Devas and asuras: my problems with the myth

Asuras and devas churning the ocean of milk. Depicted at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand.

Remember just three days ago I posted about that book I read and how I realized or remembered many of my disagreements and/or problems with Hindu thought? Well today I realized there was one area of Hindu thought I forgot to cover: the myth of the conflict of the devas and the asuras.

Traditionally, the devas represent order and the asuras represent chaos, although the devas are also said to represent the forces of the mind and spirit and the asuras represent elemental forces and vital passion. In the Vedic religion, the devas used to represent the forces of nature and the asuras the forces of human society. According to that book I read, the conflict between the devas and asuras is supposed to be a cooperative rivalry and a dynamic equilibrium. In other words, they’re supposed to be forces that struggle with each other as a form of balance. The problem with that is there are several things undermining this idea of what the struggle means.

The first is the respective origins of the devas and the asuras within Hindu mythology. The asuras were born from a goddess named Diti, the limited one, while the devas were born from Aditi, the limitless one. That alone suggests a bias towards the asuric forces by suggesting they were born of ignorance and limited vision while the devas of truth and infinite vision, and this certainly undermines the idea that these are forces of mind and matter struggling for equilibrium with each other.

The second is the churning of the ocean of milk. Vishnu advised the devas to seek diplomacy with the asuras, and they formed a temporary alliance with the asuras so that together they may churn the nectar of immortality by using the serpent Vasuki as a churning rope, with the promise that the devas and the asuras would share the nectar. But what Vishnu actually intended was for the devas to have the nectar all to themselves, and he managed to convince the asuras to yank the head while the devas yank the tail, thus the asuras are subject to its hot and toxic breath with the devas in safe company. This seems very odd to me consider that most of the time Hinduism values self-abnegation and self-sacrifice, or at least that’s what the myths imply, and since the devas are supposed to embody dharmic ideas of truth and virtue, wouldn’t they be the ones subjecting themselves to Vasuki instead of letting the asuras get coaxed into suffering for them? And speaking of supposed self-sacrifice, Shiva swallowing the poison that Vasuki released in the process is widely said to be a sign of self-sacrifice, but is also really weird when you consider that, for Shiva, this is not really a dangerous or fatal thing to do at all. We wouldn’t be able to handle Vasuki’s poison, and the devas and asuras would likely have reason to worried about it (in fact the main worry was that the poison would contaminate the ocean of milk and destroy creation), but Shiva could easily swallow that poison and all that would happen to him was his throat would turn blue. That aspect of the myth doesn’t really represent self-sacrifice because Shiva could easily go through with it with no real danger to him, it actually represents Shiva’s power to prevent premature destruction and to take in everything that no one else can.

Shiva drinks Vasuki’s venom, because he can.

That aside, let’s move on from the samudra manthan (the ocean of milk story) and move on to other aspects of the problem with the conflict. For instance, if the conflict was really supposed to be about a balance of two forces both integral to the cosmos, why is there so much emphasis of the “good” devas winning over the asuras? The occasions when the asuras defeat the devas don’t seem to be treated with any equality, or any manner other than negative. Besides that, the devas only seem interested in maintaing their control and hegemony over the universe, and in preserving the Hindu faith. For instance, the whole reason Vishnu becomes Kalki is because of the faith being in decline and people no longer worshipping. And stories such as the story of Mahabali show that, even if an asura was benevolent, that doesn’t matter because the devas won’t tolerate losing control of the universe even once.

Now, to be honest, I like the idea of the asuras and devas as forces struggling in equilibrium with the asuras representing elemental energy and vital passion with devas representing structure and order, which would actually leave room for evil spins on both the asura and deva principles (for instance, animalistic passions turning rotten or structure being based on evil or made dishonorably), thus balance would be emphasized as an important virtue for the individual. That would certainly be how I would use the deva-asura paradigm, though it would rely less on the actual mythology and its hegemonic wars. However, this post is not about how I use the paradigm, it’s about the Hindu use of the paradigm, and in the Hindu faith, this is not what happens. Even if it was like that in Vedic Hinduism, it is not how it is in post-Vedic Hinduism, in other words the Hinduism you know. Once you look into it, you see that it’s basically just another “good” and “evil” conflict.

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