Swami Vidyanandaji Mahan Maharaj alias Mahan Mitra is no ordinary monk. He is a stellar mathematician with his work in an important sub-field of geometric topology getting him the coveted Infosys prize worth Rs 65 lakh in mathematics — one of India’s highest monetary awards for scientific achievement.
He was recently appointed as professor of Mathematics at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.
However, what may strike you about Mahan Maharaj is his appearance. He does not look like a regular teacher as he wears saffron clothes that remind him to lead an austere lifestyle. After a few months at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, the 47-year-old became a monk in 1998 by joining the Ramakrishna Mission and received his saffron robe.
Mahan Mj went to St Xavier’s Collegiate School in Kolkata. He then went to IIT Kanpur, initially to major in Electrical Engineering, but switched later to mathematics. He graduated with a Masters degree in 1992 and received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1997.
In 2011, he received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award, India’s topmost national award that recognises scientific contributions made by Indian scientists under the age of 45. The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award carries a cash award of Rs 5 lakh, and the recipients also get Rs 15,000 per month up to the age of 65 years.
The Infosys citation reads:
“Prof. Mahan Mj has had a substantial impact on the fields of geometric group theory, low-dimensional topology and complex geometry. His work in all these fields is characterized by its creativity and clever use of delicate geometric arguments.”
When asked about how he joined the Ramakrishna Mission (RKM) and and how his pursuit of mathematics tied in with his spiritual inclinations, he said that he joined the RKM in the final years of his Phd at Berkeley University when he decided that it was something that he should do. He added that it was a way of life that appealed to him.
Mahan Mj also said that he is inspired by the work of William Paul Thurston, an American mathematician, who was a pioneer in the field of low-dimensional topology.
In an interview with one of India’s top mathematicians, Sujatha Ramadorai, that appeared in an e-publication dealing with mathematicians
, he talked about how he combines his life in a monastic order with that of a scientist/researcher. He said:
“Science and Mathematics as fields of human endeavour are, for me, based on two precepts: 1) It is worthwhile to enquire into the truth of things — abstract or sensory — to ascertain facts that are not dependent on opinion and free from bias. 2) No individual or group of individuals has special right to the benefits of the fruits of such an enquiry. Thus the fruits of scientific discovery should, at least in principle, be available to all.”
Mahan Mj has plans to set up a trust to foster excellence among students and on identifying students with potential and putting them on the right trajectory toward excellence.