When India gave the world the priceless gift of nothing!

75th Independence Day feature

  • The number zero, was developed in India in the 5th century C.E.
  • Recent carbon dating evidence suggests the dot as a zero,   could   have come into use in an Indian manuscript even 2 centuries or more earlier
  • Via Cambodia, China and Arabia,  zero  finally  reached western Europe in the 12th century
  • Researchers hail the Indian invention as “one of the greatest inventions in human history (and) a cornerstone of modern maths and physics”

( This article has appeared in Swarajya magazine online)
Anand Parthasarathy
August 16 2022: Today as India celebrates Independence Day,  its people  look back at the  achievements of the last 75 years. When indulging in a combo of nostalgia and justifiable pride,  we just might overlook  one thing: this is in ancient land – where the last 75 years represent just a blip in a historical timeline that goes  back many multiples of that number. Ten times or 750 years for starters? 
That takes us to the 12th century CE.  The Italian mathematician,  Fibonacci aka Leonardo of Pisa,  having just visited  Arabia,  excitedly spread the idea of a system of counting that included a symbol for nothingness. The Arabs used a symbol they had in turn picked up during their travels to the Indian subcontinent—a little circle they called  sifr ( later anglicized as cipher), adapting the name from the sanskrit word shunya which was how it was known in India where the mathematics of   Brahmagupta seamlessly merged with  the Vedic philosophical  concept of  emptiness or shunyata.
The   Church opposed the concept of  nothingness even in as mundane a sphere as commerce,  seeing in it a challenge to the existence of God  -- and the Italian government  dutifully  banned the use of “sifr”. But Italian merchants embraced the new math symbol as it brought startling simplicity to counting – and  they used it  in secret…which is why another meaning of cipher  is a ‘secret code’.
Sensible mathematicians like Liebniz in Germany and Sir Isaac Newton in England, embraced the new number – and there was no going back. But  it was to be  another 4 centuries, 1598 to be exact, before  an English  word for this new  arithmetical wonder came into parlance: zero.
Claims for Cambodia
The ‘ownership’ of zero has been largely conceded to Indian brains -- but not without  blips in academic circles. Just two weeks ago, Scientific American  carried an article which claimed that ‘the origin of zero’s heritage has been elusive”. The authors of the piece ( read here) claimed that while the first-ever   appearance of the circular “O” symbol  for zero  is attributed to an  inscription on the wall of  a temple in Gwalior, Rajasthan ( actually the Chaturbhuj temple in Gwalior Fort) and dated by archaeologists to 876 CE,  excavations in Cambodia in a Khmer-era  era  dig near the Mekong river had unveiled an inscription of the symbol that was dated to be 605 as per the Hindu  Saka era which translates to 685 CE.  There was an undercurrent of ‘gotcha!’ in the article – but while well argued, it missed a key point.
It is generally accepted by scholars that some form of zero appeared  in  3rd century CE in Babylon and Mesopotamia; in  4th century CE in the Mayan civilisation in South America, in e 5th century CE in India, in the 6th   and 7th century CE in China and Cambodia,  in the 8th century in the Islamic countries around Arabia and finally in the 12th century CE in  Europe.  But, here’s a   key factor:  Before the concept of zero or shunya was established in India by 600 CE, it remained just a “place holder”, i.e., a way to tell 1 from 10, and 10 from 100.  Robert Kaplan who has written a book on the subject” The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (Oxford University Press, 2000) says: “It ( zero) began to take shape as a number rather than as a punctuation mark between numbers, in India in the fifth century CE.”  Some cultures were slow to accept the idea of zero and feared its darkly magical connotations, says another Scientific American article in August 2009 ( read here),  apparently alluding to its early reception in Europe’s Christian heartland.
The Bakhshali manuscript
In 2017, new technologies like carbon dating, led researchers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford University to conclude  that  the zero as invented in India, might have had  its origins  at least 1000 years before what was previously thought (circa  550 CE) and could  even date back to the 3rd and 4th  centuries  CE  -- ie contemporary with the Babylonian or Mayan usage. They based this on the carbon dating  of  Sanskrit manuscripts found in the village of Bakhshali (near Peshawar in   modern-day Pakistan). The 70  manuscripts  on birch-bark, formed  a manual on arithmetic for merchants  and   seemed to be the first use of ‘0’ as a digit in mathematics, at around 224 – 383 CE.
The lead researcher of the Bodleian project, Marcus du Sautoy is quoted in a National Geographic article soon after the finding: “This zero in India is the seed from which the concept of zero as a number in its own right represented by the same dot or circle will emerge some centuries later, something many regard as one of the of the great moments in the history of mathematics.” (National Geographic piece here, with a video on the findings)
He added: “Brahmagupta’s text Brahmasphuta siddhanta, written in 628 CE, is the first text to talk of zero as a number in its own right and to include a discussion of the arithmetic of zero, including the dangerous act of dividing by zero.”
This finding 5 years ago, has by and large put paid to any speculation of where  the “intellectual property” (as we would characterise it today!) of zero as a number, sprang up nearly 1750 years ago.
Interest in how the world came to accept a metaphysical-mathematical concept of nothingness born in India, continues to engage researchers world-wide:
The Zero Project
The Zero Project is a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands, which aims to elucidate the origin of the numeral "zero" in the history of mankind. Says its Secretary Peter Gobets: “The Indian (or numerical) zero, widely seen as one of the greatest innovations in human history, is the cornerstone of modern mathematics and physics, plus the spin-off technology.” ( source:here:  Who invented Zero by Jessie Szalay, LiveScience.com)
Adds Oxford University don Du Sautoy: "We now know that it was as early as the third 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 has been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries."
For companion piece,  The etymology of zero, see Image of the day