"Asura" in the Vedas

George Thompson thompson at JLC.NET
Mon Apr 13 20:02:45 UTC 1998

With many apologies for its tardiness, here is a brief response to Dan
Lusthaus's question of long ago:

>What legs does the theory that the meaning of the Iranians' elevation of
>Ahura and demonization of devis, while the Indians elevate devas and
>'titanize' asuras, indicates a social split -- each group demonizing the
>other and the other's gods?
I'm not quite sure of what you are looking for here, but it seems to me
that the evidence suggests, far more than a 'split' between Iranians and
Indians [both Aryans of course], a basic and abiding familiarity. I cannot
emphasize too much how close RV and old Avestan are to each other, both
linguistically and culturally.

The most likely scenario is that, at least ideologically, the Indic branch
is closer to the common Indo-Iranian tradition than is the Iranian branch
[there may also have been a third branch, which would be represented by the
Kafir languages, but nothing is known of it until just a few centuries
ago]. This has nothing to do with a supposed Indic homeland of this common
I-I tradition. It is a matter of linguistic and cultural relationship. And
it does not imply that the Indic branch is older than the Iranian. Rather,
it indicates that the Iranian branch, under the spell of Zarathustra,
innovated certain religious and ideological features [roughly speaking,
"Mazdaism"]. But linguistically the Gathas of Z are very old, perhaps even
contemporary with the RV.

Edwin Bryant, and perhaps others, observed that there is little evidence of
foreign borrowings in Avestan, little evidence,that is, of a substratum.
That is because the substratum with which the Iranians came into contact in
NE Iran consisted of Indo-Iranians, Aryans like themselves, Aryans who
hadn't yet seen the Indian sub-continent. Further to the east were other
Aryans, some of whom got to the Indian sub-continent before the Vedic
Aryans did. Picture layers upon layers of Aryans, moving slowly, unaware of
having crossed any boundaries

So, if we are going to talk about substratum influence on the Vedic Aryans,
we must include not only the possibility of Dravidian and Munda substrata,
but also of a pre-Vedic Aryan substratum, which arrived in India before the
Vedic Aryans did.

It is often pointed out in the secondary literature that an Aryan vs DAsa
opposition in Vedic is too simple. It is. It is clear that Aryans [Indian
and Iranian both] bickered among themselves rather frequently, rather like

Perhaps this answers your question?

George Thompson

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