Markswoman Author Rati Mehrotra on SFF in the Hindu Epics


Detail, Hanuman Revives Rama and Lakshmana with Medicinal Herbs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Mythical elements pervade the earliest writings known to humans. East or west, ancient epics like the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the Hindu Mahabharata and the Greek Odyssey simply reek of the fantastic. Gilgamesh battles a fearsome monster, Humbaba the Terrible, who has the face of a lion and the horns of a bull. Odysseus – poor man, his very name means ‘trouble’– must deal with multiple horrors including cyclops and sea monsters, all conspiring to sink his decade-long voyage home to the patient Penelope.

But the Ramayana and Mahabharata are also deeply science fictional. I can never read about the flying chariots and deadly weapons of the godlike warriors in these epics without thinking: OMG flying saucers! Lasers! And we’re talking about stuff written two-and-a-half thousand years ago.

Let’s step back a bit here. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion on Earth, with traditions going back to the Vedic Period (1500 – 600 BCE.) It is a highly diverse religion without any single authority, prophet, overarching book or governing body.

However, the most notable of the ‘remembered’ scripture of Hinduism are the two epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana is the story of a rescue mission: the divine Prince Rama (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) must save his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon king Ravana.

The Mahabharata, the longest epic poem ever written, narrates the events of the Kurukṣhetra War between the (bad) Kauravas and the (good) Paṇḍavas. It’s basically the story of a dynastic conflict for the throne of Hastinapur between two groups of cousins.

Of course, there’s lots of philosophy too, but both epics feature awesome battles with in-depth military strategy, near-unkillable foes, flying chariots, and powerful weapons that can devastate the world.

The Brahmastra – a gift of Brahma – can only be used once. It is described as a projectile with the power of the universe behind it. Nothing can counter it, except another Brahmastra; its target is completely annihilated. It is a weapon of last resort, not to be used in combat, as it causes immense collateral damage. The land becomes barren; life sickens and dies. This sounds sadly like an atom bomb to me.

Last resort or not, this deadly weapon is used numerous times in the Ramayana. The divine Rama himself prepares to unleash it against the ocean, which is refusing to part way for his army to cross. At the last moment, Varuna, the god of the ocean, appears to help Rama across. But the weapon has been invoked and must be released. Lord Rama turns the weapon to modern-day Rajasthan and turns it into a desert – the Thar Desert, to be precise, where I have set the opening scene of Markswoman.

Ravana’s gifted son Meghanad also uses the Brahamastra against the army of Lord Rama, mortally wounding his brother Lakshmana. Lakshmana is only saved by a rare Himalayan herb, the sanjeevani booti.

As if that were not enough, we have the Brahmashirsha astra, four times as powerful as a mere Brahmastra, and capable of killing the gods themselves. In the Mahabharata, only six warriors possess the knowledge to invoke this weapon (which I think is six too many). Apparently, if this weapon is ever used, a thousand meteors will fall from the sky and the earth will tremble. Ashwathama and Arjuna are about to use these dreadful weapons against each other during the Kurukshetra war, but are mercifully stopped by wiser minds.

Even worse is the Brahmadanda, the stick of Brahma, capable of destroying entire solar systems. But very few have knowledge of it, and those who do are too wise to employ it. The guru (teacher) Dronacharya does not impart knowledge of this weapon to even his favorite disciple Arjuna or to his son Ashwathama.

There are plenty more weapons with awesome physical effects: the Indra astra which summons a shower of arrows from the sky, the Varuna astra which brings torrential downpours, the Bhaum astra which can create deep tunnels, the Vajra (Lord Indra’s thunderbolt) and the Teen Baan, or the three infallible arrows of Barbarika. Many of these have an equivalent in modern weapons and machinery.

But for me, the true wonder lies in the mental weapons that create illusions to destroy the enemy. The Gandharva astra is used to devastating effect by Lord Rama to polish off an entire army of demons in the Ramayana, and also by Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, in the battle of Kurukshetra. The effect of this weapon is to create multiple images of the wielder, while hiding their true location, thus sowing confusion and turning the enemy against one another. A counter is the Mohini astra, used to dispel any illusions in the vicinity.

Although many of these weapons are described as flaming arrows, a truly gifted warrior can summon a supernatural weapon even from a blade of grass. Karna of the Mahabharata (spoiler: he is actually the eldest Pandava, but owing to various tricky circumstances ends up fighting for the Kauravas) can summon a Brahmastra from sheer will power.

And then there are the vimanas, the delightful flying chariots used by the godly warriors. Vimanas can be traced to the Vedas; various gods are described as using flying wheeled chariots. Even the Rig Veda has mention of ‘mechanical birds’. Ravana steals the Pushpaka Vimana (literally, the aircraft of flowers) from his half-brother Kubera, the god of wealth. Lord Rama returns it to Kubera after defeating Ravana. Unlike wheeled chariots pulled by horses, the Pushpaka Vimana and others of its ilk run on telepathic command.

You can see how this feeds into ‘ancient alien’ theories. Could the original tellers of these epics have been talking about advanced alien beings in flying saucers?

What a delightful possibility to contemplate! Although, I must admit, a highly unlikely one…