Yantra Shastra (यन्त्रशास्त्रम्)

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Yantra (Samskrit: यन्त्रम्) refers to contrivances or instruments developed using the fundamental knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, physics, agriculture among other shastras for enabling ease of activities in daily lives. Enormous scientific marvels of modern day mechanical interventions and development of instruments and appliances in the past few centuries, may lead to a misplaced conclusion that sciences have only developed in the recent few centuries.

The discovery of ancient manuscripts and the advance of research have both brought to light no insignificant amount of ancient Indian activity in the fields of positive aspects of life, of subjects of practical interest and scientific value, which reveal a holistic intellectual advancement in Bharat bringing about outstanding contributions in the fields of ganita, jyotisha, medicine, agriculture. It is these earlier experiments that have been the forerunners of the recent advancements in the field of science and technology, many of which continue to exist as the foundational principles of modern day appliances and technical advancements.[1]


That from ancient times the idea of a yantra was very common is proved by two facts, the application of the concept to the esoteric sphere, and the way the yantra roused the imagination of the spiritual writers. In esoteric worship the yantra was a chart which stored up within its confines spiritual power; drawn on' a flat surface or made in relief, it had components or details which had to be strictly conformed to and, as an instrument for achieving spiritual power, it eminently deserved the name "yantra." Yantras as means of achieving spiritual progress are discussed elsewhere while in this article focus is placed on yantras used for any simple contrivance used freely for many activities of daily lives.

Some very simple yantras are commonly known: the water-pulley in the well was called Ghatiyantra ; an oil-presser was Taila-yantra (तैलयन्त्रम्); wooden contrivances for pounding rice was kuttakayantra (कुट्टकयन्त्रम्); a cane-presser was Ikshu-yantra; ploughs, water-lifts and even weighing balances were referred to as yantras (Arthashastra 2.19[2]). Complex yantras were used in warfare, astronomy and vimanas (aerial cars).


The word yantra is derived from the dhatu यम् used in the sense "to control", and has been freely used in ancient India for any contrivance or machine. In Samarangana Sutradhara, Maharaja Bhojadeva defines Yantra as follows

यदृच्छया प्रवृत्तानि भूतानि स्वेन वर्त्मना। नियम्यास्मिन् नयति यत्तद्यन्त्रमिति कीर्तितम् ॥३ (Sama. Sutra. 31.4)[3]

स्वरसेन प्रवृत्तानि भूतानि स्वमनीषया। कृतं यस्माद्यमयति तद्वा यन्त्रमिति स्मृतम् ॥४ (Sama. Sutra. 31.4)

Dr. V.R. Raghavan in his article “Yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient India” describes that yantra is so called because it controls and directs according to a plan, the motions of things that act each according to its own nature.[4]

Here we allude to another usage of the word 'yantra'. Ayurveda makes use of the word 'tantra' in the sense of 'body' and 'yantra' in the sense of its machinery. Yantra also is used to refer to a geometrical pattern, a synthesis of lines and 'beeja aksharas' or 'seed letters', a total representation mentioned widely in Tantra shastra. Tantra technically is a process of relating the unusual patterns (yantra) with uncommon formulae (mantra). Basic to both these patterns and formulae is the belief that the human body is the ground where they operate. Yantras are merely extensions or externalisations of the forces purported as working within the individual; and Mantras are in the nature of formalisations of the vibrations occurring within. A few largely used yantras mostly for protection, health and warding off evil include those such as Vishahara yantra for snake bite, Rogahara yantra for curing consumptive ailments, Svarnabhairava yantra used in Alchemy, Kartavirya yantra for recovering lost property etc.[5]

However, the present article pertains to the yantras as mechanical contrivances and aims to bring out the scientific aspects in the field of mechanical and physical sciences, the knowledge of which shastras were well developed and widely used in fields such as Agriculture, Warfare.

Constituent elements of Yantra

According to Bhojadeva in his work Samarangana Sutradhara, Bija or Constituent elements of yantra are four in number.

तस्य बीजं चतुर्धा स्यात् क्षितिरापोऽनलोऽनिलः। आश्रयत्वेन चैतेषां विजयदप्युपयुज्यते ॥५ (Sama. Sutr. 31.5)[6]

They are earth (क्षितिः), water (आपः), fire (अनलः) and air (अनिलः) with ether (विजयः) being the medium of action.

Classification of Yantras

According to different texts we find various versions of the classification of yantras.

Bhojadeva in Samarangana Sutradhara classifies yantra mainly into three categories based on their characteristics. They are:

स्वयंवाहकमेकं स्यात्सकृत्प्रेर्यं तथापरम्। अन्यदन्तरितवाह्यं वाह्यमन्यत् त्वदूरतः ॥१० (Sama. Sutr. 31.10)[3]

  • स्वयंवाहकम् ॥ Svayamvahakam - That which is automatic and sakrt-prerakam (that which requires occasional propelling)
  • अन्तरितवाह्यंम् ॥ Antarita vahyam - Where the principal of action or motor mechanism hidden or concealed from public view with the machine to be carried by another.
  • दूरतःवाह्यम् ॥ Duruta vahyam - The one which is really obscure (distant proximate) but carriagable from the place from which the machine acts.

Kautilya classifies mainly yantras used in warfare as Sthira (unmovable) and Chara (movable) yantras both of which are discussed in the succeeding sections.

Bhattasvamin quotes a shloka on yantras in general as of three kinds, Vyadhita, Bhrdmita and Bharayukta: the first acts by being pressed, the second by rotation and the third by its sheer weight.

Related Texts

Samarangana Sutradhara by Bhojadeva is an eighty three chapter treatise which deals with town planning, house architecture, temple architecture, various sculptural subjects, canons of paintings, devotes a big chapter called Yantravidhanam (यन्त्रविधानम्) on art of mechanical contrivances, the yantras. Chapter thirty one of this book specializes in mechanical contrivances and yantras, including those with construction of vimanas or aerial cars.[4]

Yantras in Ancient Literature

One of the best creations of the most ancient architects of this country is the chariot, Ratha. The Rathakara of Vedic times was ever a person of importance, according to the Vajasaneyi-Samhita the Sathapatha-Brahmana and the Atharva-veda. In the Mahabharata we hear of the Matsya-yantra or the revolving wheel with a fish which Arjuna had to shoot in order to win Draupadi in the svayamvara. In the Harivamsa, a supplement to the Mahabharata, there is mention of the stone-throwing machine, Asma-yantra, in the battle with Jarasandha (II. 42. 21).


Interesting references are made by Valmlki to yantras on the field of battle, the continuity of which tradition we see later in the Arthashastra of Kautilya. In Valmiki Ramayana we see the use of yantras for warfare and protection.

कच्चित् सर्वाणि दुर्गाणि धन धान्य आयुध उदकैः | यन्त्रैः च परिपूर्णानि तथा शिल्पि धनुर्धरैः || २-१००-५३ (Rama. Ayod. Kand. 2.11.53)

While enquiring about measures of defence, Rama asks Bharata whether the forts are equipped with money, grains, weapons, water and yantras as well as shilpikars and archers. Lanka, as a city built by Maya, is naturally more full of the yantras. The city, personified as a lady, has yantra-agara-stani, special chamber filled with yantras (as the breast) in Sundarakanda as follows

ताम् रत्न वसन उपेताम् कोष्ठ आगार अवतंसकाम् | यन्त्र अगार स्तनीम् ऋद्धाम् प्रमदाम् इव भूषिताम् || ५-३-१८ (Rama. Sund. Kand. 5.3.18)

Hanuman looked at the city of the demon king, whose darkness was dispelled by bright gems and mighty mansions as if it were a young maiden. The prosperous city was like a well decorated woman, adorned with ornaments having walls for her dress, the stables for her earrings, the armouries for her breasts.[7] In his account to Rama of the fortifications of Lanka, Hanuman in Yuddhakanda, describes that Lanka has four big gates and that each gate is furnished with strong and huge yantras that can hurl both arrows and stones (Upala-yantras):

तत्रेषूपयन्त्राणि बलवन्ति महान्ति च | आगतम् पर सैन्यम् तैस् तत्र प्रतिनिवार्यते || ६-३-१२ (Rama. Yudd. Kand. 6.3.12)

द्वारेषु तासाम् चत्वारः सम्क्रमाः परम आयताः | यन्त्रैर् उपेता बहुभिर् महद्भिर् दृढ संधिभिः || ६-३-१६ (Rama. Yudd. Kand. 6.3.16)

And over the moats are extensive draw-bridges which are controlled by numerous big yantras. Against the approach of the enemy forces there, the draw-bridges are protected by the aforesaid engines and the enemy-battalions are flung into the moats on every side. That such yantras were employed on the field is seen in a description of Kumbhakarna, where his giant figure striding the streets of Lanka is compared to a huge yantra that has been set up to kill the vanaras.

उच्यन्ताम् वानराः सर्वे यन्त्रमेतत्समुच्छ्रितम् | (Rama. Yudd. Kand. 6.61.33)

Thus there are many instances in Ramayana where yantras were greatly used in warfare and the technology was very advanced.


The Arthashastra of Kautilya is one of the books of culture which throw a flood of light on the particular time in which they arose. An ancient valuable treatise on statecraft, it speaks of yantras mainly in connection with battles, and with architecture to some extent.

The main yantras of warfare are discussed by Kautilya in the Ayudhagara adhyaya wholly devoted to armoury. However, other mechanical contrivances described by him pertain to construction of forts with restrictive secret passages, movable staircases, controlling animals like elephants, for protecting against unwanted intruders in many situations.

In II. 5, he refers to a dugout, Bhumigriha, and mentions for it a mechanical staircase which can be thrown in and withdrawn ( Yantra-yukta-sopdna). While detailing the exact methods to be adopted for finishing off enemies and unwanted persons (XII. 5), Kautilya speaks of machines which could be conveniently pressed into service. When the unwanted person is entering a temple, from an overhead yantra there could be released on his head a piece of masonry or a stone to kill him instantly.

Yantras for Water-lifting

The Samaranganasutradhara (I,pp. 178-79, verses 109-14) describes four water-machines (vaariyantra) to bring water down (pata) to raise it first and then to bring it down {ucchrayasamapata), to bring it down and then to raise it (patasamocchraya), and to raise it (ucchraya). But all this was for the recreation of the rich class. It is highly improbable that they were commonly used for irrigation.

The Kashyapiyakrshisukta (verses 167-69) gives an account of the devices for lifting water from a well and for using it for irrigating the fields. For raising water a place for fixing the machine is to be made on stone-slabs on the brink of the well, and for the outflow of water a small conduit is to be made on a hard surface near the edge of the well. Of the different kinds of machines for raising water the one drawn by bullocks yoked with strong chains is the best, that by the elephant with its trunk is the mediocre, and the one by human labour is the inferior-most. Water on lower levels in steadily raised to the surface of the wells etc. by the revolution of the water-raising machine. Water is then carried to the fields by means of small channels.[8]

Yantras for Warfare

Yantras for actual warfare are general)}' touched upon in several contexts : II.3 and 18 mention the need to equip forts with yantras. In X. 4, yantras on the field are said to be attended to by special labourers and workers. In IX.2, Kautilya deals with counter-manceuvres for tackling particular kinds of enemy forces; here, among the things to be used against elephants yantras or probably Hasti-yantras are included; these are machines in general or special machines designed to scare elephants; Bhoja, in his Samaranganasutradhdra, mentions that one of the uses of the aerial vehicle is to create a terrific noise and frighten elephants. In XIII.4, Kautilya advocates the use of yantras for devastating an enemy place which is full of defence-erections.

The chapter devoted wholly to armoury, Ayudhdgara, 11.1S, is the main section speaking of military yantras.

Kautilya divides the yantras into stationary and mobile - Sthira and Chala yantras.[1]

Sthira Yantras

Sarvatobhadra : According to the commentary of Bhattasvamin, this is a sharp-edged wheel that is placed on a wall and rotated so as to fling big stones all around; according to others, it is also called Siddhabhumirika-yantra and scatters small stones.

Jamadagniya : Bhattasvamin explains it as a big Sara-yantra or mechanical arrow-thrower. It is placed behind a wall and it shoots arrows through crevices in the wall. But the name signifies a fire-arm.

Bahumukha : This is an elevation and a mount for archers; it is leather covered and is as high as the wall to enable archers to shoot all round.

Visvasaghati : An iron bar placed across the path in the approaches to the city, which, manipulated by a mechanical device, falls down and pounds a man. It belongs to the class mentioned above for killing unwanted persons and the yantra-torana mentioned in the Mudrardkshasa.

Sanghati means " tied together ". It was made of wood and used to set fire to enemy fortifications. It is called an Agni-yantra.

Yanaka or Yanika is a yantra moved on wheels; it discharges batons.

Parjanyaka is an Udaka-yantra, a fire-quencher.

Bahus are two arm-like pillars which when released from either side by a yantra, press to death a person between them ; this appears to bean instrument of torture.

Urdhvabdhu is similarly an overhead column which comes down upon a man and puts him to death.

Ardhabahu is the same as Bahu, but is of dimunitive size.

Chala Yantras

Panchalika. Its use is outside the fort walls, in the moat; thrown in the midst of the water, its sharp protruding points prevent the progress of enemies.

Devadandas are long cylindrical cannon-like things placed on parapet walls. Bhattasvamin gives them another name also, Pratitaroca.

Sukarika is a huge thing shaped like a pig or bellows, made of bamboo, rope and hide, filled inside with cotton etc., and is placed on the path as an obstruction and as a buffer to stop stones, etc.,. that are flung by the enemy. According to some others, Sukarikas are to prevent enemies from easily getting up the ramparts; they, on this view, were probably closely suspended all along the walls to prevent the enemy-sealer from getting a foothold.

Musala and Yashti-are well-known; Hastivaraka is interpreted as a two or three-pronged iron rod, Hastiparigha, for striking at elephants, but may really mean, as seen from a reference in Dandin's Avantisundari, a machine which hurls heavy iron rods to smite and demoralize the elephants.

A Talavrinta mentioned is explained as a Vatachakra, the significance of which is obscure. We may suggest that here was a device to create a tempest which could demoralize the enemy ranks. The observation of Philostratus, relating to Alexander's invasion of India; that Indians drive the enemy off 'by means of tempest and thunders, as if from heaven," may, however, be only an echo of the Vayavyastra described in Ramayana.

After Mudgara, Gada, Sphriktala, a picked missile, and Kuddala, are mentioned in the following:—

Asphotima has four feet, is covered.by hide, has a projectile and throws stones.

Udghdtima is a machine which demolishes,walls with the.iron bars fitted to it.

Utpatima is interpreted as the Syena-yantra which uproots and tears up things.

And before the Trisula and Cakra, which are known, there occurs the Sataghni, the centicide, which is mentioned in all descriptions of warfare in old literature, but as to, the exact nature of which there is difference of opinion. Bhattasvamin takes it as a huge, cannon-like, cylindrical thing with wheels, placed on the parapet.

Yantras in Pleasure and Entertainment

The yantras we shall now deal with are accessories of pleasure and entertainment, and more properly come under household fittings and' architectural engineering. Some of them=are for the reduction of human labour, some for sport and merriment,—toys and gadgets of-miscellaneous kinds for entertainment. "

We may begin'with Somadeva Suri, an encyclopaedic Jain writer," and.Tiis long.religious poem, the Yaiastilaka Campu,23 written in South India in 949 A.D. In the first part of thework, Somadeva describes the hero resorting to the cool yantra-dhdrd-griha to spend the hot hours of the summer days. This park, fitted with mechanical" fountains, is appropriately called by the commentator Krilrima-megha-mandira, the artificial cloud-pavilion. It is erected in the dense garden in an area provided with many canals. There is the stream for watef sports in the midst of which" is a sandbank raised like a pavilion, provided with a water-bed, Sdtila'-tulika; nearby'are numerous vessels containing-fragrant water jtat'one end'here is an yantra-jala-dhdrd, a contrivance' p'roducingVari'arlf-s ficial-waterfall; the water is taken through" and thrown out'of the "mouth's of! figures of elephants, tigers, lions,'snakes,'etc: ' ' " > ~"'1


  1. 1.0 1.1 Raghavan, V. (1952) Yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient India. Bangalore: The Indian Institute of Culture
  2. Shamasastry. R, (1915) Kautilya's Arthashastra, Translation into English. Bangalore: The Government Press
  3. 3.0 3.1 Raja Bhojadeva's Samarangana Sutradhara (Adhyaya 31)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Shruti. K. R., and Dr. Rajani Jairam. Mechanical Contrivances and Daru Vimanas described in Samarangana Sutradhara of Bhojadeva, IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) Volume 20, Issue 12, Ver. V (Dec. 2015) PP 16-20
  5. Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao. (1979) Tantra Mantra Yantra, The Tantra Psychology. New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann
  6. Samarangana Sutradhara (Adhyaya 31)
  7. Valmiki Ramayana from Gitasupersite
  8. Bag, A. K. (1997) History of Technology in India, Vol. 1, From Antiquity to c. 1200 A.D. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. (Pages 417 - 430)