‘Stop this fraud on our children’: scientists protest against Vedic mathematics and astrology in school curriculum
We are deeply concerned by the continuing attempts to thrust the so-called ‘Vedic mathematics’ into the school curriculum by the NCERT. As has been pointed out earlier by historians and mathematicians, the so-called ‘Vedic mathematics’ is neither ‘Vedic’ nor can it be dignified by the name of mathematics.
‘Vedic mathematics’, as is well known, originated with a book of the same name by a former Sankaracharya of Puri (the late Jagadguru Swami Shri Bharati Krishna Tirthji Maharaj), published posthumously in 1965. The book assembled a set of tricks in elementary arithmetic and algebra, to be applied in performing computations with numbers and polynomials. As is pointed out even in the Foreword to the book by the General Editor, Dr. A.S. Agarwala, the aphorisms in Sanskrit to be found in the book have nothing to do with the Vedas. In 1983, the Indian National Science Academy brought out an authoritative book on the ‘Sulbasutras’; this, besides containing a commentary on the Sutras, contain the original Sutras as well as their translation. None of the aphorisms in Vedic mathematics is to be found in these genuine ‘Sulbasutras’. The term ‘Vedic maths’ is therefore entirely misleading; it is neither Vedic nor mathematics.
The teaching of mathematics involves both imparting the basic concepts of the subjects as well as methods of mathematical computation. The so-called ‘Vedic maths’ is entirely inadequate to this task since it is largely made up of tricks to do some elementary arithmetic computations. Its value is at best recreational and its pedagogical use, limited. The imposition of ‘Vedic mathematics’ therefore is to convert mathematics to a bag of computational tricks and not impart a deeper understanding of the subject. ‘Vedic maths’ also deals only with arithmetic of the middle and high school level. Its claim that ‘there is no part of mathematics, pure or applied, which is beyond their jurisdiction’ is therefore simply ridiculous.
India today has active and excellent centres of research and teaching in mathematics that are at the forefront of modern research in their discipline. They have cherished the legacy of distinguished Indian mathematicians such as Srinivasa Ramanujam, V.K. Patodi, S. Minakshisundaram, Harish Chandra, K.G. Ramanathan, Hansraj Gupta, Syamdas Mukhopadhyay, Ganesh Prasad and many others, including several living Indian mathematicians. Not one of these centres has lent an iota of legitimacy to ‘Vedic maths’.
Nowhere in the world does any school system teach any form of ancient maths as an adjunct to modern mathematical teaching. The imposition of ‘Vedic maths’ by a government agency is a fraud on our children. It will condemn particularly those dependent on public education to a sub-standard mathematical education, and will be calamitous for them. Even if we assume that those who seek to impose ‘Vedic maths’ do so in good faith, it would have been appropriate that the NCERT seek the assistance of renowned Indian mathematicians to evaluate the so-called ‘Vedic mathematics’ before making it part of the National Curricular Framework for School Education. Appallingly, they have not done so.
We demand that the NCERT submit the proposal for the introduction of ‘Vedic maths’ in the school curriculum to a thorough and critical examination by any of the recognized bodies of mathematical experts in India, such as the National Board of Higher Mathematics (under the Dept. of Atomic Energy), the Mathematics sections of the Indian Academy of Sciences or the Indian National Science Academy. In the meanwhile, no attempt should be made to thrust the subject into the school systems of various states.
The scientific community has greeted with similar protests the recent proposal of the University Grants Commission to introduce courses on astrology, Vastushastra in the universities. The UGC proposes to set up full-fledged departments of Vedic astrology; these departments are to be called Jyotir Vigyan, and they are to be set up from the academic session 2001-02. The HRD Minister, Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi, claims that it is for academics to decide whether to introduce these courses. But the truth is that the UGC is offering cash incentives to cash-strapped universities to start these courses, obviously without any discussion within the academic community. The UGC circular states that ‘Vedic astrology is not only one of the main subjects of our traditional and classical knowledge, but this is the discipline which lets us know the events happening in human life and in the universe on time scale [sic].’ As if this were not absurd enough, the circular continues: ‘There is an urgent need to rejuvenate the science of Vedic astrology in India to allow this scientific knowledge to reach the society at large and provide opportunities to get this important science even exported to the world.’ We now need official pundits armed with university degrees to predict earthquakes, for example, presumably to spread even greater panic than they did recently in Gujarat. Perhaps the UGC thinks houses collapsed in Ahmedabad and Bhuj because of the absence of Vastushastra, and not because of poor construction by rapacious contractors.
Vedic astrology traces its origins to Maharshi Parasara’s book Brihat Parasara Hora Sastra, a compilation of rules and guidelines with reference to marriage, children, illness, wealth and so on. There are also three Vedanga Jyotishas and eighteen Siddhantas (Srya Siddhaanta being one of the most notable among them), all of which codify astronomical knowledge – possibly to facilitate astrological calculations and elaborate on the rules of worship written in the Vedas. As early as AD 499, Aryabhata’s magnum opus Aryabhatika differentiated between this ‘real’ and ‘false’ knowledge. He described true knowledge as a jewel he took ‘from the ocean of real and false knowledge’ – with his own intellectual power. The line separating astrology and astronomy was not drawn in a day; it was the result of over fifteen centuries of painstaking study. But today, it is those who claim to be proud of our heritage that are erasing this line, decrying afresh Aryabhata’s distinction between true and false knowledge, between science and pseudo-science. The old belief – that the heavens influence events on earth – is understandable. If seasons are governed by the movement of the stars, why not the fate of kings and the common people? But over the centuries, as we have unravelled the mysteries of nature, such notions have lost their power to explain the world around us. Many people may still believe in astrology; but this is in the realm of belief, best left as part of personal faith. Acts of faith cannot be confused with the study and practice of science in the public sphere.
We are concerned that the essential thrust behind the campaign to introduce the so-called ‘Vedic mathematics’ and ‘Vedic astrology’ has more to do with promoting a particular brand of religious majoritarianism and associated obscuranist ideas, rather than with any serious and meaningful development of mathematical or scientific teaching in India. We note that similar concerns have been expressed about other aspects too of the National Curriculum Framework for school education. We reiterate our firm conviction that all teaching and pedagogy, not just the teaching of mathematics, must be founded on rational, scientific and secular principles.