Friday Review

A passage to Europe


Dr. George Gheverghese Joseph tells Suganthy Krishnamachari that the initial reaction of the British to Indian science was one of awe. But later, they poured scorn on Indian science

(This is the second part of the interview)

Why is it that mathematical contributions are not well documented by historians? Could it be because higher mathematics is beyond the reach of most historians? In India would the problem not be compounded by the fact that mathematics is in Sanskrit and in verse form?

All that, together with lack of training, especially in historiography. A pursuit in many cases by retired mathematicians, who would not have taken up work in this area earlier, since a full-time career in this area was unavailable

You write that Govinda Bhattathiri, who lived around 1175 A.D. migrated to Tamil Nadu to study under Kanchanoor Azhvan. Is there any information about Kanchanoor Azhvan? Was he a mathematician or an astronomer?

Govinda is a legendary figure of whom there are a lot of unverified stories. I should think it was the practice those days to make no distinction between mathematicians and astronomers since the subjects overlapped in many cases. Some mathematical innovations have been attributed to Govinda without any firm evidence. Contacts mostly known are with a couple of Tamil scholars, although it should be remembered that geographical boundaries and the linguistic overlaps make present divisions somewhat problematic. Also note that the sources of inspiration of Kerala mathematicians were overwhelmingly from the North: Aryabhata and his School, Varahmihira, Bhaskara II etc.

Nilakantha Somayaji of the Kerala school, was in touch with Sundararaja a mathematician of Tamil Nadu. The two seemed to have had mutual respect for each other, as is evident from the respectful way in which they refer to each other. Did the Kerala mathematicians correspond with mathematicians in other parts of India too? If they did, then could the point of transmission of Kerala mathematics to Europe have been from some other place, say Tamil Nadu, for instance?

Sundararaja is one of the few Tamil mathematician/astronomers figuring in accounts of the time. The relationship between the two clearly was essentially a teacher-student relationship. No evidence exists as yet of contacts with the North.

The Kerala school shows an awareness of the ideas of integration and differentiation. So they must have come very close to developing the calculus.

No operational concept of limits existed and the members of the Kerala School were working with a different epistemology and concept of proof. One could say that even without calculus as we understand today, Indian mathematics tackled problems of maximization and minimization as Ramachandra did in the 19 century.

Regarding the transmission of Kerala mathematics through Jesuit missionaries serving in Kerala- how many of them would have known both Sanskrit and mathematics? Ugo Baldini, for example, writes that the standard of mathematics in Jesuit schools was elementary, and that most Jesuit missionaries would not have been able to appreciate the highly refined mathematics of the Kerala school. So except for a few like Ricci and Rubino, others would not have been able to fathom the mathematics of Kerala.

Yes, but the standard of mathematics in the Jesuit College (Collegio Romano) was very high and those Jesuits you mention went to that institution and similar institutions before setting out on their travels. Ricci was believed to have stayed in Cochin for two years.

Can you elaborate on the bias against Indian mathematics and science during British rule?

The initial reaction of the British to Indian science was one of awe. But later, as they tightened their grip over the country, they poured scorn on Indian science. And when Charles Whish presented his paper on Kerala Mathematics in 1832, it was met with indifference. We see the British attitude to Indian science changing in accordance with their imperialist goals. One way to control a colonised population is to give them the idea that nothing worthwhile ever originated in their country. Anything native to the country is discarded, and this is what the British did. Attempts were made, as for example by Ramachandra, in the 19 century, to blend modern science andtraditional science, but they did not succeed, because of the attitude of the British towards Indian science.

Are opinions in the West becoming less Eurocentric and if so, what is the prevailing opinion on Indian mathematics in the West? 

Yes, definitely; and without being immodest, I think my book Crest of the Peacock has had an impact. The next step is to incorporate Kerala mathematics (or rather Medieval Indian mathematics) into the history of world mathematics. I am working towards that objective and hope my next book titled, “A History of Indian Mathematics: Engaging with the World from Ancient to Modern Times” will help.

Why did Jyesthadeva write his Yuktibhasa in Malayalam, when all the other works of the Kerala school were in Sanskrit?

A combination of reasons I think: aiming at a wider audience, stimulated by the development of Malayalam as a language of scholarship and dissemination among a wider group of scholars, given the number of manuscripts found.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 1:46:48 PM |

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