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Mathematics and the Spiritual Dimension
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Archimedes and Pythagoras

A common belief among ancient cultures was that the laws of numbers have not only a practical meaning, but also a mystical or religious one. This belief was prevalent amongst the Pythagoreans. Prior to 500 B.C. E., Pythagoras, the great Greek pioneer in the teaching of mathematics, formed an exclusive club of young men to whom he imparted his superior mathematical knowledge. Each member was required to take an oath never to reveal this knowledge to an outsider. Pythagoras acquired many faithful disciples to whom he preached about the immortality of the soul and insisted on a life of renunciation. At the heart of the Pythagorean world view was a unity of religious principles and mathematical propositions.

In the third century B.C. E. another great Greek mathematician, Archimedes, contributed considerably to the field of mathematics. A quote attributed to Archimedes reads, "There are things which seem incredible to most men who have not studied mathematics." Yet according to Plutarch, Archimedes considered "mechanical work and every art concerned with the necessities of life an ignoble and inferior form of labor, and therefore exerted his best efforts only in seeking knowledge of those things in which the good and the beautiful were not mixed with the necessary." As did Plato, Archimedes scorned practical mathematics, although he became very expert at it.

The Abacus: A mechanical counting device

The Greeks, however, encountered a major problem. The Greek alphabet, which had proved so useful in so many ways, proved to be a great hindrance in the art of calculating. Although Greek astronomers and astrologers used a sexagesimal place notation and a zero, the advantages of this usage were not fully appreciated and did not spread beyond their calculations. The Egyptians had no difficulty in representing large numbers, but the absence of any place value for their symbols so complicated their system that, for example, 23 symbols were needed to represent the number 986. Even the Romans, who succeeded the Greeks as masters of the Mediterranean world, and who are known as a nation of conquerors, could not conquer the art of calculating. This was a chore left to an abacus worked by a slave. No real progress in the art of calculating nor in science was made until help came from the East.

Shulba Sutra

In the valley of the Indus River of India, the world's oldest civilization had developed its own system of mathematics. The Vedic Shulba Sutras (fifth to eighth century B.C.E.), meaning "codes of the rope," show that the earliest geometrical and mathematical investigations among the Indians arose from certain requirements of their religious rituals. When the poetic vision of the Vedic seers was externalized in symbols, rituals requiring altars and precise measurement became manifest, providing a means to the attainment of the unmanifest world of consciousness. "Shulba Sutras" is the name given to those portions or supplements of the Kalpasutras, which deal with the measurement and construction of the different altars or arenas for religious rites. The word shulba refers to the ropes used to make these measurements.

Math cannot take the mystery out of life without doing away with life itself, for it is life's mystery, its unpredictability-the fact that it is dynamic, not static-that makes it alive and worth living.

Although Vedic mathematicians are known primarily for their computational genius in arithmetic and algebra, the basis and inspiration for the whole of Indian mathematics is geometry. Evidence of geometrical drawing instruments from as early as 2500 B.C.E. has been found in the Indus Valley. [1] The beginnings of algebra can be traced to the constructional geometry of the Vedic priests, which are preserved in the Shulba Sutras. Exact measurements, orientations, and different geometrical shapes for the altars and arenas used for the religious functions (yajnas), which occupy an important part of the Vedic religious culture, are described in the Shulba Sutras. Many of these calculations employ the geometrical formula known as the Pythagorean theorem.

This theorem (c. 540 B.C.E.), equating the square of the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle with the sum of the squares of the other two sides, was utilized in the earliest Shulba Sutra (the Baudhayana) prior to the eighth century B.C.E. Thus, widespread use of this famous mathematical theorem in India several centuries before its being popularized by Pythagoras has been documented. The exact wording of the theorem as presented in the Sulba Sutras is: "The diagonal chord of the rectangle makes both the squares that the horizontal and vertical sides make separately." [2] The proof of this fundamentally important theorem is well known from Euclid's time until the present for its excessively tedious and cumbersome nature; yet the Vedas present five different extremely simple proofs for this theorem. One historian, Needham, has stated, "Future research on the history of science and technology in Asia will in fact reveal that the achievements of these peoples contribute far more in all pre-Renaissance periods to the development of world science than has yet been realized." [3]

The Shulba Sutras have preserved only that part of Vedic mathematics which was used for constructing the altars and for computing the calendar to regulate the performance of religious rituals. After the Shulba Sutra period, the main developments in Vedic mathematics arose from needs in the field of astronomy. The Jyotisha, science of the luminaries, utilizes all branches of mathematics.

The need to determine the right time for their religious rituals gave the first impetus for astronomical observations. With this desire in mind, the priests would spend night after night watching the advance of the moon through the circle of the nakshatras (lunar mansions), and day after day the alternate progress of the sun towards the north and the south. However, the priests were interested in mathematical rules only as far as they were of practical use. These truths were therefore expressed in the simplest and most practical manner. Elaborate proofs were not presented, nor were they desired.

Evolution of Arabic (Roman) Numerals from India:

A close investigation of the Vedic system of mathematics shows that it was much more advanced than the mathematical systems of the civilizations of the Nile or the Euphrates. The Vedic mathematicians had developed the decimal system of tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. where the remainder from one column of numbers is carried over to the next. The advantage of this system of nine number signs and a zero is that it allows for calculations to be easily made. Further, it has been said that the introduction of zero, or sunya as the Indians called it, in an operational sense as a definite part of a number system, marks one of the most important developments in the entire history of mathematics. The earliest preserved examples of the number system which is still in use today are found on several stone columns erected in India by King Ashoka in about 250 B.C.E. [4 ] Similar inscriptions are found in caves near Poona (100 B.C.E.) and Nasik (200 C.E.). [5] These earliest Indian numerals appear in a script called brahmi.

After 700 C.E. another notation, called by the name "Indian numerals," which is said to have evolved from the brahmi numerals, assumed common usage, spreading to Arabia and from there around the world. When Arabic numerals (the name they had then become known by) came into common use throughout the Arabian empire, which extended from India to Spain, Europeans called them "Arabic notations," because they received them from the Arabians. However, the Arabians themselves called them "Indian figures" (Al-Arqan-Al-Hindu) and mathematics itself was called "the Indian art" (hindisat)

Evolution of "Arabic numerals" from Brahmi (250 B.C.E.) to the 16th century.

Mastery of this new mathematics allowed the Muslim mathematicians of Baghdad to fully utilize the geometrical treatises of Euclid and Archimedes. Trigonometry flourished there along with astronomy and geography. Later in history, Carl Friedrich Gauss, the "prince of mathematics," was said to have lamented that Archimedes in the third century B.C.E. had failed to foresee the Indian system of numeration; how much more advanced science would have been.
Prior to these revolutionary discoveries, other world civilizations-the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, and the Chinese-all used independent symbols for each row of counting beads on the abacus, each requiring its own set of multiplication or addition tables. So cumbersome were these systems that mathematics was virtually at a standstill. The new number system from the Indus Valley led a revolution in mathematics by setting it free. By 500 C.E. mathematicians of India had solved problems that baffled the world's greatest scholars of all time. Aryabhatta, an astronomer mathematician who flourished at the beginning of the 6th century, introduced sines and versed sines-a great improvement over the clumsy half-cords of Ptolemy.

A. L. Basham, foremost authority on ancient India, writes in The Wonder That Was India,

Medieval Indian mathematicians, such as Brahmagupta (seventh century), Mahavira (ninth century), and Bhaskara (twelfth century), made several discoveries which in Europe were not known until the Renaissance or later. They understood the import of positive and negative quantities, evolved sound systems of extracting square and cube roots, and could solve quadratic and certain types of indeterminate equations." Mahavira's most noteworthy contribution is his treatment of fractions for the first time and his rule for dividing one fraction by another, which did not appear in Europe until the 16th century.

Equations and Symbols:

B.B. Dutta writes: "The use of symbols-letters of the alphabet to denote unknowns, and equations are the foundations of the science of algebra. The Hindus were the first to make systematic use of the letters of the alphabet to denote unknowns. They were also the first to classify and make a detailed study of equations. Thus they may be said to have given birth to the modern science of algebra." [7] The great Indian mathematician Bhaskaracharya (1150 C.E.) produced extensive treatises on both plane and spherical trigonometry and algebra, and his works contain remarkable solutions of problems which were not discovered in Europe until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He preceded Newton by over 500 years in the discovery of the principles of differential calculus. A.L. Basham writes further, "The mathematical implications of zero (sunya) and infinity, never more than vaguely realized by classical authorities, were fully understood in medieval India. Earlier mathematicians had taught that X/0 = X, but Bhaskara proved the contrary. He also established mathematically what had been recognized in Indian theology at least a millennium earlier: that infinity, however divided, remains infinite, represented by the equation oo /X = oo." In the 14th century, Madhava, isolated in South India, developed a power series for the arc tangent function, apparently without the use of calculus, allowing the calculation of pi to any number of decimal places (since arctan 1 = pi/4). Whether he accomplished this by inventing a system as good as calculus or without the aid of calculus; either way it is astonishing.

Spiritually advanced cultures were not ignorant of the principles of mathematics, but they saw no necessity to explore those principles beyond that which was helpful in the advancement of God realization.

By the fifteenth century C.E. use of the new mathematical concepts from India had spread all over Europe to Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, among others. A.L. Basham states also that

The debt of the Western world to India in this respect [the field of mathematics] cannot be overestimated. Most of the great discoveries and inventions of which Europe is so proud would have been impossible without a developed system of mathematics, and this in turn would have been impossible if Europe had been shackled by the unwieldy system of Roman numerals. The unknown man who devised the new system was, from the world's point of view, after the Buddha, the most important son of India. His achievement, though easily taken for granted, was the work of an analytical mind of the first order, and he deserves much more honor than he has so far received.

Unfortunately, Eurocentrism has effectively concealed from the common man the fact that we owe much in the way of mathematics to ancient India. Reflection on this may cause modern man to consider more seriously the spiritual preoccupation of ancient India. The rishis (seers) were not men lacking in practical knowledge of the world, dwelling only in the realm of imagination. They were well developed in secular knowledge, yet only insofar as they felt it was necessary within a world view in which consciousness was held as primary.

In ancient India, mathematics served as a bridge between understanding material reality and the spiritual conception. Vedic mathematics differs profoundly from Greek mathematics in that knowledge for its own sake (for its aesthetic satisfaction) did not appeal to the Indian mind. The mathematics of the Vedas lacks the cold, clear, geometric precision of the West; rather, it is cloaked in the poetic language which so distinguishes the East. Vedic mathematicians strongly felt that every discipline must have a purpose, and believed that the ultimate goal of life was to achieve self-realization and love of God and thereby be released from the cycle of birth and death. Those practices which furthered this end either directly or indirectly were practiced most rigorously. Outside of the religio-astronomical sphere, only the problems of day to day life (such as purchasing and bartering) interested the Indian mathematicians.

Poetry in Math:

One of the foremost exponents of Vedic math, the late Bharati Krishna Tirtha Maharaja, author of Vedic Mathematics, has offered a glimpse into the sophistication of Vedic math. Drawing from the Atharva-veda, Tirtha Maharaja points to many sutras (codes) or aphorisms which appear to apply to every branch of mathematics: arithmetic, algebra, geometry (plane and solid), trigonometry (plane and spherical), conics (geometrical and analytical), astronomy, calculus (differential and integral), etc.

Utilizing the techniques derived from these sutras, calculations can be done with incredible ease and simplicity in one's head in a fraction of the time required by modern means. Calculations normally requiring as many as a hundred steps can be done by the Vedic method in one single simple step. For instance the conversion of the fraction 1/29 to its equivalent recurring decimal notation normally involves 28 steps. Utilizing the Vedic method it can be calculated in one simple step. (see the next section for examples of how to utilize Vedic sutras)

In order to illustrate how secular and spiritual life were intertwined in Vedic India, Tirtha Maharaja has demonstrated that mathematical formulas and laws were often taught within the context of spiritual expression (mantra). Thus while learning spiritual lessons, one could also learn mathematical rules.

Tirtha Maharaja has pointed out that Vedic mathematicians prefer to use the devanagari letters of Sanskrit to represent the various numbers in their numerical notations rather than the numbers themselves, especially where large numbers are concerned. This made it much easier for the students of this math in their recording of the arguments and the appropriate conclusions.

Tirtha Maharaja states, "In order to help the pupil to memorize the material studied and assimilated, they made it a general rule of practice to write even the most technical and abstruse textbooks in sutras or in verse (which is so much easier-even for the children-to memorize). And this is why we find not only theological, philosophical, medical, astronomical, and other such treatises, but even huge dictionaries in Sanskrit verse! So from this standpoint, they used verse, sutras and codes for lightening the burden and facilitating the work (by versifying scientific and even mathematical material in a readily assimilable form)!" [8] The code used is as follows:

The Sanskrit consonants

ka, ta, pa, and ya all denote 1;
kha, tha, pha, and ra all represent 2;
ga, da, ba, and la all stand for 3;
Gha, dha, bha, and va all represent 4;
gna, na, ma, and sa all represent 5;
ca, ta, and sa all stand for 6;
cha, tha, and sa all denote 7;
ja, da, and ha all represent 8;
jha and dha stand for 9; and
ka means zero.

Vowels make no difference and it is left to the author to select a particular consonant or vowel at each step. This great latitude allows one to bring about additional meanings of his own choice. For example kapa, tapa, papa, and yapa all mean 11. By a particular choice of consonants and vowels one can compose a poetic hymn with double or triple meanings. Here is an actual sutra of spiritual content, as well as secular mathematical significance

gopi bhagya madhuvrata
srngiso dadhi sandhiga
khala jivita khatava
gala hala rasandara

While this verse is a type of petition to Krishna, when learning it one can also learn the value of pi/10 (i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter divided by 10) to 32 decimal places. It has a self-contained master-key for extending the evaluation to any number of decimal places.

The translation is as follows:

O Lord anointed with the yogurt of the milkmaids' worship (Krishna), O savior of the fallen, O master of Shiva, please protect me.

At the same time, by application of the consonant code given above, this verse directly yields the decimal equivalent of pi divided by 10: pi/10 = 0.31415926535897932384626433832792. Thus, while offering mantric praise to Godhead in devotion, by this method one can also add to memory significant secular truths.

This is the real gist of the Vedic world view regarding the culture of knowledge: while culturing transcendental knowledge, one can also come to understand the intricacies of the phenomenal world. By the process of knowing the absolute truth, all relative truths also become known. In modern society today it is often contended that never the twain shall meet: science and religion are at odds. This erroneous conclusion is based on little understanding of either discipline. Science is the smaller circle within the larger circle of religion.

We should never lose sight of our spiritual goals. We should never succumb to the shortsightedness of attempting to exploit the inherent power in the principles of mathematics or any of the natural sciences for ungodly purposes. Our reasoning faculty is but a gracious gift of Godhead intended for divine purposes, and not those of our own design.  


 

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