Friday, January 13, 2012

Mythological Ideas for SF Story Themes: A Novel Approach of Effective Science Communication among Indian SF Audience

Paper presented in International Conference on Science Communication for Scientific Temper held on 10 - 12 January 2012 at NASC Complex, PUSA, New Delhi,India 

Author as chair person of the session on science fiction and SF dignitaries on dais   
Mythological Ideas for SF Story Themes: A Novel Approach of Effective Science Communication among Indian SF Audience
Arvind Mishra
Indian Science Fiction Writers’ Association,
16, Cotton Mill Colony
Varanasi -221001
Indian mythology as contained in Indian scriptures abounds in imaginative ideas. Carl Sagan was very impressed by these sources of ancient knowledge and once appealed SF writers to delve deep into Indian mythology to get original SF theme ideas. Many of such imaginative dreams of our ancestors are still in queue to be realized in want of appropriate technology though many have already seen the light of the day!

There are extrapolations, imaginative themes, and descriptions of gadgets in contemporary sf and in Indian mythology often quite alike. In Ramayana for example, there is a description of a very special kind of aero plane infused with artificial intelligence and emotions named Puspak Viman (Remember, Rendezvous with Rama by Clarke?). Puspak Viman also possesses a vacant seat always for any last minute VIP entrant! Sudarshan Chakra (a kind of revolving disc) and specially designed arrows used by Lord Krishna and Lord Rama in war fields return to them immediately after hitting the target (Guided Missiles!). Maya Yuddhaa (A kind of illusory /virtual war) as described in the epic Ramayana causes no real damage to enemy soldiers but is practiced only to frighten enemies who ultimately surrender owing to all sorts of dreadful imagery. These stories have been very popular among masses and such ideas could very well be used in modern Sf story writing with ingenuity in order to woo Indian SF audience.

A survey was made to find out such imaginative ideas in our scriptures which could be used in conjugation with modern technological developments in Sf stories so as to attract Indian audience to the genre and also to inculcate scientific temper in masses. Findings are presented and discussed.


There is a temptation to draw analogies between science fiction and mythology among science fiction (SF) aficionados. SF like mythological imaginations depicts a world which is contemporarily non existent and remains very unfamiliar to its readers. Science fiction (SF) has often been stated therefore to be a form of contemporary mythology (Patricia Warrick, 1978). There are indeed strange and interesting similarities in both SF and mythology. Science fiction as we know it today is largely about strange new ideas and imagery –features which characterize mythological stories as well. Only significant difference lies in the reasoned application and description of technology in SF. Myths lack such approach understandably because technology as we witness today was not in existence in earlier times. Ideas nevertheless are no less important which have been found to pave the ways for new inventions. “Ancient wisdom” could be enriched and supplemented with modern technology in SF (Brain Aldiss, 1986). Mythological ideas when complemented with modern technology could give rise to wonderful sf themes.

On the above premise a survey work was envisaged to search for ideas and concepts in Indian mythological stories for the purpose of using them in various print and electronic SF media in order to impart the intended scientific knowledge in lucid ways in targeted Indian audience. Some preliminary survey findings are elaborated and documented here. 
 There is however a caution that the mythological stories must not be taken as the incidences and events described in them having been actually happened in remote past.  They should be taken as ideas only and be judiciously used in context to present day knowledge of S&T. As an instance I must quote here an example how I used an idea from a mythological story of King Pradyumn, son of Lord Krishna and demon Sambrasur  in which child Pradymn’s age is accelerated in a ritual in order to make him strong enough to defeat the mighty and invincible demon. I used this very idea in my story entitled ‘Alvida Professor-Good Bye Professor’, (Mishra, 2001) to accelerate the aging of the main protagonist by imagined technology of growth genes being inserted in man’s genome at embryonic stage in order to accelerate his aging process and face the tough situations of the harsher future world without being dependent on the parents for a very long time. Here the abracadabra of the myth was replaced by a logical and scientifically provable technology. We know that parental care is a long time affair in humans as the children could fend for themselves only after they are over adolescent age. The example may be a guide line in using mythological ideas in similar vein and could invariably be incorporated with technologies taking clues from modern S &T. Similar approach could be employed by SF writer while dealing with the cited mythological ideas here.

 Survey Findings: Theme Ideas
An array of interesting ideas was retrieved from various works of Indian scriptures and related literature, critiques and commentaries. Ramayana and the Mahabharata are treasure troves of science fictional imaginative ideas (Deshpande, 2011). Such ideas were pin pointed and categorized under following themes.

Alien Worlds  
Mythological stories have descriptions of many worlds (i.e. Loka in vernacular) other than the earth viz.,Pataal Lok  (an imaginary world underneath the Earth). A description has already given by Srinarhari (2007). He has provided with a vivid description pf many worlds akin to alien words of SF fantasies. A fairy world called Gandharvalok ,  Chandralok (the land of moon); Nagalok (the world of serpents )and so on so forth. Likewise, Yaksha lok; Kinnara lok; Matsya lok (an underwater world which has mermen and mermaids: human bodies resembling fishes usually with divine qualities.) Lucid accounts of heaven and hell- worlds beyond the earth have also been given in our scriptures along with fascinating interwoven plots which may ignite SF writers to take up new story plots in light of emerging and predicted technologies though such imagined bizarre worlds are already being depicted in many SF  movies. Recent movie Avatar is a case in point where the concept of “Avatar” (the incarnation) of Indian myth has been replaced with a downloading of entire memory of a protagonist into a genetic replica of the protagonist in an alien world where he looks like Krishan of our legends.

Celestial Abodes
In Mahabharata there is a story of Trishanku –a celestial body which is described to have been projected into space by one sage Vishwamitra. This looks like imaginative leap of ancestors of the land indicating that the sky could be conquered by man one day! King Trisanku, according to Indian mythology, decided to perform a great sacrifice which would enable him to ascend bodily to heaven. Sage Vishwamitra assisted him in this pursuit. But in heaven, Indra, the king of gods barred his entry, and Trisanku was thrown back to earth from the celestial abode of the gods. Sage Viswamitra in rage started creating new constellations and new forms of life and became a threat to the work of Brahma (the creator in the Hindu trinity, others being Vishnu, the preserver and Lord Shiva a destroyer).In the tussle which ensued  Trisanku was made immortal by stopping his downward fall midway between heaven and earth. Since then he has been hanging up above the earth as the story narrates it.

In 1945, Arthur C Clarke wrote an article published in Wireless World that placing three geostationary satellites (Compare Trisanku!) above the equator would revolutionize global telecommunication. Thus a mythological idea that objects can be made to appear stationary above the Earth found a place in science fiction. In 1964, Syncom, a man made satellite was placed above a fixed longitude on the equator, and a myth became a reality when supplemented with appropriate technology. Further space stories could be based on the idea.

Space Travels
There are many descriptions of flying machines called ‘Vimans’ in Indian epics. Air travel can be traced back in descriptions of ‘Pushpak  Vimana' an aero plane which has been shown to possess even emotions.(Remember, Rendezvous with Rama by Clarke) . Pushpak Vimana also possesses a vacant seat always for any last minute VIP entrant! Idea of machines with emotions like Pushpak Viman is very curious and sf stories could be based on generation voyages in which the space shuttle remains an intelligent and emotional body.

Mythological stories depict   interstellar travels too in interesting ways. Narada a humorous protagonist and at the same time a sage with prophetic vision is often referred to as 'thrilok sanchari ' that is one who could travel in all the conventional worlds namely, the Earth, Paradise and the Hell or even to underground worlds  and may instantaneously reach to any part of the universe. Present day SF writing has a penchant for such interplanetary, interstellar travels where traveling with speed of light and even faster and going back in to past instead of future offers many amazing story plots to work upon.

War Weapons 
There are war weapons like Sudarshan Chakra - the circular disc weapon of god Vishnu which could chase the enemies to kill them wherever they might go for shelter. Sudarshan Chakra and specially designed arrows used by Lord Krishna and Lord Rama in war fields return to them immediately after hitting the target (Compare Guided Missiles!) Arrows like ‘Narayanaashtr’ and ‘Brahmaashtra’   have been depicted as weapons of mass destruction but vary in powers of their destruction and effect in different situations. They could cause instantaneous rains or fire and could even split the Earth or the sky into pieces. Countering arrows by hero protagonists could neutralize the effect of the enemy's attack. Could we work out on such ideas in light of existing technologies to provide a future world equipped with similar weapons in SF stories? Like Maya Yuddhaa (a kind of illusory /virtual war) as described in the epic Ramayana causes no real damage to enemy soldiers but is practiced only to frighten enemies who ultimately surrender in horrifying situations! Such ideas often pave ways for new technologies and would remain lively and inviting sources for SF writers.

Tele-viewing and Telepathy
Idea of tele-viewing is very well present in Mahabharata. A protagonist Sanjaya helps visually handicapped King Dhritrashtra witness the war vividly, much as if it was the live telecast of today. Further Hindu Gods have been shown equipped with powers to know what is going on the minds of their devotees or enemies. This is a fascinating idea to know what’s going on minds of people sitting opposite while discussing issues of strategic importance. This becomes even more important as language is an imperfect way of expressing thoughts .Mythological ideas as such may be explored further for a technological breakthrough to allow mind to meld into mind directly and instantly, thought into thought so that a telepathic society can exist (Asimov, 1981). Could we know the mind of a person opposite to us with the help of any imagined plausible technology? SF writers could try out such ideas.

Cloning and Genetic Engineering

In Mahabharata the birth of ‘Kauravas’  –sons of King Dhritrashtra, 100 in numbers is described to have been resulted from fetus of premature birth. An imagination what modern cloning technology has made possible! Today’s 'test tube baby' technique is a case in point. We could further explore ideas and scientifically proven technologies as such to write SF stories. .

Time Travel
There are umpteen episodes of time dilation and travel in Mahabharata notably of King Raivat who goes to meet Brahma, the creator and finds to his utter dismay that many generations have passed on earth when he returns back. Such stories amply provide glimpses of richness of prophetic vision of what ancient writers possessed and technologies emerge and could be conceived many fascinating SF stories may see the light of day. 
Parallel Universe
This concept is also found in mythology expressing an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods. A bird (crow) protagonist named Kakabhusundi in Ramcaritamanasa -an epic work by Indian medieval saint poet Tulsidas has been depicted to enter to mouth of Lord Rama, reaches to his belly and beholds many ‘Brahmand” (i.e. Universe in modern lingo.) 

Thus narrates Kakabhusundi “I beheld multitudinous universes with many strange spheres each more wonderful than the rest, with countless stars, suns and moons, innumerable mountains and vast terrestrial globes …..Everything I saw had a distinctive stamp of its own universe…..”( Sri Ramcharitamaanas, Uttar Kaand ,80,1-4) Idea of parallel /alternate universes is fascinating and is the theme of many modern SF stories and many more could be written employing similar themes.

Eternal Youth, Reverse and Accelerated Aging
Story of king Yayati as described in Mahabharata provides a strange account how an aged King exchanged
his age with the youthfulness of his youngest son and returned it to him later. In yet another story the aging process of Pradyumn as described above is accelerated in a ritual in order to make him strong to kill the demon.


Carl Sagan(1985)  was very impressed by ‘ancient Indian wisdom’  and once appealed SF writers to delve deep into Indian mythology to get original SF theme ideas.

In such myth inspired SF stories Indian audience is easily lured as they have grown up with similar mythical concepts and ideas (Srinarhari,2008) .Thus imparting of modern scientific and technological developments through such innovative approach becomes tenable (Mishra, 2010). Recent film Avatar is a befitting example which became very popular among Indian audience as it has many Indian mythological elements cleverly interwoven with its plot.

Myths generally focus on superhuman characters the way superheroes are depicted in SF stories. Both mythical and SF stories usually deal with super realistic (surrealistic) stuff. While myth is usually regarded as true accounts of the remote past (though they are actually fanciful ideas only), SF deals with hitherto non existent worlds and by that implication the worlds of future or even distant future. Presently various formats of story telling are being employed involving  mythological features to reach among greater audiences for a widespread communication across the globe .Various elements of myth could now be found in visual SF movies and television shows. The basis of modern storytelling here seems to be deeply rooted in the mythological tradition. Mythological archetypes such as the cautionary tales regarding the abuse of newly gained knowledge, battles between gods, and creation stories are lately the subject of some SF film productions. Such films are often created under the guise of cyberpunk, thrillers, action cinema; apocalyptic tales etc which are nothing but different subgenres of SF. Films such as ‘Clash of Titans’   and ‘The Immortals’   exhibited a trend of mining traditional mythology in order to directly improve a plot for modern consumption. 

Present work empathically indicate that  Indian mythology coupled with today’s technological breakthroughs   could give a wide spectrum from which the modern SF writer can pick and choose to create unique works of science  fiction.
Aldiss Brian, ‘Ancient Wisdom’, Trillion Year Spree, 1986.

Asimov Isaac., Asimov on Science Fiction, Panther Granda Publishing Ltd, 1981.

Deshpande Y.H., Science Fiction: A Bird Eye View, Science Fiction in India, Ayush Books, Jaipur, 2011.
 Mishra Arvind ,(2001) , “ Alvida Professor”,  Vigyan Pragati  ,April 2001, NISCAIR  Publications ,New Delhi ,pp 22-25.
Mishra Arvind, Ek Aur  Kraunch Vadh (Hindi ) ,Lok Sadhna Kendra publication, Varanasi, 2008.

Mishra Arvind ,Manoj Mishra  (2010) ,Innovative SF and Mythology Mix to Communicate S&T to Indian Masses ; 11th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology ,December 6-10,New Delhi ,India

Patricia Warrick, Science Fiction: Contemporary Mythology, Harper and Row Publishing Ltd, 1978.
 Sagan Carl, Cosmos, Ballantine Books, 1985.

Sri Ramacaritamaanas, Uttar Kaand , 80,1-4,Gita Press ,Gorakhphur,1968.

Srinarhari, M H (2008),Koi Mil Gaya –India’s First Science Fiction Film,
Paper should be referred as follows -
Mishra Arvind (2012) ,Mythological Ideas for SF Story Themes: A Novel Approach of Effective Science Communication among Indian SF Audience,Pre-Proceedings, International Conference on Science Communication for Scientific Temper ,10-12 January, 2012,New Delhi,pp. 213-217.