Wars bring death and destruction. In just 18 days, nearly 1660 million warriors were killed in the Mahabharata war — the deadliest conflict in human history– with more than the soldiers killed in the First World War and Second World War put together.
This was possibly because many of the divine weapons (astras) used in the Mahabharata war were far more advanced than the weapons in use today.
Only twelve people survived the war: including Lord Krishna, the five Pandavas, Satyaki, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, Yuyutsu, Vrishaketu, and Kritavarma.
Here are some of the most powerful weapons used in the epic:
Brahmastra – The Brahmastra a powerful celestial weapon created by Lord Brahma is analogous to a modern-day nuclear bomb. It was one of the most powerful and deadly weapons used in the battle of Mahabharata. When used, the Brahmastra destroys everything and is said to be the only weapon capable of piercing Brahma’s armor. There is no rainfall for trillions of years and not even a blade of grass grows in that area again. According to the Puranas, Brahmastra never misses its mark and destroys the individual or army against whom it is launched. There is no way to counter-attack nor defend oneself against the Brahmastra. The Brahmastra has the power to eliminate anything in the past, present and future. This is why Lord Krishna, Narada, and Vyasa intervened to stop Arjuna and Ashwatthama who were about to use the Brahmashira against each other towards the end of the Kurukshetra War, and thus prevent the destruction of the world. The Brahmastra is believed to cause such severe damage to the environment that the land where it is used becomes barren. Life comes to a stand still and both men and women became infertile. Brahmastra is mentioned both in Ramayana and Mahabharata. In the Ramayana, it has been used multiple times. Indrajit used it against Hanuman, Lakshmana wanted to use it against Indrajit, but Lord Rama did not allow him. Lakshmana used it to kill Atikaya. Finally Lord Rama used it as the last arrow to kill Ravana. In Mahabharata, Karna requested Dronacharya to teach him how to use brahmastra. But Dronacharya refused to do so, as we wished to teach about brahmastra only to his favorite disciple Arjuna and his son Ashwathama. So Karna decided to learn about brahmastra from Dronacharya’s guru Parashurama. However when Parashurama came to know that Karna had not revealed his true identity, he cursed Karna that he would forget the mantra to invoke the brahmastra when faced with death. Karna tried to use the Brahmastra against Arjuna in the war, but failed because of sage Parashurama’s curse. According to legend, Arjuna who was a master of Brahmastra purposely did not teach it to any of his sons or grandsons to avoid its misuse.
Gandiva – Lord Brahma – the creator of the universe created is a really powerful, and unbreakable bow to destroy the evil and unjust. Lord Varuna gifted the Gandiva bow and two inexhaustible quivers to Arjuna. Meanwhile, Agni dev gifted Arjuna a chariot bearing the flag of Hanuman and four white horses. Arjuna used both the Gandiva and chariot extensively to win the Mahabharata war. After the Mahabharata war, Arjuna returned the bow to Varun deva.
Vijaya Dhanush– It was a divine bow belonging to Lord Shiva who instructed Indra to give it to Parashurama in order to fight evil forces on earth. Parashurama, in turn, gifted it to his disciple Karna. It is an indestructible weapon that protects the person wielding it against all other weapons. Every time an arrow is released, the bow produces a loud sound of thunder and lightning that makes the enemy run away in fear. As per its name Vijaya meaning Victory, the bow made its wielder so invincible that no other weapon could harm him. The Vijaya Dhanush was used only once in Mahabharata, on the 17th day of the Kurukshetra war, when Karna fought against Arjuna.
Pashupatastra – It is one of the most destructive weapons of Mahadeva and Mahakali literally meaning Lord Shiva, Kali, and Para Shakti. It could be discharged by the mind, eyes, words, or a bow. It is capable of neutralizing every other weapon as well as mobile and immobile creatures in the universe in less than the time taken to blink an eye. When released, it could destroy the target completely. This mighty weapon is mentioned in both Ramayana and Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata era, only Arjun possessed this weapon and knew how to use the weapon in the Mahabharata war but avoided using it because of its devastating power. This Astra is capable of destroying the whole world.
Narayanastra – the personal weapon of Lord Vishnu, it is capable of simultaneously letting loose millions of deadly missiles that stop only after the target is completely destroyed. The intensity of the shower increases with the increase in resistance and the only defense against the missile is to surrender or show total submission before it hits the target. It can be used only once in a lifetime and may rebound on the user and his army if he attempts to invoke it a second time. The Narayanastra was first used by Lord Rama in the Ramayana. Thousands of years later, it was used by Ashwathama in the Kurukshetra War against the Pandavas, who managed to save themselves because of Lord Krishna’s timely warning. Lord Krishna asked the Pandavas to lie down on the ground and avoid any damage by the weapon.
Vaishnavastra – It was one of the most powerful weapons of Lord Krishna after Sudarshan chakra. It hadgreat armour piercing capabilities. As the celestial weapon of Vishnu it had to be obtained from Lord Vishnu directly, who alone could halt the weapon. According to the Vishnupurana, it is the fastest astra of all weapons used in Mahabharata. Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu gave this astra to his cousin Arjuna. Bhagadatta the king of Pragjyotisha and son of Narakasura used the Vaishnavastra against Arjun, but Lord Krishna came in the way. As a result, the arrow turned into a garland around Lord Krishna’s neck.
Brahmashira—the Brahmashirsha Astra a high-end variant of the deadly Brahmastra is four times stronger and capable of greater destruction than the Brahmastra. The weapon manifests with the four heads of Lord Brahma as its tip. According to legend, the weapon when invoked leads to a blazing inferno, and thunder like thousands of meteors have fallen and all living creatures trembled with dread. The whole earth – mountains, water bodies, and trees tremble. There is no escaping. In the Mahabharata era, Parasurama, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Arjuna and Ashwatthama knew how to use the Brahmashirsha Astra. Guru Dronacharya taught his son Ashwathama how to use the weapon as the ultimate weapon of victory. Ashwathama tried to direct the weapon to harm the unborn baby in Abhimanyu’s wife Uttara’s womb but for the timely intervention by Lord Krishna who saved the unborn child who came to be called Parikshit (meaning “Tested One” or “Proven”). Later both Arjuna and Ashwatthama tried to use the weapon against each other, but were prevented from doing so by sages Narada and Vyasa.
Brahmandastra – This is the most powerful weapon of Brahma which manifests with the five heads of Brahma as its tip. The weapon is said to possess extraordinary powers to destroy the entire entire universe in the blink of an eye. In some texts, it is called Brahma-danda astra created by the Saptarishis to counter any weapon ever created. The controller of this weapon is Para Brahman. According to the Puranas, when invoked it causes the Oceans to boil due to its heat. Earth and Mountains float in the air and everything burns without ever leaving ashes. It is said to be the most difficult astra to obtain. No-one not even Arjuna knew how to stop it because Drona never imparted the knowledge of this weapon to Arjuna or Ashwasthamma. Guru Drona used it on the 15th day.
Bhargavastra – This is an astra created by Sage Parasurama. He gave it to Karna in the Mahabharata. It is capable of creating a massive shower or volley of arrows that pierce everything they hit. In modern-day analogy, it can be called a warhead that launches countless small projectiles causing massive destruction of the target area. It caused great damage to Pandavas army and completely destroyed one Akshauhani or a battle formation consisting of 21,870 chariots; 21,870 elephants; 65,610 cavalry horses and 109,350 infantry soldiers of the Pandava army. Interestingly, the Pandava Army had just 7 akshauhinis as compared to the Kauravas who had 11 akshauhinis fighting on their behalf. It is said that on day 17 of the battle Karna fired Bhargavastra to nullify Arjuna’s Indrastra, and killed thousands of elephants and foot soldiers.
Vasavi Shakti – It was a divine spear of light granted to Karna by Indra the King of Gods. After having tricked Karna into removing his body armour and earring that made him invincible, Indra felt a pang of guilt so he tried to compensate by granting him the Vasavi Shakti or spear of light. It had the power to kill anyone it struck. However, a catch was that it could be used only once. In the Mahabharata battle, Karna kept it as a secret weapon in his arsenal and planned to kill Arjuna with it but for Lord Krishna who prodded Karna to kill Ghatotkacha with it instead, and thus saved Arjuna.
Vajra Astra – Vajra means “divine lightning thunderbolt” in Sanskrit. The Vajra is a favorite weapon of Lord Indra, the God of thunder and lightning, is made from the bones of Sage Dadhichi. Once invoked and discharged, this weapon seeks and destroys the enemy – cutting through any mortal defences. Vajra Astra is considered to be one of the most fearsome weapons in the battlefield as it would cause high casualties to the enemy and it would scatter the opposing army. According to legend, sage Dadhichi sacrificed his life for the creation of Vajra one of the most powerful handheld weapons that have the ability to charge the air – to produce bolts of lightning and kill the enemy. It is capable of being used in close combat and as a projectile at the same time. Indra used it twice – first against Hanuman when swallowed the Sun and secondly to slay a demon called Vritra. Later, Indra gave his Vajra to Arjuna. Arjuna was the only warrior who possessed it apart from Indra.
Varunastra – A weapon of Varuna, the God of water. It can assume any shape just like water and wash away large part of enemy troops. It can be used to counter Agni Astra, while the only defence against this astra is Visoshanastra, which can only be obtained by Indra the king of gods. According to the legends this weapon is said to have been obtained by Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Ravana, Meghanada, Vishvamitra, Vasishta, Arjuna, Karna, Krishna, Satyaki, Abhimanyu, Pradyumna, Drona, Bhishma and other such warriors. The scriptures say this weapon can be obtained by meditating on Varuna or Shiva and is to be used with great care and skill – chanting the proper mantras in the prescribed manner. Even the slightest mistake by an inexperienced warrior can lead to the user himself being destroyed.
Teen Baan -The Teen Baan was the signature weapon of Barbarika, the son of Ghatotkacha and Grandson of Bheema. It simultaneously fired three arrows. One to pinpoint the enemy, the second to identify the friends (to be saved), and the third to destroy the enemy. Using this weapon, Barbarika could have finished the war in seconds.
Maheshwarastra – This weapon contains the power of God Shiva’s third eye and has the potential to turn one’s enemies into ashes. The only way to counter this weapon was by using any other weapon of Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu.
Sabda vedastra – It prevents an opponent from turning invisible. Arjuna used it against the Gandharva king Chitrasena who used illusions to conceal himself from Arjuna.
Visoshana Astra – The main role of this astra is to relieve pain and heal any wound.
Praswapastra – It causes the enemy troops to fall asleep on the battlefield. Only Bhishma had this weapon in the Mahabharat war.
Indrastra – named after Indra, the King of Gods. It brings about heavy and unbearable rain of arrows on the enemy from the sky.
Roudrastra – Is one of the mostpowerful weapons that can kill every person present on the battlefield.
Agneyastra – the weapon of Agni deva, that makes huge balls of fire that could melt the earth’s crust and produce heatwave which could burn anything on its path. Ashwathama used it engulf one akshohini troops of the Pandava army on the 15th day of the war until Arjuna countered and neutralized it.
Yamyadandastra: As the name Yamyadandastra or Yamya + danda + astra suggests, it is the main weapon of this Astra is Yama Deva –the Lord of death. It is used to punish the sinners.
Twashtastra – This Astra creates an illusion and causes the user to suddenly appear at multiple spots at the same time. This confuses the enemy troops. The net result is that enemy soldiers end up fighting each other and killing their own troops.
Mayastra – This Astra dispel any form of maya or sorcery in the vicinity. It was possessed by Arjuna.
Sammohanastra– It had the power to make an entire army go asleep or fall unconscious in a state of trance. Arjuna who had obtained it from Kubera, used it, to make the entire Kaurva Army including Dronacharya, Kripacharrya, Duryodhan, Ashwatthama, Dushasan, and Karna go in a trance-like state. Everyone except Bheeshma became unconscious.
Parvata astra– a divine astra that could cause a parvata or mountain to fall from the skies and crush the enemy forces.
(To be continued)