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, Thamizh 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.

6 thoughts on “Hindu-Arabic Numerals

  1. The numeral inputs are very informative.The Science Conference shamed us. Hindutva freaks are bringing ruin to the country with their silly posturing. Do hope the Govt can deal with this stupid psuedo nationalism and focus on plain hard work instead. Modi can do that and should. 

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  2. Hi Reji

    Very true. Our national “B” made congress party to rule Inida for the handicapped tribe only (only for his personnel gain) & still we carry this stigma. This tribe wants to destroy all the traditions & implement their “Kithab” literally in India also. We Indians have no patriotism & everyone wants to be in the limelight by uttering meaningless words such as …………… Opposition against “Gharr Vapasi” is a true example.

    History was written by the winners & Hindus were never in the winners place for the last 6 centuries. All our available records got destroyed during this period. Even though Modi was a Chief Minister he is now highly respected by all world leaders & seems to be good PM for India.

    All the state should continue to do what he had done in Gujarat. Insted of criticizing Gujarat, start looking a Syria/ Libya to see the faith of Christians / local community there. Why no one in India is not raising any sound against these?

    *With Regards* * SAJI VETTIYIL*

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  3. It is true we still have not worked on the text books left behind by the Britishers. Indian contribution to all branches of science and art is profound. The celebrated cartoonist RK Laxman mentioned that once he met with the well known British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell in England ( He has made lot of contribution to set theory and Boolean algebra). They were discussing about contribution of Indians to the growth of mathematical science. Russell suddenly said “You Indians invented nothing”. Laxman was aghast and was about to rebut him when Russell with a twinkle in his eyes ” You Indians invented the concept of zero or nothing without which maths would not have progressed”. People talk about Aryabhatta or Bhaskaracharya contributions to Maths, people don’t know that Patanjali had also contributed a lot for the growth of maths. Patanjali was a yogi, sanskrit grammarian and mathematician also rolled into one. His intellectual prowess was such Einstein would resemble a school kid before him. Why only resemble only field of science our text books dont talk about our feats in other fields. The magnificent Angor Vat and Angor thom in Cambodia which are the largest temple complexes in the world were built by Indian./ Tamil kings, sculptors and labourers. Does any Tamil text books carry anything about this proud fact which should make every Tamilian proud ?
    Coming to Mr. Venkatesamoorthy, one day when I was admitted in MI room for fever he spent 3 hours in the evening explaining vedic maths – how to find out square root using simple techniques.. He was a poet who wrote poems in Kannada. We had very versatile people as our teachers in SSA.

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