"Asura" in the Vedas

George Thompson thompson at JLC.NET
Fri Apr 3 11:09:45 UTC 1998

Just to bring this thread back to Paul Kekai Manansala's original point,
which was:

"Another perplexing matter is that in the Rgveda , the Supreme
Deity is called an Asura, and the latter are held in a favorable
light.  Eventually, Asuras become demons opposed to the Devas. In
Iran, it is the Daevas who are demons opposed to the Ahura.  In my
view, the texts preceeding the polarization of Asuras and Devas
represent the earliest period and these appear only in India (as far
as I'm aware)."

In the common Indo-Iranian period the *asura/ahura* vs. *deva/daeuua*
dichotomy didn't exist.

*asura/ahura* meant "lord" and could be applied to any "lordly" figure,
whether human or divine, friend or foe.

*deva/daeuua* meant "god" and could be applied to any divine figure,
whether one's own or someone else's [in Iranian, eventually, ALWAYS someone

Among Iranians, under the spell of Zarathustra, the term *ahura* eventually
came to be associated with the abstract term *mazdA* [= Vedic medhA], and
the pair unites to form the name of Zarathustra's preferred and exclusive
god, Ahura MazdA. The Avestan god Mithra, for example, is never even
mentioned in the Gathas attributed to Zarathustra, but he eventually makes
a strong comeback.

In Vedic, as far as I can tell, there was no uncontested "Supreme Deity."
In general, in Vedic, deities, just like mortals, had to fight to gain the
attention of their peers, both human and divine. The term *asura* became
associated with some Vedic gods. but it was also associated with non-Vedic
gods, and thus, in the BrAhmaNas, came to be associated eventually with a
set of demons.

Thus the "polarization of Asuras and Devas" is *late* in both Avestan and
in Vedic. Common Indo-Iranian presents us with a picture of a culture in
which it was taken for granted that the gods had to compete for our
attention, and there was no supreme deity who could capture the attention
of everyone. Of course, there was nothing like monotheism in this culture.
Until Zarathustra came along. Perhaps. And after he departed, it looks like
everybody went back to what we might call "the old paradigm."

Best wishes,

George Thompson

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