By Anoop Verma
In the field of mathematics, Aryabhatta engineered a revolution the effects of which are being felt till this day. He was the first mathematician in the world to originate the concept of 0. Few millennia before Copernicus and Galileo, Aryabhatta promulgated a heliocentric theory. He taught that the earth was a sphere hanging in the space and rotating on its own axis, resulting in the formation of day and night. He came up with a scientific explanation for the eclipses.
Much before Archimedes, Aryabhatta calculated the value of Pi. He also wrote about the sun being the source of moonlight. He was the first astronomer to measure the Earth’s circumference, which he calculated with remarkable accuracy as 24,835 miles. This is only 0.2 per cent smaller than the actual value of 24,902 miles. For more than 1,000 years, Aryabhatta’s approximation of earth’s circumference has remained the most accurate.
In his most important work, the Aryabhatiya, Aryabhatta has mentioned his year of birth. He reveals that the work was composed 3,600 years into the Kali Yuga, when he was twenty-three years old. From this statement scholars are able to arrive at the rough estimate that Aryabhatta was born in the year 476 AD, and he began working on the Aryabhatiya in the year 499 AD. During this period, King Budha Gupta of the Gupta Dynasty was presiding over the Magadha Empire, whose capital was situated in Pataliputra. The Gupta period, which is said to have lasted from 320AD to 740AD, saw a great outburst in intellectual and scientific activities, and is often regarded as the golden age of India.
In Aryabhatiya, the mathematician has not shed any light on personal aspects as his parentage, his educational career and the kind of life he generally led. Bhaskara I is a major source of information on Aryabhatta. In his account, Bhaskara I has said that Aryabhatta was a reputed teacher. It is generally believed that Aryabhatta could have been the head of the University of Nalanda. He is thought to have played a pivotal role in setting up an observatory at the Sun Temple in Taregana, Bihar. In the first and second chapters of the Aryabhatiya, Aryabhatta has penned slokas in which he is paying homage to Lord Brahma. These slokas are clearly indicative of the fact that Aryabhatta belonged to the school of astronomy, which had been inspired from Lord Brahma himself.
Aryabhatta’s devotion to Lord Brahma was of high order; this much is obvious from any reading of the Aryabhatiya. Bhaskara I has also dwelled on Aryabhatta’s devotion towards Lord Brahma. Bhaskara I writes, “This Acharya worshipped Lord Brahma by doing severe penance. So, by his grace was revealed to him the true knowledge of the subjects pertaining to the true motion of the planets…” Aryabhatta was of the view that one who gains an understanding of the motion of earth and the other planets attains salvation through the reunion with the Brahma.
Some legends suggest that from his marriage Aryabhatta had a son called Devarajan, who also wrote a work on astronomy. But there is no historical evidence to corroborate this view. Several of the treatises that Aryabhatta wrote in his lifetime are now lost. The Aryabhatiya is his only known extant work, but we have some cursory details about his two other works, Aryabhatta-Siddhanta and Surya-Siddhanta-Prakasa, through references in the works of Aryabhatta’s contemporaries and later mathematicians and commentators. Written in a poetic form of Sanskrit, and with impressive brevity of expressions, the Aryabhatiya is an excellent textbook of mathematics and astronomy. The work is divided into four sections containing more than 120 slokas. There is some controversy regarding the exact number of slokas as different scholars use different system of counting.
Overall, the Aryabhatiya is rendered in a uniform style, and hence most scholars like to assume that it has reached us in more or less the same form in which Aryabhatta first created it. An important feature of the Aryabhatiya is that it is the oldest extant Indian work, which uses alphabets to denote numbers. This system facilitates more advanced mathematical computations, which would not be possible if words were being used to denote numerals. Before Aryabhatta, Indian mathematicians used word numerals.
The mathematical and astronomical theories that Aryabhatta propounded were way ahead of their time. His crowning glory must lie in the discovery of the decimal place value notation, without which we can’t even conceive modern mathematics, science and commerce. The formulas that he developed for solving astronomical problems continue to be in use till today. The Bihar research society in Patna celebrates Aryabhatta’s birth anniversary on 13th April every year.