Indian Zero? Pakistani Zero?

Carbon-dating of a Sanskrit manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian library, originally excavated from the village of Bakhshali in British-India’s North-West frontier province (now renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhva in modern-day Pakistan), recently created a seismic shift in our understanding of the history of mathematics. It pushed the earliest recorded date of the use of zero as a placeholder in the cardinal number system, that used nine signs for counting and calculation, by half a millennium. The actual evidence for the use of zero as a full-fledged number (in the decimal system) comes from Brahmagupta Siddhanta, by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta from Ujjain.

close-up image of folio 16v

The Bakhshali manuscript, as it has come to be known, is written in Sanskrit in the Sharada script (the liturgical script still used for Kashmiri, and the ancestor of Gurmukhi). All references to this news, including the few in Pakistani English press, referred to the document as Indian. Unsurprising in itself, as Pakistan treats everything with any relation to Sanskrit as Indian. I am not aware of much Sanskrit expertise in Pakistan’s universities [happy to be corrected, if this is inaccurate!] and conflation of Sanskrit with Hinduism (and Pakistan’s founding animus for it) may have something to do with this notion. E.g. here’s a piece on a rich collection of long neglected Sanskrit documents found at Punjab University Lahore:

A rich treasure of knowledge — an invaluable collection of 9,075 Sanskrit manuscripts on various branches and disciplines of Sanskrit literature — is lying unexplored in Punjab University (PU) library in Lahore since partition. Though they have been preserved properly for decades, hardly any effort was made in the past to study the contents of these manuscripts in detail. Insiders say this indifference was because that the state was least interested in seeking expertise of Sanskrit scholars in India and sharing even an iota of knowledge with them.


So far we have received high-tech cameras and equipment from Koreans to digitise all the contents of these manuscripts. To date, we have not handed them over any manuscript either in original form or in duplicate.” He says at a later stage — once the digitisation process is complete — Koreans can come here to teach Sanskrit to our people

The travesty is that Pakistanis are taught Sanskrit by Koreans. It’s as bad as Chinese giving Latin lessons to the French.

Back to the Bakhshali manuscript, however … I had the chance to see some Pakistanis on twitter express the notion that this manuscript should not be referred to as “Indian”. According to them, India (the state) is a modern state, day younger than Pakistan and cannot lay claim to a document composed anywhere between 224-383 CE (possibly coincident with the Gupta Empire across modern-day N India & Pakistan; 320 CE-550 CE) in a region that’s now Pakistani. So there’s more reason to call it a Pakistani manuscript and a testament to Pakistani creativity, or so the argument goes.

Image result for gupta empire

While many (probably most) Indians will automatically dismiss this claim as another “crazy Pakistani fantasy”, I think that is incorrect and this claim merits some serious thought.

The lowest hanging fruit is the claim that the modern political state (Union) of India was founded a day later than Pakistan. This actually is untrue, and the source is bigdaddy Jinnabhai himself in his “Message to the Nation”:

It is with feelings of greatest happiness and emotion that I send you my greetings. August 15 is the birthday of the independent and sovereign State of Pakistan. It marks the fulfillment of the destiny of the Muslim nation which made great sacrifices in the past few years to have its homeland.

But how about there being no state called “India” in the past and that India is really a modern nation state? I think this holds a lot more water than most people (Indians) realize. India is a modern nation-state, and its political culture differs from what came before in very important ways. E.g. there’s no denying the fact that India never had any culture of universal adult franchise before, or never before in India was an exercise in active, top-down social engineering been attempted (cf. caste reservations for the uninitiated), or women given legally equal status as men, or the existence of a single federal state unifying everything from the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to Ladakh etc. These laws and the culture that animates them are thoroughly unIndian in provenance. To a guy from, say, the Gupta Empire modern India would therefore be politically foreign, revolting and fascinating in equal measure.

India of today in my view is very much a freshly-minted country and so much the better for it. However, cultural continuities exist, just as they do for France from the early Frankish Carolingian kingdom to the ancien regime to the post-Revolution Fifth Republic. Clearly the region under Charlemagne (< Lt. Carolus Magnus) did not have the exact same territorial boundaries as modern France – it in fact included some territories of what’re now Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain. Politically too French Revolution mutated the very DNA of the French state. Yet, the Frankish Carolingians founded and unified France as a Catholic state. The emblematic French fleur de lis (lily flower) also owes its use to the Carolingian dynasty.

Seen in that light, India really is in some respects the successor state of the Mauryan Empire and India’s founding fathers knew this all too well (cf. Lion Capital of Sarnath). Much of India was divided and re-unified many times over from the first Mauryan unification of the Mahajanapadas, the last (partial) re-unification being under the Marathas until their confederacy fell to the British in 1818. Megasthenes, the Seleucid Greek ambassador in Chandragupta (Sandrokoptos to Greeks) Maurya’s court said this about the country he was the ambassador in:

India, which is in shape quadrilateral, has its eastern as well as its western side bounded by the great sea, but on the northern side it is divided by Mount Hemodos (Himalayas) from that part of Skythia which is inhabited by those Skythians who are called the Sakai, while the fourth or western side is bounded by the river called the Indus, which is perhaps the largest of all rivers in the world after the Nile. The extent of the whole country from east to west is said to be 28,000 stadia, and from north to south 32,000.

I think the description above doesn’t leave much to imagination about what India was in the minds of Classical writers. Modern-day India is not geographically completely identical to the above definition, but the description is well-nigh accurate. Barring the thin NW slice of Punjab and Sindh between Indian border and the Indus riparian, that now exists within Pakistan, and including regions of far NE, which were beyond the pale in the Mauryan period, India more-or-less is the same entity geographically.

Finally, does India have some/any cultural continuity from the Gupta period when the Bakhshali manuscript was written? This is a hard question as a lot of water has flown down the Indus and Ganges since. Nonetheless, some cultural motifs survive, including the most important of all – language. An Indian of the 21st century (like me) learns enough spoken Sanskrit in school to have a rudimentary dialogue with the authors of this manuscript. On the other hand, if the Bakhshali manuscript writers were to suddenly travel in time to modern Indian Punjab they will be able to read some Gurmukhi and recognize a few familiar words in it. They’ll see the people who look like them, have a similar accent in speech, relate to the same cultural reference points (say of the Indian Epics), keep long hair (another old Indian marker of piety) and every second person with “Inder” in their names. Basically enough indication that these modern Indian Punjabis (or Himachalis, Haryanvis, Dogras, Kashmiris etc) are of the same cultural strain.

The same can be said of the French v Latin, or Greeks v Classical (Homeric) Greek, though not of Iranians v Old Persian. A Sanskrit-knowing Pandit from Benaras can understand more of the inscriptions of Darius and Cyrus with some effort than your average Iranian – a testament to how cleanly Arabs wiped that slate. Indeed, Old Persian grammar was reconstructed by modern linguists by directly extrapolating from Sanskrit. An example of how similar the languages are:

  • \ adam \ Dârayavauš \ xšâyathiya \ vazraka \ xšâyathiya \ xšâyathiy
  • ânâm \ xšâyathiya \ Pârsaiy \ xšâyathiya \ dahyûnâm \ Višt
  • âspahyâ \ puça \ Aršâmahyâ napâ \ Haxâmanišiya \ thâtiy \
  • Dârayavauš \ xšâyathiya \ manâ \ pitâ \ Vištâspa \ Vištâspahyâ \ pitâ \ Arš
  • âma \ Aršâmahyâ \ pitâ \ Ariyâramna \

Sanskrit translation:

aham DharavAsu*, kshatriya vardhaka, kshatriya

kshatriyanam, kshatriya paraseya, kshatriya dasyunam

Vishtashvasya putra, Arshamasya napa, Sakhamanaseya. AH iti

DharavAsu kshatriyaH: mam pitA Vishtashva, Vishtashvasya pitA

Arshama, Arshamasya pitA Arya-ramana ..

[Note that “Darayavahus” (which is Darius in actual Old Persian) is the exact cognate of Sanskrit Dharavasu (lit. holder of good), but in Sanskrit this compound is formed as Vasudhara instead, a commonly attested name in India to date. Also the Persian title of kings, “shah” is simply a corruption of Old Persian “khshayathiya” cognate of Sanskrit “kshatriya”]

While classical history in Iran has essentially been lost, in Pakistan the slate is in the process of being wiped clean – as the Sanskrit document collection example indicates. Only time will tell how far this effacing process continues.

Author: Slapstik

I was born in Kashmir and a strange turn of events spanning over 2 decades led me to London, where I now live and work. I have a deep interest in linguistics, geo-political history, Science and philosophy of Science and occassionally my writings reflect that interest. I am an ardent Popperian, a technophile, a trekkie and a below average cook. Twitter: @kaeshour

15 thoughts on “Indian Zero? Pakistani Zero?”

  1. The document in question can certainly not be called “Pakistani” as it is from a time before August 1947 when there was no such thing as Pakistan. It was found in a place that is currently within the borders of Pakistan, but that it is quite a different thing.

    Of course the nation-state of “India” didn’t exist before August 1947 either. This is why Pakistanis get upset when Indians claim that Pakistan was created out of India. Both countries were created at the exact same time. Before India, there was British India. Before that, there was Hindustan etc. The confusion exists because the modern successor state of India chose to retain for itself the name of the larger whole. If the two new countries had been called “Pakistan” and “Hindustan” (or “Bharat”), there would be no confusion and we would know clearly whether we were referring to pre or post ’47 history.

    1. Sensible viewpoint.

      a) Bharat is an even older name for India than India and refers to the Pakistani Punjab & Sindh too. So not sure how that helps the confusion.

      b) Megasthenes’ definition does not include Balouchestan (44% of Pak) or western parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhva in “India”. So India retained the Lion’s share (~90% of landmass) of Megasthenes’ definition of India, including all traditional capitals of every single Empire that has ruled the Subcontinent.

      So, the claim is quite reasonable.

      1. The point was that “India” refers both to British India and to the current nation-state. That is where the confusion occurs. If “Bharat” were used post-47 and “India” pre-47, there would be no confusion (Any other name would work just as well).

        As to India retaining all traditional capitals, Lahore was the Mughal capital from 1584 to 1598 and it is very much in Pakistan.

        1. 1. The use of “India” in British-India is a misapplication of the classical word by the Brits. Included Balochistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, parts of Afghanistan etc. Can’t blame Indians for it. Indians corrected the usage, if anything.

          2. Lahore was the tactical capital for just 15 years because Moghals were fighting in Kabul. Akbar reverted to the norm Agra himself as hostilities ceased. Besides, “India” existed way before Moghals. It is facetious to name Lahore as the traditional capital of any pan-Indian empire.

          Just by way of example, Sassanid Iran’s capital Ctesiphon is now in Iraq. And that was their actual, permanent capital – not a temporary encampment like Lahore. But only a fool would claim that Sassanids were Iraqis. Just sayin’.

  2. The part of Pakistan east of the Indus, what you call a sliver, has about two thirds of the population. More if you consider that Karachi is pretty much the port city for the Indus, at the nearest good harbour.

    And if you are using the Greeks as the authoritative source of what is India ( not sure why you are doing this), then you may want to consider the etymology of “India” itself, and the Pakistani river it describes.

    That said, this whole post is in the category of “not even wrong”. As razib wrote, India is a civilization, periodically politically fragmented (like now) but sufficiently culturally whole to be a “thing” (reified).

    1. The word “India” is Classical Greek. And it is generally not a good idea to patronize others about Sanskrit etymology, when one is functionally illiterate in it.

      Besides you clearly have not read the piece properly. It does not exclude Pakistan from the Indic civilization, but laments that they have excluded themselves. The cultural effacement is of Pakistan’s own doing. Nobody would be happier than I if Pakistanis reclaimed what is also rightfully theirs.

      BTW I was being generous to Pakistan when comparing areas (cf. sliver of land) and not populations.

  3. Pakistan has certainly distanced itself from its Indic past. Anything prior to Muhammad bin Qasim’s arrival in Sindh doesn’t fit into the Pakistani identity (which contrary to Zach is very much based on Islam and not primarily on Urdu). This can clearly be seen in Pakistan Studies textbooks which skip from the Indus Valley Civilization straight to MBQ. It’s not surprising though that a country which was formed as a homeland for the Muslims of British India would not be too concerned with the pre-Islamic period.

    What is worrying though is that India is now following the Pakistan model and distancing itself from its Islamic past. The UP government has withdrawn the Taj Mahal (arguably the most famous tourist site in India) from its official tourist brochure. One would be hard put to find any reason for this except that the monument was built by a Muslim king as a tomb for his wife. Official visitors are now given copies of the Mahabharata instead of Taj replicas. One could ask why the double standard in terms of the two countries distancing themselves from inconvenient parts of their heritage? It depends on how the nations define themselves. Pakistan is a self-consciously Muslim state and calls itself the “Islamic Republic”. India is (at least on paper) a secular state. Thus, the fact that it wants to officially deny the glories of the Mughal period is a worrying sign of the state’s transformation into the “Hindu Republic of India”.

    1. Valid criticism. Couldn’t agree more. The present dispensation has a tendency to deny the Islamic history of India.

    2. It will take a very very long time for the current ruling party to rewrite academic history. Indian universities and historical research bodies are very liberal, and during this hindutva cultural surge we are experiencing, very few of these hard-core islamaphobes are likely to get their doctorates and become genuine researchers. They are betting on fighting academia from the outside by discrediting it.

  4. Excellent piece, Slapstick. Agree with most of your commentary as also the fear that Kabir expresses about Hindutva fanatics wanting to erase India’s Islamic past. The thing that reassures me somewhat about India is what Anonymous said in response to Kabir. It is a huge diverse country and still a functional democracy. It is very hard for one point of view, that too an obvious lie, to fool the entire nation. But the liberal and truthful voices need to remain vigilant because zealots are by definition, very persistent propagandists.

    Slapstick, as most Indians educated in India, I understand the rudiments of Sanskrit. But can you please shed more light on the Old Persian inscription about Darius and its Sanskrit translation that you have highlighted? Where was it found, what is it referring to and what is its exact translation in English? Thanks.

    Zach, stop being so sensitive about Pakistan. The criticism here is well deserved. 🙂

    1. Thank you. However, taking recourse to India-is-a-big-country is very feeble defence in my opinion, because it is predicated on circumstance rather than any idea that Indians have institutionalized. Indian version of secularism has a deeply flawed moral underpinning which, rather than safeguarding the rights of India’s minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs etc), has emboldened the hard (and very loony) rightwing fringe of the Hindus.

      I actually wouldn’t call India an institutionally secular country at all, but an accidentally secular one. Maybe I should add a blog about how hollow I find the whole damn thing to be.

      For details (including English translations) of the Old Persian Achaemenid inscriptions from Behistoon in W Iran, you simply have to click on the hyperlinked “inscriptions of Darius” above 🙂

      PS: SLAPSTIK is an acronym, without the “c” 🙂

      1. Okay, thanks. Sorry about misspelling of your name, Slapstik.

        I agree with you about the fragility of India’s secular politics / mindset. I haven’t lived in India for a long time but each time I go back which is practically every year, I see the disturbing trend of increased hardening of religious differences among communities, no doubt instigated by the rising fundamentalism and arrogance of the majority Hindu community.

        I still believe that the size and diversity of India, compounded by the mutual suspicion of Indians of different regions about each other, is somewhat of a protection against unbridled fundamentalism of any stripe. However, the zeitgeist the world over is now trending towards nationalism, racism and other majoritarian identity politics. So why should India be an exception to the rule? I still hope that I am wrong. I would like to see your take on the matter. But I doubt you will have anything to say that I don’t already know. I have never looked at India’s democracy or diversity through rose colored glasses even when I lived there. India of my youth just happened to make a somewhat better attempt at democratic rule than most of its neighbors. 🙂

        I guess I am losing my skills of navigating the internet. Even though I am an erstwhile blogger, I completely missed the hyperlink to the inscription. Thanks for the pointer.

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