Mythology and Modern Indian Weaponry

Arjuna, Archer, missiles
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India's weapons are often named after mythological figures and concepts. Do the legends match up to the armaments?

A peek at India’s inventory of weapons reads like a mythological tale. Ancient archers, mythical weapons and concepts now find life in India’s battle tanks, nuclear missiles and helicopters.

After all, what’s in a name? Abbreviations like T-90, Mi-35 or Z-3182 don’t sound fearsome enough to serve as a deterrent. India relies on Sanskrit words to add mythological punch to her weapons.

How do these weapons stack up against their supernatural peers?

Arjun: From Archer to Main Battle Tank

Arjun, Main, Battle, Tank
Image credit: Ajai Shukla/ Creative Commons

The mighty archer of the Mahabharata – Arjuna – is today India’s mighty homegrown Main Battle Tank – Arjun. This Arjun too hesitates on the battlefield, as 75% of the tank’s fleet were grounded in 2015 due to technical snags.

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna was the third of the Pandava brothers, and the greatest student of the royal military guru ‘Drona’. Curiously, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) uses Drona as the name of its intranet.

The brainchild of DRDO, Arjun was found to be overweight by the Indian Army. Long due for upgrades, the Arjun has since been overshadowed by ‘Bhishma’ – the name for the T-90 battle tanks imported from Russia. Where in the Mahabharatha, Bhishma led the Kaurava forces against the Pandavas, today Bhishma and Arjun are meant to fight side by side.

INS Arihant: Nuclear Destroyer of Passions

In Jainism, an Arihant is a soul who has conquered all passions – feeling neither craving nor aversion.

For the Indian Navy, it is a sleek nuclear-powered submarine, a second-line of defence to be used in the event of a nuclear war. They prefer the Sanskrit meaning of Arihant, “destroyer of enemies”. Dhruva Ghosh, team member at, reflects on the name, “It does mean destroyer of enemies. In one view, especially how Jains interpret it, those enemies are one’s own passions, and not other beings.”

Nuclear submarines form the third part of a ‘nuclear triad’ – a three tier line of defence and deterrence against nuclear attack. Their USP is to grant ‘second-strike’ capability – a platform that can launch nukes in retaliation even after mainland has been struck by enemy missiles. They can also fire first, however, roaming the seas undetected – thanks to a virtually unlimited power source in the form of an onboard nuclear reactor.

For the sake of all concerned, one would hope that those who command Arihant have the same level of self-control and calmness as the Jain concept suggests.

Varunastra: From a Celestial-Exclusive to the Arms Market

In mythology, the Astras were celestial weapons with supernatural powers. Some could be countered and many are said to be able to wreak havoc upon the earth.

The DRDO developed Varunastra, an indigenously developed torpedo, for use against enemy submarines. The name takes cognition of Varuna, the Hindu God of both the seas and the underworld. Some legends say Varunastra was used to extinguish fires, others call it a dangerous weapon or storm that could assume any shape – like water itself.

A popular name for naval vessels, both India and the United States have had ships named after Varuna (the latter being in 1861).

Agni: Fire and Hellfire

Agni, Missile, Range
Image: Michael/ Creative Commons

Perhaps India’s most feared missiles, the Agni series of missiles grants India the capability to strike targets as far as 5,500 kilometres away – well within the territories of her most likely adversaries in the region.

Agni means fire in Sanskrit, and is one of the five constituent elements of material existence in Hindu mythology.

Vikramaditya: Once Ideal Ruler, Now Navy’s Flagship

Indian Navy/ Creative Commons

King Vikramaditya was, according to various myths and histories, an ideal ruler. It is uncertain as to whether he was a real ruler or not, but enough myths exist to give him a place in both Indian mythology and history.

Today, Vikramaditya rules the Indian Naval Fleet, as its 40,000 ton aircraft carrier and flagship vessel. It wasn’t always known as Vikramaditya – born ‘Baku’ in 1982 in the then-Soviet Union, it was rechristened as Admiral Gorshkov in 1991. India bought the carrier from Russia, after years of negotiations and refits, for a final price of $2.35 billion.

According to Naval Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta, that’s a steal. “Can you get me an aircraft carrier for less than USD 2 billion? If you can, I am going to sign a cheque right now”, he was quoted as saying in 2009.

Diverse Nomenclatures

The range of weapon names provokes the question – why aren’t Mughal leaders given mention?

Pakistan’s choice of nomenclature has taken claim to many of the Mughal rulers India has had – from Ghazni to Ghauri. Their weapons can often be distinguished by their Urdu names – one possible explanation for India’s aversion to using a shared Mughal heritage.

India’s arms inventory is diverse, sourced from across the world. As the world’s largest arms importer by volume, and fourth largest by value, India is a growing military power. As she seeks to develop an indigenous military-industrial complex, her weapon’s names will grow more prominent in the global arms markets – giving new meaning to mythological concepts.


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