Reclaiming South Asians’ Mathematic Contributions

by SAHF Team

The Importance of Reclaiming the Indigenous Hindu Knowledge of South Asia.

The great Italian mathematician Fibonacci wrote in the Liber Abaci (The Book of Calculation) that “In this book, I have established the entire doctrine of numbers according to the method of Indians, a method I have adopted in this same science as it is the most effective.” It was in this book that Fibonacci discusses the topic of a certain sequence where each number in the sequence is the sum of the two preceding ones (starting with 0 and 1). We call this sequence the Fibonacci Sequence and celebrate him for it on Fibonacci Day, which occurs on November 23rd. But this sequence is not a discovery of Fibonacci. In fact, it was first mentioned by Acārya Piṅgala, who was a renowned Hindu mathematician, nearly 1,500 years before Fibonacci discussed it in the Liber Abaci in the 13th century AD. Fibonacci himself acknowledged that he relied on Indian mathematics. Yet do we not call this sequence the Piṅgala Sequence nor celebrate this great mathematician in the same way. Therein lies the problem.

The Problem

Indian and South Asian contributions to the field of mathematics (especially) have hardly been acknowledged, honored, and learned about. It’s not just one sequence either. Another example is of the “Pascal’s” Triangle, which is named after French mathematician Blaise Pascal. But guess what? Acārya Piṅgala knew about this triangle array of binomial coefficients in the 2nd century BCE, which is about 1,800 years before Pascal did. Similarly, the so-called Rolle’s Theorem, which is named after French mathematician Michel Rolle, was first discovered by Bhāskarācārya of Karnataka around 500 years before Rolle.

Now one might say that the ordinary person probably wouldn’t know what this triangle array is, what the sequence mentioned in the introduction is, or what the “Rolle’s” Theorem is. Fair enough. So let’s discuss the numeral system we use today. The basic numeral system (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and etc) we use today is called the “Hindu–Arabic numeral system”. Hold on—why the Arabic part? This numerical system was invented in South Asia by Hindu mathematicians and even the Persians and Arabs acknowledged that by referring to these numerals as “Hindu numbers”. While the Arabs certainly played an important role in transmitting this numerical system to Europe, that shouldn’t mean the naming of the numerical system should give a false impression that the Arabs had a role in inventing it. Think of it this way: just because you ask your friend to deliver a cake you made to the local orphanage center, that cake doesn’t suddenly become the work of your friend even though they transported it.

This consistent appropriation of Dharmic knowledge indigenous to South Asia, particularly in mathematics, is a problem. A Eurocentric bias has culminated in great Dharmic scholars of South Asia not receiving due credit for their discoveries in the naming-patterns and laymen historical discussions surrounding their discoveries.

That is precisely why it is important for South Asians to reclaim the indigenous contributions to mathematics that were made by Dharmic scholars (often thousands of years before their European counterparts). This reclaiming should encompass the renaming of these sequences, triangles, and theorems after the Dharmic scholars who discovered them, and it should encompass the discussion of these scholars, such as Acārya Piṅgala and Bhāskarācārya, when discussions regarding their contributions are brought up. That is one of the main ways to honor the heritage of South Asia in the mathematical field

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