To many in In­dia, zero means a lot

The coun­try has long cel­e­brated its con­tri­bu­tion of the digit sig­ni­fy­ing empti­ness or ab­sence. But a team of schol­ars wants to dig deeper to find its ori­gins.

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY RAMA LAKSHMI rama.lakshmi@wash­post.com

new delhi — In­dian stu­dents are taught very early in school that In­dia’s con­tri­bu­tion to the world of math­e­mat­ics is zero.

Way back in the 5th cen­tury, an In­dian math­e­ma­ti­cian used zero in the dec­i­mal-based place-value sys­tem, an achieve­ment that ci­ti­zens here have al­ways cel­e­brated with pride.

Now, a small but am­bi­tious team of In­dian and in­ter­na­tional schol­ars called Project Zero wants to go deeper. In the past year, they have been ask­ing: What made the in­ven­tion of zero pos­si­ble in In­dia?

The ini­tia­tive is a heady cock­tail of aca­demic re­search and cul­tural pride, and it co­in­cides with a new wave of hy­per-pa­tri­o­tism among In­di­ans that has risen since Hindu na­tion­al­ist Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi came to power in 2014. In­di­ans are reclaiming their her­itage, em­brac­ing yoga, pro­mot­ing the an­cient San­skrit lan­guage, buy­ing tra­di­tional herbal prod­ucts and cel­e­brat­ing — at times ex­ag­ger­at­ing — achieve­ments in his­tory.

At a three-day brain­storm­ing event in New Delhi next month called Camp Zero, sev­eral schol­ars will take stock of what is known about the ori­gin of zero and will com­mis­sion re­search to find out what philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tions may have led In­di­ans to come up with the con­cept.

The mis­sion, the group’s web­site says, is an “at­tempt to set­tle once and for all the con­tin­u­ing con­tro­versy in the world as to when, where and why the zero digit was in­vented.”

The project will also boost “the imag­i­na­tion and the im­age of In­dia,” said Robinder Sachdev, pres­i­dent of Imag­in­dia In­sti­tute, a lob­by­ing firm that pro­motes In­dia’s im­age and is sup­port­ing the project here.

The ori­gin of zero has been an en­dur­ing sub­ject of de­bate be­cause other cul­tures, in­clud­ing the Mayans, also claim to have used the zero.

“Find­ing the source of zero is a bit like find­ing the source of the Nile,” said Di­nesh Singh, a math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor at Delhi Univer­sity and a mem­ber of the In­dian So­ci­ety for His­tory of Math­e­mat­ics. He is not associated with Project Zero. “No­body has a clue about ex­actly when and how the zero came into play.”

Schol­ars at Project Zero say the key may lie in early Hindu and Bud­dhist philo­soph­i­cal dis­courses about the con­cept of “empti­ness” and “void,” which be­gan many cen­turies be­fore the math­e­mat­i­cal zero came about.

“Even though zero popped up in dif­fer­ent places in dif­fer­ent forms, In­di­ans are cred­ited to have given zero to the world. But zero did not ap­pear all of a sud­den,” said An­nette van der Hoek, a Dutch scholar of In­dian stud­ies and co­or­di­na­tor of the Zero Project. “We find the cul­tural no­tion of zero-ness or empti­ness in phi­los­o­phy, arts and the ar­chi­tec­ture much ear­lier. We want to trace its steps as far back as we can and look for the bridges be­tween phi­los­o­phy and math­e­mat­ics. What was the philo­soph­i­cal mind-set that pro­vided a fer­tile ground for such an in­ven­tion?”

At Camp Zero, math­e­ma­ti­cians, philoso­phers, as­tro­physi­cists, ar­chae­ol­o­gists and nu­mis­ma­tists will frame re­search ques­tions for PhD schol­ars and ex­am­ine manuscripts, coins, stone tablets and seals. The re­search, they hope, will pro­duce books, in­form school text­books and of­fer opportunities for doc­toral re­search.

The doc­trine of “sun­y­ata,” or “void,” is one of the most pro­found con­tri­bu­tions of phi­los­o­phy from In­dia, said Sun­dar Sarukkai, pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Stud­ies in Ban­ga­lore.

“Its pos­si­ble con­nec­tion to the math­e­mat­i­cal zero is also of great in­ter­est, and hope­fully this kind of work will draw more stu­dents into study­ing and re­search­ing th­ese philo­soph­i­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal tra­di­tions, which iron­i­cally has been ne­glected within In­dia it­self,” Sarukkai said.

Bud­dhist philo­soph­i­cal texts in the 3rd cen­tury have elab­o­rate verses about empti­ness — “sun­y­ata,” in San­skrit.

The an­cient Mayans used an empty tor­toise-like “shell shape” to de­pict zero, but In­dian his­to­ri­ans say that it did not seem to have in­flu­enced global nu­meral sys­tems. Arab mer­chants en­coun­tered the zero in In­dia and car­ried it to the West.

What is widely found in text­books in In­dia is that a math­e­ma­ti­cian and astronomer, Aryab­hata, in the 5th cen­tury used zero as a place­holder and in al­go­rithms for find­ing square roots and cube roots in his San­skrit trea­tises.

Last year, his bronze bust was in­stalled at the UNESCO of­fice in Paris dur­ing a con­fer­ence on zero.

The In­dian ori­gins of zero and the dec­i­mal sys­tem have al­ways been a mat­ter of im­mense na­tional pride, im­mor­tal­ized in a Bol­ly­wood song in 1970 that In­di­ans still sing at pub­lic events.

But ex­perts say that much of the an­cient In­dian tra­di­tional knowl­edge was pri­mar­ily oral, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to date zero’s ori­gin.

“The de­gree of so­phis­ti­ca­tion with which Aryab­hata presents the num­ber of rev­o­lu­tions made by the plan­ets clearly points to the fact that In­di­ans had al­ready evolved by then a work­ing knowl­edge of zero and the place-value sys­tem,” said K. Ra­ma­sub­ra­ma­nian, an ex­pert in an­cient In­dian math­e­mat­ics at the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Mumbai.

Dur­ing a re­cent Project Zero work­shop in New Delhi, he said that an In­dian scholar used the word “sunya,” which is San­skrit for zero, while enun­ci­at­ing an al­go­rithm in a text dat­ing to the 1st cen­tury B.C.

But an an­swer to the ba­sic ques­tion may take a while.

“It is go­ing to be a painstak­ing task that will re­quire a lot of money. Our an­cient manuscripts are scat­tered all over; some may even be abroad,” Singh said. “They will have to make a con­certed ef­fort to de­ci­pher, date and se­quence the manuscripts. But I doubt they will come out with any­thing de­fin­i­tive.”

“Find­ing the source of zero is a bit like find­ing the source of the Nile.” Di­nesh Singh, a math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor at Delhi Univer­sity and a mem­ber of the In­dian So­ci­ety for His­tory of Math­e­mat­ics

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