I was listening to Ajahn @sujato teaching the Samannaphala Sutta while I was at work. This teaching was broken up into several separate recordings, as the group he was teaching was given an account of each version that exists at the moment. During one talk, the subject of King Ajatasatu’s military innovations, specifically a mechanized chariot with spinning blades on its axles, was briefly mentioned by the venerable after he consulted Wikipedia. The claim of this invention did not cite a reference, however.
So, today, I came across this article, which mentions this very same innovation, as well as something quite amazing for the time period: robots and androids!
Well, there are thousands of manuscripts lying around monasteries. We know that many of them are copies of things we already have—canon, commentaries, chronicles, etc. But we don’t know what we don’t know. I doubt if we’re going to find any texts that are hugely important for EBT studies, but for things like this, the cultural history of Theravada, there s doubtless much we do not know.
Thanks for sharing this highly interesting article!
As a result I pulled out John Strong’s book as is referenced there and had a highly amuzing time reading through the various stories of robots and other machines that are said to have guarded the relics.
There are actually quite a few different stories going around about it. Of course all from later times. One thing it does show is that people in all ages had a distinct need for science fiction!
John Strong however is a little bit more nuanced and I find the most likely explanations are either a highly ingenious structure of a water-wheel with swords attached that is propelled by a stream. Sort of à la Indiana Jones.
Or the other, more logical explanation consists of something you find all over the world: statues of soldiers and warriors that are said to protect the dead (or prevent the dead from leaving) and that come alive if an intruder presents itself (or the dead get up and try to leave).
There’s these type of myths in Sri Lanka too- some from the Mahabharata:
The Yantra (meaning ‘machine’, at least nowadays) are said to have magical properties but are often crafted in conductive material, and have fine schematics much like a circuit diagram though such connotations might have been lost!
I’m sure there are tons of texts hidden away in the Tibetan mountains, some earlier than the ones that are known, as writing was just becoming mainstream, and I find it difficult to believe some of it wasn’t written down much earlier. I understand there were potsherds with writing on them at the time but it might be possible to find whole sutras or even collections!
Because this story is so hilarious, I just want to post an excert here from John S. Strong’s book: Relics of the Buddha. This can certainly compete with Tolkien!
The most elaborate story about these mechanical guardian figures, however, is the tale of the Roman robots, found in the Lokapaññatti (an 11th to 12th century Pali cosmological text) and in related subsequent Burmese traditions. According to this tale, the mechanical robot guardians protecting King Ajātaśatru’s underground relic chamber were made by an engineeer who came from Rome. Rome, the Lokapaññatti informs us, was famous for its experts in “spirit movement machines” (bhūta-vāhana-yanta), but the secret of their manufacture was well guarded, and was never to leave Rome. Any expert attempting to leave the city would be hunted down and killed by one of this own robots. The rest of the story is of epic proportions, but it may be summarized as follows:
A young enterpreneur in Pātaliputra, after hearing about these wonderful Roman machine-beings, wants to learn the secret of their manufacture and to import them to India, so much so that, on his deathbed, he vows to be reborn in Rome. This occurs, and, in his next life, he marries the daughter of one of the Roman engineeres and inherits from him the secret of the robots. He wishes therupon to return to India but knows that he will be killed when he tries to do so. He inserts, therefore, the blueprint for the manufacture of the robots into a cut he makes into the flesh of his thigh, and, setting out, he journeys as far as he can before being cut down by his robot pursuers. All seems lost but it turns out that, ahead of thime, he instructed his own son to withdraw the secret plans from his thigh before cremating his body and to travel on with them to India. This, the young man is able to do, and, arriving in Magadha, he is just in time to be of service to Ajātaśatru, who was then seeking someone to build mechanical figures to protect the underground relic chamber. The guardians of the Buddha’s relics are thus actually Roman robots, and they remain on duty underground for a whole century, until King Aśoka, seeking to obtain the relics, needs to disarm them. Not knowing how to do so, Aśoka seeks out the very same Roman engineer who made them, and who, we are led to believe, is still alive. With this help, the guardian figures are quickly disabled and Aśoka is able to collect the relics.