In this excerpt from Angela Saini’s Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World (Hachette, 2011), Saini visits the Academy of Sanskrit Research at the top of a steep hill in Melkote, Karnataka, to interview the scholars who build on the work of GR Josyer, the translator of the Vaimanika Shastra.
In the early twentieth century, a mysterious holy man in south India wrote a scientific paper. By all accounts—although there aren’t many of them—he was an unlikely scientist. He was born into poverty, had no schooling, spent most of his childhood begging and later survived smallpox. As he grew older, he adopted the same obscure life of asceticism as thousands of Hindu hermits across the country. On the surface, he probably looked as though he knew nothing about modern science. Yet in his paper, he suggested that the Vedas, which are Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, comprising mantras dating back at least 3,000 years, contained the blueprints of a hitherto unknown technology used by early Indians and ancient gods. He had decoded these religious texts by channelling the minds of the deities, it seemed, and figured out how these machines worked. He called his manuscript, written in 6,000 lines of verse, the Vaimanika Shastra.
For a few decades, however, it was pretty much ignored. The holy man died and his work was forgotten. But then in the 1950s, a Hindu academic called G R Josyer stumbled upon it. At the end of the decade, he published a painstaking modern-language Hindi translation of the Vaimanika Shastra. Then in 1973, he translated it again, this time into English. The book circulated around the world, its title sending ripples of excitement wherever it was read. It was called Science of Aeronautics . . . All About Machines.
People already knew that Indian religious scriptures talked of ancient warriors who travelled in floating vehicles (known as the mythical ‘chariots of the gods’) but most people assumed that this was just fanciful storytelling or allegory. Josyer’s book suggested there might be more to the stories than fiction. He declared that the Vaimanika Shastra was not just another scrap of philosophy of the kind routinely written by holy men, but that it contained descriptions of real aircraft that had existed thousands of years ago. He went to the trouble of giving technical particulars and included detailed blueprints by an engineering draughtsman from Bengaluru.
On the baby-pink cover of his book was a small pencil drawing of one of these planes. Part submarine, part mechanical fish, it was built in four tiers like a wedding cake, with three fins and a thin propeller at the front. Among the substances powering this unlikely contraption, the book said, was mercury, the silver-coloured liquid metal used in thermometers. Other ingredients included snake poison, rhinoceros bones and camel urine.
On other pages, underneath pictures of hovering babies carrying garlands of flowers, were cross-sections of other flying chariots. One was drawn in beautifully exact thin green lines, illustrating the position of air heaters, blowers, a driving shaft, a chimney and huge feathers stretching out along the back. It looked like a mechanical bird. In fact Josyer described it as a plane ‘which can fly in the sky with speed equal to that of birds’. On another page was an aircraft shaped like a cone with the top sliced off, air pipes and electric magnets skewering its length. There were three small propellers at the top, two platforms for carrying passengers and one for the pilot.
And there was more to Josyer’s book than just drawings. It also included lengthy explanations of the personal qualities needed by the pilots (‘he must know the structure of the aeroplane, know the means of its take off and ascent to the sky, know how to drive it and how to halt it when necessary, how to manoeuvre it and make it perform spectacular feats in the sky without crashing’). There were recipes too, for what these pilots should eat (‘56 [roots] should be purified, powdered, and duly cooked, and made into balls, and given out for use as food’). And there was a detailed description of how to generate electricity to power the dynamos that would drive the aircraft (‘get a . . . flame-faced lion’s skin, duly cleaned, add salt, and placing in the vessel containing spike-grass acid, boil for . . . 15 hours. Then wash it with cold water’).
The foreword to Josyer’s book described the holy man who originally wrote the Vaimanika Shastra as ‘a walking lexicon gifted with occult perception. His sole aim was to transmit his knowledge to posterity. He lived a life of poverty, like Socrates, and sought no gains for himself . . . The 20th century may be said to be made historic by two achievements: the bringing of Moon-rock from outer space, and the publication of Vaimanika Shastra from the unknown past. [It] is a Cornucopia of precious formulas for the manufacture of Aeroplanes.’
Josyer’s translation attracted letters from Sweden, Italy, Germany and the US. He even got an invitation to tea with the Maharaja of Mysore. Some people saw this esoteric old manuscript as evidence of advanced ancient Indian civilisations. Others claimed it as proof that aliens from outer space had visited India thousands of years ago (the Vaimanika Shastra appears on UFO websites even now).
In the late 1970s the local government in Karnataka decided to give G R Josyer a plot of land in the small town of Melkote on which to start the Academy of Sanskrit Research. The idea was that he and a team of scholars would investigate the science and technology of the Vedas even further.
There are some places in the world that feel as if nobody else has been there for decades. Even the people are frozen in time. The Academy of Sanskrit Research, on top of a steep hill in the town of Melkote, is one of those places. It’s only a few hours’ drive from Bengaluru, but the smooth, black Tarmac road that takes me there is so empty that farmers are using it to spread out their hay so it can dry in the sun. It crunches when I drive over it. Further along the road I see ten people squeezed into a rattling rickshaw, and then a herd of small black goats.
If you consider India’s past, it’s easy to see why this is still the most religious country on earth. It’s the birthplace of four of the world’s major faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Even now, the percentage of atheists is in single digits. Here, the past lives on in religious tradition and superstition. It’s normal for respectable politicians and billionaire business owners to consult swamis and wandering sages for good luck. Farmers, like the ones I met in Vidarbha, turn to astrologers to tell them their future, and so too do scientists in cities like Lucknow.
But how does this all square with India’s geeky future? In other parts of the world, religion and tradition have come up against science and clashed badly (in Europe, for example, the number of regular churchgoers has steadily fallen over the years), yet in India, there’s no sign of the same happening. Of course, India has a legacy in mathematics and astronomy that dates back thousands of years—the ancient mathematical text, the Bakhshali Manuscript, is just one example.
And a great deal of traditional knowledge, especially that related to health, has also survived the centuries and become absorbed into everyday Indian life. Parts of it are so scientifically sound that they have also entered modern science. Pharmacologists working for the world’s biggest drug companies, for example, have developed useful medicines from old Indian herbal treatments. Neem tree extract, which Indians have used for at least two millennia in toothpaste and soap, is a proven insect repellent and fungicide. And turmeric, a yellow spice liberally used in Indian cooking, is being investigated in the US as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
But the problem lies at the far end of the spectrum, where science seems to be confused with legend and myth; and people continue to believe that manuscripts like the Vaimanika Shastra are literally true.
The academy, I hope, might have some answers. It sits at the far end of town, past low brick shacks, trees shaped like coat hangers, a line of ice-cream vendors and the beige stone ruins of an old Hindu temple. The whole place is bathed in sunlight and silent, bordered by red and pink hibiscus flowers. In one corner is a pair of peahens basking in a seven-feet-high metal birdcage. Opposite them is a blue solar panel that helps top up the Academy’s electricity supply.
A man dressed in long robes and a beard asks me to take off my shoes before I enter the academy. I hop over the sunbaked stone floors as he guides me to the scientific research wing. Here, one of the oldest experts in the academy, Subbarao Narayana, is waiting to greet me.
The scholars in this academy, I’ve heard, believe that the Vaimanika Shastra is just the tip of the scientific iceberg. Hinduism’s oldest scriptures: they say, contain the secrets of everything, like encyclopaedias of the universe. They point to the title of the Hindu scriptures: the meaning of the word ‘veda’ is ‘knowledge’.
Narayana, a short man wearing a cream-coloured shirt and a white sarong, has worked at the Academy for twenty-five years, trying to dig this hidden information out of these old texts. He speaks such flawless Hindi that I struggle to understand him. I’m used to Hinglish, a mix of Hindi and English. ‘I’m here to find out more about science in the religious manuscripts,’ I say, in my imperfect Hinglish.
He attempts some English for my benefit. ‘You are right to come. The information is there in the texts, going back 5,000 years. There is special knowledge in them,’ he replies, pointing to a bunch of folded palm-leaf manuscripts on the shelf next to him. ‘Most of them, they don’t believe it,’ he says, with a pitying smile. ‘They don’t understand that it’s all science, everything around us—the lights, the computer, everything. But the ancient knowledge is inside us. These scientists need to study the Hindu Vedas to get the understanding. One who wants to know the knowledge of the Vedas, he should go to a guru.’
‘And how do the gurus unlock this hidden knowledge?’ I ask.
‘Gurus are the ones who have written about scientific knowledge, and they got their information by meditating and by intuition.’
The problem with decoding religious manuscripts, he tells me, is that their meaning is so carefully hidden behind metaphors, verse and myths that it’s difficult to decipher. It’s a task made even tougher by the fact that few people nowadays read the ancient language Sanskrit. Scientists rarely take an interest in the holy scriptures, he complains.
The Vaimanika Shastra is a rare exception. And so scholars here at the Academy of Sanskrit Research have spent decades building on Josyer’s original work on flying machines. They now have proof, Narayana says, that the aircraft were built using a mix of mysterious metals and other ingredients that were invisible to radar, so their enemies couldn’t find them. There is more, he adds, peering over a pile of papers on his desk. ‘How to create the plane used by the saints 5,000 years ago, the fuel was a solar engine.’
‘They used solar power?’
‘Yes,’ he says, digging through his books, trying to find the relevant parts of his work for me. He can’t find them. ‘If you want I can show you what the aircraft looked like?’ he asks finally.
There is an entire room here dedicated to the Vaimanika Shastra, at the end of the corridor near his office. On the way we pass through the library, where a young woman in an orange sari is sitting crosslegged on the floor writing notes. On one shelf there is a copy of a book entitled Vedic Mathematics for all Ages. At the end is an old-fashioned mechanical printing press, which slowly churns out the leaflets and booklets written by the people who work here.
When we reach the room, Narayana opens the door with a proud smile. On one side, opposite a couch and some crowded bookshelves, is a row of display boards with pictures of aircraft and quotes from the Vaimanika Shastra pinned to them.
‘What do you think?’ he asks, raising his eyebrows.
‘Let me have a look.’ There is one drawing of a solar-powered aircraft that looks like a blimp with wheels. Next to this is a row of toy aeroplanes, including a tiny black stealth aircraft and a yellow and red fighter jet. I scan further along. A colour painting on another display board shows a group of warriors in suits of armour standing in a field, pointing to a gigantic disc hovering in the distance. It looks like a flying saucer.
Everything gives off the unmistakeable whiff of crackpot.
‘It can operate underwater, on land and in space,’ Narayana reads for me from the wall.
‘Space? Do you mean that people travelled into space? Outer space?’ I ask him. I study Narayana’s face, struggling to understand how a man of his age and education could believe that early Indians flew around in aeroplanes that looked like flying saucers.
‘Yes, of course,’ he replies. ‘They travelled at . . .’ He struggles to remember the right word. ‘Supersonic speeds. They even went to different planets.’
‘They got there using their divine power, but we can’t do that now. It’s very difficult.’
‘And what happened on these planets?’ I ask.
‘They met with aliens,’ he says, looking me square in the face.
Excerpted from Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World by Angela Saini. Reproduced with the permission of Hachette India.
Angela Saini is a science journalist, author and broadcaster based in London.