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Beeja-Ganitham – The Indian origins of Algebra


Algebra is a broad area of mathematics that deals with unknown quantities by assigning variables. In Arabic, it means “reconstitution from broken parts”. The origins of Algebra can be traced back to India where this body of knowledge was called “Bija Ganitham“. Bija means the “seed” or the basic entity and Ganitham means “counting”. It involves the relationship between basic entities and assigning variables to them and forming equations to derive their values. Contrasting with Arithmetics (Vyakta Ganitham) which deals with distinct and identifiable entities, Algebra is also known as Avyakta Ganitham or that which deals with Unknown entities.

College Algebra | Harvard University

This ability to express problems and unknowns in the form of variables and equations was path breaking in terms of what could be achieved in mathematics and science. It enabled man to describe science in simple, written form. This technique was formally propounded and popularised by leading astronomer and mathematician Bhaskaracharya II who was born in 1114 CE. The origins, however, of Algebra go further back to Mahavir in the 8th century and Brahmagupta in the 7th century. 

This Indian way of calculating travelled to Arabia where Bija transformed to Jabr or Jabir. Out of reverence, Al was added, and it came to be called Al-Jabr or Algebra. This comes from the treatise written in the year 830 by the Persian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, whose title, Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala translated as The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. 

Al Khwarizmi: a Muslim Mathematical genius who revolutionised AlgebraStatue of Al-Khwarizmi in Uzbekistan

Al-Khwarizmi had written the first book on Arabic Numerals called “On Indian Numbers”. Around 820 CE he was appointed as the astronomer and head of the library of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Thus we see how India contributed immensely to mathematics which laid the foundations for modern day science. It is also a known fact that the basics of counting also originated in India in the form of the Decimal system. 

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Reference:“Roots in India”- Autobiography of India series by D.K. Hari and D.K. Hema Hari by Garuda Prakashan.