US scholar David Henderson doesn’t back case for Sanskrit

Cornell University professor says his contact with the Sulbasutra is only through English translations.

May 25, 2016 04:55 am | Updated September 12, 2016 08:25 pm IST - NEW DELHI

David W. Henderson, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Cornell University, who visited India in January 1990 and in the course of his four-week stay at the Kanchi Math researched the Sulbasutras, believed to be the fount of Pythagorean Theorem, is in the news, courtesy HRD Minister Smriti Irani.

In the last one month, over a series of interviews, Ms. Irani has repeatedly referred to the professor who came to India to study the Sulbasutras. The Sulbasutras, composed between 800 and 500 B.C., has often been cited as proof that India was well-versed in the Pythagorean Theorem before the Greeks.

The Minister has often cited this as one of the several reasons for introducing Sanskrit in the Indian Institutes of Technology.

In the course of her interviews, Ms. Irani has never mentioned the professor by name; she referred to him as the “professor who studied the sutras believed to be the oldest surviving geometry book, published a paper in Cornell which was very celebrated.”

In a short email interview to The Hindu , Prof. Henderson said he was not a Sanskrit scholar.

“My contact with the Sulbasutra is only through English translations… I am not a Sanskrit language scholar; but have consulted Sanskrit scholars at Cornell [there have been several professors at Cornell with a research interest in Sanskrit].”

History of maths

The professor said it was important to investigate the history of mathematics to understand its meanings more. Mr. Henderson did not respond to a question on how Sanskrit would enhance the understanding of IIT undergraduates. He said the English translations aided his research.

In a paper titled Square Roots to the Sulbasutra, which Prof. Henderson dedicates to Chandrashekharendra Saraswati, he writes: “Several Sanskrit texts collectively called the Sulbasutra were written by the Vedic Hindus starting before 600 B.C. …These texts have prescriptions for building fire altars. However, contained in the Sulbasutra are sections… detailing the geometry necessary for designing and constructing the altars. It is apparently the oldest applied geometry text.”

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