Gods and Demons in the Veda

Kurma, the tortoise incarnation of Vishnu —Public Domain Image (Wikimedia Commons)

Gods and Demons in the Veda

How they are conceptualised and how this carries into later Hindu tradition

The ways in which gods and demons are conceptualised in the Veda is interesting and distinctive in ways that continue to be relevant to subsequent thinking about the nature and qualities of the divine. This article will present a passage from the Taittirīya Sahitā of the Krishna Yajur Veda, one important Vedic text. It will highlight some of the distinctive features of gods and demons as they appear here, and identify some ways in which this thinking may have informed later Hindu tradition. All Veda text extracts are from the translation of Taittirīya Samhitā 4.2.1.1–2 by Professor Arthur Berriedale Keith.

Our passage starts by setting the scene –

“The gods, men, and the Pitrs were on one side, the Asuras, Raksases, and Piçacas on the other.”

The Asuras, Raksases, and Piçacas named here can be understood as types of demons. These different factions have formed their alliances, in what the next line makes clear is a bloody battle –

“Of the gods the little blood they drew the Raksases smothered by the nights and dawn dawned on them smothered and dead.”

It seems that the gods are having little success, but rather are being trounced by the Raksases. It also seems that the Raksases attack by night, and perhaps that the counter-offensives of the gods are restricted to the daytime.

It seems the gods now realise that a change in strategy is called for. They decide to make a deal with the Raksases, who perhaps constitute the strongest faction of their opponents.

“The gods understood, ‘Him who of us dies, it is the Raksases who kill.’”

“They invited the Raksases, they said, ‘Let us choose a boon; what we win from the Asuras, let that be shared between us.’”

It seems that the gods have made a bargain with the Raksases, persuading them to stand down from the battle in order to give the gods a chance in fighting the Asuras, in return for splitting the spoils of battle with them. This strategy does indeed work out for the gods, but the gods do not make good on the agreed deal –

“Then indeed did the gods conquer the Asuras, and having conquered the Asuras, they drove away the Raksases.”

It seems that the gods have divided their opponents in order to successively vanquish them. However, the story is not quite over, and the Raksases are not yet out of the picture.

“The Raksases (saying), ‘Ye have done falsely’, surrounded the gods on all sides.”

The story ends with the gods seeking the help of Agni who enables them to overcome the Raksases, although the nature of the help afforded to them is not made entirely clear by the text.

“The gods found a protector in Agni …

That the gods prospered, the Raksases were defeated.”

Although this passage is in some sense couched in the terminology of the mundane human battles and battle alliances that would have been familiar to ancient peoples, it is clear that the events are set on a cosmic stage with superhuman actors. One possible association of the text is with the astrological phenomena of light and darkness, dusk, day and night. The cosmic conflict depicted here may also remind us somewhat of the dualistic cosmology of Zoroastrianism, whereby good and evil are separate and independent forces in the universe. Indeed, the Veda is somewhat connected with the Avesta.

It is also evident already from this short passage that such a conception of the divine is rather different from that of the Abrahamic religions. The gods do not have the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, which lead to the ultimately unresolvable ‘Problem of Evil’ which was originally formulated by Epicurus. Indeed, more recent Hindu philosophers such as Kumārila have argued strongly against the coherence of the idea of attributing omniscience to any figure. Kumārila’s arguments were directed against Buddhist philosophers like Dharmakīrti who maintained that the Buddha was omniscient.

Rather, in the above passage we find gods who are finite, limited beings, although perhaps somewhat larger than life characters. They must use their wit and wile in order to achieve their ends by means that do not constitute intrinsically virtuous actions. This stream of thought about the divine appears to continue throughout much of subsequent Hindu tradition, and I would like to briefly summarise two such illustrations of this — firstly, the story of the churning of the ocean and secondly the role of Krishna in the Mahabharata.

The well-known story of the Churning of the Ocean is told in the Bhagavata Purana, in the Mahabharata and in the Vishnu Purana, and is illustrated in many Indian miniature paintings. The plot of this story appears to have an affinity with the Vedic passage discussed above. At the start of the story, the demons [asuras] have defeated the gods and gained control over the universe. Advised by Vishnu, the gods decide to make a deal with the demons. They will team up to churn the ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality from it, which they will then share.

In terms of set-up for the operation, the snake Vasuki, younger brother of Shesha-nāga, kindly volunteered to stand in as the rope to be pulled back and forth to churn the ocean. Mount Mandara was the churning rod, and Vishnu, specially incarnated in the form of a turtle for the purpose, placed himself under the mountain for stability and support. The gods and demons work together in a co-ordinated way, each group pulling alternatively on their side of the ‘rope’. Personally, I can’t think of any other religious tradition where we see such effective teamwork between gods and demons.

The operation is indeed a great success. Various preliminary treasures and beings emerged through the process of churning, including medicinal herbs, jewels, goddesses, the moon, the wish-fulfilling cow Surabhi , the elephant Airavata, the horse Uchhaishravas and so on and so forth. Finally, from out of the depths of the ocean, Dhanvantari (who is venerated on the occasion of Dhanteras) emerged with the nectar of immortality in a pot.

At this point, Vishnu, in the form of the goddess Mohini, distracts the demons in order to remove the pot of nectar from under their gaze. The gods are able to carry away the nectar and drink it all themselves. The incident is also associated with the famous Kumbha Mela, which rotates between the four locations where drops of this nectar are thought to have fallen during this escape.

As in the Vedic passage above, we find that the gods start in a position of defeat. They then strategise in a relatively sophisticated way to strike a bargain with the demons, before reneging on their side of the deal at the final stage. This seems again to indicate that the relative strength of the gods lies not in greater power, let alone omnipotence, but rather in a degree of strategy and wile.

Again, there is the indication of a possible astronomical reading, as it seems that one of the demons, Rahuketu, infiltrated the party of the gods in disguise, and was able to share in the nectar. Rahuketu was chopped into two parts by Mohini (Vishnu), and subsequently became the Eclipse of the Sun (Rahu) and the Eclipse of the Moon (Ketu).

The second example I will briefly consider is that of the role of Krishna in the Mahabharata, where we also find a common theme. Krishna is responsible for advising the Pandavas on the battlefield as to how to defeat their opponents, the Kauravas, and in particular, how to overcome three of the four successive commanders of the Kaurava forces.

To put it briefly, the following three defeats are effected through the advice of Krishna –

  • The first Kaurava commander is Bhishma. As Bhishma has taken a vow not to fight the warrior Śikhandi on the battlefield (as Śikhandi was born a female), Arjuna is advised to attack Bhishma jointly with Śikhandi in thie same chariot. Unable to fight back, Bhishma’s entire body is impaled with arrows.
  • Bhishma is followed as commander by Drona. Yudhisthira is advised to mislead Drona into believing that his son Asvatthāma has just died in battle elsewhere on the battlefield. While in a state of grief, Dhristadyumna is able to defeat and kill him.
  • The third Kaurava commander, Karna, is killed by Arjuna while he is attempting to extricate the wheel of his chariot from the mud in which it has become mired. Karna’s charioteer, Shalya, privately sympathising with the Pandava forces, refuses to perform this task that should properly fall to him.

It is certainly not the case that all the ethically dubious acts are undertaken by one side in this battle. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that at the end of the war, Krishna is called to account for his behaviour by Gāndhāri, who has lost all her one hundred sons in the battle. Krishna attempts to explain that he used the limited means at his disposal to engineer a victory for the Pandavas, which is the best possible outcome achievable when the overall circumstances are taken into account. Krishna’s power during battle is predominantly exercised through the judicious use of strategy and tactics to tip the balance marginally in favour of the Pandava side. Nevertheless, Krishna is cursed by Gāndhāri that, like her, he will live to see all of his clan, the Yādavas, likewise killed in internecine battle, and that Krishna himself will later die an ignominious death.

The philosopher Bimal Krishna Matilal explores the significance of Krishna as a divine figure, writing that “Krishna is an enigma in the Mahābhārata. He represents the most confusing kind of moral enigma not only in the epic, but also in the whole of the Hindu ideal of dharma.” Matilal connects this with “the ever-elusive character, the unresolved ambiguity of the concept of dharma” and the fact that “[g]ood and evil, right and wrong, are never given in their unalloyed states”. Reviewing Krishna’s role in the above, Matilal writes that the Mahābhārata’s conception of God is “not that of an Almighty Deity … Courses of certain events cannot be stopped … In order to save justice towards the end, many unjust and immoral acts were perpetrated. But what kind of justice was this?”

Thus, again, we see the same theme of divinity (the god Krishna) possessing a knowledge of the future which surpasses that of mortal beings, and resulting from that, a more-than-human mastery of strategy, tactics and psychology, even when these are ethically compromising. At the same time, Krishna’s scope to maneuver is bounded by tight constraints and his ability to engineer the outcome of battle is finite and limited. Krishna was able to prevent the war from taking place, the occurrence of mass slaughter through warfare and underhand means, and the effective collapse of the kingdom over which the parties were fighting. As in the Vedic story above, and as in the Churning of the Ocean, this is again a conception of the divine which knowingly falls short of attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence.

This article has attempted to present some features of the divine found in the Veda and illustrated how these continue to inform subsequent Hindu tradition. At the same time, Hindu thought is capacious and not easily susceptible to definitive summary as points of dogma and doctrine. Philosophical speculation and rational analysis of the nature and qualities of the divine is varied and diverse. In the final instance we may affirm the spirit of the Nāsadīya Sūkta in asking honestly and openly, “Who really knows? Who here can say? From whence did it come? From whence this creation?”

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