Does no one remember the Hindu contribution to Mathematics?
By: B Shantanu
December 10, 2005
Views expressed here are author's own and not of this website. Full
disclaimer is at the bottom.
Whenever I read about the great "Arabic" contribution to Mathematics
and Science (often in an apologetic tone of "how could these great
people come to such a pass?") the thing that really upsets me is the
complete omission of any reference to the Hindu contribution to
mathematics and numbers.
Slightly more than a year ago (Aug '04), in an article in the Sunday
Times http://www.michaelportillo.co.uk/articles/art_nipress/islam.htm,
Michael Portillo, eminent Conservative party leader in the UK and a
one-time aspirant to the leadership of the Tory Party, wrote that,
"Islam brought back to the West knowledge of architecture, mathematics
and astronomy that had been lost during the Dark Ages."
In response, I wrote,
"…The phrase "brought back" is at best, condescending and at worse,
historically inaccurate.
For this knowledge, which Arab traders brought to Europe (typified in
the Arabic numeral system - itself a misnomer, since the Arabs did not
invent it but merely acted as the purveyors of this knowledge) was not
Islamic or Arabic. In fact much of this knowledge was originally
derived from ancient Vedic literature from India and passed through
Arab traders and conquests to Middle East and eventually reaching
Europe.
To quote from Carl B. Boyer in his "History of Mathematics",
"...Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, ..., who died sometime before 850,
wrote more than a half dozen astronomical and mathematical works, of
which the earliest were probably based on the Sindhind derived from
India. Besides ... [he] wrote two books on arithmetic and algebra
which played very important roles in the history of mathematics. ...
In this work, based presumably on an Arabic translation of
Brahmagupta, al-Khwarizmi gave so full an account of the Hindu
numerals that he probably is responsible for the widespread but false
impression that our system of numeration is Arabic in origin. ...
[pages 227-228]...".
In a translation of Alberuni`s "Indica", a seminal work of this
period (c. 1030 AD), Edward Sachau, writes this in his introduction,
"Many Arab authors took up the subjects communicated to them by the
Hindus and worked them out in original compositions, commentaries and
extracts. A favourite subject of theirs was Indian mathematics..." etc.
Needless to say, the letter never got published.
Then, more recently, while reading the "The World is Flat", by Thomas
L. Friedman http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/worldisflat.htm, I came
across this text in Chapter 11, "The Unflat World" (Pg 405), "As Nayan
Chanda, the editor of YaleGlobal Online pointed out to me, it was the
Arab-Muslim world that gave birth to algebra and algorithms, terms
both derived form Arabic words. In other words, noted Chanda, "The
entire modern information revolution, which is built to a large degree
on algorithms, can trace its roots all the way back to Arab-Muslim
civilization and the great learning centres of Baghdad and
Alexandria," which first introduced these concepts, then transferred
them to Europe through Muslim Spain.
Dismayed, I wrote the following email to Nayan:
"May I respectfully point out that is not historically accurate and
continuing research is providing evidence that the roots of the so-
called Arab contribution to Mathematics and Science were further east
in the lands of India and in the works of Indian mathematicians and
scholars from several centuries ago."
"I hope that you will re-consider your views in the light of these
excerpts and a significant body of research that is now publicly
available on this subject. I would be more than happy to provide more
details if you wish."
No acknowledgement was expected and none was received. I wanted to
copy Thomas Friedman on it but could not find his contact details on
his website - the only email address was that of his literary agent and
PR agency.
This apparently widespread misunderstanding and ignorance - about the
Hindu contribution to the number system and sciences - prompted me to
dig deeper. Here is what I found:
>From an online research piece on Al-Khwarizmi and his work (by Shawn
Overbay, Jimmy Schorer, and Heather Conger)
http://www.ms.uky.edu/~carl/ma330/project2/al-khwa21.html
"Al-Khwarizmi wrote numerous books that played important roles in
arithematic and algebra. In his work, De numero indorum (Concerning
the Hindu Art of Reckoning), it was based presumably on an Arabic
translation of Brahmagupta where he gave a full account of the Hindu
numerals which was the first to expound the system with its digits
0,1,2,3,....,9 and decimal place value which was a fairly recent
arrival from India. Because of this book with the Latin translations
made a false inquiry that our system of numeration is arabic in
origin. The new notation came to be known as that of al-Khwarizmi, or
more carelessly, algorismi; ultimately the scheme of numeration making
use of the Hindu numerals came to be called simply algorism or
algorithm, a word that, originally derived from the name al-
Khwarizmi, now means, more generally, any peculiar rule of procedure
or operation.
Interestingly, as the article notes, "The Hindu numerals like much new
mathematics were not welcomed by all. In 1299 there was a law in the
commercial center of Florence forbidding their use; to this day this
law is respected when we write the amount on a check in longhand
(ernie.bgsu.edu)."
>From a very well-researched online article, "Numbers: Their History
and Meaning"
http://home.c2i.net/greaker/comenius/9899/indiannumerals/india.html
"It is now universally accepted that our 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.
Because of lack of authentic records, very little is known of the
development of ancient Hindu mathematics. The earliest history is
preserved in the 5000-year-old ruins of a city at Mohenjo Daro,
located Northeast of present-day Karachi in Pakistan. Evidence of wide
streets, brick dwellings an apartment houses with tiled bathrooms,
covered city drains, and community swimming pools indicates a
civilisation as advanced as that found anywhere else in the ancient
Orient.
These early peoples had systems of writing, counting, weighing, and
measuring, and they dug canals for irrigation. All this required basic
mathematics and engineering.
And later in the article, "The special interest of the Indian system
is that it is the earliest form of the one, which we use today. Two
and three were represented by repetitions of the horizontal stroke for
one. There were distinct symbols for four to nine and also for ten and
multiples of ten up to ninety, and for hundred and thousand."
and further "…Knowledge of the Hindu system spread through the Arab
world, reaching the Arabs of the West in Spain before the end of the
tenth century. The earliest European manuscript, which came from the
Hindu numerals were modified in north-Spain from the year 976." And
finally an important point for those who maintain that the concept of
zero was also evident in some other civilisations: "Only the Hindus
within the context of Indo-European civilisations have consistently
used zero."
Fortunately, online encyclopaedias came across as less biased and more
open in acknowledging the true source of the "Arabic" number system.
For example, from MSN Encarta
http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761578291_7/Mathematics.html
"The system of numbers that we use today, with each number having an
absolute value and a place value (units, tens, hundreds, and so forth)
originated in India. Mathematicians in India also were the first to
recognize zero as both an integer and a placeholder. When the Indian
numeration system was developed is not known, but digits similar to
the Arabic numerals used today have been found in a Hindu temple
built about 250 bc.
In the 5th century Hindu mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata
studied many of the same problems as Diophantus but went beyond the
Greek mathematician in his use of fractions as opposed to whole
numbers to solve indeterminate equations (equations that have no
unique solutions). Aryabhata also figured the value of "P" (pi)
accurately to eight places, thus coming closer to its value than any
other mathematician of ancient times. In astronomy, he proposed that
Earth orbited the sun and correctly explained eclipses of the Sun and
Moon.
The earliest known use of negative numbers in mathematics was by Hindu
mathematician Brahmagupta about ad 630. He presented rules for them in
terms of fortunes (positive numbers) and debts (negative numbers).
…The best-known Indian mathematician of the early period was Bhaskara,
who lived in the 12th century. Bhaskara supplied the correct answer
for division by zero as well as rules for operating with irrational
numbers. Bhaskara wrote six books on mathematics, including Lilavati
(The Beautiful), which summarized mathematical knowledge in India up
to his time, and Karanakutuhala, translated as "Calculation of
Astronomical Wonders."
The reality is that the so-called "Arab" contribution to mathematics
was substantially built on prior knowledge of the Hindus and the
Greeks and while the Greek influence and origins are frequently
acknowledged, the Hindu contribution is very rarely mentioned.
We need to spread awareness about this and try and establish the facts
whenever an opportunity arises - unless we do that, this "history" will
be lost and become so little-known and distant as to become a myth.
Talking of forgotten Indian contribution to sciences and arts, here is
another example of a glaring error in a recent news story in "TIME"
Magazine and an email I sent in response
http://www.time.com/time/europe/magazine/article/0,13005,901051121-
1129488,00.html
"May I point out two inaccuracies in your recent news story on an
exhibition on Arab Science in Paris titled, "Ahead of Their Time"
(Time Magazine, Nov 21, '05; Pp48-49) by Ann Morrison?
In a paragraph about the Arab's interest in astronomy, Ann writes,
"Though the Arabs built many observatories during the Golden Age, not
many survived. But viewers can see current images of two of these
amazing outdoor structures in the Indian cities of Delhi and
Jaipur."
The observatories that Ann refers to in this paragraph were not built
by Arabs but by the Hindu ruler Sawai Raja Jai Singh between 1724-
1730 and were amongst the five that he built in Northern India (the
other three were at Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura) and are called
Jantar Mantar (actually "Yantra Mantra", yantra for instrument and
mantra for formula).
The observatory in Delhi has also been depicted in a postage stamp nd
was the logo of the 1982 Asian Games, held in New Delhi, India.
To call them examples of Arab interest in the sciences is inaccurate
and misleading.
In a later paragraph which details the interest of Arab scholars in
astrology, Ann writes, "…Another manuscript illustration from 17th
century India, Astrologers working on a Nativity", shows a procession
of music makers and gift bearers wending their way through palace
walls toward a newborn who would grow up to be the 14th century
warrior Tamerlane..."
Again, this is an example of Indian art (and Indian interest in
astrology) rather than having anything to do with Arabs or Arab art.
Tamerlane himself was not an Arab king but from Central Asia (as were
the Mughals).
As usual, I received neither an acknowledgement nor a response.
For those of you who would like to read more:
Here's Alberuni on Pre-Islamic India's Science, Math, and Architecture
http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/h_es/h_es_kumar-v_math.htm
And an interesting article on the origin of the decimal system
http://answering-islam.org.uk/Science/math.html
B Shantanu
(Source: http://www.indiacause.com/columns/OL_051210.htm)
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