Our Decimal Number System was Invented by Indians,

not Arabians


From “History of Numbers” by David Osborn

Two and a half thousand years ago, in 520 BCE, Pythagorus founded his vegetarian school of math in Greece. Pythagorus was intrigued by whole numbers,noticing that pleasing harmonies are combinations of whole numbers. His Pythagorean theorem has been credited to him, even though ancient Indian texts, the Sulva Sutras (800 BCE) and the Shatapatha Brahmana (8th to 6th centuries BCE) prove that this theorem was known in India some two thousand years before his birth.

Romans invading Greece were interested in power, not abstract mathematics. They killed Archimedes in 212 BCE and thereby impeded the development of mathematics. Their system of Roman numerals was too complicated for calculating, so actual counting had to be done on a counting board, an early form of the abacus.

Although the usage of the Roman numeral system spread all over Europe and remained the dominant numeral system for more than five hundred years, not a single Roman mathematician is celebrated today.

Neither Egypt nor Greece nor Rome had a place-value number system, and throughout medieval times Europe used the absolute value number system of Rome (Roman Numerals). This held back the development of mathematics in Europe and meant that before the period of Enlightenment of the 17th century, the great mathematical discoveries were made elsewhere in East Asia and in Central America.

Numbers in Early India

In India, emphasis was not on military organization but in finding enlightenment. Indians, as early as 500 BCE, devised a system of different symbols for every number from one to nine, a system that came to be called Arabic numerals, because they spread first to Islamic countries before reaching Europe centuries later.

What is historically known goes back to the days of the Harappan civilization (2,600-3,000 BCE). Since this Indian civilization delved into commerce and cultural activities, it was only natural that they devise systems of weights and measurements. For example a bronze rod marked in units of 0.367 inches was discovered and points to the degree of accuracy they demanded. Evidently,such accuracy was required for town planning and construction projects.Weights corresponding to units of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 have been discovered and they obviously played important parts in the development of trade and commerce.

Earliest Indian Literary and Archaeological References

When we discuss the numerals of today’s decimal number system we usually refer to them as “Arabian numbers.” Their origin, however, is in India, where they were first published in the Lokavibhaga on the 28th of August 458 AD. This Jain astronomical work, Lokavibhaga or “Parts of the Universe,” is the earliest document clearly exhibiting familiarity with the decimal system. One section of this same work gives detailed astronomical observations that confirm to modern scholars that this was written on the date it claimed to be written: 25 August 458 CE (Julian calendar). As Ifrah2 points out, this information not only allows us to date the document with precision, but also proves its authenticity. Should anyone doubt this astronomical information, it should be pointed out that to falsify such data requires a much greater understanding and skill than it does to make the original calculations.

The origin of the modern decimal-based place value system is ascribed to the Indian mathematician Aryabhata I, 498 CE. Using Sanskrit numeral words for the digits, Aryabhata stated  “place to place is ten times in value.”The oldest record of this value place assignment is in a document recorded in 594 CE, a donation charter of Dadda III of Sankheda in the Bharukachcha region.

The earliest recorded inscription of decimal digits to include the symbol for the digit zero, a small circle, was found at the Chaturbhuja Temple at Gwalior, India, dated 876 CE. This Sanskrit inscription states that a garden was planted to produce flowers for temple worship and calculations were needed to assure they had enough flowers. Fifty garlands are mentioned (line 20), here 50 and 270 are written with zero. It is accepted as the undisputed proof of the first use of zero.

The usage of zero along with the other nine digits opened up a whole new world of science for the Indians. Indeed Indian astronomers were centuries ahead of the Christian world.The Indian scientists discovered that the earth spins on its axis and moves around the sun, a fact that Copernicus in Europe didn’t understand until a thousand years later—a discovery that he would have been persecuted for, had he lived longer.

From these and other sources there can be no doubt that our modern system of arithmetic—differing only in variations on the symbols used for the digits and minor details of computational schemes—originated in India at least by 510 CE and quite possibly by 458 CE.

Zero becomes a real number

The concept of zero as a number and not merely a symbol for separation is attributed to India where by the 9th century CE practical calculations were carried out using zero, which was treated like any other number, even in the case of division.

The story of zero is actually a story of two zeroes: zero as a symbol to represent nothing and zero as a number that can be used in calculations and has its own mathematical properties.

It has been commented that in India, the concept of nothing is important in its early religion and philosophy, and so it was much more natural to have a symbol for it than for the Roman and Greek systems. The rules for the use of zero were written down first by Brahmagupta, in his book “The Opening of the Universe” in the year 628 CE.

“The importance of the creation of the zero mark can never be exaggerated.”

Read more at Vedic Sciences 





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