History & Archaeology Science & Environment

The world’s oldest zero?

The origin of the symbol zero has long been one of the world’s greatest mathematical mysteries. New carbon dating research commissioned by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries into the ancient Indian Bakhshali manuscript, held at the Bodleian, has revealed it to be hundreds of years older than initially thought, making it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.

A small dot on an old piece of birch bark marks one of the biggest events in the history of mathematics. The birch bark is actually part of an ancient surviving Indian mathematical document known as the Bakhshali manuscript. It is written in Sanskrit with significant influence of local dialects. And the dot is the first known recorded use of the number zero. Although the Bakhshali manuscript is widely acknowledged as the oldest Indian mathematical text, the exact age of the manuscript has long been the subject of academic debate. The researchers from the University of Oxford recently discovered the document is 500 years older than was previously estimated, dating to the third or fourth century — a breakthrough discovery.

MS.+Sansk+d.14
Carbon dating reveals Bakhshali manuscript is centuries older than scholars believed and is formed of multiple leaves nearly 500 years different in age. (Image courtesy of Bodleian Library/Oxford University)

The origin of the symbol zero has long been one of the world’s greatest mathematical mysteries. New carbon dating research commissioned by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries into the ancient Indian Bakhshali manuscript, held at the Bodleian, has revealed it to be hundreds of years older than initially thought, making it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today. New carbon dating provides insights on one of the most pivotal moments in the history of mathematics.

Chaturbhuj temple - Temple dedicated to Vishnu, on the path up to Gwalior fort
9th-century Chaturbhuj Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, on the path up to Gwalior fort. (Photograph courtesy of Live History India Team)
Plaque in Chaturbhuj temple
Right in the center of this image the characters “270″ stand out, surprisingly modern numerals etched in an ancient temple in Gwalior. Photo courtesy: ccarlstead/Smithsonian

On a wall of Chaturbhuj temple in Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is a plaque, which dates back to c. 875 CE and has a circle, considered as the earliest representation of the number zero in the world. The plaque mentions a land grant of 270 hastas (a traditional Indian unit of length, measured from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. 1 hasta roughly equals 18 inches or about 45 centimetres) for a flower garden as well as daily grant of 50 flower garlands.

Number 50 in Chaturbhu tenple plaque
The number 50 is in the middle of the image. (Photograph by Alex Bellos | the Guardian)

The surprising results of the first ever radiocarbon dating conducted on the Bakhshali manuscript, a seminal mathematical text which contains hundreds of zeroes, reveal that it dates from as early as the 3rd or 4th century (224-383 CE) – approximately five centuries older than scholars previously believed. This means that the manuscript in fact predates the 9th century inscription of zero on a wall of the Chaturbhuj temple, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero used as a placeholder in India. The findings are highly significant for the study of the early history of mathematics.

Ancient Map of India - Closeup of Peshawar
A closeup of the ‘A Map of Ancient India’ (created in 1853) showing the area of Peshawar where Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881. Peshawar is the oldest city in the modern Pakistan and one of the oldest in South Asia, having recorded history going back to at least 539 BCE. Peshawar was the capital of the ancient Kushan Empire. The current name “Peshawar” is derived from the former Sanskrit name of the place, Purushapura, meaning City of Men, in English. (Image: Courtesy of Bodleian Library/Oxford University)

The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. It was found by a local farmer and was acquired by the Indologist AFR Hoernle, who presented it to the Bodleian Library in 1902, where it has been kept since then. It consists of 70 pages of birch bark, a common writing material before the advent of paper. Translations indicate that it may have been used by Silk Road merchants practicing arithmetic. A large part of the manuscript had been destroyed and only about 70 leaves of birch bark, of which a few were mere scraps, survived to the time of its discovery.

MS.+Sansk+d.14_16r
The front page (recto) of folio 16 which dates to 224-383 CE. (Image: Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford)

While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 CE, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

MS.+Sansk_d.14_16v
Carbon dating has revealed that folio 16 from the 70-page Bakhshali manuscript dates from 224-383 CE. This is therefore the earliest known examples of the use of zero (written as a dot) used as a placeholder, i.e. the use of zero to indicate the orders of magnitude in a number system. (Image: Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford)

We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Translations of the text, which is written in a form of Sanskrit, suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road, and it includes practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, said:

Determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition. The project is an excellent example of the cutting-edge research conducted by the Bodleian’s Heritage Science team, together with colleagues across Oxford University, which uncovers new information about the treasures in our collections to help inform scholarship across disciplines.

Quoting from The Conversation, zero’s late arrival was partly a reflection of the negative views some cultures held for the concept of nothing. Western philosophy is plagued with grave misconceptions about nothingness and the mystical powers of language. The fifth century BCE Greek thinker Parmenides proclaimed that nothing cannot exist, since to speak of something is to speak of something that exists. This Parmenidean approach kept prominent historical figures busy for a long while.

After the advent of Christianity, religious leaders in Europe argued that since God is in everything that exists, anything that represents nothing must be satanic. In an attempt to save humanity from the devil, they promptly banished zero from existence, though merchants continued secretly to use it.

An old IBM advertisement on how India gave zero to the world

Indian ideas of spiritual nothingness led to mathematical zero. The development of zero as a mathematical concept was inspired by India’s long philosophical tradition of contemplating the void and may explain why the concept took so long to catch on in Europe, which lacked the same cultural reference points. So after zero finally emerged in ancient India, it took almost 1,000 years to set root in Europe, much longer than in China or the Middle East. Historians theorise that zero was spread from northern India by Arab traders along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route that connected Europe and Asia, and may have helped to develop more complex schools of mathematical thought.

In 1200 CE, the Italian mathematician Fibonacci, who brought the decimal system to Europe, wrote that:

The method of the Indians surpasses any known method to compute. It’s a marvellous method. They do their computations using nine figures and the symbol zero.

19 comments

  1. Very beautifully explained Indrajit of the zero’s history and its importance. I am baffled that even the Zero had it’s ups and downs. Hahaha
    But our ancestors found it long long back may be even much earlier than its known.
    Today the whole of the world and essentially the IT sector depends on the Zero.
    So the Big Zero is the base of Existence itself. 😃
    Shiva

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Shiva.

      India made another contribution to world culture as well as zero: the idea of nirvana, the transcendent state of “nothingness”, when you are liberated from suffering and desires. In fact, the word used in philosophical texts to mean nothing, or the void, is “shunya”, the same word later used to mean zero. Zero emerged as a result of spiritual as well as numeral thinking. In the modern world it is common to see religion and science as always in conflict. Yet in ancient India, one cannot untangle mathematics and mysticism.

      Zero was a significant step on the route to the democratisation of mathematics.It expanded the mathematical capacity of human minds. You have rightly said: “So the Big Zero is the base of Existence itself.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These things today is at a session to prove how we knew things from centuries. Just like zero one of the most significant contributions to the world . India is a treasure of knowledge and has always been. Many greatest inventions made are only discoveries which were already known to the Indians. Thank you sir for sharing such informative piece of information.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another great post! It is only but still a mystery how the entire Mathematics from the basics to the post-grad level and beyond have been covered in just 16 chapters of Vedic mathematics. I only realized it after 30+ yrs what I could have actually learnt as a child.

    What is more concerning to me now as I read this is – what are Indian manuscripts doing in the British libraries? Have they been stolen and now getting decoded for research purposes, so that they can be patented and sold back to the rest of the world with a British label? Wright Brother’s were not the original beholder of the ‘Aircraft Design’.

    As a matter of fact, the absence of such rich information is only keeping us who are the real originators, who could have decoded it much better. Needless to say, that all our traditional temples and historic institutions had authentic information which held a wealth of knowledge. Now travelers go there, just click some pictures and come back, with no significance or connectivity, because they miss the vital piece in the clue – the manuscripts.

    During my tenure in the North East, I was fortunate to meet a person, whose father was a Tai Ahom poet (Tai Ahom is the oldest manuscript of the Assamese). When I checked the hand written books, they exactly looked like the present day Thai script. We are deprived of the wealth that in all sense belongs to us. That calls in for a major ‘responsible travel need’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Rajat for your value addition to my post.

      The Bakhshali manuscripts were found by a farmer in 1881 and that time India was under British rule. So, it’s quite natural that the manuscript landed in a British university.

      There is a huge apathy among Indian historians towards our ancient history for reasons known best to them. They have failed to create proper base for general public to know and learn the heritage and history behind such temples and monuments. Also, government action is much needed. Such spots should have proper information boards to educate the public. ASI is too understaffed. They can’t cover every such place. I think a PPP model should be developed by Ministry of Tourism and ASI to protect such buildings and educate the tourists of the value of the place. This will give boost to tourism also.

      We Indians also have a very bad habit of vandalising and distorting old buildings by etching and marking our failed love stories.

      Thanks for informing me about Tai Ahom. I wasn’t aware of this manuscript.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Today we cannot imagine numbers with zero, but the fact that this mathematical concept is actually an extension of the spiritual beliefs and philosophical traditions of India and it existed 1000 years before it spread out to Europe is so interesting to know. It is a praiseworthy effort by the Oxford University to commission research on the Bhakshali manuscript. Thank you, sir, for sharing such information that actually makes us proud of our heritage.

    Liked by 1 person

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