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Robots Guarded Buddha’s Relics in a Legend of Historic India

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As early as Homer, greater than 2,500 years in the past, Greek mythology explored the concept of automatons and self-moving units. By the third century BC, engineers in Hellenistic Alexandria, in Egypt, have been  constructing actual mechanical robots  and machines. And such science fictions and  historic applied sciences  weren’t distinctive to Greco-Roman tradition.

In my latest ebook “ Gods and Robots ,” I clarify that many historic societies imagined and constructed automatons. Chinese language chronicles inform of emperors fooled by real looking androids and describe synthetic servants crafted within the second century by the feminine inventor  Huang Yueying . Techno-marvels, equivalent to flying warfare chariots and animated beings, additionally seem in Hindu epics. One of the vital intriguing tales from India tells how  robots as soon as guarded Buddha’s relics . As fanciful as it’d sound to trendy ears, this story has a powerful foundation in hyperlinks between historic Greece and historic India.

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The story is ready within the time of kings Ajatasatru and Asoka. Ajatasatru, who reigned from 492 to 460 BC, was acknowledged for commissioning new navy innovations, equivalent to highly effective catapults and a  mechanized warfare chariot  with whirling blades. When Buddha died, Ajatasatru was entrusted with defending his treasured stays. The king hid them in an underground chamber close to his capital, Pataliputta (now Patna) in northeastern India.

A sculpture depicting the distribution of the Buddha’s relics.  Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork/Wikimedia Commons

Historically, statues of big warriors stood on guard close to treasures. However within the legend, Ajatasatru’s guards have been extraordinary: They have been robots. In India, automatons or mechanical beings that might transfer on their very own have been known as “ bhuta vahana yanta ,” or “spirit motion machines” in Pali and Sanskrit. In keeping with the story, it was foretold that Ajatasatru’s robots would stay on responsibility till a future king would distribute Buddha’s relics all through the realm.

Historic robots and automatons

Hindu and Buddhist texts  describe the automaton warriors whirling just like the wind, slashing intruders with swords, recalling Ajatasatru’s warfare chariots with spinning blades. In some variations the robots are pushed by a water wheel or made by Visvakarman, the Hindu engineer god. However essentially the most placing model got here by a tangled path to the “ Lokapannatti” of Burma – Pali translations of older, misplaced Sanskrit texts, solely recognized from Chinese language translations, every drawing on earlier oral traditions.

A statue of Visvakarman, the engineer of the universe. Suraj Belbase/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

A statue of Visvakarman, the engineer of the universe.  Suraj Belbase/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

On this story, many “yantakara,” robotic makers, lived within the Western land of the “Yavanas,” Greek-speakers, in “Roma-visaya,” the Indian title for the Greco-Roman tradition of the Mediterranean world. The Yavanas’ secret know-how of robots was intently guarded. The robots of Roma-visaya carried out commerce and farming and captured and executed criminals.

Robotic makers have been forbidden to depart or reveal their secrets and techniques – in the event that they did,  robotic assassins pursued and killed them. Rumors of the fabulous robots reached India, inspiring a younger artisan of Pataliputta, Ajatasatru’s capital, who wished to learn to make automatons.

Within the legend, the younger man of Pataliputta finds himself reincarnated within the coronary heart of Roma-visaya. He marries the daughter of the grasp robotic maker and learns his craft. At some point he steals plans for making robots and hatches a plot to get them again to India.

Sure of being slain by killer robots earlier than he might make the journey himself, he slits open his thigh, inserts the drawings underneath his pores and skin and sews himself again up. Then he tells his son to verify his physique makes it again to Pataliputta, and begins the journey. He’s caught and killed, however his son recovers his physique and brings it to Pataliputta.

As soon as again in India,  the son retrieves the plans  from his father’s physique, and follows their directions to construct the automated troopers for King Ajatasatru to guard Buddha’s relics within the underground chamber. Effectively hidden and expertly guarded, the relics – and robots – fell into obscurity.

The sprawling Maurya Empire in about 250 B.C. Avantiputra7/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The sprawling Maurya Empire in about 250 B.C.  Avantiputra7/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

Two centuries after Ajatasatru, Asoka dominated the highly effective Mauryan Empire in Pataliputta, 273-232 BC. Asoka constructed many  stupas to enshrine Buddha’s relics  throughout his huge kingdom. In keeping with the legend, Asoka had heard the legend of the hidden relics and searched till he found the underground chamber guarded by the fierce android warriors. Violent battles raged between  Asoka and the robots .

In a single model, the god  Visvakarman helped Asoka to defeat them by taking pictures arrows into the bolts that held the spinning constructions collectively; in one other story, the outdated engineer’s son defined methods to disable and management the robots. At any charge, Asoka ended up commanding the military of automatons himself.

Trade between East and West

Is that this legend merely fantasy? Or might the story have coalesced round early cultural exchanges between East and West? The story clearly connects the mechanical beings defending Buddha’s relics to automatons of Roma-visaya, the Greek-influenced West. How historic is the story?  Most students assume  it arose in medieval Islamic and European occasions.

However I believe the story could possibly be a lot older. The historic setting factors to technological alternate between Mauryan and Hellenistic cultures.  Contact between India and Greece started within the fifth century B.C., a time when Ajatasatru’s engineers created novel warfare machines. Greco-Buddhist cultural alternate intensified after Alexander the Nice’s  campaigns in northern India .

Inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic on a monument originally erected by King Asoka at Kandahar, in what is today Afghanistan. World Imaging/Wikimedia Commons

Inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic on a monument initially erected by King Asoka at Kandahar, in what’s in the present day Afghanistan.  World Imaging/Wikimedia Commons

In 300 BC, two Greek ambassadors, Megasthenes and Deimachus, resided in Pataliputta, which  boasted Greek-influenced artwork and structure  and was the house of the legendary artisan who obtained plans for robots in Roma-visaya. Grand pillars erected by Asoka are  inscribed in historic Greek  and title Hellenistic kings, demonstrating Asoka’s relationship with the West. Historians know that Asoka corresponded with Hellenistic rulers,  together with Ptolemy II Philadelphus  in Alexandria, whose  spectacular procession in 279 BC  famously displayed complicated animated statues and automatic units.

Historians report that Asoka despatched envoys to Alexandria, and  Ptolemy II despatched ambassadors to Asoka  in Pataliputta. It was customary for diplomats to current splendid presents to point out off cultural achievements. Did they carry plans or miniature fashions of automatons and different mechanical units?

I can not hope to pinpoint the unique date of the legend, however it’s believable that the concept of robots guarding Buddha’s relics melds each actual and imagined engineering feats from the time of Ajatasatru and Asoka. This placing legend is proof that the ideas of constructing automatons have been widespread in antiquity and divulges the common and timeless hyperlink between creativeness and science.

High picture: Two small figures guard the desk holding the Buddha’s relics. Are they spearmen, or robots?  British Museum CC BY-NC-SA

The article Robots guarded Buddha’s relics in a legend of historic India by Adrienne Mayor was initially printed on The Dialog and has been republished underneath a Inventive Commons license.

Adrienne Mayor is the writer of: Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Historic Goals of Expertise


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