Guest post by C.K. RAJU
It was B. R. Ambedkar who first publicised the 22 Mahar names inscribed on the pillar commemorating the battle of Bhima-Koregaon. Ambedkar, a Mahar himself, had experienced great indignities, and everyone appreciates his quest for a symbol of dalit achievement. Much has been written since on Bhima-Koregaon, but one question has not been asked: is there really such a paucity of symbols of dalit achievement?
Not actually. There is no dearth of dalit and ‘lower caste’ achievers. Sages from such backgrounds range from Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, to Tukaram, Kabir, and Sri Narayana Guru. Dalit warriors and kings range from the Nanda dynasty, mere reports of whose mighty army so frightened Alexander’s troops (according to Plutarch), to the Chalukyas (who were dalits according to Bilhan), the Bhils, the Gonds, and to Udham Singh who avenged Jallianwallah Bagh.
However, for Ambedkar’s purpose of annihilation of caste, the key issue was to demolish the prevailing myth of upper caste “superiority” and “merit”. A pacifist message of the oneness of humanity did not quite serve that purpose; nor did military achievements disconnected from the social fabric. Bhima-Koregaon sent a more militant message of how Mahars had prevailed over the Peshwa who despised them, and refused to include them in his army, unlike, say, Shivaji earlier.
While Ambedkar’s view has been widely accepted among dalits, it is contested. When preparations were on to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, the Pune Horse Regiment of the Indian army claimed credit for the victory since it had participated in the battle as part of the British India army. It put up a “roll of honour” naming martyrs from the more recent 1965 and 1971 wars. More recently, the Pune police has put forward the ultra-imaginative claim that the celebration was not about Dalits but was a conspiracy by supposed “Maoists” who were absent! The Indian government is trying to ban the use of the very word Dalit.
In this context, a long neglected symbol of Dalit intellectual and scientific achievement needs to be brought to light: the mathematician Aryabhata of Kusumpura (between Patna and Nalanda). That he was a dalit is clear from the very name bhata. The word bhata means the opposite of the homonymous bhatta. It derives from the root bhat which means “to hire”. According to the Monier Williams dictionary, bhata (with a single t) means “mercenary, servant, slave, demon, a mixed-caste person”. Similar meanings (mercenary, mule for hire, demon, outcaste, mixed-caste) are found in the Apte Sanskrit Hindi dictionary, which also provides sources of actual usage. That is, the common meaning of bhata is a hired servant who is an outcaste, and that shows Aryabhata was a dalit.
The word bhatta means the exact opposite: “master” (swami); it is also the title given to a learned Brahmin, e.g. Kumarila Bhatta. Hence, misspelling Aryabhata as Aryabhatta turns a hired servant into a master, and a dalit into a Brahmin! There is not the slightest doubt that the correct spelling is Aryabhata, as found in all manuscripts, commentaries, critiques etc. of Aryabhatiya. His critic Brahmagupta repeatedly puns on “Acharya bhata”, while even his follower Bhaskara 1 refers in his Mahabhaskariya (2.5) to “the disciples of the bhata”, using only his caste name. However, the NDA-1 government and even the UPA government gave wide currency to the wrong spelling through school texts. After I objected privately and publicly, the spelling was corrected in the NCERT texts, but the Rajasthan school texts have recently reverted to the wrong spelling.
Images of Aryabhata too depict him as a Brahmin. For example, the Wikipedia image comes from a statue of Aryabhata at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Aastrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, which shows him wearing a janeyu (sacred thread). Amusingly, instead of the shikha (tuft of hair) which should accompany it, he is shown with flowing locks proving the artist was a complete ignoramus. But this Brahmanisation of a dalit is given wide currency by Wikipedia on the authority of IUCAA! Recall that Ambedkar asserted in “Who are the Shudras?” [chp. X] that the technique used by the Brahmins to degrade the Shudras was “to refuse to perform the Upanayana [sacred thread ceremony] of the Shudras.” So, the image is misleading and should be removed. But this has not happened though IUCAA authorities were made aware of it long ago.
Aryabhata is famous for his statement (Gola 6-7) that the earth stands supportless in space, and is round like the kadamba flower. Ambedkar’s Navayana emphasized rejection of traditional superstitions, as did Aryabhata’s followers. For example, Lalla wrote on the “rectification of mythical knowledge”. He explained the earth is round because far off trees cannot be seen, no matter how tall. If the earth is supported by a snake or tortoise (or Atlas), he asked, what are they supported by? And, if they can stand supportless why not the same power be attributed to earth? If eclipses are caused by demons (Rahu and Ketu), he asked, why are they predictable and happen only on full moon or the new moon? Therefore, Aryabhata ideally fits Ambedkar’s desire to eradicate superstition.
Aryabhata famously asserted that the apparent diurnal rotation of the stars is an illusion due to the physical rotation of the earth in the opposite direction. This was so novel a thesis in his time that he was vehemently criticised by Varahamihira who said if the earth rotates, clothes on a clothesline would flap, and even if the air near the earth is carried along, at least the falcon which flies high in the sky would be unable to find its way back home. Many of Aryabhata’s disciples, too, did not support him on this point, though today we know he was right.
By far the most impressive of Aryabhata’s achievements was his invention of a numerical method (today called “Euler’s” method) to compute 24 sine differences. This marked the true beginning of the calculus, and is the basis of the present-day decolonised pedagogy of the calculus. Though the Indian calculus is often attributed to the “Kerala school”, those mathematicians such as Madhava and Nilakantha identified themselves as followers of Aryabhata, not as inhabitants of Kerala. Madhava’s 24 sine values are a more accurate version of Aryabhata’s. Nilakantha Somasutvan wrote a commentary on the Aryabhatiya. Interestingly, Somasutvan means a performer of the soma sacrifice, so Nilakantha was a Nambodiri Brahmin of the highest caste. That is, the followers of the low-caste Aryabhata from Patna, from a thousand years later, were the highest caste Brahmins of Kerala. This suggests that Aryabhata might be the ideal dalit symbol to celebrate Ambedkar’s vision of annihilation of caste.
C.K. Raju is the author of Cultural Foundations of Mathematics, and Honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Education.