Dr. S. Varadarajan President, Indian National Science Academy Inaugurating the Seminar

The Concept of Sunya

An International Seminar on the cocept of Sunya was jointly organised by the IGNCA and the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), from 12 to 14 February, 1997 at New Delhi

The three-day seminar on Sunya was jointly hosted by IGNCA and INSA. About fifty scholars from India and abroad of varied desciplines exchanged their views and participated in the deliberations. The seminar was inaugurated by Prof. Varadarajan, President of the INSA. In his inaugural address Prof. Varadarajan said, “the interaction with the IGNCA has played a role in shaping our own understanding, our preception on the value of our science. At a juncture when science is being viewed as an important input in the development of our society, we have ventured into an area of combination of science and philosophy”.

He further said that, “though the area might be new to us, the founders of the Indian science had a perfect understanding of this combination. Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, in the convenors address said that, “the concept of Sunya contains both, rational understanding of our world and the irrational or intutive perception of the universe which are complementary”. She added, “Sunya is a major metaphor in all forms of Arts, which are manifestations of integrated versions of diverse domains of knowledge.”

The Seminar deliberated on the concept of Sunya in, (i) mathematical system; (ii) speculative thought; and (iii) Temple Art, Tantra and Agama, Mysticism and their ramifications in other fields. The notion of Sunyais as pervasive as problematic. Many debates have been held on the notion in the context of growth of civilization. The Sanskrit term sunya which is of obscure etymology, is used both as substantive and adjective, with diverse connotations, such as void, either (akasa), blank, absence, etc. The concept of sunya in India has a long history and varied manifestations in different dimensions, in Mathematics, in Philosophy and in mysticism. In mathematical literature it is used in the sense of zero having no substantial numeral value of its own but playing the key role in the system of decimal notation, to express all numbers with nine digits, one to nine and the sunya as the tenth. The application of sunya in this system of notation was discovered in India, some time in the pre-Christian era. Its concretization in the form of a dot or a small circle and its use in decimal place value first replaced the abjad system of numeration of the Arabs and then through them travelled to medieval Europe to supplant the Greek and Roman systems, and the whole world slowly recognized it as the most scientific system of numeration. Though erroneously called by the westerners as the Arabic numeral system, now the entire world knows that the credit for discovery of sunya goes to India. Medieval Central Asian scholars such as Al-Kharizmi (9th cent.AD) and Al-Baruni (11th cent.AD) as well as George Sarton of modern time bear testimony that the system consisting of nine numeral digits and one sunya (zero) was invented by the Hindus, i.e. Indians.

It is sometimes contended that the use of zero in Arithmatic was earlier known to the Babylonians. Though the Babylonian records of about 200 B.C. show the use of a character to denote the absence of a number, it did not form the basis of their sysem of numeration as the Indian sunya does. The question of Indias indebtedeness to the Babylonians in this respect can be safely ruled out.

The treatment of all the fundamental operations with sunya in Mathematics and Astronomy in a logical and systematic way was developed by subsequent authorities from Brahmagupta of the seventh century to Ranganatha of the seventeenth century. In this way sunya (zero) is defined as infinitesimal, and this is exactly the same as the modern conception of zero in arithmatic.

Besides Mathematics and Astronomy, the term Sunya has been widely used to denote diverse concepts of Indian philosophical and mystical traditions. Swami Jitatmananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, Rajkot delivered a special address on the occasion. Sunya in Indian literary and cultural tradition is the embodiment of purna (full), lopa (absence), akasa (universe), bindu (dot), vrtta (circle). The notion of Sunya is pervasive as well as problematic. It denotes Brahman on one side and void or absence of all phenomena, both material and abstract, on the other. It is the kernel of Sunyavada philosophy of the Madhyamika Buddhists, where Sunya is equivalent to Emancipation (Nirvana), transcending all four dimensions of existence and non-existence along with their permutations and combinations. In Tantra-Agama traditions, particularly in the Saivagamas, the concept of Sunya and sunyata have several levels, starting from void or emptiness in place and time, to ultimate and absolute bliss. In the Vedantic view Sunya or nirguna are collinear terms which negate empirical reality of the phenomenal world.

It is also true that the philosophical conceptualization of sunya and sunyata as developed by Nagarajuna and of the akasa (which is a synonym of sunya) lent support to and left an impact on the concretization ofsunya of the mathematicians. At the same time the concept of sunya in philosophy and Tantra has been symbolized in the temple architecture and iconography.

V.S. Shukla



Zero is the embodiment of purna (full), lopa (absence), akasa (universe), bindu (dot), sunya (circle), in Indian literary and cultural traditions. The concept got concretized in the form of a symbol like dot or circle to fill up the empty space created in Indian decimal place-value concept. These ideas were represented in the logo of the seminar formulated by Shri P.T. Deshpande of the IGNCA.



Newsletter | List of Newsletter ]