THE gods are the Suras and the demons the Asuras or “non-gods”. This distinction, however, did not obtain in the early Vedic period. Originally the deities, and especially Varuna and Mitra, were called Asuras, but in the later part of Rigveda the term is applied chiefly to the enemies of the gods. In the Atharvaveda, as in subsequent Epic literature, the Asuras are simply demons and giants and goblins.
No conclusive explanation can be offered as to how this remarkable change took place in the course of the centuries embraced by the Vedic period. It may have been due primarily to sectarian strife between the religious teachers of those tribes which had been influenced by Babylonian modes of thought and those which clung tenaciously to the forms of primitive Aryan nature worship, and perhaps also the worship of ancestors (Pitris). In the old Persian language, which, like Greek, places “h” before a vowel where “s” is used in Sanskrit, Ahura (= Asura) signifies “god”. The Zoroastrian chief god is called Ahura-Mazda, “the wise Lord”, as Varuna is addressed in early Rigvedic hymns, “wise Asura and King”, and “the all-knowing Asura who established the heavens and fixed the limits of the earth”. On the other hand “daeva” in the Iranian dialect, which is cognate with Sanskrit “deva”, “god”, came to mean “demon”. “Asura” is derived from the root “asu”, which signifies “the air of life”, and “deva” from “div”, “to shine”, or “deiwo”, “heavenly”.
The view has been urged that the revolt against “Asura” in India was due to the hatred cherished towards the Persians who had become subject to the Assyrians, the worshippers of Ashur. It was originally based on the assumption that Assyrian aggression caused the migration of Aryan tribes towards India. Subsequent research, however, has tended to dispel this theory. It has been found, for instance, that Aryans were associated with the Kassites who overthrew the Hammurabi dynasty of Babylon prior to the invasion of the Punjab, and that the Assyrians were for a period vassals of the Mitanni kings, who had Aryan names and worshipped Indra, Varuna, and Mithra in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. The weak point in the Ashur-Asura theory is that it throws no light on the process which caused the Persian “daeva” to be applied to demons instead of to gods. How the gods of the Indian Aryans became the demons of Persia and the demons of Persia became the gods of India is a problem for which a solution has yet to be found.
The expository and speculative books of the priests–the Brahmanas and Upanishads–which are attached to the Vedic hymns, do not help us greatly in accounting for the change. We read that “the gods and Asuras contended together, and that the former, being less numerous than the latter, took some bricks, and placing them in a proper position to receive the sacrificial fire, with the formula, ‘Thou art a multiplier’, they became numerous”.
In one of the Brahmanas we are informed:
“The Asuras performed at the sacrifice all that the Devas performed. The Asuras became thus of equal power with the Devas, and did not yet yield to them. Thereupon the Devas had a vision of the ‘silent praise’. The Asuras, not knowing it, did not perform the ‘silent praise’. This ‘silent praise’ is the latent essence of the hymns. Till then, whatever weapons the Devas used against the Asuras, the Asuras used in revenge against them; but when the Devas had a vision of the ‘silent praise’ and raised it as a weapon, the Asuras did not comprehend it. With it the Devas aimed a blow at the Asuras, and defeated them, for they had no comprehension of this weapon. Thereupon the Devas became masters of the Asuras. He who has such a knowledge becomes master of his enemy, adversary, and hater.”
This explanation is but an echo of the Indra-Vritra combat. Another statement is to the effect that “the Devas gave up falsehood and adopted truth, while the Asuras gave up truth and adopted falsehood”. Further, we learn that when a sacrifice was performed the Asuras put the offerings into their own mouths, while the Suras (gods) gave the offerings they received to one another.
The Asuras became completely identified with the demons and giants; they symbolized evil, darkness, and drought. In Epic literature we read that “in ancient times the gods and Asuras were very active in destroying one another. And the terrible Asuras always succeeded in defeating the gods.” . . . Indra goes forth with his thunderbolt against Kesin, the leader of the Asuras, who wielded a great mace; this mace the demon hurled against the god, but Indra “cut it up in its course with his thunderbolt. Then Kesin, furious with rage, hurled a huge mass of rock at him.” Indra “of a hundred sacrifices rent it asunder with his thunderbolt, and it fell down upon the ground. And Kesin himself was wounded by that falling mass of rock. Thus sorely afflicted he fled”. Indra rescues a beautiful lady who had been seized by the Asura, and she informs the god that her sister had previously fallen a victim to the demon. . . .
The Asuras obstructed sacrifices; they were ever hovering round altars to discover if rites were properly performed; if a priest did not perform a ceremony in orthodox fashion, the sacrifice was of no avail, because the Asuras devoured it; if a man neglected a part of a ceremonial performance, a demon might take possession of him and accomplish his ruin.
One of the terrible Asuras is the demon Rahu, who causes eclipses by swallowing the sun and the moon, like the Chinese dragon, the wolf Managarm of Teutonic mythology, and the Grecian demons who devour Helena, the sun maiden, sister of the twin Dioscuri. In the Vedic period Rahu was represented by the demon Svarbhanu.
The Asuras of Ocean are the Daityas and Danavas, the descendants of the chaos hags Diti and Danu, and Kasyapa, a superhuman sage. These are the giants and demons who fought against the gods like the Titans, the Irish Fomorians, and the Norse Jotuns. Indra confined them in this region, which is called Patala, and they remain there “afflicted by Time “, and subject to the sway of Varuna. Like the Norse giants, they will be let loose to take part in the “Last Battle”. An “Asura fire” burns constantly in Patala, fed by water; it is “bound and confined”, but cannot be extinguished; when the end of all comes, it will burst forth and burn up the three worlds. In Teutonic mythology the Universe is similarly doomed to be consumed by fire at Ragnarok, “the Dusk of the Gods”.
The abodes of these giants and demons are exceedingly beautiful; they are agleam with gold and precious stones; seats and beds are provided in the mansions, and there are also recreation grounds, and forests and mountains resembling clouds. Indeed, the Daityas and Danavas live pretty much in the same manner as the gods, for “the gods and Danavas are brothers, although ever hostile to one another”. The Danava women are of gigantic stature, and wear jewels as large as mountain boulders; when terrified by the attacks of the gods, they “bewail like unto cranes in Autumn”. One of the Daitya tribes reside in the moving city named Hiranyapura, which they constructed for their protection; sometimes it sinks below the sea, or under the earth; at other times it soars across the heavens like the sun. Indra, as we have seen, has a similar aerial city.
In the Underworld dwell also the Nagas, the demoniac Cobras; they are of human form to the waist, the rest of their bodies being like those of serpents. Their king is Shesha, who is also named Vasuki and Karkotáka; he is sometimes represented with a thousand heads, and resembles Typhon, who fought with Zeus. In the Ramayana he is Ravana, the Demon of Ceylon. The prototypes of Shesha and his hosts are the dragons Vritra, “the encompasser”; Ahi, “the confiner”; and fierce Kushna, “the scorcher”, who spits out the sunset fires and burns up day.
When serpent worship became prevalent among the Aryans, the Nagas were regarded as demigods. They were occasionally “the friends of man”, and to those they favoured they gave draughts of their nectar, which endowed them with great strength. Their city was the Paradise of serpent worshippers. The female Nagas were beautiful nymphs, who were sometimes wooed by mortals.
As the Asuras are the enemies of the gods, the Rakshas or Rakshasas are the enemies of man. 1 These demons are “night prowlers”; they have greatest power after “the first forty seconds of grey twilight preceding nightfall”. They travel faster than the wind, and go through the air; they have also power to change their shape. Sometimes they appear in the guise of tigers, bears, or great monkeys; and their hues vary from yellow to red, and blue to green. In the Ramayana they are found associated with the Asuras of Ceylon; a spy enters a demon dwelling and sees them in all their shapes, some frightfully deformed, with small bodies and long arms; some as grotesque dwarfs, others as horrible giants with long projecting teeth; some with one eye, others with three eyes; some with one leg, two legs, or three, or even four; and some with heads of serpents, horses, or elephants. In the Mahabharata the Rakshasas are like gorillas; they have arrow-shaped ears, big red eyes, and red hair and beards, and mouths like caves; they feast on human beings and cattle. The heroic Bhima, like Siegfried Dietrich of Bern, Beowulf, and Finn-mac-Cowl, is a mighty slayer of these man-eating demons. They are impervious to weapons, but Bhima wrestles with them and breaks their backs or tears them asunder, after lively combats with trees and boulders. Female Rakshasas sometimes fall in love with human beings, and transform themselves into beautiful women. Bhima takes one for his bride, and she carries him through the air to a Celestial retreat among the mountains.
The most loathsome Rakshasas are the goblin-like Pisachas, who are devourers of dead bodies in cemeteries, and are exceedingly vile and malignant fiends. They are the bringers of diseases and wasting fevers. In the Atharvaveda Agni is invoked by the priests, who mutter charms over suffering and “possessed” mortals, to take the Pisachas between his teeth and devour them. They are “those who hound us in our chambers, while shouting goes on in the night of the new moon . . . the flesh devourers, who plan to injure us, and whom I overcome”. The priest declares: “I plague the Pisachas as the tiger the cattle owners. As dogs who have seen a lion, these do not find a refuge. . . . From villages I enter Pisachas fly away. . . . May Nirriti (a goddess of destruction) take hold of this one.”
Kali, a demon who holds friendly converse with the gods in the “Story of Nala”, is attended by Dwápara, a flesh-eater like the Pisachas. The Panis are aerial demons, who are hated by bluff, honest Indra, because they are the inspirers of foolish actions, slander, and unbelief, and the imps who encourage men to neglect homage to deities. The black Dasyus are repulsive of aspect and jealous-hearted; they are the stealers of the cloud cows who are held captive for Vritra in the cave of the demon Vala. The Darbas, “the tearers”, are a variety of Pisachas. Reference is made in Mahabharata to “ugly Vartikas of dreadful sight, having one wing, one eye, and one leg”; when they “vomit blood, facing the sun”, a dreadful happening is known to be at hand, because they are fiends of evil omen.
Among the supernatural beings who are sometimes the enemies, but in most cases the friends of mankind, are the Yakshas, the Gandharvas, and the Apsaras (Apsarasas).
The Yakshas are occasionally referred to as the Punyajanas, “the good people”; they may be of human stature, with big benevolent eyes, or powerful giants who can fight as fiercely as Rakshasas. They are guardians of hidden treasure, like the dwarfs and giants of Teutonic legend, being associated with Kuvera, god of wealth, whose abode is situated among the Himalayan mountains. In Kuvera’s domain are found “multitudes of spirits” who do not visit the world of men as a rule, but remain near the treasure for purposes of defence; “some are of dwarfish stature, some of fierce visage, some hunchbacked, some of blood-red eyes, some of frightful yells; some are feeding upon fat and flesh, and some are terrible to behold; and all are armed with various weapons, and endued with the speed of the wind”.
The Gandharvas are grouped in tribes, and number over six thousand individuals. They are all of the male sex. They haunt the air, the forests, and the mountains, and, like the Rakshasas, have power to work illusions in the grey twilight before nightfall. References are made in the Epics to their combats with human beings. To warriors who overcome them they impart instruction in religious matters; those whom they conquer they carry away, like the Teutonic elves and dwarfs. The Gandharvas are renowned musicians and bards and singers. When they play on their divine instruments the fairy-like Apsaras, who are all females, dance merrily. In the various Aryan heavens these elves and fairies delight and allure with music and song and dance the gods, and the souls of those who have attained to a state of bliss. The Apsara dancing girls are “voluptuous and beautiful”, and inspire love in Paradise as well as upon earth. Their lovers include gods, Gandharvas, and mortals. Arjuna, the human son of Indra, who was transported in a Celestial chariot to Swarga over Suravithi, “the Milky Way”, was enchanted by the music and songs and dances of the Celestial elves and fairies. He followed bands of Gandharvas who were “skilled in music sacred and profane”, and he saw the bewitching Apsaras, including the notorious Menaka, “with eyes like lotus blooms, employed in enticing hearts”; they had “fair round hips and slim waists”, and “began to perform various evolutions, shaking their deep bosoms and casting their glances around, and exhibiting other attractive attitudes capable of stealing the hearts and resolutions and minds of the spectators”.
In the Rigveda there is a water-nymph, named Apsaras; she is the “spouse” of Gandharva, an atmospheric deity who prepares Soma for the gods and reveals divine truths to mortals. They vanish, however, in later times; the other Vedas deal with the spirit groups which figure so prominently in the Epics. No doubt the groups are older than Gandharva, the god, and Apsaras, the goddess, who may be simply the elf-king and the fairy-queen. The “black” Dasyus are sometimes referred to by modern-day writers as the dark aborigines who were displaced by the Aryans; a tribal significance is also given to the Rakshasas and the Gandharvas. But this tendency to identify the creatures of the spirit world with human beings may be carried too far. If “Dasyus” were really “dark folk”, it should be remembered that in Teutonic mythology there are “black dwarfs”, who live in underground dwellings, and “white elves” associated with air and ocean; there are also black and white fairies in the Scottish High-lands, so that black and white spirits may simply belong to night and day spirit groups. It may be that the Indian aborigines were referred to contemptuously as Dasyus by the Aryans. The application of the names of repulsive imps to human enemies is not an unfamiliar habit even in our own day; in China the European is a “foreign devil”, but Chinese “devils” existed long before Europeans secured a footing in the Celestial Kingdom. Those who seek for a rational explanation for the belief in the existence of mythical beings should remember that primitive man required no models for the creatures of his fancy. He symbolized everything–his ideals, his desires, his hopes and his fears, the howling wind, the low whispering breeze, the creaking tree, the torrent, the river, the lake, and the mountain; he heard the hammer or the trumpet of a mighty god in the thunderstorm, he believed that giants uprooted trees and cast boulders down mountain slopes, that demons raised ocean billows in tempest, and that the strife of the elements was a war between gods and giants; day and night, ever in conflict, were symbolized, as were also summer and winter, and growth and decay. If the fairies and elves of Europe are Lapps, or the small men of an interglacial period in the Pleistocene Age, and if the Dasyus and Gandharvas of India are merely Dravidians and pre-Dravidians who resisted the Aryan invasion, who, then, it may be asked, were the prototypes of the giants “big as mountains”, or the demons like “trees walking”, the “tiger-headed” Rakshasas, “ugly Vartikas” with “one wing, one eye, and one leg”? and what animal suggested Vritra, or the fiery dragon that burned up daylight, or Rahu, the swallower of sun and moon? If the redhaired and red-bearded Rakshasas are to be given a racial significance, what of the blue Rakshasas and the green? The idea that primitive man conceived of giants because he occasionally unearthed the bones of prehistoric monsters, is certainly not supported by Scottish evidence; Scotland swarms with giants and hags of mountain, ocean, and river, although it has not yielded any great skeletons or even a single artifact of the Palæolithic Age. Giants and fairies are creations of fancy. Just as a highly imaginative child symbolizes his fears and peoples darkness with terrifying monsters, so, it may be inferred, did primitive man who crouched in his cave, or spent sleepless nights in tempest-stricken forests, conceive with childlike mind of demons thirsting for his blood and giants of wind and fire intent on destroying the Universe.
In India, as elsewhere, the folk of the spirit world might woo or be wooed by impressionable mortals. A Gandharva related to Arjuna, the Pandava prince, by whom he was defeated in single combat, the “charming story”, as he called it, of King Samvarana and the fairy-like Tapati, a daughter of the sun god, Surya. Tapati was of all nymphs the most beautiful; she was “perfectly symmetrical” and “exquisitely attired”; she had “faultless features, and black, large eyes”; and, in contrast to an Apsara, she “was chaste and exceedingly well conducted”.
For a time the sun god considered that no husband could be found who was worthy of his daughter; and therefore “knew no peace of mind, always thinking of the person he should select”. One day, however, King Samvarana worshipped the sun, and made offerings of flowers and sweet perfumes, and Surya resolved to bestow his daughter upon this ideal man.
It came to pass that Samvarana went a-hunting deer on the mountains. He rode swiftly in pursuit of a nimble-footed stag, leaving his companions behind, until his steed expired with exhaustion. Then he wandered about alone. In a secluded wood he beheld a maiden of exquisite beauty; he gazed at her steadfastly for a time, thinking she was a goddess or “the embodiment of the rays emanating from the sun”. Her body was as radiant as fire and as spotless as the crescent moon; she stood motionless like to a golden statue. The flowers and the creepers round about partook of her beauty, and “seemed to be converted into gold”. She was Tapati, daughter of the sun.
The king’s eyes were captivated, his heart was wounded by the arrows of the love god Kama; he lost his peace of mind. At length he spoke and said: “Who art thou, O fair one? O maiden of sweet smiles, why dost thou linger in these lonely woods? I have never seen or heard of one so beautiful as thee. . . . The love god tortures me.”
That lotus-eyed maiden made no answer; she vanished from sight like to lightning in the clouds.
The king hastened through the forest, lamenting for her: he searched in vain; he stood motionless in grief; he fell down on the earth and swooned.
Then, smiling sweetly, the maiden appeared again. In honeyed words she spoke, saying: “Arise, thou tiger among kings. It is not meet that thou shouldst lose thy reason in this manner.”
Samvarana opened his eyes and beheld Tapati. Weak with emotion he spoke and said: “I am burning with love for thee, thou black-eyed beauty, O accept me. My life is ebbing away. . . . I have been bitten by Kama, who is even like a venomous snake. Have mercy on me. . . . O thou of handsome and faultless features, O thou of face like unto the lotus or the moon, O thou of voice sweet as that of singing Kinnaras, my life now depends on thee. Without thee, O timid one, I am unable to live. It behoveth thee not, O black-eyed maid, to cast me off; it behoveth thee to relieve me from this affliction by giving me thy love. At the first sight thou hast distracted my heart. My mind wandereth. Be merciful; I am thy obedient slave, thy adorer. O accept me. . . . O thou of lotus eyes, the flame of desire burneth within me. O extinguish that flame by throwing on it the water of thy love. . . . ”
Tapati replied: “I am not mistress of mine own self. I am a maiden ruled by my father. If thou dost love me, demand me of him. My heart hath been robbed by thee.”
Then, revealing her identity, Tapati ascended to heaven, and once again Samvarana fell upon the earth and swooned.
The ministers and followers of the king carne searching for him, and found him “lying forsaken on the ground like a rainbow dropped from the firmament”. They sprinkled his face with cool and lotus-scented water. When he revived, the monarch sent away all his followers except one minister. For twelve days he worshipped the sun constantly on the mountain top. Then a great Rishi, whom he had sent for, came to him, and the Rishi ascended to the sun. Ere long he returned with Tapati, the sun god having declared that Samvarana would be a worthy husband for his daughter.
For twelve years the king lived with his fairy bride in the mountain forests, and a regent ruled over the kingdom.
But although the monarch enjoyed great bliss, living the life of a Celestial, the people of the kingdom suffered greatly. For twelve years no rain fell, “not even a drop of dew came from the skies, and no corn was grown”. The people were afflicted with famine; men grew reckless, and deserted their wives and children; the capital became like to a city of the dead.
Then a great Rishi brought Samvarana back to his capital with his Celestial bride. And after that things became as they were before. Rain fell in abundance and corn was grown. “Revived by that foremost of monarchs of virtuous soul, the capital and the country became glad with exceeding joy.” 1 A son was born to the king, and his name was Kuru.
There are many other uncatalogued Celestial beings like Tapati in Indian fairyland. In the Atharva-veda there are numerous named and nameless spirits of good and evil, and throughout the Epics references are made to semi-divine beings who haunt streams, lakes, forests, and plains. A Rigveda hymn is addressed to the forest nymph Aranyani. She echoes the voices of man and beast and creates illusions:She mimics kine that crop the grass,
She rumbles like a cart at even,
She calls a cow, she hews down wood,
The man who lingers says, “Who calleth?”O Aranyani will not harm
If one will not invade her dwelling,
When, having eaten luscious fruit,
At her sweet will she turns to slumber.
The singing birds are all singing spirits in India as in Europe. The “language of birds” is the language of spirits. When Siegfried, after eating of the dragon’s heart, understood the “language of birds”, he heard them warning him regarding his enemies. Our seafarers whistle when they invoke the spirit of the wind. Sir Walter Scott drew attention, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border
, to the belief that the speech of spirits was a kind of whistling. As we have seen, the wives of Danavas had voices like Cranes; Homer’s ghosts twittered like bats; Egyptian ghosts were hooting owls. In India the croaking raven is still a bird of evil omen, as it is also in the West. In the Scottish Highlands the spirits of the dead sometimes appear as birds; so do fairies. The Irish gods and the Celestial Rishis of India take the form of swans, like the “swan maidens”, when they visit mankind. In the Assyrian legend of Ishtar the souls of the dead in Hades “are like birds covered with feathers”. Numerous instances could be quoted to illustrate the widespread association of birds with the spirit world.