science commentary

Mind-Weapons of the Mahabharata

Does the Mahabharata really describe an ancient Indian nuclear weapon? Maybe not—but whatever they were using was hideously effective.

by T.J. Nelson

science commentary

A recent TV show has repeated the provocative claim, made by popular writer Erich von Däniken, that ancient India possessed nuclear weapons.[1] If some ancient civilization developed and lost an advanced technology, it would be of immense historical significance. But after 3,000 years [2], little physical evidence would still exist. All we have to go on are the legends. Is this theory pure fabrication, of which we see so much nowadays, or is there anything to it?

The idea of lost technology comes from the Mahabharata, a sacred Hindu epic poem[3], which describes a ‘divine weapon’ called the Brahmastra (astra = weapon[4]), which is said to have enormous power. The Mahabharata also mentions an even more powerful weapon called Brahmashira, the ‘subjugator of hostile towns,’ which is capable of consuming the whole world.

According to the poem, the weapon is closely guarded and can only be activated by chanting the correct mantra. The Brahmashira manifests with the four heads of Lord Brahma, the creator god, as its tip. Today we might easily imagine it as a multiple warhead H-bomb and the mantras as some kind of voice activation code. But as will be shown below, that is not what is meant.

The story describes a terrible war between two tribes led by two chiefs, Karna and Arjuna, and its horrific aftermath: although the war lasted only 18 days, only twelve of the nearly 4 million soldiers are said to have survived[5]. This represents a 99.9997% fatality rate. If that number is correct, whatever they were using was hideously effective, and it would seem to lend some plausibility to the claim that technology might have been involved.

At one point in the battle a warrior named Ashvatthama plans to use a Brahmastra, but his father Drona warns him:

Nuclear explosion
Say the wrong mantra and bad things could happen.

“Even when overtaken by the greatest danger, O child in the midst of battle, thou shouldst never use this weapon, particularly against human beings.”

After being warned again, Ashvatthama then starts to drive off. He sees someone rushing toward him, saying, ‘Wait, wait!’ He panics, picks up a blade of grass, and utters the magical mantras that release a Brahmashira weapon:

Fallen into great distress, he inspired that blade of grass with proper mantras and converted it into that powerful celestial weapon ... he uttered in wrath these terrible words: For the destruction of the Pandavas.' Having said these words, O tiger among kings, the valiant son of Drona let off that weapon for stupefying all the worlds. A fire then was born in that blade of grass, which seemed capable of consuming the three worlds like the all-destroying Yama at the end of the yuga." (Mhb. 10.13)[6]

At this point Arjuna gets out of his chariot, and, hoping to save the welfare of all the worlds, releases a second Brahmashira which is supposed to neutralize the first one:

That weapon ... blazed up with fierce flames like the all-destroying fire that appears at the end of the yuga. Similarly, the weapon that had been shot by Drona's son of fierce energy blazed up with terrible flames within a huge sphere of fire. Numerous peals of thunder were heard; thousands of meteors fell; and all living creatures became inspired with great dread. The entire welkin [vault of heaven] seemed to be filled with noise and assumed a terrible aspect with those flames of fire. The whole earth with her mountains and waters and trees, trembled. (Mhb 10.14)

Two indestructible sages (rishis), beholding those two weapons scorching the three worlds, stand in the midst of those two blazing weapons and neutralize their energy, thereby saving the worlds. The Mahabharata goes on to say that the region where two Brahmashiras cancel each other out suffers a drought for twelve years.

The other Brahmins are not at all happy that such an unskilled warrior was able to kill so many highly skilled foes, and Ashvatthama is cursed for 3000 years putting the weapon “in the wombs of the women,” i.e. slaying Parikshit, the unborn child of Abhimanyu in Uttara's womb.

Hindu mysticism and the Brahman

To understand what was really going on here, we have to know something about Hindu mysticism. There's a lot of it: the Mahabharata alone is three times as long as the Bible. In Vedanta philosophy Brahma is the God of creation, father of Manu from whom all human beings are born. Brahman refers to the absolute or unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world.

According to the sixth century scholar Sankaracharya, the Atman, or Self, in its essential nature is one with the Brahman, the Absolute. It is eternal and beyond time, space, and causality, so it never changes or acts. It only appears to be active due to Maya, or ignorance. Maya causes the One to appear as many and creates the illusion of change and action. When a person attains liberation, duality is recognized as an illusion and the concept of doer, instrument, and result is recognized as meaningless.

Much has been made of the parallels with modern physics.[7] But for the Hindus consciousness was also a fundamental part of the universe, and therefore contains large amounts of energy. The weapons in the Mahabharata cannot be properly understood without recognizing that.

Although it is a battlefield story, philosophy is weaved throughout it. For instance, before the battle Sri Krishna instructs Arjuna on finer points of ontology, saying things like: “The unreal never is. The Real never ceases to be. That by which all is pervaded is imperishable...the Self slays not nor is it slain.”

After a few hours of this, Arjuna is no longer afraid of death (or, perhaps, by this point he just craves it) and hurls himself into battle with his enemy Karna.

Mind weapons

The Mahabharata says in no uncertain terms that the Brahmastra or Brahmashira were mantra weapons. Most scholars say it was a real, historical battle, but there's no hint of them being manufactured objects. They are produced by the mind.

Of course flying saucer fans would say divine = extraterrestrial and the true facts were concealed or forgotten. But if so, how could someone throw an H-bomb at somebody and miss? And why would they go straight from flaming arrows to nuclear weapons? It doesn't add up.

As an example, in Mhb.08.42 Karna forgets his mantra after getting his chariot stuck in the earth. After being gravely wounded with seventeen arrows which pass entirely through his body, he finally remembers the mantra, and invokes a Brahmastra against his enemy Arjuna:

Inspiring Gandiva [the bow], its string, and his shafts also, with mantras, that scorcher of foes poured showers like Purandara pouring rain in torrents. Those arrows endowed with great energy and power, issuing out of Partha's car, were seen to be displayed in the vicinity of Karna's vehicle.

This passage clearly states that the only physical objects are arrows and that the Brahmastra is what we would call a magic spell. The writers of the Mahabharata are saying that if the mind is sufficiently purified, by speaking a mantra one can release one's mental energy and affect things in the real world.


But what to make of these missile-like weapons, described in Book 8:

Partha took out from his quiver an excellent Anjalika weapon that resembled the thunder of Indra or the rod of fire and that was possessed of the effulgence of the thousand-rayed Sun. Capable of penetrating the very vitals, besmeared with blood and flesh, resembling fire or the sun, made of costly materials, destructive of men, steeds, and elephants, of straight course and fierce impetuosity, it measured three cubits and six feet. Endued with the force of the thousand-eyed Indra's thunder, irresistible as Rakshasas in the night, resembling Pinaka or Narayana's discus, it was exceedingly terrible and destructive of all living creatures. Partha cheerfully took up that great weapon, in the shape of an arrow, which could not be resisted by the very gods ... [S]eeing that weapon raised (for being sped) in that dreadful battle, the Rishis loudly cried out, “Peace be to the universe!” Mhb. 08.48

Taking a cubit to be 48 centimeters or 18.9 inches, the Anjalika astra would be 128 inches or about ten feet long. Although the above description sounds makes it sound to us like a Sidewinder missile, from Mhb 08.82 we learn that it is really a fluffed-up description of a broad-faced shaft. After being struck with it, Karna is gravely wounded but not dead—something that would be impossible with a modern weapon—and his chariot is still stuck.

So Partha, aka Arjuna, requests permission to use a Brahmastra against Karna. But it just bounces off him, or perhaps he missed. Karna continues shooting arrows, so Arjuna has to use a second one. All the while, Karna is shooting back with arrows—a pointless defense indeed if we were talking about modern high-tech weapons.

Karna is being protected by miracles, but not for long. He finally gets killed by the Anjalika astra, the ten-foot-long flaming spear.

In another section (Mhb 09.62) the Brahmastra is said to burn without any visible fire, which amazes onlookers. Although that sounds impressive, the story is purely mythological and intended to introduce the reader to important points of Hindu philosophy in an interesting way.

Here's how it works: the acolyte builds up mental energy by reciting a mantra, then discharges it in the desired form by invoking a specific god. Since Brahma was the most powerful god, Brahmastra was the most powerful weapon. The weapons here were mostly arrows, but they could be anything, even a blade of grass, since the force behind them is not physical, but a discharge of mental power. If that is technology, it's completely unlike anything we have today. And maybe we're better off without it.

As my childhood idol Sledge Hammer used to say: A mind is a terrible thing to waste ... somebody with!


[1] He also claims the technology was given to them by extraterrestrials in flying saucers, which I will put on the back burner for the moment.

[2] The Mahabharata depicts a historical war that occurred in the 13th or 14th century BC. in northern India between two tribal kingdoms: the Kauravas (descendants of King Kuru) and Pandavas (descendants of King Pandu) and their allies.

[3] The poem is one of the most important texts in Hinduism. It is so big it contains the entire Bhaghavad Gita, where Arjuna gets philosophical advice from Krishna, as only a small part. R.C. Dutt says the narrative has “almost inconceivable prolixity and endless repetition” due to continued expansion over the centuries. There are many translations from Sanskrit into English. I have three different versions of it and they are all totally different:

  1. The Romesh C. Dutt 1910 "condensed" version, which contains small excerpts. Dutt tried to put it into a verse format, thereby creating some of the most god-awful poetry ever penned in the English language.
  2. The Kisari Mohan Ganguli translation of 1883–1896, from this is a complete Mahabharata rendered in prose and is very clear.
  3. Swami Nikhilananda's translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which is also a prose version, accompanied by extensive commentary.

[4] Like the deadly Pontiac Astre.

[5] This was the Kurukshetra War. It lasted only 18 days, but it was so violent that only 12 of the original 3,936,600 soldiers are said to have survived. If true, this represents a 99.9997% casualty rate, or 1 in 328,051 survival. According to Veda Vyasa, cited here, the number of soldiers was 3,306,240. However, Yudhishtira claimed in Stri Parva that 1,660,020,000 people were killed and 240,165 survived (Mbh 11.26), which sets the fatality rate to 99.985%, or in other words only 1 in 6,912 survived.

[6] ‘Three worlds’ refers to the Kamaloka, the world of base desires (which includes Earth), Rupaloka, the celestial world of form, and Arupaloka, where beings await Nirvana. Collectively the three worlds are known as the Trailokya. Yama is the god of death and ruler of the departed. The Bhagavad Gita says a four yugas are a period of 4,320,000 years (although other sources assign different durations). Throughout the cycle, virtue and wisdom decline and taxation and injustice increase. There are 1000 such cycles in a day of the Brahma, the creator god. The cycle ends some 311.04 trillion years in the future when Brahma dies and the universe is destroyed.

[7] For instance, the smallest unit of time in Hinduism is the Truti, which lasts 0.30864, 29.6296, 35, 304, 474, 592.59, 900, or 3333 microseconds, depending on the source. Many people have speculated on the purpose of such units, considering that clocks capable of measuring such intervals had not yet been invented. The Hindus also had a concept for an indivisible atom, called a paramanu. One minute particle of dust is said to contain 46,656 paramanus. This works out pretty close if we assume the dust particle to be 0.01 μm in diameter and the paramanu to be a carbon or silicon atom. How did they discover this information? If you say aliens from outer space must have given it to them, I will reach through the screen and hit you.

See also:

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