Indian Epic Poetry & SF Origins

My History of Science Fiction #2

2
1819
"Rama welcomed"

The story so far:
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh

We continue our journey into the origins of Science Fiction, with a dip into ancient Indian epic poetry.

Between the 9th and 4th century BCE, the Indian subcontinent produced beautiful poetry. Oral tradition, containing some of the oldest poems in existence, was written down in Sanskrit. Two of the most famous poems from that time are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and they play an important role in Hindu literature. Their main themes revolve around duties, human values and the key concept of dharma, the law and order that makes life and the universe possible. Alongside the religious aspects, both these poems contain certain elements of SF, particularly the use of flying machine and the concept of time travel. So, although I would not describe them as ‘SF books’, I still think that they offer interesting insights when trying to trace SF’s genesis.

Let’s start with the Ramayana.

Believed to have been written by the poet Valmiki, it tells the story of Rama, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. The epic is made up of 7 books, 500 sections (cantos) and no less than 24,000 verses and follows Rama’s journey as he tries to rescue his wife Sita by the evil Ravana, the ten-headed king of Lanka.

Pushpaka Vimana
Pushpaka Vimana

What interests us here is the Vimana, not just a machine or palace that can fly into space or navigate underwater, but it also has the power to destroy entire cities (my first thought here went to a ship that looked like a submarine Death Star, captained by Nemo wearing a black diving helmet). The Vimana of Ravana is the most commonly quoted and here is a description from the Ramayana:

The Pushpaka Vimana that resembles the Sun and belongs to my brother was brought by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent Vimana going everywhere at will … that chariot resembling a bright cloud in the sky … and the King [Rama] got in, and the excellent chariot at the command of the Raghira, rose up into the higher atmosphere.”  (Dutt, Manatha Nath (translator), Ramayana, Elysium Press, Calcutta, 1892 and New York, 1910.)

The Mahabharata discusses philosophy, devotional material as well as an abbreviated version of the Ramayana. This epic is generally attributed to Vyasa, a revered figure who, according to Hindu beliefs, was an avatar of the god Vishnu.

One of the story within the Mahabharata (but not the only text within Hinduism giving this account), tells of Kakudmi, a descendant of the Sun deity. He was the King of Kusasthali and father of Revati, a beautiful daughter full of talents. Perhaps because of his divine lineage, he had the ability to travel to a different dimension, where Brahma, the Creator God, lived.

Revati and Balarama
Revati and Balarama

Like every father on the planet, Kakudmi only wanted the best for his little girl; as she reached the right age for marriage, he needed to find her a suitable companion and who could be a better advisor than the Creator himself? He grabbed his daughter and made his way to Brahma. Now, the god was slightly busy at the time, listening to a musical performance, so Kakudmi settled down to wait for his turn.

Unfortunately, what he did not realise was that time ran a little differently on that plane of existence, and so when Brahma finally met him, he also had to tell him that they had waited for about 100 years! All of his daughter’s suitors were now dead and cremated.

The return to Earth was also a bit of a let down, as mankind had apparently become shorter, weaker and dumber. The one silver lining was that the god Vishnu was currently on Earth under one of his (many) avatar forms, Balarama, and he turned out to be a great catch for Revati. So they got married, and lived happily ever after.

Conclusion: SF 2 points only. Not enough to class these epics as SF as such, but it is still very important to appreciate that flying machine and the concept of time travel through different planes of existence are very much there, in the texts of the oldest civilisation in human history.