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Empires of the crystal myth

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 22, 2017
The shape of being: The cosmic diamond engine; Vajravarahi mandala; Tibet, 19th century

The shape of being: The cosmic diamond engine; Vajravarahi mandala; Tibet, 19th century

On the engines of history, and fuel that goes inside them

In May 1938, a German zoologist named Ernst Schäfer arrived in Calcutta on a steamer via Ceylon, with four members of his ‘scientific expedition’ to Tibet. Despite the escalating tensions in Europe, Schäfer somehow negotiated a passage through British territory into Sikkim and towards the reclusive Buddhist kingdom.

The theory he wished to obtain evidence for was “welteislehre” ( glazialkosmogenie, or “the cosmic ice genesis”). It had arrived as an ‘epiphanic vision’ in 1894, to Hanns Hörbiger, an Austrian designer of steam engines. He declared that the primordial substance of the universe was ice, from whose crystals everything in creation had emerged, thusly — “I knew that Newton had been wrong and that the sun’s gravitational pull ceases to exist at three times the distance of Neptune.” Convenient, of course — because Pluto would not be discovered until 1930.

Through a variety of elaborate mutations (a lot of whose genetic material came from the Vedas and Buddhist scriptures), it became the central cosmological doctrine to the Nazi fantasy of having descended from an Atlantean race of pure men. Hörbiger pushed an “astronomy of the invisible”, a science of pure inward intuition, in lieu of which ‘artificial experiments’ of physicists were useless. Adolf Hitler proposed to build monuments which would place Hörbiger in the same category as Kepler and Copernicus.

There were two reasons for its huge success (apart from his wealth) — a) according to historian Christina Wesseley “while this theory was easy to follow, conventional academic sciences seemed only to offer numbers and abstract equations, appearing incomprehensible and out of touch”, and, b) the recent discovery of electromagnetic waves, radio and X-rays had piqued the public’s imagination in invisible and occult forces such as telepathy. It did not help that both Wilhelm Röntgen (X-rays) and Heinrich Hertz (radio waves) were German physicists.

Central to the popularity of “invisible waves” were crystals, such as quartz and galena. Radio waves could be sensed with the aid of a “crystal detector”, and X-rays revealed the internal structure of solid crystals through diffraction. There is evidence ( Blitzed: Drug Use In The Third Reich” by Norman Ohler, 2015) that the medicinal qualities of certain crystals, such as methamphetamine (or even cocktail ice), were ubiquitous as psychophysical stimulants in the military and civilian sphere.

According to philosopher Manuel DeLanda, social transformations resemble phase transitions in physics — between solids, liquids and gases. It is almost as if the invisible ghost of a scientific epoch lingers strongly in its social and political dynamics. In the case of Nazis, that spectre was crystallography.

In his classic treatise The History of Hindu Chemistry by Prafulla Chandra Ray (1903, second edition, p100), he quotes the Rasaratnasamuchaya dated between AD 1300-1550 as interpreted by Raja Sourindra Mohun Tagore in the Manimala ( A Treatise on Gems, 1881): “Diamonds white like the conch, waterlily, or crystal are Brahmanas; those which are red like the eyes of the hare are Kshatriyas; those which are verdant like the cool plantain-leaf are Vaisyas; those which resemble in colour the clean sword, are known as Sudras.”

This quaternary division in Indic philosophy makes an appearance at all the strata of its fractal cosmos — the classification of chemical elements, the system of social relationships, and in the four cyclical yugas ( Satya, Treta, Dwapara, Kali) — like a four-stroke engine of some perpetual motion machine. Even Jaisingh II, the astronomer-king of Amber (later called Jaipur), is known to have invested a significant amount into such a device.

The dreams of the Third Reich, no matter what Oriental opiums they were propelled by, came to a decisive phase transition on the night of November 9, 1938 — when Schäfer was still in Tibet looking for the origins of the mythical “white Aryan” race. Known variously as Kristallnacht, The Night Of Broken Glass or The Crystal Night, it was a pogrom against the Jews triggered by a singular command of the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. After Hitler had left the gathering, he said: “The Führer has decided that... demonstrations should not be prepared or organised by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”

The command was not a command but the message was clear; all the atoms could act as they wished and were not bound by any crystalline law. The law was now liquid and human history was ready to enter a completely new phase. From solid to crystal, and liquid... the next and final transition to gas was only a small step away.

The path that led to the gas chambers inside a Nazi extermination camp at Sobibór was called the “Road to Heaven”. Inside the chambers were valves which were calibrated so that the gas once used could be sucked back in, so that the fuel of the enterprise wasn’t wasted, and the labour who cleared the chambers were not directly affected.

It should be a strange turn of history’s engine if the one invention on which Hanns Hörbiger made his fortune, which revolutionised “high-pressure chemistry and the global network of gas exchange”, was a steel valve; one which could be used for versatile industrial purposes — but not in history’s largest genocide.

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on September 22, 2017
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