Hindu-Arabic Numerals

Indian Numerals

The numerals in various languages interested me a lot. During our childhood, the Bible at home had chapters numbered with the Malayalam numerals and the verses with Indo-Arabic numerals. During our cadet days at the National Defence Academy, we travelled to Pune city by the municipal transit bus. The tickets were printed with the price shown with Devnagiri numerals and I had no clue of it. Once in the bus, the conductor gave me the ticket and I asked him as to what the cost was. He shot back saying that you dress in a suit and how come you cannot read. I came back and learnt the Devnagiri numerals immediately.

Our son Nikhil while in Grade 2, came home from school and asked me as to what has Hinduism to do with numerals. Taken aback, I asked him to narrate the context and he said the he was taught in the Math class that the common numerals are called Hindu-Arabic Numerals. In North America anything to deal with the country/sub-continent India is referred to as ‘Hindu’ (Hindustan) so as not to confuse with the American Aboriginals, commonly referred to as ‘Red-Indians’ or ‘Indians’.

My mind raced back to 1974, while in Grade 8 at Sainink School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, India, our math teacher, Mr Venkatesha Murthy had explained to us that the numerals we use every day would be known as Indo-Arabic Numerals and not as Arabic Numerals. These numerals were invented by mathematicians in India. They were later called ‘Arabic’ numerals by Europeans, because they were introduced in Europe by Arab merchants. The Europeans were intrigued by the speed at which these Arab merchants calculated mentally when the Europeans were struggling with their Roman numerals and their Abacus.

Mr Murthy also spoke to us in detail about important contributions made by mathematicians like Aryabhata, Bhaskara and Ramanujam. He also spoke to us about contributions of Indian mathematicians to the study of the concept of zero as a number, negative numbers, arithmetic, and algebra.  Mathematicians from Kerala (India) had developed trigonometric functions like sine, cosine, and tangent in the 15th century. They even had developed calculus two centuries before its invention in Europe. As usual, India being a timeless and record-less civilisation, no one formulated a systematic theory of differentiation and integration and there is no evidence of their findings being transmitted outside Kerala.

The Indian Science Conference of Jan 2015 had lectures about ancient knives so sharp they could slit a hair in two, 24-carat gold extracted from cow dung and even 7,000-year-old planes that could travel to other planets. Among other technologies, introduced at the congress there were polymers to build houses made of cactus juice, egg shells and cow dung; a cow bacteria that turns anything eaten by an animal into pure gold, and the curious procedure of an autopsy, conducted by leaving a dead body floating in water for three days. The surprising discoveries were said to be based on ancient Hindu texts, such as the Vedas and the Puranas, and were presented at a session on ‘Ancient Indian Sciences through Sanskrit’. There were some who claimed that Indians had travelled to other planets, and the helmet-shaped object found on the surface of Mars was the hair worn on the head by space travellers. These stories would not even have found a place in children’s comics. Surprisingly there were not one lecture about the mathematical contributions made by the Indians.

Providing a scientific platform in a prestigious science conference for a pseudo-science is appalling. It for the first time such a session is held in Indian Science Congress. Indian Prime Minister by saying to an audience of doctors and scientists that plastic surgery and genetic science existed and were in use thousands of years ago in ancient India and how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body. The Gujarat State school science books on various myths are now well known. These alarming developments happened after the change of government in Delhi. The scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudoscience in science curricula with backing of the government. The accelerated pace with which it is being promoted will seriously undermine nation’s science and it will have a disastrous effect on the future generation.

With this at the back of my mind, while in India in Jan 2015, I decided to interact with my nephews and nieces, mostly engineering students. To my surprise none knew that the numerals were called Indo-Arabic and they had no clue of the achievements of Indian mathematicians. It appeared that the textbooks in Canada have been amended, but the Indian books still carried Arabic numerals.