Bangalore: These days three 12-year-olds—Pawan Kalyan, Afroz Pasha and Spoorthi Pradhatha—have just one goal: To set the world record for oral multiplication.
The three schoolmates have been learning Vedic mathematics—a system that allows for speedy calculations—in a private institute in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, the past two years under K. Raji Reddy.
They rise at dawn every day to practise these methods for an hour—30 minutes of sums on worksheets and the rest on oral quizzes—before heading to school.
Says Kalyan as he readies to perform a video recording for the Guinness Book of World Records in August, “I’m a little nervous but I want to set the record.”
Currently, a Spaniard, Alberto Coto Garcia, holds the world record in oral multiplication for doing 10 tasks of eight-digit by eight-digit multiplication in eight minutes and 25 seconds.
Kalyan hopes to pip it with 13-digit by 13-digit multiplication in under 10 minutes.
To be sure, while Vedic mathematics has little likelihood of being part of regular school curriculum, it does lend itself to displays of prowess in mental calculations.
The world’s first oral calculation contest, set to be held in New Delhi in November, has already attracted 100,000 entries. Magical Methods Foundation, the organizer, which also runs an eponymous Vedic mathematics training institute at centres across the country, expects at least one million participants as entries pour in from India and some 20 countries, including Nepal, the UK and Singapore.
Later this month, Chennai-based Ideal Play Abacus India Pvt. Ltd is set to hold a national-level Vedic speed arithmetic contest. Contests such as these are multiplying as Vedic mathematics gains coinage among school children and parents.
Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha (1884-1960) coined the term in his book, Vedic Mathematics, which claimed its roots in the Atharva Veda, the fourth of the Vedas, an ancient Hindu text dating back to the end of the second millennium BC.
The concept lay dormant for decades but has gained momentum in recent years. It also makes for good business.
Kolkata-based Vedic Maths Forum Pvt. Ltd, which set up shop almost a decade ago with 30-40 students a year, aims to train as many as 20,000 students in 2009.
New Delhi-based Magical Methods Training Pvt. Ltd, with 12,000 students in 80 centres, clocked a turnover of Rs25 crore and net profit of at least Rs1 crore for the year ended March.
Ideal Play Abacus, which trains 60,000 students across 700 centres in Vedic and abacus mathematics—based on a Chinese model that used the abacus counting device—had a turnover of at least Rs6 crore in 2008-09 and aims at Rs8 crore in the current fiscal.
“When we started in 2003, we never expected this kind of response,” says Shaarada K. Sriram, founder of Ideal Play Abacus.
Reddy, the founder and chief executive of the Warangal-based Enlighten Foundation, which trains students in both abacus and Vedic mathematics, started with three students—who now intend to establish a world record—in June 2007. The school now has 1,200 students and hopes to break even in six months.
The technique has its share of critics, who say vedic mathematics is just a series of short cuts without any explanations.
Sujatha Ramadorai, a mathematician at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and a member of the National Knowledge Commission, says: “Somebody needs to document and prove its success rate and, more importantly, if it is replicable, before it can be introduced in schools.”