By Dr Kailash Kumar Mishra
The Vedas are regarded as the earliest records of Indian life, literature and philosophy. They were either taught by gods to the sages or they have been directly revealed to the seers of hymns—mantradrasta. All systems of Indian philosophy owe their natural allegiance to the Vedas.
The Dhanurveda is considered as one of the pancham Vedas, fifth Veda. Many Indian saints, teachers and scholars are treated as the writer of the Dhanurveda. The Dhanurveda of Vashistha is treated as one of the oldest and authentic ones.
Most of the epics and the texts of the Dharmashastra of India confirm it to be a science of warfare and protection that was created, developed, innovated and matured by none other than Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva revealed this science in the form of Dhanurveda to a select perfectionist and sage. Vashistha, who is considered one such fortunate disciple, heard the entire elements of Dhanurveda from the mouth of Shiva.
Who is a perfect master to teach? Vashistha replies, “He who knows the seven ways of fighting is entitled to teach the art of warfare and is eligible to become the master. He who is accustomed to four ways of fighting is bhargava. He who knows two types of fighting is the yoddha (warrior) and the person who knows only one type of fighting is termed as ganaka (astrologer).”
Given below is the summary of this wonderful military science of ancient India. According to Shiva, says Vashistha, “The entire Dhanurveda has been divided into four sections: The first part gives instructions on the principles, the second part contains the rules for collection, the third part describes the way of casting the bows, while the fourth part tells about the application of the weapons.” All the treatises on Dhanurveda available so far confirm that the entire military science comes under Dhanurveda, not of simply bow and arrow.
In respect of the right on Dhanurveda, Sage Vashistha says that the archery teacher should always be a Brahmin. But the other two castes—Kashtriya and Vaisya—have equal right to use it in a battlefield. Also the Sudras have the right to learn archery for hunting purposes. According to the Agnipurana (Vol. II, Chapter 249), “Dhanurveda is the birthright of the first two orders of the society. A Sudra is allowed to act as a soldier only in times of peril and in the event of his having acquired a general proficiency in the art of warfare by regular training and practice.
He talks about the four types of weapons: mukta (discus, etc. which can be thrown by hand), amukta (category of weapons which are not separated from the hand e.g. falchion), muktamukta (weapons which are sometimes separated from the hand, sometimes not (e.g., spear) and yantramukta (weapons hurled with the help of machines, e.g. catapult ball, etc.).
“The purpose of learning archery is to protect the virtuous people from the evil persons, robbers and thieves and also to protect and defend the subjects.” Vashistha says further, “Just as the animals in a forest keep away from the lion’s den, so also the enemies keep away from the city which has a single mighty archer.”
He gives information about the seven ways of fighting: bow and arrow, discus, spear, falchion, dagger, mace and wrestling. Who is a perfect master to teach? He replies, “He who knows the seven ways of fighting is entitled to teach the art of warfare and is eligible to become the master. He who is accustomed to four ways of fighting is bhargava. He who knows two types of fighting is the yoddha (warrior) and the person who knows only one type of fighting is termed as ganaka (astrologer).”
It is more about the art of warfare than about archery.
About shooting technique he says, “A disciple should hit a flower with a blunt-headed arrow at first and then he can pierce the fish with a pointed head arrow. There are three ways of piercing an object. By these ways, one will be able to fix the target and pierce it. If, during the time of aiming at flesh, the arrow falls on the eastern side after piercing the target, the fighter becomes a happy winner.”
The text warns that “one must not use very old, fragile bows and also the bows made up of unseasoned and unripe bamboo or cane and also the bow which has earlier been used in the family by the ancestors. The burnt or perforated bow should also be discarded.” The bows are usually made up of three materials: iron, horn and wood.
Talking about the qualities of good string, he says, “The good string is made up of silken thread which is twisted to the thickness of the little finger and its length is equal to that of the bow.” What type of string is required? It should be pure, polished and without joints. Three strings are taken and twisted in such a way that it becomes neither too thick nor too smooth and has a thickness equal to that of the little finger. This string can sustain strains during battles.”
What should be the qualities of a good arrow? “It should neither be too thick nor too thin. It should also neither be made out of unripe bamboo and also nor be the product of vile land. The arrow should be made out of mature, pale yellowish reed plants. It should not be of lesser joints. Also it should not be weak or split.”
Modes of Shooting
Sage Vashistha has prescribed eight major poses for an archer while shooting the arrows in standing position. Holding the string is of five types while position of draw is also of five types. If the leg is bent backwards and the right is stretched out at two-hand unit apart, it is called pratyalidha. It is extremely useful in hitting a distant object. In alidha position, the right leg is bent backwards and the left is stretched out, but the distance between the two legs should not be more than two-hands unit.
The archer has to stand with thighs together but the legs, a hand-unit apart. It is known as vishakha position and is useful in hitting intricate objects.
How an archer should aim before he attacks? “The aim or lakshya is classified into four types: sthira (still), sachala (mobile), chalaachal and dvayachala. Firstly, the archer should stand still in front of a still object and then if he becomes able to pierce the object in three different ways, then only he will be a sthirabedhi (an archer expert in piercing a still object).”
The celebrated saint-author also talks about various other skills such as target practice; cessation from study; shooting; perfect shooting; fast shooting; long-range shooting; rules for piercing strong object; etc.
Finally he says, “The person who is asleep, who is in drunken state, who is devoid of clothes or weapons, the lady, the minor, the helpless, the afraid one who deserts the battlefield should not be killed. Also, heroes (or enemies) who faint, or are wounded, or whose weapons are broken, or who are fighting with another warrior, or who are asking for asylum or refuge, should not be killed.”
The heroic warrior who meets death in the battlefield for the sake of religion is sure to gain eternal salvation. This single action is equivalent to other religious rites like penances and pilgrimage.
(The writer is an anthropologist associated with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi.)