by Sri Ajit Halder
A strong connection exists between myths (including popular and religious beliefs) and scientific discoveries. Everything begins with a thought or a conjecture taking shape in the human mind, then that idea progressively takes a concrete form in the mind of an investigator working in the field of science. As a result, a new theory is proposed or a discovery of a scientific nature is made. The world applauds the new scientific achievement intended to benefit humanity. This article concentrates on the proposition that ideas, fictitious or imaginary, conveyed through the myths of bygone days, fires and still continues to stir the imagination of the new age scientists to bring to reality many of those ideas propagated by the mythical stories.
Myths are stories about divine beings and their super human deeds. Their divine achievements are revered as true and sacred by a host of religiously minded people. Often myths deal with a heroic personality, an event, flying machines or powerful battle weapons (Brhmastra). To most people however, myths are imaginary, fictitious, unproved belief about persons or events. It should be noted that all these mystical accounts are without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, yet they have provided material for creative thoughts, and initiated serious studies to unravel the mysteries of the unknown. Many societies, especially the Hindus, group their myths, legends and history together, considering myths to be true accounts of their remote past. The term ‘myth’ appears at the front of the compound word mythology and in this article the words myth and mythology will be used interchangeably.
It should be emphasized that imagination leads to creative thinking with beneficial consequences. Herein lies the impact of the mythological stories on the mind of scientists engaged in the pursuit of discovering new principles or devices so far unknown to the world. Mythological stories have great symbolic power, influencing the beliefs of a society, and this may be a major reason why myths have survived for thousands of years.
Our ancestors created mythology in the remote past. And it has evolved through thousands of years, with new stories and legends consistently being added along the way of its development. Since myths have stood the test of time, it is not unreasonable to assume that they have contributed to the creative thinking and subsequent discoveries made by generations of scientists.
Many instances may be cited where mythical thoughts and scientific views are in accord. The ancient mythology provides an explanation of how the world and the creatures came to be. We will present several important topics beginning with the origin of the universe and the origin of life species, followed by other themes to illustrate that mythical ideas of the ancient times have significantly influenced the development of scientific principles and devices of the present age.
Origin of the Universe
The Hindu cosmology and timelines indicate that the Big Bang is not the beginning of everything but just the start of the present cycle preceded by an infinite number of Universes and to be followed by another infinite number of Universes. The Hindu view is that the Universe is expanding and is in perpetual cycle, with no beginning and no end in time; this view is in accordance with the modern scientific thinking.
Emergence of life in the world
The story of the ten Avatars (the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu) describes the evolution of life on earth that is broadly in tune with the Darwinian theory of evolution which present day scientists accept as highly plausible.
The account of the emergence of life in our world has been described in the Dasabatar Stotram: the evolution of living organism from the low form of life, progressively developing to the most complex human life, is comprehensively narrated in these verses. An analysis of the stotrams will indicate that the evolution of life took place from aquatic life upwards to more complex living organisms.
In the beginning the entire surface of the earth was covered in water. In course of time life appeared in the form of an aquatic animal i.e. fish. Matsaya Avatar is the starter avatar in the Dasavatar story. As water started receding, gradually land appeared on earth supporting amphibious animal life. Correspondingly, within the Dasavatar story we find the mention of the next avatar to be Kurma, the tortoise. Then evolving through land based animal Baraha (i.e. the boar) and ascending to humanlike character Nrisingha (half animal, half human), then the arrival of Bamana (the dwarf human) took place. We are now in the phase when human figures started developing, and we reverentially welcome Parasurama, adore the full-fledged avatara (purnavatara) Ramachandra and finally, Kalki in completely developed human form. Thus we see that the elements of the creation theory as given in Hindu mythology bear a close resemblance with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution of Life on earth.
Gita’s Viswarupa-Darshan and Nuclear Explosion
Another illustration is the famous Gita verse uttered by Robert Oppenheimer on witnessing the nuclear explosion on July 18, 1945 at the Los Alamos test site. Oppenheimer, the leader of the team developing the nuclear bomb, recalled that while witnessing the blast he thought of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter XI, verse 12), which translated into English reads:
‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst simultaneously into the sky that would equal the glorious splendour of the mighty one i.e. Sri Krishna in His Godlike form.’
The above noted observation of Oppenheimer is a confirmation that the intense brilliance generated by the nuclear explosion in modern times corresponds to the splendour of the Supreme Creator as mentioned in the Gita. One finds a link between the mythical past and the reality of present day science.
Hindu mythology gives colourful, detailed description of flying machines, Vimanas. Puspak Rath, a chariot carrying passengers and flying through the sky, is an example elaborately described in the Hindu scriptures. It is an indisputable fact that our ancient sages intensely thought about the working mechanisms of flying machines and described in detail their component parts and their structure. It may be stressed that myths about flying machines influenced the discovery of aeroplanes and space crafts.
Celestial Weapons and Missiles
One may cite myths about celestial weapons (Astras) which were described in various scriptures as missile-type weapons that were intended to be hurled at an enemy. An example of great importance is a Brahmastra which was believed to be the mystical force of Brahma. This weapon is said to be capable of releasing scores of missiles with destructive potential capable of extinguishing all creations. From the account given in the Ramayana about this Astra, we may equate the destructive power of this weapon to be similar to that of a nuclear bomb.
It is true that mythical stories of the past still entertain and influence our thinking process and stimulate creative actions. What is more interesting is the fact that newer myths are continuously being added to our rich resource of mythical stories. We have myths today that capture our imagination, and our expectation grows for more and more marvels and smarter devices. If we read Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke, we are swept into the era of space odyssey. Space crafts and space travel are no longer fictional ideas; they have become a reality, thanks to the imaginative writings of the authors of fictional works that must have motivated and enthused scientist to succeed in developing powerful devices, humanoid robots and intelligent gadgets.
It suffices to say that mythology, with all its colourful stories, has played a significant role in moulding the thoughts of modern day scientists and discoverers, and that human life in today’s world has been hugely enriched by these scientific achievements.