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This article is a part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. One Indian woman is profiled each day for the whole of March 2019.


T A Saraswathi Amma is one of many disavowed Indian women scholars, who has contributed in the field of history of mathematics and Sanskrit, through her work on Ancient Indian Geometry. She continues to be an inspiration for students and scholars in the field and her undisputed contribution, through her thesis Geometry in Ancient and Medieval India, is a testimony to her profound understanding of the subject. The Kerela Mathematical Association has honoured this work through a regular lecture series called the Prof. T A Sarasvati Amma Memorial Lecture, conducted at its annual conference.     

Birth, Early Life And Education

Born in 1918, in Tekkath Amayankoth Kalam, Kerela, Saraswathi Amma is the second daughter of Kuttimalu Amma and Marath Achutha Menon. A renowned scholar in the field of geometry of ancient and medieval India, she has contributed towards creating one of the most canonical works in the field of Mathematics of India from the Vedic period, all the way down to the 17th century AD.

Hailing from a family dedicated towards a good education (her younger sister Rajalakshmi is a celebrated Malayalam story-writer and novelist), Saraswathi graduated from Madras University with a first class in Part II (Sanskrit) and Part III (Physics and Mathematics). She then went on to attain an MA in Sanskrit from the Banaras Hindu University, with a 1st class. Following this, she studied English Literature at Bihar University.

Teaching And Scholarly Work

On completion of her MA in English from the Bihar University, Saraswathi worked in the Madras University for a period of around three years (1957-1960) as a scholar of the Government of India (Department of Education) in the Sanskrit Department. It was here that she worked under the distinguished Sanskrit scholar Dr V Raghavan, who guided her in her thesis and most prominent work: Geometry in Ancient and Medieval India. In this period, she taught at multiple institutes like Shree Kerela Varma College, Thrissur, the Maharaja College, Ernakulam and finally the Ranchi Women’s College where she was appointed a lecturer in Sanskrit.

Dealing with Sanskrit and Prakrit scientific and quasi-scientific literature, the book breaks the myth around Indian mathematics: that it is purely algebraic and computational and has no basis in rationale and proofs.

She submitted her 300-page doctoral thesis on Indian contributions to mathematics in 1963 during her tenure at the Ranchi University, which, after an examination and viva voce was approved for the award of PhD degree by Dr. R.S. Mishra and Dr. A. Narasinga Rao, both eminent mathematicians. During this period, she also guided the doctoral thesis of R.C. Gupta on Trigonometry in Ancient and Medieval India.

Additionally she wrote several papers for academic journals including, Journal of Oriental Research, Journal of Ganganath Jha Research Institute, Journal of Ranchi Institute and Indian Journal of History of Science, and also presented a paper on The cyclic quadrilateral in Indian Mathematics at the Proceedings of the All-India Oriental Conference.  

From 1973, Dr Saraswathi served as the Principal of Shree Shree Lakshmi Narain Trust Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Dhanbad, Bihar, but resigned in 1980 as she believed that the burden of her administrative duties was keeping her from focusing on her research work. In one of her letters to
R.C. Gupta , she says, “I do not do any useful work now-a-days, immersed as I am in the squabbles and problems of an affiliated college accustomed to tactics to which I am not accustomed.”

Contributions of Geometry Of Ancient And Medieval India

Although published privately at the G.E.L Church Press Ranchi, Dr Saraswathi’s thesis did not see the light of day due to the numerous errors in this first publication. However, in 1979 it was published again by Motilal Banarsidass in Delhi. It was intended to be the third installation of a series on Indian Mathematics, the first two of which were History of Hindu Mathematics, Vols I and II, by B.B. Dutta and A.N. Singh, published in 1935 and 1938 respectively by the same publisher. While the first two books in the series focused on Hindu Arithmetic and Hindu Algebra, Dr. Saraswathi’s work focused on Hindu Geometry.

Her work also throws light on the interaction between Greek and Hindu mathematics in the development of trigonometry, however minimal, and motivated by the needs of Astronomy.

Together with three other works: Hindu Geometry, Hindu Astronomy, and chapter III of the book Mathematics of Ancient and Medieval India, all produced around the same time, Dr Saraswathi’s thesis is an indispensable and rich literature on Hindu Geometry for students and teachers alike. Dealing with Sanskrit and Prakrit scientific and quasi-scientific literature, the book breaks the myth around Indian mathematics: that it is purely algebraic and computational and has no basis in rationale and proofs.

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It covered the Jain as well as Hindu Siddhanta canonical works, and threw light on contributions made by astronomer mathematicians like Aryabhatta I and II, Sripati, Bhaskara I and II, Sangamagrama Madhava, Paramesvera, Nilakantha, and many others. Her work also throws light on the interaction between Greek and Hindu mathematics in the development of trigonometry, however minimal, and motivated by the needs of Astronomy.

Through the 10 chapters, Dr Sarasvathi has outlined the development of mathematics and geometry in India, and included not just the works of famous astronomers and mathematicians but also delineated problems associated with construction of altars, development of shapes, methods of integration and integration between algebra and geometry.

Later Life And Death

Notwithstanding her retirement from the post of the Principal at the college in Dhanbad, Saraswathi Amma could not devote much time to her research due to her duties towards her home. Moving back to her home in Ernakulam, she was responsible for the care of her ailing mother. In 1986, she moved to a smaller house in Ottappalam, where she also died on 15th August 2000. Although her marriage was very short-lived, she has a son, who is an Engineer graduate, and lives with his family in Australia.

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Despite her irrefutable inputs in the field of Indian contributions to mathematics, both through research and teaching, and consequently by breaking myths around women in STEM, it is disheartening to see that Saraswathi Amma doesn’t figure anywhere in the list of notable alumni in any of her alma maters.

References

1. Indian Journal of History of Science
2.Book Review by J.N. Kapur
3.Motilal Banarsidass Books

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