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Modern Students Devour Old Math
By Manu Joseph for Wired   |  May 04, 2007

MUMBAI, India: What is the square of 85? In an instant, a 17-year-old boy said without blinking, “7,225.”

Kamlesh Shetty had used a trick from a quaint concept called Vedic math, a compilation of arithmetic shortcuts believed to have been written by ancient Indians who lived centuries before Christ, during a glorious period in Indian history called the Vedic Age. Its math has now crawled into the 21st century to further Shetty’s dream of cracking a nasty engineering entrance exam.

For most Indian students, engineering is a calling decided in the cradle by their parents. It is engineering that is most likely to take them away from Third World realities to the shores of America’s good life. So the tussle to get into engineering colleges is often cruel. In top entrance exams, only one out of 100 candidates makes the cut.

Quick problem-solving ability becomes the most crucial link between aspiration and fortune. Coaching for these exams is a multimillion-dollar industry in India, but with almost every student equipped with such preparatory courses, the applicants search for something more. That’s why several Indian students are beginning to get help from an ancient source — Vedic math. It has 16 brief formulas in Sanskrit that have been translated and interpreted into astonishing arithmetic shortcuts.

Shetty did not know the original Sanskrit verses, but he did know how to crack the square of 85 in less than a second. “To find the square of any number ending with 5, just put 25 on the right-hand side,” he said. “Take the number that precedes five. In this case it is 8. Add 1 to it. So in this case it becomes 9. Multiply 8 and 9. You get 72. 7,225 is the square of 85. It’s easy.”

Shetty is preparing for the prestigious Joint Entrance Exam. Over 150,000 candidates take this entrance exam every year to compete for only about 3,500 seats in the Indian Institute of Technology. Two-thirds of IIT’s graduates leave for America, augmenting the thousands already there who contribute to the institute’s reputation. American colleges and industry greatly favor students from IIT, a situation that has only increased competition to enter the institute.

Pradeep Kumar, who teaches Vedic math in Delhi, said, “There is an increasing interest among IIT aspirants to take the help of Vedic math.” Kumar charges such students about $120 for 40 hours of lessons. He teaches more than 200 students in the classroom and guides over 600 through long-distance courses.

Not all of his students dream of attending IIT. Several, mostly engineering pupils, are preparing for MBA entrance exams as tough as IIT’s. One of Kumar’s students, Kartik Arora, said, “Obviously Vedic math cannot teach you how to solve a problem. But it greatly reduces the computing time. I can vouch for the fact that in a two-hour exam, I can save about 10 minutes using Vedic math.”

Vedic mathematics was ushered into the modern age by a Hindu seer called Tirthaji Maharaja, after his book on the subject was published posthumously in 1965. He culled 16 formulas from ancient scriptures. Whether the formulas were indeed written centuries ago or were largely partisan interpretations of obscure Sanskrit text is a matter of academic debate.

T.A. Ramasubban, who has penned a book on Vedic math, said, “The controversy arises because some people question how a cryptic Sanskrit verse that means several things can be safely interpreted as an arithmetic shortcut. For example, there is a verse in the Vedas (scriptures) that praises Lord Krishna in the Vedas. If the Sanskrit words are interpreted, the verse gives the value of pi to 30 decimal points.

“My point is that a verse may extol a god, but … if it also gives the value of pi to 30 decimals, it cannot be a coincidence or desperate translation.”

The controversy over whether ancient texts have been unfairly stretched to pass as formulas does not affect students like Prashant Chopra. He is a fourth-year engineering student gearing up for an MBA entrance test to secure a place in the Indian Institute of Management. Last year, more than 130,000 students vied for 1,300 seats. Thanks to Vedic math, Chopra can arrive at the square of 109 in a second — and that means more to him than whether the subject is indeed Vedic or math.

Top preparatory courses that coach hundreds of thousands of students do not teach Vedic math yet. “I know that many of my own students are curious about Vedic math,” said Rajesh Lad, a math instructor, “but I believe that learning a new way of computation may confuse students. Students must sharpen methods that they are comfortable with instead of taking exotic routes.”