Flights of fancy
ON 4 January 2015, at the annual Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, Anand Bodas, a former principal of a pilot training academy, and a professor named Ameya Jadhav, presented a joint paper titled ‘Ancient Indian Aviation Technology.’ The Congress, a prestigious event that dates to 1914, included programmes on advances ranging from India’s recent Mars orbital mission to developments in cancer biology, with talks by Indian and foreign scientists, among them a number of Nobel laureates. The paper by Bodas and Jadhav was part of a symposium on ‘Ancient Sciences Through Sanskrit’, a series of presentations on the technical knowledge in old Indian texts, usually understood to be considerable, especially when it comes to mathematics, metallurgy, and medicine.
But ‘Ancient Indian Aviation Technology’ had run into trouble even before the Congress began, when Ramprasad Gandhiraman, an Indian materials scientist affiliated with NASA, started an online petition against its ‘pseudo-science’. The campaign, which garnered 1,600 supporters, cited a report in the Mumbai Mirror in which Bodas had said that his paper was based on an ancient Indian treatise that had been forgotten because of ‘the passage of time, foreign rulers ruling us, and things being stolen from this country.’ Despite Gandhiraman’s campaign, the paper was presented as planned. In clips run throughout India’s media channels, Bodas can be seen gently declaiming, from behind a full white beard and an upturned mustache, ‘Aeroplane is a vehicle which travels through the air from one country to another country, from one continent to another continent, and from one planet to another planet.’
Although neither Bodas nor the organizers were willing to share the paper with the media, the numerous reports on it, as well the abstract, which is available, give a fairly clear idea of what else he had to say (his collaborator Jadhav seems largely absent apart from being listed as co-author). ‘Ancient Sanskrit literature is full of descriptions of flying machines – Vimanas,’ the abstract says. These vimanas, according to Bodas, had been developed anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago.
Bodas’s claim about vimanas is only one in a series of recent pronouncements about the technological marvels of ancient India. Since the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, won the national elections last year, it has become increasingly commonplace to make fantastic references to ancient India, a time when seemingly everything from televisions to nuclear weapons existed. This glorious past tends to be elastic in its timeline but in general refers to a stretch running from around 1,500 BCE to 300 CE.
This marks the birth of Sanskrit, the Indo-European language of pastoralist nomads who settled in northern India and composed the central religious and poetic texts – including the Vedas – of what later came to be called Hinduism. As the Vedic culture spread deeper into the Indian subcontinent, giving rise to monarchies and republics, it produced much in the way of philosophy, poetry, and religion, interacting with Greek, Arab, Chinese, and indigenous cultures. There were substantial critiques of the Vedic texts, Buddhism emerging from the most influential of these, and significant achievements in the fields of mathematics, medicine, and astronomy.
For the contemporary Hindu right, however – the BJP and its supporters – ancient India is a far less complex place. It is seen as a time of pure Hinduism, created by Sanskrit-speaking people who had always lived in the Indian subcontinent, with a unified, homogeneous religion and culture free of the foreign presence to come in later centuries, especially with the entry into India of Islam and then the West. In this paradisiacal ancient India, the Hindu right finds evidence of a wide array of modern devices and technologies. Prime Minister Modi himself, when inaugurating a hospital last October, added genetic engineering and plastic surgery to the list. ‘We worship Ganeshji,’ he said, referring to the elephant-headed god. ‘Some plastic surgeon must have been around at that time, who by attaching an elephant head to the body of a human started off plastic surgery.’
But what comes up often in newly introduced school textbooks and in comments made by Y. Sudershan Rao, the man the BJP recently appointed to head the Indian Council of Historical Research, are the vimanas or Vedic aircraft. Capable of interplanetary travel and invisibility, possessing radar systems and mine detectors, they capture the imagination of this resurgent, neo-Hindu India like nothing else.
The ancient Indian treatise mentioned in Bodas’ paper, forgotten because of the passage of time and the cultural amnesia injected into India by foreigners ruling the country, is the Vymanika Shastra or ‘Science of Aeronautics’. Supposedly part of a larger work now lost to us called Yantra Sarvasva, or ‘All About Machines’, the V.S. is the canonical text referred to in all the discussion of Vedic vimanas. It also happens to be from another, more literal, perspective, a work just about a century old.
The person credited as the author of the V.S. is a guru from the Vedic age known as Maharshi Bhardwaj. The memorization of Sanskrit texts and their oral transmission through generations is a feature of the Vedic era, with emphasis on retaining the content of the canonical works unchanged while allowing for variation and reinvention with imaginative genres such as epics. But the V.S., in contrast to other Vedic works, never appears until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Instead, it was a guru, whose name is not known and who had received Bhardwaj’s wisdom from generations of sages transmitting it through a secret oral tradition (or who was given the text directly by a divine source), ‘revealed’ the V.S. in the late nineteenth century to a young Brahmin named Subbaraya Sastry by an unnamed guru.
Sastry appears to have been a poor man born in a village in southern India, married at the age of eight and reduced to begging in order to support a large family. An attack of smallpox killed some of his siblings and crippled him. Sastry took to wandering the countryside, living on grass and leaves, until he met the unnamed guru, who was possessed of mystical healing powers and who also apparently contained in his memory the millennia-old V.S. and other Vedic texts. After curing Sastry of his ailment, the guru recited the text of the V.S. to him in a cave. Subsequently, Sastry, after he had returned home and settled down, developed a reputation of his own as a mystic, given to dictating portions of the V.S. to his followers. This process, which occurred between 1900 and 1922, eventually led to the full Sanskrit text of the V.S. being written down, with copies of the manuscript apparently placed with his disciples and in libraries. Sastry even commissioned drawings of the vimanas mentioned in the text from T.K. Ellappa, a drafts-man who had studied at an engineering college.
This literary biography is, admittedly, a conjecture created by a group of scientists studying the V.S. in the mid-’70s. Not only does the V.S. have no written point of origin until the early twentieth century, it announces itself to the world at large only in independent India, trailing the story of its complex, mystical origins behind it, but without any verifiable sources. Its existence was first noted in 1952 in the southern city of Mysore by G.R. Josyer, the founder of an organization called the International Academy of Sanskrit Research.
By this time, Sastry was no longer alive. Josyer claimed, in an interview with the Press Trust of India, a government news agency, that his newly established academy had collected a number of manuscripts thousands of years old, but which, in spite of their great age, dealt not with ‘the mysticism of ancient Hindu philosophy’ but with ‘things vital for the existence of man and [the] progress of nations both in times of peace and war.’ One of these manuscripts, the V.S., was on aeronautics, with details about the construction of ‘various types of aircraft for civil aviation and for warfare.’
Josyer claimed that the opening portion of the V.S. was handwritten in a small exercise book brought to him by a guest on June 28, 1951, the very day his academy was inaugurated by the Maharaja of Mysore. After examining the manuscript and showing it to the maharaja, Josyer gave it back to the anonymous guest, who returned it to Venkatarama Sastry, adopted son of Subbaraya Sastry. Josyer later contacted him and borrowed copies of the manuscript, promising to publish the work.
The interview with the news agency (which may never have taken place; the only record of it appears in Josyer’s foreword to the V.S.) was a prelude to that process of publication. It brought him ‘fan mail’, Josyer writes, from air force officials, journalists, Hindu priests, ministers, and civil aviation mandarins. James Burke of Life International wrote to ask Josyer if he could see the manuscript. Josyer replied, ‘Please wire one thousand dollars, and then come.’
He was more hospitable to Jean Lyon, a journalist from New York. ‘She came and saw the MSS, and recorded her interview with us in her book Just Half a World Away,’ Josyer wrote, deploying a royal first person plural throughout, ‘concluding with the charge that we were guilty of a rabid nationalism, seeking to wipe out everything since the Vedas!’
Unfazed by such criticism from foreigners, Josyer published a Sanskrit-Hindi edition in 1959. But he discontinued its printing when he received a ‘harsh letter’ from Venkatarama Sastry, the man who had given him the manuscripts, accusing him of exploiting them for his ‘personal benefit’. Despite that, enthusiastic letters kept coming from India and around the world, Josyer wrote, and he decided to bring out an English translation:
‘Thus at the age of 81, we had to sit up and translate the technical Sanskrit into readable English, and scrutinize the printing of both the Sanskrit and English, involving the strain of multiple proofreading. The finance required was considerable, and as no help was forthcoming, we had to scrape together the meagre savings of a lifetime, procure needful printing equipment at mounting costs, engage labour at emergency rates, and at long last, with the help of Divine grace, are able to herald the birth of the volume, which has been in gestation for over ninety years!’
The English edition that appeared in 1973 did not quite receive the acclaim Josyer wanted. Lyon, in her account of meeting him in 1952, had written that he had denounced Nehru’s ‘modern’ government for being uninterested in the secrets ‘locked’ inside the V.S. ‘This would put India far ahead of the rest of the world in aeronautics,’ said Josyer. The knowledge in this manuscript would make us world leaders. But does our ‘modern’ government have the vision? ... It would rather ape the West and lag behind it, than follow its own cultural heritage and be leagues ahead of everyone.’
Josyer’s suspicion about his modern, fellow Indians may have been right. A year after the publication of the English edition, five scientists from the Indian Institute of Science co-authored an article on the V.S. in the journal Scientific Opinion.
The scientists, while remarkably respectful of Sastry’s mysticism, saw the V.S. as a creation entirely of his imagination, written in a Sanskrit that was modern in its meter and language rather than Vedic. As for the vimanas described in the V.S., they declared that ‘on the basis of principles, geometry, materials, chemistry, and operational data,’ the text ‘shows a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of the flight of heavier-than-air craft.’ They found verses that violated ‘Newton’s laws’, mentioned aircraft speeds of 8,000 mph (which no contemporary craft in their time had attained within the Earth’s atmosphere), and instances suggesting the use of electric motors that have existed only since the nineteenth century.
In studying the Rukma Vimana, a five-tier aircraft with passenger cabins on the third level, they initially thought it to be quite meaningful, operating like a ‘vertical takeoff and landing craft.’ Nevertheless, they regretfully concluded, on close scrutiny of text and diagram, that it is a ‘decided impossibility.’ While the drawings demonstrate a knowledge of modern machinery, the scientists wrote, the text and the drawings often do not correlate with each other. ‘None of the planes have properties or capabilities of being flown; the geometries are unimaginably horrendous from the point of view of flying; and the principles of propulsion make them resist rather than assist flying.’
The world revealed by the V.S. is nonetheless a fascinating one, listing clothing for pilots (‘silk, cotton, moss, hair, mica, leather… purified by twenty-five processes’) and varying seasonal diets (‘In the four months of winter and snow, goat’s-milk, yava and black-gram among grains, and flesh of sparrows’). There are sections on aircraft manufacture, with discussions on furnaces and metals (‘artificial, corrupted, mud-born, found in mines, aquatic, mineral-born, vegetation-born, evolved from vermin, flesh-born, grown from salts, hair-born, and resultant from eggs’), on sources of power (‘fire, earth, air, sun, moon, water and sky’), and the different kinds of vimanas.
The V.S. is particularly obsessed with military aircraft and aerial combat. One chapter is devoted to mirrors and lenses, which can be used to neutralize both adverse atmospheric conditions and ‘enemy planes’. Vedic enemies are capable of shooting rays and missiles, ‘poison fumes’ are routinely used, and fighter aircraft need to be equipped with ‘mine-finders’.
The V.S. combines these menacing, modern-sounding technologies with a more organic sensibility, so that it often seems to be advocating a sustainable, locally sourced, crafts-based military production, one that combines, in one example, crystals, tree bark, and ‘essence of squash gourd’ to manufacture a ‘reflected solar ray attracting mirror.’
And while the main aircraft in the V.S. are military in nature, it also details the occasional passenger aircraft. These are equipped with special kitchens operating ‘sacred fires’, where food for the passengers can be cooked, which certainly seems a step up from clicking ‘Hindu vegetarian’ as one’s dietary option on an airline’s website.
In this combination of a Brahminical mania for caste and purity with a fascination for military modernity, one can sense something of Sastry’s obsessions as he dictated the V.S. in the early decades of the twentieth century. In its own way, the V.S. is an imaginative response to what must have seemed to Sastry a bewildering modern world, a colonial era in which traditional societies, including powerful empires, were collapsing – India’s Mughal Empire had succumbed half a century ago – even as the aviation technology pioneered by the modern, warring industrial nations of the West went from the first powered flight by the Wright brothers in 1903 to military applications in World War I.
The traditions of mysticism and Sanskritized knowledge that Sastry must have identified with would have seemed particularly ossified under colonial rule, which encouraged the idea of Hinduism as a religion guided by a small priestly sect of Brahmins with specialized knowledge while also denying that knowledge any practical applications beyond the directing of rigid social and religious customs. Sastry responded by conjuring up a world where traditional learning and modern technology could be brought together, where past and future lived simultaneously. What he created, then, was a hybrid, part holy book and part technical manual, with a guru in a cave on one end of its originating spectrum and a mechanical draftsman who had studied at an engineering college on the other.
It is impossible to say how much of this was an aspect of Brahminical Hindu culture feeling short-changed by a world progressing rapidly around it and how much an imaginative claim being made on the most visibly dynamic aspects of a machine age. It depends on what one sees when reading a fairly representative passage like this:
‘When enemy planes with men intent on intercepting and destroying your vimana attack you with all the means at their disposal, the viroopyadarpana will frighten them into retreat or render them unconscious and leave you free to destroy or rout them. The darpana, like a magician, will change the appearance of your vimana into such frightening shapes that the attacker will be dismayed or paralyzed.’
Yet for all its psychedelic inventiveness, and for what genre writers today would call ‘world-building,’ Sastry’s imagining remained obscure and unknown in colonial India. Even in post-colonial India, as Josyer guided the V.S. out into the world, it stayed on the sidelines, one more quasi-miracle in a land of many quasi-miracles. Josyer, whom Lyon described as believing that ‘the Indo-Aryan civilization out of which Hindu India grew was the greatest, most advanced, and most enlightened civilization the world has ever known,’ was still representative of only one strand of Indian thinking. It needed the current age of wealthy, aspiring India to bring the V.S. and its attendant claims about Hindu India into the centre stage of the national consciousness.
The last two decades of booming wealth in India, accompanied by its rising status in the world, have coincided with a time of increasingly aggressive Hindu nationalism. The same upward mobility that has made some Indians wealthy and professionally successful has made them bellicose and insecure. Away from the glitter of India’s billionaires, the endless appetite of its upper class for conspicuous consumption, and the industry of its middle class technology workers, India remains a place where the vast majority is impoverished, where a quarter century of high profile growth hasn’t changed its shabby infrastructure, its violence against women and minorities, or its lagging behind even poor neighbours like Bangladesh in areas such as life expectancy, immunization, infant mortality, and education for girls.
Even India’s success as an out-sourcing hub and consumer market is built on efficiently mimicking western business practices and technological advances rather than by coming up with anything original of its own. There may be celebrations among its elites at the appointment of an Indian-origin CEO at Microsoft or the acquisition of Jaguar by Tata Motors, but there is still no Indian Microsoft or Indian Jaguar.
From this anxiety of imitation, it is a short step to seeking authenticity in texts from the past, even if one of those texts is itself a modern imitation. The effect is further magnified by a narrowly instrumental education, the shrinking of public debate, the subservience of media to business interests, the proliferation of social media, and an influential but alienated diaspora, especially in the United States, that seeks to find a glorious Hindu past that can be seen to have exceeded the very West upon which India’s recent success depends so heavily. When this past does not exist, it has to be created, often in less imaginative ways than the manner in which Sastry fashioned the V.S.
In the absence of scholarly works that examine India’s complex history, the ancient past imagined by the V.S. has flourished in ways Josyer could never have dreamed of in the ’70s. The Internet has seen to it that there are Facebook groups and YouTube animations on the V.S., while the text itself is widely available online. It has made it possible for the V.S. to be cited as a canonical text at the Indian Science Congress and has even led to the attendant claim that it was an Indian, harnessing Vedic knowledge, who conducted the first powered flight in modern times, well before the Wright brothers.
This is said to have been another Sanskrit scholar, a man called Shivkar Bapuji Talpade, who in 1895 flew an unmanned, heavier-than-air machine at Chowpatty Beach in Bombay. Talpade is supposed to have built the aircraft on the basis of Vedic texts, one of which may have been the V.S., powering his machine with mercury and solar energy and getting it to rise to 1,500 feet before it crashed.
No one knows what this unmanned plane looked like, although if one goes by the illustrations in the V.S., it could have resembled anything from a mechanical sparrow to an upside-down flowerpot with small propellers. If the flight happened, few details are available. No month or date for the flight is mentioned, just the year. The Maharaja of Baroda, interested in technical innovations, is said to have been present at the flight, but scholars say there is no record of this in his papers. There are no contemporaneous accounts of the flight.
Among the believers of the Hindu right, this absence of evidence is attributed to British control over the media, which seemingly edited Talpade’s invention out of history. But reports of the flight that do exist began proliferating just over a century later, in the 2000s, at the beginning of the fertile, ongoing period of the expansion of the economy and the reinvention of the Indian past. A story in the Indian newspaper Business Standard, discussing the references to Talpade that cropped up in the wake of the paper presented this January at the Indian Science Congress, writes: ‘A quick search online shows that the event is most often discussed in forums on nationalism and pride routinely outweighs research in these posts.’
Does this reinvention of a reinvention say more about contemporary India than the colonized India of Sastry’s time? After all, even in the heyday of twentieth-century colonialism, Indian perspectives on military might and aircraft could accommodate perspectives other than that of mere emulation.
Rabindranath Tagore, a contemporary of Sastry’s, was an anti-colonialist as well as a critic of Indian nationalism, and he responded to the questions raised by powered flight quite differently. Flying for the first time in his life in 1932 from Calcutta to Iran, he recalled the mythical account in the Mahabharata of Arjuna being taken up into the air.
Tagore, however, saw in this not power but a loss of intimacy with the earth, Arjuna’s physical distancing leading to a moral distancing that allowed him to kill from the air without compunction. When Tagore arrived in Baghdad and was told by the air force chaplain there that British aircraft had been bombing Iraqi villages, he found his initial suspicions confirmed, reflecting – in terms that will be familiar to contemporary debates about drones – that ‘killing them from aircrafts is so easy, with so little fear of being killed in return, that the reality of killing becomes faint.’
But Tagore’s pacifism and humanism is not what the modern Hindu right seeks as it celebrates the ancient-modern wisdom of the V.S. It has chosen, instead, to claim everything as its own, the first aircraft and the first drone, without much thought to what it might mean to possess such technology. In saying that the V.S. is an authentic text from the ancient past, it has created the past in the way it would have liked it to be, filled with Vedic heroes flying the skies in their vimanas, and maintaining their caste laws. In this paradise of the past, there are no Buddhists or Muslims or Christians or Jews or left-wingers or women. The world that Sastry built is hermetically sealed from the world itself.
Yet the claim about the V.S. and its insertion into the national self-image is also a claim about the present. It says that Hindu India should rightfully be first among nations and cultures even by the measures of modernity, which are also the measures of the West. It is to say that India should be a place filled with heroes, sages, and inventors of fearsome devices rather than a supply source for technology workers with western nicknames who put in endlessly long hours for global corporations, their upward mobility dependent on their willingness to be exploited by a West that has been ahead in this race since the time of Sastry.
But if India is not what it should rightfully be, the V.S. and its supporting stories make it possible to believe that the enemies of Hindu India – centuries of Muslim rule, western colonialism, secular modern elites – have stood between the glory of the past and what should be the glory of the present.
This view of India and its place in the world is a powerful and appealing one, but in the end it is to live in a kind of cage. In order to get out, one has to be able to make distinctions. There is no doubt that the modern technology that Sastry saw around him stemmed from brute exploitation and colonial domination, just as it is indisputable that even in later decades, after decolonization, India’s contributions to knowledge were easily dismissed, forgotten, and appropriated by the West. Yet these grievances cannot be taken in isolation, since the same has happened and is happening to many other cultures and societies.
And as far as India goes, the Hindu right, rather than functioning as a brave resistance, has been a willing collaborator in this process, attacking historians, banning books, and destroying ancient manuscripts (as happened when the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was ransacked), disembowelling the past of all its complexity. In the place of that richness, it has been working hard to create myths it can be proud of, even if that means an ancient book created in modern times, filled with Vedic aircraft that cannot fly.
* A longer version of this piece appeared in The New Republic as ‘Those mythological men and their sacred, supersonic flying temples’ on 14 May 2015. © Siddhartha Deb. Excerpted with permission from TNR, 2015.
** Author of two novels and a work of narrative non-fiction about India, The Beautiful and the Damned.