Vimanas and Vedas: Pseudoscience in India

by Sebastian Normandin

ScreenHunter_1589 Dec. 28 10.49On January 4th, 2015, the second day of the 102nd Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai, a very curious paper was given by two men — Anand J. Bodas, the head of a flight school and Ameya Jadhav, a lecturer at a small college in the host city.

Their paper made a rather extraordinary claim. Citing evidence from an early 20th century text — the Vaimanika Shastra — the two men argued that the airplane was invented in the Vedic Age (c. 1500-500 BCE). In further interviews, Mr. Bodas claimed these flying vehicles — vimana — were huge and could fly to other planets. Unlike modern airplanes, the vehicles didn't just fly forward but were capable of making immediate course corrections and could suddenly fly left, right or backwards.

The vimana is a fascinating idea. Mentioned in the great Indian epics — the Mahabharata and the Ramayana it translates as “spacecraft” or “aircraft”. The Sanskrit word “vi-mana” can be literally translated as “measuring out” or “traversing” or “having been measured out”. The vimana is also an architectural term for a tower above the inner sanctum (the sanctum sanctorum or Garbhagriha) of a Hindu temple. These two meanings are not necessarily unrelated, and there is a symbolic connection between the vimana as vehicle and as architectural structure. When a god sits in the chariot — the vimana as vessel or spacecraft — it is analogous to the architectural form, the tower. Symbolically the vimana as tower sits in a “heavenly” liminal space between the earthly temple and the realm of the gods. It is this “space”, whether vessel or that which lies between, that allows transportation between the heavens and earth.

“Flying chariots” are echoed in all sorts of other highly speculative and arguably pseudoscientific sources. Two that come to mind are Erich Von Daniken's classic bookChariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1968) and Zacharia Sitchin's books about ancient astronauts, The 12th Planet (1976) being the first. Both these writers use archeological and textual evidence for the purposes of bold theorizing about alternate histories of earth, and particularly of extraterrestrial involvement in this history.

Vimanas have also appeared in popular culture, including in a three issue comic book written by Grant Morrison entitled Vimanarama (2006). The books tell the story of the young Ali, arranged to be married to Sophia when he falls upon a six-thousand year old city buried under the streets of Bradford, England. He unwittingly unleashes a group of ancient monsters bent on global destruction. These creatures, seeking to find “black vimanas” in Atlantis (buried somewhere under present day New York City), are finally defeated by the Ultra-Hadeen, a group of ancient superheroes loosely based on Hindu mythology. The most explicit mention of the vimana occurs in the second issue uttered by Prince Ben Rama of Rama: “Fear not! We will restore this fallen world to glory. The crystal clear skies of this earth will fill once more with shining bright vimanas carrying treasures and knowledge from horizon to horizon. The machines and philosophies of the ancient world will light your cities and your minds. And the power of your prayers will attract angels.”

It is the words of the comic book Rama — “the machines and philosophies of the ancient world will light your cities and your minds” — that seem to best capture, in the form of a caricature, the hopes of many who express pseudoscientific ideas in the Indian context. This is complicated by the nature of the country's current political scene, where claims about aircraft being invented in an idealized ancient India and described in the Vedas also serve the interests of a particularly disingenuous and monolithic Hindu nationalism. In this respect it is perhaps not surprising that Indian PM and BJP leader Narendra Modi gave a speech opening the 102nd Indian Science Congress. The PM has even gone on record praising ancient “space sciences” in India.

This isn't Modi's only foray into the pseudoscientific. In October 2014 he went on record claiming that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were practiced in ancient India. As evidence of the former he cited the god Ganesha, positing that there must have been some rather advanced techniques around to allow someone to attach the head of an elephant to a human body. To argue the latter, he spoke of references in the Mahabharata to Karna who was not born from his mother's womb.

Whether it is vimanas or ancient plastic surgery and genetic engineering, from the history and philosophy of science point of view, the problem isn't the nature of the claims and their apparent absurdity (although they are no doubt absurd), the problem is evidence. It is the nature of the evidence marshalled to make these claims that makes them problematic and pseudoscientific.

From its very earliest origins in the naturalistic inquiries and speculations of the Presocratics, the focus of science has been on looking at the natural world for knowledge and insights. And, moreover, only at the natural world. Scientific discoveries and ideas have always existed in contrast (often in opposition) to received wisdom and textual authority. It was, by definition, essential that the natural philosopher “read the book of nature” and abide by what he learned there, even if what it revealed challenged claims made in the other “book”. In the west that “book” was the Bible.

Whether it was to argue for the age of the earth (precisely calculated using biblical exegesis as the nightfall of the 22nd of October 4004 BC by Archbishop Ussher in 1654) or to make claims about catastrophic collisions between the planets in recent history (as argued by the original contemporary pseudoscientist, Immanuel Velikovsky, in his controversial book Worlds in Collision (1950)), the claims of textual sources like the Bible have been misapplied in the scientific arena time and time again.

Sadly, we are witnessing the same situation occurring here in India. The misuse of textual sources as evidence isn't science. In the case of the Vaimanika Shastra, reputedly the result of a mystical vision in the early 20th century, it is a source that isn't even that “venerable”. As clearly sacred and venerable as the Vedas are, references within them also don't constitute legitimate scientific evidence. Moreover, while the Vedas may provide myriad profound insights, accurate and precise weather prediction as some have pseudoscientifically claimed, isn't one of them.

Words have power. Just consider the words of some of India's foremost rationalists, obviously disruptive and powerful enough to have engendered violent reprisals. In fact, three prominent rationalists have been killed in the last two years, including Narenda Dabholkar, founder of the Anti-Superstition Movement, all for making critical claims which challenged the spiritual and secular status quo. The most recent assassination was M.M. Kalburgi, killed in August. Most of these so-called “rationalists” would be more properly described as “atheists” in the west.

Words also have meaning. And if a word like “science” is to have any meaning at all (and from the philosophy of science point of view, this is already problematic) then at least it needs to be distinguished from other forms of knowledge to some degree. Revealed wisdom, textual authority, spiritual dogma — these are all forms of knowledge. But they aren't science. Science is knowledge gained from our use of the senses (or instruments which enhance these senses) and the encounter with the natural world. If science is to mean anything, it at least needs to mean this.

And this is why a paper presenting “scientific” findings at a “science congress” that uses spiritual texts and other recordings of supposedly divine revelation is pseudoscientific. Not only does it violate perhaps one of the most basic precepts of science — that a scientific theory or speculation needs to be refutable or, in philosopher of science Karl Popper's words, needs to be falsifiable — but it also challenges the idea that there are at least some very basic ground rules about the kinds of evidence used to make these claims.

There are many other pseudoscientific elements floating around the Indian intellectual scene — like the interest in faith healing (or in Deepak Chopra's parlance quantum healing) — some of which are really quite problematic in their claims. But at least they mostly confine themselves to using a nominally naturalistic approach, flawed as it may be. With the discussions of vimanas we have an example of a whole other order of confusion as to the nature of knowledge, science and pseudoscience.

I don't know if the gods visited earth in “flying chariots”. And neither do you. It's not a resolvable claim. And that, by definition, also makes it not a scientific claim. As such it should not be presented as science.

While all knowledge and ideas may ultimately only be a manifestation of a higher reality that is Brahman, that can't be where our knowledge and ideas derive their contemporary meaning. If science is to mean anything, then it must, as difficult as the task may be, in some way be differentiated from idle speculation, spiritual insight, or claims derived from textual authority. It must, in short, be scientific.

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Sebastian Normandin is Assistant Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.

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