Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Manjul Bhargava, Sanskrit, Indian Mathematics and a Question of Relevance.

Several readers understood my last blog, regarding how science diverged from philosophy and progressed beyond the ancient philosophical paradigms, Indian or Western, appropriately. The readers also understood that I was not rejecting a study of any philosophy but only rejecting the notion that modern science and knowledge could still function within those paradigms. However, several readers took issue with the blog and misconstrued that I was rejecting the contributions of Indian, specifically Hindu, philosophy. A reader pointed out to Manjul Bhargava, Indian-American recipient of Fields medal, crediting his knowledge of Sanskrit for providing key insights, based on ancient Indian works, into mathematics. Yes, that's true but that's not the whole truth.

First, let me categorically state that I agree with the many studies that point out to the importance of a knowledge of liberal arts for any graduate. Study after study has pointed out that students must have an introduction to classical literature, philosophy and music. University education in America, unlike India, lays a heavy stress on liberal arts. Indian students of engineering and medicine would do well to learn Kalidasa, the upanishad and many other local variants of literature and philosophy in addition to at least an introduction of Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare. 

Second, I fully and completely support books of unimpeachable academic quality that explore ancient India's contributions to science and arts. If a beautifully academic book on how Baudhayana's math presages Pythagoras can be written I'd happily buy it. 

That said, what irritates and angers me are twofold. One, wallowing in wooly mysticism and connecting everything modern in science to ancient wisdom turning a blind eye to tenuous connections. Two, showing an interest only in the jingoism of establishing what the world learned from India and not even bothering to inquire into the possibilities of any influence from outside on Indian wisdom.

India has arrived on the world stage as an economic power, a strategic partner and a key exporter of talent but Indians still belabor under an inferiority complex showing an undue and ugly eagerness to grab credit for achievements of not just Indian expatriates but even those of Indian descent. This ugliness becomes more despicable when achievements by Indians could be tied to Indian heritage of yore. 

Manjul Bhargava, born in Canada to Indian parents, enjoyed a tsunami of publicity when he won the very prestigious Fields medal, one of two highest honor in mathematics, awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40 who've made a significant contribution. The very boyish looking mathematician has a stellar resume that boasts of winning honors like he was collecting candy and a tenured professorship at Princeton at 30 years of age. 

Manjul Bhargava - Image Courtesy Wikipedia
Indians went crazy over interviews of Bharghava that mentioned how he was thrilled to find mathematical ideas from Sanskrit texts of ancient Indian mathematicians.When Bharagava said he saw mathematics in everything including Sanskrit and the tabla music he played Indians, to  put it mildly, almost had a collective orgasm. When Bhargava came to India he was feted and everywhere he went he was asked to speak on how great Sanskrit was. Sanskrit institute located in, where else, Mylapore felicitated Bhargava and had him lecture on, what else but, "Sanskrit and Mathematics".

Amidst the din what was lost is there's much more to the Bhargava story than just Sanskrit and tabla. Bhargava's grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar who had jotted down excerpts from ancient texts but, let us painfully remind ourselves, was nowhere close to winning a Fields medal. Bhargava is a typical product of western education and a story that's almost impossible to be replicated in India, under both its current and past education system.

Bhargava's mother was a mathematician at the Hofstra university in Long Island, NY and played an instrumental role in turning the boy's interest in mathematics into a career. Bhargava is not the first and nor would he be the last genius from the western world who takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the chosen subject. American university system lays a stress on diversified thinking and drawing inspiration from as many sources as  possible. This western approach is why a Schrodinger could easily see in Vedanta a spark for his quantum theory while no Indian philosopher or Indian scientist could connect the dots similarly. Bhargava's theory that won him the Fields medal was inspired by the Rubik's cube and was the result of a journey from Bhramgupta to Gauss. 

That Bhargava won prize after prize in America shows a society where meritocracy rules (along side affirmative action). A 27 year old Bhargava was a visiting scholar in that most American of research institutes, The Institute for Advanced Study. The Institute for Advanced Study was established in Princeton by Abraham Flexner who had played a vital role in reforming medical education in America. Flexner's article, published in 1939 in Harper's Weekly, titled "The usefulness of useless knowledge" is an intellectual tour-de-force and sets the objectives of the Institute where Fellows could indulge in anything that might fancy them without the pressure of having to invent anything or create anything in particular responding to any external demand. A Harvard professor , Flexner recalls in the article, who was given a stipend wrote to Flexner asking "what are my duties" and Flexner replied "you have no duties. only opportunities". This is where Bharagava flowered.

Bhargava to his credit has been clear that while he'd like to see books about contributions of Indians he insisted that it should be accurate."It's not your agenda to show everything originated in India. It's your agenda to show what originated in India in an accurate and clear way". 

I wish Bhargava had been asked to speak about research topics in mathematics but Indians were interested in only thing, to get a Fields medal awardee to speak in glowing terms of an ancient heritage and nothing more.Once any Indian expatriate wins any award abroad the Indian government of the day will make a despicable show of awarding some Padma award. Bhargava was awarded the Padma Bhushan. V.S. Naipaul, most acerbic and acidic critic of India, wrote in his 'India: A wounded civilization' about how India treated Har Govind Khorana, "India invited him back and feted him; but what was most important about him was ignored. 'We could do everything for Khorana,' one of India's best journalists said,'except do him the honor of discussing his work.' "

A reader pointed to an interview by George Geverghese Joseph's interview in 'The Hindu' which spoke about how possibly work done mathematicians in Kerala could have traveled to Europe and influenced Isaac Newton's conceptualization of the infinite series. Incidentally I had bought Joseph's critically acclaimed book "The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European roots of mathematics", published by Princeton University.

Joseph's book speaks of ancient Indian mathematics and in addition has lengthy chapters on Egyptian and Chinese contributions but the interviewer from 'The Hindu' chose to ask him only about how great Kerala's mathematicians were. My reader complained, borrowing from Joseph, about a Euro-centric view on the history of sciences that ignores contributions, probably more significant, by non-Europeans.

Many Indians who are critical of India's education system and yearn for what they consider the fabled past of ancient Indian education system without fail gnash their teeth about Macaulay's imperialist comment that a shelf of European literature is worth more than a library of oriental literature. A recent controversy over Professor Sheldon Pollock, editor of the Murty library of Indian literature, cited a passage from a speech of his that appeared insulting to India. The protest letter was signed by professors from all and sundry universities of India including professors of Sanskrit who, unlike Pollock, had no publication. A simple google search revealed that Pollock's statement was deliberately torn out of context and twisted. The age of colonial imperialists like Macaulay is long gone but Indians, including Joseph, recycle statements of a bygone century to present a world at war. 

Indians do not realize that many books that document India's rich heritage are courtesy of Westerners. A sharp reviewer of Joseph's book points out that Joseph draws a connection between Euclid's legendary book 'Elements' and Panini's grammar but he fails to credit Frits Staal who first wrote about such a connection.  The reviewer also accurately picks issue with Joseph broad generalization every unsympathetic view as "western" and almost intentionally ignoring other westerners who worked to give a more honest history of ideas. It is also unfair to charge that but for an Indian author like Joseph the oriental contributions would not receive their due. The reviewer points to several examples by European authors in that regard.

To circle back, demanding an accurate history to be written is fair and necessary too. However, it appears that Indians are more interested in writing history, that too an exaggerated one, than in worrying about the pathetic state of Indian education and academics today. Several of the signors on the protest letter against Pollock teach in IITs and JNU, including Makarand Paranjape, and all of them are just plain guilty of witch hunt of a good professor of unimpeachable academic credentials. 

Bhargava is also the recipient of the "Ramanujan Prize" from SASTRA university (my alma mater). While 3 Indians figure on the list of Ramanujan Prize since it was instituted in 2005 not one of them did their work in any Indian university. Ironically, at SASTRA a tech festival was held for which a computer science student wrote a blog about how a weapon used in Mahabharata was the precursor of modern day Inter-continental-ballistic-missile. This is how Indian universities are being run.

While India went insane over Bhargava and his love of Sanskrit it was conveniently ignored that there were 3 other awardees for the Fields medal. Amongst the other awardees were an Iranian woman and a Latin American mathematician. I'm sure that those two have no idea of Sanskrit or Tabla and still won the Fields medal. 

When Indian's count Indian Nobel laureates they often include Amartya Sen, Venky Ramakrishnan, Har Govind Khurana and S. Chandrasekhar. Though Sen won the prize as an Indian, unlike the others, he too did his work in foreign universities and was, like the others, a product of western universities. 

For unsurprising reasons Venky Ramakrishnan's name is rarely mentioned unlike Bhargava's name. Ramakrishnan, as usual, was feted by India after he won the Nobel and he too was given the Har Govind Khorana treatment. Ramakrishnan was invited to attend the Indian Science Congress, a venerable institution that stretches back to the Colonial era actually. Aghast at seeing paper presentations about how ancient Indian epics had the precursor of modern flights Ramakrishnan said "the Indian science congress is a circus" and that he'd never ever attend it again. After his Nobel prize it was rumored that Ramakrishnan took up a job in a premier Indian lab, he vehemently refuted it saying "Nobody has approached me about an offer to work in India. However, I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately".

It is laughable when an Indian author, known for his militant fundamentalist outlook in favor of Hinduism, called Hindutva, asserted that J.C. Bose could arrive at the conclusion that plants respond to stimuli because his Indian worldview is, unlike the western, is a holistic one. Andrea Wulf's critically acclaimed biography of Alexander Von Humboldt quotes Humboldt, "In this great chain of causes and effects no single fact can be considered in isolation". Wulf, continues, "with this insight he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today". Humboldt, Wulf points out, influenced a wide array of intellectuals. Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth, Coleridge and Henry David Thoreau were influenced by Humboldt. Wordsworth, incidentally, also was in awe of Isaac Newton. Goethe, who admired Humboldt, wrote 'The Faust', laid the foundations of morphology and a treatise on light, "Theory of colors". Vladimir Nabokov wrote 'Lolita' and researched butterflies. Nabokov's theory on the evolution of butterflies was recently proved correct. While it is difficult to list Indian thinkers who showed diverse interests or achieved in diverse fields it is common to see such personae in the western intellectual tradition.

Alexander Von Humboldt - Image Courtesy Wikipedia

Write history all you want but the more urgent need for India today, is not in proving that Bhaudhayana was better than Pythagoras but in creating an institutional framework that can produce a Manjul Bhargava. 


  1. Manjul Bhargava
  2. SASTRA Ramanujan Prize
  3. Fields Medal
  4. Institute for Advanced Study
  5. Abraham Flexner
  6. Flexure's article "The usefulness of useless knowledge"
  7. "The Crest of the Peacock" by George Gheverghese Joseph
  8. Review of "Crest of Peacock" by Clemency Montelle
  9. Venky Ramakrishnan on Indian Science Congress
  10. "I'll not accept any job in India" - Venky Ramakrishnan
  11. Goethe's Scientific work
  12. "Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated" - New York Times
  13. "The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World" - Andrea Wulf
  14. Manjul Bhargava's Theory (an explanation)
  15. About Bhargava's award
  16. "India has to be its own cultural ambassador, but it has to be scientific about it" - Manjul Bhargava -- Lecture on "Connection between Sanskrit and Mathematics"
  17. Another blog on the same lecture
  18. "Nobel, Nationality and Venky Ramakrishnan" - My blog in 2009
  19. Alexander Von Humboldt
  20. George Joseph's interview in 'The HIndu'

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