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In different Puranas there are mentions of the Brahmasthra which is one of the powerful weapons capable of destroying the whole world. I have seen usually in Purana TV serials, these astras (arrows) are portrayed with some sparks, glitters and smoke - nothing more nothing less.

Actually, what is the story behind Brahmasthra? Does this weapon make use of mantras and convert ordinary arrows to Brahmasthra? And has anyone ever used this in history, and if so, on what occasion?

EDIT: @Creator has asked some further doubts on this in the comments. Adding those questions here:

  • Is the Brahmasthra mantra and control still depicted anywhere in astra vidya or in any scriptures?
  • And is that vidya still alive?
  • Yes, A few times Brahmashtra has been fired, but all the time it was redirected to some other target( where damage was pretty low), to avoid its devastation effect on mankind – user2992 May 18 '15 at 12:32
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The Brahmastra is the weapon of Brahma. Like other astras (celestial weapons), it is invoked with a special mantra, and then you can use it to destroy anything that is created by Brahma. The Brahmastra does refer to a special arrow, but an ordinary arrow can also be given the same power using the mantra, and as discussed below, some people have even used the mantra on blades of grass when they didn't have arrows handy.

There are numerous occasions in which the Brahmastra has been used:

  1. As described in the Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana, for some reason Indra's son Jayanta once turned into a crow and started pecking at Sita when Rama and Sita were on the Chitrakuta mountain. The pecking soon grew violent enough that Sita started bleeding, and Rama loved Sita so much that even her smallest injury was intolerable to him. So he turned a blade of Kusha grass into a Brahmastra and threw it at the crow, but then redirected it to merely destroy the crow's right eye when it begged for mercy:

    Then, the long-armed Rama, the best among wise men, swirling his eyes in anger, made a resolve in the matter of that ferocious crow. Taking a blade of Kusa grass from his bed ( made of Kusa grass), Rama employed it to work with Brahma's missile (a mythical weapon which deals with infallible destruction). That blazing shoot of grass, resembling a fire destroying the world, flared up in front of that bird. As Rama threw that blazing blade of Kusa grass towards that crow, that blade of grass went chasing that crow in the sky.

    Then, while that blade of grass came chasing, that crow went flying in many a way. Seeking protection, it roamed all over the world. Roaming the three worlds in search of a saviour, that crow was abandoned by Indra; its father, the celestials and the sages. Finally, it sought refuge in the same Rama.That Rama, who affords protection, was compassionate and protected that crow, which fell on the ground (in salutation to Rama) and sought for protection, eventhough it was apt to be killed. Seeing that crow, coming exhausted and dejected, Rama said to it: "It is not possible to make Brahma missile a waste. For this reason, tell me what to do now." Thereafter, that crow said "Let your arrow shoot my right eye." Then that blade of Kusa grass shooted the right eye of that crow. By giving away its right eye in that way, the crow saved its life.

    By the way, this is the story that Sita told Hanuman, to give Rama proof that Hanuman really talked to Sita.

  2. As described later on in the Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana, after Hanuman talked to Sita in Lanka, Ravana's forces tried to attack him, but they were unsuccessful. So then Ravana's son Indrajit launched a Brahmastra at Hanuman. Now as I discuss in this answer, Hanuman had received a boon from Brahma that he couldn't be destroyed by any weapon, so the Brahmastra only had the effect of immobilizing him and knocking him to the ground. And due to further boons from Brahma even that effect wore off quickly, although Hanuman continued to lie motionless just so that he could be captured.

  3. As described in this chapter and this chapter of the Yuddha Kanda of the Ramayana, when Rama needed to cross the ocean to go to Lanka, he prayed for three days straight to Varuna the ocean god. But Varuna didn't appear before Rama, so Rama got angry and threatened to fire a Brahmastra to destroy the ocean (so that he could at least walk across the ocean floor to Lanka):

    While Rama was stretching that bow, both the heaven and earth suddenly seemed to be split asunder. Mountains also were shaken. Darkness enveloped the world. All the quarters were obscured. Lakes and rivers were soon agitated. The moon sun and the stars moved obliquely and though the sun's rays lighted the sky, it was enveloped by darkness and shined with a blaze of hundreds of meteors while thunders reverberated with an unparalleled sound in the sky. Series of celestial winds blew in their colossal form and the winds, then sweeping away the clouds, tore up the trees again and again. The wind, shattering the mountain peaks, broke off the points of the rocks. Winds of great velocity struck together in the sky and emitted flashes of radiance proceeding from lightning with a great sound and then there were great thunders. The visible creatures cried out along with the thunders. The invisible beings too gave off a terrific noise.

    The creatures were overpowered, frightened, agitated, lied down and also very much anguished. They did not move due to fear. The great ocean with its waves and water, along with its living creatures including snakes and demons soon became possessed of a terrific velocity. Due to that speed and swelling of waters, the ocean crossed beyond the other shore to the extent of a Yojana (eight miles). Rama born in Raghu dynasty and the annihilator of enemies, did not retreat before that ocean, which swelled and crossed its limits. Then, Sagara (the ocean god) himself rose from the middle of the ocean as the sun rises at dawn from the huge mountain of Meru.

    So Varuna appeared before Rama and told him to build a bridge out of rocks that would float magically by the power of Nila and Nala. Rama was satisfied by this, but he still had to release the Brahmastra at something, so at Varuna's suggestion, instead of destroying the ocean water he destroyed the water at a place called Drumatilya frequented by robbers. That place, modern-day Malwar in Rajasthan, is now a desert as the Brahmastra destroyed the water there.

  4. As described in a later chapter of the Yuddha Kanda of the Ramayana, in Rama's final battle with Ravana, Rama kept cutting off Ravana's heads but they kept regrowing. So then at the suggestion of Indra's charioteer Matali, Rama fired a Brahmastra (an actual Brahmastra arrow given by Agastya) at Ravana, which is what killed him:

    Then, the valiant Rama, who was reminded thus by Matali, took hold of a blazing arrow, which was given by Brahma and which in turn was given to him by the glorious sage, Agastya earlier in the battle-field and which looked like a hissing serpent. Having been made formerly for Indra, the lord of celestials by Brahma, the lord of creation of infinite strength, it was bestowed in the past on the ruler of gods, who was desirous of conquering the three worlds...

    Making it sacred by a special formula as per the procedure specified in scriptures, Rama who was endowed with an extraordinary strength then fixed that arrow which was the foremost among the three worlds, capable of removing the fear of Ikshwaku dynasty, taking away the glory of the enemies and bestowing joy to one's own self on his bow.

    While that excellent arrow was being fixed by Rama, all the beings were frightened and the earth trembled. That enraged Rama, stretching his bow well and with an attentive mind, hurled that arrow which can tear off the vitals, towards Ravana. That arrow, which was inviolable as a thunderbolt hurled by the arms of Indra and irresistible as Yama the lord of Death, fell upon Ravana's chest. That arrow, released with great speed and which was capable of destroying the body, tore off the heart of that evil-minded Ravana. That arrow, which was capable of causing death to the body, after taking away the life of Ravana and having been anointed with blood, penetrated the earth.

  5. As I discuss in this answer, the Sauptika Parva of the Mahabharata describes how after the Mahabharata war, Drona's son Ashwatthama tried to take revenge on the Pandavas by burning them in their tent while they were sleeping. But the Pandavas weren't at their camp that night, so Ashwatthama accidentally killed the Upapandavas, the five sons the Pandavas had with Draupadi. When he realized that he had killed five innocent boys, he went to the Ashram (hermitage) of Vyasa to repent for his sin. Then Krishna the Pandavas found out that Ashwatthama had killed their sons, so they tracked his chariot to Vyasa's hermitage.

    When he saw them, Ashwatthama feared for his life, so he turned a blade of grass into a Brahmashirastra and launched it at them. (A Brahmashirastra, or "heads of Brahma" weapon, is like four Brahmastras in one!) And in response Arjuna launched a Brahmashirastra right back at him. To prevent the two weapons from doing extreme damage by colliding, the sages Narada and Vyasa came and persuaded Arjuna to withdraw his Brahmashirastra. Vyasa asked Ashwatthama to do the same, but he couldn't withdraw his weapon, so instead he redirected it to hit the wombs of the Pandava women. This did no serious damage, because although it killed the unborn baby Parikshit in the womb of Abhimanyu's wife Uttara, Krishna was able to bring it back to life.

  • Is the bramahstra mantra and control still depicted anywhere in astra vidya or in any scriptures by navanath? and is that vidya still alive? – Yogi Aug 31 '14 at 13:32
  • Doesn't Mahabharata also describes the humongous damage done by a Brahmastra like lack of rainfall for thousands of years and other gory details.. If Bhramastra was fired so frequently, then the ill effects must also should be seen frequently. Or is the Brahamastra described in Ramayana different from the one described in Mahabharata? – Vineet Menon Aug 31 '14 at 15:22
  • @VineetMenon No, what the Mahabharata says is that if the Brahmashirastra (a weapon with the power of four Brahmastras) is blocked by colliding with another Astra (celestial weapon), then there will be no rainfall in that place for twelve years: sacred-texts.com/hin/m10/m10015.htm "That region where the weapon called brahmashira is baffled by another high weapon suffers a drought for twelve years, for the clouds do not pour a drop of water there for this period." – Keshav Srinivasan Aug 31 '14 at 16:27
  • @VineetMenon That's why, as I discuss above in point 5, the sages Narada and Vyasa told Arjuna to withdraw the Brahmashirastra he had launched to counter Ashwatthama's Brahmashirastra. And yes, the weapon used in the Mahabharata by Arjuna and Ashwatthama is different from the Brahmastra used by Rama. The Brahmashirastra, or weapon of Brahma's heads, is like four Brahmastras in one (because Brahma has four heads). – Keshav Srinivasan Aug 31 '14 at 16:28
  • @Keshav the Brahmashirastra drawn by arjun was Pashupatinathastra, he got it from lord shiva during the days of his agyatwaas. – Dragon Sep 2 '14 at 5:41
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There used to be two kind of weapons in ancient times:

1) Astra - Weapons powered by Mantra

2) Shastra - Physical weapons

One can obtain astra only after pleasing the corresponding devata.

For ex: brahmastra by pleasing brahma. Pashupatastra by pleasing shiva etc.

For many Astras, corresponding devatas used to have their Amsha in the body of person who obtain the astra. So in order to use astra one needed to have these thing

  1. Any physical object like bows, wood , blade of grass etc
  2. Corresponding devata (called astra devatas) in the body
  3. Mantra for the astra.

Suppose if devata leaves the body of the person , then even if knows the mantra, then it would be of no use . It happened to Arjuna , after krishna left physical world. He knew all mantras , but astra devatas started leaving his body. He left helpless unable to do anything.

Each Astras used to have its own peculiar properties.

For ex: Brahmastra could destroy any of the creation of brahma.

In 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.

Astra Vidyas used to be taught in strict disciplistic succession and only right person used to be given this vidya to prevent misuse. It was never written down, when Kali yuga came.

Also there is something called Yuga dharma. Just like we have basic law of physics, things used to work much differently in previous yugas. Kali is the time , where materialism dominates. So these astras may not be suitable for this yuga.

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    Welcome to Hinduism.SE! Answes on this site should be backed with sources (preferably scripture). – Keshav Srinivasan Dec 9 '14 at 3:54
  • This answer is mustered from reading multiple resources. I dont think I could able to quote a unique source which contains answer for many things. – tekkk Dec 9 '14 at 3:58
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    It is absolutely fine to cite multiple sources if a single source doesn't contain all the information; look at how many sources I cite in my answer. But you shouldn't just cite no sources, because then it's hard for others to verify your claims. – Keshav Srinivasan Dec 9 '14 at 4:01
  • Thanks for the insight. I would try post as many source I can. – tekkk Dec 9 '14 at 4:07
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The following description of the Brahmastra is from the Ahirbudhnya Samhita of Pancharatra Agama:

enter image description here

From this footnote on valmikiramayan.net and this post on Yahoo! Answers, the above is translated as:

phantam vahnisamayuktam vyoma halasamanvitam |
mesadvayam dantayutam halahalamatah param || 34-5 ||

ghanadyam vayupurvam ca dantayuktamathantimam |
sarasam carksaparyayam bhantam bhrgumatahh param || 34-6 ||

ambaram vayusamyuktamarimardanamapyatah |
pradIptamatha vaktavyam paramam ca padam tatah || 34-7 ||

tatte pade prayoktavye gayatryaA madhyamam tatahH |
padatrayam prayoktavyametad brahmastramIritam || 34-8 ||

Meaning:

It contains air, fire and cosmic poison, two goat-like fangs, full of poison, weighty, emits air, contains mercury, fiery, sparkling, sky is filled with air, enemy-killing, greatly radiant and it is projected with three hymns, Gayatri at its center, it is known as brahmastra.

So, given the above, how they depict weapons such as the Brahmastra in TV episodes of Mahabharata and Ramayana with all sparks and glitter is totally underrated!

enter image description here
[Narada and Vyasa are persuading Arjuna and Ashvatthama to withdraw their respective Brahmashira-astra's]

Here are a few instances where a Brahmastra was launched but it was countered by another Brahmastra:

  1. As mentioned in this chapter of Srimad Bhagavatam, it was used by both Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva on each other. Shiva was trying to help Banasura who was one of his great devotees. And Krishna was trying to save his grandson Aniruddha who Banasura had captured earlier; that's how they ended up on the opposite sides of a war. The war was ultimately won by Krishna after exchange of several other weapons.

    Lord Śiva, wielder of the trident, shot various weapons at Lord Kṛṣṇa, wielder of Śārṅga. But Lord Kṛṣṇa was not in the least perplexed: He neutralized all these weapons with appropriate counterweapons. [SB 10.63.12]

    Lord Kṛṣṇa counteracted a brahmāstra with another brahmāstra, a wind weapon with a mountain weapon, a fire weapon with a rain weapon, and Lord Śiva’s personal pāśupatāstra weapon with His own personal weapon, the nārāyaṇāstra. [SB 10.63.13]

  2. In the Mahabharata war, when Karna's chariot was stuck in the battle field and soon after he gets a good lecture on dharma from Sri Krishna, Karna fires a Brahmastra on Arjuna and it was easily countered by Arjuna's own Brahmastra:

    Beholding it, Karna, invoking the brahmastra, showered his shafts upon Dhananjaya, and once more made an effort to extricate his car. Partha also, by the aid of the brahmastra, poured arrowy downpours upon Karna. Baffling with his own weapon the weapon of his foe, the son of Pandu continued to strike him.

  3. Earlier in the same war, there was a similar exchange of Brahmastras between Drona and Yudhishtira:

    Seeing all his weapons baffled, Drona, filled with wrath and desirous of accomplishing the destruction of Yudhishthira, invoked into existence the Brahma weapon. Enveloped as we then were by a thick gloom, we could not observe what passed. All creatures also, O monarch, were filled with great fright. Beholding the Brahma weapon uplifted, Kunti's son, Yudhishthira, O king, baffled it with a Brahma weapon of his own.

    ...and also later between Drona and Arjuna:

    The high-souled Drona then, in that battle, invoked into existence the Brahma weapon, afflicting Partha and all invisible beings. Thereupon, the earth with the mountains and waters and trees trembled. Fierce winds began to blow. The seas swelled in agitation. The combatants of the Kurus and the Pandava armies, as also all other creatures, became inspired with fear, when that illustrious warrior uplifted that weapon. The Partha, O monarch, fearlessly baffled that weapon by a Brahma weapon of his own, at which all that agitation in nature was speedily pacified.

    The effects of both Drona's and Karna's Brahmastra's don't show on Arjuna's chariot until after the war is over when Krishna instructs Arjuna to immediately get down from the chariot before it gets reduced to ashes:

    At that time, always engaged, O bull of Bharata's race, in the good of his friend, Keshava, addressed the wielder of gandiva, saying, "Take down thy gandiva as also the two inexhaustible quivers. I shall dismount after thee, O best of the Bharatas! Get thee down, for this is for thy good, O sinless one!" ...

    Vasudeva said, 'That car, O Arjuna, had before been consumed by diverse kinds of weapons. It was because I had sat upon it during battle that it did not fall into pieces, O scorcher of foes! Previously consumed by the energy of brahmastra, it has been reduced to ashes upon my abandoning it after attainment by thee of thy objects!' ...

    Yudhishthira said, "Who else save thee, O grinder of foes, not excepting the thunder-wielding Purandara himself, could have withstood the brahmastras hurled by Drona and Karna!

  • I no longer believe these Brahmastras could have really existed. I'm actually now fully convinced these so-called astras are creations of later interpolators or imaginations of Valmiki and Vyasa in their kavyas. So deleting my answer. – sv. Mar 21 '17 at 23:53
  • I'm undeleting your answer, because it's a useful post. If you'd like to dissociate your name from this post, you can. – Keshav Srinivasan Jun 16 '17 at 16:13

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