There is a persistent misconception in the English-speaking world that I have to every so often set right. It is this: because the numerals we use are called “Arabic,” the number system was invented by Arabs and by association, is Islamic in origin. This is as silly and illogical as claiming that potatoes originated in France since in the US we call them French fries.
Actually, two of the greatest inventions in mathematics arose in India: the positional number system and the number “zero.” Where else could zero have originated but in the land which has the concepts of Shunyata (emptiness, nothingness) and of Nirvana (complete, utter, and absolute extinction) embedded deep into its philosophy?
Of course, I claim no special insight into mathematics just because I was born in the same land as the ones who hundreds of years ago conceived of shunyata, nirvana, and zero. But I cannot deny myself a bit of pride that one of my ancestors’ mind created the bridge across which pre-numerate humanity walked to become numerate. Yet it fills me with profound sorrow to think that so many of the present-day descendents of those brilliant minds are innumerate. They were giants and we are really puny. C’est la vie and all that.
Let me conclude this one with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s words from Ulysses
Though much is taken, much abides;
And though we are not now that strength
Which in old days moved earth and heaven
That which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate but strong in will:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
A few selected references on the number system and zero.
1. The Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics. W. Gellert, et al. Ed. 1975 Van Nostrand Reinhold:
Position Systems: Our present-day position system goes back to the Hindu from which it came to us by way of the Near East (Arabic Digits)…The introduction of zero is one of the greatest achievements of the Hindus (around 800 A.D.)
2. Beyond Numeracy. John Allen Paulos 1991 Alfred A Knopf:
…we note that about 2000 years ago Chinese invented a written positional numeration system based on the powers of 10. About 500 years later the people of southern India independently made the same discovery but soon thereafter went further and invented zero, a symbol that forever transformed the art of representing and manipulating numbers… The Chinese borrowed the notion of zero from the Indian, as did the Arabs, who eventually communicated the whole system to Western Europe. The invention can fairly be said to be one of the most important technical discoveries of mankind ranking with the invention of the wheel, fire, and agriculture.
3. Mathematics for the Millions. Lancelot Higben.WW Norton and Co:
… In the whole of history of mathematics there has been no more revolutionary step than the one which the Hindus made when they invented the sign ‘0’… It makes alive the contents of the elements of mathematics.
4. The Columbia Encyclopedia 1993 Columbia Univ Press:
The introduction of zero was the most significant achievment in the development of the number system in which calculation with large numbers was feasible. Without it, modern astronomy, physics, and chemistry would have been unthinkable. The lack of such a symbol was one of the serious drawbacks of Greek mathematics. Its existence in the West is probably due to the Arabs, who, having obtained it from the Hindus, passed it on to European mathematicians in the latter part of the Middles Ages.