Power of Shunya- PAVITHRA SRINIVASAN
The concept of zero (0) originated in India. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kuma
Ever been yelled at for the “zero” on your test paper? Take a look at how the indispensable zero came to be, and the important role it plays in Mathematics.
Day 23, Month of Chaithra (March–April), AD 824, present day Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh
Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa al–Khwarizmi clambered down from his horse with some difficulty, and mopped his streaming forehead. Perhaps it had been wrong to travel into the Hind during the scorching months of summer — but ah, no; the monsoon months would be much worse. Certainly, the bright sun made it easy for him to take in the city, and this simple fort better. It was beautiful, he thought. Serene, surrounded by hills.
He arranged his robes — once pristine, now covered with grime — and waited. In the normal way, this visit would have been filled with ceremony: the ruler of his own land, the most illustrious Caliph Al’ Mamun would have ensured that the most eminent scholar of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad did not travel without having first entered into months of communication with his Indian counterpart; a great many days would have been spent in talk, sending missives back-and-forth, and that was the last thing Al–Khwarizmi wanted. Once he had his information, he’d simply embarked on his journey without the trappings of formality. No man would have sat around in a city, waiting for official permission to witness a miracle. To see what was, to a mathematician such as him, the greatest treasure in the world.
Just as he was hopping, with impatience, a man rushed towards him, clothes flapping in the hot winds. His host apologised profusely; he hadn’t thought the Persian mathematician would arrive quite so soon; his guru, his teacher, was waiting in a grove right beside the stone–carver’s home. If the eminent scholar wouldn’t mind …?
Al–Khwarizmi hadn’t the slightest objection, although he did wonder why the man he had come all these miles to see, might be loitering in a stone-carver’s home. They made their way to the fort entrance and entered the city through a small door set within a larger one. Inside, they traversed large streets and small, thronging with people.
“Legend has it that this city was created by a grateful king in honour of a sage who cured him of a grave disease,” informed his guide. “And here we are.”
They were in front of a small copse of trees. Even as the Persian was wondering what was next, a man walked out of the copse, unhurried, his calm face wreathed in a welcoming smile. Like most Indians, he wore a dhoti in intricate folds, while a white cloth draped his upper body. “I am Anirudh; my forefathers were the disciple of Brahmagupta.”
“The great Indian mathematician and astronomer,” put in Al–Khwarizmi. “The author of theBrahmasputha Siddhantha. What a pity that I was not born during his times.”
Anirudh nodded and smiled, accepting the compliment. “If you will come with me?”
They were walking through the trees, the heat of the day was fast decreasing. There were several huts here, and stone–workers carving, chiselling out beautiful sculptures, working on pillars and other adornments.
“Numbers,” Al–Khwarizmi began. “They’ve always fascinated me. I have studied every method and system available: the Babylonians, with their strange cuneiform numbers; the Egyptians with their bizarre symbols.”
“Greek and Roman numbers are just as peculiar,” put in Anirudh. “All those stick–things … and don’t they have separate letters for successively higher numbers?”
“Most civilisations follow that method, I assume,” said Al–Khwarizmi. “No one quite understands the value of an individual number, or the value of their placement, to arrive at a coherent sum. All over the world, different civilisations scramble all over each other to come up with the perfect number system — but most of all, something to denote nothing.”
“ ‘Nothing’?” Anirudh was smiling.
“Precisely. We’ve had the concept of a ‘void’ — something that’s used just to indicate the difference between values … but no one has been able to actually discover a symbol that might serve well. How, for instance, do you distinguish between a ten, a hundred, or a thousand? You need something to fill up the space, don’t you?”
“Which is why we have … this. This is an inscription about to be installed in the Chathurbhuj Temple — and it might be of some interest to you.”
They were standing under a tree, looking at a large stone block. A carver had just finished chiselling, and was blowing out the dust, revealing the carved words underneath. Al–Khwarizmi, who possessed a working knowledge of the languages of India, read out the words.
“The whole town gave to the temple, which Alla, the son of Vaillabhatta, had caused to be built, a piece of land …” he paused, eyes wide. “270 hastas in length …” There it was, as clear as could be — a small circle by the side of 2 and 7. This, then, represented the null value that ironically gave more value to the whole. In one stroke, this little circle helped you understand the difference between a bare twenty–seven, and two hundred and seventy.
“Truly, the Indians possess genius,” he murmured. “Most civilisations have struggled to distinguish between different values and place systems. Yet, you’ve understood it for centuries.”
“Knowledge gains value only when shared,” explained Anirudh. “Which is why we are glad that you are here. Hopefully, you will take the concept of shunya and spread it through the world.”
Al–Khwarizmi certainly hoped to. Shunya. Safira, or emptiness. Who knew? It may even travel across countries and continents, and become known something as bizarre as … zero.
The concept of zero (0) originated in India, and was in use long before the eighth century. From here the idea travelled to the Islamic nations and later, other civilisations, through Al–Khwarizmi. Algebra is named after him. Today, the numbers used all over the world are from the Hindu-Arabic number system. The Chathurbhuj Temple exists inside the Gwalior Fort; the oldest surviving inscription depicting ‘0’ exists within even today.