From oral to written tradition, zero took shape in India
By Hugo Barcia and Neeshu Shukla
New Delhi, Mar 14 (EFE).- The first recorded numerical figures were by the Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago, but the most significant of them, zero, took much longer to come into existence and did so in India, as per the oldest records on the subject.
To find the first reproductions of this number, we need to go back to the discovery of the manuscript of Bakshali, found in 1881 in the city of Peshawar, then a part of undivided India, administered by the British Empire.
This manuscript, consisting of a series of 70 texts inscribed in birch bark, contains the first samples of zero found to date, going back to the 3rd century.
This was reflected in a study by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, which used radiocarbon dating in 2017 to trace the origin of the parchment, and which revealed that its texts belonged to different periods of time between the 3rd and 7th centuries.
A study by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, which used radiocarbon dating in 2017 to trace the origin of the parchment, revealed that its texts belonged to different periods of time between the 3rd and 7th centuries.
“Most likely, it dates back to the 4th century, as some parts of the texts coincide with the brahmi script predominant at that time,” P.P. Divakaran, mathematical researcher and author of the book ‘The Mathematics of India: Concepts, Methods, Connections,’ told EFE.
However, this primeval zero did not have the oval shape that it has today but was represented as a dot.
Although the findings show that India was the first to give a form to zero, this concept, fundamental to today’s numbering systems, was already known to the Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago.
However, this civilization of southern Mesopotamia never gave a form of its own to the number, but instead left a space to represent this gap between the digits or the end of a number.
“The use of the positional value system was there (…) but because the Vedic tradition was entirely oral, there was no need for a name or symbol for zero,” explained Amritanshu Prasad, professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences of India.
It was the development of this positional system and the graphical representations of numbers that led mathematicians to think about giving shape to zero, something that Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata set out to do in the 5th century.
But it was another Indian mathematician, Brahmagupta, who in 628 CE established the first rules that would allow this new digit to be integrated into arithmetic and thus complete the decimal system of positional value, explained Divakran.
According to this expert, the mathematical concept of zero evolved from the concept of ‘shunya’, which represents nothingness in the oral tradition of Sanskrit.
Hence, he stressed that it was “grammarians and philosophers who first nurtured the concept of zero, rather than mathematicians.”
“However, the mathematical form of zero that we use today certainly comes from the concept of ‘nothing’. If we do not have money, we never say that we have ‘zero’ money, but ‘we have nothing’ or ‘no money,” concluded Divakaran. EFE