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Origins of Zero: A fascinating story of science and spirituality across civilisations 

Published on 05 March 2023
Updated on 23 April 2024

Number zero is one of the greatest inventions in history, with a profound impact on the evolution of humanity including our digital era, which is shaped by ‘0’ and ‘1’. However, little is known about the history of number ‘zero’. Its origins are rooted in the philosophical concepts of ancient South and Southeast Asia, and its journey to Western Europe is a fascinating tale of cultural exchange, scientific discovery, and technological advancement.  

This article explores the evolution of zero, charting its journey from its origins in Indian space to its dissemination through the Arab world and, eventually, its arrival in Europe, where it revolutionised Western mathematics and laid the foundation for modern science and technology. 


Zero in Ancient India


The concept of zero, termed ‘Shunya’ in Hindi, has deep roots in ancient Indian philosophical and religious traditions.  ‘Shunyata’, often translated as ’emptiness’ or ‘void’, holds significant importance in Buddhism.  The renowned philosopher Nagarjuna, active around the 2nd century CE, anchored Mahayana Buddhism on the principle of ’emptiness’, emphasizing the interdependent existence of phenomena.

This philosophical understanding of ’emptiness’ or ‘void’ laid the groundwork for the mathematical adoption of the number zero. By the 6th century AD, prominent Indian mathematicians like Aryabhata and Brahmagupta had begun employing zero as a placeholder in their calculations.

To date, archaeological efforts have unveiled two significant artefacts in India that demonstrate the early use of the numeral zero:

The more ancient of the two is the stone known as K-127, dated to 683 CE. Discovered in the Hindu temple complex of Sambor near the Mekong River, this stone features the numeral zero depicted as a dot amidst other numbers. Presently, K-127 is housed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Subsequent to this is the ‘Gwalior zero’, found inscribed in the Chaturbhuj Temple in Gwalior, India. This artifact, dating to 876 CE, showcases the use of the number zero in a manner akin to modern usage, specifically to document a land grant.

Birth of Algebra in the Islamic Golden Age

Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī

In the 9th century, during the intellectual flourishing of the Islamic Golden Age, zero became fully integrated into mathematics. This critical development was spearheaded by the Persian scholar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, celebrated as the father of algebra. In the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Al-Kwharizmi developed an Arabic numeric system with the number zero, called in Arabic ‘sift’. 

The transmission of the zero concepts from India to Europe was expedited by the Latin translation of al-Khwarizmī’s seminal work, Algoritmo de Numero Indorum, in the 12th century. This translation served as a pivotal conduit, connecting the mathematical legacies of ancient India with the Arab world and, subsequently, with Europe. This served as the foundation for the zero concept’s wider adoption, which Arab traders also helped to facilitate.

Fibonacci and the spread of zero worldwide


Next on our historical journey is Fibonacci, also known as Leonardo of Pisa, who carried the torch of ‘0’ and the Hindu-Arabic decimal system of Al-Kwarizmi, and brought it to Europe. Fibonacci learnt about ‘0’ and decimal mathematics from Arab traders he met while accompanying his father on merchant tours in Tunisia. He immediately realised the superiority of the decimal system compared to previously used Roman numbers. This new type of mathematics spread to the rest of Europe through his book, Liber Abaci (Book of Calculation), published in 1202.

Nikola Tesla and digital modernity

Nikola Tesla

Fast forward in the late 19th and early 20th century, and here is Nikola Tesla, who laid the basis for the electronic and, ultimately, the digital age. His innovation opus includes wireless technology and other ideas that had not been deciphered until now. Like Al-Kwarizmi and Fibonacci, in the spirit of the best Mediterranean tradition, Tesla was a boundary spanner in many respects.

His interest in spiritual life came from his childhood and the fact that his father was a Serbian Orthodox priest interested in the spiritual traditions of Asian cultures. Later on in his life, Tesla studied Buddhism. He wrote that many of his engineering inventions could be traced to spiritual insights.

The evolution of zero culminates in its central role in today’s digital world. In the binary system, which forms the basis of modern computing, digits 0 and 1 represent one bit. This seemingly simple binary language has led to the formation of bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, terabytes, and beyond, shaping the digital landscape we experience today.

The journey of zero is a testament to the power of cross-cultural exchange, human curiosity, and technological innovation. From its philosophical origins in ancient India to its mathematical maturity in the Arab world, and finally to its global adoption, Zero has transformed human thought and society. Zero’s contributions to mathematics, physics, and digitalisation are fundamental and continue to resonate in our modern world, underscoring the profound importance of this seemingly simple number.

This fascinating journey of number ‘0’ from India across civilisations, religious, and cultural divides should serve as an inspiration for our time when the widening of divides between cultures and societies increases. The number ‘0’ stands as a reminder that science and spirituality have the potential to change the world. 

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