India – World Guru of Mathematics (Part – 1)

Posted on August 20, 2011


Andre Weil (French Mathematician)

 “The intellectual potentialities of the Indian nation are unlimited and not many years would perhaps be needed before India can take a worthy place in world mathematics.” Those are the words of A. Weil, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, written in 1936.

In India, mathematics has its roots in Vedic literature. Between 1000 BC and 1000 AD various treaties on mathematics where authored by Indian mathematicians.

The European (Arab) number system which is widely in use today has its origin in India. Present decimal numbers derive from forms, which were invented in India and transmitted via Arab culture to Europe, undergoing a number of changes on the way. We also know that several different ways of writing numbers evolved in India before it became possible for existing decimal numerals to be marred with the place-value principle of the Babylonians to give birth to the system which eventually became the one which we use today. The ‘place value system’ and the ‘decimal system’ were developed long ago in India.

Severus Sebokht

The first sign that the Indian numerals were moving west comes from a source which predates the rise of the Arab nations. In 662 AD Severus Sebokht, a Nestorian bishop who lived in Keneshra on the Euphrates river wrote:-

“I will omit all discussion of the science of the Indians, … , of their subtle discoveries in astronomy, discoveries that are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians, and of their valuable methods of calculation which surpass description. I wish only to say that this computation is done by means of nine signs. If those who believe, because they speak Greek, that they have arrived at the limits of science, would read the Indian texts, they would be convinced, even if a little late in the day, that there are others who know something of value.”

This passage clearly indicates that knowledge of the Indian number system was known in lands soon to become part of the Arab world as early as the seventh century. The passage itself, of course, would certainly suggest that few people in that part of the world knew anything of the system. Severus Sebokht as a Christian bishop has been interested in calculating the date of Easter (a problem to Christian churches for many hundreds of years). This encouraged him to find out about the astronomy works of the Indians and in these, he found the arithmetic of the nine symbols.

Will Durant

A famous American historian wrote:

“It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to the west, such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.”

               – Will Durant (American Historian, 1885-1981)

…… Continues (History of Mathematics In India)

Posted in: Mathematics