I was in third grade when I faced my first great mathematical hurdle. The bold black print on the unforgiving white homework paper stared at me haughtily, challenging me to take it on. MULTIPLY 103 x 102. I glanced over to my right and there it lay, like a shining beacon of help—the calculator. But I could not forget that I am, and always will be an Indian, and with that identity comes the indoctrination that calculators are merely a tool for the weak-minded, an unnecessary shortcut, a cheap cheat. With a sigh, I began the grinding process of multiplication.
At a very young age I realized that Indians have a natural aptitude for numbers. I saw my dad solve math problems with dismissive ease; my grandfather could recite his multiplication tables till 20 without breaking a sweat; and naturally, when I got to middle school, I found myself enjoying math more than any other subject. What I did not know, however, was that the Indian mathematical tradition goes back a lot further than I could have ever fathomed.
Over the years, Western historians have given most of the credit of early math concepts to the Arabs, while conceding merely the discovery of zero to India. The fact is, our Vedas outlined the knowledge for complex mathematics far before the Arabs. Recently, a seminar by S.N. Padiyar, a self-taught professor, opened my eyes to the awe-inspiring ancient discipline of Vedic mathematics.
My first impression was of Padiyar himself. Instead of the erudite and dogmatic air of a professor, the unassuming man carried about him a youthful enthusiasm in sharing this amazing knowledge, much like Gulliver upon returning to England.
The venue of the seminar, a cabin in Sunnyvale’s Serra Park, reminded me of a typical Indian classroom, complete with peeling white paint on the walls of the small room and creaking fans whirring to circulate the dust. Fidgety kids in the back rows giggled and made paper airplanes. However, as the seminar proceeded, mouths closed, eyes focused, and jaws dropped. As the professor scribbled numbers on the blackboard and comfortably recited the simple Sanskrit sutras, or succinct formulas, that are the foundation for all of Vedic math, I began to see the art less as a pack of amusing magic tricks and more as a thoughtfully constructed system of calculation that puts computers to shame.
The world of Vedic math swept me into a new dimension of thought where my high school calculus teacher, try as she might, could never take me. Suddenly, numbers were no longer positive or negative; instead, the individual digits within the number had a positive or negative sign. These vinculum numbers are used to conduct many of the mathematical functions of Vedic math. Squaring and cubing large numbers is also a trivial matter. For example, finding the square of a number such as 105 simply entails squaring the number 5 (the latter part of 105), and preceding that number by the product of 10 (the former part of 105) and the number greater than 10: 11. This yields the accurate result of 11025. To carry out this operation, we used the basic sutra ekadhikena purvena, which means, “Multiply by one more than the preceding number.” Thus, 10 is multiplied by 11.
Padiyar went on to describe the Vedic process for finding accurate results to indefinite fractions with recurring decimals, such as 1/19, and told us the answer with the nonchalance of one delivering the punch line of a good joke. Many in the audience tried to challenge Padiyar by throwing all sorts of difficult problems at him and demanding a solution using Vedic math. With a cool smile, Padiyar came up with the answer every time. Needless to say, the audience of restless teenagers and working adults were left in awe of the man and the art.
I came away from the two-day session with both a renewed confidence and pride in my heritage, as well the juvenile conceit that comes from knowing a secret. Vedic math is all that Padiyar had promised it would be: fast, easy, and fun.
As I flipped open the slim volume of Vedic math, Maths with Joy, which I bought at the seminar, I wondered why our world has embraced the Western style of math and continues to ignore our age-old treasure chests of knowledge—the Vedas. For centuries, it seems, we have overlooked the wealth of wisdom locked up within these sacred books.
Maybe, if we paid more attention to the words of Padiyar and others who work enthusiastically to enlighten us about the secrets of the Vedas, we would not be dependent on calculators today. 103 x 102 would be mere child’s play. Simply take the first number, 103, and add to that the last digit of the second number, 102. This results in 105: the first three digits of your answer. The last two digits of the answer come from the product of the last digits of each of your initial numbers—3 and 2—resulting in 06. You have your answer—10506—faster than you can say “calculator”!
Nikhil Vijaykar graduated from Saratoga High School and is now a freshman at UCLA.