [5]
G.H.Hardy’s own book attested to the importance of religion in Ramanujan’s life. Aside from his own birth being credited to his family’s prayers to Goddess Namakkal, the man himself was “Fond of the Puranas” and he “used to attend popular lectures on the Great Epics the Ramayana and [M]ahabharata. He believed in the existence of a Supreme Being and in the attainment of Godhood by men by proper methods of service and realisation of oneness with the Deity. He had settle convictions about the problem of life and after, and even the certain approach of death did not unsettle his faculties or spirits. In manners he was very simple and had absolutely no conceit.”  There may be something to the Great Tradition, after all.

Achievements

  • Auto-didact par excellence and Self-taught Mathematics genius who produced 3 notebooks of brilliant theorems and conceptual analyses.
  • The 1st notebook has 351 pages, in 16 chapters.
    The 2nd notebook is a revised enlargement of the 1st with 256 pages, in 21 chapters.
    The 3rd notebook has only 33 pages. [2]
  • Published more than 30 individual research papers in three years. Collaborated on several others with G.H.Hardy.
  • The most notable collaboration was written on the partial function, which counts the number of ways a natural number can be reduced to smaller parts. This is now called the Circle Method.[7]
  • Another collaboration resulted in the Normal Order Method. This paper gave birth to an entirely new branch of Mathematics called Probablistic Number Theory. [7]
  • Wrote “a paper that would connect the computations of the digits of ‘pi’ to modular forms, a theory developed largely in the 20th century. “[3]
  • Accordingly to Academics Murty & Murty, “the paper that really changed the course of 20th century mathematics was the one written by Ramanujan in 1916, modestly titled “On certain arithmetical functions.” In this paper, Ramanujan investigated the properties of Fourier coefficients of modular forms. At that time the theory of modular forms was not even developed. However, Ramanujan enunciated three fundamental conjectures that served as a guiding force for the development of the theory. “[7]
  • A number of Theorists would go on to win Fields Medals (the “Math Nobel”) studying concepts that stemmed from Ramanujan’s work. Others would make a career out of teasing out numerous insights from his papers that would have implications for areas of study such as Physics.

According to an article at the Indian Mathematical Society:

So long as our planet continues to exist in the Universe, and so long as civilization exists on our planet, Ramanujan will be remembered because of the outstanding research contributions made by him to Number Theory and Analysis, because his work has kept first rate mathematicians busy till this date, because his work has had a tremendous influence on modern mathematics and has opened up new vistas for research, but also because he was able to do so without any formal training, without any means of support, and more so because he continued to produce work of the highest order even in the face of death.

Maths Anecdote

We see that many Indians supported SR in India. He did not go to England because he was “let down” etc, but possibly because his work could be shared with a wider audience and many could benefit. He knew he was doing a lot of new stuff. He also received support from Indians during his stay.

Here is an interesting math anecdote from the “Man Who Knew Infinity Book” . [9] This is a challenging combinatorial optimization problem known as ‘classroom scheduling’ since there are zillions of different combinations possible, and it has to also satisfy a variety of complicating constraints and objectives (see bolded point below). Universities solve such problems today using specialised techniques and algorithms, and SR was given this task when he was around 14 yrs old. He wasn’t just solving cutting-edge math problems for journals that had future value, but also complicated real-life resource-allocation problems that were important to the local community and had immediate value:

“Occasionally, his powers were put to good use. Some twelve hundred students attended the school and each had to be assigned to classrooms, and to the school’s three dozen or so teachers, while satisfying any special circumstances peculiar to particular students. At Town High, the senior math teacher, Ganapathi Subbier, was regularly shackled with the maddening job—and he would give it to Ramanujan.” [9]

The goal was to make sure that the students and teachers both show up in the right place and at right time. Headmaster, R. Viswanathan, gives the number of students in the school at about one thousand. N. Govindaraja Iyengar, quoted in P. K. Srinivasan, puts the figure at fifteen hundred. Ramanujan deserved higher than the maximum possible marks. [10]

Resources on Ramanujan’s Work

Legacy

In a tragedy worthy of Natya itself, there is something about the number of years Srinivasa Ramanujan spent on this Earth. There is something to this number 32. Not only did this bright luminary pass away at that young age, but so too did  Adi Sankaracharya himself.  The communion with the Divine by these giant figures of Indic Civilization is an oft-recognised, but quickly discounted, aspect in an age marked by materialism and atheism. But perhaps there is in fact something to that and them, after all.

Both were undoubtedly astonishing intellects, who attained great intellectual achievement, but rather than pontificate with bloated ego, they humbly credited their accomplishment to the grace of something greater than themselves. They wielded this humility to make the most of their brief lives. And in that, whether we are blessed with mathematical or analytical, linguistic or strategic, or the highest of them all, spiritual, intelligence, these two figures who lived to thirty two are an example to us all.

Cinema

With the release of much advertised and much acclaimed movie The Man who Knew Infinity, starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons (as G.H.Hardy), interest in Ramanujan is higher than ever before. Such artistic endeavours from abroad surely should receive appropriate support. At the same time, we must remember efforts that have already attempted to celebrate his life in the native idiom. There is of course the 2014 Tamil-English movie called Ramanujan, directed by Gnana Rajasekharan. Previous efforts to honour in celluloid the legacy of this legend can be found in such movies as the Matt Damon movie Good Will Hunting and countless documentaries. There is even an app that pays tribute to him!

Yet his legacy was not merely mathematical, cinematic, or spiritual, it was also cultural. At a time when India and Indic Civilization was at its lowest depth, when questions of not only competence but innate capability were popping up (or propped up…), Ramanujan inspired countless Indians at home and abroad, including no less than Nobel Prize-winner Subramanyan Chandrasekhar. [7] He proved a pivotal Personality at a time when India was just beginning to rediscover itself. His adopted son and family by this lineage carry his torch on today.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Ramanujan’s life and legacy remain as much an enigma as his notebooks. How could a man without “rigorous” and “classical training” manage to reach the Kailasan summits of the field of Mathematics? How could a man who lived so brief a life manage to make such an enormous impact that gifted academics continue to parse over his handwriting to this day? How can a tradition that mixes the sacred with the “secular”, and philosophical speculation with empirical fact, be credited with producing such a genius?

All these, and many more such questions best left to the pure theory professionals, will be answered in the days and years to come. But surely, there must be something worth learning about where the man came from and how he was taught, to determine why he accomplished what he did. Genius quite possibly is in the genes. But achievement, accomplishment, and academic legacy transcend even the genetic. Sometimes, there is something to not only the scholarly tradition, but to the sacred as well.

There is also a lesson for our suicide-prone, over-emotional and over-exam’ed students: even if you fail out of school, it is no reason to end your efforts or your life.

Long after the humiliation of failing is forgotten, your true potential may be revealed in a way that marks and entrance exams and placements never will. Perhaps, in a way, that is Ramanujan’s greatest legacy of all.

His work has had a fundamental role in the development of 20th century mathematics and his final writings are serving as an inspiration for the mathematics of this century [7]

References:

  1. Hardy, G.H., P.V. Seshu Aiyar et al. Collected Papers of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Providence, R.I.: Chelsea Publ. 2000
  2. “Srinivasa Ramanujan”.Indian Mathematical Society. University of Pune.http://www.indianmathsociety.org.in/sramanujan.htm
  3. “Srinivasa Ramanujan: Life and Mathematics”. University of Vienna. http://www.mat.univie.ac.at/~kratt/vortrag/ramanuja.pdf
  4. “An Overview of Ramanujan’s Workbooks”. University of Illinois. http://www.math.uiuc.edu/~berndt/articles/aachen.pdf
  5. “Remembering Mathematical Genius Srinivasa Ramanujan”. Mid-Day. http://www.mid-day.com/articles/remembering-mathematical-genius-srinivasa-ramanujan/16792165
  6. “Did Ramanujan Fail in Math?”. The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/did-srinivasa-ramanujan-fail-in-math/article6254934.ece
  7. “The Legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan”. The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/the-legacy-of-srinivasa-ramanujan/article2746988.ece
  8. Murty & Murty. The Mathematical Legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan. New York: Springer. 2013
  9. Kanigel, Robert. The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1991
  10. Srinivasan, P. K. An introduction to Creativity of Ramanujan. AMTS.1987.pg 121
*Special Acknowledgement to Shivoham for his time and intellectual contribution to this article,despite other obligations,and for making it a more "rigorous" endeavour than it otherwise would have been.