AW: Some questions on Asuras

B. Schlerath Schlerath at T-ONLINE.DE
Sun Jan 14 11:17:26 EST 2001

Concerning asura- some remarks:
a. To explain the the post-rgvedic meaning asura- it is not necessary to
assume conflicts between Indians and Iranians. - deva- and asura- are
different types or aspects of gods although Varun.a, Agni, Indra and Soma
are invoked mostly as deva, but also as asura.
b. mazdaa is OI medhaa. Ahura Mazda is "Lord Wisdom"
c. deva- means originally "the Heavenly one", "living in the heaven"
Best regards Bernfried Schlerath

-----Ursprüngliche Nachricht-----
Von: Indology [mailto:INDOLOGY at LISTSERV.LIV.AC.UK]Im Auftrag von
Gunthard Mueller
Gesendet: Sonntag, 14. Januar 2001 16:37
Betreff: Re: Some questions on Asuras

Dear Satya,
here are some thoughts about your questions 1 and 5.

Asura is related to Avestan ahura "divine being, god",
Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda (the Asura Mahaa, as it were).
It seems that "divine being, god", without qualification
as "good" or "bad", is the Indo-Aryan meaning. After the
split-up of the Indo-Aryan framework of cultures into
an Indian and an Iranian branch, the word seems to
have gradually aquired a potential negative tinge in
the Indian branch. One theory assumes that this might
have been caused by conflicts between the Indian and
Iranian cultural complexes. The fact that the Iranians
used this word to refer to their gods is thought to
have inspired the Indian side to consider the word to
refer to enemy gods, in other words, "bad gods", or demons.
The earlier Indian texts would still refer to "good Indian
gods" as asuras, too, but when the conflict grew stiffer,
this usage would gradually fade out in favour of "bad
foreign gods", and then just "bad gods/demons" in general.
Interestingly, the Iranians also had a word for "bad gods/
demons" -- it is related to the Indian word for "(good) god"
Which is derived from an Indo-European root meaning
"divine being/god" which can be found in many other
Indo-European branches.
So we might have a case where the Indians and the Iranians
referred to the gods of the respective others as "demons" or
"dangerous gods".
While this would be a nice mutually supportive parallelism,
this theory is otherwise difficult to prop up. I am not aware
of any conclusive external evidence in the textual sources
to decide this matter. (I have not monitored this issue recently,
so I may not be up-to-date.)

This brings me to your question 5:
I think one should also keep in mind that from a general
Indo-European point of view divine forces have not
been thought to be reliably beneficient, nor as
reliably damaging, either...
In the earliest Greek songs, just like in early Indian texts,
the gods have to be INVOKED.
By singing/praying, the god was thought to be asked
to appear, very much in person. The god's power is exerted
in the presence of the praying human, or it is not exerted
at all. The god may even be invoked by some other
human, and asked to act in favour of that other person.
And that person may be an enemy!
In many early texts, humans often find themselves
incapable of pleasing all gods simultaneously. Their
presence may be mutually exclusive. It turns out to
be at the root of human suffering that humans can
never be in harmony with ALL divine forces.
In the early Greek epic, for example, it may not be enough
to be protected by Athene. If Poseidon wants to destroy you,
he might eventually be able to do it, even against Athene.
The gods don't seem to have been "good" or "bad" in
a pre-defined way -- they may act in your favour today,
but they could also act against you tomorrow. In other
words, they are gods who grant favours.
But humans could do something to improve their situation.
For one, there was "the Sun who sees everything and who
hears everything", a formulation that is there almost
identically in both Homeric Greek and Vedic. By fulfilling
apparent ethical norms (in this case, not lying, not committing
fraud, etc.) humans seem to be able to influence the gods in
their favour.
And it is, after all, possible to communicate with the god.
There is a beautiful poem by Sappho in which she invokes
Aphrodite and describes very precisely how she envisages
the way the goddess personally arrives and talks to the singer.
In this poem (7th/6th century BC), she actually quotes the
goddess, who asks Sappho "What has befallen your
heart again? Why do you call me again? What do
you want me to do for you, you troubled soul?".
These poems are very formulaic in structure, but
in their best form they are exquisite expressions
of a very personal (should I say bhakti-like...)
relationship with the god.
The gods are never thought of as "merely" human.
They are always on another level, even though
it is possible to communicate with them in song,
in prayer, in dreams, in visions.
For example, in the above-mentioned poem,
Sappho very drastically describes herself as
painfully love-sick, to the point of madness,
but the goddess of love, smiling with her
never-dying face, daughter of Zeus/Dyaus,
sitting on a cheerfully painted throne, "twister
of tricks", comes across as an incredibly serene,
happy, extremely powerful agent who has
everything totally under control, who always
knows a way out, not like Sappho, who is suffering
and feeling mentally confused.
It is this difference that makes humans call on the
gods for help. The Greek word "hieros", later meaning "holy",
orginally seems to have meant just "powerful". (According
to a popular theory it may be related to Vedic is.ira,
such as in is.irena manasaa, which seems to be the
equivalent of hieron menos in the Greek epic). So the gods
were the "powerful ones". But even the human mind could
be called hieros (the above example in Greek epic refers to
Achilles), and in the Odyssey the word was even used once
for a gigantic fish in the ocean.
So while the gods, being immortal, were in a different
dimension from humans, their qualities could be described
with the same attributes as human qualities. And it is exactly
this which makes it possible to communicate with them.
They do speak Vedic and Greek, and they do smile, even if
their smile appears on a never-dying face.

Best wishes,

gm at

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