Fact : the 'Zero' was invented by Aryabhatta, an Indian mathematician. Up until quite recently this used to be my favorite Indian contribution to the evolution of the human thought. But in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, as I look back at everything that led to the present economic condition of the world, (in which war is a legitimate revenue-generating economic activity, tax-havens have illustrious names of politicians and artists associated with them, as banks still continue to pay 'billions' as regulatory fines), I find this fascinating invention at fault for the human condition called greed.
But on further ruminating, this conclusion seems too simplistic. Could it be possible that in the grimy process of systematically looting and methodically killing each other (while believing that shallow, deprecating sarcasm and humour directed at ourselves would somehow justify our actions) we completely misunderstood the zero ?
In any case, there couldn't have been a better time to re-visit this old but quite interesting concept.
Historically, the zero hardly started out as being as mindlessly used as it is today. Infact for several centuries, its inventors didnt even have a symbol or a word denoting it.
In ancient India, 'shunya' for a long time was a metaphysical concept that inquisitive seers contemplated on and understood as that which encompassed an infinite universe - from where creation originated, into which it eventually dissolved.
As trading flourished in the subcontinent, new number systems were developed.
When the Arabs were conceptualizing their ingenious counting system based on the zero, the symbol that they used for it was not anything fancy but the unassuming dot. The dot was used, perhaps to represent the point in space time where infinite nothingness converged into the finite something - the big bang in outdated scientific parlance, the hindu mythical event of the churning of the primordial ocean, the first day of the seven days God took to create creation, biblically.
From this perspective, modern classroom methods of introducing the zero to little children, by marking a point in the center of a horizontal number line ending with angle braces (implying that the stream of numbers on both sides of zero never end) is downright absurd. Zero defined as being that which remains when a number equal to another number is removed, subtracted, taken away from it, is an insult to its real meaning. It is of little wonder then, that Indian mathematicians having 'invented' the concept, never began their number systems with it.
Indeed it would appear silly to place the infinite void - from which every thought, word, action (and feeling?)is born - beside little numbers like 1, 2, 3...
Simply put when all mangoes from a basket are removed, nothing remains. But equating this 'nothingness' - to just the absence of mangoes is preposterous. Because this void singularly contains every other object, living or non living, thoughts both material and metaphysical, planets revolving around stars, unproved yet existing mathematical conjectures musical notes waiting to be discovered, the inspiration for art and perhaps unending Love.
Thus, the problem of defining or measuring zero becomes an interesting metaphysical exercise, the unspoken but implied subject of several koans, the start, destination and the path taken while practicing mindfulness. From a materialistic point of view, perhaps important for an individual who spends a significant part of his productive life trying to add more zeros at the end of his account balance, would be to ponder upon if it is worth the effort and sacrifice.
Is it then even possible for the zero to be invented? Or does one discover it while unravelling the abundance in their hearts ?
Is the zero then an absolute void or the holder of abundant plenty? Or something like the feeling after all the guests have left after a party. Or maybe more akin to what is left when your children have grown and left the nest. Perhaps what is left of you when you realise that the person you thought you loved turns out to be entirely different in reality.
"Chandni ke doobte hi, ghar mein kya reh jayega? Tum chale jaogey, darwaza khula reh jayega."