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LOST TREASURES GONE TO 0
By Ambati M. Rao, Jayakrishna Ambati, Balamurali K. Ambati, Gomathi S. Rao
Rediff On The Net
December 30, 1999

'In science, more than in any other human institution, it is necessary to search out the past in order to understand the present and to control the future.'
  - J D Bernal, Science in History

As we hurtle into a new millennium, we would do well to reflect where all those 0s came from. The greatness that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome started their numeral systems at one. The Arabs brought the modern numerals, including zero, to Europe centuries ago. But while 1, 2, 3, are commonly and mistakenly referred to as the "Arabic" numerals, they actually originated in India, and are but one of many achievements that became treasures lost to the oblivion of history.

India is the epitome of diversity in all respects, geographically and culturally. From such diversity has bloomed the myriad blossoms of science and mathematics.
Indian science flowered long before the classical age of Europe and flourishes to this day.
India must be credited with the primacy of the invention of unaccountably finite principles and theorems that have been granted to later Arabs and Europeans. In celebrating India's contribution to learning we shall find a deep and long-nurtured reverent and respectful love of learning.

There is still much to be learned from ancient Indian science. The depths of the Vedas and other scriptures, as well as more "scholarly" extant work, offer much to the modern world of science. Indeed, we can all profit from an in-depth examination of ancient Indian science. Yet it is a sad testament to our community's inability to transmit our heritage to our youth that most of our youngsters don't know the difference between Brahmagupta and Brahmaputra.

This article focuses on some of the more important and relevant inventions and discoveries of ancient Indians and attempts to analyze the reasons why these scientists never received their due credit.

 In the 16th century, there grew a tendency in Europe to trace scientific thought to the achievements of Mediterranean antiquity. This direct link between modern science and ancient Greece is increasingly perpetuated by a flourishing literature in the cause of a simplistic, but false, understanding of the history of science. Most Western historians preach the tale that a Greek miracle led to the dawn of science. The facts of older civilizations are cursorily covered and mainly for the perverted purpose of showing why there was no real science before the Greeks.

Arnold Reymand echoed these sentiments well: "Compared to empirical and fragmentary knowledge which the peoples of the East had laboriously gathered together during long centuries, Greek science constitutes a veritable miracle."

However, historian Will Durant correctly observed: "Europe and America are the spoiled child and grandchild of Asia and have never quite realized the wealth of their pre-classical inheritance." Most Western study of ancient India has been a tunnel vision dominated by a prefabricated psychology. The parochial provincialism of mindless Eurocentrism has distorted the history of civilization as originating in Greece while summing up India's contribution in a line or two.

However, our own apathy in addition to Western neglect has led to the demise of ancient Indian science from the pages of history. The disguised racism of some historians notwithstanding, we must share the blame for this tragedy. It is imperative that we shed our ignorance and elucidate what for countless centuries has been buried in the recess of history.

India's most important contribution to science is nothing: the concept of nothing, or zero, is central to the understanding of all else. It is time that we raise out scientific heritage from what it is today: nothing.

No ancient civilization possessed more talent or accomplished more feats in mathematics than India. For instance, the most ingenious creation in all of mathematics, the decimal system, of which the famed mathematician LaPlace wrote: "It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by 10 symbols, a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity."

These misnomered "Arabic" numerals appeared on the Rock Edicts of Ashoka (256 BC), a thousand years before they appeared in the Arabic literature. Even those few who know this fact know little more about the myriad contributions of Indian mathematics.

    India's work in science is young as a secular pursuit but old as an auxiliary interest of her priests. Science started with the priests, originated in astronomy and mathematics governing religious festivals, and was preserved in the temples and transmitted through the generations.

Consider the most famous elementary theorem in mathematics: the so-called Pythagorean theorem, which states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The Sulvasutras (collection of rules concerning measurements) of Baudhayana (600 BC) describe this identity almost 200 years before Pythagoras: "The diagonal of an oblong produces by itself both the areas which the two sides of the oblong produce separately."

 Aryabhata (476-520 AD), the father of Indian mathematics and astronomy, computed pi to 3.1416, a value not equaled in Europe until Purbach (1423-61). Pi is computed to 11 digits in the Karanapaddhati work (15th century) as 3.1415926535, a value not equaled in Europe until much later. More importantly, Indian mathematicians knew algebra at least as early as the 5th century AD Known as Bijaganitam, algebra (a corruption of the Arabic word Al-Jabr) was used extensively in astronomical calculations and referred to by Aryabhata in his treatise Aryabhattiya. This science was couriered to the West by the Arabs.

Trigonometry too was known to Indian mathematicians and astronomers before their European counterparts. It was used in India from the Gupta period (3rd century AD) onwards, and the Surya-Siddhanta (4th century AD) gives a table of sines.

Indian atomic theory greatly predates Democritus (430 BC). Kashyapa (aka Kanada), in his Vaisheshika Sutra, formulated an advanced theory of atomic structure in the 6th century BC. He also stated the principle of volume displacement long before Archimedes. Pakudha Kayayana (580 BC), a contemporary of Buddha, taught atomic theory by propounding the theory that undifferentiated potential matter (tanmatra) forms the universal energy of the cosmos by forming atoms.

Brahmagupta (598-660 AD) anticipated the gravitational theory: "Things fall to the ground not because of any inherent force within but because of the pull from the earth." A century before Brahmagupta, Varahamihira claimed that objects remain on the earth's surface due to an internal attractive force and that a similar force keeps celestial bodies in their positions. In fact, the ancient Sanskrit has a word for gravity --
Gurutvakarshan.

Aryabhata also proposed the heliocentric theory a millennium before Copernicus, who is generally credited with this revolutionary idea. In poetic form, Aryabhata stated that the earth's diurnal rotation on its axis produced the daily rising and setting of planets and stars. In fact, the Sandhya Vandanam (morning prayers to the sun), dating back to the Vedic age, contains numerous references to the sun as the center of the solar system.

Long before Columbus staked his claim that the world was round, Aryabhata recognized that the earth was spherical and Brahmagupta gave a figure of 36,000 km for the earth's circumference, not far from the actual value.

 And a word about the game that is so popular among us Indians -- chess. It is so old that half the world claims it. Archaeologists generally believe it arose in India,where the oldest indisputable appearance in 750 AD. The word chaturanga became transformed into the Arabic shatranj and finally chess.

We hope the foregoing non-exhaustive recital will serve to kindle pride and interest in our collective heritage.
Trying to forge links with the past without teaching about our contributions is akin to planting cut flowers. Parents must pass on knowledge about our past to our youth, much like a relay race, lest our leaders of tomorrow grow bereft of vital knowledge and become rudderless in an information-driven world.

The Ambati family has conducted the Educational Excellence Program, for middle and high school students, for the last decade. These free classes are held every Saturday at the Swaminarayan Temple in Flushing, New York.

 

 

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