Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was one of the greatest geniuses of mathematics. That life was full of maths and mystics. Robert Kanigel, one of Ramanujan’s most notable biographers, says that his life story cannot be told apart from mathematics. He describes Srinivasa Ramanujan as ‘one who knew infinity’. If we go to the oral tradition of his family and community, it is full of religion and mystics. We can say he roamed the world of ideas, mathematics, the language of unfamiliar symbols and enigmas, beginning with the Paramanu, the smallest microcosm, and went up to the infinite Brahman.
Often Ramanujan’s mathematics seem to be alien and inaccessible to us. But the premises of Ramanujan’s numerical theories are the virtues of numbers that we use every day. Today, they are being used in various fields of modern science and technology. It has spread from polymer chemistry and computer science including artificial intelligence to the field of nuclear therapy for cancer.
Ramanujan was born on December 22, 1887 in Erode, Tamil Nadu, to a poor family. Namagiridevi of Namakkal was the deity of this family. The family saw Ramanujan as a gift from Paradevata. Ramanujan was deeply influenced by his childhood in the temple town on the banks of the Kaveri River, Kumbakonam, the cultural centre of dakshina Bharat, and his mother’s life rooted in traditional values. Ramanujan was not just fond of Sanskrit poetry, epics, purana kathas, but also in their philosophy. Ramanujan confronted the elders with perplexing questions that provoked faith, philosophy and logic.
Ramanujan, the student, was a wonder! He surprised everyone by solving even those maths problems that seemed difficult to senior class students. Many of Ramanujan’s ideas were rarely understood by his teachers and classmates. Combining philosophical and spiritual topics with his mathematical thinking, the young Ramanujan gave commentary for hours in a way that captivated everyone. Among other things, he explained that he had discovered the connection between God, zero and infinity. Mathematics, philosophy, religion and God were thus advanced throughout Ramanujan’s life on a special tred. Ramanujan never cared to follow the mathematical path laid out by others. He focused on how much others appreciated the path he was taking.
Ramanujan Discovered Hardy or Vice Versa?
The notebooks of Ramanujan are a vast world. It is a priceless treasure of the mathematical world. In it many buds of pure mathematics spring forth and waft their fragrance. He did not think about who would use them for what purpose. When a pinch of which came to the Cambridge professor HG Hardy, he was surprised to find in Ramanujan’s works a more advanced approach to integral number theory, then known in the mathematical world as formulated by the famous mathematician Legendre and later modified by Gauss. Hardy’s attention was drawn to the rarity of Ramanujan’s theories rather than their ideological strength. It blew Hardy’s mind. Cambridge itself was shaken. Hardy lifted the clerk at the Port Trust from the shackles of suffering and superstition to become a researcher at Trinity College. Hardy was able to identify Ramanujan—a mathematical genius who could not even complete his degree in a colonial society dominated by Western ‘infallibility.’ He used Ramanujan’s hidden talent for later knowledge. That mind and talent of Hardy is as important as Ramanujan’s genius.
Ramanujan was not only a believer in God but also a person who believed in things like astrology
Through his constant sadhana, Ramanujan continued to build new numerical theories through his close association with numbers, just as a musician melds with svarastanas and forms new melaragas. Ramanuja’s findings were not wrong but not in a way that everyone could understand. Many mathematical concepts were adopted by Ramanujan himself. Creativity and critical thinking were intertwined. He derives directly from and so regularly but his insights were very important in terms of logic. This even changed the minds of mathematical thinkers like Hardy. Hardy said, “A mathematician discovers the theorem by his instinct. The conclusion to it will prove itself to be true. The attempt to find it will be made later.”
Mystics, Mathematics and Divinity
Cambridge scientists were agnostics or atheists who found that Ramanujan was not only a believer in God but also a person who believed in things like astrology and followed the rituals in his life. He himself was a scholar of astrology. But like other scientists in mathematics, Ramanujan was not far behind in logical thinking and scientific sense. This surprised many Western scientists. Hardy, who was an atheist and a rationalist who did not believe in God, evaluated this characteristic of Ramanujan as a virtue of the East. ET Bell commented that “Ramanujan had a supernatural insight, a gift from heaven for finding hidden connections even between seemingly unrelated formulas.” Attempting to trace the growth of Ramanujan’s thought has led many Western scholars to grapple with reluctance in the end. He held fast to all the Bharatiya philosophy, astrology and related ritual beliefs that today are trying to propagate as pseudoscience and superstition. How it was harnessed for mathematical analysis remains a mystery to this day. Some even raised the criticism that Ramanujan’s belief in astrology and Namagiri devi was unbecoming of a scientist. This is what most Western thinkers and a few Indians have opined when commenting on Ramanujan’s life. But such criticisms or comments had no effect on Ramanujan. He attributed and believed all his mathematical discoveries as revelations and blessings from the Goddess Namagiri Devi.
Ramanujan, a typical Bharatiya ganitagya, through whom we can know the world of Bharatiya Ganita. The National Maths Day provides an opportunity to know, embrace and take pride in Bharat’s mathematical heritage. It creates an opportunity to delve deeper into Bharat’s invaluable contributions to the world of mathematics since Vedic times. Like Swami Vivekananda, who restored Bharat’s philosophical heritage before the Western world in his very short life, Ramanujan was a person who brought our mathematical tradition to the world stage and changed the West’s view of Bharat. But he could not ignite its glory among the Indians. Bharatiya Education, which is going to be framed on the basis of the new education policy, should restore India’s brilliant heritage in mathematics as well as in other fields.