In Sanskrit, Astra means, ‘An extraordinary weapon,’ in Latin, ‘Star’ and in Norse, it meant ‘Divine strength.’ In the epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Astras were widely used during the great battles described in each of them and came into high importance.
About Astras – Celestial Weapons of Hindu Gods
In ancient times, there used to be two kinds of weapons;
- Shastra – Physical weapons
- Astra – Shastras or objects powered by divine mantras
For many Astras, corresponding devatas used to have their Amsha in the body of a person who obtains the Astra. Hence getting an Astra could be done after pleasing the corresponding Devata. For example, Brahmastra was acquired after pleasing Brahma, Pashupatastra by pleasing Shiva, Vaishnavastra by pleasing Vishnu, etc. Divya Astras were generally invoked into arrows, although they could potentially be used with anything. Likewise, Ashwatthaman invoked Brahmashirsha Astra using a blade of grass as his weapon.
So in order to use an Astra, one needed to have these things:
- Corresponding devata (called Astra devatas) in the body
- Mantra for the Astra
- Any physical object like bows and arrows, wood, the blade of grass, etc
However, if the devata leaves the body of the person, then it would be of no use to try using an Astra, even if the person knows the mantra and the Vidhya (knowledge). This happened to Arjuna after Krishna left the physical world. He knew all mantras, but Astra devatas started leaving his body and he was left helplessly unable to do anything. Legend has it that using the Astras required the following Vidya of Mantras. The term astravidya (अस्त्रविद्या, astravidya) in exact means military science.
Legend has it that using the Astras required the following Vidya of Mantras.
- In order to invoke an Astra, a mantra or incantation needs to be invoked. It is the Gayatri Mantra, intoned in a specific way.
- The process is done by altering the sound waves in the Ether so that the Brahmastra got its potency.
- The sound is referred to as the “Nada Brahma” or the divine sound is to say, in abstraction too there is a connection with the divine.
- There are two types of sound un-struck/un-heard sound and Struck/heard the sound
- Unstruck sound is a vibration of ether, the upper or purer air near the celestial realm. The enlightened yogis seek the unstruck sound called “Anahata Nada”, and only they can hear it.
- The struck sound or “Anahata Nada”, is the vibration of air in the lower atmosphere closer to the earth. It is any sound that we hear in nature or man-made sounds, musical, and non-musical.
- So to release Brahmastra it’s the Anahata sound that is used to chant Gayatri and not the normal Anahata sound which we use for puja.
Lord Rama uses the Gandharva Astra to kill and destroys the army of about 10,000 chariots,18,000 elephants, 14000 horses with their riders, and 200,000 ground soldiers with the superhuman speed in a matter of three hours.
Each Astra used to have its own peculiar properties. For example, Brahmastra could destroy any of the creations of Brahma. Nagastra was a snake weapon. Nagapasham was the celestial weapon equal to Nagastra while Garudastra was the eagle weapon to counter against the Nagastra. Parvatastra was a dangerous weapon that once used mountains from the sky to fall into the Earth.
There are three potential Astras, Vaishnavastra, Pashupatastra, and Brahmanda Astra. However, these Astras cannot harm the five principal gods, i.e., Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, and Devi as they are the supreme manifestation of the divine. Especially, these Astras cannot harm Vishnu, the greatest of all gods, Shiva, the god of gods and the destroyer himself, and Shakti, both Supreme Being and the original energy behind all Astras. With these five gods, the Astras also cannot harm Hanuman, the son of god Vayu, as he obtained Vardanas (boons) from several gods.
There are great lessons hidden metaphorically in the ‘Itihasas’ (epics) of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Such is the knowledge of Astras, the celestial weapons that were the nexus that killed thousands of soldiers in seconds and changed the face of wars. It may sound fictional but they were not at all a myth but very much real. Many of them were as powerful as nuclear weapons today.
Dissimilar to the weapons of today, they didn’t require mathematical formulae, scientific theories, and large equipment. However, the knowledge and technology in those days were very much limited to a few people. Selectively, the powerful ruling elite, etc. everything has its end, hence did the knowledge of Astras.
Where did the great knowledge disappear? What happened to The Celestial Weapons?
A celestial weapon (Astra) is not like a physical weapon (swords or spears), they are a form of energy. In the last yugas (Dwapara, Treta, Satya), people used to have much better memory powers and physical strengths. They used to memorize everything, and there wasn’t much need for writing down any of these scriptures.
Most people who knew how to invoke the weapons died in the Kurukshetra war leaving Arjuna. Another one who knew, Ashwatthama, was cursed and forgot all his knowledge. Thus he couldn’t teach anyone.
Likewise, those who remain were not worthy of such knowledge so it couldn’t be passed on and that knowledge had died with that generation. Astras were not used after the war of Mahabharata. However, Arjuna passed the knowledge of one of the Astra was passed to Vrishaketu after the Great War.
After the Kurukshetra war, Vrishaketu who was the son of Karna went to the riverside where his father used to spend hours praying to Surya Narayan. He wanted to take revenge against all his father’s enemies. However, Arjun appears in front of Vrishketu and asks for forgiveness. Arjuna also asked him to come along with him learn the art of using a bow and arrow, become a great warrior like his father, and rule the kingdom his father couldn’t rule. Arjuna treated him like his son and taught him about all the divine Astras (Brahmastra, Divyastra).
However, Vrishketu was the last person to know about the Astra Vidya because Lord Krishna asked him not to propagate anymore as, in Kaliyug, people will not use them to maintain Dharma but will misuse them for personal purposes. Krishna had told him not to pass the knowledge of the divine weapons to the next generation as the Kaliyuga was about to start and these weapons would pose mass destruction later. So we don’t see any students of Vrishakethu. Lord Shiva Sealed the Pashupatastra mantra in Kaliyug to avoid misuse of it and Lord Parasurama is probably in penance waiting to be a mentor of Kalki.
By the grace of Sri Krishna, most of the destructive science and the people who knew about it were destroyed/died after the war.