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Asuras and Devas

Murad Ali Baig

The very well researched recent book `Antigod’s Own Country’ … a short history of Brahminical colonization of Kerala by A. V. Shaktidharan (Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd.) has been rather appropriately released just before the celebrations of Dusshera and Diwali. These festivals celebrating the victory of the Deva, or deity, Ram over the Asura or demon Ravan are joyous occasions in most parts of India especially north India but are observed with sorrow in the South and many tribal areas of the country.

Few people know that the legends concerning the Asuras and Devas first appear in the Zend Avesta, the sacred book of the ancient Persian Aryas (not Aryans) except that these Asuras were not demons but the great noble deities. Their demons were the Daevas from which the word devil originates. It remains a mystery how the roles were reversed among the Aryas of Persia and those of India. There is no certainty as to whether these Aryas came to India from Persia or whether they originated in India and then migrated through the barren mountains and deserts to Persia and beyond. There is however considerable historic evidence that a number of tribes loosely called Indo Aryan had occupied huge tracts of steppe pastures around the Caspian Sea about 2000 BCE.

The Aryas in ancient Persia used to have a priestly class called Arthvan (phonetically similar to Brahmin) meaning a person of essence.  Like the Rig Veda in India their holy book the Zend Avesta were written in a similar language as Old Sanskrit that was nearly identical to Old Persian. They had also both been written in the same cursive Kharoashti script written from right to left. The phonetic Devanagri script was only used after the 5th century CE.  

According to the Zend Avesta the Aryas had a class of warriors called Rateshwar (charioteers) that is phonetically similar to the Kshatriyas in India. Their third class was the Vastrayosh, similar to Vaishya, who were their cattle herders and workers. When the Aryas gave up their nomadic life and settled down the Vaishyas became traders and farmers. There had originally been no fourth class but as they had picked up stragglers on their travels they later added a fourth class who were called Hutoksh in Persia. As the Persians could not pronounce `S’, it became `H’ so Hutoksh, as Shutoksh, may have evolved to become Shudra.

Both texts and their very sophisticated language must have taken many centuries to evolve and could not have suddenly erupted without a long gestation. The Persian Aryas were related to several other `Indo European’ tribes as they spoke similar languages and revered similar deities like Varuna, Surya and Indra as is recorded in the Treaty of Boghazkoi (Cappadocia in Turkey) between the Mittani and Hittite tribes in 1380 BCE. In India however the Harappan civilization has revealed almost nothing about any literary culture while the extensive ancient Tamil Alvaar and Sangham texts show a complex but completely different tradition of language, religion and scripts.

While there is no evidence that the Aryas went from India to colonize west Asia there is  considerable evidence that a number of tribes speaking an old Indo-European language had settled in the Caucasian area, south of Russia, and streamed southwards in several waves after a mini Ice Age that had made their pastures dry. Several records in West Asia show that tribes like the Hittites and Kassites entered Turkey and Syria in 1732 BCE while the Mittani attacked Babylon in the same year and the Hyksos entered Egypt in 1,730 BCE. Their success was mainly due to the fact that they were the first people to domesticate horses making their two horse light chariots into formidable weapons of war. The Arya tribes may have slowly migrated to Iran and then to India through Afghanistan. In the 5th century BCE the Persians under Cyrus and Darius had ruled the land of the Indus (Sindhu) as the 19th province of their empire but they pronounced Sindu as Hindu so the land east of the Indus was thereafter called Hindustan.

An analysis of the Vedas indicate that the Aryas had first settled in the valleys of the Indus and the now extinct Saraswati rivers and then slowly moved eastwards down the Ganges to dominate most of north India. Groups of them then moved southwards led by legendary heroes like Agasthya who passionately took the Vedic traditions to ancient Tamilnadu while Parashusram (Ram with an Axe) vigorously promoted Brahmin beliefs to ancient Kerala.

At this time most people in India seem to have revered the Asuras who they seem to have regarded as noble divinities similar to the Ahuras of Persia and resisted the daemonic Devas that the Vedic people wanted to thrust upon them. As a result of the popularity of the Ramayana Ravan was to become the most well-known Asura who is still revered in many parts of Tamilnadu. In Srilanka Ravan is still regarded as a great divinity who had valiantly resisted the `blue faced’ Arya invaders led by Ram. Even the Sanskrit sources generally speak very positively about Ravan as a noble ruler and a great scholar. Few people however know that there are still a few temples dedicated to Ravan in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and elsewhere and in the villages of tribes like the Bhils and Gonds. There are also a number of other Asuras including Mevali or Mahabali or Bali who is still revered in many parts of Kerala. For all of them the victory of Ram is no cause of celebration but a source of deep sorrow.

In these ancient times when there were very few written texts most of the literary traditions were oral and subject to change and exaggeration in the hands of the priests and storytellers who had been the main entertainers in all ancient cultures. With every telling the heroines became more beautiful, the kings more magnificent, the enemies more ferocious, the armies more numerous and the weapons more terrifying as human imaginations soared.

According to several historians the ancient religions in south India had been Shaivism and Jainism though the latter later evolved into a milder Buddhism. The surviving fragments of the huge Sangam and Alvaar poetry of Tamilnadu contain a wealth of pre Vedic deities and traditions that are not found in the Vedas. After roughly the sixth century BCE, these texts were rendered into the Sanskrit Puranas with six each for Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu and their deities gradually replaced many Vedic deities and beliefs. There was no Brahma or Shiva in the first Veda the Rigveda Vishnu merits just six very inconsequential shlokas. This suggests that Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu were not Vedic deities at all but deities of the Puranas. They were however accompanied by many other Puranic deities like Ganesh and goddesses like Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati who later evolved into Hindu deities.

The Vedas also had no belief in reincarnation that seems to have been borrowed from Jainism along with many non Vedic beliefs concerning yoga, ayurveda, mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, etc. Unlike the Vedic belief in God as a prayer answering entity the pre Vedic philosophy was Sahkhya that believed in Karma where a soul was only rewarded or punished for its good or bad actions in a future incarnation. According to B. R. Ambedkar all the divinities had originally been ordinary mortals until raised by legend to divinities. Even the word Rakshasha (ogre) seems to have been derived from the local word raksha, or protect, so the protectors of the local people may have been dubbed as ogres by their enemies.

The founding myth concerning the colonization of Kerala is the story of how their greatly revered Asura divinity Maveli, a devotee of Shiv, was defeated by Vamana who was to become the fifth avatar of Vishnu. According to the legend this little dwarf begged the great Maveli for the boon of small a piece of land for himself and asked for just the land he could cover in three dwarf steps. When Maveli granted this request, Vamana miraculously transformed himself into a huge giant and covered the whole of Kerala in two strides. Though Maveli realized that he had been cheated he, as a noble ruler, honored his promise. On his third stride Vaman pressed Maveli’s head into the earth to keep him in the nether world forever but he relented a little when there was a great clamor from all Maveli’s loving subjects and he was allowed to come back to earth for one day each year. The very popular harvest festival of Onam is a celebration of this great day.

The second myth concerning the colonization of Kerala concerns the axe wielding Parashuram who became the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. According to this legend the violent Parashuram and his band of axe wielding warriors fought savage battles with the local people the `kshatras’ (not Kshatriyas) and drove them into the sea for twenty one generations. He then threw his axe from Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin) to Gaokarna further north and claimed all the intervening land for the Brahmins. This legendary hero was a rather unsavory character who had even beheaded his own mother Renuka in obedience to his father Jamadagni who had suspected her of having amorous thoughts.

Devious trickery of the Devas to gain victory over Asuras is a common theme in the story of almost all of Vishnu’s ten avatars. In the story of the second incarnation as Kurma the tortoise describes the churning of the ocean of milk to create the nectar of immortality that the Devas needed to defeat the Asuras but only the Asuras had the knowledge to create this nectar. The obliging tortoise offered his back to support a gigantic churning staff that was spun by Vasuki a mythical serpent with the devas and Asuras pulling it by its tail and head respectively. The Asuras were then tricked into pulling its poisonous head with the result that the Devas were able to steal the nectar and defeat the Asuras. Perhaps the most devious avtar of Vishnu is that of Narasimha the fourth incarnation. This half man and half lion finds an ingenious way to kill the fearsome demon Hiranyakashipu who cannot be killed during the day or night, inside or outside a house, on earth or in the air, by any weapon or by any man of beast.

Even the most revered avtars of Vishnu like Ram the seventh incarnation and Krishna the eighth were not above treachery, cunning and devious means to vanquish their enemies. Ram, regarded as the paragon of nobility, killed the Shudra Sambukha because he had dared to read the sacred Vedas and shot Baali in the back with an arrow. He was also so concerned with his personal honor that he allowed his faithful wife Sita to be banished because of a rumor spread by a washer man. In the Mahabharat Krishna persuaded the hero Arjun to kill the enemy leader Karna when the unarmed Kaurava was repairing the wheel of his chariot. Krishna also encouraged Bhim to mortally injure Duryodhan on the thigh contrary to the rules of war. His killing of Keshi, Kamsa, Poundraka and other Asuras were examples of unparalleled brutality.

With the sanction of a multitude of sacred legends the Brahmins undermined all the local beliefs and traditions and quickly gained control not only of the lands and wealth but even the bodies and souls of the lesser castes. Low caste girls were persuaded to bear the children of Nambudri Brahmins to enable their offspring to gain higher social status. The horror of caste pollution not only concerned marriages and food but even demanded distance barriers. The generous offerings at Brahmin temples made many of them like the Padmanabhaswamy temple near Thiruvanthapuram incredibly rich while the masses remained poor.

Despite its ardent evangelism and brutal caste tyranny over the centuries the Brahmins failed to completely subdue the passionate beliefs of the masses and in spite of the many centuries of social oppression many of the old deities and their customs still survive. Onam remains a great annual festival while Ayyappa and the pilgrimage to his sacred abode at Sabarimala is a great favorite for millions of Keralites but others like Mutthappa are also revered.

The colorful exploits of all the ten Vishnu avtars are important role models for most Hindus. Unfortunately they do not promote moral or ethical behavior but endorse cunning and trickery as well as brutal violence as legitimate means to achieve their objectives. Hindutva is essentially a Brahmin vision of a Hindu identity and though the Brahmins account for just 5.1% of the Indian population they exercise huge influence on all India’s domestic cultures.

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Oct 19, 2019


Murad Ali Baig [email protected]

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