The importance of astras is described in particular detail in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which describes their use in epic battles. Various pastimes describe the use of astras by archers such as Rama, Arjuna, and Bhisma. They generally invoked the astras into arrows, although they could potentially be used with anything. For example, Ashwatthama invoked an astra using a blade of grass as his weapon.
One of the most famous astras is Pashupatastra, being the inconceivably potent and highly destructive personal weapon of Lord Siva. He discharged Pashupatastra by means of his mind, eyes, words, or bow. Never to be used against lesser enemies or by lesser warriors, the Pashupata is capable of destroying creation and vanquishing all beings.
In Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam we also read about the foremost astra, Sri Brahmastra, which will be discussed in tomorrow's segment.
Following are the primary astras mentioned in Ramayana and Mahabharata (Astra, Presiding Deity, Weapon's Effect):
Aindra astra: Presiding Deity: Indra, the god of weather
Weapon's Effect: Would bring about a shower of arrows from the sky.
Agneya astra:Presiding Deity: Agni, the god of fire
Weapon's Effect: The weapon discharged would emit flames inextinguishable through normal means.
Varuna astra: Presiding Deity: Varuna, the god of water
Weapon's Effect: The weapon discharged would release torrential volumes of water. This weapon is commonly mentioned as used to counter the Agneyastra.
Naga astra: Presiding Deity: The Nagas
Weapon's Effect: The weapon would have an un-erring aim and take on the form of a snake, proving deadly upon impact.
Naga paasha: Presiding Deity: The Nagas
Weapon's Effect: Upon impact, this weapon would bind the target in coils of living venomous snakes. In the Ramayana, it was used against Lord Rama and Lakshmana by Indrajit.
Vayu astra: Presiding Deity: Vayu, the god of wind
Weapon's Effect: Bring about a gale capable of lifting armies off the ground.
Surya astra: Presiding Deity: Surya, the sun god
Weapon's Effect: Create a dazzling light that would dispel any darkness about.
Vajra astra: Presiding Deity: Indra
Weapon's Effect: Target would be struck with bolts of lightning (vajra referring to Indra's thunderbolt).
Mohini astra: Presiding Deity: Mohini, Visnu avatar
Weapon's Effect: Dispel any form of maya or sorcery in the vicinity.
Twashtar astra: Presiding Deity: Twashtri, the heavenly builder
Weapon's Effect: When used against a group of opponents (such as an army), would cause them to mistake each other for enemies and fight each other.
Sammohana/ Pramohana astra: Presiding Deity:
Weapon's Effect: Would cause entire hosts/armies to collapse in a trance.
Parvata astra: Presiding Deity:
Weapon's Effect: Would cause a Parvata/mountain to fall on the target from the skies.
Brahmaastra: Presiding Deity: Brahma, the Creator
Weapon's Effect: Would destroy entire hosts at once. Could also counter most other astras.
Brahmasirsha astra: Presiding Deity: Brahma, the Creator
Weapon's Effect: Capable of killing devas. Was used by Ashwatthama on Parikshit.
Narayana astra: Presiding Deity: Visnu, the Preserver
Weapon's Effect: Would create showers of arrows and discs. The astra's power would increase with the resistance offered to it. This weapon had to be obtained from Vishnu directly, and could be used only once.
Vaishnava astra: Presiding Deity: Visnu, the Preserver
Weapon's Effect: Would destroy target completely, irrespective of target's nature. Infallible. This weapon had to be obtained from Vishnu directly.
Pashupata astra: Presiding Deity: Shiva, the Destroyer
Weapon's Effect: Would destroy target completely, irrespective of target's nature. Infallible. This weapon had to be obtained from Shiva directly.
There are numerous instances found within the Vedic scriptures wherein the Brahmasirsha astra is used, or its use is threatened. For example, there is 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. Ashwatthama did not have his bow and arrow near him when he was confronted by Arjuna, so he took a piece of grass and after silently invoking the mantra, he threw the straw at Arjuna, and it carried the power of the Brahmasirsha astra....