Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning both thunderbolt and diamond. Additionally, it is a weapon won in battle which is used as a ritual object to symbolise both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force).

The vajra is essentially a type of club with a ribbed spherical head. The ribs might meet in a ball-shaped top, or they might be separate and end in sharp points with which to stab. The vajra is used symbolically by the dharma traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, often to represent firmness of spirit and spiritual power. The use of the vajra as a symbolic and ritual tool spread from India along with Indian religion and culture to additional parts of Asia.

A vajra
Holding Vajra Weapon
A viśvavajra or "double vajra" appears in the emblem of Bhutan

Early descriptions

In the Rigveda

The earliest mention of the vajra is in the Rigveda, part of the four Vedas. It is described as the weapon of Indra, the god of heaven and the chief deity of the Rigvedic pantheon. Indra is described as using the vajra to kill sinners and ignorant persons. The Rigveda states that the weapon was made for Indra by Tvastar, the maker of divine instruments. The associated storey describes Indra using the vajra, which he held in his hand, to slay the asura Vritra, who took the form of a serpent.

On account of his skill in wielding the vajra, a few epithets used for Indra in the Rigveda were Vajrabhrit (bearing the vajra), Vajrivat or Vajrin (armed with the vajra), Vajradaksina (holding the vajra in his right hand), and Vajrabahu or Vajrahasta (holding the vajra in his hand). The association of the Vajra with Indra was continued with a few modifications in the later Puranic literature, and in Buddhist works. Buddhaghoṣa, a major figure of Theravada Buddhism in the fifth century, identified the Bodhisattva Vajrapani with Indra.

In the Puranas

Indra's Vajra as the Privy Seal of King Vajiravudh of Thailand

Many later puranas describe the vajra, with the storey modified from the Rigvedic original. One major addition involves the role of the Sage Dadhichi. According to one account, Indra, the king of the deva was once driven out of devaloka by an asura named Vritra. The asura was the recipient of a boon whereby he couldn't be killed by any weapon that was known till the date of his receiving the boon and additionally that no weapon made of wood or metal could harm him. Indra, who had lost all hope of recovering his kingdom was said to have approached Shiva who couldn't help him. Indra along with Shiva and Brahma went to seek the aid of Vishnu. Vishnu revealed to Indra that only the weapon made from the bones of Dadhichi would defeat Vritra. Indra and the additional deva therefore approached the sage, whom Indra had once beheaded, and asked him for his aid in defeating Vritra. Dadhichi acceded to the deva's request but said that he wished that he had time to go on a pilgrimage to all the holy rivers before he gave up his life for them. Indra then brought together all the waters of the holy rivers to Naimisha Forest, thereby allowing the sage to have his wish fulfilled without a further loss of time. Dadhichi is then said to have given up his life by the art of yoga after which the gods fashioned the vajrayudha from his spine. This weapon was then used to defeat the asura, allowing Indra to reclaim his place as the king of devaloka.

Another version of the storey exists where Dadhichi was asked to safeguard the weapons of the gods as they were unable to match the arcane arts being employed by the asura to obtain them. Dadhichi is said to have kept at the task for a quite long time and finally tiring of the job, he's said to have dissolved the weapons in sacred water which he drank. The deva returned a long time later and asked him to return their weapons so that they might defeat the asura, headed by Vritra, once and for all. Dadhichi however told them of what he had done and informed them that their weapons were now a part of his bones. Notwithstanding Dadhichi, realising that his bones were the only way by which the deva could defeat the asura willingly gave his life in a pit of mystical flames he summoned with the power of his austerities. Brahma is then said to have fashioned a large number of weapons from Dadhichi's bones, including the vajrayudha, which was fashioned from his spine. The deva are then said to have defeated the asura using the weapons thus created.

There have additionally been instances where the war god Skanda (Kartikeya) is described as holding a vajra. Skanda is additionally the name of a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism who wields a vajra.

In Vajrayana Buddhism

Different types of vajras. From left to right: 五鈷杵 gokosho, 独鈷杵 tokkosho, 金剛盤 kongōban, 三鈷杵 sankosho and 五鈷鈴 gokorei.

In Buddhism the vajra is the symbol of Vajrayana, one of the three major branches of Buddhism. Vajrayana is translated as "Thunderbolt Way" or "Diamond Way" and can imply the thunderbolt experience of Buddhist enlightenment or bodhi. It additionally implies indestructibility, just as diamonds are harder than additional gemstones.

In Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) the vajra and ghanta (bell) are used in a large number of rites by a lama or any Vajrayana practitioner of sadhana. The vajra is a male polysemic symbol that represents a large number of things for the tantrika. The vajra is representative of upaya (skilful means) whereas its companion tool, the bell which is a female symbol, denotes prajna (wisdom). Some deities are shown holding each the vajra and bell in separate hands, symbolising the union of the forces of compassion and wisdom, respectively.

Vajrasattva holds the vajra in his right hand and a bell in his left hand.

In the tantric traditions of Buddhism, the vajra is a symbol for the nature of reality, or sunyata, indicating endless creativity, potency, and skillful activity. The term is employed extensively in tantric literature: the term for the spiritual teacher is the vajracharya; one of the five dhyani buddhas is vajrasattva, and so on. The practise of prefixing terms, names, places, and so on by vajra represents the conscious attempt to recognise the transcendental aspect of all phenomena; it became part of the process of "sacramentalizing" the activities of the spiritual practitioner and encouraged him to engage all his psychophysical energies in the spiritual life.

An instrument symbolising vajra is additionally extensively used in the rituals of the tantra. It consists of a spherical central section, with two symmetrical sets of five prongs, which arc out from lotus blooms on either side of the sphere and come to a point at two points equidistant from the centre, thus giving it the appearance of a "diamond sceptre", which is how the term is at times translated.

Various figures in Tantric iconography are represented holding or wielding the vajra. Three of the most famous of these are Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasattva (lit. vajra-being) holds the vajra, in his right hand, to his heart. The figure of the Wrathful Vajrapani (lit. vajra in the hand) brandishes the vajra, in his right hand, above his head. Padmasambhava holds the vajra above his right knee in his right hand.

Symbolism

The vajra is made up of several parts. In the centre is a sphere which represents Sunyata, the primordial nature of the universe, the underlying unity of all things. Emerging from the sphere are two eight petaled lotus flowers. One represents the phenomenal world (or in Buddhist terms Samsara), the additional represents the noumenal world (Nirvana). This is one of the fundamental dichotomies which are perceived by the unenlightened. The physical manifestation of the vajra, additionally called dorje in this context, is the male organ.

Arranged equally around the mouth of the lotus are two, four, or eight creatures which are called makara. These are mythological half-fish, half-crocodile creatures made up of two or more animals, often representing the union of opposites, (or a harmonisation of qualities that transcend our usual experience). From the mouths of the makara come tongues which come together in a point.

The five-pronged vajra (with four makara, plus a central prong) is the most commonly seen vajra. There is an elaborate system of correspondences between the five elements of the noumenal side of the vajra, and the phenomenal side. One important correspondence is between the five "poisons" with the five wisdoms. The five poisons are the mental states that obscure the original purity of a being's mind, while the five wisdoms are the five most important aspects of the enlightened mind. Each of the five wisdoms is additionally associated with a Buddha figure. (see additionally Five Wisdom Buddhas)

The following are the five poisons and the analogous five wisdoms with their associated Buddha figures:

PoisonWisdomBuddha
desirewisdom of individuality, discriminating wisdomAmitabha
anger, hatredmirror-like wisdomAkshobhya
delusionreality wisdomVairocana
greed, pridewisdom of equanimityRatnasambhava
envyall-accomplishing wisdomAmoghasiddhi

In popular culture

  • Param Vir Chakra, India's highest war time military decoration has a motif of Vajra, the mythic weapon of Indra created by the bones donated by sage Dadhichi, as tribute to his sacrifice.
  • Bangalore Metropolitan Transport CorporationVolvo B7RLE services are called as vajra
  • In the fictional Hachibushū Legend of Heavenly Sphere Shurato, Shurato has a black vajra as his main weapon.
  • The word vajra is given to a fictional species of alien insects that serve as the main antagonists in the anime Macross Frontier.
  • In Soul Eater, Vajra is Asura's weapon.
  • Dorje is the name of a Brighton area metal band.
  • It is the nickname of the Indian Air Force aircraft Mirage 2000.
  • In the Call of Duty Zombies storyline, The Vril Generator is both shaped, and used as a vajra.
  • In Fire Emblem Fates, the Avatar's sword, Yato, has a vajra hilt.
  • In the Marvel vs Capcom series, a few of Strider Hiryu's attacks are named after ancient weaponry, one of which being Vajra.