In search of Zero: Birchbark Bakhshali Manuscript, an amazing treasure from our past

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We all know the invention of zero is attributed to Aryabhatta but contrary to this fact, the existence of Shunya or Zero is predated, far before Aryabhatta & Brahmagupta brought this into practice. The first to symbolize zero was Aryabhatta, and the first to “numeralize” it, and use it in mathematical operations was Brahmagupta, however, the invention of “zero” or “shunya” goes beyond these two great mathematicians

The Rig Veda, presumed to be from 3,000 B.C.E has reference to Zero / shunya way before we practically mathematician across the world were thinking about zero in an equation.

For instance, see this verse from Rig Veda, called “Purusha Suktam”
सहस्रशीर्षा पुरुषः सहस्राक्षः सहस्रपात् ।
स भूमिं विश्वतो वृत्वात्यतिष्ठद्दशाङुलम् ॥१॥

Sahasra-Shiirssaa Purussah Sahasra-Akssah Sahasra-Paat |
Sa Bhuumim Vishvato Vrtva-Atya[i]-Tisstthad-Dasha-Angulam ||1||

1.1: The Purusha (Universal Being) has Thousand Heads, Thousand Eyes and Thousand Feet (Thousand signifies innumerable which points to the omnipresence of the Universal Being),
1.2: He envelops the World from all sides (i.e. He pervades each part of the Creation), and extends beyond in the Ten Directions ( represented by Ten Fingers ),

While the Rig Veda does refer to zero and its significance in the account, the oldest extant mathematical document produced on the Indian subcontinent is the birch bark Bakhshali Manuscript, discovered in 1881, in the village of Bakhshali, near Peshawar in Pakistan. The exact date of the documentation of it is uncertain till now, but it is believed by some scholars that it is to pre-date Aryabhatta in which zero was symbolized and used as a number.

The Bakhshali manuscript, which consists of 70 leaves of birch bark, filled with mathematics and text in the form of Sanskrit. It was originally thought that the manuscript was from the 9th century, but the dating methods revealed that the oldest pages are from somewhere between 224 CE and 383 CE.

This means that the manuscript predates a 9th-century inscription of zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero.

Mathematical application of Zero has not been dated somewhere between 224 CE and 383 CE, wait for more treasures and we may trace it back to Vedas. Bakhshali Manuscript is currently stored in the British museum and not available on display, a lost treasure. 

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