Future Science in Past Visions
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Indic Visions in an Age of Science by Varadaraja V. Raman
(New York, NY: Metanexus, 2011).
The thinkers of the ancient world were wise in many ways, so we find much wisdom in their musings and writings. The myths of India have meanings and messages that have relevance to the human condition. Grand and strange elephants, saintly and wicked beings churning an ocean of milk for ambrosia, and such stories are fascinating in themselves, but they also convey more.
We also find in the narratives of ancient India references to episodes and entities that, from a normal historical perspective, could not have happened or existed. Yet, some of these sound like matters that are common in our world of science and technology. Indeed, some of the descriptions and details of what we read in Hindu epics and sacred history seemed incredibly outlandish as recently as a century and odd ago, but not so in our own times. In fact, we see in our own times the actualization of some of the things mentioned in those tales and tidbits of the distant past.
In some ways, they are no different from the writings of imaginative science-fiction writers. From another perspective, however, they look like the records of an extraordinarily advanced age that has been lost forever beyond any trace of survival. And so, some have argued, that ancient Indian civilization was sophisticated, not just in mysticism and metaphysics, but in technology as well. They contend that the mountain of mythology talks about what there once was for real.
Whether the stories and statements we find in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and various “puranas” tell us about the achievements of ancient Hindu technology, or they merely reflect the rich imagination of the ancients will always be debated. But what cannot be denied is that many of them have uncanny resemblance to what obtains in the modern world.
In this lecture I will recall some of those ancient visions.
In many of the ancient Indic works, there are references to wars. In the description of these wars we read about fantastic weapons. Consider the following quote:
“Devices that a hundred slew,
Threw people down and beat them too,
Demons one with eyes could follow,
Elephants, snakes that could humans swallow.
Death-like vultures causing pains,
Man-made tigers, lances, chains.
Bows and arrows auto-released,
Machine-horses, swords that never ceased,
Stone-hurling gadgets, so it’s said,
And statues spitting flames in red,
Hot balls of iron, storks and owls,
Head-crushing rays, molten metals from bowls…”
These lines are from the oldest extant Tamil epic (early centuries of the Common Era), known as “CIvakacintAmaNi.” What is impressive in this passage is the science-fictional nature of the weapons described, and how the author’s imagination drew pictures of machines of mass murder: elephants that gobble humans, missiles that fire automatically, vats of molten metals and such.
Or again, we read in the Ramayana (I:27) that the sage Vishvamitra presented to the hero Rama weapons with which one could stupefy an enemy, put him to sleep, and simply infatuate him, humiliate him, and so on. These weapons came in various forms and shapes: some were like a thunderbolt, long and slender, some shone bright, another was shaped like a noose, and one had the form of a horse’s head. Yet another was a simple sword. One weapon was meant for the release of pure heat. Some have interpreted the descriptions as referring to missiles and laser weapons.
The sheer variety of the weapons listed in such works speaks eloquently about the high level of the civilization at that time, for variety and complexity are the hallmarks of great civilizations. It is true that in our more idealistic moments we laud and proclaim peace, but it is also sadly true that all through history, every dynamic civilization has sought to perfect its arsenal for warfare.
Normally, thinkers engage in ideas and weave intricate images. In the Indian context, it is impressive that poets could go into detailed descriptions of specialized weaponry. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that all kinds of sophisticated arms must have been fairly common in those times. The inventive genius of the people had been amply applied in the field of warfare also.
The science of weaponry was known in the classical Hindu world as “dhanurveda.” And there were also theoretical analyses of the nature and variety of weapons. The “Agnipurna” lists five categories of weapons: “yantramukta“: weapons hurled by instruments; “paimukta“: manually hurled instruments; “muktasandharita“: weapons thrown and brought back: “amukta“: (weapons that are not thrown at all; and “bahuyuddha“: bodily weapons- arms, legs, teeth, etc.
There are numerous references to flying machines in Indic lore. In the Ramayana, for example, one speaks of a flowered aerial vehicle: “Pushpaka Vimana,” belonging to Kubera. We are told (VI.75) how it came to the service of the hero Rama who rode in it throughout the length and breadth of the country to see if everything was right. We also read that as he flew in the aircraft adorned with gold, he saw the gods in other planes. According to one version of the epic:
“The Puspaka Car, that resembles the sun and belongs to my brother, was brought to Sri Lanka by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent car, going everywhere at will, is ready for thee. That car, resembling a bright cloud in the sky, is in the city. ‘Speedily bring the aerial car for me,’ ordered Rama. Thereupon the car promptly arrived, adorned with gold, having fine upper rooms, banners, and bejeweled windows, and giving forth a melodious sound, having huge apartments and excellent seats. Beholding the car coming by force of will Rama attained to an excess of astonishment. And the king got in, and the excellent car, at the command of Rama, rose up into the higher atmosphere. And in that car, coursing at will, Rama greatly delighted.”
Again, there are two ways of considering these similar descriptions in other contexts of flying machines. On the one hand we may be impressed by the penetrating power of the poet’s mind in envisaging a flying vehicle that would take passengers far and wide, scanning the space above ground from the southern tip to the northern Himalayan regions. Or, one may argue that this is proof that there were planes in ancient India.
Some authors cite technical references to airplanes in ancient India. It has been claimed that certain Sanskrit treatises speak of flying machines, though there is some question as to their authenticity and interpretation as treatises on aircraft manufacture. In an age in which efforts are made to correct past misrepresentations and misconceptions about Non-Western history and culture, a good deal of re-formulations are related to setting the record straight on the science and technology that flourished in India and China. In the process, assertions are made which don’t always stand critical scrutiny. Indeed, the question of to what extent some of the grand claims are informed by serious historical scholarship or supported by incontrovertible evidence is important. Hopefully, serious scholarship will settle some of these controversies in the coming decades.
Technically, a test-tube baby results from the fertilization of an egg and a sperm in a test-tube, after which the fused entity is transferred into the womb of the mother. This is a modern bio-technological achievements, which became possible only in the twentieth century. The concept was not unknown to thinkers in ancient India. For example, there is a hymn in the Rig Veda (VII.33.13), which has a striking resemblance to the genesis of a test-tube baby. It says, in effect that when the Vedic gods Mitra and Varuna saw the beautiful nymph Urvasi, their seeds fell. One of these fell into a jar, and it was from there that the sage Agastya was born. The idea of an infant growing up in a jar is a prescient account of what was to come centuries later.
In our age, we also have cases where a pre-maturely born infant is kept in an incubator, there to grow for some weeks or months. In the Mahabharata we read about two rival families, the Pandavas and Kauravas. The latter are one hundred in number. Here is how the hundred brothers were born along with one sister (MB: I.114): While Queen Gandhara was carrying an over due embryo, she heard that her husband’s brother’s wife had given birth to a son which would make him eligible for royal succession. In her anger:
“she struck her womb with great violence… And as a result there came out of her womb … a hard mass of flesh. When she was about to throw it away, a wise instructed her: “Let a hundred pots full of clarified butter be brought instantly, and let them be placed at a concealed spot. In the meantime, let cool water be sprinkled over this ball of flesh.”
That ball of flesh, then, sprinkled over with water, became divided into a hundred and one parts about the size of a thumb. These were then placed in pots with clarified butter that had been placed at a concealed spot and watched. Then, in due course, the hundred brothers and one sister were born, and they who came to be called Kauravas because they were from the family of Kuru.
We may never know whether something like this ever happened. As long as we confine ourselves to the world such as we understand it, it may strike some people as too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that it was actually so. Yet, there are a great many in the world who have no problem believing in such matters. Be that as it may, the description of embryos being nurtured in jars, which provided nourishment to them while they were becoming mature has a remarkable resemblance to test-tube babies.
Organ transplants: Ganesha
We know that there are two types of replacement of body parts: First there are parts like hands, arms, and legs, which are not vital organs. Then there are the transplants of vital organs. The one instance where one can conceive of a combination of the two is transplanting the entire head, which is both an external appendage and the storehouse of the most important organ in the body, namely the brain. Thus, head replacement would be the most sophisticated organ transplant one can imagine.
We find an instance of this in the story of Ganesha. Before coming to it, I would like to digress a little and say a few words on Ganesha who is a fundamental principle in the Hindu worldview of the transcendental. In mythological terms, he is one of the primary representations of Divinity in the Hindu pantheon. Every worshipping Hindu, irrespective of sectarian theistic affiliations, pays homage to Ganesha.
His name signified that he is the chief of the “ganas,” which are godlings in the service of the Supreme. The name literally means Ganesha “god of the ganas.”
The Sanskrit root “gan” is related to counting. And “ganaha” is a (mathematical) set. Its extended meaning includes every aspect of the world, all categories in terms of which we comprehend the universe. Thus Ganesha becomes the Lord of all the categories. This is not unlike the mathematical concept of the set of all sets. In other words, Ganesha is the supreme entity governing our intellectual grasp of the world, the basis of all the fundamental principles in terms of which we reckon the world.
In mythological imagery again, Ganesha becomes a god with the face of an elephant with a single tusk, a pot belly and four arms. One interpretation of this is that he reflects the connection between the human world and the divine realm. The man-like body represents the small human plane. The much larger large elephantine face stands for the Divine. Ganesha’s favorite food is made up of a sweet core of candied coconut pulp covered with a layer made of white flour. The insipid outer shell is said to represent the gross physical body, the sweet inside stands for the resplendent soul.
Ganesh is also known as “Vignesvara“: Lord of Hurdles. If due attention is not paid to him prior to the commencement of an under taking, obstacles on the way may not be easily overcome. For this reason he is invariably invoked at the commencement of any project, great or small: be it the day’s business in a small store, arrangements for a wedding, the opening page of a book, foundations for a new building, or whatever.
It is conceivable that seeing the elephant move majestically through the jungles, bringing down bushes and trees, and clearing nonchalantly the obstacles on its way, the ancient Hindus gave the elephant aspect to a god who would remove all impediments.
There are several accounts to explain how Ganesha received his head. According to one (in the Brahmavaivarta Purana), the deity Sani (Saturn) was among the guests at Ganesha’s birth. Now, Sani’s wife had cast a spell on him on that day because he had ignored her. Because of this, Sani kept staring at the ground instead of looking at the infant for fear of harming it by his cursed look. Upon Parvati’s insistence, however, he looked directly at the child, whereupon the baby’s head rolled off and turned to ash. Parvati lifted up her headless infant and began to wail. When this happened, Vishnu, the Supreme Being, who was among the guests, flew off in search of a substitute head. He found on the bank of a river a sleeping elephant. He severed the beast’s head, brought it to Parvati’s abode, and affixed it on to the body of Ganesha.
Considered from a history of ideas perspective, we find in the legend of Ganesha one of the earliest examples of organ transplant.
Data collection and storage: Chitragupta
Computers are among the marvels of modern technology. They are able to do all this because of their impressive capacity to store and retrieve enormous quantities of data. Now consider a computer that records and retrieves at the appropriate time every single thought, word, and deed of every single human. Suppose further that such a computer can also classify these in every case into a positive and negative column, i.e. that it can also evaluate the data. That would be one of the most super-supercomputers one can think of.
The ancient Hindus imagined such a computer, and that gave it a form and a name. It was called Chitragupta, which means Mindfold-Secret. We read in the Padma Purana that Chitragupta sprang from the Supreme Being, and was human in appearance. He was endowed with a huge blank book called “agra sandhani” and a writing instrument, and was instructed to record every good and bad deed of every person.
We note here the idea that data can be stored for future use. Aside from its value as statistical information, details on people’s action can also serve to reward or punish them. Thus, the role of Chitragupta was to keep a separate dossier on every individual. From this perspective, the notion of Chitragupta may be seen as the vision of a cosmic police state where there is an individual assigned to maintain records on everyone.
In a sense, the notion is not unlike the idea implicit in the Day of Judgment in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the role of Saint Peter in this regard. What is peculiar to the Hindu world is that one assigned to keep careful track of our several activities is not a historical man, for in that case it would be difficult to imagine who could have played this role in ages before his birth and role assignment. In other words, it would seem more reasonable to treat this as a concept than as a role played by a specific individual in human history.
Clones and Procreation: Daksha
In Puranic literature one speaks of a certain Daksha who was asked by the Supreme to procreate living creatures. He is said to have produced ten thousand sons who were called “Hayashvas” (Joyful Horses). These may be regarded as the first recorded instances of human clones since al the children are said to have been perfectly identical. But they all became ascetics. This happened again. The third time Daksha initiated physical procreation, and his wife Ashini gave birth to sixty daughters. Of these thirteen were married to a divine personage named Kashyapa. In this view, then, every being in the world is a progeny of Kashyapa and Daksha’s thirteen daughters.
The legend is more complex than this, but we may interpret the core idea here as there having been in biological evolution attempts to propagate the species through asexual means, and that the feature of sexual reproduction that is common for the human species today is only a later biological invention. Again, the point of interest is not whether there was a Daksha, but that such concepts which are not without some scientific interest, were developed and presented by ancient Hindu thinkers.
The Bhagavad Gita is known for the wisdom that Krishna imparted to Arjuna in Kurukshetra where the armies of two families had gathered for a climactic war. But what is not as widely known is that the Gita dialogue was relayed to the blind king Dhritarashtra by his minister Sanjaya who was nowhere near the field where the action and dialogue were taking place. He was in the palace with the king.
The Mahabharata (MB: VI.2) says that Sanjaya received the faculty of distant vision especially for performing the task of reporting what was going on in the battlefield. Conceptually, it was as if he was watching the unraveling of the scenes on a television screen. It was more than that: He was endowed with full knowledge of history and geography which enabled him to recount to the king in details of the topography of the entire country, and narrate everything that was going on in Kurukshetra where the Gita was spoken and the battle was raging.
Indeed, this was the first recorded instance – historical or sacred historical – of direct reporting – almost journalistic, one might say – of live reporting of events, verbal exchanges, death tolls and all from a battle scene.
As recently as a century ago, such a possibility would have been deemed pure fantasy. But remarkably, the author of the Mahabharata could well envision it. He was right, for today distance seeing and distance hearing have become very much a reality through physical means. As of now, it seems impossible for one to read the minds and intentions of others through any means. But who can tell what is yet in store!
Teleportation refers to the transfer of something from one point of space to another without that something being physically moved from place to place. Until recently this was no more than a science-fiction fantasy. However, during the 1990s, physicists reported that it was possible to accomplish photon teleportation: That is to say, to move a photon from one region to another without the photon itself traveling from point to point. Modern science fiction such as Star Trek have applied this notion to human teleportation.
Here too, Indic thinkers had imagined the possibility centuries ago. Consider the story of Usha and Chitralekha, which appears in “Srimad Bhagavatam.” The beautiful Princess Usha, single and longing for love, had the experience of a handsome youth in her dream one night. The dream was interrupted, and she woke up and exclaimed, “Oh, beloved one, where are you?” She confided the dream to her close friend Chitralekha. Chitralekha said she would find who the young man was and get him to her. But how was she to recognize him? She began to draw a series of faces, and asked Usha if any of them resembled the man of her dream. After seeing many sketches, Usha finally came upon a drawing which was of Aniruddha, a grandson of Lord Krishna. That night, Chitralekha transported herself to Dwaraka where she found Aniruddha, who was in deep sleep. She then brought him instantly to Soniputra where Usha lived.
Two aspects of today’s world are implicit in this story. First there is the idea that one can identify an unknown person through sketches, a matter that is routinely done in criminal investigations in our own times. Then, of course, there is the notion of teleportation, though not in the technical sense of the term.
It may be mentioned in passing that human teleportation is well-nigh impossible, at least on the basis of current physics. What it calls for is the annihilation of a body at one spot and its re-constitution with its zillions of atoms and molecules in the precisely exact configuration at a distant point. As of now this is only a science-fictional dream. But the Chitralekha story conjures up the possibility at some time in the future.
Life-principle from the stars: akash ganga
In Hindu lore there is an interesting account of how the sacred river Ganga which has its origins in the Himalayan range, actually arose. In the Ramayana (I.25) the sage Vishvamitra explains that the river “rose from the skies and finally came down to earth in the form of a terrestrial stream that has the power to rid us of worldly sins.”
In this vision, the life-giving river’s pristine presence in the universe may still be seen as the Milky which is known as Akash Ganga or the Celestial Ganga in the Hindu world.
We note that this is perhaps the first instance in history where one put forward the idea of a material something reaching us from the stellar world. The extra-terrestrial origin of meteors was not discovered until the eighteenth century. And it was only in the twentieth century that we became aware of the ceaseless shower of cosmic rays which reach us from the sun primarily, but also from beyond our solar system.
At first blush, it may seem somewhat strange that one imagined a river to be coming down here below. And of course we know that this is neither physically true nor possible. But what is implicit here is that a life-giving principle on earth had its origins in the stellar world. This too is an idea that would have been pure fantasy a century ago. Interestingly, today we know this to be the case: The complex atoms in our bodies and indeed of the entire earth arose, on final analysis, from super-heavy stars: from the core of supernovas. The intuitive suspicion that material aspects of the earth had extra-solar system origins is another instance of the many interesting and scientifically not so weird insights that we find in the writings of ancient Hindus.
In our own age genetic engineering has done some remarkable things. But it is no secret that there is also a general fear that it has the potential for doing much harm. Some have projected strange birth defects and grotesque species variations could occur as a result of our tinkering with the genes such as they have evolved in nature. Thus, according to one report, “Genetically modified ‘rape,’ a plant used extensively for its oil, transferred its herbicide resistance to nearby wild ‘brassicas,’ creating ‘superweeds.'”
In the Mahabharata (VI.3) we have a frightening description of a world where there is total genetic chaos:
“Donkeys are taking birth in kine … Trees in forests are exhibiting unseasonable flowers and fruits. Women, quick with child, and even those who are not so, are giving birth to monsters. Carnivorous beasts, mingling with similar birds, are feeding together. Ill-omened beasts, some having three horns, some with four eyes, some with five heads, some with two sexual organs, some with two heads, some with two tails, some having fierce teeth, are being born, and with mouths wide open are uttering unholy cries. Horses with three legs, furnished with crests, having four teeth, are also being born.” The list goes on and on, including such things as, “Every barley-stalk has five ears, and every paddy-stalk has a hundred. The best creatures on earth upon whom life depends, namely kine, when milked after the calf have suck, yield only blood.”
It is difficult to know what to make out of such passages except to surmise that perhaps some terrible bio-chaos must have occurred in the region at one time. Indeed in the same chapter there are also references to planetary and astral anomalies such as three lunations twice meeting together in the course of the same lunar fortnight, and the dimming of the stars in the constellation Big Bear.
Such references make one wonder whether the known history of civilization is really complete, whether perhaps they might have been phases of human history of which we may have lost complete track. It is not satisfying to say that everything we read in the ancient epics is purely creative writings. The reading of mythology as records of a world that has somehow disappeared altogether from human relic except as vague remembrances which are enshrined in the legends of ages past could tu n out to be more frui