Page 24 - ScienceIndia Magazine March 2021
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        asked Yajnavalkya:
lk gkos kp ;n/wko~Z a ;kKoYD; fnoks ;nokDif`FkO;k ;nUrjk |kokif` Fkoh bes ;nH~ krw a p HkoPp H k f o ” ; P p R s ; k p { k r s d f L e L a r n k rs a p ç k rs a p f s r A A (Brhd. Upan. 3.8.3)
about what is that which pervades ‘above the heavens, below the earth and in between the two (heaven and earth) about which they say it was, is and will be (exist)’. She also asks about what is it upon which the ‘world is woven back and forth’. This question related to a then-commonly known cosmological metaphor that expressed the unity of the world and the inherent interconnected- ness of its constituents, across scales. She continues with a number of ques- tions on the Universe, the stars and the Sun and the moon. Realising the depths from which she was composing her ques- tions and comments, one can understand her knowledge and wisdom. Yoga Ya- jnavalkya, a classical text on Yoga, is also on a dialogue between Gargi and Yajnavalkya. Gargi, as Brahmavadini, composed several hymns in the Rig Veda that questioned the origin of all existence. Gargi was honoured as one of the Navaratnas (nine gems) in the court of King Janaka of Mithila.
More on the lines of philosophy and metaphysics, another Brahmavadini named Sulabha discussed the truth of entities, in what she called Atmatattva or the ‘essence of the self’, saying that any physical body is formed by the com- bination of animate and inanimate sub- stances filled with Mithyajnana or ‘false identification/knowledge’. According to her, once the unity of this Atmatattva is understood, the diversity is dissolved and then Sva (self) and Para (others) cease to exist.
In the world of mathematics, the name of Lilavati comes to the fore. She is said to have been the daughter of the renowned mathematician Bhaskara- charya II. There is a story around how Bhaskaracharya suggested her to pursue mathematics when she faced a struggle in life after her husband’s untimely demise. Bhaskaracharya’s most famous book, Lilavati, contains various interesting al- gebraic poems, as a mark of recognising Lilavati’s taste for higher mathematics. A
famous poem from this seminal work is on Lilavati’s swarm:
A fifth part of a swarm of bees came to rest on the flower of Kadamba,
a third on the flower of Silinda.
Three times the difference between these two numbers flew over a flower of Krutaja,
and one bee alone remained in the air, attracted by the perfume of a jas- mine in bloom.
Tell me, beautiful girl, how many bees were in the swarm?
If we assign the number of bees as the unknown variable, we can compose the problem in terms of linear equa- tion and solve the problem to see that there are 15 bees in Lilavati’s swarm. It is said that Lilavati was as much an active collaborator with her father as the subject of many of his mathemati- cal verses. Another father-daughter pair that made ripples in the world of science and mathematics is that of Varahamihira and Khana. The latter was the former’s daughter-in-law and their area of expertise was astronomy. Story of Khana (Khona) is popular in Bengal and eastern parts of India, and she is believed to have lived during the 5th century AD.
Varahamihira, a key member of the royal court of King Chandragupta II Vi-
kramaditya, was a great mathematician and astronomer. He wrote the seminal works Pañcasiddhantika and Brihat Samhita. There is a story that one day, Varahamihira returned home bothered, apparently since the King had wanted to know the number of stars in the sky and Varahamihira was unable to answer it. Khana was said to have solved the problem, and Varahamihira shared the answer with the king back at court.
These are some of the anecdotes and accounts of the preeminent place that women had in advancing science and mathematics, along with metaphysics and philosophy, in ancient India. Even as we move into the next chapter in the existence of this beautiful and ancient land called India, may we always cher- ish the achievements of these Bharatiya women. As Mark Twain said, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birth- place of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.”
* The writer is a postdoctoral fel- low at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and an associate of Nobel Laureate in Physics, Prof. Brian Josephson, at Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, working on Unification Physics. He is also a science communicator.
   Above: Kamala Sohonie, first Indian woman to receive a PhD in a scientific discipline. Right: Rupa Bai Firdounji, world’s first female anaesthetist
        Images Courtesy: Far Left: Internet; Left: Wikipedia

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