Rgveda, avesta, and beyond--ex occidente lux?

Author:Scharfe, Hartmut

It has puzzled scholars for a long time why Indian and Iranians who both seemingly started out with divine figures called *asura and *daiua went in opposite directions. In the Avesta Ahura Mazdah and his fellow ahuras are worshiped, while the daeuuas are considered as fallen gods or even demons, whereas in the later Vedic texts it is the devas that are worshiped and the asuras are the counter-gods or demons. An early explanation was an assumed hostility between Indians and Iranians (1) who mutually degraded their opponents' deities. But no such large-scale hostilities are recorded, and they would still not explain why two ethnic groups with similar groups of deities should degrade a part of their own pantheon. Current opinion has it that the two ethnicities simply moved apart, the Iranians developing their cult of the ahuras, the Indians that of the devas, essentially declaring it an accident. (2) Helmut Humbach (3) reopened the debate, with some hesitation, when he assumed "a synchrony between the later Vedic period and Zarathustra's reform in Iran," and he leaned towards the assumption "that the prophet received his religious inspiration from the east." I would like to take up this question again, since some major aspects in this controversy have not so far received proper attention.

Thomas Oberlies saw in the Rgveda an overthrow of the "old" religion of the asuras by the young devas. (4) But the word and concept of deva have old Indo-European roots, while asura, on the other hand, is limited to Indo-Iranian. (5) Oberlies (Die Religion, 391-92) found proof for his thesis, that the (younger) devas defeated the (older) asuras, in several late hymns of the Rgveda, primarily the obscure hymn RV X 124, where Agni supposedly changes sides, leaving the asuras and joining the devas. Joel Brereton and Stephanie Jamison have offered very different and more convincing translations and interpretations of this hymn (6) that would remove this hymn from Oberlies' argumentation.

Then there is RV X 53,4b yenasuram abhi deva asama "by which we gods (deva) will overcome the asuras," (7) where the asuras may well be human foes, and RV X 157,4ab hatvaya deva asuran yad ayan deva devatvam abhiraksamanah "The gods upon having smashed the Asuras when they came--the gods guarding their own godhood," where asuras might refer to non-human foes. (8) A few years earlier Wash Edward Hale (Asura- in Early Vedic Religion) had followed the development of the use of asura in Vedic texts, a study that Oberlies unfortunately dismissed summarily (Die Religion des Rgveda, vol. I: 391 n. 2) and that Humbach did not refer to. There are several instances where asura in the RV clearly refers to human "lords"--some shown in a positive light, others not. I give here the four occurrences from the Family Books:

Positive are V 27,1

anasvanta satpatir mamahe me gava cetistho asuro maghonah / traivrsno agne dasabhih sahasrair vaisvanara tryarunas ciketa

The lord of settlements has readied for me two oxen together with an ox-cart--he, the most illustrious lord, more (illustrious) than (any other) generous patron.

Tryaruna, son of Trivrsan, is illustrious through his tens of thousands (of cattle), o Agni Vaisvanara.

and VII 56,24ab

asme viro marutah susmy astu jananam yo asuro vidharta /

Beside us let there be a forceful hero, o Maruts, who is lord (asura) and apportioner for the people.

Negative are II 30,4

brhaspate tapusasneva vidhya vrkadvaraso asurasya viran / yatha jagantha dhrsata pura cid eva jahi satrum asmakam indra

O Brhaspati, with searing heat, as if with a stone, pierce the heroes of the (rival) lord (asura), with their wolfish gait.

Just as you also smote boldly before, so smite our rival, o Indra. and VII 99,5

indravisnu drmhitah sambarasya nava puro navatim ca snathistam / satam varcinah sahasram ca sakam hatho apraty asurasya viran

O Indra and Visnu, you pierced the nine and ninety fortified strongholds of Sambara.

At one blow you smite the one hundred and thousand heroes of the lord (asura) Varcin without opposition.

That asura refers to deities in the RV so much more often than to humans is easily accounted for by the fact that the hymns of the RV are more focused on the worship of gods than they are on men. As Hale has shown, asura does not denote a separate class of gods in the RV. (9) The Adityas, personified abstractions, are often called asuras, but so are others deities like Indra, Agni, etc. Varuna and Mitra together are often called "the two lords" (asurau), but they are occasionally also called devav asura (RV VIII 25,4), and in RV VII 65,2 they are called "the lords" (asurau) of the devas;10 in RV II 27,10 Varuna is called "the king of all, Varuna, both gods and mortals, o lord."9 10 11 Indra is called an asura-han "killer of asuras" in RV VI 22,4, Agni in RV VII 13,1, Surya in RV X 170,2, but they are never called enemies or killers of Varuna, Mitra, or Aryaman. We must also not overlook that Indra and Agni are often called asuras themselves (Indra RV I 54,3 and 174,1; Agni RV III 3,4, IV 2,5, V 12,1, etc.).

When most deities (12) can at different times (or even at the same time) be called both deva and asura, the question arises what distinguishes the terms. (13) The occurrences of asura, conveniently collected by Hale, show the gods in their divine glory and power (14) and, when applied to men, as powerful men in command of valiant fighters. (15) The occurrences of deva are much more frequent, so much so that Hermann Grassmann in his "Worterbuch zum Rigveda" more or less stopped quoting instances from the second half of the text. I checked over 380 occurrences of deva from the family books based on Grassmann's listings and found few references to a god's might. (16) Instead there are abundant references to a god's presence at ritual offerings and many appeals for generous favors. The devas are summoned to come to a yajna; (17) the asuras never are. What is the source of this distinction, which is not found in the mythology of the other branches of the Indo-European language family? I shall return to the question later in this paper.

Hale found that in the younger parts of the RV and in the AV the singular forms of asura became increasingly rare, while the plural forms became common--usually referring to human "lords." This change may be due to the different focus of many of these poems, which go beyond the traditional praise and invocation of the gods to treat speculative or secular matters--even though they may also have been employed in the ritual in some way. (18) These plural forms referring to humans predominantly were used with negative connotations. Eventually these evil human "lords" were transfigured into non-human or rather superhuman (but misguided) beings that we might call "counter-gods." At an even later stage the distinction between these asuras and the earlier demonic raksases, yatus, and pisacis (already found in the Rgveda) was diminished or effaced altogether; they became just demons.

In the Avesta, too, the corresponding word ahura occasionally refers to human lords (Gathas Y 29,219 and Y 31,10;20 Ardvl Sur Yast 85, Tistar Yast 36, Fravardin Yast 63, Bahiram Yast 37, Zamyad Yast 77)--and not always complimentary: the ahura in Bahiram Yast 37 is largely unsuccessful--he cannot kill the owner of the magic feather. The primary deity is called Ahura Mazdah (21) "Lord Wisdom" or "The Wise Lord" and his affiliated hypostases are sometimes referred to as ahuras. (22) In Y 32,5 the daeuuas are mentioned as divine beings that have been led astray by the evil will with evil thought (in stanza 3 they seem to be called more negatively "seed [sprung] from evil thought"), and "They do not at all discriminate between these two [wills] because delusion comes over them when they counsel, so that they choose the worst thought" (Y 30,6). In Y 44,20 Ahura Mazdah is asked if "there have ever been daeuuas of good rule." They are almost never referred to by individual names (though see below) in the Gathas and not at all in the Yasna Haptanhaiti, the other Old Avestan text.

The question has been raised if these daeuuas were in fact Iranian deities of the pre-Zarathustrian "heathen" religion. Thomas Burrow (23) suggested that they were deities of what he called "Proto-Indoaryans," forerunners of the Indo-Aryans, i.e., tribes that stayed in Iran when most of their brethren moved further on to India. The daeuuas would be the deities of a foreign tribe, not deities of a "heathen" Iranian past. The Iranians would have already lost the ancient deities of their Indo-European inheritance. If this were true, it would be hard to understand why the polemics were directed only against the gods of these, at most marginal, entities, while the cults of Elamite, Babylonian, etc., gods were allowed to continue without objection; neither Khumban nor Marduk nor Assur are listed among the daeuuas anywhere in the Avesta. The positive role of daeuua in Sogdian names like Aewastic and Diwdad son of Diwdast and an adjective Sywywn (i.e., daiwagauna) 'heavenly' suggests a survival of ancient reverence towards daeuuas (24) in this Eastern Iranian community, the area of modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and the city of Samarkand. Clarisse Herrenschmidt and Jean Kellens,22 23 24 25 without accepting Burrow's "Proto-Indoaryan" theory, likewise doubted that daeuuas were part of the religious scene in Iran at the time when the Gathas were composed. They dismissed the argument that daeuuas enjoyed acceptance among the Sogdians, because the names, and the texts where they occur, date from a time when the Sogdians had converted to Buddhism, so that the names could show Indian influence. But devas did not play a prominent role in Buddhism, and names like Devadatta--in spite of Buddha's evil cousin and the ubiquitous king Devadatta of Jataka prose--are not common in Buddhists texts.

The Sogdian names are not the only indications of daeuua-worship...

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