In this excerpt from Angela Saini’s Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World (Hachette, 2011), Saini visits the Academy of Sanskrit Research at the top of a steep hill in Melkote, Karnataka, to interview the scholars who build on the work of GR Josyer, the translator of the Vaimanika Shastra.
In the early twentieth century, a mysterious holy man in south India wrote a scientific paper. By all accounts—although there aren’t many of them—he was an unlikely scientist. He was born into poverty, had no schooling, spent most of his childhood begging and later survived smallpox. As he grew older, he adopted the same obscure life of asceticism as thousands of Hindu hermits across the country. On the surface, he probably looked as though he knew nothing about modern science. Yet in his paper, he suggested that the Vedas, which are Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, comprising mantras dating back at least 3,000 years, contained the blueprints of a hitherto unknown technology used by early Indians and ancient gods. He had decoded these religious texts by channelling the minds of the deities, it seemed, and figured out how these machines worked. He called his manuscript, written in 6,000 lines of verse, the Vaimanika Shastra.
For a few decades, however, it was pretty much ignored. The holy man died and his work was forgotten. But then in the 1950s, a Hindu academic called G R Josyer stumbled upon it. At the end of the decade, he published a painstaking modern-language Hindi translation of the Vaimanika Shastra. Then in 1973, he translated it again, this time into English. The book circulated around the world, its title sending ripples of excitement wherever it was read. It was called Science of Aeronautics . . . All About Machines.
People already knew that Indian religious scriptures talked of ancient warriors who travelled in floating vehicles (known as the mythical ‘chariots of the gods’) but most people assumed that this was just fanciful storytelling or allegory. Josyer’s book suggested there might be more to the stories than fiction. He declared that the Vaimanika Shastra was not just another scrap of philosophy of the kind routinely written by holy men, but that it contained descriptions of real aircraft that had existed thousands of years ago. He went to the trouble of giving technical particulars and included detailed blueprints by an engineering draughtsman from Bengaluru.
On the baby-pink cover of his book was a small pencil drawing of one of these planes. Part submarine, part mechanical fish, it was built in four tiers like a wedding cake, with three fins and a thin propeller at the front. Among the substances powering this unlikely contraption, the book said, was mercury, the silver-coloured liquid metal used in thermometers. Other ingredients included snake poison, rhinoceros bones and camel urine.