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.
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.
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 \
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.