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On Madhavan of Sangamagrama

A while back, I wrote on Kerala Astronomers and Eurocentrism. In that article, I wrote about the Kerala School of Mathematics as well and provided a number of references at the end. One of the books I referred was The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by Dr. George Gheverghese Joseph. The Telegraph had an interview with him in which he expanded on this topic and talks about Madhava in detail.

His works laid the foundations of the Kerala school of mathematics which flourished between AD 1,300 and 1,700. But he was only part of the wider Indian school founded by Aryabhata who wrote the masterpiece Aryabhateeyam in AD 499. There are still differences over Aryabhata’s birthplace, whether it was in the north or the south of the country. Madhava’s contribution was his work on the infinite series. Though Newton and Leibniz are credited with the discovery of calculus, the fact is one of its critical strands had been developed in Kerala more than two centuries before that. The West has now recognised this and accordingly renamed certain results relating to the trigonometric series, previously known as the Newton, Gregory and Leibniz series, as the Madhava-Newton, Madhava-Gregory and the Madhava-Leibniz series, respectively.

The irony is that we still don’t know much about Madhava, the man himself. An eminent mathematician from Oxford, Marcus Du Sautoy, recently made a series of television programmes on the history of mathematics. I was consulted on those programmes relating to the history of Indian mathematics, including the remarkable work in Kerala. He was particularly interested in finding the physical location of Madhava and his main disciples to add some footage of film. When he asked me I was clueless and somewhat embarrassed. But now I’m told that he hailed from Sangamagrama, a medieval town in present-day Irinjalakuda in Thrissur district. It is a shame that there is no memorial plaque at the place which would certainly attract maths tourists.[Restoring India’s calculus crown]

In a personal email, Michel Danino notes that Dr. George G. Joseph isn’t the only scholar to have worked on the Kerala School of mathematics; recent contributors to the field include the late Prof. K.V. Sarma, Dr. C.K. Raju, Dr. M.D. Srinivas, Dr. M.S. Sriram and Dr. K. Ramasubramanian, among others.

One Response to On Madhavan of Sangamagrama

  1. froginthewell March 3, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Professor P P Divakaran, I have heard, is a person who actively pursues this topic. These days the work of the Madhava school is pretty popularly known among Indian mathematicians these days. I have heard that the Kerala school of Mathematics was constructed in Kunnamangalam (near Kozhikode) keeping in mind the proximity to where the medieval school flourished.

    However, the public is not given enough exposure to it. A few months back Romila Thapar gave a talk near where I stay, and to an audience member’s question about the Kerala school responded essentially that she did not know much about it and hence did not wish to speak about it!

    BTW I read somewhere, too lazy to check, that not all of these series are due to Madhava, but many to some of his successors like Neelakantha who gave credit for all their accomplishments to Madhava. Somewhat like how many carnatic vAggEyakAras threw in a “tyAgarAja” or “guruguha” into their songs so that their songs would be viewed as authored by Tyagaraja or Dikshitar (even though this would be at the expense of the author’s popularity). I don’t know if I will ever understand this pervasive Indian trait of giving up the credit for one’s own work to people whom one reveres!

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