Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Astromoner Ahead Of His Time

--The First Recipient of the title ‘ MAHAMAHOPADHYAYA’.

During the reign of the Britishers in India, the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British throne were celebrated on a grand scale in the year 1887 A.D. and the occasion was marked by several commemorative events. One such event was the recognition of oriental scholars in the country who had distinguished themselves in the promotion of oriental culture by writing outstanding works either in Sanskrit or in Urdu. They were chosen by a committee of expert scholars constituted by the Government of India. Such scholars were honoured by the Viceroy of India by the award of the title ‘Mahamahopadhyaya’ [Greatest among great teachers]. This honour was first instituted by the Governor General and Viceroy Lord Dufferin [1864-1888]. The institution of the award was also published by the Calcutta Gazette in its issue dated 23rd February 1887.

The person who was selected for the award was identified by the depth of his scholarship, his works of outstanding merit, his overwhelming popularity among the fellow scholars and his recognition in learned circles. The conferring of the title ‘Mahamahopadhyaya’ was followed by the presentation of a golden bordered shawl by the Viceroy, an annual pension of Rs.100 per month with a Sanad [certificate] from the Viceroy. Sri Bapudeva Shastry had the distinction and rare honour of having been the first recipient of such a coveted honour.

Bapudeva Shastry, named Narasimha Deva at the time of his birth, was born on 1st November 1821 as the eldest son of one Sitarama and his wife Satyabhama. They were a pious and devoted couple hailing from an orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin family. They were residents of a place known as Tonke on the banks of river Godavari in Ahmednagar. From his own account in his commentary on ‘Leelavathi’ of Bhaskaracharya, we learn that his parents had no issue for a long time and he was born due to the blessings of Lord Narasimha whom his mother worshipped patiently by observing periodic Upavasams [Fast] for several years. To have the Lord’s name always on their lips, he observes, he was named Narasimha Deva.

Commencing his elementary education in a Marathi school at Nagpur, Bapudeva started learning Sanskrit, Hindi, Mathematics and other subjects. He had remarkable talent even from his younger days
to pick up any subject thoroughly. In course of time, he developed a particular liking for Mathematics, especially Astronomy. He made a special study of Bhaskaracharya’s ‘Leelavathhi’ [a Masterly Treatise in Mathematics] and ‘Siddhantha Siromani’ under the then famous Dundiraja, a Kanyakubja Brahmin scholar. Between 1830 and 1850 some important contributions to the study of ancient Indian Astronomy were made in India by some Western scholars, specialized in Mathematics. One such scholar was Prof. Lancelot Wilkinson who came to India as the Political Agent of the British Government and posted at Sihore in Madhya Pradesh. Bapudeva once came into contact with Prof.Wilkinson who was deeply impressed by the proficiency and knowledge of Vasudeva in Sanskrit and Mathematics. He got Bapudeva admitted to a College at Sihore for further studies. Here Bapudeva studied Geometry, Mathematics under reputed scholars and when Bapudeva reached 21 tears Wilkinson recommended his name and made him a faculty member in the same college. During his stay in the college, Bapudeva developed a sound knowledge of Hindu Astronomy.

In course of time, Wilkinson and Bapudeva came closer and Wilkinson’s appreciation and admiration of Bapudeva’s knowledge of Hindu Astronomy increased day by day. Bapudeva helped Wilkinson in translating the Sanskrit text ‘Siddhanta Shiromani’ of Bhaskaracharya into English. When Wilkinson was in India several Astronomers and Mathematicians from abroad were also in India for their research studies. Pioneering studies were undertaken by them which included eminent Mathematicians of the West like Le Gentil, Bailey, Davis, Jones, Colebrook etc. They got themselves acquainted with the contribution of ancient Hindus to the science of Astronomy and acknowledged unanimously that the ‘Surya Siddhantha’ as The Astronomical work par excellence. The Surya Siddhanta is an ancient System of Hindu Astronomy. It was taught by the Sun God [Surya] to Maya, the Architect of the Asuras at the end of the Kruta Yuga. The work that is now available as ‘Surya Siddhanta’ is attributed to the great 6th century Astronomer Varahamihira.

The depth of scholarship of Bapudeva Shastri can be gauged by his various other works. These include one on Geometry, One on Trigonometry and one on the Sayana System and teachings of the ancient astronomers. All these works, both big and small; were written by him in Sanskrit. In addition to these works, a few more stand to his credit. These are 1. Twenty Verses in Sanskrit to explain the fundamentals of Calculus 2. Notes on Spherical Trigonometry 3. Notes on Siddhanta works.

The British Government recognized the merit of Bapudeva Shastri and he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1864. He was also made an Honorary Member the Asiatic Society, Bengal in 1868. In 1869 the Calcutta University honored him with a Fellowship and later, the Allahabad University honored him with another Fellowship. In 1878 he was conferred the honour of C.I.E by the British Government. However, the crowning glory of his scholarly activities was reached when he was awarded the title ‘Mahamahopadhyaya’ by the British Government in 1887, the very first Indian to receive such an award.. When once Bapudeva correctly worked out a lunar eclipse basing his calculations on the Tables of Ephemeris of the West, the then ruler of Jammu, Maharaja Tanvir Singh, awarded him a cash prize of Rs. 1,000

Bapudeva Shastry, s great Sanskrit scholar, stood as a stalwart of Hindu Astronomy, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus. He passed away in 1891 at the age of 70 years


Article No. 549--Astronomer Sri Bapudeva Shastry
Created: Friday, January 15, 2010 8:22 PM


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