Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
In the Purānas and other of the later writings of the Hindus, and also in the popular mind, the asuras are powerful evil beings; in translations the word is represented by such terms as demons, giants, etc. As the suras * were the gods, the asuras were not-gods, and therefore the enemies or opponents of the gods. In the Vedas the name asura is applied more frequently to the gods themselves than to their enemies, whilst it is also used very much in the same manner as in the later writings. In the Rig-Veda, Varuna is accosted as follows: "King Varuna has made a highway for the sun to go over. O thou wise asura and king, loosen our sins!" Again: "The all-knowing asura established the heavens, and fixed the limits of the earth. He sat as the supreme ruler of all worlds. These are the works of Varuna." "Asura stands for the Supreme Spirit," in another verse, and "also as an appellative for Prajāpati or creation's lord." † Again and again Varuna alone, and also in conjunction with Mitra, is called
an asura. "All the Vedic gods have shared the same title, not excepting even goddesses." "Varuna was the all-knowing asura, Prajāpati the Supreme Being; Indra, the Maruts, Tvastri, Mitra, Rudra, Agni, Vāyu, Pushan, Savitri, Parjanya, the sacrificial priests, were all asuras. In fine, Deva (god) and asura were synonymous expressions in a multitude of texts." *
On the other hand, in the Rig-Veda, Indra is the destroyer of asuras. "The same Veda which speaks of the asuras as celestial beings supplies its readers also with the Mantras, by means of which devas overcame asuras. The texts which are condemnatory of the suras as impure and ungodly are far less in number than those which recognize the term as applicable to gods and priests." Dr. Banerjea, in the most interesting and ingenious article from which the above extracts are made, suggests a means of reconciling these contradictory uses of the word "asura." Before the Indo-Aryans arrived in India, they had lived in close proximity to the Persians, the original worshippers of fire. "What could be more natural," he asks, "than that the Asura-Pracheta, or Asura-Viswaveda of the one branch, was but the translation of the Ahura-Mazda (the Wise Lord, according to the 'Zend-Avesta') of the other branch; and that the word 'Ahura,' which the one used in a divine sense, would become a household word in the other branch, in the same sense?" the word "Ahura" being changed into "Asura," in a way common to many other words. He then goes on to say, that as "Assur" was the term used in Assyria for the Supreme Lord, and the Assyrians were for some time the rulers of the Persians, it was natural that this word should find its way into Persia; the only change being this, that the Persians added
Mazda (wise or good) to the term "Assur," and the Indo-Aryans received it from them. So much for the good use of the term "Asura."
But the word "Assur" was not only used for the Supreme Lord, it also represented the Assyrian nation, his worshippers, who were most cruel in their treatment of their foes; and as, later on, the bitterest hatred is known to have existed between the Indo-Aryans and the Persians, the followers of Ahura-Mazda, Dr. Banerjea concludes that owing to the cruelties perpetrated by the Assyrians on the one hand, and the hatred cherished towards them by the Persians on the other, the branch of the Aryan family that migrated into India brought with them very bitter feelings towards Assur (the Assyrian people) and Ahuri (the belongings of Ahura); and thus the term "Asura," which at one time was considered a becoming epithet for the Supreme Being, became descriptive only of those who were the enemies of the gods. In order to afford sanction for this altered sense of a word, a new derivation has been given to it. The word was originally derived from the root as, through asu, "breath," and means a spirit, or "the Great Spirit." Now, however, it is explained to be simply a compound of a privative, and sura, "god," meaning a non-god: therefore a demon.
Whatever be the cause of it, there is no doubt that at the present day, and throughout the later writings of the Hindus, the term "asura" is used only for the enemies of the gods. In the "Taittirya Sanhita" * we read "that the gods and asuras contended together, and that the former, being less numerous than the latter, took some bricks, and placing them in a proper position to receive the sacrificial fire, with the formula, Thou
art a multiplier,' they became numerous." In the "Satapatha Brāhmana" * it is said that "the gods and asuras, both descendants of Prajāpati, † obtained their father's inheritance, truth and falsehood. The gods, abandoning falsehood, adopted truth; the asuras, abandoning truth, adopted falsehood. Speaking truth exclusively, the gods became weaker, but in the end became prosperous; the asuras, speaking falsehood exclusively, became rich, but in the end succumbed." The gods tried to sacrifice, but though interrupted at first by the asuras, at length succeeded, and so became superior to their foes. Another legend in the same book teaches that the asuras, when offering sacrifices, placed the oblations in their own mouths, whilst the gods gave their oblations to each other; at length Prajāpati giving himself to them, the sacrifices, which supply the gods with food, were henceforth enjoyed by them.
Although there were frequent wars between the gods and asuras, the suras were not averse to receive the aid of their foes at the churning of the ocean; and some of them were not inferior in power and skill to the gods. Bāli, one of their number, is worshipped by the Hindus on their birthday; and Jalandhara conquered in battle even Vishnu himself; Indra and the other gods fled before him, and Siva, unaided, could not destroy him. Rāhu is an asura, and it was to destroy some of these mighty beings who distressed the gods, that Durgā and Kāli had to put forth their strength. In the constant wars between these rivals, Sukra, the preceptor of the asuras, was frequently called to resuscitate the fallen. The following story of Jalandhara from the Uttara
[paragraph continues] Khānda of the "Padma Purāna" * will illustrate the teaching of the later Hindu Scriptures respecting the asuras.
The story of Jalandhara's birth and life was narrated by Nārada to the Pāndavas to encourage them when they were in distress on account of their misfortunes. He reminds them that adversity and prosperity come to all: Rāhu, who swallows the sun, is the same Rāhu whose head was severed from his body by Vishnu; and the valiant Jalandhara, the son of the Ocean and the river Ganges, who on one occasion conquered Vishnu, was himself slain by Siva. The mention of this fact excites the curiosity of his hearers; and in answer to their inquiry about him, Nārada gives the following history.
Indra and the other gods, arriving at Siva's home on Mount Kailāsa to pay him a visit, informed the bull Nandi, the chief of Siva's attendants, that they had come to amuse his master with song and dance. Siva invites them to enter, and, being delighted with their music, tells Indra to ask a boon, who, in a defiant tone, asks that he might be a warrior like Siva himself. The boon is granted, and the gods depart. No sooner have they left than Siva asks his attendants if they had not noticed Indra's haughty tone, when immediately there stood before him a form of anger, black as darkness, who said to Siva, "Give me thy similitude, and then what can I do for you?" Siva tells him to incorporate himself with the river of heaven (Gangā), form a union between her and the Ocean, and conquer Indra.
In obedience to Siva's command, Gangā left the skies, and becoming united to the Ocean, from them a son proceeded, at whose birth the earth trembled and wept, and the three worlds resounded with noise. Brahmā coming to inquire the cause of this commotion, and asking to see the child, Gangā lays it in his lap, when it seized his head, and would not loose it until its father opened its hand. Brahmā, admiring the child's strength, said, "From his holding so firmly, let him be named Jalandhara," and bestowed upon him this boon, that he " should be unconquered by the gods, and enjoy the three worlds."
Jalandhara's boyhood was full of wonders. Borne up by the wind, he flew over the ocean; his pets were lions which he had caught; and the largest birds and fishes were subject to him. When he grew up to manhood, at Sukra's request, his father withdrew the sea from Jambadwipa, the residence of holy men, which became his home, and bearing his name has become celebrated. * Māya, the architect of the asuras, there built him a beautiful city, his father installed him as king, and Sukra gave him the charm by which he could raise the dead to life. He married Vrindā, the daughter of an Apsaras named Swarnā, and soon after his wedding made war upon the gods.
In order to lead to a conflict, he sent a messenger to Indra, whom he found "surrounded by three hundred and thirty-three millions of deities," to demand the restoration of the moon, the amrita, elephant, horse, gem, tree, and other things of which he said Indra had robbed him, at the churning of his uncle, the Sea of Milk; and also to resign Swarga. As Indra refuses to accede to this request, Jalandhara raises an army of warriors
having the heads of horses, elephants, camels, cats, tigers and lions, with which Indra's abode is soon surrounded. The gods in their extremity resort to Vishnu for aid.
On Vishnu's arrival the battle commences. Multitudes are slain on both sides, but the gods, when wounded, resort to the mountains, where they find herbs which quickly restore them. At length the greater gods and the leaders of the daityas personally engage in conflict; Indra falls insensible, Rudra is taken prisoner, and Kuvera is laid low by a blow of a mace. After this, the tide turns in favour of the gods. When Indra struck Bāli, the most costly gems dropped from his mouth; he therefore asked for his body, and with his thunderbolt cut it into many parts. "From the purity of his actions, the parts of his body became the germs of the various gems. From his bones came diamonds, from his eyes sapphires, from his blood rubies, from his marrow emeralds, from his flesh crystals, from his tongue coral, and from his teeth pearls."
Indra being in his turn attacked by Jalandhara, Vishnu comes to the rescue; and though the asuras attack him in immense numbers, and the sky is dark with their arrows, Vishnu overthrows them as if they were leaves. One of their number, named Shailaroma, losing his head, seized hold of Garuda, Vishnu's marvellous bird, when the severed head immediately rejoined his body; Garuda, seeing this wonderful event, flew oft with his master. Jalandhara was prevent from following him, as he had to call in the aid of Sukra to restore his warriors to life.
Hearing that the soldiers of the gods were also restored to life through using herbs obtained from an island called Drona, situated in the Sea of Milk, he asked his uncle to submerge it. Being deprived of this
means of restoration, they appealed to Vishnu, who, attacking Jalandhara, was laid low by the daitya, and would have been slain but for Lakshmi's intercession with her cousin. In return for his life Vishnu promised to remain near the Sea of Milk. Jalandhara, having now conquered the gods, enjoyed peace and happiness.
The gods, however, being expelled from heaven, and deprived of sacrifices and the amrita, did not long remain contented with their lot. They went together to Brahmā, who conducted them to Siva, whom they found "seated on a throne and attended by myriads of devoted servants, naked, deformed, curly-haired, with matted locks and covered with dust." On Brahmā' stating the case for the gods, Siva declared that, if Vishnu had been unsuccessful in fighting the demon, it was impossible that he alone could overcome him; he therefore advised that the gods should unite to form a weapon by which their common enemy might be destroyed. Acting on this advice, the gods, glowing with anger, darted forth volumes of flames, to which Siva added the consuming beams of his third eye. Vishnu, too, when summoned, added his flame of anger, and asked Siva to destroy the daitya, excusing himself from the task on the ground that Jalandhara was a relative of Lakshmi. Visvakarma and the deities were alarmed as they saw the glowing mass; but Siva, placing his heel on it, whirled round with it, and formed it into the discus called Sudarsana, which sent forth such fiery beams that the gods cried out, "Preserve us!" Brahmā's beard was scorched as he took it into his hand—"such is the result of offering a gift to a blockhead"—but Siva hid it under his arm.
Nārada informed Jalandhara of the intended attack
of Siva, and, enlarging on Pārvati's beauty, excited him to attack her husband that he might win her. With this object he sent Rāhu as an ambassador, to summon the god to submission. On his arrival at the court the envoy delivered his master's message to Siva, in the form of Panchānana, who did not deign to speak; but the snake Vasuki, falling to the ground from his hair, began to eat Ganesa's rat. Seeing this, Kartikeya's peacock made such an awful noise that the snake disgorged the rat and returned to his proper place.
Lakshmi then entered the assembly with a vessel of amrita, with which she resuscitated Brahmā's fifth head that was in Siva's hand; the head rolling on the ground uttered most boastful language, until myriads of hideous forms from Siva's locks quieted it. Rāhu, seeing all this, asked Siva to forsake his wife and children, and live a mendicant's life. At a sign from Siva, Nandi, the bull, showed him the door; this was the answer vouchsafed to the illustrious master's demand.
War being determined on, Jalandhara marched first to Kailāsa; but finding that Siva had forsaken it and taken up a position on a mountain near Lake Manasa, he surrounded the mountain with his troops. Nandi marched against them, and spread destruction "like the waters of the deluge;" reserves, however, being brought up, the army of the gods suffers loss. Pārvati, hearing that her sons, Ganesa and Kartikeya, are hardly pressed, urged her husband to go in person and put forth his energy, though not to expose himself unnecessarily. Before leaving home, Siva carefully warned Pārvati to be on her guard during his absence, as it was possible the daitya in some disguise might visit her; after this, accompanied by Virabhadra and Manibhadra, two forms
of his anger, he went to the field of battle. When the conflict between the daityas and the attendants of Siva had continued for some time, Jalandhara devised a plan by which he hoped to succeed more easily than by fighting. Giving his own form and the command of his troops to a chief, the daitya king assumed the form of Siva, changed Durwarana into Nandi, and, taking the heads of Ganesa and Kartikeya under his arms, hastened to Siva's abode. Seeing this, Pārvati was overwhelmed with grief; but having some doubt of his being the real Siva, she hid herself and would not listen to his overtures of love. To make certain of his identity, she caused one of her attendants to assume her form and visit the daitya, who, returning with the information that he was not the true Siva, Pārvati hid herself in a lotus, and her companions were changed into bees which hovered around her.
In the mean time Vishnu had been more successful with Vrindā, the wife of Jalandhara. In the guise of a Brāhman, he made a hermitage near her palace, and caused her to dream that she saw her husband's head severed from his body, his flesh eaten by wild animals, and his eyes plucked out by vultures. Distracted with her dream, in a high fever she rushed into the forest, where an ogress met her, ate her mules, and was about to attack her, when the Brāhman came to her rescue. On reaching the hermitage, Vishnu induced her to enter, changed himself into the form of her husband, and there they lived together for some time. At length Vrindā, seeing through the disguise, cursed Vishnu, telling him that, as he had wronged Jalandhara, he would himself be wronged, and, having purified herself from her sin, died. Her body was burned, her mother collected the ashes, and threw them into the Ganges. The forest in
which she was burned has ever since borne the name of Vrindāvana, * near Mount Govardhana.
Jalandhara, hearing of his wife's deception and death, was mad with rage; and, leaving the neighbourhood of Pārvati's home, returned to the field of battle. By Sukra's power his dead heroes were restored to life, and a grand final charge was made. At length Siva and Jalandhara personally fight; after a desperate encounter, in which the daitya employs various magical powers, Siva cuts off his head; but it is no sooner severed than it resumes its place. Siva in his extremity summonses to his aid the female forms or energies of the gods, Brāhmi, Vaishnavi and the rest, who drink up the blood of the giant, and with their aid Siva succeeds in destroying him, and the gods regain their kingdom and possessions.
437:* Originally the suras were a class of inferior deities, connected with Surya; afterwards the term was employed to signify the gods generally.
437:† Dr. Banerjea, Bengal Magazine, April, 1880.
438:* Dr. Banerjea, Bengal Magazine, April, 1880.
439:* Muir, O. S. T., v. 15.
440:* Muir, O. S. T., iv. 60.
440:† The Mahābhārata says the asuras were the elder, the gods the younger, sons.
441:* Kennedy, "Hindu Mythology," p. 457.
442:* The present Jallander.