Random Thoughts

Answer to Puzzlement about Zero

Dear Kamesh,

As a computer scientist, mathematician and lover of Hindu myths, I am surprised that you don't see the reasons. Referring to your article "The Zero That Was India" ' You are playing checkers on a board where Kaplan and many of his western cohorts are playing chess. You play by one set of rules and they play by a different set of rules which they make and change to suit their objective. Let me enumerate the logical fallacies that we Indians commit.

Because Kaplan has impeccable academic credentials it does not lead to the conclusion that he is either infallible, telling the truth or not motivated to lie for reasons known or unknown. Integrity is not to be confused with knowledge and character is malleable by motivation. Why else would Dharmaraja Yuddhishthira say "Ashvatthama hato -Narova kunjerova"?

Jeff Faux in his book The Global Class War mentions that he was giving a lecture to steel company executives and with facts, figure and chart slides showed how Reagan policies had priced American steel out of the market and decimated the industry. A vice-president of a major steel company interjected, "You don't have to detail the damage Reagan did, we know and lived through it'. Faux asked, "Then why do you guys support him". The executive smiled and replied, "You have to understand, he cut our taxes, we are a country club crowd and he is one of us"

It is the firm general belief of many elitist white people that true civilization began with them. They are unwilling or unaware that if they now stand so tall it is because they have positioned themselves on the shoulders of others as Newton said. This is not to deny either their inventive genius or their merciless exploitation by colonization and slavery. It is because of this obsessive desire to attribute every discovery to Europeans just like the Soviet propaganda to claim every discovery ever made to Russia and Communism, they have consistently tried to rewrite history by bending, twisting, cajoling or breaking truths. As victors of the last half a millennium of history they feel they have earned the right to write it and have done so and keep doing it.

Another case in point is Egypt, the probable starting point of Greek Civilization. From looking at Egyptian monuments and sculpture predating the sculptures of Cyprus exhibited in the New York Metropolitan Museum and then looking at Crete and Greek sculpture one can discern the origin and progress of the art. While the refinement of Greek sculpture is beyond doubt, the West has stubbornly denied any credit to Egypt for being the motherlode. Martin Bernal in his scholarly two volume study, "Black Athena" goes into more detail and proof but has been unfairly relegated to obscurity by partisan hacks without merit or truth, to dissociate the origins of Greek Culture from Egypt which in part of the first millennium BCE was ruled by (black) Nubian Pharoahs, when Greek myths figured incest, cannibalism and infanticide by mother as in Oedipus, the house of Atreus, and Medea. Similar biases have been pointed out by Edward Said and Amartya Sen in their respective books "Orientalism" and "The Argumentative Indian". There are however many good and honest scholars in the West and I would recommend to you a thoroughly researched detailed book with pictures, notes and references by Georges Ifrah, called "The History of Numbers'. It leaves not a shadow of a doubt about the Indian origin of the decimal system and placement value of numbers. A form of zero was invented earlier by the Sumerians and much later but independently by the Mayans. In the middle was the true invention of zero and the decimal system by India around the fourth century AD.

Finally to end on a humorous Indian anecdotal myths on as to how to combat the false propaganda. King Bhoja had announced a prize of hundred gold coins for a poet who recited a new shloka in his assembly. The shrewd but miserly king had in his court entourage three pundits with a prodigious memory. That should appeal to an EMC scientist! The first needed to hear a shloka once and he could recite it forever from memory. The second needed to hear it twice before it became permanently engraved in his mind. The third needed to hear it thrice. Any poet reciting a new poem was unable to claim the prize as the three pundits would serially claim that they knew the poem and could recite it. Kalidasa heard of this and coached an itinerant poet to recite a poem that gave evidence that the king's father had borrowed a million gold coins from the poet's grandfather. After the young poet recited his poem, the pundits with phenomenal auditory memory were in a quandary. For them to confirm that they also knew about the debt would make the king liable for a million gold coins. They opted to say that this poem was new and the young poet claimed his hundred gold coins.

Thus in dealing with such flagrant chicanery, one follows Krishna's example in the Mahabharata. One can ignore it like the lying insults of Shishupala upto a point or indulge in a Dharmayuddha at Kurukshetra. But always keep in mind his words to the desisting chivalrous Arjuna when Karna tried to pull out his sinking chariot wheel -"Shatthaam Shatthyam" and follow the guileful example of the West and Krishna by temporarily hiding the sun while advising Arjuna to use his most powerful and lethal weapon not only to sever the head of Jayadratha but make sure that it landed in the lap of Jayadratha's father so that he would be the victim of the curse.

Last but not the least, one must not forget to look in the mirror through the fog of past glory and present vanity and seriously question ourselves, "What have we done lately"? It means little to invent zero if you become one. Q.E.D   

April 10, 2006

Kamesh Aiyer Replies to the above

I don't think we disagree about the existence of the "blind spot"' the question I raised was a rhetorical one. Mind-sets (or paradigms, if you will) are not changed by little proofs or dis-proofs. All the evidence is that the only way paradigms change is when all the people who were born in the old paradigm die. Sometimes even their immediate descendants (natural or intellectual) have to pass on before a paradigm can change.

Even Indians (!), argumentative or not, have their blind spots. The Mahabharata could, after all, be described as the story of the blind spots of many men as they deal with their offspring and their spouses. But, that's grist for another article.

Kamesh Aiyer


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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