Math By Heart

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Vedic Math teachers are now minting crores, but how Vedic or useful is it, asks Samrat Chakrabarti

Illustration: Samia Singh

EVER BEEN scared of mathematics? Ever seen the numbers swim and felt Pythagoras reach for your throat? You are not alone. Hatred of mathematics can be a genuine basis to unite the world if ever such an exercise were undertaken.

India assiduously does its bit for world peace as it adds new names to the mathphobic tribe every year. Faulty, unimaginative teaching methods introduce new generations to this terror. In India, getting a medical or engineering degree is often the most important goal of childhood and now a multicrore business has emerged to guarantee just that.

Vedic Math classes mushroomed in our by-lanes a decade ago and today a visible momentum has accrued to the system. The big players in the Vedic Math education business are taking it around the world. Magical Methods, a Delhi-based company for instance, has 80 centres around the world. It charges international students as much as $45 per hour and had a Rs 25 crore turnover in 2009. Vedic Math Forum (VMF), another major player, works with governments around the world — including South Africa, Hong Kong, Angola and Iraq — to design mathematics curriculum and teach school children. Gaurav Tekriwal, President VMF, says South African schools are facing an enormous crisis with mathematics — a 70 percent failure rate. To these governments, Vedic Math is a very welcome and out-of-the box solution. (Tekriwal is cagier about the money VMF makes and won’t go beyond saying he charged the South African government 2 rands — Rs 12 — per child per annum.)

In India, what started with the odd messiah and a few books, has now reached a critical mass of awareness. From the class 6 student struggling with his math homework to the MBA and IIT aspirants, everyone’s getting a bit interested. Websites, YouTube videos, DVDs and coaching centres, all promise a quick fix. You can sign up for a week-long course which will set you back by Rs 1,000-2,000. Corporate courses can go up to Rs 45,000.

Vedic Math classes make grand claims, the grandest of which is that it is derived from the brilliant mathematicians of ancient India — the ones who invented zero (our one contribution to mathematics known to every Indian on either side of the math divide.) But before one gets into what it can do for you, let’s begin by asking what is Vedic Mathematics. Or perhaps, what it is not. Vedic Mathematics is not some kind of ‘Indian’ mathematics. Maths knows no borders. Vedic Math is simply a bag of tricks — 16 formulae (or Sutras) that can be used to do numerical calculations fast and simply and in the head. So if you are staring at 145 multiplied by 95 with dread, someone trained in the 16 formulae, will tell you the answer is 13,775 in the time it takes you to punch the numbers into the calculator. At the heart of the techniques are ways of breaking down the numbers into simple operations that can be done in the head. Most people can learn these Sutras in less than a month. There are other systems like this that help you calculate quickly, such as the Chinese abacus or the system invented by the Ukrainian engineer Jakow Trachtenberg as he waited to be exterminated in a Nazi concentration camp.

Those who have made a lifetime’s study of the history of Indian mathematics such as Prof SG Dani, School of Mathematics, TIFRMumbai, rues the ‘false aura’ that Vedic Math has. Dani who is currently organising a conference on India’s ancient mat he matical traditions, says, “I see no evidence to link the system known as Vedic Mathematics to the Vedas and place it no older than 200 years.”

However, professional mathematicians are far removed from those who need Vedic Math. Modern mathematicians hardly ever deal with numbers as much as the Greek alphabet. Their work has few calculations and more to do with abstractions and patterns. To them, speed mathematics (as its more honestly called abroad) is little more than a party game. But examine the context of the much burdened Indian student who lives his life to the tick-tock of the examination clock. Not only does she save critical time during an exam but she also solves that famous age-old problem; silly mistakes. Silly mistakes is thrown out along with the need to work out the sum the long way, one number at a time.

Raka Roy of Kolkata, first year Economics Honours student, just gave her entrance exam for the hallowed portals of the Indian Statistical Institute — an exam involving much calculations. The old wisdom held that the exam duration does not allow you to answer more than three of the 10 questions in the tougher half of the paper. She attempted five, thanks, she says, to a monthlong Vedic Math course she took in December. “I’ve lost a lot of marks in the past thanks to silly mistakes that would cancel out my effort. Now that’s not a problem.” Ekta Dadlani, 14, concurs, “Sums that used to take 10 minutes can now be cracked in two minutes. Giving a math exam is no longer so tiring.” Ekta says she used to hate mathematics even though she scored well, but now a whole new world has opened up. Her enthusiasm hints at a more far-reaching gain from Vedic Math.

By the time you get past your dread and punch in 145 multiplied by 95 on your calculator, someone trained in Vedic Math will tell you the answer — 13,775

NIMI HIRANI, a Londonbased parent wanted her 12-year-old son to not just get better marks in math, but to enjoy it. Having learnt Vedic Math when she was young, she turned to it again to help her son with math. “Often it’s a question of confidence with children. If they do well, they begin to like it. The quickness too impresses kids.”

Seen purely from the pragmatic need to find a toehold in competitive exams, Vedic Math helps. But if you entertain a larger vision of education, one that involves a sense of undiminishing wonder, or as a means of giving a person the tools of thought, then the role of speed mathematics is simply a contributory footnote. Prof Dani who is also the Chair of the National Board for Higher Mathematics says he worries the tempting ease of Vedic Math will ‘distort the focus of what students should be learning — the fundamentals of mathematics’. The true joy and gains of mathematics (or any other subject) is to be found beyond the surface, down to the fundamentals. Aryabhatta’s brilliance did not lie in how fast he could multiply.

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