Mathematical genius Vashishtha Narayan's life is a tale for mental health awareness in India

After his death, his family are demanding a Bharat Ratna award, a central university named after him and a state holiday.


A mathematical genius and a child prodigy, Vashishtha Narayan Singh passed away at the age of 74, this year on 14 November. Singh’s life was no short of a Bollywood movie with all the ups and downs, turns and twists that came along with it. However, it had nothing to do with the subject of mathematics he adored and more to do with his close tryst with mental illness.

He was the eldest of five children, born to police constable Lal Bahadur Singh and Lahaso Devi, in Bihar. He was the only one that completed his education from Netarhat Residential School and moved on to graduate from the Patna Science College. But he did not stop studying and he completed his bachelor's and his masters in mathematics in two years instead of the usual five years. He went to the United States where he received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in Reproducing Kernels and Operators with a Cyclic Vector or the Cycle Vector Space Theory. 

Mathematical genius Vashishtha Narayans life is a tale for mental health awareness in India

Vashishtha Narayan Singh. Image credit: Twitter.

After amassing a number of degrees, Singh’s started working as an assistant professor at the University of Washington. He also worked at NASA, during the Apollo missions in 1969 and it is said that he helped out with the mathematical calculations during the mission. In an article from The Indian Express, Singh’s brother talks about this event and he says “He is the ‘NASA scientist’ who fixed a glitch in the space agency’s computers that had backed up ‘moments before the launch of the Apollo human spaceflight mission”. The computers had malfunctioned for 30-35 seconds and Singh began manually calculating during the time they fixed it. The results produced by Singh and the computers were the same. However, there are no official sources that confirm this story.

There is another story that states that Singh had managed to negate Einstein's theory of relativity but again, there are no sources that can confirm or deny it. 

In 1971, he returned to India where he worked at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, the Indian Statical Institute (ISI), Kolkata and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai but he could never hold down these jobs for long. It is during this time that his mind began to fail and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which is a mental illness that begins at a young age and is usually never resolved. It is can also be accompanied by other mental disorders like anxiety, depression, or substance-use disorders. He would grapple with this mental illness for the next 40 years and his road to mathematical fame was cut short. He would go on to live a life of anonymity until he died this year.  

Mathematician Vashishtha Narayan Singh got off a train going to Pune and was lost for four years. Image credit; Twitter

Mathematician Vashishtha Narayan Singh got off a train going to Pune and was lost for four years. Image credit; Twitter

Now, in death, his family wants him to be remembered and are demanding a Bharat Ratna award, a central university named after him and a state holiday. Whether these demands will be fulfilled, it is yet to be seen. 

Singh is often compared to another Indian, mathematical genius, the Tamil mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Like, Ramanujan, Singh too had no formal training in maths and his talent was discovered in a small town of Bihar. Singh and Ramanujan, both traveled to distant lands (the USA and Britain respectively) where they made a name from themselves. However, unlike Ramanuja, Singh never received the same amount of stardom and fame. He has gone down into the annals of history, not for his mathematical prowess but for the genius that went mad. 

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