Did an Ancient Indian Sage Record a Recipe for Making a Battery? A Forgotten Chapter in Fringe History
Note: The post was edited to include additional information.
Many of you likely saw news reports this week that Stonehenge is a “secondhand monument” that was stolen from Wales, where it was originally set up 500 years before moving to Salisbury Plain. As usual, the media bungled an archaeology story that’s much less dramatic. The new claim by Mike Parker Pearson, based on the well-known fact that the small inner horseshoe of so-called “bluestones” at Stonehenge had be quarried in Wales, suggests that these smaller stones were originally part of a Welsh circle before being recycled at Stonehenge. Pearson and his team found the site where they believe the stones were quarried and dated organic material at the site to 3400 BCE, earlier than the 2900 BCE date for the stones’ erection on Salisbury plain. (No evidence of the proposed original monument has been found, and other explanations are possible.) The original Guardian story correctly identified these stones as the smaller inner horseshoe ring of stones at Stonehenge, though they did not emphasize this point. Other media accounts were much less clear about the fact that the large, famous stones of Stonehenge were not “stolen” from Wales.
Anyway, today I’d like to talk a bit about the Agastya Samhita, a text I’d never heard of until the other day, but which appears to be the source of a number of cockamamie claims about prehistoric high technology. Of the text itself, little is known securely. Because portions of it are quoted in the Caturvarga-cintamani, itself composed around 1260-1270 CE, we know it must predate that period, though suggested dates range wildly across the centuries but is generally suggested to be around the eleventh or twelfth century CE. It is Sanskrit text in verse on rituals and liturgy, one which survives down to the present.
But in fringe world it is something else: an ancient recipe for making a working battery. This is how fringe folk give the recipe, attributed to the ancient text:
Place a well-cleaned copper plate in an earthenware vessel. Cover it first by copper sulfate and then by moist sawdust. After that, put a mercury-amalgamated zinc sheet on top of the sawdust to avoid polarization. The contact will produce an energy known by the twin name of Mitra-Varuna. Water will be split by this current into Pranavayu and Udanavayu. A chain of one hundred jars is said to give a very effective force.
This is the form of the piece given in David Childress’s Technology of the Gods (2000), where he attributes it to Andrew Tomas, who indeed gives the same text in his 1971 book We Are Not the First. Tomas, in turn, says (speaking of himself in the third person) that he received information about the text directly from unnamed Indians: “During his stay in India the author was told about an old document preserved in the Indian Princes’ Library at Ujjain and listed as the Agastya Samhita which contains instructions for making electrical batteries.” We might suspect him of making the whole thing up, but some suggestive language in his text can help us to trace his claim back to its real source.
In the book, Tomas says that “the Mitra-Varuna is now called cathode-anode, and Pranavayu and Udanavayu is (sic) to us oxygen and hydrogen.” Tomas wasn’t likely to have come up with that on his own, and indeed he did not. Using those search terms shows us that his “translation” of the text appears to be a light rewrite of the following paragraph from 1927:
A well-cleaned copper plate should be placed in an earthen-ware vessel. It should then be covered first by copper-sulphate and then by moist sawdust. Mercury amalgamated zinc plate should then be placed on the top of the sawdust. By their contact a light known by the twin-names Mitra-Varuna (cathode-anode or electricity) is produced. The water is split up by this into gases, Vital and Up-faced. The joining together of hundreds such vessels is very active or effective.
This text comes to us from The Minnesota Alumni Weekly (vol. 27, no. 3) for September 30, 1927, where it appears in the newsletter’s cover story, “First Non-Stop Flight Made 2000 Years B.C.”, where the anonymous writer attributes it to New York chemist Vaman R. Kokatnur, a graduate of the University of Minnesota. The article says his findings were to have been published in the journal Isis, but I can’t find a record for them in that journal. His claims did appear in much abbreviated form in the Science News for September 9, 1927, however. We’ll return to him in a moment.
My guess—and this is only a guess—is that Tomas had the passage translated to him from another language rather than the published text above; his use of the words “Prana vayu” (literally: “life breath”) and “Udana vayu” (“upward-facing breath”), which do not appear in Kokatnur’s text, for their English equivalents “vital” and “up-faced” suggests that a Hindi translation stands behind Tomas’s. (Or, he threw them in to sound more authentic.) What is interesting is that virtually every fringe book repeating the claim, from 1975’s Gods of Air and Darkness by Richard E. Mooney, right down to mystery-mongering garbage from the past year, quotes Tomas’s version of the text verbatim rather than Kokatnur’s. Poor Kokatnur seems to have been forgotten, except for a 1941 edition of the Ramayana, where the editor refers to his claim.
Anyway, Kokatnur professed to make a hobby of studying the connection between Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sanskrit, and thus at the September 1927 meeting of the American Chemical Society in Detroit, he read a paper announcing that chemistry was an “Aryan” rather than a “Semitic” science, demonstrated through the fact that ancient Aryan Indians had discovered oxygen and hydrogen. The Society voted to accept Kokatnur’s conclusions as proved, according to the Minnesota Alumni Weekly report.
You will see that the 1927 Minnesota article contains suspiciously similar wording to Tomas’s claims about what the imaginary Indians told him:
While working on his study of hieroglyphics, he came across a Sanskrit book which contained four pages of an old but well-known manuscript which was written in 1550 and contains the collected writings of Agastya. These few pages were discovered by Vaze in the library of an Indian prince, in 1924, at Ujjain, India.
What a coincidence—but note that the “library of an Indian prince” has morphed, apparently through the miracle of translation and re-translation, into “the Indian Princes’ Library at Ujjain.” And our Minnesota Alumni author also gives us, from Kokatnur, the exact wording needed to explain Tomas’s connection of “vital” and “up-faced” with oxygen and hydrogen: “Hydrogen is called ‘up-faced,’ because of its lightness; while oxygen is known as ‘vital’ or ‘essential to life.’” The long and short of it is that Kokatnur, a sort of proto-Sitchin, believed that his “unique” understanding of Sanskrit allowed him to uncover the hidden chemical reactions described under myth and symbolism, in other words, the right way to translate ambiguous Sanskrit terms in light of modern science. This is why no modern edition of the Agastya Samhita contains these references. Kokatnur also said that there was no chance that the manuscript he consulted could have been a forgery because the parchment looked old and was written in Sanskrit,. Detailed knowledge of science in India, he said, was only available to English speakers, who would be unlikely to create a hoax.
But there is a bit more to the story: It appears that our friend Dr. Kokatnur wasn't entirely honest about his sources. We learn from the December 1923 Vedic Magazine (vol. 21, no. 7), published in India, that the manuscript was not discovered by Dr. Kokatnur but rather by an engineer in India named Rao Saheb K. V. Vaze, who received it secondhand himself: “This evidence is from Agastya Samhita, our friend got it copied from an oblong manuscript copy of Mr. Joshi, a Yajurvedi Brahmin at Ujjain, through Mr. N.V. Gadgil, Kaharwodi, Jagannath’s temple there.” From this evidence, it appears that no one who actually wrote about the manuscript actually held the original pages but rather said they did after reading copies of copies. But the Vedic Magazine writer, Shri Parashuram Hari Thatte, claimed that the book was actually about how to build airplanes and hydrogen balloons!
It is in this text that we find the earliest version of the text I can find, and one that was more or less not trying to be a translation as much as an explanation of a poetic fragment that Shri Parashuram Hari Thatte claimed dated back to 5000 BCE:
Having put a piece of pure copper in an earthen pot, broad mouthed, water tight, clean, like one used for storing Ghee, they used to put thereon pieces of Sulphate of copper Vitral, blue like the neck of a peacock. Then they used to cover with wood dust and thereon used to put a block of zinc besmeared with mercury, and they by this connection used to produce electricity (Mitra). The light that was produced by connection of copper and zinc was called Mitra. A battery of such hundred earthen jars was very effective.
But the above passage, which is clearly the same as that of Kokatnur, though more crudely rendered, is, as I said, not a translation but an explanation and interpretation of the poem in light of an imagined scientific foundation for vimana aircraft, and it has the benefit of explaining the weird final phrase about the batteries being effective, which otherwise makes no sense in a genuine ancient text.
The question left to answer is whether Tomas copied from Shri Parashuram Hari Thatte or Dr. Kokatnur, and why he hid the source, if the reason be anything other than self-glorification.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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