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IISc research debunked long ago myth of ancient Indian flying

Kalyan Ray Jan 10, 2015, DHNS 16:46 IST
Much before the Wright brothers flew a heavier-than-air flying machine in 1903, the mythological story of Icarus and Daedalus was well known.
Much before the Wright brothers flew a heavier-than-air flying machine in 1903, the mythological story of Icarus and Daedalus was well known.

A former pilot has now added an ancient Indian twist to the tale claiming that almost 6,000 years ago, the art of flying was known to Indian sage, Maharishi Bhardwaj, and an Indian actually made a plane using that knowledge and flew with it two decades before the Wright brothers’ success, but nobody documented it.

Capt Anand J Bodas had made such wild assertions in the past. But this time, the retired pilot spoke at one of the sessions at the 102th edition of the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai University, triggering a controversy.

The session where he spoke was titled “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit,” and was organised by the Kavikulguru Kalidasa Sanskrit University, Ramtek.

The speakers were selected by a committee headed by Science Congress president S B Nimse, who is a mathematician. Besides Bodas, there is no controversy on other talks on yoga, ancient architecture and surgery – areas where Indians are known to have excelled in the past.

“Study of ancient knowledge is a legitimate subject. There are scientific researches on the validity of Yoga and ancient mathematical knowledge, but when one talks about aviation, a suspicion (about the motive) arises,” said a scientist, who extensively studied ancient Indian texts.

To begin with, the text which Bodas quoted is not exactly antique. The Sanskrit verses, which are the starting point of the ancient-Indian-flying story, was printed in two books named Brihad Vimana Shastra and Vymanika Shastra, published half a century ago. Both contain those verses.

Four decades ago, five young scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, decided to check the vintage and veracity of the claims enshrined in those Sanskrit verses. They traced the authorship to Pandit Subbaraya Shastry, who lived in Anekal in Karnataka, and died in 1941. The texts were written between 1900 and 1922.

“It appears that Shastry was supposedly endowed with certain mystical powers and used to spell out verses (shlokas) whenever he got inspiration. These (verses) used to be promptly taken by one of his aides G V Sharma,” the scientists had observed in a 1974 research paper. Subsequently, a manuscript was made and copies were prepared, which found their ways to the two titles.

The accompanying drawings were made by someone named Ellappa, who was a draughtsman in a local engineering training college.

Four types of aircraft (or Vimana) were mentioned. They were Shakuna, Sundara, Rukma and Tripura. The last one (Tripura) can fly in air, and move in water and land.

“The planes described above are the best poor concoction, rather than expression of something real. None of the planes has the 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 scientists wrote in the journal Scientific Opinion.

One of the materials used to fuel Sundara Vimana is donkey’s urine while Panchamrita (honey, sugar, milk, yogurt and ghee) is a key component to make the Shakuna Vimana. In Tripura Vimana, something called a milk cloth was used and Rukma Vimana is a “decided impossibility.”

Descriptions of Rukma Vimana mention a speed of 625 miles per hour, which is incredible even for a sleek aircraft and just impossible for the kind of geometry used.

The text and the drawings the IISc team found, do not correlate with each other even thematically. The drawings definitely point to a knowledge of modern machinery. This occurred possibly because of Ellappa, who was in a local engineering college and was familiar with names and details of some machinery.

“Thematically, the drawings ought to be ruled out of discussions and the text is incomplete and ambiguous by itself and incorrect at many places,” says the paper.

While the text retains a structure in language and content from which its recent nature can’t be assessed, the researchers analysed the language for dating the text.

The text contains shlokas set to Anushtup metre and its language is quite simple and modern. Since the number of words, with a structure similar to that of Vedic Sanskrit is very few and their usage is incidental, it appears appropriate to conclude that the Sanskrit used in the text is modern.

Rigveda as scientific text
Another significant point is an almost complete absence of any mention of the use of aircraft in innumerable Sanskrit text in the post Vedic period. One text named Samarangana Sutradhara by Bhoja deals with some description of aircraft but does not quote any earlier work. Bhoja states detailed description of their construction and other features will not be given lest the same be used for evil purposes by people.

Ramayana and Mahabharata make no mention of aircraft except Pushpak Vimana, which has no flying qualities except possibly by invocation of “mantras or tantras.” Whether they existed at all can’t be decided within the realm of science. “There is now a flourishing industry which seeks to establish the Rigveda as a modern scientific text of great contemporary value.

A large number of experts claim to have discovered in the Vedic passages references to the latest scientific discoveries,” says astronomer Rajesh Kochar in his book titled “Vedic People: Their History and Geography” published in 2000.

“What use is the so-called modern scientific content of the Vedas, if it can come to light only after the West has made scientific discoveries independently and explicitly and if even after that, the Vedic content can not lead to further developments ?” argues Kochar, a former director of National Institute for Science, Technology and Developmental Studies, New Delhi.

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