You have five seconds to solve 996 x 997 without using a calculator. Let’s see if you can take up the challenge. Well, it’s not difficult if you know your way around Vedic mathematics. The base of both numbers — 996 and 997 — is thousand. Subtract each number by 1000 and you get -004 and -003. Now multiply the subtracted numbers and you get 012. After this, cross subtract either of the number — 996 minus 003 or 997 minus 004 — and you get the same number (993). There, you have your answer: 993012.

Vedic maths is the world’s easiest way to solve math problems — and a great way of getting over the maths phobia that several children, and even adults, suffer from.

Some argue that the term ‘Vedic’ might be misleading given that Vedic Mathematics, the first book on the subject, was first published only in 1965. It was authored by Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, the Shankaracharya of Puri’s Govardhana matha and the founder of Vedic maths. The book contains 16 sutras or mental calculation techniques which are said to cover practically every branch of mathematics — arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, applied mathematics, dynamics, hydrostatics and others.

In a world where calculators and computers have taken over the task of exercising our mathematical mind — one of the reasons for the rise in Alzheimer’s disease across the globe — Vedic maths can prove helpful.

Gaurav Tekriwal, a noted TEDx speaker who has been propagating high-speed Vedic maths for years, recalls an incident where he once asked a South African girl to multiply eight by seven. “She drew eight circles seven times and still got the answer wrong as 52.” Indians fare no better. In the Programme for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Secretariat annually to evaluate education systems worldwide, India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated, outscoring only Kyrgyzstan.

The serious decline in numeracy levels has caused concern among parents, teachers, students and educationists and created the need for remedial or alternative methods for students. This is where Vedic maths and other methods like Abacus come in. Vedic maths does not seek to replace the school curriculum or conventional maths, but to simplify it and make it fun.

Vedic maths is the genie that introduces you to a simplified, unified and superfast method to solve your maths problems,” says Tekriwal who was preparing for the Combined Admission Test (CAT) when he read Vedic Mathematics. He was awestruck by the simplicity of the solutions. Soon he started teaching it to his friends and in time founded the Vedic Maths India Forum.

Today there are several courses being offered in India and across the world. “In India, there are 10-30 focused Vedic maths institutes having 150-300 centres. And there are over 1,000 Vedic math trainers,” says Tekriwal. Kolkata Vedic Math Forum, for example, offers a 40-hour online course for teachers. This includes 40 live ‘one-on-one’ one-hour lessons online as well as basic and advanced concepts and proofs of Vedic mathematics. This course costs up to $297. There is also a 30-hour online course for students, designed for those preparing for competitive exams (GMAT, SAT and CAT) and also for those at primary levels. The fee for this course is $147. Then there are books costing Rs 125-325 and DVDs for Rs 4,500.

As Vedic maths becomes an industry, classes have mushroomed in several bylanes. But not every teacher or trainer truly understands the concepts of Vedic maths, which makes it important to run a background check before zeroing in on a teacher.

With time and research, Vedic maths is evolving. New applications of the sutras have been discovered and the concept is also being applied in information technology. Vedic algorithms have been found to be useful and research papers have been written on them, especially in the field of engineering. For example, Himanshu Thapliyal, a bachelor of technology in computer engineering from GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, has been researching the applications of Vedic maths in information technology and has been awarded a patent in United States for his research on reversible computing at the University of South Florida. Shripad Kulkarni, an engineer in process instrumentation, has also applied Vedic maths in his research.

Many, however, argue that in the time of computers and calculators, Vedic maths is not needed. But then technology cannot be compared with the human brain and has its adverse effects. “The current education system is complex and structured. It involves modern computational systems like calculator and mobile devices which also keep the mind passive,” says Malini Shah, psychologist and co-founder of Aastha Chrysalis Center. “Vedic maths is an unusual way of problem solving. It stimulates interest in learning, gets children involved and keeps their mind active.”

DOES NOT REALLY ADD UP

One view is that Vedic maths should be included in the school curricula. Others say that doing so would be disastrous considering the inherent deficiencies of the approach. They emphasise that Vedic maths is able to assist in rapid calculations only in certain special situations. It does not serve the crucial aspects of clarity of concepts and logical thinking, which are critical in the mathematical training of children.

Teachers sometimes say that even after being taught the devices of Vedic maths and practising them during training, student do not tend to use them outside of the programme. Though teachers blame this on the excessive hold of the conventional system, the real reason, at a psychological level, possibly rests in the fact that the conventional way of doing the computations is dependable and straightforward. The conventional method does not involve recognising the patterns in a problem, which is the very basis of Vedic maths. Besides, contrary to the perception that Vedic maths involves doing calculations creatively, in practice it involves it own rote. One has to have the ability to recognise useful patterns and that might not always be easy.

S G Dani, a professor of mathematics had in his 1993 article, Myths and Reality: On ‘Vedic Mathematics’, argued that Vedic maths is only an assortment of tricks based on simple algebraic principles. To some extent, they serve as memory aids to the practitioners. The main drawback of such methods is that they are very problem specific and depend heavily on identifying special features which may be exploited to attack the problems.

Tekriwal, however, argues that each and every Vedic mathematics formula is proven with the help of algebra. “There is a clear logical base for each formula. The arguments (against Vedic maths) are old and need to be redefined and relooked in the view of the recent developments,” he says.

Not everybody agrees. Sandhya Bajaj who works as an assistant financial planning manager at Bajaj Capital, says, “In financial planning, we keep records of income, expenses and savings of the client where the present value is compounded to the future value, which is not addressed in Vedic maths. Moreover, the data is prepared in excel sheet where formula is automated. One can solve it with the mere click of a mouse.”