Today I’m going to reveal the origins of a century-old claim that the Sanskrit text contains an accurate description of an aerial bomber airplane.
First, let’s look at the claim as it is stated today. Here is how David Childress quotes the Mahabharata in 2000’s Technology of the Gods (and Lost Cities of China, and his other self-plagiarized books), calling one vimana an “aerial chariot with the sides of iron and clad with wings” (p. 167). Ellen Lloyd lifts the same quote for Voices from Legendary Times (2005), and Raymond Bernard in The Hollow Earth (1996). More recently, Teodor Gerasim lifts Childress’s prose, including this quotation, for Atlantis-Lemuria and the Modern Connection (2008). And of course the quotation can be found across the internet. Not one gives a citation to the parva or section of the Mahabharata where this text allegedly appears, but all assert that this is a clear description of a modern airplane or spaceship, with metal fuselage and wings.
So far, so crappy.
So where did David Childress lift it from? That’s easy: He got it out of early twentieth century books about flight that used the alleged passage from the Mahabharata to illustrate mythic prefiguring of flight. Both E. Charles Vivian’s A History of Aeronautics (1921) and Charles Cyril Turner’s Aircraft of To-Day (1917), as well as the 1915 journal of Aeronautics give a fuller quotation which Childress has excerpted and partly mangled:
Krishna’s enemies sought the aid of the demons, who built an aerial chariot with sides of iron and clad with wings. The chariot was driven through the sky till it stood over Dwarakha, where Krishna’s followers dwelt, and from there it hurled down upon the city missiles that destroyed everything on which they fell.
Now from here things get weird.
Vivian’s and Turner’s manuals became convenient sources for later writers on flight, and down to the 1960s we find dozens of mainstream books and manuals repeating the alleged Mahabharata quotation from these sources. Among them are The Annual Reports of the Indiana Engineering Society (1918), Douglas J. Ingells’s They Tamed the Sky (1947), Walter T. Bonney’s The Heritage of Kitty Hawk (1962), as well as dozens of journal articles, including some from the U.S. military’s publication divisions. Then, with the advent of UFO culture and ancient astronauts, all this mainstream copying stops. Suddenly it’s no longer acceptable to point to ancient ideas about aircraft, as though it would be seen as a tacit endorsement of UFOs.
So why does all this start right around 1915? The Mahabharata had been rendered into English in 1883-1896, so theoretically we ought to see some reference to this winged iron chariot even before the invention of the airplane.
Oh, right. It’s not there.
The lines don’t sound much like the real epic, which is long-winded, poetic, and never states anything in a single, direct sentence. The actual source is not the Mahabharata but, so far as I have been able to determine, a 1909 novel by Sarath Kumar Ghosh called The Prince of Destiny. In chapter five, Viswa-mitra explains how India prefigured modern Western science in its ancient epics, which miraculously reveal knowledge of the wonders of the early twentieth century. Ghosh makes Viswa-mitra assert that the Mahabharata reads thus:
Krishna’s enemies sought the aid of the demons, who built an aerial chariot with sides of iron and clad with wings (that is aeroplanes). The chariot was driven through the sky till it stood over Dwarakha, where Krishna’s followers dwelt, and from there it hurled down upon the city missiles that destroyed everything on which they fell…
Note that Ghosh explicitly identifies the iron chariot as an airplane and places ellipses at the end of the last line, both parts of the quotation non-fiction writers immediately dropped, assuming them to be authorial interpolations in a genuine text.
The trouble seems to come from the publisher’s preface, which told readers that the novel was more than a mere romance. Instead, it was a “storehouse of Indian information which could not be obtained from any other source.” Ghosh uses the same words just before the alleged Mahabharata quote, calling the Sanskrit epic a “wonderful storehouse of knowledge.” This seems to have given writers of the 1910s the idea that it was an accurate source for material from the Mahabharata. Instead, Viswa-mitra is presenting a romantic and romanticized view of India as a font of modern civilization, something that plays into Ghosh’s political views but which also distorts the material to the advantage of Indian claims to prehistoric scientific supremacy.
The actual text of the Mahabharata is quite different than Viswa-mitra’s (or Ghosh’s?) idea of it. The incident in question seems to be one that occurs in book 3, section 17, when the enemies of Krishna gather at Dwarakha to besiege the city with an army of monkeys and elephants. The lead enemy, the demon Salwa, is goaded into single battle with a hero from within the city walls, something like Achilles taking on Hector:
O hero, mounting on his beautiful car decked with gold and furnished with flags and flag-staffs and quivers, the illustrious and mighty Salwa began to discharge his arrows at Pradyumna! Pradyumna also by the energy of his arms, overwhelmed Salwa in the combat by a thick shower of arrows. The king of Saubha, however, thus attacked in battle by Pradyumna, endured him not, but discharged at my son arrows that were like blazing fire. But the mighty Pradyumna parried off that arrowy shower. Beholding this, Salwa rained on my son other weapons of blazing splendour. (Ganguli translation)
As you can see, the original passage bears nothing more than a superficial resemblance to the novel version (Ghosh probably conflates it with the flying car of doom from another passage); in Hindu myth, incidentally, Dwaraka was destroyed by flood, not by bombs, and recently remains of a city believed to be it were found under the Arabian Sea, sunk by an earthquake. There is no iron chariot with wings that drops bombs; there are only flying chariots, mostly pulled by flying horses.
Amazing, though, that lines from a novel became accepted as fact and repeated for a century as accurate—and no one ever thought to check the Mahabharata!