Saturday, April 11, 2015

War of the Worlds

It has been a long time coming for a new post and I apologize for my absence caused by the severe diversion of all my free time towards the book I was working on which is finally out in the market. However, now that things have settled down a little, I did manage to come up with a new post on a hitherto untouched topic and am more than glad to share it with you :)

My effort in the blog has always been to pick up a new topic in every post and try to relate it with a different branch of science and this time we would talk about the Art of Warfare. Mythological tales especially in India, have immense importance, so much so, that they still continue to shape and reshape values that we hold dear. For precisely this reason, the clash between forces of good and evil that forms such an important part of mythology, also offers the opportunity for an interesting scientific analysis.

With numerous gods, anti-gods, heroes and anti-heroes, the scriptures are full of epic battles of massive proportions. These could be in the form of younger gods replacing the older decadent ones viz Titanomachy between Greek Olympians and Titans or may take the form of a clash between two civilizations such as the Deva-Asura conflicts mentioned in the Vedas. Sometimes, members of the same family might indulge in a battle of supremacy such as the fraternal rivalry between Pandavs and Kauravs of the Mahabharat and the Theomachy among the Olympians.

Titanomachy and Mahabharat
 {Image courtesy - Gods of war}
{Image courtesy - 18 Days}

Since these wars involve beings with superhuman powers, they also speak of weapons with unparalleled potential to cause devastation. The descriptions of celestial weapons that can crack thunder and consume entire cities with their power, bring to mind modern weapons of mass destruction or WMDs. It comes as no surprise that Robert J. Oppenheimer, the father of the Atomic bomb, thought of the now famous quote from the Bhagavad Geeta on witnessing its first successful detonation - kālo'smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddho lokānsamāhartumiha pravṛttaḥ  [B.G. XI, 32]

According to ancient Hindu scriptures, it is indeed the greatest Kshatriya desire to possess a magical weapon of the gods and it was considered feasible as well since the gods themselves were willing to support one side or the other most of the times. Warriors would undertake pilgrimages and perform strict penance to fulfill this desire and Arjun, the hero of Mahabharat does much the same.

Divya Astras in Mahabharat

When the Pandavs are thrown out of their kingdom through cheating in the game of dice, Rishi Ved Vyas advises Arjun to utilize this time and procure Divine WMDs from the gods for they would surely need them at the end of the exile. 

Accordingly, Arjun walks away from the group reaching Indrakeel (modern day Sikkim) and manages to please Lord Shiv gaining access to his fabled Pashupat Astra followed by the weapons of Ashta-digpals or guardian gods. The entire episode is mentioned in Vanaparva as the Kirātār­junīyam episode of the third book and you can read the details here: {}

In Mahabharat 5.166, Pitamah Bhishma describes to Duryodhan the might of Arjun and enumerates the weapons he has gained access to –

‘Arjuna’s again, is that celestial bow called Gandiv, he owneth those steeds fleet as the wind; his coat of mail is impenetrable and of celestial make; his two large quivers are inexhaustible; his arms have been obtained from the great Indra, Rudra, Kuver, Yama and Varun; and upon his car, again, are those maces of frightful mien, and diverse other great weapons having the thunderbolt amongst them!’

Pitamah Bhishma announces the beginning of Mahabharat
{Image courtesy - 18 Days}

Anyone who has read or watched the Mahabharat on television would remember the power of Arjun’s legendary bow Gandiv. Arjun faced and defeated huge number of enemies alone with it and even dared to face Lord Shiv in a case of mistaken identity that I would share later. But was this precious Gandiv just a bow or something more advanced?

Book 9 Section 16 also mentions another weapon in possession of the eldest Pandav –

‘King Yudhishthir the just, took up a dart whose handle was adorned with gold and gems and whose effulgence was as bright as that of gold. The illustrious chief of the Kurus then hurled with great force at the king of Madra that blazing dart of beautiful and fierce handle and effulgent with gems and corals. All the Kauravs beheld that blazing dart emitting sparks of fire as it coursed through the welkin after having been hurled with great force, even like a large meteor falling from the skies at the end of the Yuga.

So what do we make of this? Poetic license or ancient science-fiction or maybe... just maybe... pointer to a scientifically more advanced civilization?

Divya Astras in Ramayan

Valmiki Ramayan contains what is perhaps the oldest description of Divya Astras in world mythology. When Brahma-rishi Vishwamitra takes the young princes of Ayodhya to the jungle to help him get rid of the Asuras disturbing his penance, he shares his own knowledge of Divine weapons with the two sons of King Dashrath that help them destroy many demons in their sojourn. I myself have used this description in Adhyaye 19 of my book where Vishwamitra first comes in possession of these weapons (Check out here - Vishwamitra - The Man who dared to challenge the Gods) .

It was actually in the course of researching for my book that I came across these descriptions and thought of putting them down in a detailed article. These include weapons such as the Narayan-Astra, Agneyastra, Brahmashira, Vayavastra, Tejprabha, Shishira, Shiteshu, Varshana etc. that were variously capable of setting inexhaustible fire to everything, reducing cities to rubble, creating cyclones, freezing the enemy, drowning it in torrential rain and other such calamities. Shri Raam ultimately applies this knowledge learnt from Vishwamitra to get rid of the demon Ravan.

Shri Raam destroys the arrogant Ravan using Divya Astras

While Chapter 27 of the Baal Kand lists out these missiles while the next one gives an account of some counter-attack missiles, called Upasamhara astras that could nullify the enemy’s missiles much like our very own Prithvi and Ashwin that are a part of the Indian Ballistic Missile Defense System

Even though there is a mention of many such weapons in mythology, what is lacking in the descriptions is objective precision since these are, by definition, weapons of a bygone era. Yet, just picturing these with our own modest knowledge of science today, can help understand them better and perhaps even inspire the invention of ultra-modern weaponry. Let us delve deeper into this world of ancient weaponry and get introduced to some fascinating designs of primordial artillery. 

Some popular Divya Astras

Let us see how some of these celestial weapons could look if we compare it with today’s technology:

1.    Agneyastra – set fire to everything in front of it. Perhaps the simplest of the celestial weapons that contained the essence of the Fire-god and could set fire to the target immediately; could be similar to current gun-powder based artillery which may be as powerful as the bazookas of today.

2.   Varunastra – counters the Agneyastra and releases torrential rains hence could be used in two ways – one, to drown the enemy army and second, to extinguish the wide fires set alight by Agneyastra. Sounds somewhat similar to artificial rain-creation methods or cloud-seeding done in drought situations which is done using planes or ground generators.

The most common chemicals used for cloud seeding include silver iodide, potassium iodide and dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) and it is most likely that this particular Astra used some such material to induce rains though it has to be shot to a high level using rockets and has been done by many countries including China, US and UAENeedless to say, this weapon would not be a simple arrow but a massive rocket or ion launcher that could do the job effectively and am sharing the image of a Chinese cloud-splitter to give the idea.

3. Vayu-Astra – Harnessing the power of wind, it would bring about a gale capable of lifting armies off the ground. This would have to be something similar to our storm-troopers above. Most of us know that tornadoes are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous but what if we could actually generate one at will?

Scientists believe we can harness a lot of electricity from such artificially generated storms and turn it into an alternative source of power for our planet and a Canadian electrical engineer Louis Michaud, is developing what he has branded the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE), that promises to be literally a tornado in a bottle with the top uncorked.

Michaud has built a prototype of what he calls a vortex engine--a plywood contraption just 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide that is capable of whipping up tiny vortexes and scaled up versions of these would enable creation of bigger tornadoes! {}

4. Parvatastra - Would cause a Parvata/mountain to fall on the target from the skies which sound so sci-fi that just reading the description makes me think of movies like Armageddon! I assume such a weapon would cause a rain of meteors or asteroids or remotely triggering an object stationed high in the atmosphere (not necessarily a satellite) to drop heavy duty load on the head of the enemy. Man I could use some of this stuff on certain people I know ;o)

5. Manavastra – The weapon created by Manu, the first man which could overcome supernatural protections and carry the target hundreds of miles away. It was used by Shri Raam with the help of Brahma-rishi Vishwamitra to tackle Ravan’s uncle Mareech who was thrown thousands of kilometres away into the sea like a projectile.

The Shaurya missile we have today is a canister launched surface-to-surface ballistic missile used by the Indian Army. Capable of hypersonic speeds, it has a range of 600 km and is capable of carrying a payload of one-tonne conventional or nuclear warhead and I assume that would be somewhat equivalent to the weight of a giant Asura! The Agni Missiles can also do the job quite well and take the target further ahead and I am sharing the range of different versions here.

Sadly none of the modern weapons possess the ability to keep the target alive since they focus more on destroying rather than preserving - says something about the current state of Manavta or Humanity!

6. Naagastra/Naagpash – binds the victim like a serpent and releases slow poison into his system. I don’t see any modern weapon of combat come close to this ingenious device for it immobilizes the quarry and makes them sitting ducks while you go about having your way with them! It was used in the Mahabharat by Arjun to bind an entire division of Kaurav army to disastrous effects and even used by Ravan’s son Meghnaad to bind Shri Raam and Lakshman.

7. Garudastra – counter to the Naag pash and could dissolve or release the bonds. It was probably named so because of the historical enmity that Garud, the avian vehicle of Lord Vishnu had with the serpents whose mother Kadru had enslaved his mother Vinta. But that’s a story for another time! 

8. Vajra – Equivalent to Thor’s hammer or Zeus’ thunderbolt, it is one of the most powerful weapons known to the demigods. Made of Rishi Dadhichi’s bones and shaped like a double ended mace, it was supposed to have been made by the divine architect Tvaṣṭar or Vishwakarma for Indra to fight the dragon Vṛitra.

Indra riding the Airavat with Vajra in his right hand

Closeup of the Vajra

Thunder and lightning may occur without rain, but they never occur without each other and significantly both of them are associated with Indra. Scientifically, a Van De Graaf generator is capable of generating up to two million volts of potential between two metal spheres. This results in an arc up to about 15 feet long between the two spheres. Such a generator is on display at the Museum of Science in Boston. Check this image out and you will see why a Vajra is described as a club!

Van de Graaf lightning generator

That the modern scientific instrument to create lightning bolts is also shaped like a club or rather two clubs, I am inclined to believe that the description of Vajra in Hindu scriptures could be more accurate than the zigzag bolts of lightning shown in the hands of Zeus!

9. Vasavi Shakti – Infallible dart of Indra that once fired would come back only after seeking its target sort of like a laser-guided missile but the flip side was that it could be used only once. The same was used by Karna to dispose of Ghatotkach in the battle of Mahabharat.

{Image courtesy - 18 Days}

Supposed to be shaped like a spear or javelin, it resounds very well with the modern weapons of similar nature. Even the Indian Army uses the indigenously developed Sudarshan laser-guided bomb today.

10. Paashupat Astra – is the much-guarded favorite weapon of Shiva which could destroy target completely, irrespective of target's nature. It had to be obtained from Shiva directly. Infallible, though can be nullified only by any other astra of Lord Shiva or by an astra of Lord Vishnu.

In Mahabharat 3.41.7–10, Arjun requests Shiva to grant him the weapon thus –

“O illustrious god having the bull for thy sign, if thou wilt grant me my desire, I ask of thee,  lord that fierce celestial weapon wielded by thee – that weapon of terrible prowess which destroyeth, at the end of the Yuga the entire universe – that weapon by the help of which, O god of gods, I may under thy grace, obtain victory in the terrible conflict which shall take place – that weapon by which I may consume in battle Danavs and Rakshasas and evil spirits and Pishachs and Gandharvs and Naags – that weapon which when hurled with Mantras produceth darts by thousands and fierce-looking maces and arrows like snakes of virulent poison.”

From the above fragment it is evident that Pāśupat is not an ordinary weapon, but one that could cause catastrophic effects much like the planet killer Death Star from Star Wars or the Tessaract or Cube from Comic lore. Scientifically, I would assume it corresponds to a Hydrogen  bomb which is perfectly capable of destroying a fairly large chunk of area!

The U.S. tested a Hydrogen bomb on November 1st, 1952 in the Bikini Atoll and all people had to be evacuated 40 miles away. The explosion produced an equivalent of 10.4 million tons of TNT, vaporized the island of Elugelab and a .5 mile deep crater which was 2 miles wide was left in its' place!

11. Narayan Astra – This astra fires a powerful tirade of millions of deadly missiles simultaneously and the intensity of the shower increases with resistance. It is considered one of the most dangerous weapons of Mahabharat and was used by Ashwatthama to wipe out an entire section of Pandav Army when he learn that his father Dronacharya had been killed by Dhristadyumna [Narayanastramokshaparvan MBh.7.166.44]. 

It is said that the Eleven Rudras (gods of destruction) appear when this weapon is launched implying that it wreaks havoc on the enemy and is most likely to be a thermonuclear weapon. In the Bhagvat Puraan it is mentioned that Dhruv Maharaj had used it against the Yakshas who had killed his brother and the astra multiplied from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 etc just like a nuclear fission reaction!

Pandavs were able to withstand it only because of the presence of Krishna who Himself is a Vishnu Tattva.

12. Brahmastra – One of the most potent Divine WMDs that could also counter most other astras. In the Mahabharat, it is said that the weapon manifest with the single head of Lord Brahma as its tip and is the only weapon capable of piercing the Brahma Kavach (invincible armour of Lord Brahma) which suggests that even the strongest of defenses could be breached by this particular missile!

In Ramayan, Atikaya, one of Ravan's sons possessed the invincible armour of Lord Brahma that could only be pierced by a Brahmastra and hence was killed by Lakshman using the same. It is said that when a Brahmastra is discharged, there is neither a counter attack nor a defense that may stop it and it is believed that this missile never misses its mark and must be used with very specific intent since the target will face definite and complete annihilation!

{Image courtesy - 18 Days}

Valmiki has described the strong vibration created from the tightened string tied to the bow of Ram, causing great fear and disturbance among living and non livings, in these words: 

‘When Ram could not find any means to make a path through the ocean to reach to Lanka with his whole army, he decided to do so by drying the ocean. In order to do this ‘he fixed Brahmadand charged with Brahmastra on the string of his great bow and stretched it with full force for its final operation. This created so much fear all over that heaven and earth started shaking with its mountains and rivers. Lakes and rivers agitated. Sun and moon changed their way. The ocean, with the mass of its water and waves surged beyond its confines to the extent of about eight miles. Finally on the request of the ocean he turned the direction of his arrow and released it, causing a huge part of ocean turned into a desert.’

If this isn't the classic description of the power of an Atomic weapon I don't know what is!
{Image courtesy - Ramayana 3392 A.D.}

13. Brahmashira - It is thought that the Brahmashira is the evolution of the Brahmastra and is 4 times stronger than Brahmastra. Consequently, it manifests with the four heads of Lord Brahma as its tip. Brahmaśiras and Brahmāstra were both given to Agastya by Lord Shiv. Later Agastya gave it to Agnivesh who passed it to Droṇacharya who finally handed it to Arjun and his own son Ashvatthama instructing them about its use (MBh 1.128.18).

Both Brahmastra and Brhamshira contain the essence of Brahma
 {Image courtesy - Molee Art}

You got missiles, but how do you launch them?

Now that we have seen some of the missiles, let us also look at some of their launching technologies.

Pinaka/Pinaak – Also called as Shiva Dhanush, was the bow of Lord Shiva, which he used to launch all these missiles and killed countless Asuras in battle. The same had been passed down to King Janak, the father of Devi Sita, and was later broken by Lord Ram in her Swayamvar.

Could any bow in reality be that heavy that it would require 5000 able-bodied men to move it from its place as described in the Ramayan that too on an eight-wheeled carriage? {}. Isn't it more likely that it was a mobile weapon-launcher for many of these missiles we have read about above?

Not surprisingly, in today’s day, our naval forces use the term Dhanush to denote a system consisting of a stabilization platform (Bow) and the Missile (Arrow). It is intended for the Indian Navy, to be fired from ships against other ships or land targets and can fire modified versions of Prithvi-II or Prithvi-III.

{Image courtesy - 18 Days}

Vijaya - was another bow of Lord Shiv and scriptures say that its string could not be broken by any kind of astra (weapon) or divya astra (divine weapon) probably implying that it was well-armored and it was supposed to be so heavy that a normal person in any yuga cannot not lift it. It was passed on from Lord Shiv to Parshuraam and from him to Karna who used it to counter Arjun’s Gandiv in the Mahabharat War. Every time an arrow is released from this bow, it created a terrible twang, which is said to be loud as thunder causing terrible fear in enemies and produced flashes of light as brilliant as lightning, which blinded the enemy. 

If this is not the description of a rocket or missile launcher pray tell me what it is!!

Gandiv – The most famous bow of Mahabharat is actually extra-terrestrial in origin! The scripture mentions that in olden times Brahma carried it for one thousand years and then for five hundred and thee years it was with Prajapati. Indra kept it for eighty-five years, and after him it was with the moon-god Chandra for five hundred years. Lord-of-water, Varun carried it for one hundred years before he gifted it to Arjun on Agni’s recommendation.

It was coupled with two quivers that would never get empty and according to Mahabharat, Viraatparva: Chapter 43, Verse 5-6 it also needed special chariot to carry in the war- field which had also been gifted by the benevolent demigod. Needless to say the descriptions turn more and more towards a specialized missile launcher than a simple wooden longbow!

What is most interesting is that just like modern nuclear weaponry, each of these required a specific code for activation in the form of a Mantra! Each weapon was used with its specific mantra which in turn had a definite set of frequencies for recitation that produced the intended effect. Those mantras were never written for the sake that they never get into wrong hands. The mantras were just passed on orally from a teacher to a student. 

Activation Codes for Divine WMDs

So it was a culmination of the mental powers along with the art of Spiritual warfare that decided who would be the winner in the end. Jarrod Whitaker in his paper titled Divine Weapons and Tejas in the Two Indian Epics (Indo-Iranian Journal 43: 87–113, 2000) talks about the differences between Mahatejas and Alpatejas vs. Brahmatejas against Kshatriyatejas each being different spiritual advancement levels of an individual but we wont get into its details here. 

What we should remember though is that the person endowed with the responsibility of bearing these weapons had an obligation NOT to use them indiscriminately and was required to remember both the Activation as well as Deactivation codes for these otherwise the entire creation could be in jeopardy. A paper titled ‘The glimpses of chemistry and technology in Vedic literature’ was presented in the National Conference on Emerging trends in Nuclear and Chemical technology in 2012 by Mr K.V. Murali Krishna, chemistry lecturer at Silver Jubilee Govt. College, Kurnool in which he mentions -

“Though it is evident that a knowledge in nuclear science existed in ancient India, people should also realise that their use was bound by high values of ethics. (It) calls for only ‘favourable’ and ‘protectional’ use of such extreme energy,” [Source - Deccan Chronicle, April 4, 2012]

This point is abundantly evident from the tale of Ashwatthama, the son of Dronacharya who had hurled the Brahmashira at the unborn fetus in the womb of Abhimanyu’s widow. He was unable to recall the weapon once it was discharged and it could ultimately be stopped only by the intervention of Krishna who cursed him for this reckless act to wander on the earth for all eternity covered in boils and sores.

This incident from an ancient epic, shows that even for those bygone generations, these weapons were not meant to be used lightly - a lesson our modern day decision makers would do well to remember!! Hope you liked my latest offering covering yet another aspect of mythology from a scientific perspective and let us hope that drawing from the vast mythologies of the world, contemporary scientists find inspiration not only for the conduct, purpose, and carriage of their wars but also the quest for peace. 

Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

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