It is thus written in ancient Indian texts, that there could be more than 3,300 astras of the gods, especially the main Vedic gods. Some of the important or often-mentioned astras include the brahmastra and the pasupatastra. Astras were meant to fight the wars of the gods against demons, asuras and rakshasas. Sometimes, the super-weapons were granted to devout asuras or rakshasas, as a result of stupendous meditation upon Gods. The Indrastra, Asurastra, Pramohana-astra, Devi-astra, Pashupatiastra or Pasupatastra, Shakti-astra, and the Chakra-astra were used in these wars and are mentioned on various occasions in the puranas.
Indra had his Vajra, the thunderbolt, while Shiva was known for his astras, the lightning-bolts. The Hiranyastra was one of the vajras of Indra, the Marutastra was the astra of the Maruts, and the Agni-astra, belonged to Bhairava and Shakti.
There are many other similarly significant astras that are known to be particularly useful, such as the Vidyastra, the weapon of intellect, and the Vira Jayastra, the weapon for victory. There are several weapons known in Hindu mythology. Each super-weapon is ascribed to their specified gods. These include the Agneyastra, Brahmastra, Sudarsana Chakra, Pasupatastra, Trishul, Garudastra, Varunastra and the Narayanastra. These weapons were used for deliberate purposes. The Agneyastra was to invoke fire upon the enemy, the Nagastra would bring forth thousands of poisonous snakes and the Varunastra was invoked to bring forth water to fight fire.
The Brahmastra of Indra or the Pasupatastra of Shiva or the Narayanastra of Vishnu could only be used once, when invoked in war, against one particular enemy, and therefore had to be utilised with great care. Upon use, these specific astras would return to the original owner. Rama used the Narayanastra in the battle with Ravana. The astra was later used by Ashwattama, son of Dronacharya, at Kurukshetra, on behalf of the Kauravas.
Created by Brahma, the Brahmastra is supposed to be one of hte most deadly weapons ever used in battle. The Brahmadanda, another super weapon, which was also created by Brahma, could counter the Brahmastra. The warrior could receive the weapon from Brahma after years of dedicated meditation, and only if blessed with the permission to use the Brahmastra in battle. It could only be used once in the lifetime of a warrior, and was to be used with great hesitation, for it could destroy the local habitat and cause famine and drought for years to come.
Another weapon, the Brahmashira, also created by Brahma, with four times the destructive power of the Brahmastra, was supposed to be within the realm of knowledge and with the permission to use in battle, with Arjuna of the Pandavas and Ashwattama, in the army of the Kauravas.
Vishwamitra used the Brahmastra in his battle against Vashishta, but was defeated by the use of Brahmadanda against the astra. Rama is known to have used the Brahmastra as his final solution and weapon against Ravana. The Ramayana also mentions the use of the Brahmastra by Meghnad against Hanuman during his first visit in search of Sita. Lakshmana had the power to invoke the Brahmastra, and wished to do against Meghnad, but was prevented from doing so, by Rama.
Karna wished to use the Brahmastra against Arjuna but is unable to do so, as he forgets the invocation, due to an earlier curse by Parashurama. Ashwattama’s invocation against Arjuna escapes the target due to Krishna’s actions, but retains its momentum until it finds its target in the womb of Uttara, and endangers the unborn Parikshit, son of Abhimanyu.
A rare astra, usually never mentioned in other Puranas or the Vedas, is the Vaishnavastra of Vishnu, and known to be absolute in its intensity, and a weapon that could not be defeated. Vishnu himself could only withdraw it, after having been shot at the enemy. King Bhagadatta of Prajyogasta (= modern day Myanmar), son of Narakasura, used the Vaishnavastra against Arjuna at Kurukshetra without realising that Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, was the charioteer and could stop the astra from killing Arjuna.
The most destructive astra of all, the Pashupati-astra of Rudra, was the most feared, since it belonged to Durga, the destructive manifestation of Parvati. Blessed by Shiva, Pashupatinath, and taught the manner of use of the astra, are two of the most significant individuals in the ancient puranas.
Shiva blessed Meghnad, the son of Ravana, in the Treta Yuga and Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas, in the Dvapara Yuga, with the Pasupatastra. Both warriors were instructed to be careful in the use of the astra, for it was the most destructive weapon of Shiva, capable of being discharged even by a thought in the mind, eyes, words or a bow. The pre-condition was to use it only for dharma.
The paradox is paramount in the nomenclature of the astras, when one considers the pasupatastra. Shiva, or Pashupatinath, is also known as the Lord of the animals, and their protector. So, how could the pasupatastra be thus named, to be the most destructive of all, capable of destroying creation itself?
Arjuna seeks Rudra
The best of the stories about the astras, is from the best story of all times, the Mahabharata, and presents two of the most excellent individuals in the pantheon of India’s puranas (= ancient vedic and pre-vedic epics), Shiva and Arjuna. These epics have been written and re-written by countless ancient authors within the great epics themselves, and also as separate stories that present amazing situations in an epic-poem or ballad or within a collection of other stories.
In brief, Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas, was the hero of the Mahabharata, the chosen one of Krishna and the recipient of the Bhagavad Gita. He was the wielder of the mighty bow, the Gandiva, and the one who had the secret of wielding the Pasupatastra, given to him by none other than Shiva himself.
Arjuna was the thought-conceived son of celestial Indra, and Kunti, the elder wife of Pandu. He was younger to Yudhistra and Bhima, and elder to Nakula and Sahadeva. He was the rare and amazing archer who could expertly wield the bow with both the hands, and was thus, known as Savyasachi. Similar to the marital exploits of Krishna, Kaunteya (= son of Kunti, i.e. Arjuna) is known to have more than forty main wives and perhaps, more than a hundred others.
The Mahabharata mentions four wives, Subhadra, Draupadi, Chintrangada and Ulupi, to be role players who influence him. It is however, his marriage with Draupadi that brings forth the central story of the Mahabharata, and leads to determined enmity and rivalry with his cousins, the Kauravas, and especially, the eldest, Duryodhana, who could not forgive or forget her scornful laughter, when he slips and falls in the maya (=magic) palace at Indraprastha (= modern day Delhi).
There is also an ancient, pre-Mahabharata and pre-Vedic element in the story, in depicting the companionship of Krishna and Arjuna. The former, of course, is the avatar of Vishnu, or Narayana himself, while Arjuna is considered to be an avatar or a manifestation of Nara. Nara and Narayana were steadfast companions from pre-vedic times, and were known as sages, celestial beings and among the core group of devas (= gods) from the most ancient of times. If Narayana was to be an avatar on earth, as Krishna, could Nara be left behind? Arjuna is also usually presented as a manifestation of Adisesha, the serpent guardian of Narayana, among his many manifestations of Nara.
Being close to Krishna, during the years leading on to the war to be finally waged at Kurukshetra, Arjuna brings himself to accept and acknowledge the acclamation that he is closer to Krishna, than the other Pandavas or the Kauravas. He is also acknowledged as the most excellent among all the warrior princes, and is duly accepted as the best among the best, by his own teachers, including the perceptor, Dronacharya and the mentor, Kripacharya.
Arjuna, is of course, known mostly for his refusal to wage war against the Kauravas, especially against his own elders, teachers, cousins, uncles and the grandsire, Bheeshma. He places down the mighty Gandiva in the chariot, and it requires Krishna to explain to Arjuna that he would have to fight. The advice given by Krishna, as the Bhagavad Gita, is the basis of many a modern book on management in various versions, and has been presented similarly over many thousands of years.
His most famous victory is over Karna, who he did not know as his own elder brother. He did not know that he would eventually kill his elder brother. Arjuna was never told the secret that Kunti held close to herself, that Krishna never disclosed, and that Bheeshma never allowed to be shared. That victory is also particularly significant in the war at Kurukshetra, for it depicts the use of astras by Karna and Arjuna, given to them by the Gods for use in the war.
Duryodhana knew that Arjuna was the most dangerous amongst the Pandavas, when the war at Kurukshetra was to begin. Therefore, he asked Karna to focus entirely on Arjuna. Also, when Kunti asked Karna to spare her five sons, he replied, that after the war, she would be left only with five sons, for it would be either Karna or Arjuna, who would be killed in battle. Thus, Karna declared that he would not attempt to kill any of the other Pandavas during the war at Kurukshetra.
Maharathis (= great warriors), Arjuna and Karna, knew that the other was an equal expert, and could not be defeated unless they used weapons received from the Gods themselves, for they had already mastered the weapons made by and used by humans. Dhananjaya, as Arjuna was also known, knew that the warriors to be defeated at Kurukshetra were Bheeshma, Drona and Karna, for none of the other Pandavas could gain victory over these maharathis. Arjuna would have to do so, himself.
Arjuna was known to be a favourite disciple of Dronacharya, the perceptor-tutor of war to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. He was known to be the chosen, being the brother-in-law of Krishna, having married Subhadra. The grandsire, Bheeshma, knew that Arjuna would never stray from the side of his elder brother, Yudhistra, even if tempted with the kingship of distant kingdoms.
Krishna, Yudhistra, Bhima and Arjuna visited the Khandava forests to determine the manner in which the forests could be removed to make way for a large city. They met Agni, the god of fire, at the Khandava forest, who had an earlier problem of having consumed ghee (= clarified butter) in disproportionate amounts to wood in several yagnas (= sacrificial rituals) by a certain King. The god of fire explained to Krishna that he needed to consume a large forest to cure himself, and offered to help the Pandavas by devouring the Khandava forest.
Agni, the god of fire, had tried to destroy the Khandava forest earlier, but had failed. Takshaka, the king of serpents, and a close friend of Indra ruled the forest. Whenever threatened by fire, Takshaka sought Indra’s help, who in turn caused heavy rains and prevented the destructive intentions of the god of fire. Krishna and Arjuna decide to help Agni, and thereby remove the Khandava forests to allow for the construction of their new city.
Arjuna, Krishna and Agni discussed the strategy to attack Takshaka and counter the eventual battle with Indra’s astras. Knowing that their weapons could not face up to the wrath of Indra, Arjuna asked Agni to help by providing superior weapons, capable of fighting a war against Indra.
Agni sought the blessings of Varuna, the god of the oceans, for who else could provide better weapons against the thunderbolts of Indra, that caused unceasing rainfall and thunderstorms. Varuna brought forth the mighty bow, the Gandiva, made by Brahma himself, and known to be forever victorious in battle. The ocean-god also brought forth a chariot with divine white horses that would never tire and could never be injured in battle.
Armed and blessed, Arjuna and Krishna rode clockwise and anticlockwise, around Khandava and protected Agni who began to consume the forests. Takshaka, the serpent-king, invoked Indra’s support and received his thunderbolts and an ensuing rainstorm. The battle between father and son, Indra and Arjuna, was fought over several days, with the Gandiva countering the thunder and rain over Khandava. Arjuna and Krishna won the battle eventually, and the forest was destroyed entirely.
Takshaka, the serpent-king, escaped the destruction and sought sanctuary from Karna. In return, Takshaka promised Karna that he would provide the destructive force to his arrows, by providing the poison to be placed on the tips of the arrows of the King of Anga. In gratitude and by providing a safe haven, Karna placed Takshaka in a vital role in the eventual battle to be fought at Kurukshetra.
There was another important individual who escaped the wrath of Agni on Khandava. Maya, an asura, came out of the fire, and sought sanctuary with Arjuna. The elder brother, Yudhistra, knowing Maya’s capabilities, offered him the task of constructing the city of Indraprastha, to be built on the Khandava forest lands, in the aftermath of Agni’s hunger for wood. Maya, a master architect, constructed the magical palace of Indraprastha, known after him as the Mayasabha, that was the eventual cause of Duryodhana’s jealousy, the scorn of Draupadi, the venue of the game of dice to be played, and the disrobing of Panchali (= Draupadi) by Dushasana and the eventual exile of the Pandavas.
It is in the fifth year of the exile imposed by the Kauravas, that Arjuna, Krishna, Yudhistra and Bhima discussed the eventual Great War that would have to be fought on their return to Hastinapura. They knew that Duryodhana would not be gracious and would not return the kingdom of Indraprastha. Yudhistra decided that they should utilise their years of exile in preparing for war, and in ensuring that Arjuna, their best Maharathi, should be equipped with the best of weapons, including those from the Gods themselves.
Krishna advised Arjuna to travel to the higher reaches of the Himalayas and meditate upon Shiva and seek his blessings to receive the most powerful of weapons that would be needed in critical moments of the eventual Great War. Krishna was aware that the most important battle would be between Karna and Arjuna. He was keen that Arjuna should most definitely win the battle with Karna, and was also aware that Goddess Durga had herself blessed the King of Anga earlier, to allow him to use her Shakti-astra in battle.
To counter the several super-weapons that Karna, Bheeshma, Drona, Kripacharya and other Maharathis would have in their possession, it was necessary that Arjuna should seek the blessings of Rudra himself, the ultimate master of the astras, super-weapons and the science of their use in war. Krishna, who was aware that he was an avatar of Vishnu, knew that Shiva’s help would be most important, and if received, the Pandavas would not lose. Arjuna would be blessed by the best of the warriors among the Gods.
The Pandavas in exile, in their fifth year, discussed the eventuality of having to wage war against the Kauravas to repossess their kingdom. A spy returned from Hastinapura with the news that Duryodhana and Sakuni had determined that they would not return Indraprastha to the Pandavas after their exile. Yudhistra knew that this was to be expected and informed the Pandavas about Duryodhana’s plans.
Bhima and Draupadi became angry and felt that they were wasting their best years in exile when they could easily go to war and win against the Kauravas, since Duryodhana would not honour his promise to return the kingdom. Yudhistra refused the suggestion, indicating that they would need to continue in exile since they had given their word and would have to live by it.
Draupadi, upset with Yudhistra, and asked as to how he could agree to live by his word when it was obvious that Duryodhana would not keep up the other side of the agreement. Bhima was determined that war was the only answer, and they would need to break their agreement and return from exile. Bhima felt that it would be humiliating to have to receive their kingdom from Duryodhana rather than winning it on the battlefield.
Yudhistra did not agree with Bhima and Draupadi and insisted that he would rather stay on the correct side of dharma (= the rightful way of life) and would want for the Pandavas to continue with the exile. The great Maharishi Veda Vyasa visited the Pandavas at that moment and discussed the possibility of war with the Kauravas and Duryodhana’s determination to refuse to return Indraprastha after the period of exile.
The Pandavas discussed the need to prepare for the war with the Kauravas, for it would be the final battle, and they would need to win, by defeating and killing their own cousins, and also the other great kings and rulers and tribes who would come to support Duryodhana. It would be necessary for the Pandavas to also seek support and agreements from other kings, rulers and tribes to fight the war against the Kauravas.
Yudhistra and Vyasa agreed that they could depend upon Krishna to seek out kings, rulers and other tribes to decide if they would support the Pandavas and fight the Great War on their side, against the Kauravas. Who else, other than Krishna, could get the many kings and rulers to agree to fight on the side of the Pandavas, who did not even have a kingdom to defend?
However, Vyasa suggested to Yudhistra, that it would have to be Arjuna who would have to travel away from the Pandavas and seek help from Rudra and Indra, for obtaining the blessings and the secret mantras (= incantations) to use super-weapons, or astras, if the gods would bless them with their support. Vyasa advised the Pandavas that they would need to prepare during their later years of exile in planning for the eventual Great War with the Kauravas.
The great Maharishi suggested that Arjuna should proceed to the higher Himalayas and place himself in strenous meditation to propitiate his divine father, Indra, and seek his blessings and gain the ability to use the Brahmastra and other astras. Draupadi agreed with Veda Vyasa and reminded Arjuna that the attempt would be better than wasting away the years in exile and doing nothing. She emphasised that Partha (= Arjuna) should be very determined in his meditation and should ensure that he would return with the super-weapons of Indra to avenge her humiliation by the Kauravas in front of her exalted and supposedly expert warrior husbands.
Arjuna traveled away from the Pandavas and Draupadi with a heavy heart, and reached the higher Himalayas, beyond the peak of Kailasa. He settled down in meditation at the Indrakila peak, the abode of the gods. Arjuna established a routine of determined and austere meditation and created waves of focused energy, seeking Indra, and disturbing the heavens. The gods decided to test him and sent forth heavenly and divine damsels. These apsaras traveled through the heavens, singing and dancing and indulging in tempting behaviour that would disturb a steadfast warrior-sage.
The damsels came about, near Arjuna, and began to try and disturb him from his meditation. They had a goal, and that was to try and get Arjuna to fall in love with them. They failed in their attempts, for instead of getting Arjuna to fall in love with them, the heavenly apsaras fell in love with the great warrior.
Knowing that his son sought him, and stayed determined in his search, Indra came to the Indrakila Mountains, to bless Arjuna. However, the father wished to test the son, and therefore, disguised as a mortal sage, he enquired from Arjuna about why would a person resort to meditation, a method that was to be utilised only after one had given away all his possessions and material life.
The sage-Indra asked Arjuna if he would succeed in his mission through meditation, if the goals were contrary to austerities and he were to retain his possessions, wage war, and protect his kingdom and would eventually continue as a King. Would that not be against the principles of dhyana (= meditation) and asceticism? For after all, asceticism did imply the aspect that all material wealth was fickle, and there would also be a time and moment when they could also lose the kingdom and whatever they would possess, even if they would win the war.
Arjuna explained his actions and the need to resort to meditation and told the sage-Indra that the determination to be on the correct side of dharma required one to explore and seek all options and opportunities. If war was to be fought, to allow for people to live honorable lives, and if evil was to be vanquished, then it was in the role of rulers to fight on behalf of those who could not do so. Arjuna explained in great detail to sage-Indra about rightful living, the dignity of human lives, the role of hte king, and the need to retain the security of the kingdom.
Pleased, the sage-Indra revealed his true self, and Indra, in his divine form, appreciated the determination of Arjuna and his understanding of the aspects of war, especially against one’s own cousins and elders. Indra advised Arjuna that it would not be sufficient to assume that seeking the use of the great astras would be enough, for it would also need to be understood that other great warriors, kings and rulers would also have sought and received similar blessings.
Indra knew that Karna, Ashwattama, Bheeshma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Duryodhana and Jayadratha were tremendous warriors and knew the many intricate aspects of using the best of weapons and super-weapons. Several other kings, great warriors and demi-gods, asuras, rakshasas and forest-tribes would also assemble for such a war. The grandsire Bheeshma alone could match any warrior, war for war, strategy for strategy, weapon for weapon and would never tire.
Indra informed Arjuna that he would certainly bless his own son with the weapons that he desired, but it would also be necessary that he should gain the use of far greater and more dangerous weapons. Arjuna would have to continue with his meditation and seek the blessings of Rudra, or Shiva himself, and request for the use of the most tremendously dangerous weapons. Later, Arjuna could return to Indra, and he would gain access to the thunderbolts and other astras and learn about their use in detail.
Knowing that Indra was correct, Arjuna agreed with him, and continued in his meditation, seeking out Rudra.
.. to be continued
~ Bharat Bhushan, from the book, Rudra – The Amazing Archer