I have just completed The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel (Washington Square Press, 1991). It is the biography of the mathematical genius from India, Ramanujan, who came from unknown quarters in India to the halls of Cambridge – and turned the mathematical world on its ear. He died at a very young age, having returned to India with broken health. But his legacy lives on in mathematical circles today.
Imagine a self-taught 19th century genius who came to conclusions by way of alternate knowing, not utilizing traditional proofs of the day. He simply “saw” the answer – its form and solution – and found novel ways to get there.
Much of this was informed by his pious Hinduism which led him to say “An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses a thought of God.” As he continued to meditate on absolute reality and infinity he did so by use of the number zero. Every being is a product of zero plus infinity. So finitude and infinity are joined together. God, zero and infinity became a key by which he unlocked mathematical mysteries. Many would say metaphysical mysteries as well.
As I read the way that he understood and incorporated zero – the nothingness that is everything – I realized how very much this was influenced by the thought and legacy of the East. In my earlier work addressing the same symbolic universe (The Square Root of God: Mathematical Metaphors and Spiritual Tangents) I appealed to what was, I believe, the Western form of that in both theology and philosophy – the Number 1. When you join together the symbol 1 (it connotes the singularity and unity of the primary and indivisible nature of God) with infinity – 1 participates with every infinite series of numbers and combination of 1 and infinity. And so in my book the square root of 1/infinity is 1/infinity, or the square root of God is always in every case the unified and infinite God.
Ramanujan did the same thing from the East. If he would have stated it, I believe, it would have been the square root of zero/infinity.
That for me clarified one of the primary distinctions between East and West and its understanding of ultimate reality, that the one begins with zero and the other with 1. The East begins with nothingness and the West with somethingness. Are they, finally, the same? Would the difference describe a difference in our understanding of the universe? Of meditation and prayer? The way we go about talking about God?
Thank you Ramanujan! The square root of 1 or zero, the square root of God or Nirvana, is always what it is!