India's Prime Minister, Top Historian Claim Ancient India Had Airplanes, Automobiles, and Plastic Surgery
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Last night, for the sixth time in two weeks, a TV producer contacted me about my interest in joining a TV program hunting for buried treasure and ancient artifacts somewhere in the United States. I’ll be speaking with the producer later today, but I cannot recall a time when so many producers all pitched the same idea so close together. I can only conclude from this that the cable networks put out notice that they’re looking for Curse of Oak Island clones, and production houses have raced to respond. If you need evidence for why this is the case, we need look no further than the TV ratings. Last week, Curse of Oak Island attracted 2.23 million viewers, of whom 700,000 were in the coveted 18-49 demographic, according to Nielsen figures. But more importantly the Discovery Channel has hit ratings gold with Gold Rush, a show about gold mining, whose 3.8 million live plus two days DVR numbers make it not just cable’s most popular Friday night show but also the highest rated Friday show among men—the hardest to reach demographic—on cable or broadcast. Of the 3.8 million viewers, 1.2 million were under the age of 49. In short, treasure hunting is hot right now.
Contrast that with the fading Search for the Lost Giants, which only attracted 1.47 million viewers last week, of whom barely 400,000 were under the age of 50. Gold trumps bones.
Gold Rush has dominated Friday ratings for the past three weeks, as (to a lesser extent) has Curse of Oak Island on Tuesdays. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this feeds into the sudden surge of similar ideas coming my way.
But enough of the business of fringe history and treasure hunting. Let’s turn instead to the politics of it. Yesterday I discussed the Texas State Board of Education promoting Moses to an honorary Founding Father by approving textbooks that describe him as a key influence on the writing of the U.S. Constitution. While this story rightfully made news here in the U.S., it pales in comparison to the wholesale revision of history happening in India as a direct result of a similar combination of religion and nationalism, exacerbated by the ascent of Prime Minister Narednra Modi, a Hindu nationalist. Hindu nationalism, much like Christian American exceptionalism, combines political conservatism, religious revival, and intense nationalism in service of a social and political agenda.
According to an article in India Today this past week, Modi has supported a number of fringe history beliefs about ancient India. Last month he announced his conviction that the elephant-headed god Ganesh was actually the recipient of prehistoric plastic surgery. He also believes that the Vedic texts record evidence of genetic manipulation, in-vitro fertilization, and artificial wombs.
Modi has expressed his belief that Indian textbooks are overrun with false information from colonialist and Marxist ideologues. This is not dissimilar to Christian views in the U.S. that assert that liberals and secularists control academia. Modi, however, has much more leeway to impose his vision across India than decentralized local school boards have in the United States. After winning election, his Hindu nationalist government quickly appointed Prof. Y Sudershan Rao to the Indian Council of Historical Research, an organization that distributes government funding for historical and educational projects. Rao believes the wackiest version of Hindu nationalist fringe history.
According to India Today, Rao believes that the Vedic texts should be taken literally, and therefore ancient Indians wielded atomic weapons, had automobiles, and flew in airplanes. “We have so many proofs that these events happened,” he told India Today. These claims have been a staple of fringe literature since the early twentieth century, when Western writers mistook a fictional excerpt from Sarath Kumar Ghosh’s 1909 novel The Prince of Destiny as an actual piece of the Mahabharata and used it as an ancient precedent for the newly invented airplane.
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 Dwaraka, where Krishna’s followers dwelt, and from there it hurled down upon the city missiles that destroyed everything on which they fell….
Ghosh’s “quotation” is actually a science-fiction revision of Mahabharata 8.34, interpolating mechanical details like the iron sides. This fake quote ended up in E. Charles’ Vivian’s A History of Aeronautics (1921) and Charles Turner’s Aircraft of To-Day (1917). It was the inspiration for fringe theorists to mine the Mahabharata for evidence of flying chariots that they could read as airplanes. Needless to say, David Childress claims these lines are actually from the Mahabharata because he borrowed the quote from the sources mentioned in this paragraph without checking the original.
Rao, however, is certain that the Mahabharata contains literal truth because, he told India Today, humans did not invent fiction until the modern era. Therefore, any text written around 2,000 years ago must be true. Remember: He’s the head of India’s most prestigious historical body. I wonder, then, what he makes of Lucian’s True History, a novel from around the second century CE, which tells of a voyage (by boat!) to the moon.
Critics of Hindu nationalism as well as academic historians expressed their outrage over Rao and his views, and they accused the Modi government of instituting a plan to alter the nation’s school curriculum to promote Hindu nationalism to the country’s multicultural population, of whom more than one in five observes a faith other than Hinduism. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party used its influence in two of the country’s states to distribute new history textbooks that teach students that Indians invented the automobile in ancient times. “The truth is that historically we have been a far superior race,” a representative of the textbook’s nationalist author told India Today.
For decades each new Indian government has rewritten textbooks to support its ideology. Needless to say, there is no archaeological support for the existence of airplanes or automobiles in ancient India, nor any reason to suspect that the mythical weapons and wonders of the Vedic texts had a reality beyond the storyteller’s imagination. Most of the wondrous material from these texts can be shown to have developed from simpler, less wondrous antecedents. For example, the flying machines are depicted as being drawn by horses in the oldest texts, suggesting that a storyteller fancifully placed known technology in the sky.
I can’t do much better than to end as India Today ended its piece:
“These claims can be interpreted as signs of an inferiority complex,” said Romila Thapar, a leading scholar on ancient India. “The most disturbing thing is that many people accept this without questioning it,” said Thapar, whose books one BJP leader has said should be burned.
This is an important example of why it’s so important to stand up against false history, lest it overwhelm us and leave us in a 1984-style dystopia where truth is a function of politics and “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”
Special thanks to John Hoopes for pointing me to this story.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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