0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and counting……

The philosophy behind the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

If you ask any Indian about ‘what are the things or concepts that he/she is proud of India introducing to the world?’ I am sure he/she can come up with an array of things. Starting from Ayurveda to Yoga and from chess to the world’s first university, from buttons to shampoo… the list goes on…! However, in all that, I think the concept of zero should be right on the top…! India’s gift of zero to the world is a total game-changer. However, many know that apart from zero, India has also introduced the numerical or counting system (0,1, 2, 3….) to the world. And it was done by one man — BRAHMAGUPTA. Of course, many people still think that Aryabhatt invented zero. Well, that is not true. And I don’t want to get into that debate. But what is interesting to me is to think and to learn about what was Bramhagupta’s philosophy behind the concept of zero and the counting numbers. Well, it turns out to be quite impressive and exciting…! To know more about it, we must go a little back… No, not like the 10th century or something. Little further back…! Like around 628 C.E (Common Era).

The 7th century’s ancient India was very advanced (thanks to ancient educational policy) in its knowledge in medical science, astronomy, astrology, and Vedic mathematics. India was once upon a time epicenter of the conferences related to astronomy and mathematics. One such conference was organized under the leadership of Brahmagupta. Great mathematicians worldwide were present at this conference and were presenting the latest mathematics-related discoveries from their respective countries. However, there was one lacuna that all of them were addressing: the inefficiency to have an easy way of counting numbers to ease the mathematical calculations. After everyone’s presentation, our protagonist — the great Bramhagupta aroused and started speaking… “Well, after listening to all your presentations, I know I have something for you that can be useful for you and upcoming generations. At this moment, I present to you the idea of zero and the counting numbers…! Now, you all must be wondering what zero is. Let me explain it to you…! Shunya or zero (0) means nothingnessthe symbol of emptiness. One (1) means the beginning of something. Before the beginning of this world, there was nothing, which means it was zero. But god (which is 1) created this universe. After creating the universe, he created two (2) things to support it — Brahma and Maya…! From them, three (3) guns were created — sattva (goodness, constructive), rajas (passion, active), and tamas (darkness, destructive). After that, Four (4) VedasRigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda were created. From them, pancha bhootas (5) or the five elements were created — Prithvi (Earth), Jal (Water), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), and Akash (Sky). These five elements gave birth to cosmic creations — all living and nonliving things on this earth. All this chaos between the living and nonliving things led to the formation of shadripu (6) enemies of the human mindkam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (attachment), mad (arrogance), and matsar (jealousy). During this, the world was introduced to the seven (7) chakras/colors of the human body. Afterward, eight (8) directions were introduced to the world. Finally, because of all these, navras (9) was introduced to the human mind — Shrungar (Love), Hasya (Laughter), Adbut (Wonder), Shantata (Calmness), Raudra (Anger), Karuna (Empathy), Veer (Courage), Bhay (Fear) and last but not least Bibhatsa (Detesting). These will complete one chakra (circle), and in the end, everything will collapse in the chakra, thus resulting in the void or again emptiness. In short, all that starts with shunya and ends with navras completes one circle, and thus the system will end with 10 (one complete circle and shunyu). Shunya or zero will again begin the next cycle and thus one (1) complete circle + 1 god = 11 and so on till 19 while 20 marking the end of 2 complete cycles and starting of the third one…..! Thus, now I give the world the counting numbers…!”

There are tons of articles written about the invention of zero and how India gifted the world many other things. However, none of them have addressed the philosophical concept behind it. As a researcher, I am always interested to understand the thought process behind any invention of any idea or notion. Thus, this was my sincere attempt to explain the same about the counting numbers.

Till then, Happy reading..!

Disclaimer: Well, I am 100% sure that no record exists of such scripted conversation between Brahmagupta and otherworldly mathematicians. But since we Indians enjoy so much drama in our day to day life, I thought of conveying to you in a little dramatic way…!