A quick look at Hindu mythology

The ten-headed demon Ravana, opponent of the divine hero Rama

“The Book of Demons” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna is an amazing look into Hindu perceptions of reality.

For those who find the title way too frightening, you may have already vanished—off to another website.

If it’s only a little scary, and you find that you are still with us, please be assured that demons in India are not just exactly the same as demons in western traditions.

For one thing they are not absolutely, unalterably evil.  They may indeed be very, very bad, even genuinely horrifying in an all-too-real sort of way.

But unlike the demons of Christianity,  a Hindu demon can start out as an angel.  (I am remembering though that actually Christian demons are fallen angels.)  A demon can even have good karma, be released from demonhood and become a human or a servant of one of the gods.  A demon can now and then be loyal and trustworthy—not that these are normal demon characteristics; just as one would imagine, mostly demons can be expected to be really bad and altogether untrustworthy.

As with many things though, Indian tradition sees things in a more nuanced way.  There is a leaning towards viewing all things as part of a whole—and, after all, over at least five thousand years of history—and maybe much, much longer—people in India have had time to look at things from more than one narrow point of view and to have come to perhaps a greater understanding of how all things tend to fit together.

As well as covering the role of demons in the world of the spirit and the psyche, the Book of Demons takes a look at demons from a historical perspective.

Among the most intriguing aspects of the book is a view through history of how demons in one culture can become the gods of another—a notable case is Iran or Persia.

Varuna, asura and God of the sky and the oceans

In Sanskrit, the word for demon is “asura” (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s one of the meanings), in Persian, “asura” becomes “ahura.”  The supreme being of the Zoroastrians is named Ahura Mazda—so a demon in one culture has become the almighty, all-powerful, force of good in the universe, in another culture.

Zoroastrianism spread west to modern-day Azerbaijan and east to China.  There are still pockets of Zoroastrians today, but for the most part, the spread of Islam in the seventh century AD relegated Zoroastrianism to the backwaters of history.

According to an article in Wikipedia, Zoroaster seems to have been born either in northeast Iran or southwest Afghanistan, maybe around 1500-1200 BC.

Today there are quite a few Zoroastrians living in India.  In the ninth century AD, Zoroastrians fled Iran in front of the advance of Islamic armies into Persia.  Today, it is estimated that there are fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, with around 70,000 living in India.

Well, that was a digression.  To get back to the Book of Demons, Dr. Krishna mentions that, interestingly, one of the most sacred days for the Shia branch of Islam, in modern Iran, is called Ashura.

A depiction of Ravana in a play in Karnataka

This refers to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein many centuries ago. It is still celebrated with self-flagellation and mourning, and in some places in Iran, it includes a ceremony of jumping over fire.

Clearly, there are an abundance of ancient cross-currents that were weaving back and forth between Iran and India.  Pakistan was formerly a part of India, and Afghanistan is an arid, mountainous region that has never been heavily populated so the centers of civilization in India and Persia were not really so far apart.

Dr. Krishna (following K.R.V. Raja and R.G. Bhandarkar) makes another really intriguing connection between the word “asura” and the people who were Assyrians.  The Mittanis, who ruled Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) beginning around 1480 BC, were a Vedic people who spoke a Sanskritic language.  The Assyrians were originally vassals of the Mitanni kings, and they spoke a Semitic language.

Then one day, the Assyrians overthrew the Mitannis and, by means of warfare, created a big empire covering nearly all of the middle east from the western edge of Turkey all the way east through Iran. Around about this time, people in India began thinking of the “asuras” no longer as “leaders” (which was one of the earlier meanings of the Sanskrit word); instead they began to see them as “demons,” and the word “asura” came to mean “demon.”

No doubt their bloodthirsty ways and their having been victorious against the Mitannis didn’t give the Assyrians a very good reputation with people living to their east. It’s not known what ultimately happened to the Mitannis, but if they fled back to India, they may have carried with them a rather bad impression of the Assyrians.

There is much, much more to the Book of Demons.  This is just a bit of the beginning.  More will follow.

Photos:  These are photos of artwork or dramatic presentations from Wikipedia.

Top photo: This is a watercolor done by an unknown artist around 1920, in the Public Domain. The photo is by Henryart and is from Wikimedia Commons.

Second photo: 1675-1700 painting of Varuna, asura and God of the sky and the oceans during Vedic times before the word “asura” had come to mean “demon,”  Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons, source as given by Wikipedia: http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=32077;type=101

Third photo: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License, from Wikipedia.  The photographer Mr.Manohara Upadhya has released all rights / Ravana as portrayed in Karnataka.

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