Aryabhata – Inventor of the Digit Zero

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Aryabhata (476–550 CE) was the first in the line of great mathematician-astronomers from the classical age of Indian mathematics and Indian astronomy. His works include the Āryabhaṭīya (499 CE, when he was 23 years old) and the Arya-siddhanta.

The works of Aryabhata dealt with mainly mathematics and astronomy. He also worked on the approximation for pi.



While there is a tendency to misspell his name as “Aryabhatta” by analogy with other names having the “bhatta” suffix, his name is properly spelled Aryabhata: every astronomical text spells his name thus, including Brahmagupta’s references to him “in more than a hundred places by name”. Furthermore, in most instances “Aryabhatta” does not fit the metre either.

Time and place of birth

Aryabhata mentions in the Aryabhatiya that it was composed 3,600 years into the Kali Yuga, when he was 23 years old. This corresponds to 499 CE, and implies that he was born in 476.

Aryabhata’s birthplace is uncertain, but it may have been in the area known in ancient texts as Ashmaka India which may have been Maharashtra or Dhaka.


It is fairly certain that, at some point, he went to Kusumapura for advanced studies and lived there for some time. Both Hindu and Buddhist tradition, as well as Bhāskara I (CE 629), identify Kusumapura asPāṭaliputra, modern Patna. A verse mentions that Aryabhata was the head of an institution (kulapa) at Kusumapura, and, because the university of Nalanda was in Pataliputra at the time and had an astronomical observatory, it is speculated that Aryabhata might have been the head of the Nalanda university as well. Aryabhata is also reputed to have set up an observatory at the Sun temple in Taregana, Bihar.

2Other hypotheses

Some archeological evidence suggests that Aryabhata could have originated from the present day Kodungallur which was the historical capital city of Thiruvanchikkulam of ancient Kerala. For instance, one hypothesis was that aśmaka (Sanskrit for “stone”) may be the region in Kerala that is now known as Koṭuṅṅallūr, based on the belief that it was earlier known as Koṭum-Kal-l-ūr (“city of hard stones”); however, old records show that the city was actually Koṭum-kol-ūr (“city of strict governance”). Similarly, the fact that several commentaries on the Aryabhatiya have come from Kerala were used to suggest that it was Aryabhata’s main place of life and activity; however, many commentaries have come from outside Kerala.

Aryabhata mentions “Lanka” on several occasions in the Aryabhatiya, but his “Lanka” is an abstraction, standing for a point on the equator at the same longitude as his Ujjayini.


Place value system and zero

The place-value system, first seen in the 3rd-century Bakhshali Manuscript, was clearly in place in his work. While he did not use a symbol for zero, the French mathematician Georges Ifrah argues that knowledge of zero was implicit in Aryabhata’s place-value system as a place holder for the powers of ten with null coefficients

However, Aryabhata did not use the Brahmi numerals. Continuing the Sanskritic tradition from Vedic times, he used letters of the alphabet to denote numbers, expressing quantities, such as the table of sines in a mnemonic form.

2Approximation of π

Aryabhata worked on the approximation for pi (\pi), and may have come to the conclusion that \pi is irrational. In the second part of the Aryabhatiyam (gaṇitapāda 10), he writes:

caturadhikam śatamaṣṭaguṇam dvāṣaṣṭistathā sahasrāṇām
ayutadvayaviṣkambhasyāsanno vṛttapariṇāhaḥ.
“Add four to 100, multiply by eight, and then add 62,000. By this rule the circumference of a circle with a diameter of 20,000 can be approached.”

This implies that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter is ((4 + 100) × 8 + 62000)/20000 = 62832/20000 = 3.1416, which is accurate to five significant figures.

It is speculated that Aryabhata used the word āsanna (approaching), to mean that not only is this an approximation but that the value is incommensurable (or irrational). If this is correct, it is quite a sophisticated insight, because the irrationality of pi was proved in Europe only in 1761 by Lambert.

After Aryabhatiya was translated into Arabic (c. 820 CE) this approximation was mentioned in Al-Khwarizmi’s book on algebra.


In Ganitapada 6, Aryabhata gives the area of a triangle as

tribhujasya phalashariram samadalakoti bhujardhasamvargah

that translates to: “for a triangle, the result of a perpendicular with the half-side is the area.”

Aryabhata discussed the concept of sine in his work by the name of ardha-jya, which literally means “half-chord”. For simplicity, people started calling it jya. When Arabic writers translated his works from Sanskritinto Arabic, they referred it as jiba. However, in Arabic writings, vowels are omitted, and it was abbreviated as jb. Later writers substituted it with jaib, meaning “pocket” or “fold (in a garment)”. (In Arabic, jiba is a meaningless word.) Later in the 12th century, when Gherardo of Cremona translated these writings from Arabic into Latin, he replaced the Arabic jaib with its Latin counterpart, sinus, which means “cove” or “bay”; thence comes the English sine. Alphabetic code has been used by him to define a set of increments. If we use Aryabhata’s table and calculate the value of sin(30) (corresponding to hasjha) which is 1719/3438 = 0.5; the value is correct. His alphabetic code is commonly known as the Aryabhata cipher.

Indeterminate equations

A problem of great interest to Indian mathematicians since ancient times has been to find integer solutions to equations that have the form ax + by = c, a topic that has come to be known as diophantine equations. This is an example from Bhāskara’s commentary on Aryabhatiya:

Find the number which gives 5 as the remainder when divided by 8, 4 as the remainder when divided by 9, and 1 as the remainder when divided by 7

That is, find N = 8x+5 = 9y+4 = 7z+1. It turns out that the smallest value for N is 85. In general, diophantine equations, such as this, can be notoriously difficult. They were discussed extensively in ancient Vedic textSulba Sutras, whose more ancient parts might date to 800 BCE. Aryabhata’s method of solving such problems is called the kuṭṭaka (कुट्टक) method. Kuttaka means “pulverizing” or “breaking into small pieces”, and the method involves a recursive algorithm for writing the original factors in smaller numbers. Today this algorithm, elaborated by Bhaskara in 621 CE, is the standard method for solving first-order diophantine equations and is often referred to as the Aryabhata algorithm. The diophantine equations are of interest in cryptology, and the RSA Conference, 2006, focused on the kuttaka method and earlier work in the Sulbasutras.


In Aryabhatiya Aryabhata provided elegant results for the summation of series of squares and cubes:

1^2 + 2^2 + \cdots + n^2={n(n + 1)(2n + 1) \over 6}


1^3 + 2^3 + \cdots + n^3=(1 + 2 + \cdots + n)^2 (see squared triangular number)

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