INDIAN MARTIAL ARTS – The mythical Hindu Lord of the Thunderbolt inspired the vajra fighting system, possibly the oldest weapons-based martial art on earth.
The Hindu holy books tell the story of a giant demon who held captive all the rivers in the world. The warrior god Indra was immediately incensed by such unreasonable aggression. But the supreme deity Vishnu, in an attempt to avoid a civil war among the gods, forbade Indra from attacking the demon with any weapon made from metal, wood or stone, or with anything that was wet or dry. So Indra asked Trastar, the maker of divine instruments, to forge a thunderbolt with which he slew the demon.
According to the ancient Rig Veda (“Wise Verses,” one of the four sacred Indo-Aryan scriptures of Hinduism), the thunderbolt thereafter became Indra’s signature weapon. Formerly the god of the sky, thunder, and war as well as king of the pre-Aryan gods, Indra was then incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. He uses his divine weapon, called a vajra, to kill evildoers and to destroy ignorance. The vajra is so closely associated with Indra that he is sometimes called Vajrabhrit, lord of the thunderbolt.
The indigenous martial arts of India feature a variety of unique weapons, but none is more enigmatic – or less well known – than the mysterious vajra. Also called dorje in Tibet, this weapon typically resembles a small skeletonized dumbbell made of bronze with blunt points at the ends.
Vajra means “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” Both connotations are apt: Thunderbolt is evocative of the extremely painful, numbing electric shock that is triggered when chakras and nerve centers are attacked with this unique weapon; diamond references the relative indestructibility of the vajra … a characteristic also believed to extend to the very nature of its technique as well as to the internalized knowledge of that technique.
The vajra is steeped in mystical traditions. Northern Asian cultures regard the weapon as the “magic wand” of the Tibetan Tulkus (as well as of Indian and Nepalese lamas). Native healers use the vajra to cleanse the aura, massage pressure points, and free up blocked energy to restore health and mobility. It is also used to purify the surroundings of temples and homes. In the hands of experts, it is believed to direct prana (life energy) and, in some cases, to fight off powerful demons – literally a fusion of magical and martial weaponry.
The vajra’s function and technique as a weapon, however, is still deeply shrouded in secrecy in stark contrast to the openness prevalent in today’s martial arts community. Because of the Chinese invasion and destruction of Buddhist temples and monastic culture in Tibet during the 1950s, practitioners of the art were doubtless driven ever more deeply underground as stunned Tibetan refugees shared their ordeals with their Nepalese and Indian counterparts. Their martial art remained a secret esoteric spiritual tradition never to be discussed with outsiders.
But a weapon it is. Indeed, ancient documentation indicates that it is not just “an” Indian weapon but, in a philosophical sense, perhaps THE Indian weapon: no less than the spiritual and technical centerpiece of the ancient Indian martial arts, and the wellspring from which the principles and techniques of all the other myriad Indian weapons arts may be derived.
The Sanskrit epic Mahabarata chronicles the vajra as the centerpiece of the Indian martial arts, as well as detailing the mythic origins of its descent from the abode of legendary gods into the world of men. According to this work, Arjuna, son of Indra and his human mother Kunti approaches his formidable father, saying, “Teach me the ways of all weapons.”
Indra, pleased as any proud father, first presents his son with his own personal diamond-hard, unbreakable, indestructible thunderbolt, before taking him to heaven for five years to teach him. Arjuna subsequently becomes the hero of the epic poem Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of Bhagavan”).
As a weapon, the vajra comes in a variety of forms. At the most basic, its primitive origin is self-evident: Nothing more than an elongated rock, often a single, smooth quartz crystal large enough to protrude slightly from either side of the fist. Its “indestructible” reputation likely comes from the latter. After all, it’s difficult to break a rock. In this form, the “magical” aura surrounding its evolution becomes easy to understand. Imagine, if you will, the wonder with which early man first realized the staggering potential of this power object: his first weapon and tool.
In a slightly more advanced form, the weapon appears as a cast bronze rod with two blunt points, resembling the yawara small stick weapon found in Japanese and Okinawan martial arts. More detailed Japanese variations may resemble a small double trident tenuously linked to the shadowy ninja clans of antiquity.
Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan vajras typically feature two sets of four to eight “talons” joined together at a central shaft. The martial technique of the vajra, referred to as vajrayana (thunderbolt way), is practiced in a dance-like free-form kata characterized by intricate footwork, explosive bridges, balance disruptions, extremely rapid deflections and multiple strikes to nerve centers on the limbs, head and torso … as well as throws, locks, controls, wrenches, traps, and pressure point seizes. Taken together, these techniques provide a seamless yet thoroughly deadly integration of the body’s full array of anatomical weapons. Additionally, various traditional mudras (symbolic hand positions) are employed during training which, like Tai Chi, is practiced as both combative exercise and as moving meditation.
The fighting techniques are both highly sophisticated in application and remarkably simple in concept. Movements are consistent with the circular flowing attacks that characterize other surviving Indian weapons arts, such as the kukri (curved knife), and lathi gatka (staff and stick). Strikes to multiple targets are executed with such astonishing rapidity that it occasionally seems to create a strobe-like effect, conjuring images of the artistic, multi-armed depictions of the Hindu deities Shiva and Kali.
Combat applications closely resemble the three-beat, hit-check-return techniques of the pocket stick (tabak mallet or olisi pali), found in Filipino Kali, Escrima and Silat, but with strikes, seizes, locks, controls, and throws that are specific to the particular design of the vajra. Whether the tabak mallet is a descendant of the vajra is unknown, though possible given the strong influence of Indian culture throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
Practitioners of vajrayana may be called by a variety of terms such as vajrahasta (holder of the thunderbolt) and vajrasattva (practitioner of the thunderbolt), although the reference is largely academic. The art today is so rare as to be nearly lost, and so shrouded in secrecy that it is seldom discussed outside of the few remaining family clans and remote monasteries that still guard its secrets.