Robots guarded Buddha’s relics in a legend of ancient India

As early as Homer, more than 2,500 years ago, Greek mythology explored the idea of automatons and self-moving devices. By the third century B.C., engineers in Hellenistic Alexandria, in Egypt, were building real mechanical robots and machines. And such science fictions and historical technologies were not unique to Greco-Roman culture.

In my recent book “Gods and Robots,” I explain that many ancient societies imagined and constructed automatons. Chinese chronicles tell of emperors fooled by realistic androids and describe artificial servants crafted in the second century by the female inventor Huang Yueying. Techno-marvels, such as flying war chariots and animated beings, also appear in Hindu epics. One of the most intriguing stories from India tells how robots once guarded Buddha’s relics. As fanciful as it might sound to modern ears, this tale has a strong basis in links between ancient Greece and ancient India.

The story is set in the time of kings Ajatasatru and Asoka. Ajatasatru, who reigned from 492 to 460 B.C., was recognized for commissioning new military inventions, such as powerful catapults and a mechanized war chariot with whirling blades. When Buddha died, Ajatasatru was entrusted with defending his precious remains. The king hid them in an underground chamber near his capital, Pataliputta (now Patna) in northeastern India.

A sculpture depicting the distribution of the Buddha’s relics. Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons
Traditionally, statues of giant warriors stood on guard near treasures. But in the legend, Ajatasatru’s guards were extraordinary: They were robots. In India, automatons or mechanical beings that could move on their own were called “bhuta vahana yanta,” or “spirit movement machines” in Pali and Sanskrit. According to the story, it was foretold that Ajatasatru’s robots would remain on duty until a future king would distribute Buddha’s relics throughout the realm.

Ancient robots and automatons

A statue of Visvakarman, the engineer of the universe. Suraj Belbase/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Hindu and Buddhist texts describe the automaton warriors whirling like the wind, slashing intruders with swords, recalling Ajatasatru’s war chariots with spinning blades. In some versions the robots are driven by a water wheel or made by Visvakarman, the Hindu engineer god. But the most striking version came by a tangled route to the “Lokapannatti” of Burma – Pali translations of older, lost Sanskrit texts, only known from Chinese translations, each drawing on earlier oral traditions.

In this tale, many “yantakara,” robot makers, lived in the Western land of the “Yavanas,” Greek-speakers, in “Roma-visaya,” the Indian name for the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world. The Yavanas’ secret technology of robots was closely guarded. The robots of Roma-visaya carried out trade and farming and captured and executed criminals.

Robot makers were forbidden to leave or reveal their secrets – if they did, robotic assassins pursued and killed them. Rumors of the fabulous robots reached India, inspiring a young artisan of Pataliputta, Ajatasatru’s capital, who wished to learn how to make automatons.

In the legend, the young man of Pataliputta finds himself reincarnated in the heart of Roma-visaya. He marries the daughter of the master robot maker and learns his craft. One day he steals plans for making robots, and hatches a plot to get them back to India.

Certain of being slain by killer robots before he could make the trip himself, he slits open his thigh, inserts the drawings under his skin and sews himself back up. Then he tells his son to make sure his body makes it back to Pataliputta, and starts the journey. He’s caught and killed, but his son recovers his body and brings it to Pataliputta.