Indian Numerals

English for Math II
Indian Numerals
India has produced many numeral systems. Arguably, all of these numeral systems could be called the
Indian numeral system. For the purpose of this article, however, the term Indian numeral system will
refer only to the positional base 10 numeral systems that developed in India, and the term Indian
numerals will refer only to the numerals that are part of the Devanagari script.
The numeral system has all the advantages of the Arabic numeral system except that this Indian
numeral system has traditionally not allowed decimals. [Go to source below to see the numeral
Today these numerals are used in all Indian languages that use the Devanagari script. Most Indian
languages which use other Brahmic scripts use the Indian numeral systems except with different
Somewhat speculatively, the Indian numeral system can be traced to China. According to the theory,
Chinese merchants or Buddhist pilgrims introduced into India a numeral system similar to the Chinese
Hua Ma system (see Chinese numerals). By the middle of the 1st Millennium AD, a base 10 numeral
system with 9 glyphs (an element of writing) was being used in India. This numeral system spread to
the Middle East and is believed to have greatly contributed to the development of the Arabic numeral
system. In 662, a Nestorian bishop living in what is now called Iraq said of the numeral system:
“I will omit all discussion of the science of the Indians ... of their subtle discoveries in astronomy discoveries that are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians - and of their
valuable methods of calculation which surpass description. I wish only to say that this computation is
done by means of nine signs. If those who believe that because they speak Greek they have arrived at
the limits of science would read the Indian texts, they would be convinced, even if a little late in the
day, that there are others who know something of value.”
Significantly, however, the numeral system described lacks a zero digit. This is despite the fact that
Indian mathematicians, most notably Brahmagupta, had already studied zero. As a consequence, it
would have been hard to discriminate 6002 from 60002, and virtually impossible to discriminate 6200
from 62000, except from context. In India, the first record of the zero digits being used - both after
and in between nonzero numbers - dates from 876 AD. Records show that Muslim mathematicians
working primarily in what is now Iraq had arrived at this same step at roughly the same time (874 AD).
Unlike the Arab numeral system, which was known solely by mathematicians until the 13th century,
the Indian numeral system was widely used in India among all literate professions from at least 1000
The Devanagari Script