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It is sometimes known as the Brahma Astra (Astra means 'weapon'). As described in a number of the Puranas, it was considered the deadliest weapon. It was said that when the Brahmastra was discharged, there was neither a counterattack nor a defense that could stop it, except by Brahmadanda, a stick also created by Brahma. However some revised versions of the Mahabharata point out that during the Kurukshetra war, Karna was able to neutralize it when it was discharged by Arjuna. The Brahmastra never missed its mark and had to be used with very specific intent against an individual enemy or army, as the target would face complete annihilation. It was believed to be obtained by meditating on the Lord Brahma; it could only be used once in a day. The user would have to display immense amounts of mental concentration. According to ancient Sanskrit writings, the Brahmastra is invoked by a key phrase or invocation that is bestowed upon the user when given this weapon. Through this invocation the user can call upon the weapon and use it via a medium against his adversary.
Since Brahma is considered the Creator in Sanatana Dharma, it is believed by Hindus that Brahmastra was created by him for the purpose of upholding Dharma and Satya, to be used by anyone who wished to destroy an enemy who would also happen to be a part of his (Brahma's) creation. The target, when hit by Brahmastra, would be utterly destroyed. Brahma had created a weapon even more powerful than the Brahmastra, called the Brahmashira. The Brahmashira was never used in war, as it had four times more power than the Brahmastra, i.e. Fourth power square, as the name suggests, since Brahma has Four Heads. Only Bhishma, Arjuna, Ashwatthama, Drona and Karna possessed the knowledge to summon the Brahmashira. However, Ashwatthama possessed the knowledge only to summon and not retract it.
The weapon was also believed to cause severe environmental damage. The land where the weapon was used became barren and all life in and around that area ceased to exist, as both men and women became infertile. There was also a severe decrease in rainfall with the land developing cracks, like in a drought. The Brahmastra is mentioned in the epics and vedas as a weapon of last resort and was never to be used in combat. There are various descriptions of weapons created by Hindu deities such as, Brahmastra, Kaumodaki, Narayanastra, Vaishnavastra, Bhargavastra, Pashupatastra, Shiva Dhanush, Sudarshana Chakra, Trishul, and the personal weapons of the gods, the trishul, chakram and the brahmadanda, are the most powerful weapons.
There are numerous instances within Sanskrit scriptures where the Brahmastra is used or its use is threatened, including:
- Vishvamitra used it against Vasishta, but the Brahmastra was swallowed by Brahmadanda, Lord Brahma's countermeasure against the Brahmastra.
- In the Ramayana a Brahmastra is used by Shri Rama several times: once against Jayanta (Indra's son) when he hurt Sita, against Mareecha in their last encounter, against the Ocean when he did not answer his prayer to allow his army and himself to cross over to Lanka and finally in the last battle with Ravana. Also, Indrajit used Brahmastra against Hanuman, but Hanuman survived because of Lord Brahma's boon, when he was destroying the Ashok Vatika after meeting Sita.
- It is also mentioned in vedas that Brahmastra was aimed by Shri Rama to make way out of sea so that the army of apes can march towards Lanka, however at the very moment, Varuna appeared and told Lord Rama, about the technical flaws of using the weapon and hence later was aimed towards Dhrumatulya by Lord Rama,which fell at the place of modern day Rajasthan causing it to become a desert. Also Indrajit aimed a Bhramastra at Lord Lakshman on the final battle between him and Lord Lakshman, however the deadly weapon returned unharmed.
- Prior to the Epic war of the Mahabharata, Karna was planning to use the Brahmastra to fight Arjuna, but did not do so at the behest of Kunti.He had also vowed never to use Brahmashira Astra.However some sources say otherwise.
- The confrontation of Arjuna and Ashwatthama in Mahabharata, where Arjuna retracts his weapon as ordered, but Ashwatthama, unable to do so, instead sends it to attack Arjuna's unborn grandson, Parikshit, who is subsequently saved by Krishna. This was Brahmashira Astra. This confrontation is also said to have involved the four square more destructive weapon, the Brahmashira. In this version Ashwatthama did not have his bow and arrow near him when he was confronted by Arjuna. So he took a piece of straw and after silently invoking the proper phrase he threw the straw at Arjuna, which carried the power of the Brahmashiras. In response, Arjuna also invoked the Brahmashira to counter Ashwatthama's, but the collision of two Brahmashiras would have destroyed the universe, so Rishi Vyas came between the two Brahmashiras, preventing their collision. Arjuna called back his Brahmashira, but Aswathama did not know how to do this, so he commanded his weapon to attack the unborn child of Abhimanyu (Parikshit).