As kids we had a fascination for the vaimAnika shAstra. Our companions dvipakSha-kesha and kalashajA were endlessly fascinated by it. Later it almost became a refrain of ridicule used to deride Hindus who were sympathetic towards the knowledge of their ancients. It was used a strawman to argue that every claim of traditional Hindu knowledge was a hoax. Goaded by R and N we were keen to find out the reality about this unusual and notorious text. Our initial investigations several years ago the on vaimAknika shAstra led us to an edition of it by GR Josyer (This text has now been made available from the Sacred Texts Site). We were given a clue in the early 2000’s by a knowledgeable Hindu author named Vishal Agrawal that a second transcript of it existed in the Royal library of Baroda. However, he was unable to furnish any further details, saying merely he had read so somewhere. Following on this with R and N we discovered a second earlier publication of the same text by the Arya Samaj of Dayanand and obtained a copy of it. Not surprisingly the Arya Samaj claimed that it was a proof for Dayanand’s assertion that all knowledge lay in the vedas. However, an examination of the Arya samaj edition shows that it was not based on Josyer’s transcript, but based on the Baroda transcript.
Thus, we have have the following history of the transcripts:
1) As per Josyer we learn that the smArta paNDita, subbarAya shAstrI was a learned, poor brAhmaNa from South India. He claimed to have “seen” an lost text titled the vaimAnika shAstra, fragment of the yantra sarvasva by bhAradvAja and began dictating it. A certain veMkaTAchala sharman copied this down in notebooks between 1918-1923. Eventually Josyer, a saMskR^ita paNDita from Mysore got hold of these notebooks and published it with a translation in 1973.
2) A transcript of the text was made from an unknown source in 1918 and deposited in the Baroda Royal library.
3) Transcripts from Pune (I do not know where they are currently housed, but photographed by Arya Samaj and stored with them) have the marking “transcribed by go. veMkaTAchala sharman in 19/8/1919 and 3/6/1919” on them. The latter two transcripts were used in making the Arya Samaj edition of which Josyer seems to be blissfully unaware.
Now all the confirmed transcripts, while widely distributed over peninsular India, appear to date roughly from 1918 earliest. These point to a common source, which could be either subbarAya shAstrI or someone from whom he obtained it in turn. We may note that the around WWI the importance of air force and aviation was on the rise and catching popular imagination. It is possible that subbarAya shAstrI, a traditional Hindu, might have seen the parallel between the newly invented airplanes and the descriptions of vimAnas in old Hindu lore. So this might have inspired him to think in terms of a shAstra that Hindus might have had to make those vimAnas described in their lore. Josyer also mentions that subbarAya shAstrI had friend named sUryanArAyaNa rao who had some interest in physics. This man published some journal on scientific topics in which subbarAya shAstrI wrote. It is not surprising if they developed an interest in airplanes and the like together, with rao providing shAstrI some rudimentary ideas about physics.
Some points of note:
Even though it is termed a shAstra in reality it is structured unlike any traditional shAstra. While composed in shloka meter it actually contains sUtra-s attributed to bharadvAja and a commentary on the sUtras by a certain bodhAnanda. The sUtra-s themselves are very vague with most specificity coming from the commentary part. This is not true of genuine sUtras (e.g shrauta sUtra-s or darshana mUla sUtra-s), which while laconic are not entirely obscure. The bodhAnanda vR^itti part is laden with citations of many texts, the most important of which are never mentioned in any other Hindu work and are not found in manuscript form anywhere in India. Examples of these are: vimAna-chandrikA, vAlmIki gaNita, vyomayAna-tantra, yantra-kalpa, yAna-bindu, kheta-yAna pradIpikA, vyomayAnArka-prakAsha, amshu-bodhini, yantra-a~NgopasamhAra, R^ik-hR^idaya etc. This is the main point which makes the whole vaimAnika a work of fiction rather than anything even close to a genuine piece of traditional knowledge. The invocation of shiva at the beginning and subsequent description of shiva as the founder of vaimanika vidya, suggests that shiva was the author’s personal devatA.
The text is aware of tAntric prayoga-s for the purpose of flights, such as guTika-s and pAduka-s, which have a long history in India. But it does not detail any such prayoga-s other than mentioning a few by name like ChinnamastA, bhairavI and bhuvaneshvarI. The author was clearly familiar to a certain extent with tAntric practices. The text does not have any principles of aerodynamics or physics, but is of a descriptive kind with long lists and enumerations. The author seems to follow the tantra and purANa-s in a general sense in listing ingredients for vimAna making. In one place in describing the extraction of metal he lists: gUnjA, ka~Njala, tajadabhanga, ku~njara, and kara~Nja, prANa-kshara, hingoo,parpaTa, ghoNTikA, jaTA-mAmsI vidArA~Ngini, and matsyAkShi as plant material with which the metal is heated. The author has a vivid imagination enumerating devices like cameras and solar power, but not really providing constructional details in many cases. All in all these issues make it a piece of Hindu science fiction, albeit finding expression in a peculiar fashion as a shAstra.