“Nirvana by Numbers” – by Alex Bellos

“The number 270 from a ninth century inscription in Gwalior, India: evidence that Arabic numerals are actually Indian in origin.” Photograph: Alex Bellos Source: The Guardian

Alex Bellos asks in this editorial for the Guardian, “What role did Eastern religions play in the foundation of our modern number system?

He writes:

What has India given to the world?

Nothing.

The mathematical concept of zero emerged in India about one and a half thousand years ago, and this summer I travelled there to visit a temple where the oldest known zero symbols are written on an inside wall.

Bellos visited a city 5 hours from New Delhi to look upon an ancient rendering of the number zero, which is inscribed on a plaque, dated around 875 A.D..  He continues:

The inscription contains two instances of the symbol zero: in the number ‘270’, referring to a piece of land of size 270 x 187 hastas, where hasta is a unit of length, and in the number “50”, referring to a daily gift of 50 garlands of flowers.

You will definitely recognize the zero – it is a circle, just like the symbol we use today.

In fact, the 2 and the 7 are also similar to our modern ‘Arabic’ numerals. The Gwalior inscription is documentary evidence that Arabic numerals actually originated in India.

The author contends that, “The Indian number system was adopted all over the world because it was superior to all other systems, and this is because of two main reasons: “place value”, and zero.”

Babylon and China also had “place value” number systems, Bellos states:

But India revolutionized numbers by adding the second piece of the jigsaw: the number zero.

Place value systems require a strategy to describe the case when there is nothing in a position. The Babylonians used a marker to represent nothing; the Chinese used a space to represent nothing.

Only the Indians introduced a symbol, 0, and treated it as if it was a normal digit just like all the others from 1 to 9. Invention of the number zero was possibly the greatest conceptual leap in the history ofmathematics.

But why did the Indians make this leap and not China or Babylon?

My trip to India, for a BBC radio documentary, was to investigate why this was the case.

India made another contribution to world culture as well as zero: the idea of nirvana, the transcendent state of “nothingness”, when you are liberated from suffering and desires.

In fact, the word used in philosophical texts to mean nothing, or the void, is “shunya”, the same word later used to mean zero.

For George Gheverghese Joseph, a maths historian at the University of Manchester, the invention of zero happened when an unknown Indian mathematician about two thousand years realized that “this philosophical and cultural concept would also be useful in a mathematical sense.”

To read Bellos article and listen to his BBC radio report, “Nirvana by Numbers,” click here.

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