Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Study on Ancient Indian Mathematics

It is without doubt that mathematics today owes a huge debt to the outstanding contributions made by Indian mathematicians over many hundreds of years. What is quite surprising is that there has been a reluctance to recognise this and one has to conclude that many famous historians of mathematics found what they expected to find, or perhaps even what they hoped to find, rather than to realise what was so clear in front of them.

We shall examine the contributions of Indian mathematics in this article, but before looking at this contribution in more detail we should say clearly that the “huge debt” is the beautiful number system invented by the Indians on which much of mathematical development has rested. Laplace put this with great clarity:-

The ingenious method of expressing every possible number using a set of ten symbols (each symbol having a place value and an absolute value) emerged in India. The idea seems so simple nowadays that its significance and profound importance is no longer appreciated. Its simplicity lies in the way it facilitated calculation and placed arithmetic foremost amongst useful inventions. the importance of this invention is more readily appreciated when one considers that it was beyond the two greatest men of Antiquity, Archimedes and Apollonius.

We shall look briefly at the Indian development of the place-value decimal system of numbers later in this article and in somewhat more detail in the separate article Indian numerals. First, however, we go back to the first evidence of mathematics developing in India.

Histories of Indian mathematics used to begin by describing the geometry contained in the Sulbasutras but research into the history of Indian mathematics has shown that the essentials of this geometry were older being contained in the altar constructions described in the Vedic mythology text the Shatapatha Brahmana and the Taittiriya Samhita. Also it has been shown that the study of mathematical astronomy in India goes back to at least the third millennium BC and mathematics and geometry must have existed to support this study in these ancient times.

The first mathematics which we shall describe in this article developed in the Indus valley. The earliest known urban Indian culture was first identified in 1921 at Harappa in the Punjab and then, one year later, at Mohenjo-daro, near the Indus River in the Sindh. Both these sites are now in Pakistan but this is still covered by our term “Indian mathematics” which, in this article, refers to mathematics developed in the Indian subcontinent. The Indus civilisation (or Harappan civilisation as it is sometimes known) was based in these two cities and also in over a hundred small towns and villages. It was a civilisation which began around 2500 BC and survived until 1700 BC or later. The people were literate and used a written script containing around 500 characters which some have claimed to have deciphered but, being far from clear that this is the case, much research remains to be done before a full appreciation of the mathematical achievements of this ancient civilisation can be fully assessed.

We often think of Egyptians and Babylonians as being the height of civilisation and of mathematical skills around the period of the Indus civilisation, yet V G Childe in New Light on the Most Ancient East (1952) wrote:-

India confronts Egypt and Babylonia by the 3rd millennium with a thoroughly individual and independent civilisation of her own, technically the peer of the rest. And plainly it is deeply rooted in Indian soil. The Indus civilisation represents a very perfect adjustment of human life to a specific environment. And it has endured; it is already specifically Indian and forms the basis of modern Indian culture.

We do know that the Harappans had adopted a uniform system of weights and measures. An analysis of the weights discovered suggests that they belong to two series both being decimal in nature with each decimal number multiplied and divided by two, giving for the main series ratios of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500. Several scales for the measurement of length were also discovered during excavations. One was a decimal scale based on a unit of measurement of 1.32 inches (3.35 centimetres) which has been called the “Indus inch”. Of course ten units is then 13.2 inches which is quite believable as the measure of a “foot”. A similar measure based on the length of a foot is present in other parts of Asia and beyond. Another scale was discovered when a bronze rod was found which was marked in lengths of 0.367 inches. It is certainly surprising the accuracy with which these scales are marked. Now 100 units of this measure is 36.7 inches which is the measure of a stride. Measurements of the ruins of the buildings which have been excavated show that these units of length were accurately used by the Harappans in construction.

It is unclear exactly what caused the decline in the Harappan civilisation. Historians have suggested four possible causes: a change in climatic patterns and a consequent agricultural crisis; a climatic disaster such flooding or severe drought; disease spread by epidemic; or the invasion of Indo-Aryans peoples from the north. The favourite theory used to be the last of the four, but recent opinions favour one of the first three. What is certainly true is that eventually the Indo-Aryans peoples from the north did spread over the region. This brings us to the earliest literary record of Indian culture, the Vedas which were composed in Vedic Sanskrit, between 1500 BC and 800 BC. At first these texts, consisting of hymns, spells, and ritual observations, were transmitted orally. Later the texts became written works for use of those practicing the Vedic religion.

The next mathematics of importance on the Indian subcontinent was associated with these religious texts. It consisted of the Sulbasutras which were appendices to the Vedas giving rules for constructing altars. They contained quite an amount of geometrical knowledge, but the mathematics was being developed, not for its own
sake, but purely for practical religious purposes. The mathematics contained in the these texts is studied in some detail in the separate article on the Sulbasutras.

The main Sulbasutras were composed by Baudhayana (about 800 BC), Manava (about 750 BC), Apastamba (about 600 BC), and Katyayana (about 200 BC). These men were both priests and scholars but they were not mathematicians in the modern sense. Although we have no information on these men other than the texts they wrote,
we have included them in our biographies of mathematicians. There is another scholar, who again was not a mathematician in the usual sense, who lived around this period. That was Panini who achieved remarkable results in his studies of Sanskrit grammar. Now one might reasonably ask what Sanskrit grammar has to do with mathematics. It certainly has something to do with modern theoretical computer science, for a mathematician or computer scientist working with formal language theory will recognise just how modern some of Panini’s ideas are.


See also:

The Indian Sulbasutras
All that is known of Vedic mathematics is contained in the Sulbasutras. This in itself gives us a problem, for we do not know if these people undertook mathematical investigations for their own sake, as for example the ancient Greeks did, or whether they only studied mathematics to solve problems necessary for their religious rites. Some historians have argued that mathematics, in particular geometry, must have also existed to support astronomical work being undertaken around the same period.

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