Down to Earth
The debate over the origins of zero is not yet over
WITH THE bjp winning most of the states in the assembly elections, these are heydays for Hindu cultural revivalists. The air is thick with fabulous claims—ancient Indians flew planes and were accomplished plastic surgeons! But some aspects of Indian history might deserve a serious and honest rethink, for example, the history of science and mathematics. Last year, a team of Indian and international scholars launched Project Zero, which, to quote from the project’s website, 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”.
But isn’t it a given that the Indians invented the zero? Our history books have always informed us so, which was even reinforced many times over through media and films. Manoj Kumar, the master projector of saccharine patriotism on celluloid, immortalised India’s intellectual stamp on zero in one of his famous songs glorifying Bharat.
In fact, many scholars believe that the modern number system, and not just the enigmatic zero, originated in India. Europe had been using the Roman number system which clearly lacked zero for centuries. But with the publication of Liber Abaci (book of the abacus) by the 13th century Italian mathematician Fibonacci (of the famous Fibonacci series), in which he described the HinduArabic system of numbers, Europe quickly switched over to the new notation. Evidently, it was a much superior system as it allowed not only a precise and efficient representation of numbers, but also a much simpler way of doing complicated maths.
While Fibonacci called the nine digits—from 1 to 9— Indian numbers, he referred to zero as zephirum, which has its roots in the Arabic word for zero, sifr. However, he didn’t furnish any proof of his assertions. Curiously enough, even after 800 years there is no clinching documentary proof that Indians invented the zero, or for that matter the modern numerical notation. This perhaps explains the reason behind Project Zero. The earliest written zero in India is on a temple wall in Gwalior. It has been dated to about 876 AD, a period when the Arabs were trading actively with both the east and the west. Sceptics have argued that as there is no recorded evidence of zero, before say the 5th century AD, it’s quite possible that zero may have come to India from the Greeks via the Arabs. In fact, in his 2000 book The Nothing That Is, the Harvard mathematician Robert Kaplan goes to great lengths analysing ancient Indian mathematical texts to suggest that zero is a Greek import. On the other hand, French historian Georges Ifrah in his widely influential From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers argues that Indians may have been the first to think up zero in its modern form.
At the same time, there is another potential candidate that might go against India’s favour. It is a mathematical document called the Bakhshali manuscript. Discovered in 1881 near the village Bakhshali, not too far from Peshawar in Pakistan, it is written on birch-bark so fragile that it is forbidden to even touch it, let alone carbon-date it. On display in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the manuscript is rich in mathematical scribbles. But, most notably, it uses a notation for zero. Scholars believe this manuscript could be dated anywhere between 200 BC and 1100 AD. Until it is chronicled, researchers have no choice but to look for alternative evidence.
It’s quite likely that the search for a written proof of zero’s Indian origins may turn out to be a wild goose chase, as attested by the Israeli-American mathematician Amir Aczel’s inconclusive explorations described his 2015 book Finding Zero. Scholars may have to resort to philosophical decipherments, such as the suggestion that the ideas of void (sunyata) and infinity may have led Indians to conjure up zero. Or as Oswald Spengler wrote in his The Decline of the West, zero was “that refined creation of a wonderful abstractive power which for the Indian soul… was nothing more or less than the key to the meaning of existence”. This might be music to the ears of Hindu nationalists, but clearly not enough to persuade the sceptics. The academic debate over zero’s origins is not going to end in a hurry.