How were mathematical symbols written in ancient India?

By Sunil Kumar

Mathematical symbols in ancient India. As every right-thinking Indian knows; without regarding the liberal bias for Western reworking of historiography; zero; the decimal system; infinities, infinitesimals, quadratic equations etc can all trace their lineage to Indic thought and civilisation.

Don’t worry; I am not going to disparage Darwin and his Victorian theories on evolution and natural selection or claim Stephen Hawking had an abstruse Vedic link; but it was an acknowledged fact in the ancient world that the Brahmins of ancient India were probably the best mathematicians. Even ancient Greek sources have acknowledged their debt to Indians.

Ancient Indic thought and civilization was largely based on Vedas and the Upavedas; the preparation of the sacrificial altar(yagna) and precise mathematical calculations.

For most hermits(rishis); this was part of their daily life. In ancient texts like the Sulvasutras; vast distances(yojanas) and numbers for yugas were expressed as combinations of powers of ten. It is reasonable to believe that dealing with these combinations led to the evolution of the decimal-place value system in ancient India.

Although one of the oldest scripts dealing with zero has been found in what was ancient India(village of Bakhshali; Khyber Pakthunkhwa now in the Bodleian libraries; Oxford); some historians claim that the Babylonians, Sumerians and Mayans were also aware of the same. But; nowhere apart from ancient India did shunya(or zero) attain its profound importance in mathematical or philosophical discourse.

When Indian numerals went to the West via the Arabs; after their Dark Ages it fostered a scientific renaissance. It has been argued that the Kerala school of Mathematics had more advanced theories of calculus way before Leibnitz and Newton. European scholastic tradition was caught in a cobweb of Roman numerals; Aristotle-derived world views and theological Latin; but they quickly transformed into scientific pioneers.

The problem with understanding what went on in ancient India is the long timespan to be considered and the numerous invasions and savagery the country witnessed over thousands of years.

According to Western historians; Kharoshti and Brahmi script was in use in India around the 3rd century B.C and manuscripts from that era have numerals similar to that. This evolved later into numerals and symbols in different languages in India; and use in English, Europe; the West and consequently the world.

Read here: Phenomenon of Science: Chap. 9

With astronomy and calculus calculations evolving from the 5th century A.D; the consequent change in kingdoms, empires; cultural contexts and common languages(Sanskrit; however remained the overarching language used in academic discourse); mathematical symbols remained similar in description only changing in terms of the geographical regions, language construct and cultural context which underwent change only in terms of political upheavals; different kingdoms and the deadly invasions of Turkic Muslim warmongers that led to widespread destruction of ancient libraries and innate wisdom.

Even the new rulers had a few intellectuals that appreciated the profundity of Indic thought which led to some elements of the country’s mathematics being preserved in the medieval Islamic world that was transmitted to the West.

Depictions of mathematical symbols therefore has a hallowed antiquity in India changing a little over the millennia. Modern mathematics owes a great debt to the subcontinent but only a few people like Schrodinger; known for his great contribution to quantum theory and consequently modern electronics; openly acknowledged inspiration to erstwhile India and Vedanta.

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