Of spirituality and mathematics
Master mathematician Prof. V. Kannan of Hyderabad Central University believes in living a simple, spiritual and controlled life with the correct blend of penance and pleasure.
ADDING UP: Prof. V. Kannan
WHAT DO you call a man who refuses to conform and follows his own conviction? Mark him as a rebel or admire him for being a revolutionary, but Prof. V. Kannan, reputed mathematician from the University of Hyderabad, is all this and more.
Always dressed in spotless white dhoti and shirt, Prof. Kannan smears sandalwood paste across his forehead and sports a kudumi. He dwells in the midst of a post-modern university campus where denim, coke, burger and DJ define life. This master mathematician is truly a nonconformist!
Born in Navalpakkam, a tiny village in Tamil Nadu, Prof. V. Kannan decided to lead a "simple, spiritual and controlled life with the right blend of penance and pleasure in proper proportions" at a time when atheism is a fashionable prejudice.
"I was deeply influenced by the traditional value system in my small village. They adhered to the maximum discipline allowed by the environment.It was there that I decided to follow the footsteps of my forefathers," recollects Prof. Kannan.
He has mastered the Yajur Veda and prays three times a day. He never eats out and does not even drink water from anywhere except from the well in his residence. Incidentally, he is the only faculty in the university campus to have a well at his house.
Trials and tribulations manifested themselves in many forms to divert Prof. V. Kannan from his solitary sojourn. "Dining practices are difficult to adhere to consistently when one has to travel a lot. It requires extreme discipline," says Prof. Kannan, who served for a year (1992-93) as the president of the Indian Mathematical Society (IMS). He received many offers to go abroad but accepted none as he was against crossing the sea.
He, however, had research collaborations with many foreigners and his research papers have appeared in international journals published in the USA, Canada and Germany. Prof. V. Kannan was honoured as the Fellow of the Indian Academy of Science (F.A.Sc) and is the only mathematician in Andhra Pradesh to be recognised as a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (FNA).
But how does this great nonconformist mathematician negotiate with his campus community? The Hyderabad Central University (HCU) is known for its liberal outlook. HCU has witnessed many liberal movements including gay activism, progressive women's liberation, and the strongest dalit student's movement in the entire country. The professor is comfortable in the environment.
"The modern society is very accommodative. It tolerates and even appreciates opposite viewpoints. The movements among the weaker sections are necessary for their uplift. The real negotiation between modernity and tradition is on the weight given to values. While modernity tries to maximise comfort without compromising on virtue, tradition tries to maximise virtue without compromising on comfort," pronounces the Vedic philosopher.
Kannan does not keep images of Gods or Goddesses in his office room as he considers it a public space where his students should feel "comfortable".
It is difficult to hold on to traditional beliefs at a place where rationalisation is the hallmark. Kannan, however, dismisses the apparent conflict between faith and reason. "Faith is an integral element of every realm of our life. Even mathematics has axioms, which you have to assume, to deduce the theorem. Similarly, life becomes more orderly when one accepts the axioms of tradition," says the professor. It is those axioms of tradition that makes Kannan a different person.
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