More Proof that In­dia Was the Hero of Zero

The Economic Times - - Breaking Ideas -

Mak­ing much ado about noth­ing may not seem a very prof­itable ex­er­cise. But ze­ro­ing in on an im­por­tant clue to a his­tor­i­cal mys­tery is any­thing but a zero-sum game, as In­dia’s gain by the re­cent car­bon dat­ing of the Bakhshali manuscripts by Ox­ford Univer­sity to the 3rd cen­tury CE will not be any­one’s loss. In any case, many ex­perts have long averred that an­cient civil­i­sa­tions as ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­tant as the Baby­lo­ni­ans and Mayans had in­de­pen­dently con­ceived of a non­nu­meral “place­holder” for their cal­cu­la­tions, though it was an In­dian math­e­ma­ti­cian, Brah­magupta, who fi­nally gave this non-en­tity, so to speak, its cur­rent or­bic­u­lar de­pic­tion in the 7th cen­tury CE. Now it seems other In­di­ans a few cen­turies be­fore Brah­magupta not only had an idea of the no­tion of zero, they in­cluded it as dis­cernible dots in handy math­e­mat­i­cal ready-reck­on­ers such as the Bakhshali birch bark cache, in verse that too. Whether this cul­mi­nated in the zero as we know it as a re­sult of the an­cient Hindu con­tem­pla­tion of the void or shun­y­ata — as many ex­perts con­tend af­ter study­ing other texts — will al­ways be a mat­ter of re­search if not de­bate. But a re­vival of the an­cient In­dian prac­tice of ex­plain­ing math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts in verse could cer­tainly prove to be a worth­while way to make the sub­ject more in­ter­est­ing to cur­rent stu­dents.

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