Two-hundred-foot planes that could fly forwards, backwards and sideways, hover in mid-air, with up to 30 engines and 20 systems for wartime purposes. According to a presentation at the 102nd Indian Science Congress in Mumbai on Sunday by retired captain Anand Bodas, these aircraft existed in the time of the Vedas.

His presentation on the topic was one of six papers submitted at a controversial session on ancient sciences through Sanskrit at India's premier science convention. But it wasn't only the fantastical that was presented to the audience of around 200 people at the auditorium at Mumbai University's Kalina campus. There were also detailed references to medical progress as recounted by such texts as the Sushruta Samhita, the neuroscience of yoga and to the details of ancient building techniques in the Vastu Shastra.

Still, the remarks were not just restricted to ancient scientists. Vijay Bhatkar, national president of Vijnana Bharati, a "swadeshi science organisation" that aims "to champion the cause of Bharatiya heritage with a harmonious synthesis of physical and spiritual sciences", claimed that India’s Manjul Bhargava, the only Indian to win the prestigious Fields medal, owed his entire education in mathematics to his grandfather who taught him Sanskrit.

While Bhargava does indeed acknowledge his debt to and interest in ancient Indian mathematics, he does not claim, as the speakers at this session suggested, that it is the oldest source of mathematics in the world. For instance, in a talk on square values of mathematical expressions at the Congress on Saturday, Bhargava also pointed out examples of advanced mathematical solutions from 2500 BC in Egypt and 1800 BC in Mesopotamia that predate other solutions in India in 600 BC.

Is there a helmet on Mars?

Outside the session, there were some curiosities on display at an exhibition organised by Vijnana Bharati of devices either made from descriptions in Sanskrit texts or inspired by them. These included ancient rockets that could dispel fog and rain, an ancient electrolyte cell and a technique for cleaning cotton. One exhibitor, Kiran Naik, noted that heated sugar could have been used in the plastic surgery to affix Ganesha’s elephant head to his human torso.

“You cannot contain Vedic knowledge in a room when it is about the entire universe,” said Naik, caretaker of the anti-fog and hail rockets stall. “Take avionics, for instance. Only in the Vedas can you talk about avionics."

He narrated the story of a war between two kings that ended in one chasing the other from earth to the moon to Mars, where the second attacked the first and broke his helmet.

“If you don’t believe me, will you believe NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Association of the USA]?” he asked. “If you search on Google for ‘helmet on Mars’, it will tell you that even NASA has found this helmet on Mars and it will give you evidence for it.”

Not all exhibits strained credulity. There were replicas of animal-shaped forceps mentioned in the Sushruta Samhita. There was a device that indicated whether water was murky without needing someone to look at it. Another device replicated the speed of the earth's rotation.

Prashant Holey, an electrical engineering teacher from Nagpur who organised the exhibition, had a more catholic interpretation of Sanskrit texts than many of the visitors.

“Some Sanskrit texts have literal meanings, but others do not,” he said. “We need to know the difference between them. Vijnana Bharti has an emphasis on the science. We should not follow all texts as god texts. The real challenge is to take the gist of it. It is unfortunate that now this is changing.”

Even so, Holey said that the attitudes of people towards Sanskritic knowledge had evolved over the 30 years in which he had been a member of Vijnana Bharati.

“Old people are prejudiced, but the young have open minds,” he said. “That is a good change.”

Ministers in the middle

The tendency of upholding Sanskritic texts as the root of all knowledge began with Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan at the inauguration on Saturday, when he said that India had graciously given the world algebra and the Pythagoras Theorem of determining the length of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle.

Meanwhile, Prakash Javadekar, minister of environment, forests and climate change, who delivered the opening address of the session on Sanskrit knowledge but left before the papers began, denied any knowledge of the controversial schedule, saying he had not read it.

“I only have two points to make,” he said. “There is a lack of research and innovation in the country which we must improve. We must explore all forms of knowledge whether they come from today or from history. The relevant knowledge will survive and the irrelevant will perish.”

The session was a success. At the end, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research invited the panellists to a similar session in Bhopal. But amid attendees cheering every time any presenter said this or that was first done in India and others discussing Whatsapp and Facebook display pictures in Sanskrit were some sceptics.

“It is one thing to say that certain advances were made in Ancient India which laid the foundations of science,” said N Aravindhan, an MPhil candidate studying the relationship between science and society. “It is quite another to claim that all knowledge which was yet to be discovered at the time is mentioned in ancient texts. Where is the rigour and historicity? I would have welcomed a critical discussion in ancient India minus the pseudo science and patriotic jingoism.”