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Did India discover flight before the Wrights?

February 09, 2019 10:14 IST

'There is enough proof of science-driven research in the India of early centuries,' argues Kumar Abhishek.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

There have been constant efforts over the years to glorify the so-called scientific achievements preserved in the Vedas, Hindu mythology, and other ancient texts. Such attempts in the past few years have spilt over to the Indian Science Congress -- most recently in its latest, 106th edition.

Andhra University Vice-Chancellor G Nageshwar Rao claimed ancient Indians had knowledge of stem cell research, test-tube fertilisation, aviation and guided missiles, citing tales from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

More such seemingly bizarre statements were made during the science congress, evoking sharp criticism, and even protest from mainstream scientists.


A campaign to legitimise and establish these perceived hokums as technological achievements gathered steam since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre -- from Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi to some of his ministers have supported such efforts, at least in words.

Taken at face value, such claims are outlandish and outright childish. But is it prudent to dismiss them as nothing but fertile thoughts of our ancestors, without conducting further research?

After all, these claims have not been sourced from one single ancient text, but multiple -- written over several centuries.

For example, vimanas -- claimed to be aircraft and described in the Vedas, Puranic texts, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (as the most popular of them all, Pushpak).

There are references to flying devices in Kautilya's (Chanakya's) Arthashastra, and Bhoja's Samarangana Sutradhara and the Yuktikalpataru.

There are several mentions of flying machines across Vedic literature, including the following verse from the Yajurveda: 'O royal skilled engineer, construct sea-boats, propelled on water by our experts, and aeroplanes, moving and flying upward, after the clouds that reside in the mid-region, that fly as the boats move on the sea, that fly high over and below the watery clouds.'

'Be thou, thereby, prosperous in this world created by the Omnipresent God, and flier in both air and lightening '(Yajurveda, 10.19).

A tunnel testing of a 3D-printed vimana model, created on the basis of descriptions in these texts at the University of California, Irvine, showed it to be aerodynamic. But no evidence of a working prototype has been found thus far.

Now, test-tube babies are a bio-technological achievement of the 20th century. But there is a hymn in the Rigveda (VII.33.13) that tells us about a process similar to that of in-vitro fertilisation.

Also, in the Mahabharata, the Kauravas are said to have originated from pots containing balls of flesh, nourished by water and butter. Bizzare!

Based on Hindu scriptures, there are several other claims of technological advancements in ancient India, including targeted weaponry, plastic surgery, and even computer (albeit in a godly incarnation of Chitragupta).

At best, these claims are questionable. Yet, there is enough proof of science-driven research in the India of early centuries.

The Susruta Samhita, with its description of 1,120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants and discussions on surgical techniques, is not only one of the foundational texts of Ayurveda, but also surgery.

Also, Panini's theory of morphological analysis was considered more advanced than any Western theory in linguistics before the 20th century (Frits Staal, Universals: Studies in Indian Logic and Linguistics). Or the works of Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.

Even the town planning and drainage system during the Indus Valley civilisation would have been the envy of several major European cities of the 17th and the 18th centuries.

Also, discoveries across the globe suggest that people in the ancient world were not simple-minded. Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, considered the world's first temple and fine work of stone carvings, was first erected possibly by hunter gatherers in the 10th BCE and not by people living in agricultural society; Antikythera Mechanism, a bronze gear used at least 2,000 years ago to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendar and astrological purposes decades in advance, is considered a Greek analogue computer; and the 2000-year-old Baghdad Battery or Parthian Battery, a set of three artefacts -- a ceramic pot, a tube of copper, and a rod of iron -- was possibly an old galvanic cell.

Most likely, the statements made by some Indian researchers and political leaders about scientific advancements in ancient India are nothing but rephrased excerpts from mythology.

However, there is enough content in these claims for serious, well-funded and unbiased research into India's 'lost' history, and not to be brushed aside by scientific minds in the country and abroad.

Kumar Abhishek
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