Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mathematics, History and worms eating manuscripts…

Mathematics, History and worms eating manuscripts…: "

This is a sad story of forgetten history, indifference towards ancient knowledge and wisdom & callous neglect…Read on.. From A search for India’s mathematical roots, some depressing excerpts (emphasis added):

K. Ramasubramanian is the head of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) research Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit (CISTS), the only one of its kind in the country, where doctoral students translate the work of ancient Indian scientists into English, study language technology in Sanskrit that will help computers to analyse a wide range of speech and text, and make the translation and interpretation of Sanskrit texts easy.

…“No country should allow the distortion of its own history,” said Murli Manohar Joshi, former Union minister for human resource development, who had directed all the IIT campuses to set up a CISTS in 2002. Following the directive, IIT-B appointed Kulkarni to spearhead research in Sanskrit language technology in 2003. A year later, the institute brought Ramasubramanian on board.

His students are now at different stages of translating primary Sanskrit texts (dating between the seventh and 15th centuries) of the Kerala School mathematics…All these texts work on the same principles, but work on different timescales. For instance, “Siddhanta texts help predict astronomical positions for a mahayuga (great age), which is about 4,320,000 years. The intermediate Tantra texts work with a yuga, one-tenth of that time—432,000 years. Finally, the Karna texts help quick calculations for as little as one month. My students are working with all three of these texts,” said Ramasubramanian.

…But not every member of the team has scientific training. One of them is a trained astrologer and delighted to read the future. Dinesh Mohan Joshi, (grandson of an astrologer) said: “I saw my grandfather look at kundalis (a graphical representation of planetary positions at birth that charts the life course of the baby) and makes predictions. I saw them come true. I was fascinated. I wanted to be able to do that too. So, I went to (Shri) Lal Bahadur (Shastri) Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth and became an acharya (teacher) there. Then a friend told me about this cell and I decided to come.” Unlike Bhatt, his was an uphill struggle to master the mathematics, “because I had no formal training in the subject”.

…And in Joshi’s struggle to learn mathematics, lies the biggest challenge that this venture faces, because “there just aren’t enough people who are skilled in both. If they know Sanskrit, they know little science. And if they are good scientists, they are not interested in Sanskrit or translation of Indian texts”, said Subramanian, explaining why, despite making an enormous effort, IIT has not been able to expand the cell.

Photograph of K. Ramasubramanian, courtesy: IIT Mumbai

Another challenge is of a different nature: Original manuscripts are either rotting or missing. “I had gone to find out some text related to my research at the Kerala University library of manuscripts when I found worms eating four of seven manuscripts. I bought lemongrass oil and gave it to the librarian who said they were too short staffed to look after the documents,” said Ramasubramanian, lamenting that it was the same story across the country. “We simply do not take our historical heritage, intellectual heritage seriously.”

The professors and students say they have to battle for respect in a country where history, especially the history of science has little value. “Only recently, the cell has started getting more visibility, people have begun asking us to come and talk about our work. Slowly, people are becoming interested…” Kulkarni said.

Reminded me of: Does no one remember the Hindu contribution to Mathematics? and this on the Kerala School


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