By Robinder Sachdev and Annette van der Hoek, Ph D
Zero, the Jewel in the Crown of India.
“Anyway, we find that the concept of Śūnya or zero provoked ideas which engulfed almost all fields of human endeavour. It played a significant role in arts, sciences and other fields not only in India but in the whole world. The story of the spread and triumph of the Indian decimal place-value system with zero is indeed marvellous because it revolutionised the scientific development all over the globe. It was also a cultural victory for India brought not by sword but by merit of the case.” — R.C. Gupta, Technology of using Śūnya in India, The Concept of Śūnya, 2003
How does one go about finding the origin of zero in India? Does one take a shovel and start digging? The subcontinent is huge place and what could one expect to find anyway? Does one go the libraries or archives and start digging? India has meanwhile accumulated over five million ancient manuscripts on all manner of subjects. It would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
The most sensible approach, according to the ZerOrigIndia Foundation’s working hypothesis, is to look for the bridge been ancient Indian philosophy and mathematics. Why? The reasoning goes that since many other ancient civilizations across the globe performed advanced mathematics and astronomy for thousands of years without never invented zero as a number, there must have been a very unique distinguishing aspect of Indic civilization that prompted the invention of zero.
An obvious lead to follow then is the dead give-away that in the exact period when the mathematical zero – or ‘shunya’ in Sanskrit – first appeared in India, the Philosophy of Emptiness of Shunyata prevailed somewhere between 200 BCE – 400 CE. Thisneat convergence seemed too good to overlook, though admittedly does not constitute proof in the scientific sense. A tangible link would need to be established between Shunyata and shunya to be convincing.
Exhibit A in the re-discovery of Zero
Exhibit A, so to speak, surfaced fairly soon when a reference was found in an article written by one of the most respected scholars of the Philosophy of Emptiness or Shunyata, the late-David Seyfourt Ruegg, who had also explored whether the opposite notion may have been true, namely that Shunyata may have been inspired by a mathematical model at the time, rather than the other way around. After extensive study of the subject, Ruegg concluded that this was not the case. No such reference to mathematics is found in the basic texts.
What Ruegg turned up, however, was a reference to a Japanese logician named N. Nakamura, who had also studied a basic text of Shunyata, the so-called Catuskoti, and found that it was tantamount to the definition of the so-called ‘null class’, or zero, in modern set theory. As such Nakamura had established, in theory at least, the very bridge between ancient Indian philosophy and mathematics required.
Re-discovering the journey of Zero
All that remains now is to find the evidence. It a manner of speaking that compass, as it were, will serve as the shovel to dig for zero, search manuscripts, scrutinize other artifacts or cultural assets, in quest of zero’s origin in India.
This crucial philosophical link would also seem to explain why zero was invented in India and not earlier or elsewhere in the world, given that a sophisticated concept of ‘emptiness’was apparently required; a concept that in India’s venerable Vedic tradition can be clearly traced over a period of 2000 years from the Vedas (c. 1500 BCE), through the Upanishads (c.500 BCE), to the innovation of the zero digit in mathematics (c.500 CE).
By contrast the concept of emptiness in the West was dogmatically discounted first by the ancient Greeks, who reasoned that Nothing cannot be Something, a form of Platonic dogma later adopted by mainstream European society. In effect it hamstrung developments in mathematics and science for centuries and accounted to some extent for the Dark Ages.
In India the concept of sunya/purna (emptiness/fullness) was embraced and cultivated with rich cultural rewards across a host of disciplines from religion, to philosophy, to literature, grammar, prosody, visual arts, music, dance and even architecture. Not surprisingly then when zero first entered medieval Europe from India via the Islamic world, it was not welcomed but shunned at first.
It is owing only to its astounding utility in science and trade did zero, the Jewel in the Crown of India, eventually become accepted. The rest is history.
The ZerOrigIndia Foundation is leading the first global campaign in modern history to re-discover the origins and invention of zero, and to throw light on how philosophy can give birth to invention, pure and applied sciences, technology, and directly impact the human condition. The Foundation welcomes inter-disciplinary scholars, academics, and various stakeholders and partner organizations, who may be passionate to associate or support in this journey to confirm the origins of zero and to deeper understand the philosophy of emptiness and life!
Robinder Sachdev, President of Imagindia Institute, is a Trustee of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, The Hague; and, Annette va der Hoek, PhD, an Indologist, is a Research Coordinator of ZerOrigIndia Foundation, The Hague.