Mythos 29 – Asura and Rakshasa

 

The version of the Rāmāyaṇa written by Valmiki consists of around 480,000 words, being a quarter of the length of the Mahabharata, and about four times the length of the Iliad. The Rāmāyaṇa relates the story of Prince Rama of the Kingdom of Kosala, whose wife Sita was abducted by the Rakshasa King Rāvaṇa of Lanka, meaning Islands. The oldest version of Valmiki’s Rāmāyaṇa is variously dated to between 2,500 and 2,100 years ago, about the same time as the earliest surviving versions of the Mahabharata.(1)Robert P. Goldman (1985) The Rāmāyaṇa of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, Page 23 As with many ancient epics it has gone through a process of interpolations and redactions, making it impossible to date accurately, or determine if it was originally a translation from another language.

Traditional Thai Mural Inside Wat Phra Kaew, in Bangkok

Traditional Thai Mural Depicting Suvannamaccha and Hanuman

In the Rāmāyaṇa, Rama was the Prince of Kosala, a kingdom reported to have once existed in northern India. A Rakshasa King named Rāvaṇa abducted Sita, Rama’s wife in order to get Rama to follow Rāvaṇa’s directives. The term Rakshasa is a word found in the Ṛigveda, indicating that if the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahabharata were translated into Sanskrit from another language, the older term was replaced with a more familiar word by the translators. An identical process is recorded as happening in other cultures the Aryans occupied, including the Assyrians, Hurrians, and Hattians. While the older word is not currently known, the word Rakshasa is generally translated as demon, although they are described in the Ṛigveda as cannibals and blood-drinkers.(2)Ṛigveda (circa 1500 B.C.) Mandala 10, Hymn 87 Rakshasas were depicted in many differing ways throughout Indian history, sometimes as demonic creatures, sometimes as humans, and sometimes as creatures combining human and animal physiology. In the Southeast Asian versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, the Khmer Reamker and Thai Ramakien, Rāvaṇa was known as Tosakanth, and his daughter Suvannamaccha was described as a being a mermaid, similar to the descriptions of the Anunna of Sumer.

A Statue Depicting a Demonic Rakshasa

A Statue Depicting a Demonic Rakshasa

The Rakshasa were a group of Asura in both the Vedic texts and the later Hindu religion. The Asura were a group of beings that are generally translated by Western mythologists as Titans. In the oldest Vedic texts and the equally ancient Gathas they were depicted as good, while in the later Hindu religion they became depicted as evil. The Asura were a group of beings whose leader changed throughout the course of the Ṛigveda. The term was also applied to any foreign people including the Danavas and Laityas,(3)John Bowker (1997) The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Page 103 so the word could be seen as the ancient Sanskrit term analogous to the modern English term alien; which is applied to anything foreign, from people from other countries to space monsters. At times Indra, Varuna, and Rudra, were each recorded as being the leaders of the Asura, and later each of these became a Hindu deva (god).

Varuna was described virtually identically to Uanna the Anunna in the Sumerian mythos. Varuna was a god of the water and of the celestial ocean, as well as a god of law. Varuna was chief of the Adityas, the offspring of Aditi,(4)Karel Werner (2005) A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism, Page 17 the celestial mother of every existing being. Aditi is associated with space (akasa), as a result the word Adityas is also translated as Celestials, literally meaning extra-terrestrials. The ancient Vedic concept of the cosmic ocean is identical to the Mesopotamian concept of the Cosmic Abyss. As recorded in the Chandogya Upanishad:

“What is the goal of this world?” said [Silaka Salavatya].

“Space,” said [Pravahana]; “for all these contingent beings originate from space, and to space do they return. For space is greater (and more ancient) than they: space is the final goal.”- Chandogya Upanishad (5)Chandogya Upanishad (circa 700 B.C.) Hindu Scriptures, translated by R. C. Zaehner in 1938, Page 105

References   [ + ]

1. Robert P. Goldman (1985) The Rāmāyaṇa of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, Page 23
2. Ṛigveda (circa 1500 B.C.) Mandala 10, Hymn 87
3. John Bowker (1997) The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Page 103
4. Karel Werner (2005) A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism, Page 17
5. Chandogya Upanishad (circa 700 B.C.) Hindu Scriptures, translated by R. C. Zaehner in 1938, Page 105