Reflected Glory: Lilavati et al.


Though only reflecting sunlight, the Moon still shines

      Bhaskara was an eminent Indian astronomer-mathematician  of the 12th century. One of his works is  entitled Lilavati.   An interesting story tells us how it got this name.

  Bhaskara calculated from his daughter Lilavati’s  horoscope a precise moment for  her auspicious wedding.  In this context he  constructed a device consisting of a cup with a hole, which was left floating in a bucket of water. Water gradually began to enter the cup. The instant when enough water seeped to sink the cup would indicate the auspicious instant for the formal step for Lilavati’s wedding. 

    Curious Lilavati was so fascinated by the device that she bent over to gaze at the gradual trickling of the water into the cup. While she was in wonderment, a little gem broke loose from her garment and fell into the cup. It blocked the hole, obstructing the flow of water. The carefully computed instant of good omen was missed. Lilavati was not to marry!

    Bhaskara became as dejected as his daughter. To cheer her up, he decided to name a  work on mathematics after her. He told her that marital thrills would pass away, but she would be remembered for ever by that work. The name of  Lilavati’s name has indeed lasted centuries.

    The book called Lilavati has a dozen chapters, dealing with various aspects of ancient mathematics.. It is one of the earliest works to introduce the decimal system of numeration. It prescribes rules for multiplication and division by zero: sophisticated concepts. Here is a problem from that book: “Lovely and dear Lilavati with Fawn’s eyes, tell me what are the numbers resulting from the multiplication of 135 and 12.”

    ​Here is a case where fame came to Lilavati without her doing anything herself to acquire it. 

    But she was not the only one who is remembered because of what someone else did. In the sixteenth century poet Pierre de Ronsard , wrote a sonnet to his beloved Hélène who had rejected him, making her immortal in the world of (French) literature.

“When you are old, at evening candle-lit
beside the fire bending to your wool,
read out my verse and murmur, “Ronsard writ
this praise for me when I was beautiful.”

Or again, Anna Bolena, the most famous wife of Henry VIII of England is remembered to this day, not for anything great she did,  but because the wife-prone monarch beheaded her in one his amorous furies.

Ultimately, this is true of all national glory. The common people of any nation or culture take pride not for their personal  achievements, but for what others of their group had done. Most of us are like the Moon, shining in reflected brightness.

January 3, 2016

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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