The Vajra: An Ancient Weapon of War
The vajra is the most important ritual implement of Vajrayana Buddhism. In Sanskrit, the word vajra is defined as something hard or mighty, as in a diamond. It symbolizes an impenetrable, immovable and indestructible state of knowledge and enlightenment.
Our knowledge of the vajra goes back to deep antiquity. Texts indicate that the vajra was not always a symbol of peace and tranquility but something very different. It first appears in ancient India where it was the primary weapon of the Vedic sky-god Indra, the king of the Devas. According the Hindu Puranas, the evil Asuras, Namuchi and Vritra removed all of the light and moisture from the earth. It made the land inhospitable to living beings. Indra battled the demon gods unsuccessfully and as a last resort called upon their supreme god Vishnu for help.
A weapon of the gods
Vishnu informed him that only a weapon that was neither solid nor liquid could kill Namuchi and Vritra. Vishnu had the divine carpenter Tvashta fashion Indra a marvelous weapon he could use to vanquish the dreadful Asuras. This new weapon, the vajra, emitted thunderbolts. With it, Indra annihilated Namuchi and Vritra and returned the much needed light and moisture back to the earth. The Rigveda describes this conflict thus.
Now I describe the glorious deeds of Indra, who holds Vajra. He killed the serpent and made waters flow. He broke the hearts of mountains.
He killed the serpent, which was taking refuge in mountain. Tvashta made the Vajra for him. Like the cows making sounds, flowing waters reached the sea.
Mighty Indra chose Soma, and drank from three containers. Generous Indra held Vajra in his hand, and killed first born among the serpents.
- Rigveda 1.32
The vajra, when used, was thrown at one’s opponent. Nitin Kumar, in his article Ritual Implements in Tibetan Buddhism , tells us, “As a hurled weapon the indestructible thunderbolt blazed like a meteoric fireball across the heavens, in a maelstrom of thunder, fire and lightning.”
Figure 1. A traditional image of a vajra
From destructive weapon to peaceful scepter
Traditional images of the vajra (Figure 1.) depict it as a metal shaft with three, five or nine prongs that emanate from lotus blossoms on either end. Originally, according to the ancient Indian text the Rigveda, when Indra used his vajra it had open prongs (Figure 2.). Buddhist legend suggests that Shakyamuni, the Buddha himself, took the vajra from Indra and forced its prongs closed, thus transforming it from a destructive weapon into a peaceful scepter.
Figure 2. A vajra with open prongs
A lightning weapon across cultures
Scholars contend that there is no relationship between Indian, Greek, Australian, and Norse mythology, nor the cosmology of the Americas. They believe that each civilization conceived of their gods independently and that a deeper, older, universal tradition does not exist. If this were the case, then the foundation of these societies; their myths, traditions, beliefs and iconography should be unique to them, their location and their history. The tales of war, intrigue and conquest that come out of American history are vastly different from those of England, France, India and China. So too are the customs, traditions and the symbols that represent the nation. Yet when we look at a wide range of ancient and indigenous groups a pattern of commonality exists. Myths and symbols found in India readily appear in the oral and written descriptions of other cultures. They also appear in their artistic images. These representations seem to transcend time and location.
The symbol of thunder or a thunderbolt as a tool of destruction, for example, surfaces in many ancient civilizations. Mythology unfailingly associates lightning with a sky god, the god of thunder, who uses it as a weapon.
In the western world, the thunderbolt is most readily associated with the Greek sky god Zeus. With it, he defeated the Titans and took control of the Greek pantheon. Myth tells us, that Zeus freed the Cyclopes, the master builders, who were imprisoned in the depths of the underworld - Tartarus. In gratitude for their release, they gave him a marvelous weapon, the thunderbolt. In another story, Zeus used his formidable weapon to battle the largest and most fearsome creatures in all of Greek mythology, the hundred-headed serpent Typhon. Early images of Zeus depict show him holding a rod like thunderbolt, while others show this deadly weapon with its ends splayed into three prongs (Figure 3.).
Figure 3. Left: Zeus is depicted with a rod-like thunderbolt. Right: Zeus holds a thunderbolt with ends splayed into three prongs.