Ancient India's Contribution to Mathematics

"India was the motherland of our race
and Sanskrit the mother of Europe's languages.
India was the mother of our philosophy,
of much of our mathematics, of the ideals embodied in
Christianity... of self-government and democracy.
In many ways, Mother India is the mother of us all."

- Will Durant
- American Historian 1885-1981


Mathematics represents a high level of abstraction attained by the human mind. In India, mathematics has its roots in Vedic literature which is nearly 4000 years old. Between 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D. various treatises on mathematics were authored by Indian mathematicians in which were set forth for the first time, the concept of zero, the techniques of algebra and algorithm, square root and cube root.

This method of graduated calculation
was documented in the Pancha-Siddhantika
(Five Principles) in the 5th Century
But the technique is said to be dating
from Vedic times circa 2000 B.C.

As in the applied sciences like production technology, architecture and shipbilding, Indians in ancient times also made advances in abstract sciences like Mathematics and Astronomy. It has now been generally accepted that the technique of algebra and the concept of zero originated in India.

But it would be surprising for us to know that even the rudiments of Geometry, called Rekha-Ganita in ancient India, were formulated and applied in the drafting of Mandalas for architectural purposes. They were also displayed in the geometric patterns used in many temple motifs.

Many motifs in Hindu temples and
Palaces display a mix of floral and
Geometric patterns.

Even the technique of calculation, called algorithm, which is today widely used in designing soft ware programs (instructions) for computers was also derived from Indian mathematics. In this chapter we shall examine the advances made by Indian mathematicians in ancient times.


In India around the 5th century A.D. a sys tem of mathematics that made astronomical calculations easy was developed. In those times its application was limited to astronomy as its pioneers were Astronomers. As tronomical calculations are complex and involve many variables that go into the derivation of unknown quantities. Algebra is a short-hand method of calculation and by this feature it scores over conventional arithmetic.

In ancient India conventional mathematics termed Ganitam was known before the development of algebra. This is borne out by the name - Bijaganitam, which was given to the algebraic form of computation. Bijaganitam means 'the other mathematics' (Bija means 'another' or 'second' and Ganitam means mathematics). The fact that this name was chosen for this system of computation implies that it was recognised as a parallel system of computation, different from the conventional one which was used since the past and was till then the only one. Some have interpreted the term Bija to mean seed, symbolizing origin or beginning. And the inference that Bijaganitam was the original form of computation is derived. Credence is lent to this view by the existence of mathematics in the Vedic literature which was also shorthand method of computation. But whatever the origin of algebra, it is certain that this technique of computation Originated in India and was current around 1500 years back. Aryabhatta an Indian mathematican who lived in the 5th century A.D. has referred to Bijaganitam in his treatise on Mathematics, Aryabhattiya. An Indian mathematician - astronomer, Bhaskaracharya has also authored a treatise on this subject. the treatise which is dated around the 12th century A.D. is entitled 'Siddhanta-Shiromani' of which one section is entitled Bijaganitam.

Thus the technique of algebraic computation was known and was developed in India in earlier times. From the 13th century onwards, India was subject to invasions from the Arabs and other Islamised communities like the Turks and Afghans. Alongwith these invader: came chroniclers and critics like Al-beruni who studied Indian society and polity.

The Indian system of mathematics could no have escaped their attention. It was also the age of the Islamic Renaissance and the Arabs generally improved upon the arts and sciences that they imbibed from the land they overran during their great Jehad. Th system of mathematics they observed in India was adapted by them and given the name 'Al-Jabr' meaning 'the reunion of broken parts'. 'Al' means 'The' & 'Jabr' mean 'reunion'. This name given by the Arabs indicates that they took it from an external source and amalgamated it with their concepts about mathematics.

Between the 10th to 13th centuries, the Christian kingdoms of Europe made numerous attempts to reconquer the birthplace of Jesus Christ from its Mohammedan-Arab rulers. These attempts called the Crusades failed in their military objective, but the contacts they created between oriental and occidental nations resulted in a massive exchange of ideas. The technique of algebr could have passed on to the west at thi time.

During the Renaissance in Europe, followed by the industrial revolution, the knowledge received from the east was further developed. Algebra as we know it today has lost any characteristics that betray it eastern origin save the fact that the tern 'algebra' is a corruption of the term 'Al jabr' which the Arabs gave to Bijaganitam Incidentally the term Bijaganit is still use in India to refer to this subject.

In the year 1816, an Englishman by the name James Taylor translated Bhaskara's Leelavati into English. A second English translation appeared in the following year (1817) by the English astronomer Henry Thomas Colebruke. Thus the works of this Indian mathematician astronomer were made known to the western world nearly 700 years after he had penned them, although his ideas had already reached the west through the Arabs many centuries earlier.

In the words of the Australian Indologist A.L. Basham (A.L. Basham; The Wonder That was India.) "... the world owes most to India in the realm of mathematics, which was developed in the Gupta period to a stage more advanced than that reached by any other nation of antiquity. The success of Indian mathematics was mainly due to the fact that Indians had a clear conception of the abstract number as distinct from the numerical quantity of objects or spatial extension."

Thus Indians could take their mathematical concepts to an abstract plane and with the aid of a simple numerical notation devise a rudimentary algebra as against the Greeks or the ancient Egyptians who due to their concern with the immediate measurement of physical objects remained confined to Mensuration and Geometry.


But even in the area of Geometry, Indian mathematicians had their contribution. There was an area of mathematical applications called Rekha Ganita (Line Computation). The Sulva Sutras, which literally mean 'Rule of the Chord' give geometrical methods of constructing altars and temples. The temples layouts were called Mandalas. Some of important works in this field are by Apastamba, Baudhayana, Hiranyakesin, Manava, Varaha and Vadhula.

The Buddhist Pagodas
borrowed their plan of construction
from the geometric grid of the Mandala
used for constructing temples in India
(A majestic Pagoda at Bangkok)

The Arab scholar Mohammed Ibn Jubair al Battani studied Indian use of ratios from Retha Ganita and introduced them among the Arab scholars like Al Khwarazmi, Washiya and Abe Mashar who incorporated the newly acquired knowledge of algebra and other branches of Indian mathema into the Arab ideas about the subject.

The chief exponent of this Indo-Arab amalgam in mathematics was Al Khwarazmi who evolved a technique of calculation from Indian sources. This technique which was named by westerners after Al Khwarazmi as "Algorismi" gave us the modern term Algorithm, which is used in computer software.

Algorithm which is a process of calculation based on decimal notation numbers. This method was deduced by Khwarazmi from the Indian techniques geometric computation which he had st ied. Al Khwarazmi's work was translated into Latin under the title "De Numero Indico" which means 'of Indian Numerals' thus betraying its Indian origin. This translation which belong to the 12th century A.D credited to one Adelard who lived in a town called Bath in Britian.

Thus Al Khwarazmi and Adelard could looked upon as pioneers who transmit Indian numerals to the west. Incidents according to the Oxford Dictionary, word algorithm which we use in the English language is a corruption of the name Khwarazmi which literally means '(a person) from Khawarizm', which was the name of the town where Al Khwarazmi lived. To day unfortunately', the original Indian texts that Al Khwarazmi studied arelost to us, only the translations are avail able .

The Arabs borrowed so much from India the field of mathematics that even the subject of mathematics in Arabic came to known as Hindsa which means 'from India and a mathematician or engineer in Arabic is called Muhandis which means 'an expert in Mathematics'. The word Muhandis possibly derived from the Arabic term mathematics viz. Hindsa.

The Concept of Zero

The concept of zero also originated inancient India. This concept may seem to be a very ordinary one and a claim to its discovery may be viewed as queer. But if one gives a hard thought to this concept it would be seen that zero is not just a numeral. Apart from being a numeral, it is also a concept, and a fundamental one at that. It is fundamental because, terms to identify visible or perceptible objects do not require much ingenuity.

But a concept and symbol that connotes nullity represents a qualitative advancement of the human capacity of abstraction. In absence of a concept of zero there could have been only positive numerals in computation, the inclusion of zero in mathematics opened up a new dimension of negative numerals and gave a cut off point and a standard in the measurability of qualities whose extremes are as yet unknown to human beings, such as temperature.

In ancient India this numeral was used in computation, it was indicated by a dot and was termed Pujyam. Even today we use this term for zero along with the more current term Shunyam meaning a blank. But queerly the term Pujyam also means holy. Param-Pujya is a prefix used in written communication with elders. In this case it means respected or esteemed. The reason why the term Pujya - meaning blank - came to be sanctified can only be guessed.

Indian philosophy has glorified concepts like the material world being an illusion Maya), the act of renouncing the material world (Tyaga) and the goal of merging into the void of eternity (Nirvana). Herein could lie the reason how the mathematical concept of zero got a philosophical connotation of reverence.

In a queer way the
concept of 'Zero' or Shunya
is derived from the concept of a void.
The concept of void existed in Hindu Philosophy
hence the derivation of a symbol
for it. The concept of Shunyata, influenced
South-east asian culture through the
Buddhist concept of Nirvana
'attaining salvation by merging
into the void of eternity'
(Ornate Entrance of a Buddhist temple in Laos)

It is possible that like the technique of algebra; the concept of zero also reached the west through the Arabs. In ancient India the terms used to describe zero included Pujyam, Shunyam, Bindu the concept of a void or blank was termed as Shukla and Shubra. The Arabs refer to the zero as Siphra or Sifr from which we have the English terms Cipher or Cypher. In English the term Cipher connotes zero or any Arabic numeral. Thus it is evident that the term Cipher is derived from the Arabic Sifr which in turn is quite close to the Sanskrit term Shubra.

The ancient India astronomer Brahmagupta is credited with having put forth the concept of zero for the first time: Brahmagupta is said to have been born the year 598 A.D. at Bhillamala (today's Bhinmal ) in Gujarat, Western India. ] much is known about Brahmagupta's early life. We are told that his name as a mathematician was well established when K Vyaghramukha of the Chapa dyansty m him the court astronomer. Of his two treatises, Brahma-sputa siddhanta and Karanakhandakhadyaka, first is more famous. It was a corrected version of the old Astronomical text, Brahma siddhanta. It was in his Brahma-sphu siddhanta, for the first time ever had be formulated the rules of the operation zero, foreshadowing the decimal system numeration. With the integration of zero into the numerals it became possible to note higher numerals with limited charecters.

In the earlier Roman and Babylonian systems of numeration, a large number of chara acters were required to denote higher numerals. Thus enumeration and computation became unwieldy. For instance, as E the Roman system of numeration, the number thirty would have to be written as X: while as per the decimal system it would 30, further the number thirty three would be XXXIII as per the Roman system, would be 33 as per the decimal system. Thus it is clear how the introduction of the decimal system made possible the writing of numerals having a high value with limited characters. This also made computation easier.

Apart from developing the decimal system based on the incorporation of zero in enumeration, Brahmagupta also arrived at solutions for indeterminate equations of 1 type ax2+1=y2 and thus can be called the founder of higher branch of mathematics called numerical analysis. Brahmagupta's treatise Brahma-sputa-siddhanta was translated into Arabic under the title Sind Hind).

For several centuries this translation mained a standard text of reference in the Arab world. It was from this translation of an Indian text on Mathematics that the Arab mathematicians perfected the decimal system and gave the world its current system of enumeration which we call the Arab numerals, which are originally Indian numerals.

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rk said...

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