From: The Main Stream of Mathematics

When as a boy Bhaskara was not absorbed in the study of mathematics, he would brood on the nature of society about him.  The adamant wall of custom had always been a source of pain to him.  He chafed under the system that forbade him to share his scientific knowledge with youths of lower caste, or seek companionship outside of Brahmin ranks.  Bhaskara had feared to confide his unorthodox views to others, lest he be outlawed.  But it had comforted him to learn from the writings of an earlier day that men had once lived a freer life and a happier one.

Often in his later years his nervously active mind would turn suddenly, by some train of association, from serious scientific considerations to sentimental memories.  Now this old pattern of thought recurred with good reason, for today his only daughter was to be married.  He thought for a moment of the two ancient astrologers who, when Lilavati was born, had been paid to cast her horoscope; bent with age, and shorn of their dignity in his presence-Bhaskara even then had been renowned for his wisdom-they had seemed uneasy and timid, and had spoken of many things other than their business.  Finally they had predicted that Lilavati was to be his only daughter, and that she would never marry; and when they had delivered this prediction, they left hurriedly, fearful of the rage which they expected their prophecy would call forth.  But Bhaskara had sent gifts after them and a message of blessing.

Today Bhaskara recalled how Lilavati, even at the age of eleven, had preferred to remain at home and read to him her childish compositions or listen to his recitals of myths and puzzles, while her playmates celebrated as they had every year since the age of seven, the festival of Molakata, in order to ensure the speedy winning of a husband.  Bhaskara had been pleased.  More and more she had become the comfort and delight of those leisure moments which he stole from his endless work on mathematics.

But suddenly she changed.  The books, the puzzles, the lessons, all seemed to bore her.  Now she played all day with her friends at games that she had always scorned as childish.    And when in her twelfth year the festival days of Molakata came, she celebrated with the other girls of her age.  Soon Bhaskara perceived that he could not change the course of nature.

Lilavati did not then know that the astrologers had been unable to discover any time when the gods would permit a marriage for her; and when Bhaskara saw that her heart was set upon marriage and that to be denied this would cause her great misery, he laid aside his books, and for one whole day and night studied the child’s horoscope and the heavens.

At last he found an hour on a certain day when the gods would receive the marriage favourably.  He called Lilavati to his side, and telling her first that he had found a propitious date, related the findings of the old astrologers so many years before.  Then he went to a friend in a near-by village and arranged a match with the delighted friend’s son.  All this had happened three months ago.  And today Bhaskara realized with a start that within a few hours the ceremony must begin.

Soon the noisy wedding procession arrived and the great rooms were filled with chatter and laughter.  Lilavati was seated in the embrace of her uncle, as was the custom, with a screen still barring her first glimpse of her husband to be.  Then the astrologers set up the hour glass beside her, to determine the exact moment that the heavens had decreed for the performance of the ceremony.  From time to time Lilavati leaned over and gazed at the floating cup, to see how near the hour was.

To  Bhaskara the preliminaries seemed endless.  Several times he approached the priest to ask whether the propitious moment had not already come.  Then suddenly Vatsaraja, the old astrologer, bent over the hour-cup and cried out!  A silence fell on the group as he lifted the vessel from the water.  No liquid flowed through the cavity.  Just as no liquid had entered it.  As Lilavati in her anxiety had bent over the cup, a pearl had dropped from her costume and stopped the opening through which the fluid should have passed.  And so, unnoticed, the hour had gone, and now that the accident was discovered, it was forever too late.

It was the will of heaven, Bhaskara said.  And he took into his arms the child who could not restrain her weeping, and caressed her; he mustered all the words of comfort he could find; among other things, he whispered to Lilavati that the great book upon which he had been laboring for years would bear her name through the centuries.  Thus, by the promise of immortal fame did he hope to console her for the accident that had prevented her marriage.

By Edna E. Kramer, Ph.D

From The Main Stream of Mathematics, 1951

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One Response to “From: The Main Stream of Mathematics”

  1. ARUN KUMAR RAY Says:

    Now,why did Ms Kramer,a doctorate,choose to narrate this fable in her
    book on(higher)mathematics?What has maths to do if a young girl could
    get married or not?Looks as if the author is alluding to the doctrine of
    INEVITABILITY in human life and larger Universe.Maths is capable/competent to identify,analyse,conclude AND PREDICT results/
    consequences – all in a SCIENTIFIC way.Maybe she wishes to agree with/admit the power of conventional wisdom at the root of all computing
    exercises;ancient minds/brainpower were,in effect,MODERN enough.Evolution is essentially OPPORTUNITIES.Mundane flipside:a bad
    Indian custom of childmarriage prevented.Neeti shd be happy to see yet
    another instance of Astrology supremacy!

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