Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The European Reaction to the Mayan Concept of Zero

In the sixteenth century, when Europe's first Jesuit priests made contact with the Maya in the Americas, and they examined the Mayan texts, they found that the Maya were using zero in their calculations. For the Jesuits, the use of zero was a heresy which had to be stamped out. To eradicate Maya religion, the Jesuits ordered the burning of every Mayan texts that they could lay their hands on. The biggest bonfire of Mayan texts was orchestrated on July 12, 1562, on the orders of Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa. In this bonfire, thousands of texts and images, some of them thousands of years old, were burned. Thus, much of Mayan history was wiped out. 

Since most Mayan texts were burned, it is not clear when and how the Maya discovered their concept of zero, and how they used zero in their philosophy and calculations. In Asia, the concept of zero was discovered more than 4000 years ago, by the Hindus of India and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. In the ancient Hindu theory of creation, the universe began with nothingness, or sunyata (void). The Hindus theorized that God created the universe out of nothing, and that before the visible universe became extant there was sunyata. This kind of theory of creation made the Hindus comfortable with the concept of zero, and with the converse of zero, infinity. Ancient Hindu texts contain numerous references to the concepts of zero and infinity. The philosophy of sunyata has played a critical role in Hindu religious thought.

The Ancient Greek story of creation began with something—the realm of the Gods. The Greeks theorized that a void could not exist, since the realm of Gods was eternal. Such a story of creation made the Greeks uncomfortable with the concept of zero. For them zero was a heretical and alien concept. Christian Europe inherited the Greek view of zero. It was due to European discomfort with the concept of zero that the Roman Numeral System, which was used in Europe for more than 1800 years, did not have a symbol for zero. Right up to the sixteenth century, the Church decreed the use of zero as a heresy, and they kept this concept out of mainstream mathematics. The use of zero became acceptable to the Church in 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was authorized by Pope Gregory XIII.

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