The invention of zero was a hugely significant mathematical development, one that is fundamental to calculus, which has made physics, engineering and much of modern technology possible.
The invention of the zero was a hugely significant mathematical development, one that is fundamental to calculus, which made physics, engineering and much of modern technology possible. But what was it about Indian culture that gave rise to this creation that’s so important to modern India – and the modern world?
The mathematical zero – ‘shunya’ in Sanskrit – may have arisen from Shunyata, the Buddhist doctrine of emptying one’s mind. Buddhist and Hindu religions that have origin in India embrace the concept of nothingness as part of their teachings. Dr Peter Gobets, secretary of the Netherlands-based ZerOrigI
ndia Foundation, or the Zero Project, which researches the origins of the zero digit, noted in an article on the invention of zero that “Mathematical zero (‘shunya’ in Sanskrit) may have arisen from the contemporaneous philosophy of emptiness or Shunyata [a Buddhist doctrine of emptying one’s mind from impressions and thoughts]”.
In addition, the nation has long had a fascination with sophisticated mathematics. Early Indian mathematicians were obsessed with giant numbers, counting well into the trillions when the Ancient Greeks stopped at about 10,000. They even had different types of infinity.
Mariellen Ward of the BBC writes, the earliest known example of zero written as a digit can be found in the temple inside an 8th century Gwalior Fort in India. Indians, unlike people from many other cultures, were already philosophically open to the concept of nothingness. Systems such as yoga were developed to encourage meditation and the emptying of the mind, while both the Buddhist and Hindu religions embrace the concept of nothingness as part of their teachings.
Although Gwalior has long been thought to be the site of the first occurrence of the zero written as a circle, an ancient Indian scroll called the Bhakshali manuscript, which shows a placeholder dot symbol, was recently carbon dated to the 3rd or 4rd Centuries. It is now considered the earliest recorded occurrence of zero.
Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, is quoted on the university’s website as saying, “[T]he creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics. We now know that it was as early as the 3rd Century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.”
But equally interesting are the reasons as to why the zero wasn’t developed elsewhere. One theory is that some cultures had a negative view of the concept of nothingness. For example, there was a time in the early days of Christianity in Europe when religious leaders banned the use of zero because they felt that, since God is in everything, a symbol that represented nothing must be satanic.
So maybe there is something to these connected ideas, to the spiritual wisdom of India that gave rise to meditation and the invention of zero. There’s another connected idea, too, which has had a profound effect on the modern world.
The concept of zero is essential to a system that’s at the basis of modern computing: binary numbers. The concept of zero is essential to binary numbers, the system at the basis of modern computing. Bengaluru may even overtake Silicon Valley, with predictions suggesting it could become the single largest IT hub on Earth by 2020, with two million IT professionals, six million indirect IT jobs and $80 billion in IT exports. It’s binary numbers that make this possible.
Modern-day digital computers operate on the principle of two possible states, ‘on’ and ‘off’. The ‘on’ state is assigned the value ‘1’, while the ‘off’ state is assigned the value ‘0’. Or, zero.
“It is perhaps not surprising that binary number system was also invented in India, in the 2nd or 3rd Centuries BCE by a musicologist named Pingala, although this use was for prosody,” said Subhash Kak, historian of science and astronomy and Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University. And yet all of this started in India… from nothing.