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Home > 2023 > ISRO: The Myth and Marvel | Papri Sri Raman

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 38 September 16, 2023

ISRO: The Myth and Marvel | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 16 September 2023, by Papri Sri Raman


In the English language, most words have a variety of applications. Myth has several aspects, among them the creation of the human mind, the Freudian ‘unconscious memory’ and the legend. Marvel has the sense of wonder and the sense of success. The Marvel comics evoke also a sense of doom, a feeling of what exactly are we doing to ourselves and to our Earth. The Indian Space Research Organisation is an entity enveloped in myth and marvel. I like to begin with its marvelous programmes that tread a mythological path, subsuming the geo-political perspective by playing footsie with unscience and the ‘India is great’ brand of narrative.

YOU WILL BE reading this deconstruct even as Aditya L1, the latest satellite substation from ISRO is racing towards the Sun, to a point four times the distance to the Moon. Yes, ISRO has clarified that Aditya L1 is not going to the Sun. Unlike what is out there on social media, don’t imagine any earth vehicle today can survive going close to the Sun, or land or even be in orbit around the Sun, a hot gas ball. It is not a cold planet; and remember Hanuman and Icarus trying to catch the Sun? But yes, we have the inspiration to learn more about the Sun in our myths. In Badami, there is an ancient rock cave, with the back wall with a circle, the point where the rays of the sun enters the cave every day of the year and falls on the wall. Archeologists and historians say it was a refuge for a leper king. In Latin American and Egyptian legends too, there are references to the Sun as a god, a life-giving factor. According to ancient texts, and certain modern medical research, sunlight can contain and kill the mycobacteria that causes leprosy. Most ancient societies had Sun temples.

The L1 point, Lagrange point, is a point where two large rotating bodies cancel out their gravitational forces. In this case the Sun and the Earth. And this point is 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth. So, what ISRO is attempting to do is place a solar observatory, an orbiting transmitter, at this point to collect data from the Sun at its other end and send it back to the Earth. The recorded history of studying the rays of the Sun by earthlings is more than five thousand years old. Vikram Sarabhai was studying the ‘cosmic rays’ at the Tata Institute (now Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) before venturing into space projects at Thumba. Here, unionised fishermen were protesting the rocket trials till the 1990s, demanding compensations from ISRO. Oxford and Cambridge, from where Sarabhai, Bhabha and several other scientists came at the time, too were studying rays of the sun and other space rays as were many European and American universities and NASA, formally set up in 1958.

ISRO says, Aditya L1 planning had begun as long ago as in 2008, when Chandrayaan 1 was launched during the first term of the Manmohan Singh government’s rule, that is fifteen years ago. So, what is happening at ISRO is just the fruition of technological advances over the last twenty years, that include indigenously developed cryogenic (cold fuel) engines as the Russian ones were too expensive and storing imported cold fuels dangerous, the PSLVs and GSLVs (the polar satellite launch vehicles and geosynchronous SLVs) and other engineering functions. ISRO is like a group of players, all intent on putting together a giant LEGO assembly, piece by piece, painstakingly. It isn’t a miracle, it is a jigsaw puzzle patiently put together. But who will dare explain this in the current atmosphere of euphoria in the country? Certainly not the scientists. They would rather keep their jobs, placate the current political power and stay with the narrative that India had aerospace technology in ancient times, as it had nuclear weapons.

An ebook shared with G20 attendees has a gaudy illustration of Arjuna and Krishna on a chariot, more than a 1000 years before Christ, a caption claims, indicating Krishna’s legendary chariot had special powers; the image of a Sanchi relic also shows a chariot, before Christ, telling viewers, India had phenomenal vehicular power. Another pdf circulated online is called ‘Mera Bharat’ that displays sketches giving the Tripura Vimana perspective of Shiva’s chariot eons ago.

There is nothing wrong with using the Konark Sun temple wheel as symbol of India, nor in saying Varahmihir explained gravity, or that Bhaskaracharya gave the definition of infinity. What is wrong is the denial that the Italian painter Michaelangelo (b. 1475) gave us the first sketches of the flying machine, though many others before played with the idea; or the Wright brothers (1860s) first succeeded in building a real-life version that flew some distance. So, when scientific institutions and institution heads play with words, there arises a dilemma for the layman — to believe or not to believe. As a jewel among government institutions, all has not been hunky-dory for ISRO. ISRO has been dogged by controversies of various kinds, among them a spy story and a spectrum scam. If one goes back to media reports of the 1990s, there was a genuine physics problem with the cryogenic fuel being imported from the erstwhile USSR.

 And mind you, there was no skullduggery by the then USSR and France, as shown in R Madhavan’s film, The Nambi Effect, which fits the ‘India is Great’ narrative and has made Madhavan the government’s blue-eyed boy and perhaps earned him the presidentship of the FTII, India’s premier film studies institute. Nambi Narayan’s Vikas rocket engine was used in the Chandrayaan 3 project. In 1994, this 53-year-old scientist led the Indian space agency’s cryogenic rocket engine project, and was responsible for acquiring the technology from Russia and was accused of spying. Russia and France are shown in this film as countries reluctant to share technology — the cryogenic fuel first came from Russia, Rakesh Sharma was put in space by Russia, the first technology for reactors in India came from France. What such narratives tell us is that organisations like ISRO have no business being so gullible and believe in spy stories, especially when they are the government’s flagships. Yet we say, Russia is unhappy with India’s moon mission success. Another 2-part film, Rocket Boys, of course, is no film on ISRO, nor is it a biopic on Homi Bhabha or Vikram Sarabhai.

Such half-baked films also help propagate the debate on what Nehru did and did not do for ISRO and promote the fantasy of jealous scientists. Jawaharlal Nehru ‘was sensitive to the first steps taken by the Soviet Union in launching earth satellites like Sputnik I and Sputnik II, and Sputnik III, and US satellites Explorer or Alpha’, says S N Sahu in his Mainstream article. In 1958 August, Nehru wrote a note heralding ‘great and overpowering progress in science and technology... very slowly it is dawning upon men and women that we are entering a new age’ and he says in his note, ‘rivalries and conflicts’ have no meaning in this new age. Meanwhile, we actually don’t have a biopic of ISRO. We have a moon story though.

The Devas Controversy: Another controversy ISRO has faced is because of the web of lies it wove with its sister agency Antrix Corporation, which got involved with external hedge funds, through an entity called the Devas Corporation. The Devas story started in 2005. In 2005, Antrix and Devas signed an agreement wherein Devas said it would provide multimedia services using S-band satellite spectrum leased from Antrix. Two GSLV satellites would be leased to Devas, it was agreed. The deal promised Devas Multimedia access to 70 Mhz of broadband spectrum in the 2,500 Mhz band. (In 2010, the Indian Government got nearly ₹67,719 crore from the auction of just 15 Mhz of similar airwaves for 3G mobile services.)

Soon after the deal was signed, the Devas-Antrix agreement became mired in controversy. In 2011, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) asked the Department of Space to explain the preferential allocation of S-band spectrum without competitive bidding; diversion of public resources from ISRO’s budget to two customer-specific satellites for Devas Multimedia; and misinforming regulators about the project’s financial aspects and commercial implications. Subsequent investigations showed that officials had suppressed material facts to get the deal approved. One investigator calls Antrix officials ‘the Asuras of Antrix’, in a fiction version of the affair.

On 17 February 2011, the United Progressive Alliance government rescinded the contract with Devas. Devas went to various courts, including the ICC tribunal, where India had not argued efficiently to win its cases. Multiple foreign investors had backed the Devas-Antrix project, including three Mauritian investors (CC/Devas, who brought the first BIT claim against India — CC/Devas v. India and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (DT), one of the world’s leading telecommunication companies (who brought the second BIT claim against India — DT v. India).

The Supreme Court in January 2022 cleared the decks for winding up of Devas Multimedia at the instance of ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix, as it affirmed the findings of the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) that Devas was set up for a ‘fraudulent and unlawful purpose’ of ‘unjust enrichment’.

This SC ruling came at a time when the foreign investors of Devas have successfully attached Indian assets in multiple foreign jurisdictions such as Canada and France, to recover the money that India has not paid to these investors under two bilateral investment treaty (BIT) awards. Furthermore, after the SC’s ruling, the foreign investors of Devas have initiated a fresh BIT claim against India, alleging that the country is making undue efforts to frustrate the enforcement of a commercial arbitration award that Devas had won against Antrix back in 2015 under the rules of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The Supreme Court’s decision to wind down Devas Multimedia means that the arbitration award cannot sustain anywhere in the world, according to Antrix legal counsel. What happens next is yet to play out even as ISRO prepares for its next step on the Moon; money, in other words, foreign investments will be needed for any station on the moon.

 WITH THE SUCCESSFUL moon landing of its unmanned vehicles, the various payloads of Chandrayaan 3, ISRO has acquired an aura almost as charismatic as the moon itself in myth and literature. On 23 August 2023, it neared the iconic status that NASA, the American space agency, has enjoyed among space enthusiasts, sci-fi buffs, in film, romance and pure science.

Remember, for India’s 1. 4 billion people, it is an election year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined ISRO scientists at its Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) centre in Bengaluru online, from Johannesburg that evening. He wasn’t just there. He was at the BRICS meeting, where six new members joined the group. I was recently listening to a blogger muscle-flexing a bit on behalf of BRICS and explaining how now BRICS represented half the world’s people, about 4 billion, and was the biggest oil bloc with Saudi Arabia and Argentina in it. The timing of this lunar landing was meticulously planned and a geo-political masterstroke in showcasing India’s technological expertise. Especially when a lunar landing by another BRICS member had failed just a week before. This was not only an international move, the Modi government’s popularity jumped to the 90s figure on a scale of 100, with this success. This, just a few weeks after the ruling party’s jingoistic stand on Manipur in parliament, where the PM ended his monologue with ‘choti-moti cheeze’ Manipur.

And what were the Prime Minister’s first words on the moon success? He quoted one of India’s most popular and most common lyrics, touching the hearts of millions. ‘In India, we all refer to Earth as Mother and Moon as Mama. Kabhi kaha jata tha chanda mama bahut door ke hain, ab ek din wo bhi aayega, jab bacche kaha karenge chanda mama bass ek tour ke hain. (There was a time when we used to say that Moon is far aware but now that day is not far when the children will say Moon is just a tour away).’ This is an extremely clever reference, pitching India as the technology partner for any near-future moon tour; be it with the Americans, Russians, Eurospace or Elon Musk. The Indian Prime Minister also met the South African aerospace scientist, Siyabulela Xuza.

Now a Padma awardee, Nambi Narayan used the occasion to talk about the need for establishing an Asian Space Agency (ASA) similar to the European Space Agency (ESA), with or without China. In the near future, this is a possibility with three BRICS countries, China, Russia and India, very capable of steering this. US President Joe Biden, in Delhi for the G20 gathering in September, met the scientists from ISRO. The joint press statement was interesting, it said:

‘Having set a course to reach new frontiers across all sectors of space cooperation, the leaders welcomed efforts towards establishment of a Working Group for commercial space collaboration under the existing India-US Civil Space Joint Working Group. Determined to deepen our partnership in outer space exploration, ISRO and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have commenced discussions on modalities, capacity building, and training for mounting a joint effort to the International Space Station in 2024, and are continuing efforts to finalise a strategic framework for human space flight cooperation by the end of 2023. India and the United States also intend to increase coordination on planetary defence to protect planet Earth and space assets from the impact of asteroids and near-Earth objects, including US support for India’s participation in asteroid detection and tracking via the Minor Planet Center.’ (Italics mine.) They key words from the Americans were ‘Cost Effective’, ISRO’s technology is cost-effective, lower costs than the Chinese and Japanese.

 What was the best global move was perhaps the livestreaming of the Vikram touchdown on YouTube. There was no need to go to the Moon to see the touch down. The Russians and Chinese have so far not shared their touchdown (or crash) with the world. Nor did the Americans ever livestream any of their space odysseys. NASA livestreams views of the International Space Station (set up by the erstwhile Soviet Union) and views from ISS of Earth, though. ‘Aboard the ISS, four new crew members are adjusting to their first week orbiting Earth. Meanwhile, another quartet of Expedition 69 flight engineers is preparing to end their six-month stay in space. Eleven crew members from five countries are living and working together on the orbital outpost as two of its crews’ recently swapped places; India is not a part of it because contributary funding will reduce the Department of Science and Technology’s budget for ISRO.

 ISRO used the Google-owned video-sharing platform, YouTube, to project its breakthrough mission for the entire world. Last December, the Brazil vs South Korea World Cup football match had about 6.5 million viewers. The Chandrayaan-3 live stream on YouTube made history by becoming the ‘most viewed’ live stream in the world. More than eight million people are believed to have watched the soft landing of Vikram, the highest-ever live viewership on a YouTube channel stream. YouTube chief Neal Mohan was proud applauder.

The trajectory was so well defined and the speed reduction process so clear that it had lessons for scientists all over the world for all future landing on any space object, Moon, Mars, Venus or Andromeda. It could be watched on any smartphone, anywhere in the world. The Aditya L1 mission too has live feeds. All these tele-missions help bring real space science to the drawing room much better than any Marvel movie can.

While on this subject, we must remember one area in international science that has not made much progress is teleporting. We have the myths of gods arriving on earth at the snap of a figure, however it is the first of the Stark Trek films (1979) which made teleporting seem a near future reality. The subsequent Harry Potter films and Marvel series only make us realise, how embedded in our collective ‘unconscious’ memory is the idea of magic. Literature and films like Phantom, Superman, Spiderman, Batman only feed the popular demand for magic in mankind. Space travel, time travel (1895 book Time Machine, Rip VanWinkle story, 1819) are all embedded in our memory. The medium of expression has changed from word of mouth to the multimedia. ISRO’s feat just remind us of the possibilities and that another ‘new age’ has dawned.

Another edifying aspect of this public sector enterprise is that today it is perhaps the only non-medical organisation in the country that has 25 per cent women employees. The BBC quotes Anuradha T K, a mission director, to says, ‘anywhere between 20 to 25 per cent of ISRO’s 16,000 employees are women. And at least eight women have been at the helm of projects as Directors and Deputy Directors, including in those projects sending probes to the moon and Mars’. Women have been working for ISRO since the 1980s, and Director-level women have put in 30-plus years participating in multiple missions. However, even at the time of the Chandrayaan-1 mission, it was difficult to find women scientists being publicly applauded, there were so few. This is a marked change in personality. Unlike so many national institutes today, whatever ISRO does, it is more sober in its announcements than most others and has stood out as an organisation not shy of giving women platform space. ‘No one in ISRO said ‘I’ did it. Team members were invited to face the cameras. The ISRO leadership gave full credit to leaders, past and present. They showcased the team spirit that is so crucial for the mission. In the words of the ISRO chief: “This is not our work alone. It is the work of a generation of ISRO leadership and ISRO scientists...This is incremental progress.’’’

Robert Anderson’s Nucleus and Nation: Scientists, International Networks, and Power in India, 2010, published by the Chicago University Press is a chronicle right from the mid-1920s to late ’80s that tells us how India came to be a military giant, how universities fell off the development map (like the Karachi, Calcutta and Allahabad universities) and a science elite favoured the growth of the Department of Atomic Energy above all other sectors and created a science bureaucracy that minds India’s own kind of proxy science in great secrecy and dismisses public demand for transparency — almost saying aloud, ‘What do people know?’ — and how women were left out of the policy discourse. ‘It is only the 99th Science Congress that was theoretically dedicated to women scientists in India and included a discussion of their role’, Anderson points out. Anderson records that at the end of the 1970s, ‘there were no women scientists in the committees advising the cabinet on science and technology and none were directors of major laboratories or projects discussed here’. Suicides by scientists, beginning with the first one by a woman, are also discussed. (italics mine.)

Anderson acknowledges that this began to change in the Rajiv Gandhi era, following the success of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishath, the SACC movement and with Rajiv inducting personalities like Sam Pitroda to steer the literacy mission, telecommunication, safe drinking water, immunisation and other programmes. So, one can say, ISRO stands out in showcasing the immense improvement in the status of women in science in India; and in removing this ‘What do people know?’ kind of attitude by bringing the moon landing to the common man.

THE PRAGYAN ROVER has cameras and probes filming and dipping into the moon’s surface. One Moon-day is equal to 14 Earth days. So, after 7 September, when you will be reading this, the rover has fallen silent when the Moon’s night has began. However, the space agency is hopeful of awakening the lander and rover after 14 days. ‘The Rover completed its assignments. It is now safely parked and set into Sleep mode. APXS and LIBS payloads are turned off. Data from these payloads is transmitted to the Earth via the Lander. Currently, the battery is fully charged.... The solar panel is oriented to receive the light at the next sunrise expected on 22 September 2023. The receiver is kept on. Hoping for a successful awakening for another set of assignments! Else, it will forever stay there as India’s lunar ambassador’, ISRO tweeted on X.

With more than 150kg of fuel left, the propulsion module, which was designed to have a life of three-six months, is expected to live on for several years. The 2019 Chandrayaan 2 is still alive, taking pictures of the Chandrayaan 3 rover and transmitting other space information.

The Moon has less water than the Sahara desert; the NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) in 2020 confirmed, for the first time, water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places. SOFIA has detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere and Nasa’s Viper rover has studied water on the Moon. So ISRO’s information add to the knowledge bank, rather than being unique finds.

The Moon has a magmatic and thermal history that is distinct from that of the terrestrial planets. Radioisotope dating of lunar samples from earlier Apollo and Lunar sites suggests that most lunar basaltic magmatism ceased by around 2.9—2.8 billion years ago. The Chinese Chang’e-5 mission has harvested soil samples that suggest age of 2,030 ± 4 million years ago for moon’s basalt clasts (ref: MIT and Nature). The Indian rover data says, the lava in the moon’s south pole is a billion years older than so long thought to be. This puts the age of the Moon back by two billion years, that is to 5 to 6 billion years old. Perhaps, also the Earth’s age too. Things on Moon weigh about 16 per cent less than their weight on earth, so pins, pencils, brooms are all likely to fly away, if you are not careful on the moon.

On Moon’s temperature, the news agency PTI quotes ISRO scientist B H M Darukesha to say, ‘We all believed that the temperature could be somewhere around 20 degree centigrade to 30 degree centigrade on the surface but it is 70 degree centigrade. This is surprisingly higher than what we had expected’. The human optimum is 37 degrees centigrade, climate change studies at MIT show but 40 degrees C is doable for some people in some places, on Earth. The moon’s south pole is too hot for human habitation, the rover is telling us.

After landing on the Mars in 1976, NASA’s Viking landers may have sampled tiny, dry-resistant life-forms hiding inside Martian rocks, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Technical University Berlin, suggested in a June 27 article for Big Think. But similar microbes do live on Earth and could hypothetically live on the Red Planet, so they can’t be discounted, he added. So ISRO’s Mangalyaan 2 finds will be scrutinised in great detail by all space agencies.

The Journal of Geophysical Data tells us, the ‘Moon can no longer be viewed as a simple, globally stratified cumulus structure, composed of a flotation upper crust of anorthosite underlain by progressively more mafic rocks and a residual-melt (KREEP) sandwich horizon near the base of the lower crust. Instead, global geochemical information derived from Clementine multispectral data and Lunar Prospector gamma-ray data reveals at least three distinct provinces whose geochemistry and petrologic history make them geologically unique: (1) the Procellarum KREEP Terrane (PKT), (2) the Feldspathic High-lands Terrane (FHT), and (3) the South Pole-Aitken Terrane (SPAT)’.

The Japanese Kaguya spacecraft, which was launched in 2007, detected uranium on the lunar surface with a gamma-ray spectrometer, that’s nearly 15 years ago. Another study says, forty per cent of moon’s surface is rich in Thorium deposits. The race to get these radioactive materials has been on for the last thirty years but only with the Chandrayaan 3 mission, this seems achievable.

The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument on board the Pragyan rover has confirmed the presence of sulphur in the moon’s southern polar region, using a different technique than the laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and thermal emission spectrometer (TES) instruments. Sulphur was not expected to be found in lunar soil. However, the confirmation of sulphur’s presence through two rover mechanisms raises questions. Elements such as aluminium, silicon, calcium, and iron were anticipated and have also been found. Other elements such as chromium, titanium, manganese, silicon, and oxygen (O) have also been detected. NASA had two years ago said, finding water-ice on the moon’s dark shadows is a distinct possibility. ISRO says, the Chandrayaan 2 detected water on the Moon and as such, is not a failed mission. Thus, Chandrayaan 3 is possibly the giant leap for mankind that Armstrong was talking about. The now famous quote is supposed to be a riff on a line from J R R Tolkien’s, The Hobbit.

Tolkien or not, the moon can definitely be used as a space station, now that the life of the International Space Station, ISS, is almost over. Created with a lifetime of 15 years, the ISS has been in space for nearly 25 years, with an extended life line to 2024. According to the ISS Transition Report (released January 2022) the ISS can be safely operated until 2030. Yes, in the next seven years, India can definitely put up a capacity station on moon, very like the Dakshin Gangotri station on Earth’s south pole. The station was built in eight weeks by an 81-member team that included geologist Sudipta Sengupta. Construction was completed late into January 1984, with help from the Indian army and the Indian Republic Day was celebrated at the station along with the Soviet Union and East Germany. It was an unmanned station, set up using indigenous Indian equipment, powered by Solar energy. The station was entirely computerised to record all data that was researched. It was built using pre-fabricated timber, and was intended as a permanent station. It had an Inmarsat communication terminal, as well as an amateur radio station. In 2014, India also set up its second Arctic station. Dakshin Gangotri is today a base station, a support station. So, India has experience in being the backroom boys, now equipped with rovers, drones, Artificial Intelligence and OTT services.

Even in the winter of 2008, when Chandrayaan 1 made a lunar touchdown, ISRO had a station in mind. Then head of ISRO’s space astronomy and instrumentation, P Sreekumar, had said, ‘It will be better than any artificial station’. ‘The moon has resources’, he had added, visualising an oxygen manufacturing plant on the moon. ‘The moon is an ideal short-term location for testing, planning and training for greater space journeys.’ A quarter centuries later, those greater journeys today are Aditya L1, Mangalyaan 2 and Shukrayaan1.

That project’s director, M Annadurai had said, ISRO is looking at the moon ‘slightly differently’ than others were doing. There were hints of experiments in Ladhak, like in the Canadian Arctic, to test the sustainability of life on the moon. The deadline at that time for a facility on moon was 2020. Four years is not too late.

WHILE THE SCIENCE is on track, the political compulsion to keep the unscience at hand is not quite forgotten. A few months before the Chandrayaan 3 launch, at the convocation of the Maharishi Panini Sanskrit and Vedic University in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh on 24 May 2023, ISRO chairman S Somanath has been quoted by news agencies to have said that ‘algebra, square roots, concepts of time, architecture, the structure of the universe, metallurgy, and aviation were first mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures’.

Just like the connived narrative of Nehru’s no-contribution to science and institution building, since 2010, the debate on the connect between Hinduism and science, coated as one between spiritualism and science, has escalated. Being close to the pilgrimage site of Tirupathi, ISRO scientists from Sriharikota are known to visit the shrine before various launches, including for Chandrayaan 3. ISRO chief K Sivan had sought the blessings of the Seer of the Sri Krishna Mutt in Udupi, before Chandrayaan 2 launch in 2019. Somanath has taken pains to underline that science and spirituality are two different entities, and that there is no need to mix the two, but he has is compulsions to stoke the dominant narrative. He carefully calls himself an explorer — of the moon and the mind. ‘I am an explorer. I explore the Moon. I explore the inner space. It’s part of the journey of my life to explore both science and spirituality. So, I visit many temples and I read many scriptures. I try to find the meaning of our existence and our journey in this cosmos. It’s part of the culture that we are all built to explore and find out the inner self as well as the outer self. So, for the outer, I do science, for the inner, I go to temples...’, he said after offering prayers at the renowned Bhadrakali Temple in Thiruvananthapuram’s Pournamikavu following the Chandrayaan 3 success. He has also endorsed the naming of the touchdown point as ‘Shiv Shakti Point’ and rover point Tiranga, by Prime Minister Modi.

This kind of controversy invariably dogs ISRO’s achievements. The Free Press Journal has said, ‘One may want to ask: What is the larger message for us Indians from Chandrayaan-3? Especially in the context of Dalits and Muslims.’ Another writer, Jagadish Rattanani, in Deccan Herald says: The ISRO chief’s high performance in space exploration is rooted in his love for the methods of science, as indeed it must be. But instead of turning this into a tool to use the language of domination and control, or to torture nature to force it to reveal its secrets, as the ‘father of the Scientific Revolution’ Francis Bacon (1561-1626) put it, the Indian tradition is to respect nature, to worship nature and to learn from it. Without the approach and tools of science, blind belief runs the risk of listening to and promoting superstitious thought of the kind Jawaharlal Nehru railed against. But this is the very approach some of the ruling elite and their minions have brought back in the name of rediscovering our roots.’

WHAT ARE THESE roots? Without taking sides for and against, let us just recap some of the recent and not so recent history of our science narrative. Anderson, in his historical account of the development of science and scientific institutions in India says, ‘the fundamental achievement of scientific revolution is that it has separated the realm of religion and science.... How science is used depends on the values and priorities of the time in society.... The question is... whether scientists should step beyond their discipline and at least guide the social discourse on the use of scientific knowledge. Should they develop a code of conduct that defines the limits within which they will work on the application of their discoveries?’ Whether we listen to Nehru or Anderson or not, what one must not forget is the choice, the decision whether Pokharan, our nuclear test site, is to be designated a site of worship or whether Chandrayaan 3’s Shiv Shakti point.

In his book Anderson goes on to discuss the 1980’s joint statement from Coonoor on ‘Scientific Temper’ by Raja Ramanna and P N Haksar, and says ‘They were addressing two million scientists and technologists in India as if they were all in one great epistemic community’. He adds, ‘It is unclear what specific challenge they were responding to’, and he quotes Shiv Visvanathan, ‘We proudly talked about ‘the scientific temper’ as if it was a vaccine that would immunise us from all forms of superstition’.

Anderson notes that in the 1998 Science Congress in Hyderabad, fifty years after independence, at the end of an academic session on science and society, ‘a very large crowd gathered and the path was strewn with rose petals by beautiful young women’ and how an exclusive audience ‘listened in rapt attention to Swami Ramachandran expounding on the “greater glory of India”’. Anderson’s book came at a time when, opening the 98th Science Congress in January 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had noted that, ‘scientists are not just servants who do the bidding of their paymasters....’

While India’s nuclear establishment is not free of such debate, nor is ISRO free of its ‘potion of unreality’, Dumbledor fashion. Yet another Science Congress, the 102nd Indian Science Congress drew a lot of flak in 2015 for including a session on ‘Ancient sciences through Sanskrit’, held at Mumbai University. It was curated by Gauri Mahulikar, head of MU’s Sanskrit department, who said, ‘If we had chosen Sanskrit professors to talk about the references to aviation technology in Sanskrit literature, which includes information on how to make planes, the dress code and diet of pilots, the seven types of fuel used, people would have dismissed us. But Captain Anand J Bodas is himself a pilot and his co-presenter, Ameya Jadhav, holds an MTech degree besides an MA in Sanskrit.’

Former Director of National Aerospace Laboratories, Roddam Narasimha, was loud in saying, the two speakers had based their hypothesis on, Vaimanika Prakaranam or Vimanika Shastra. ‘The accepted view in the scientific community is that the descriptions given in it are not scientifically correct’, he added. Other scientists like H S Mukunda, S M Deshpande, H R Nagendra, A Prabhu and S P Govindaraju of the IISC, Bangalore, in an article in the journal Scientific Opinion, also said that the Vimanika Shastra is ‘not an ancient text’. It ‘cannot be dated earlier than 1904’, and said that the planes described in it are ‘poor concoctions’ and ‘unimaginably horrendous from the point of view of flying’. For my curious readers, I have included at the end a list of where from such claims originate, including nineteenth century art work that is often accepted as evidence. Michaelangelo’s flying machines (1500 CE) were better drafted for scientific records (image at the top) than the nineteenth century images in printed Indian scriptures.

Many scientists agreed that this ‘Science Congress (the 102nd) seminar was in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s claims that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is rooted in the Vedas and that the world’s first nuclear test “lakhs of years ago” took place in India’. What modern India needs to decide is — nothing wrong with cultural practices like strewing rose petals and adorning scientists with garlands, and going to temples, reciting chants — how unscientific are claims of aggressive Hindutva, rather than spiritualism.

It is like trying to figure out, if Oppenheimer was being spiritual in reciting from the Bhagavat Gita or was he declaring himself as the great destroyer in the manner of Marvel characters. In 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had quoted from Bertrand Russell: I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups rather than to make men happy. This fear continues fifteen years later as there is a status quo in this respect, despite ISRO’s successes.


Chariots of the Gods: Erich von Däniken.

Blog Enrico Baccarini 3 November 2012:

Having spoken thus, Maharaja Nirga made a complete circle around Lord Krishna and touched his crown to the Lord’s feet. Granted permission to depart, King Nirga then boarded a wonderful celestial car as all the people looked on. (Bhagavata Purana)

While Dhruva Maharaja was passing through space, he saw, in succession, all the planets of the solar system, and on the path he saw all the demigods in their vimanas showering flowers upon him like rain. (Bhagavata Purana
Then the highly intelligent Asura Maya built the cities . . . There were many palaces with gems. Aerial cars shining like the sun, set with Padmaraga stones, moving in all directions and looking like moonbeams, illuminated the cities. (Siva Purana)

When morning dawned, Rama, taking the Celestial Car Puspaka had sent to him by Vivpishand, stood ready to depart. Self-propelled was that car. It was large and finely painted. It had two stories and many chambers with windows, and was draped with flags and banners. It gave forth a melodious sound as it coursed along its airy way. (The vimana had all necessary equipment. It could not be conquered by the gods or demons. And it radiated light and reverberated with a deep rumbling sound. Its beauty captivated the minds of all who beheld it. Visvakarma, the lord of its design and construction, had created it by the power of his austerities, and its outline, like that of the sun, could not be easily delineated. (Mahabharata)
And he also gave [unto Arjuna] a car furnished with celestial weapons whose banner bore a large ape . . . And its splendour, like that of the Sun, was so great that no one could gaze at it. It was the very car riding upon which the lord Soma had vanquished the Danavas. Resplendent with beauty, it looked like an evening cloud reflecting the effulgence of the setting Sun. (Mahabharata)

The blogger refers to the Ramayana to say:

Let me draw attention to the phrase ‘propellers furnished with wheels, working with atmospheric expansion’. This is the way a modern jet engine works: pulling in fresh air using impeller blades, expanding the air by heating it, then directing it through more blades, which turn a shaft connected to the forward turbines, which packs in more air. If we substitute ‘impellers’ for propellers and ‘turbines’ for wheels — both more modern terms — it begins to make a great deal of sense.

Ancient drawings of these machines actually portray turbines and expansion chambers similar in some ways to our modern jet engines. So, at this point let me suggest that in many cases the Sanskrit word chakra should be translated ‘turbine’ rather than ‘wheel’, without doing violence to the Sanskrit.

‘A huge and terrible black vimana made of black iron, it was 400 yojanas high and as many wide, equipped with engines set in their proper places. No steeds nor elephants propelled it. Instead it was driven by machines that looked like elephants. (Ghatotrachabadma)

One particular text states emphatically: Manufacturing details of these machines are withheld for the sake of secrecy, not out of ignorance. (Samarangana Sutradhara).

  • Childress David H, Vimana Aircraft of ancient India and Atlantis, Adventures Unlimited, Stelle, IL, 1991.
  • _ Dikshitar V R Ramachandra, War in Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass, Madras, 1944.
  • Josyer G R, Sanskrit Civilization, International Academy of Sanskrit Research, Coronation Press, Mysore. 1966.
  • _ Kanjilal Dileep K, Vimanas in Ancient India, Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, Calcutta, 1985.
  • _ Nathan Kanishk, UFOs and India: Ancient and Contemporary, UFO Symposium Proceedings, MUFON, 1987.
  • _ Raghaven V, Yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient India, Transaction No. 10, Bangalore, 1956.
  • _ Smith Ruth, Mahabharata in The Tree of Life, Viking Press, New York, 1957.
  • _ Thompson Richard L, Alien Identities, Govardhan Hill Publ., Alachua, FL, 1993.
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