Science, technology in ancient Indian scriptures, literature
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Adrienne Mayor’s findings
A research scholar at Stanford University, Adrienne Mayor is a historian of ancient science and also a folklorist. In her latest book, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, she explores how ancient cultures imagined futuristic technologies and left behind those imaginations in epics and scriptures. She tells Manimugdha S Sharma how Ashoka battled robots, and other tech tales from the past
Mayor: My research into the first inklings of the scientific impulse took me into the world of mythology, where ancient people first envisioned making artificial life, automatons (or robots), self-moving devices, and other marvellous things long before the technology made them possible. These stories about robots and other machines in ancient oral traditions were first written down in the time of Homer, about 2,700 years ago. But the Greeks were not the only people to imagine automatons and machines in antiquity. Similar stories exist in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other epics. In Hindu myths, automatons are made by the engineer god Vishwakarma and the sorceress Maya; in Greek myths they are made by the god of technology Hephaestus and the brilliant artisan Daedalus.
I consider such myths to be the world’s first science fiction stories. No single civilisation had a monopoly on ancient dreams of advanced technology. Whether one looks at Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, Hindu, Islamic, Chinese, or any other ancient cultural myths about artificial life, they all contemplate what wonders might be achieved if only one could possess the divine creativity and abilities of the gods. But it’s not possible to draw a direct line of development from mythology over millennia to modern scientific knowledge.
Q You say that Indian and Hellenistic cultures borrowed from each other when it came to imagining technologies. How?
Indian and Hellenistic cultures borrowed and influenced each other beginning in about the fifth century BC, and syncretism intensified after Alexander of Macedon and King Porus began relations in the fourth century BC. Jain texts mention that Ajatasatru’s engineers invented armoured war chariots with spinning blades, which may have inspired later Persian scythed chariots, and he had powerful machines to hurl massive boulders before Philip II of Macedon obtained torsion catapults. India was known for perpetually burning oil lamps, suggesting knowledge of naphtha, unknown to the Greeks and Romans until much later. The travelling Greek sage Apollodorus of Tyana observed automated servants and self-propelled carts in the court of a ruler of India, and India was centuries ahead of Europe in the technologies of distillation and hydraulics. There was probably more give and take than we can know.
Q Which other cultures have their own cosmic weapons, robots and flying chariots?
A: Myths featuring flying chariots and synthetic swans, animated servants, giant robots, machines, and the like appear in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kathasaritsagara, Harivamsa, and other works. Self-navigating ships appear in Egyptian texts and Homer’s Odyssey; android and animal automatons are described in Homer’s Iliad and in Chinese chronicles. Further examples are myriad.
Please share the story of android warriors guarding Buddha’s relics.
The most detailed account is in the Lokapanatti, a complicated compilation of tales from Burma. After Buddha’s death, the story recounts that King Ajatasatru preserved his bodily remains in a hidden chamber under a stupa. The precious relics were guarded by bhuta vahana yantra (spirit movement machines). These were robotic warriors with whirling swords — reminiscent of the king’s novel war machines with spinning blades. Greek myths tell of automaton guardians in human and animal form defending palaces and treasure, but the historical and technological details of this legend make it unique. The story says the robots were constructed from plans secretly transported to Pataliputra from Romavisaya, the Greek-influenced West, by a yantrakara, a robot maker who was originally from Pataliputra. The automaton soldiers guarded Buddha’s relics until the great Indian emperor Ashoka heard about the secret chamber. Ashoka battled the robots and after he defeated and learned how to control them, they obeyed him. Historically, we know that Ashoka did unearth and distribute longhidden relics of Buddha across the land.
Did anyone in ancient times build any automatons as imagined in the scriptures?
By third century BC, craftspeople and engineers in the Greek world, Alexandria, Arabia, India and China began making selfmoving devices, flying bird models, animated machines, and automatons like those described in myths. Some were miniature and some monumental, some had simple mechanisms and some were quite complex. These contrivances were powered by springs, levers, pulleys, water, air, heat, and so on.