A strange fact about modern India is this - by a large majority of its people, the zero is not seen as the beginning of mathematics, but rather as its end. A large number of Indians feel that by inventing the zero, ancient sages had explained away everything that could be known, so that the generations after them would not have to. The more we regress; the tighter we hold on to our pride.
The history of science and mathematics is a global heritage; and while India has made its contributions - they are too far separated in time, and too few to merit any arrogance. The sooner we recognize and accept this, the faster we can make amends.
Instead of exaggerating the little that is known, perhaps more effort should go in re-assessing the vast corpus of pre-print manuscripts that lie ignored and unexplored in India. More than any other fundamentalist phantom of our culture, this is actually endangered. Vikram Chandra has quoted extensively some words by scholar Dominik Wujastyk in his recent book Mirrored Mind of which I reproduce here the most horrifying:
A back-of-an-envelope calculation based on estimated figures and attrition rates suggests that several hundred Sanskrit manuscripts are being destroyed or becoming illegible every week. It is inevitable that some of these losses will include unique, unknown, or otherwise important works.
His paper also shows that the number of manuscripts that need attention is mind-boggling:
How many Indian manuscripts are there? The National Mission for Manuscripts in New Delhi works with a conservative figure of seven million manuscripts, and its database is approaching two million records. The late Prof. David Pingree, basing his count on a lifetime of academic engagement with Indian manuscripts, estimated that there were thirty million manuscripts, if one counted both those in public and government libraries, and those in private collections.
For anyone coming to Indian studies from another field, these gargantuan figures are scarcely credible. But after some acquaintance with the subject, and visits to manuscript libraries in India, it becomes clear that these very large figures are wholly justified.
The Jaina manuscript library at Koba in Gujarat, which only started publishing its catalogues in 2003, has an estimated 250,000 manuscripts. The Sarasvati Bhavan Library in Benares has in excess of 100,000 manuscripts.There are 85,000 in various repositories in Delhi. There are about 50,000 manuscripts in theSarasvati Mahal library in Thanjavur in the far South. Such examples are easily multiplied acrossthe whole subcontinent. And these are only the public libraries with published catalogues. Aone-year pilot field-survey by the National Mission for Manuscripts in Delhi, during 2004 2005,documented 650,000 manuscripts distributed across 35,000 repositories in the states of Orissa,Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and field participants in that project report that they only scratched the surface.
- Aspects of manuscript culture in South India, by Peter Richardus
- Indian Manuscripts, by Dominik Wujastyk