How India Invented Zero

Ancient India’s preoccupation with the concept of nothingness — shunyata — would change mathematics, trade, and technology as we know it.

Sukhada Tatke

November 15, 2021

How India Invented Zero
The Bakshali manuscript (Oxford Library)

In 1881, a farmer living in a village about 80 kilometers northeast of Peshawar, now in Pakistan, stumbled across an untitled manuscript written on birch bark. On it were complex calculations using the decimal value system. Historians initially believed that the Bakhshali manuscript, as it is now known, dated back to the ninth century, but more recent carbon dating pushed it back about 500 years to the third or fourth century. On those pages, zero had evolved, for the first time, to a number in its own right.

By 628, zero as a mathematical concept had a clear definition. In the Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta, or “Correctly Established Doctrine of Brahma,” the Indian mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta wrote, “The sum of two positive numbers is positive, that of two negative numbers is negative...the sum of two equals, opposite in sign, is zero.”

Brahmagupta was not the first person to have meditated on zero, nor would he be the last. Almost 1,500 years after that first known written meditation, there is still no certainty on what exactly we mean when we say India invented zero. A number cannot be born in a laboratory, after all, nor can it be a product of a single person.

What is certain is that zero emerged as a convergence of various intellectual disciplines. The zero’s origins — variously called kha or ambara (sky), bindu (dot), or shunya (void) — can be traced back to the ancient Indian preoccupation with nothingness (shunyata) in philosophy, poetry, religion, language, astronomy. Zero would go on to become an indispensable concept behind every conceivable scientific and technological advancement we can think of today.