Who were the Asurs of the Vedas?

The word “Asur” has been used more than a hundred times in the Rigveda, 90 of them in a positive sense. “Asu” means soul or vitality and “ar” means possessor. Thus Asur is the possessor of vitality or life. No wonder, initially, the word was used for all gods, including for Indra and Mitra

The Vedas are full of praise for the devtas. A devta is the one who gives. The highest number of hymns in the Vedas is devoted to Indra. But that does not mean that Indra is the most important god. Agni is second on the “hymn list”. The Rigveda begins with a hymn praising Agni. Indra was not given this honour. More than the number of hymns devoted to a particular god, what matters is the content of the hymns. Most of the hymns on Indra have been written with a desire to get more and more food and cow wealth. The third chapter of the Yajurveda says, “O’ Indra, the doer of a hundred tasks. May the relationship between us be one of sale and purchase. May I keep enjoying the fruit in the form of food. O’ Indra, take the payment and give me the purchasable fruit.” But the hymns devoted to Indra do not describe him as the god holding the highest position. The Atharvaveda contains many hymns that describe cooked rice as a god. The honour these hymns accord cooked rice exceeds the honour they accord Indra in the hundreds of hymns devoted to him.

Cooked rice is described not only as the factor behind the trinity of gods but also as the creator of time. Similarly, honey is placed on a much higher pedestal than Indra. So also is Rudra, who, in the Yajurveda, gets no less praise than Indra. One of the hymns says, “O’ Rudra, all the three worlds can be seen in your eyes. Considering you different and higher than the other gods, we offer you a share in the yagna.” Rudra is also hailed as a healer: “Give us a medicine that can cure all ailments and free us from the cycle of birth and death.”

It is not that the Vedic sages only worshipped gods and the tridevas. They also worshipped cooked rice, honey, stones and also their “yajman” (host – the person who invited them to conduct yagnas). That is not all. They had no qualms about blowing their own trumpets. Many sages have written hymns praising themselves. For instance, in Atharvaveda, Atharva praises himself and says that he is greater than the gods.

In the third hymn of the Yajurveda, a sage writes about his yajman: “O’ yajman, I worship you for acquiring limitless wealth and power and fame and food grains.” Thus, the Vedas are more about the material desires of the men and the gods than about their spiritual pursuits.

Women as writers of Vedic hymns

Though women were barred from reading the Vedas, they wrote many of the Vedic hymns. Even a cursory reading of the Vedas will reveal that these texts are not divine creations, as is generally believed. The name of the writer is the part of every hymn. And there are hundreds of writers, dozens of which are women. Since one person did not write the Vedas, hence they could not be ascribed to an author. The solution was to mention the name of the writer with every hymn.

Neither are the Vedas the final word – an unchallengeable or sacred document. Many of our ancient scriptures make this clear. The Parashar-Madhveey says:

Shruticha shauchmacharah pratikalam vimidhyate

Nanadharmah pravaryatante manavanam yuge yuge 

What it means is that in every age, the shrutis (Vedas), conduct and duties of men keep on changing. Then, what is the relevance of the Vedas? We can answer this question with pride. We can say that the Vedas are the thoughts of our ancestors, both men and women, who belonged to the ancient times – they are expressions of what our forefathers saw and felt. But they don’t have the final word. The things that were beneficial or useful were designated as gods. But that was not all. Things that caused fear or could harm were also treated as gods and appeased. For instance, forests, asurs, animals, nymphs, tigers, bullocks, womb, cough, vagina, stones, nightmares, yakshma (TB), deer, cooked rice, brass, etc, were all Vedic gods.

Some lesser-known writers of Vedic hymns include Manav, Ram, Nar, Kusta, Sutambhara, Apala, Surya, Savitri, Shraddha, Kamayani, Yami, Shachi, Paulmi, Urvashi, etc.

Interestingly, women had a major role in the creation of the Vedas and in many of the hymns, their women writers have described themselves as omnipotent. Did these assertive women instil such fear in the hearts of the men that the subsequent commentators on the Vedas barred them from reading these texts as part of a conspiracy? Otherwise, how can one explain the writers being barred from reading their own work? If one reads the Vedas, it is apparent that they are writings that reflect the times in which they were written. They say very simple things. One need not be a scholar to understand them. Of course, one does need a translation.

The Vedas convey a great affection for nature. Even today, we cannot help marvelling at nature. The Vedic sages beg Indra to grant their small wishes. This tendency to beg has become a scourge of our society. The fear-filled Vedic man sought freedom from fear and he begged the gods for that.

At that time, society was at its early stages of development and these kinds of reactions were very normal. For instance, in the Sukta 184 of Chapter 10 of Rigveda, the writer pleads with the gods to make the women capable of reproduction: “Vishnuyoni kalpayatu tyavasta rupani pishantu.” Today, we approach doctors with this need. Should we still look for a sage for getting this done? Similarly, Sukta 165 says, “We worship this inauspicious pigeon. O’ Lord of the world, take him away.” Should we still consider pigeons inauspicious and fear them? Thus, all of what the Vedas say is not inviolable. In fact, a lot of their content is irrelevant and regressive.

Asurs: The former gods

Traditional literature tells us that Asurs were the ancestors of the gods, too. That is why the Asurs are also called “Purvadeva”, ie precursors of gods. It was later that in Sanskrit, the word Asurs began to be used as a pejorative and that followed the clash between the new gods and the old gods (Asurs). The word “Asur” has been used more than a hundred times in the Rigveda, 90 of them in a positive sense. “Asu” means soul or vitality and “ar” means possessor. Thus Asur is the possessor of vitality or life. No wonder, initially, the word was used for all gods, including for Indra and Mitra.

In a civilizational war, why would the victors say their vanquished foes were civilized? There is a line in the Prithivisukta of Atharvaveda – “Asuranabhyavartayan”, which means “The earth on which people accomplished many different things in the olden days and on which the gods attacked the Asurs”. Those people of the olden days were gods.

In the name of tradition, some people confine themselves to the Vedas. They ignore the Purvadevas. But genuine scholars give equal importance to the pre-Vedic literature. The Hindu religion is also known as “Nigamagam”. “Nigam” means the Vedas and “Aagam” means the pre-Vedic and non-Vedic traditions. Tulsidas has also said that “Nigamagam” is compatible with religion.

The Purvadevas were also called “Ayagya”, “Anindra”, etc. “Ayagya” means one who does not have faith in the yagnas and “Anindra” means one who does not believe in Indra. Those who had faith in the yagnas also described the Asurs as “Daas” and “Dasyu”. The pre-Vedic people were given other names too like Vidhyadhar, Naag, Yaksha, Rakshasa, etc.

Interestingly, the Asurs were not only the ancestors of the gods but also creators of many great works. It was the gods who tried to portray them as evil. They were civilized, too. They had the knowledge of construction of buildings. One of the names of Indra is Purandar, ie destroyer of cities. The Mahabharata refers to an Asur called May who had built a mansion for the Pandavas. The gods, where were the victors, possibly enslaved Asurs. Most of the artisans and handicraftsmen were non-savarnas. The fact is that most of the civilizations of the world are the creations of the exploited slaves.

Concepts like spiritualism, philosophy, brahmacharya, ashram and so on were also the constructs of Asurs, not of the gods. Prahlad was an Asur and his son Kapil Rishi was the creator of these concepts. Anyway, there is no clear distinction between the Asurs and the gods. Asur is also one of the Vedic gods. There was a sage called Kutsa, who was later given the name of Kutsaa. Today, in Hindi, the word ‘Kutsi’ is used as an expletive.

A “rishi” is not the epitome of virtues. In this respect, the word “rishi” has connotations different from the word “muni”, though in Hindi we tend to use both the words together, namely “rishi-muni”. Rishi is a Vedic word while “muni” is linked to the Jain and Buddhist religions. While rishis were meat-eaters, the munis avoided meat and believed in ahimsa. The rishis talked of pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shudra who happens to hear the Vedas being recited, while the munis were patrons of the Dalits and the progenitors of sects like Buddhism. The tradition of munis goes back to the pre-Vedic era.

The belief in Shiva also predates the Vedas. The Vedas refer to Rudra, not Shiva. The Vedic Rudra is a destroyer of the universe while Shiva is linked to the precursors of the gods. Asur Ganas (Bhut-Pret-Pishach) are his natural friends and Yaksha and Rakshasa are dear to him. It was with the help of his Asura Ganas that Shiva had destroyed the Vedic yagna of Prajapati. Similarly, Hanuman, Bhairav, Shakti, Ganesh, etc, are mainly linked to Shiva. The Vedas have hardly any mention of them. Wherever they are mentioned, they are referred to as minor gods. There are villages in the Vedas but no towns. On the other hand, the Puranas refer to the Asur, May, who built cities.

Today, we know of only four Vedas. Sometimes, they are collectively called “Vedtrayi”, even excluding the Atharvaveda. Dhanurveda, Ayurveda, Gandharvaveda, Pisachveda and Asurveda also existed but were forgotten. These Vedas were about “karma” (work). The Vedtrayi are about the mind. They are all about emotional flights of fancy. The other Vedas are about skills that are useful in life. They predate the Vedas. The pre-Vedic gods were associated with different kinds of works. They were diverse. The Vedic gods were monolithic – the idea of the supremacy of the mind was given different forms. There is a sloka in Sukta 32 of the Yajurveda that says that Agni, Vayu, Aditya, Prajapati, etc, are the same. They are manifestations of the same fundamental element.

Mind at the top

“Manushyanam Manah” (ie “a man is his mind”) is a popular saying. The Vedas do not tire of elaborating on the importance of mind. We, as a people, are not able to free ourselves from the power of mind. Abstinence originates in the mind. Kabir says, “Man na rangaye; rangaye jogi kapda.” [The jogi’s clothes are saffron but his mind is not.] India’s past has been full of such jogis. We have devoted all our energies to following Vedic traditions.

‘Mahishasura’, by Tyeb Mehta

Yajurveda has a hymn about the mind: “Iyampuri matihah”, ie the wisdom that comes from your mind is supreme. In the subsequent lines, the mind has been described as Vishwakarma. “Prajapati Vishwakarma mano Gandharva”, ie the mind is the Prajapati Brahma and Vishwakarma. It further says that it is our mind that makes us revere the truth and abhor the untruth.

Vedas are all about speaking one’s mind. They show how the human mind became refined with time. The Vedic sages wrote what they thought was right. The 70th Sukta of the fifth Mandal of Rigveda says, “Vayah te Rudra syama”, ie let us be Rudra, the eradicator of sorrow. A line in the 164th Sukta of the first Mandal says, “Let us all be gods”.

What is this means is that there was no difference between a man and a god. The Vedic sages wished to become gods, they were gods and they addressed anyone whom they deemed fit as god. And this was all in the mind. There was no idol of any god. The 20th Sukta of the Yajurveda has a line, “Na tasya pratima asti”, ie an idol of that super-conscious being cannot be built. That was because god was a mental construct. It meant different things to different people at different times.

In the Vedic age, the mind of man was prone to flights of fancy. When he saw the morning, he was overwhelmed and wrote hymns hailing dawn. Nights frightened him and he saw darkness as something that enveloped everything, made everything disappear. After partaking of “somras” (alcohol), his imagination knew no bounds and ran riot. The 119th Sukta of the tenth Mandal of Rigveda says, “I can keep the earth wherever I want to because I have had many rounds of drinking somras” and “My one end is in heaven and the other on earth because I have had many rounds of drinking somras”.

It is not that these flights of fancy were the monopoly of men. Women were equally prone to it, sometimes even more than men. The 159th Sukta of the last Mandal of Rigveda says, “Aham turaham murdha iha mugra vivachuni”, meaning, “I (the housewife) am the flag of the home, of the family. I am the mind of my family.”

Mainstay of the Vedas

In the Vedas, rishis have expressed their reaction to and experiences of a meat-eating society turning to cultivation. The clash between the cultivators and those who stuck to the meat-based diet is the mainstay of the Vedas. The old society, which survived on meat, was branded as Rakshasas (demons) by the new, farming society. Whatever the cultivators considered good or useful for them, was elevated to the status of god and worshipped. That included Agni, Indra, Som, Odan (cooked rice), honey and hundreds of other things. You can find the entire spectrum of human emotions, ranging from reverence, to love, to hatred, to cruelty, in them. The Rigveda is considered the first and the most important Veda. The Rigveda begins with Madhuchhanda Rishi extolling Agnidev (the god of fire). Why Agni was chosen for this honour can be understood with this sloka at the end of this prayer which says, “O’ Agni, just as a father knows when his son needs him and is there by his side at once, so you become available to us with ease.”

 

Yagna was one of the prime activities of the Vedic era. In most of the hymns, the rishis pray to the gods to make their yagnas successful. Yagnas helped the agricultural society grow. At that time, forests surrounded human habitations. Trees had to be felled and burnt and the land levelled to make new land available for farming. This activity was called yagna. The wood obtained by felling trees was burnt in the havans at the yagnas. The smoke rising from these yagnas brought rains. Thus the yagnas were also a point of conflict between the meat-eaters and the agriculturists. Destruction of forests meant shrinking of the area available to the meat-eaters for hunting. That was why they disrupted yagnas and were branded as Rakshasas.


For more information on Mahishasur, see Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (Phone: 9968527911).

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