The Word-Numeral System

The word-numeral system was the logical outcome of proceeding by multiples of ten. Thus, in an early system, 60,799 is denoted by the Sanskrit word sastim (60), shsara (thousand), sapta (seven) satani (hundred), navatim (nine ten times) and nava (nine). Such a system presupposes a scientifically based vocabulary of number names in which the principles of addition, subtraction and multiplication are used. It requires:

  1. the naming of the first nine digits (eka, dvi, tri, catur, pancha, sat, sapta, asta, nava);
  2. a second group of nine numbers obtained by multiplying each of the nine digits in 1 by ten (dasa, vimsat, trimsat, catvarimsat, panchasat, sasti, saptati, astiti, navati): and
  3. a group of numbers which are increasing integral powers of 10, starting with 102 (satam sagasara, ayut, niyuta, prayuta, arbuda, nyarbuda, samudra, Madhya, anta, parardha…).

To understand why word numerals persisted in India, even after the Indian numerals became widespread, it is necessary to recognize the importance of the oral mode of preserving and disseminating knowledge. An important characteristic of written texts in India from times immemorial was the sutra style of writing, which presented information in a cryptic form, leaving out details and rationale to be filled in by teachers and commentators. In short pithy sentences, often expressed in verse, the sutras enabled the reader to memorize the content easily.

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