An Atlantic cod

By Sharon St Joan

Sometime back in the sixties, a friend of mine, of Indian background, explained to me that the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and many other ancient books contained scientific knowledge known for thousands of years in India before being “discovered” by the west.

Back then, I thought he was suffering from a rather vivid imagination.

Having come across this idea many times since then, I’ve grown used to it

and have realized that it is true.

The concept that there is to be found in the sacred scriptures of India advanced scientific knowledge that was discovered by the west only in recent centuries never seems to strike people in India as in any way remarkable. To them, it is just a matter of course.

It still does strike me as remarkable, even now, to realize that people in ancient India knew, not just profound spiritual truths, but also that they had advanced knowledge of science, mathematics, medicine, metallurgy, and so many other fields.

One of the clearest, easiest ways to observe this is with the theory of evolution.  We all “know” of course, that the theory of evolution was developed by Charles Darwin after his expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, then published in his work “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

Vishnu (blue) on the left / Shiva (white) on the right

In the Mahabharata and some of the Puranas (ancient books), the ten avatars of Vishnu are enumerated, in chronological order.  First, Vishnu descended to earth as a fish.  His next incarnation was as a turtle, then as a land animal, the boar.  After that he came back as a dwarf; then as a half-man, half-lion; then as a stone age man, then as a hero; then a philosopher; then as the enlightened one, the Buddha.  The final incarnation will be as the being who brings the end of the world.

To most of us looking at this, this looks a lot like the theory of evolution.  Life evolved first in the sea, then animals developed the ability to live on land, transitioning like the turtle from sea to dry land.  Then an animal like the boar came along who was totally land-based. There was a transition then to humanity, and after small hominids like Lucy, the dwarf-like Australopithecus, appeared, there were the Paleolithic ages, and the various progressions of the human race.

How did the ancient sages of India know all this?  Well, that’s another question, but the fact is that they did.  They knew a great deal about a great many things long before the advent of the “scientific age”?

Red Sea Bannerfish and Masked Butterfly fish

They recorded this knowledge in the form of enchanting stories, told down through the ages.  For example, there is the story of Matsya, the fish who was the first incarnation of Vishnu. Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, “Sacred Animals of India” retells the story of Matsya beautifully:

“The story of the fish that saved the world first appears in the Mahabharata.  One day, when Manu, the primeval man, was carrying out his rituals on the riverbank, a little fish swam up to him and said that if Manu were to take care of him, the fish would protect Manu from the forthcoming deluge (pralaya).  On receiving Manu’s consent, the fish instructed him to keep him in a jar and protect him from other fish.  After a while the fish outgrew the jar and told Manu to put him into a tank.  When he outgrew the tank, the fish wanted to be taken to the river Ganga, and when the river was no longer large enough, to be taken to the sea.  There, the fish instructed Manu to build a ship and protect himself from the deluge.  When the deluge began, Manu tied the ship to the fish, who took him away from the floods and toward the Himalayas.  When Manu stepped out of the boat, he found himself all alone in a lost and lonely world, for every other creature had been wiped out by the flood.  The fish identified himself as Brahma and gave Manu the power to create and repopulate the world.”

This is such a charming story, with clear parallels to the story of Noah, and in another version, also retold by Dr. Krishna in her book, Manu has also brought along every species of animal – and also the seeds of plants – an important element left out of the Noah story in the Bible.

In Indian sacred myths, the animals are never just there incidentally. They don’t exist to be used by humans or to serve an economic purpose. Instead they are sacred, magical beings.

Matsya talks; though he is little and is really a child fish, he speaks to Manu on an equal footing – more than just equal because he is giving Manu instructions, and in the end Matsya saves Manu and saves the world.  He is Lord Vishnu, descended to earth to accomplish this.  Matsya is the first incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In this lies a key to understanding the tradition of India’s relationship to animals.  The animal is not an objective thing – to be utilized, produced, and harvested for the well-being of humans.  Instead the animal is a spiritual being, who is sacred, with a link to deep knowledge, wisdom, and magical power.  The animal is an integral part of the cosmos, as the human is, and respect and protection for animals is inherent in this worldview.

Not that this reverence for animals is always adhered to in modern India.  Sadly, it is not, but the very old tradition is always there, even today, and the respect for animals is alive, on all levels of society, and is never so far from consciousness that it cannot be reawakened.

Top photo: “Photo: Hans-Petter Fjeld (CC-BY-SA)”

Second photo: / Public domain

Third photo: © Mark Doherty | Dreamstime.jpg

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:;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.