PureInsight | December 26, 2000
The Mahabharata, a poem of vast length and complexity, achieved its present form in the second century A.D. Depending on one¡¯s point of view, either it contains some of the earliest known examples of science fiction, or it records conflicts between beings whose armaments were just as advanced as those employed today.
In one episode, for example, the Vrishnis, a tribe whose warriors include the hero Krishna, are beset by the forces of a leader named Salva:
The cruel Salva had come mounted on the Saubha chariot that can go anywhere, and from it he killed many valiant Vrishni youths and evilly devastated all the city parks.
The Saubha is at once Salva¡¯s city, flagship, and battle headquarters. In it he can fly wherever he chooses. In contemporary terms the Saubha might best be described as the mother ship from which Salva makes sorties against enemy. Fortunately, the Vrishni heroes are comparably well equipped and at one point have Salva at their mercy. The hero Pradyumna is about to finish him off with a special weapon, but the highest gods intervene: ¡°Not a man in battle is safe from this arrow,¡± they say, and in any case tell Pradyumna it has been ordained that Salva shall fall to Krishna.
Krishna takes to the skies in pursuit of Salva, but
his Saubha clung to the sky at a league¡¯s length¡He threw at me rockets, missiles, spears, spikes, battleaxes, three-bladed javelins, flame-throwers, without pausing¡The sky¡seemed to hold a hundred suns, a hundred moons¡and a hundred myriad stars. Neither day nor night could be made out, or the points of compass.
Krishna, however, wards off Salva¡¯s counterattack with the equivalent of antiballistic missiles:
I warded them off as they loomed towards me
With my swift-striking shafts, as they flashed through the sky,
And I cut them into two or three pieces with mine-
There was a great din in the sky above.
Nonetheless, Krishna is sorely pressed. He rallies, but the Saubha, by technological or other magic, becomes invisible. Krishna then loads a special weapon, an ancient version of a ¡°smart bomb¡±:
I quickly laid on an arrow, which killed by seeking our sound, to kill them¡. All the Danavas [troops in Salva¡¯s army] who had been screeching lay dead, killed by the blazing sunlike arrows that were triggered by sound.
But the Saubha itself has escaped the attack, and at last Krishna hurls against it his ¡°favorite fire weapon,¡± a discus having the shape of the ¡°haloed sun.¡± Severed in two by the impact, the aerial city fall down.
Salva himself is killed, and with his death this episode of the Mahabharata comes to an end. One of the most intriguing things in it is the suggestion that the use of one especially terrible weapon-Pradyumna¡¯t special arrow, from which ¡°not a man in battle is safe¡±-is outlawed by the gods. What sort of weapon could this have been? Another episode may provide the answer in its description of the effects of the fearful Agneya weapon used by the hero Adwattan. When the weapon, a ¡°blazing missile of smokeless fir,¡± is unleashed:
Dense arrows of flame, like a great shower, issued forth upon creation, encompassing the enemy¡A thick gloom swiftly settled upon the Pandava hosts. All points of the compass were lost in the darkness.
Fierce winds began to blow. Clouds roared upward, showing dust and gravel.
Birds croaked madly¡the very elements seemed disturbed. The sun seemed to waver in the heavens. The earth shook, scorched by the terrible violent hear of this weapon. Elephants burst into flame and ran to and fro in frenzy¡over a vast area, other animals crumpled to the ground and died. From all points of the compass the arrows of flame rained continuously and fiercely.
Worse is still to come. If the effects of Adwattan¡¯s weapon resemble those of a fire storm, the results of one fired by Gurkha seem to describe nothing less than a nuclear explosion and poisoning by radioactive fallout:
Gurkha, flying in his swift and powerful Vimana, hurled against the three cities of the Vrishnis and Andhakas a single projectile charged with all the power of the universe. An incandescent column of smoke and fire, as brilliant as ten thousand suns, rose in all its splendor. It was the unknown weapon, the iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and Andhakas.
The corpses were so burnt they were no longer recognizable. Hair and nails fell out. Pottery broke without cause¡Foodstuffs were poisoned. To escape, the warriors threw themselves in streams to wash themselves and their weapons.
If this description if science fiction, its author was surely a prophet.
(The Mysteries of the Unexplained, pp52-54)