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Double Check: Is the Pythagorean Theorem Fake News?

Double Check: Is the Pythagorean Theorem Fake News?

The Karnataka state government earlier labeled the Pythagorean Theorem “fake news” in its proposal for the curriculum under the National Educational Policy (NEP) earlier this week. According to The Times of India, the proposal encouraged all students to question “how fake news such as Pythagoras’ theorem, the apple falling on Newton’s head, etc., are being created and propagated”. 

Karnataka’s NEP task force head Madan Gopal later clarified that the proposal did not question the content or validity of the theorem but only its origin,” in an interview with Hindustan Times. Gopal cited the popular crowdsourced question and answer platform Quora, claiming that the theorem was actually created by ancient Indian mathematician Baudhāyana before it was adopted by Pythagoras. He also told the Times of India that gravity and Pythagoras theorem have Vedic roots. 

However, scientists are not convinced by Madan’s reasoning. 

“All historians of science know that the Pythagoras theorem was known in many cultures in various ways; the Babylonians knew it, so did the Egyptians among other civilizations. Pythagoras was probably not the first to discover it, but to call Pythagoras' theorem fake news is overkill," Dr. Aniket Sule, Assistant Professor at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), told Logically. 

“It is well-known in the field of science that many scientists independently discover or work on the same idea, but the first one to prove it or justify it is usually the one to get the credit for it. This could have happened in Pythagoras’ case as well," added Sule. 

He warned that renaming the theorem or giving it an Indian name will only add to chaos in the education sector. “If the theorem is renamed in India, it will lead to confusion in the minds of teachers and they will not be confident while explaining it to students, who in turn will not be able to fully understand it.”

This is not the first time that Pythagoras’ theorem has made headlines in India. In 2015, the then Minister of Science and Technology Dr. Harsh Vardhan made similar claims. 

“The Chinese, Greeks, and others are known to have their models about the Pythagoras’ theorem, but the latter was probably the first one to prove it. Calling the theorem fake altogether is meaningless, and saying that the Vedic texts contain everything backfires in every way. These notions take us away from the truth, and will only leave people confused," said Dr. S. Krishnaswamy, Retired Senior Professor at Madurai Kamaraj University. “Claiming that Baudhāyana wrote about the theorem before Pythagoras may not be factually correct. Similarly, saying that Vedas discovered gravity before Issac Newton is misleading as Vedic texts were often vague and were an attempt to interpret philosophy”.

Among other propositions, the Karnataka task force wants students to learn Sanskrit as a third language. It has also proposed to introduce Manusmriti and ancient numeral systems like Bhutasankhya and Kaṭapayadi Sankhya in the state’s schools — another bone of contention for educators. 

If they really want to challenge Pythagoras’ or Newton's postulates, why don’t they publish their own research in international peer-reviewed journals?

“It is very important to break the notion that there is something known as Vedic Math. It is arithmetic tricks written in Sanskrit instead of English a hundred years ago, and have no use in high-level mathematics. The Bhutasankhya and Kaṭapayadi Sankhya were part of the tradition of passing down information orally; each letter of the verse corresponded to a digit and together the verse would be equivalent to an equation. It was useful in understanding and memorizing astronomy of that time, and has absolutely no relevance now," explained Sule.

Kannada writer and educator Sripad Budi said that the proposed change would make Indian students unemployable. “If they really want to challenge Pythagoras’ or Newton's postulates, why don’t they publish their own research in international peer-reviewed journals? The government is just destroying scientific temperament and preventing students from developing modern thinking,  pluralistic values, and a scientific aptitude.”

The idea of quick arithmetics and mental calculations was reportedly popularized by a 1965 book written by Shankaracharya Bharati Krishna Tirthaji. Although the book’s introduction stated that the work was a result of the author's study and interpretation of the Vedas, it gained traction as being Vedic text. However, some experts disagree. 

“Vedic Math was rediscovered recently by Tirthaji in the early 1900’s and included some 16 sutras(formulas). Some believe that these principles were not part of the Vedas, so there is some debate over the origins,” Vedic Math Forum India founder Gaurav Tekriwal told Logically. “Even Pythagoras' theorem was mentioned in the Sulba Sutra in another form”. Sulba Sutra are Vedic appendices detailing geometric calculations necessary to properly construct altars. Tekriwal who has been propagating Vedic Math for over 20 years said that the tool needs to be appreciated more.  

The Karnataka government drew criticism from several corners earlier in June over its sweeping changes to the state curriculum. “Various chapters on discrimination against Dalits were removed from the textbooks. Teachings of progressive, anti-caste ideologues such as Dr. B.R Ambedkar, Periyar, and Narayan Guru among others were removed to make space for Brahmin writers," alleged Budi.

His opinions echoed in others’ views as well. “All these changes have very little to do with education but are about politics entirely. The NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) recently dropped mention of the 2002 Gujarat riots. This is an attempt to rewrite history. We are moving towards a more patriarchal, Brahminical, sectarian way of learning,” Krishnaswamy, who is also a member of All India People’s Science Network, said.

It’s not the first time that controversy has sprung up around the place of ancient teachings in modern education settings in India. “Some twenty years ago, the former Education Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, had made it mandatory for colleges and universities to teach astrology. After teachers opposed it, the University Grants Commission made the option voluntary.”

Teachers are also concerned about how students’ futures will be affected by the proposed changes. “The old system of education and ancient beliefs are not going to help our students. Bhutasankhya has no practical value in the present globalized economy,” Krishnaswamy said. “Instead of calling something fake in textbooks, maybe we could include the contributions made to an idea by other civilizations as well. For example, the case of the numeral zero; we acknowledge the different contributions made to it by different sources”.

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