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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.
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
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
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.
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 --
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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