Two theories regarding the Asuras

A while ago someone named Kabirvaani left an interesting comment on one of my very old posts about the Asuras, suggesting that page 300 of James Houghton Woods’ book The Yoga System of Patanjali references an Asura as the bringer of a psychotropic drug that confers enlightenment upon those who imbibe it. Intrigued, I decided to investigate the idea and searched for the book’s text, and found an online source for the book. While researching this subject, I decided to make this post about two subjects. The first is the subject proposed by Kabirvaani concerning the Asuras and psychotropic drugs, the second is a different theory proposed by another blogger named Kata no Kokoro, who suggested, commenting on another post, that the post-Vedic conception of the Asuras might be based on the philosophy of Carvaka – a school of Indian philosophy based on epistomological materialism – with the intent of demonizing that philosophy on contrast to the religious idealism of most Hindu schools and the authority of the Vedas. We will deal with both these subjects in the same post, to save me bothering with two separate posts.


The Asura maidens and their magic drugs

Before we get to what page 300 of The Yoga System of Patanjali has to say, let’s look at what the page before it has to say on the subject of how “Perfections proceed from birth or from drugs or from spells or from self-castigation or from concentration”.

1. The power of having another body is the perfection by birth.

2. [Perfection] by drugs is by an elixir-of-life [got] in the mansions of the demons, and by the like.

3. By spells, such as the acquisition of [the power of] passing through space and atomization [iii. 45].

4. [Perfection] by self-castigation is the perfection of the will, the faculty of taking on any form at will (kamarupin) [or] of going anywhere at will, and so on.

5. Perfections proceeding from concentration have been explained.

Note the second part. Apparently there’s an aspect of Indian yoga wherein a yogi can attain “perfection” through an elixir obtained through in “the mansions of the demons”. Who are the demons exactly? Of course, it is none of than the Asuras, the grand enemies of the Devas. From page 300:

2. He describes the perfection which proceeds from drugs. A human being when for some cause or other he reaches the mansions of the demons (asura), and when he makes use of elixirs-of-life brought to him by the lovely damsels of the demons, attains to agelessness and to deathlessness and to other perfections. Or [this perfection may be had] by the use of an elixir-of-life in this very world. As for instance the sage Mandavya, who dwelt on the Vindhyas and who made use of potions.

Regarding the lovely damsels of the demons, doing some digging I find that Vedic mythology does attest to female Asuras having knowledge of mystical plants and herbs. In the hymns of the Atharvaveda, specifically Book 7, there is a hymn that references a group of entities named the Asuri, who seduce the deity Indra by means of a magic herb.

“I dig this Healing Herb that makes my lover look on me and weep,
That bids the parting friend return and kindly greets him as he comes.
This Herb wherewith the Asuri drew Indra downward from the Gods,
With this same Herb I draw thee close that I may be most dear to thee.
Thou art the peer of Soma, yea, thou art the equal of the Sun,
The peer of all the Gods art thou: therefore we call thee hitherward.
I am the speaker here, not thou: speak thou where the assembly meets.
Thou shalt be mine and only mine, and never mention other dames.
If thou art far away beyond the rivers, far away from men,
This Herb shall seem to bind thee fast and bring thee back my prisoner.”

– Hymn XXXVIII of the Atharvaveda

The Asuri is said to refer either to a specific entity whose identity is unknown, or a group of beings. In either case, Asuri is simply the feminine pronoun of Asura, hence Asuri refers to female semi-divine or demonic beings. According to Nagendra Kr. Singh in Vedic Mythology, the Asuras were very knowledgeable on matters of magic and medicine and their women knew how to use magical and medicinal plants. They were said to hide such medicines under the ground so that the Devas could not find them.

So, while I have been unable to locate the female Asura I was referred to, I do learn that female Asuras are associated with magical plants within Vedic mythology. This establishes a mythological basis for the maidens of demons bringing the elixir of life in The Yoga System of Patanjali. There is definitely a tradition with Indian mythology wherein the Asuras provide magic medicines, which could have been extrapolated into what is described in the book.

Taw Waes Suwan Asura Deva Carrying Amrita by Ajarn Saeng Apidej

We can perhaps think of the Asuras within Vedic mythology as possible sources of enlightenment through psychotropics, at least insofar as the premise of enlightenment through drugs is concerned. Of course, this is only within the older Vedic Hinduism. Since the Asuras are treated as demonic in post-Vedic Hinduism, this idea is probably treated as some kind of demonolatry by modern Hindus.


Carvaka and the Asuras

Carvaka (often spelled Charvaka), also known as Lokayata, is a school of Indian philosophy that rejects theism, reincarnation, karma, the soul or Atman and Moksha, and viewed the best means of acquiring as being not from revelation or religious scripture but through direct perception via the senses and through the practice of empiricism. Such a view is recognizable in the Western world as materialism or naturalism, and is associated with contemporary atheism. It was said to have been developed by a Vedic sage named Brihaspati at around 600 BCE. Curiously enough, Brihaspati is also the name of a planetary deity, the patron of the planet Jupiter, who was consider the guru of the Devas and related to the fire deity Agni.

There is a myth within the Upanishads in which Brihaspati is said to have created the Carvaka doctrine in order to deceive the Asuras. According to the Seventh Prapathaka of the Maitrayaniya Upanishad:

Brihaspati, having become Sukra, brought forth that false knowledge for the safety of Indra and for the destruction of the Asuras. By it they show that good is evil, and that evil is good. They say that we ought to ponder on the (new) law, which upsets the Veda and the other sacred books. Therefore let no one ponder on that false knowledge: it is wrong, it is, as it were, barren. Its reward lasts only as long as the pleasure lasts, as with one who has fallen from his caste. Let that false science not be attempted, for thus it is said:
(1) Widely opposed and divergent are these two, the one known as false knowledge, the other as knowledge. I (Yama) believe Nakiketas to be possessed by a desire of knowledge; even many pleasures do not move thee.
(2) He who knows at the same time both the imperfect (sacrifice, &c.) and the perfect knowledge (of the Self), he crosses death by means of the imperfect, and obtains immortality by means of the perfect knowledge.
(3) Those who are wrapped up in the midst of imperfect knowledge, fancying themselves alone wise and learned, they wander about floundering and deceived, like the blind led by the blind.

Sukra might be a reference to Shukra, or Shukracharya, who if you remember from my second Mythological Spotlight was the guru of the Asuras and the planetary deity of Venus. Indeed, Sukra is the Indian name for the planet Venus. It might be suggested that Brihaspati took the appearance of Sukra in order to deceive the Asuras into believing what were deemed false teachings, presumably to undermine their ability to defeat the Devas in battle in order to help the Devas defeat them. It is not certain if the Brihaspati mentioned in the Upanishad, but it is commonly held that the deity Brihaspati and the human Brihaspati are separate entities, which would make sense given it is unlikely that the Devas would have sincerely believed in materialist philosophy. Given this and the ability of the Upanishadic Brihaspati to transform into Shukra and his imperative on behalf of the Devas, I suspect that the Brihaspati referred to here is probably the planetary deity and not the human sage.

Brihaspati (the planetary deity, not the sage)

The Padma Purana also contains a dialogue in which Rudra (or Shiva) refers to Brihaspati as the one who proclaims the “much censured” doctrine of Carvaka. In the same text, Buddhism is also referred to as a false doctrine, proclaimed by an incarnation of Vishnu, and that Rudra proclaimed a “pseudo-Buddhist” doctrine referred to as Maya. Rudra also says that he ordered a man named Jaimimi to expound the doctrine of Purva Mimamsa – a doctrine that, while it seemingly endorses the authority of the Vedas, holds that the material universe to be endless and without liberation – which Rudra describes as stating godlessness and invalidating the Vedas. It is established here that the Hindu deities go out of their way to, within the context of the lore, deceive the enemies of the Devas by promoting Nastika doctrines (that is, doctrines that go against or contradict Vedic scripture, typically atheistic philosophies, thus heretical doctrines within the context of Hinduism) in order that they might defeat and destroy them.

Another example of this happening with regards to Jainism is when Vishnu sent a teacher named Mayamoha to teach the Asuras the Jain religion in order to that they could be defeated. The rationale behind such a theme seems to be twofold: (1) the Asuras are strengthened by following the Vedas and performing the proper rituals and penances, hence they lose power when they reject the Vedas, which serves to paint the Vedic religion as imparting power to believers, and (2) the non-Vedic religions are treated as so wicked and false that clearly they are either the doctrines of demons or tricks from the gods designed to weaken their enemies.

This theme is echoed in the Puranic myth of the Tripurasura, a group of three Asuras (Vidyunmali, Tarakshaka and Viryavana) who were the sons of Tarakasura. After the three Asuras perform a series of religious austerities known as tapasyas, Brahma grants them the following reward: they will live for a thousand years in three palaces for each of them – one made of  gold, one made of silver, and one made of iron – which reside in different realms (one in heaven, one in the sky, and one on the earth) and align every thousand years, and can only be destroyed by an arrow that can penetrate the three realms when the palaces align. The Devas, feeling threatened by a bunch of Asuras having that much clout, appeal to the Trimurti to destroy them. Brahma refuses on the grounds that it was he who granted them the boon to begin with, and Shiva refuses because he saw that they weren’t doing anything wrong, but Vishnu comes up with a plan to trick them into becoming non-believers in order to justify their destruction. He creates a man out of himself, whom he named Arihat. Arihat was shaven and wore dirty clothes, thus he had the appearance of a bald ascetic monk. Arihat was instructed to teach the Tripurasura a religion that contradicts the Vedas – one which holds that there is no afterlife, that heaven and hell exist only on Earth and that there is no reward or punishment in any life after this one. After this, Shiva destroys the Tripurasura and their palaces once they align. Given the description of a lack of an afterlife and the emphasis on this world within this belief system, it is very likely that the “false religion” in this story is none other than Carvaka.

Shiva destroys the Tripurasura and their palaces

Another myth within the Mahabharata (specifically Book 12) describes a being named Charvaka, who is identified as either an Asura or a Rakshasa, who was believed to have impersonated one of the Brahmanas in order to accuse the Pandava prince Yudhishthira of killing his kin.

A little while after when the Brahmanas had become silent, a Rakshasa of the name of Charvaka, who had disguised himself as a Brahmana, addressed the king. He was a friend of Duryodhana and stood therein the garb of a religious mendicant. With a rosary, with a tuft of hair on his head, and with the triple staff in his hand, he stood proudly and fearlessly in the midst of all those Brahmanas that had come there for pronouncing benedictions (upon the king), numbering by thousands, O king, and all of whom were devoted to penances and vows. That wicked wight, desirous of evil unto the high-souled Pandavas and without having consulted those Brahmanas, said these words unto the king.’

“Charvaka said, ‘All these Brahmanas, making me their spokesman, are saying, ‘Fie on thee! Thou art a wicked king. Thou art a slayer of kinsmen. What shalt thou gain, O son of Kunti, by having thus exterminated thy race? Having slain also thy superiors and preceptor, it is proper for thee to cast away thy life.’ Hearing these words of that wicked Rakshasa the Brahmanas there became deeply agitated. Stung by that speech, they made a loud uproar. And all of them, with king Yudhishthira. O monarch, became speechless from anxiety and shame.’

When the real Brahmanas revealed his ruse, Charvaka was killed by their utterance of the Hun sound, the sound of Brahma. It is possible that the demon Charvaka was a demonization of the Carvaka school, a way of painting adherents of Carvaka as liars who deceive the public and impersonate the pious. However, this would depend on when the Mahabharata was compiled and published, given that the Mahabharata is likely to have been written at around 400 CE, many centuries after the emergence of the Carvaka school.

Finally, let’s look at the Upanishadic myth of Virochana, son of the Asura Prahlada, who together with Indra sought out the creator deity Prajapati to learn about the nature of Atman, the divine self or soul in Hindu theology. According to the Chandogya Upanishad, the two deities sought out his wisdom on the promise that whoever found it would gain the possessions of all worlds. After staying with Prajapati as his disciples and living the lives of Brahmacharis (as in, men who pursue Brahman) for 32 years, Prajapati tells both Indra and Virochana of the Atman and instructs them to see their reflections in a pan of water. After seeing their reflections, they left and relayed the revelations they believed themselves to attained. Virochana returned to the Asuras and told them that he learned that the body and the Atman are one and the same and thus the bodily self should be glorified, while Indra thought this was wrong, went to Prajapati for clarification twice before spending yet another 32 years with him as a Brahmachari, then another 5 years, before finally Prajapati told him:

“This body is subject to death yet it embodies the deathless and bodiless Atman. This embodied Self falls into the trap of all dualities like pleasure and pain, but the bodiless Atman is not touched by any duality. So long as the Atman resides in the body and attaches itself to them he seems limited and restricted, but again when freed from the body becomes one with the infinite spirit. When the Atman leaves the body, goes wandering freely in the infinite worlds. The eye, the ear, the senses, the mind are there only in order that the Atman may see and hear and think. It is on account of Atman and in the Atman that the things and beings exist. He is the Truth and the final repository of all existence.”

Indra comes to believe the doctrine of the Atman as the ultimate truth, as divine consciousness that embodies itself in the flesh in order to perceive the world and is freed from the body to wander infinity after the death of the body, while Virochana comes to believe that the bodily self is the self itself and the object of concern and reverence. Since Carvaka holds that consciousness exists only within the body, it is pretty likely that the doctrine Virochana and the Asuras learn is materialism, the doctrine of Carvaka.

To close this post, it’s worth noting the old Vedic character of the Asuras. As I’ve pointed out here many times before, Asura was once technically a title applied to the Vedic deities themselves, denoting the power, strength and might of the deity. They were sometimes also thought of as a semi-divine class of beings who were neither good nor bad, and possess the magical powers of maya. After some time though, as the old form of the Vedic religion got displaced by the new form of Hinduism, which was based on the Puranas and the Upanishads (which still claimed the authority of the Vedas as sacred mind you), Asura changed from a signifier of divine might, to a class of morally ambiguous semi-divine beings, to class of anti-divine beings if not outright a class of demons who are often materialistic. Perhaps this association with materialist doctrines stems from the conflict between orthodox Vedic Brahmanism and the emergent Nastika doctrines, such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Carvaka, as well as Tantric schools of Hinduism, not to mention the rise of a new form of Hinduism based on the Upanishads that sought to change the character of Hinduism.

The devas, possibly representing orthodoxy, pull Vasuki’s tail, the asuras, possibly representing heterodoxy, pull Vasuki’s heads.

As Hinduism was dealing with the Nastika doctrines, it made sense that, in order to maintain the authority of theistic Hindu doctrine, the Brahmanists and Upanishadists sought out to ridicule the Nastika doctrines, especially Carvaka. It also possible that they destroyed most first-person sources on Carvaka (that is, texts written by its adherents rather than its detractors), given the dearth of texts and information on Carvaka. Essentially, the new Brahmanists demonized the materialist doctrine, and other Nastika doctrines, by positioning them as doctrines believed by demons (Asuras and Rakshasas), often through the deceptions of the Devas and the Trimurti. The Asuras in and of themselves are not based on Carvaka, but the Carvaka doctrine became somewhat affixed to the Asuras through the Puranic and Upanishadic myths.

Thanks to Kabirvaani of Shivahaoma and Hata no Kokoro for providing the inspiration for this post