As far back as Homer, more than 2,500 years ago, Greek mythology explored the idea of automata and self-moving devices. By the third century B.C., engineers in Hellenistic Alexandria in Egypt were creating real mechanical robots and machines. And such scientific technology was not unique to Greco-Roman culture.
Many ancient societies imagined and designed automata. Chinese chronicles tell of emperors who were tricked by realistic androids and describe artificial servants created in the second century by female inventor Huang Yueying.
Techno-wonders such as flying war chariots and artificial beings also appear in Hindu epics. One of the most intriguing stories from India tells of how robots once guarded the relics of Buddha. As bizarre as it may sound to modern ears, the story has a strong basis in the connections between ancient Greece and ancient India.
The story is set in the time of the kings Ajatasatru and Ahsoka. Ajatasatru, who ruled from 492 to 460 B.C., was known for introducing new military inventions such as powerful catapults and a mechanized battle chariot with rotating blades. When the Buddha died, Ajatasatru was charged with guarding his precious remains. The king hid them in an underground chamber near his capital, Pataliputta (now Patna) in northeastern India.
Traditionally, statues of giant warriors stood guard near the treasures. But in the legend, the guards of Ajatasatru were unusual: They were robots. In India, automatons or mechanical beings that could move on their own were called “bhuta vahana yanta,” or “spirit-moving machines” in Pali and Sanskrit. According to history, it was predicted that the Ajatasatru robots would remain in service until the future king distributed Buddha relics throughout the kingdom.
Ancient robots and automatons
Hindu and Buddhist texts describe automaton warriors whirling like the wind, cutting down intruders with their swords, reminiscent of Ajatasatru war chariots with spinning blades. In some versions, the robots are driven by a water wheel or created by Vishvakarman, the Hindu god of engineering. But the most striking version came in a convoluted way in “Lokapannatti” from Burma, the Pali translations of older, lost Sanskrit texts known only from Chinese translations, each drawing on earlier oral traditions.
In this tale, many of the “Yantakars,” creators of robots, lived in the western country of the “Javans,” Greek-speaking people, in “Roma Visayas,” the Indian name for the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world. The secret technology of the Javanese robots was carefully guarded. Roma Visayas’ robots engaged in trade and farming, catching and executing criminals.
Robot makers were forbidden to leave them or reveal their secrets – if they did, the killer robots pursued and killed them. Rumors of fabulous robots reached India and inspired a young artisan from Pataliputta, the capital of Ajatasatru, who wished to learn how to make automata.
Legend has it that the young man from Pataliputta was reincarnated into the heart of Roma Visayas. He marries the daughter of a robot-making master and learns his craft. One day he steals plans to build robots and plots to bring them back to India.
Confident that the killer robots will kill him before he can reach himself, he cuts open his thigh, inserts the blueprints under his skin, and stitches himself up. He then tells his son to see to it that his body is returned to Pataliputta, and sets off. He is caught and killed, but his son fishes out his body and brings it back to Pataliputta.
Back in India, the son retrieves the blueprints from his father’s body and, following their instructions, builds automatic soldiers for King Ajatasatru to protect the Buddha’s relics in an underground chamber. Well hidden and expertly guarded, the relics–and the robots–have fallen into obscurity.
Two centuries after Ajatasatru, Asoka ruled the powerful Maurya Empire in Pataliputta, 273-232 B.C. Asoka built many stupas to store Buddha relics throughout his vast kingdom. According to legend, Asoka heard a legend about hidden relics and searched until he discovered an underground chamber guarded by ferocious android warriors. Fierce battles erupted between Ahsoka and the robots.
According to one version, the god Vishvakarman helped Ahsoka defeat them by shooting arrows into the bolts that fastened the rotating structures; according to another, the son of an old engineer explained how to incapacitate and control the robots. Be that as it may, Ahsoka ended up commanding an army of automatons himself.
Exchange between East and West
Is this legend simply a fantasy? Or could it have arisen from early cultural exchanges between East and West? The story clearly connects the mechanical beings protecting the Buddha’s relics with the automata of Roma Visayas, a West that had been subjected to Greek influence. How ancient is this tale? Most scholars believe it originated in medieval Islamic and European times.
But I think the story may be much older. The historical setting points to a technological exchange between the Mauryan and Hellenic cultures. Contacts between India and Greece began in the fifth century B.C., when Ajatasatru engineers were building new war machines. Greek-Buddhist cultural exchange intensified after Alexander the Great’s campaigns in northern India.
In 300 B.C. two Greek ambassadors, Megasthenes and Deimachus, resided at Pataliputta, which boasted art and architecture with Greek influence and was the home of a legendary craftsman who obtained plans for robots at Roma Visayas. The great columns erected by Asoka are written in ancient Greek and contain the names of Hellenistic kings, demonstrating Asoka’s connection to the West. Historians know that Asoka corresponded with Hellenistic rulers, including Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria, whose spectacular procession in 279 BC was famous for its elaborate animated statues and automatic devices.
Historians report that Asoka sent envoys to Alexandria and Ptolemy II sent ambassadors to Asoka at Pataliputta. It was customary for diplomats to bring splendid gifts to demonstrate cultural achievements. Did they bring plans or miniature models of automatons and other mechanical devices?
The story of the robots guarding the relics of the Buddha combines the real and imagined engineering exploits of Ajatasatru and Asoka times. This striking legend is proof that the concepts of creating automata were widespread in antiquity, and shows the universal and eternal link between imagination and science.