Electricity and batteries in Ancient India

Galvani in 1780 discovered what he called the “animal electricity”. He found that connecting a nerve in a frog leg to two different interconnected metals causes the leg to contract (See image below).

What happens here is that, the circuit gets completed via the frog leg and the voltage difference between the two different metals causes an electric current to be produced. This electrical stimulation of nerves causes muscle contraction, because that is how nerves communicate with muscles in animal body.

Galvanism: The twitching of frog’s legs – Source: Wikipedia

So, it was not animal electricity as Galvani had called it, but electricity generated by metal-metal contact that caused animal leg to contract. And this was what Volta proved in 1794. Alessandro Volta invented electric battery and did not use any biological material in his device. He produced electricity using copper and zinc plates, separated by brine-soaked paper disks.

These inventions led to the electric revolution, starting an age of electricity powered societies. The batteries based on this design were the main source of electricity for nearly a century till the invention of electric motors and electric generators.

Now, here comes an interesting find. There is an ancient Indian text written by Sage Agastya, called the Agastya Samhita, composed in Sanskrit language. Sage Agastya was a revered sage of the vedic times. He is mentioned in texts as ancient as Rigveda and Ramayana. Now, Rigveda is said to be composed at the least around 1200 BCE. Which means, Sage Agastya lived at the least some 3000 years before Volta.

Below is a verse we find in Agastya Samhita.

संस्थाप्य मृण्मये पात्रे ताम्रपत्रं सुसंस्कृतम्‌।
छादयेच्छिखिग्रीवेन चार्दाभि: काष्ठापांसुभि:॥
दस्तालोष्टो निधात्वय: पारदाच्छादितस्तत:।
संयोगाज्जायते तेजो मित्रावरुणसंज्ञितम्‌॥

Here is a translation of the above text in English.

Place (संस्थाप्य – sansthaapya) a clean (मृण्मये – susanskritam) copper plate (ताम्रपत्रं – taamrapatram) in an earthen pot (मृण्मये पात्रे – mrinamaye paatre).

Cover (छादये – chhaadye) it with copper sulphate (शिखिग्रीवा – shikigreeva) and then add (चार्दाभि – chaardhaabhih) moist sawdust (काष्ठापांसु – Kaashtapaamsu) on top of it.

Next, deposit (निधात्वय: – nidhaatavya) a mercury-amalgamated (पारदाच्छादितस्तत: – paardaachhaditastatah) zinc (दस्तालोष्टो – dastaaloshto).

This combination will create (संयोगाज्जायते – sanyogajjayte) a glorious energy (तेजो – tejo) called (संज्ञितम्‌ – sangyitam) Mitra-Varuna (मित्रावरुण – mitravaruna).

This is a crystal clear description of a voltaic cell! Moist sawdust is used instead of brine-soaked paper disks used by Volta. In other words, this verse is telling us that the knowledge to manufacture an electric battery existed in ancient India, at the least some 3000 years before they were re-invented in modern times!!

What is even more interesting are another two lines that we find in the same Agastya Samhita.

अनेन जलभंगोस्ति प्राणो दानेषु वायुषु।
एवं शतानां कुंभानांसंयोगकार्यकृत्स्मृत:॥

The above two lines are saying that using around 100 such earthen pots will give you enough electrical energy to break water (जलभंगोस्ति – jalabhangosti) and there by generate oxygen and hydrogen (प्राणो दानेषु वायुषु – praanodaaneshu vaayuhu). In other words, these lines are talking about electrolysis of water using a voltaic pile! Voltaic Pile is the first electrical battery that provided a steady supply of electric current for considerable amount of time.

Experiments done to create a battery using the methods mentioned in Agastya Samhita have shown to generate around 1.4 V of electric potential, while around 1.23V of potential difference is sufficient for the electrolysis of water. Amazing, isn’t it?

वायुबन्धकवस्त्रेण निबद्धो यानमस्तके उदान स्वलघुत्वे बिभर्त्याकाशयानकम्‌।

Then two more lines mentioned above go on to say that, Hydrogen (obtained by the breaking down of water) can be captured in an airtight container and which then can be used for aerodynamic applications! Think about Hydrogen balloons!! By the way, did you note that, Oxygen and Hydrogen were also already known during the times of Agastya !!!

Alessandro Volta’s electric battery (Tempio Voltiano in Como, Italy) – Source: Wikipedia

So, here we are staring at some text that is at the least 3000 years old and is describing how to produce a steady supply of electric current and do electrolysis of water! No doubt, we have a lot yet to find out about the history of our ancestors, their life style, their knowledge and technological advances.

After all, humans have been having this intelligent brain at the least for the past 300,000 years (based on fossils found in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco) and civilizations have thrived at the least for some 12,000 years.

So if only in the past 4-5 centuries intelligent humans could come up with so many discoveries and inventions, it is only natural that advanced scientific inventions and discoveries may have happened in the distant past as well.

After all, those civilizations that thrived for thousands of years in the distant past also had humans with the same intelligent brains as we have today.

And yes, the question also remains about what more advances were done using this knowledge in those ancient times and what happened to all that knowledge? Assuming that the knowledge was lost due to the end of civilizations then, and knowing that this text is still available even today, why was no effort made to build up on this knowledge in recent history, say 1000 years ago?

9 COMMENTS

  1. The Buddha has narrated 550 previous Jatakas. These are the previous births of himself, mostly in human form but also in non human (hasthi, vanara, etc.) forms. The best description I have ever seen in an ancient text to the actual use of electricity is in the Maha Ummagga Jataka of Buddha. Here there is actual reference to the swithcing on and off of lights, so much like what we have today!! its amazing and I am trying to find others who have read this and would like to hear their interpretations. Like all Jataka stories the Ummagga Jataka is also written in Pali verse. The best that I could find in English translation is the one from the Sinhalese version (of Ceylon) which is available on line now at
    http://www.archive.org/details/ummaggajatakathe00yatarich

    I would

  2. Gurudev,

    I suggest with your knowledge you can start exploring more and more and start a series of interpretations of sciences and probably some of them inventions/discoveries which our ancient indians have already done and written into such verses in vedas.

    Isnt this what we need today? if we just claim Gaandhaari gave birth to 100 kauravas was actually a Cloning technology used in those days ….we must have be having cure for cancer, AIDS, technologies which we cant even imagine at this age!! ….please start a page on these let us all try to contribute our thoughts into it.

    Thanks for all the extraordinary work you been doing on this website. I have great admiration for you.

    Suchin

  3. i was just searching this type of blog i like the most and i m the regular user of it
    can u pls give me the reference for the above sanskrit txt i mean to ask where it is in “”Agasthya Samhita””? can u pls address me that u are doing really really a great job i sallute u

  4. Babylonian earthernware jars with anodes and cathodes, as described above, were excavated in Iraq and are now in the British Museum.

    You may be interested to know that small votive statues with plated gold surfaces, have also been discovered in Iraq.

    The statues were originally assumed to be covered in gold leaf, until it was discovered that the gold was only three microns in thickness.

    Looks like thats what the ancient batteries were used for.

    Astonishing, but if you think about it, not totally suprising.

    Just as now, there have always been guys who like experimenting, fiddling and messing around, seeing what they can make to impress their friends, their boss or (more importantly) their wives and girlfriends- especially if they can sell their invention!).

    They’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

    Batteries are not difficult to make.

    (Get a lemon or an orange, stick a piece of lead or zinc in it stick a piece of copper or brass into another part of the fruit the put the lead or zinc and copper to your tongue and feel the tingle of .5v!)

    This must have been done many times before someone decided to experiment and explored the possiblities of his new found energy and discovered that he could use it to make small bronze statues of the gods look like gold.

    (No doubt his wife was very, very impressed!)

    The problem with this is the applications are limited. Unless you also have the technology to make use of your electricity, its a bit of a dead end.

    Now- if 5000 years ago, an ancient Indian or Persian had noticed how the steam from a boiling kettle will lift its lid, then made the leap of genius into recognising the power of expanding steam…

    Had that happened- where would we be now?

    Thrown in a bit of inspired thinking and knowledge passed down either by word of mouth or writing

  5. So you put in water and you get hydrogen and oxygen and you claim further that you get electricity from this?!
    This sounds like an ancient Fuel cell!!!! That is more novel than a battery as we know the Persian, Greeks and Egyptians used batteries for electroplating.
    Nowhere in the ancient world is there ever any mention of Fuel Cells (Which are space age technology initially created for life support systems.)
    You should publish this finding or have someone try to validate this claim. They must take the proper care to handle mercury laden items though.

  6. most of the ancient technolgy was lost mainly due one resons.selfishness.those who know wont like to record.if it is recorded then that texts are not made available to all.that texts too will be written deliberatly in a language which wont be understood by others.
    in modern times printing has advanced and people like to publish books.only in india books are very costly even without taxes.even now detailed books with pictures are not published in india not by indians.indian normally dont love knowledge.so they are unworthy to carry forward the learning ,research etc.look at the numerous reserch organisations run by government.there is no lasting benifit to inidans from them only to plunder the treasury filled by us.

  7. hi,

    nice info. now there are certain groups who have started working explicitly in this domain, you can join them. one open source research platform is scienceinsanskrit.com . join them.

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