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A playful side to twelfth-century mathematics

Sir

As editors of the book Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, reviewed by Asha Gopinathan (Nature 460, 1082; 2009), we would like to elaborate on the background to its title.

Lilavati was a mathematical treatise of the twelfth century, composed by the mathematician and astronomer Bhaskaracharya (1114–85) — also known as Bhaskara II — who was a teacher of repute and author of several other texts. The name Lilavati, which literally means 'playful', is a surprising title for an early scientific book. Some of the mathematical problems posed in the book are in verse form, and are addressed to a girl, the eponymous Lilavati.

However, there is little real evidence concerning Lilavati's historicity. Tradition holds that she was Bhaskaracharya's daughter and that he wrote the treatise to console her after an accident that left her unable to marry. But this could be a later interpolation, as the idea was first mentioned in a Persian commentary. An alternative view has it that Lilavati was married at an inauspicious time and was widowed shortly afterwards.

Other sources have implied that Lilavati was Bhaskaracharya's wife, or even one of his students — raising the possibility that women in parts of the Indian subcontinent could have participated in higher education as early as eight centuries ago.

However, given that Bhaskara was a poet and pedagogue, it is also possible that he chose to address his mathematical problems to a doe-eyed girl simply as a whimsical and charming literary device.

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Ramaswamy, R., Godbole, R. A playful side to twelfth-century mathematics. Nature 461, 1198 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/4611198c

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