Born to an astronomer, Brahmagupta fell in love with the stars at an early age. Residing in northern Rajasthan, the clear nights of the Thar desert made the perfect set-up for the curious kid. From questioning the emptiness of the sky he went on to define it. Around 7 A.D, he became the first documented person to define the value of Zero. He used a dot to represent Zero. In the future, Aryabhatt will give it the circular shape that we are now familiar with. Brahmagupta’s book ‘Brahmasphutasiddhanta‘ was the first book that had zero as a numerical.
In ancient India, children used to learn in Gurukuls. Gurukuls are like modern-day boarding schools. They were generally located far away from the cities. Children attended these Gurukuls from quite a young age. They lived there, learning various subjects, and visited their homes only once in a while. Meditation and yoga were part of their daily routine. Brahmagupta was no different. After gaining some basic knowledge of astronomy from his father, he went to a gurukul for higher learning. Due to the lack of papers to write, ancient teaching depended highly on oral reciting and memorizing. One of these techniques involves remembering formulas through rhythmic verses. This is the reason why most of Brahmagupta’s works are also in verses.
After completing his study at the gurukul, Brahmagupta began his experiments. He worked extensively in the fields of astronomy, geometry, algebra, and fractions. He then went on to write two books. One of which contains the first event of treating zero as a numerical value. He also gave six different ways of operating on a fraction. In astronomy, his work on heavenly bodies was way ahead of his time. In this book, he also opposes the idea that the sun is closer to earth than the moon. This also led to the explanation of lunar eclipses.
His works made him renowned. Students from neighbouring countries came to become his disciples. One of such disciples was Al-Mansur. He was from Baghdad, Iraq. After completing his learning, he went back to Iraq and opened a new learning centre. This learning centre in Baghdad became a stepping stone for Islamic mathematics for years to come. Thus Brahmagupta was also an important link between Indian and Islamic mathematics.
Later in life, he became the head of the astronomical observatory in Ujjain. Here he received the title of Bhillamalacharya (teacher of Bhillamala). This is where he completed his book on astronomy. The book gave birth to rivalry. His counterparts criticized his application of mathematics to the physical world. As an act of boldness, he dedicated the first 10 chapters to his critics and rivals. Criticism never left him, even after his death many rivals accused him of false narratives. But Brahmagupta knew that history would be kinder to him.
He was known for his originality of ideas. In his astronomy book named Khanda-khādyaka, he created the first-ever practical manual of Indian astronomy. This manual guided the great minds of the future including Aryabhatta II. Brahmagupta also established operational rules on the number zero including addition, multiplication, and division. Before Brahmagupta, negative numbers were considered meaningless. But he thought differently. He saw numbers as abstract quantities. This led him to the concept of both fractions and negative numbers.
He presumably died around 668 C.E in Ujjain. A century later, the land of Rajasthan was under Islamic rule. Many of his works were burned and destroyed. Today, many of his works are considered unfinished. Many of his theories lack evidence of experimentation. Hence other mathematicians got the credit for what Brahmagupta did.
At a time when the rest of the world believed the sun and moon as God, Brahmagupta was calculating the distances between them. He did all this with some basic tools and an unmatched imagination. Repeating his works even today would be a challenge. He was a man out of his time. At the root of all this hard work and achievement was curiosity. He was curious to know what lies beyond stars, curious to know what lies beyond numbers known.
Without zero there would be no electricity, no computers, and no easy way of calculating big numbers. His answers are a gift to humankind, but a bigger treasure lies in his daringness to ask those questions.