Even the legendary author Homer explored Greek mythology for the idea of automata and self-propelled devices more than 2,500 years ago. By the third century BC, engineers in Hellenistic Alexandria in Egypt were building true mechanical machines. And such scientific inventions and historically existing technologies were not unique and inherent only in Greco-Roman culture.
Many ancient societies invented and even designed automata. Chinese chronicles are also full of stories of emperors fooled by realistic androids and descriptions of artificial servants allegedly created in the second century by a female inventor, Huang Yueying. And the Hindu epics speak of such techno-miracles as flying war chariots and animated beings. One of the most intriguing stories from India tells how robots once guarded the relics of the Buddha. As unbelievable as it sounds to modern ears, this story has a strong connection between ancient Greece and ancient India.
The story takes place during the time of the kings Ajatashatru and Ashoka. Ajatashatru, who ruled from 492 to 460 BC, was famous for introducing new military inventions such as powerful catapults and a mechanized war chariot with rotating blades. When Buddha died, Ajatashatru was assigned to guard his precious remains. The king hid them in an underground chamber near his capital, Pataliputra (now Patna) in northeast India.
Traditionally, statues of giant warriors stood guard near the treasures. But according to the legend, Ajatashatru’s guards were unusual: they were ancient robots. In India, automata or mechanical beings that could move on their own were called “bhuta vahana yantra,” or “spirit movement machines” in Pali and Sanskrit. It was reportedly predicted that the Ajatashatru robots would remain on duty until the future king distributed the relics of Buddha throughout his kingdom.
Hindu and Buddhist texts describe automata warriors circling like the wind, slashing enemies with swords like Ajatashatru’s war chariots with spinning blades. In some versions, the robots are powered by a water wheel or created by Vishwakarma, the Hindu craftsman deity and the divine architect of the gods. But the most striking version came in a confusing way into the scripture of Lokapannatti from Burma. These were Pali translations of older, lost Sanskrit texts known only from Chinese translations, each drawing on earlier oral traditions.
This tale says that many “Yantakars,” the creators of robots, lived in the west of the country of “Yavans,” Greek-speaking people, in Roma Visaya – the Indian name for the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world. The secret technology of the yavana robots was carefully guarded. Robots from Roma Visaya were engaged in trade and agriculture, catching and executing criminals.
The creators of the robots were forbidden to throw them out or reveal their mechanical secrets – if they did, then the killer robots pursued and killed them. The rumors of magical robots reached India and inspired a young artisan from Pataliputra who also wanted to learn how to make such machines.
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According to the legend, a young man reached Roma Visayas and married there the daughter of a robot maker, who taught him his craft. And then one day, he stole the blueprints for creating robots and decided to bring them to India.
Confident that the killer robots will kill him before he can get there, he cut his thigh, inserted the blueprints under his skin, and stitched himself up. And he ordered his son to bring his plan to the end and get along with the body of his father to Pataliputra. And he went on his way. Naturally, he was caught, killed, and his son found his body and delivered it to Pataliputra.
Arriving in India, the son extracted the blueprints from his father’s body and, following the instructions, built automatic soldiers for King Ajatashatru to protect the relics of Buddha stored in an underground chamber. All this was so secret that soon people forgot about the existence of a secret vault.
Two centuries after Ajatashatru, the powerful Mauryan empire in Pataliputra was ruled by Ashoka, 273-232 BC. According to the legend, Ashoka heard the rumor of the hidden relics and searched until he found an underground chamber guarded by ferocious android warriors. When Ashoka tried to get inside, a fierce battle broke out between him and the robots.
According to one version, the god Vishvakarman helped Ashoka defeat them by shooting arrows into the bolts holding the rotating structures together. According to another one, the son of an old engineer explained how to disable the robots and take control over them. Be that as it may, Ashoka ended up commanding an automaton army himself.
Is this legend just a fantasy? Or could it have arisen against the backdrop of early cultural exchanges between East and West? The story clearly connects the mechanical creatures protecting the relics of Buddha with automata from Roma Visaya, a Greek-influenced state. How old is this tale? Most scientists believe that it arose in the Middle Ages if we count according to the European calendar.
But some are sure that this story can be much older. The narrative points to a technological exchange between Mauryan and Hellenic cultures. And contacts between India and Greece began in the fifth century B.C., when the engineers of Ajatashatru created new military machines. Greco-Buddhist cultural exchange intensified after the campaigns of Alexander the Great in northern India. Greek and Aramaic inscriptions on a monument originally erected by King Ahsoka in Kandahar, in present-day Afghanistan.
In 300 B.C., two Greek ambassadors, Megasthenes and Deimachus, already resided in Pataliputra, which boasted Greek-influenced art and architecture and was the home of the same legendary artisan who stole the robot designs from Roma Visaya. And the Great Pillars erected by Ashoka are inscribed in ancient Greek and contain the names of Hellenistic kings, demonstrating Ashoka’s direct connection with the West. Historians know that Ashoka corresponded with Hellenistic rulers, including Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria, whose spectacular procession in 279 B.C. became famous for the use of elaborate animated statues and automatic devices.
Historians report that Ashoka sent envoys to Alexandria, while Ptolemy II sent envoys to Ashoka in Pataliputra. Diplomats usually presented magnificent gifts to showcase the cultural achievements of their countries. Maybe drawings or miniature models of automata and other mechanical devices were donated to the ancient Indians?
Today, it is no longer possible to pinpoint the date of the legend’s appearance, but it is likely that the idea of robots guarding the relics of Buddha combines real and imagined engineering feats from the time of Ajatashatru and Ashoka. This astounding story is proof that the concept of automata has been around since antiquity and illustrates the universal and eternal connection between imagination and science really well.