Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. He was the second Indian to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. Ramanujan was an untutored genius who produced mathematics of extraordinary quality. He made substantial contributions to the analytical theory of numbers, elliptic functions, continued fractions, and infinite series. He left behind 4000 original theorems in notebooks full of mathematical musings that experts are still deciphering today. For his natural mathematical genius, he has been compared with great scientists like Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Karl Gustav Jacobi.
As a young boy, Ramanujan delved in mathematics far beyond his age. By the age of 12, he had mastered Loney’s trigonometry. At 15, he came across G.S. Carr’s book on pure mathematics “A Synopsis of Elementary Results” that stimulated this young prodigy to venture into further realms. As he was exclusively devoted to mathematics, he failed in a few general exams at college. Despite the academic failures, unemployment, poverty, and penury, his urge for the pursuit of mathematics was irrepressible. He would often be seen hiding under the cot, doing mathematics on his slate. This was to avoid being noticed by his father who was unhappy with his lack of financial assistance to the family. For want of plain paper, he would pick up pieces of discarded newspapers or packing paper to write his mathematical notes.
His passage to fame was facilitated by Dewan Bahadur Ramachandra Rao (Collector of Nellore), V. Ramaswamy Iyer (Founder of Indian Mathematical Society), R. Narayana Iyer (Treasurer of IMS and Manager, Madras Port Trust), and several others. In 1913, Ramanujan joined the University of Madras as a research scholar. However, the turning point of his life was when Ramanujan wrote the historic letter with 120 theorems and formulas to G H Hardy, then Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Hardy marveled at the extraordinarily ingenious mathematical results and invited Ramanujan to Cambridge. During his five years in Cambridge, Ramanujan published 21 research papers. He was awarded the B.A. degree in March 1916 for his work on highly composite numbers. In October 1918, Ramanujan was elected a Fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge. He was the first Indian to be so elected. When Hardy was asked what his greatest contribution to mathematics was, he unhesitatingly said, “the discovery of Ramanujan”.
Ramanujan is recognized worldwide as an astonishing self-made mathematician. What sets him apart is his creativity—his ability to conjure never-before-imagined mathematical formulas. Did Ramanujan have any special secret? Any special method? Ramanujan would see all his discoveries as gracious gifts from Goddess Sri Laksmi Namagiri. Hailing from a pious Brahmin family, Ramanujan was trained in the vaishnava tradition and was deeply devoted to Lord Narasimha (the man-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and Sri Laksmi Namagiri. He claimed that his family goddess Namagiri sent him visions in which mathematical formulas would unfold before his eyes so that he could set these down on paper on waking up. This pattern repeated itself over the years.
Throughout his life, Ramanujan maintained the direction and intensity of his religious and philosophical interests along with his love for mathematics. In the company of his friends and well-wishers, he would often recite passages from the Vedas, explaining the meanings in a lucid manner, or would involve in intellectual discussions about various Vedic schools of philosophy. He could also talk for hours about the intimate relationships between God, zero, and infinity. His profound faith in God and his deep admiration for mathematics are inseparable. “An equation for me,” Ramanujan said, “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”