This isn’t the most dramatic or bizarre bit of ancient astronaut malfeasance ever; in fact, it isn’t entirely Erich von Däniken’s fault. But it is interesting nonetheless as an example of the sort of slipshod scholarship and lack of care that went into the supposedly “revolutionary” works of fringe history. It’s the story of publishers, mostly, and the games they play with their authors and their audiences. The story begins with an odd and unusual passage in Chariots of the Gods, which supposedly presents a nuclear bombing recorded in the Mahabharata.
I give this exactly as Chariots presents it, with the original in-text citation:
It was as if the elements had been unleashed. The sun spun round. Scorched by the incandescent heat of the weapon, the world reeled in fever. Elephants were set on fire by the heat and ran to and fro in a frenzy to seek protection from the terrible violence. The water boiled, the animals died, the enemy was mown down and the raging of the blaze made the trees collapse in rows as in a forest fire. The elephants made a fearful trumpeting and sank dead to the ground over a vast area. Horses and war chariots were burnt up and the scene looked like the aftermath of a conflagration. Thousands of chariots were destroyed, then deep silence descended on the sea. The winds began to blow and the earth grew bright. It was a terrible sight to see. The corpses of the fallen were mutilated by the terrible heat so that they no longer looked like human beings. Never before have we seen such a ghastly weapon and never before have we heard of such a weapon. (C. Roy, Drona Parva 1889.)
When I first wrote about this passage in my eBook Ancient Atom Bombs?, I was under the impression that this passage had been translated into English from a German edition of the Mahabharata, since von Däniken typically uses German translations of ancient texts in his work. For example, his knowledge of Homer and of the Argonautica comes from German translations. I did my due diligence at the time and tried to look up a translation by “C. Roy” but came up empty handed. Only recently did I find out who he was.
So I turned to the standard English translation of the Mahabharata, completed by Kisari Mohan Ganguli between 1883 and 1896 and attempted to find the passage von Däniken was quoting. The Mahabharata contains approximately 1.8 million words, and the lack of a citation made it a bit difficult to find. His mention of the Drona Parva, book 7 of the epic, at least narrowed down the search to a more reasonable 203 chapters. The text in question appears at 7.202:
The very elements seemed to be perturbed. The sun seemed to turn. The universe, scorched with heat, seemed to be in a fever. The elephants and other creatures of the land, scorched by the energy of that weapon, ran in fright, breathing heavily and desirous of protection against that terrible force. The very waters heated, the creatures residing in that element, O Bharata, became exceedingly uneasy and seemed to burn. From all the points of the compass, cardinal and subsidiary, from the firmament and the very earth, showers of sharp and fierce arrows fell and issued with the impetuosity of Garuda or the wind. Struck and burnt by those shafts of Aswatthaman that were all endued with the impetuosity of the thunder, the hostile warriors fell down like trees burnt down by a raging fire. Huge elephants, burnt by that weapon, fell down on the earth all around, uttering fierce cries loud as the rumblings of the clouds. Other huge elephants, scorched by that fire, ran hither and thither, and roared aloud in fear, as if in the midst of a forest conflagration. The steeds, O king, and the cars also, burnt by the energy of that weapon, looked, O sire, like the tops of trees burnt in a forest-fire. […] We had never before, O king, heard of or seen the like of that weapon which Drona's son created in wrath on that occasion. […] Burnt by the energy of Aswatthaman's weapon, the forms of the slain could not be distinguished.
As the ellipses indicate, von Däniken left out large chunks of the passage without indicating the omission, and he seemed to have changed the order of sentences for dramatic effect. In fact, I had to condense the above because the passages are so far apart I can’t quote everything in between.
I assume it surprises no one that most fringe writers who reference the text copy the version appearing in Chariots of the Gods without consultation of the original.
But that isn’t what’s interesting here. What’s interesting is what I discovered about this “C. Roy” fellow that von Däniken credited with the translation. I won’t belabor the point. The name is given somewhat wrong. I could not find him because his name actually was Pratap Chandra Roy. He was the publisher of the Ganguli translation, and his name appeared on the cover page of most volumes of the first printing of the work because Ganguli felt no one would believe one man could translate the whole work, and he feared dying before its completion. This caused great confusion in the 1890s, with some older authorities falsely giving Roy as the translator. The situation was cleared up in editions published after 1896, so von Däniken ought to have been able to find out who the real translator was when he wrote in the 1960s.
But since he did not bother to quote accurately, this was obviously of no concern.
Von Däniken’s condensed quotation came from an 1889 English edition of the text, which either von Däniken or his editor translated into German for the first edition of Chariots of the Gods. The English translator of Chariots, Michael Heron, did not bother to seek out original documents in translating the book for British (and later American) readers; instead, he simply and literally translated the German translation of the English translation of the Sanskrit original back into English. One can’t really blame him too much; it’s not like von Däniken made it easy to find where he had taken the text from. All the same, neither the translator, nor the editor, nor the publisher did even a cursory check of von Däniken’s source. It reminds me of Peter Kolosimo’s Not of the This World, the Italian ancient astronaut volume translated in such haste that even obvious English language texts like quotations from H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories were translated back into English from their Italian translations.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.