Asuras and Slavery – The Indic Disconnect
Demons, Satan and Ogres and Monsters
The world calls them by many names – demon, daemon, daimon, deuce, devil, daeva, evil spirit, ghost, fiend, imp, monster, ogre, rogue, savage, satan, villain, et al. All cultures in the world, extant and extinct have a vast array of villains. The Desert Bloc has the Satan and the Greeks had the sundry Medusa, Titans and Cyclops. The Sumerians had Gilgamesh and Enkidu take on Humbaba.
But the Indian tradition does not really have demons. The closest that Indian texts offer are the asuras - blessed by the Gods, especially by Brahma and Shiva. Unlike demons in the rest of the world, the Indian asuras are believers in God, at least in the Indian trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Their rivals are the devas – led by Indra. The struggle between devas and asuras is an ongoing theme in Indian classical texts. Some asuras like Ravana are highly learned, some were Brahmans before becoming asuras, like Vritrasura and there is the highly righteous asura, like King Bali.
What is one to make of the Indian asura?
Asuras in Indian texts
Indian pauranik and classical history begins to make sense only after the concept of ‘asuras’ as a verbal cue for slavery and slave masters /traders is used. In the Ramayana, there is great elaboration about Ravana’s palace and cities – and Ayodhya was itself an unremarkable city.
Jataka stories (mainly considered as children’s stories in the West) are a reflection of social mores, realities- and also cautionary tales for adults. This Jataka story (click on the link) refers to a “demon’ (another word for a slave trader) and cautions travellers and merchants about slave traders. This ‘demon’ kidnaps the merchant – but leaves the goods behind.
Similarly, the story of Bali, the ‘righteous’ Asura king, who was sent to the patalaloka, by Vamana, makes sense, the moment ‘demons’ are defined as slave-owners and enslavers.
Daas /Daasyus and Slavery
Daas and daasis in India are correctly, attendants or servants. The Pandavas, Harishchandra, Nala (of the Damyanti fame), all became dasas during adverse times. After their period of service, they could freely leave their employers. This was voluntary – and they were NOT captured, sold, resold, traded – as slaves, in slave societies were. Slaves have no control over the recompense for their output.
The word गुलाम ghulam is an import into modern Indian languages.The more wrongly and commonly used Sanskritic synonym is दास dasa - an attendant, or a servant, but not a slave. Draupadi was a daasi to the Queen of Virat-desh. The Pandavas became daasas at the court of Viraat-naresh. Raja Harishchandra became a daasa to a chandala. These were kings who became daasas. Nala, (Damayanti fame), the King of Nishada, became a daasa – but not a slave. Interestingly, in neo Assyrian period, “daughters of vassals (especially from Syria and Palestine) were sometimes sent to the Assyrian court to act as servants (ana abrakkuti)”
Therefore, once asura for slave traders /owners is used, the reading of Indian Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads, Mahabharat and Ramayana, everything, begins to makes much sense – especially historical sense. Without this interpretation, there are missing elements. For instance, the story of Bali and Vamana, the horror stricken response of readers to Sita-apaharan by Ravana and others.
Similarly, the story of Dadhichi, from whose bones the vajrastra was made to kill the ‘demon king’ Vritrasura! Or the ‘Nahusha’ story, where a ‘mere’ mortal human being was elevated to the position of Indra, to defeat the ‘asuras’. This interpretation of asuras as slave owners /traders, also adds another layer to the Rajput opposition to Mughals. And the Rajput women committing jauhar. In modern era, India’s unceasing opposition to South African apartheid was another example.
The Pyramids, the Coliseum, the Great Wall, were all monuments that were raised by slave societies. To impress the slave population?
India has no such monuments because India had no slave populations to build such showpieces – and no slaves to impress. Monuments, in the forms of temples, started showing up in India too, after 10th century AD – including in Indic ruled countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, etc.
Valmiki’s Ramayana is breathless with wonder at Lanka – and makes no mention of Ayodhya as a city.
samaasaadya cha lakshmiivan laN^kaaM raavaNapaalitaam |
parikhaabhiH sapadmaabhiH sotpalaabhiralaMkR^itaam || 5-2-14
siitaapaharaNaarthena raavaNena surakshitaam |
samantaadvicharadbhishcha raakshasairugradhanvibhiH || 5-2-15
kaaJNchanenaavR^itaaM ramyaaM praakaareNa mahaapuriim |
gR^ihaishcha grahasaMkaashaiH shaaradaambudasannibhaiH || 5-2-16
paaNDuraabhiH pratoLiibhiruchchaabhirabhisaMvR^itaam |
aTTaalakashataakiirNaaM pataakaadhvajamaaliniim || 5-2-17
toraNaiH kaaJNchanairdivyairlataapaN^kivichitritaiH |
dadarsha hanumaan laN^kaaM divi devapuriiM yathaa || 5-2-18
the city which looked like the city of Gods in heaven, decorated by moats filled with lotuses and water-lilies, which was well protected, since the time of Seetha’s abduction, by Ravana and by Rakshasas with horrifying voices roaming around, which was surrounded by a golden boundary wall, that beautiful great city consisted of houses equal in height to mountains and which looked like autumnal clouds, with white and elevated main streets, decorated with flags and pennons, with excellent golden hued archways adorned with sculpted rows of vines.
So, shining and gleaming cities were out of place in India – but Indians did associate such cities with slave-societies of Asuras.
Pandavas learn their lessons …
The Mahabharata has a cautionary tale about the Khandava-dahan and the building of city of Indraprastha -which the Pandavas lost very quickly. A reluctant Maya was pressured, persuaded and influenced to build Indraprastha for the Pandavas.
This tale in the Mahabharata is an interesting insight on monuments and man-nature conflict. The Pandavas, having secured a favorable award from Dhritarashtra, in their inheritance dispute, decided to set up a new capital. The divine architect Maya was retained to build this city. The site chosen for the new capital city – a forest, Khandava. Overcome by their hubris, the Pandavas, burnt down the entire forest - and the animals inhabiting the forest. In place of the forest came up the gleaming new city of Indraprastha.
All the kings were called to marvel at the new city. And in her pride, Draupadi mocked at Duryodhana – a guest. To avenge this mockery, Duryodhana challenged Yudhishthira for a game of chess (instead of a war) – which Yudhishthira promptly lost. They lost their new city – and were sent into exile by Duryodhana. Lessons duly learnt, the Pandavas after the completion of their exile, asked for five villages. After winning the War Of Mahabharat, they ruled from the ancient capital of Hastinapur. No more gleaming cities for them.
India and slavery
Unlike in the rest of the world, no records, ever, have been found of human trafficking in the India. Sanskrit and Indic languages have no word for ‘slave’. Based on inertia and social design, it would be difficult to imagine, that Indians woke up in 1000 BC and decided to abolish slavery. Instead, a pre-existing, anti-slavery bias, was re-affirmed repeatedly, is a more feasible hypothesis.
Unremitting and unceasing opposition to slavery – that is what Indian history is about. In fact, there is no Sanskritic word for a slave. Ghulam is an imported word, daas /daasi is an attendant. Slavery, as a concept does not exist in India – and it was slave traders who were defined as asuras.
Slave Memory In Indian Society
There are also no historical records of slave trades, prices, quantities, ownership anywhere in India. In fact, Sanskritic Indian languages have no word for slaves.
By the 10th century, Slave memory faded out in India. The Indic word for slave owning cultures, asur, became disconnected with slave ownership. The understanding of the word ‘asura’ changed – and foreign words like ‘ghulam’ made their way into Indic languages. Historically, trade in India is governed by शुभ लाभ ‘shubh-labh’ – and hence Indians have not been major players in drugs proliferation (unlike Japan, the West in which traded Opium in Korea and China) or in slave trade. In modern times, India, though a power in computing industry, is not a big player in spamming or in software virus.
What Did This Do In India
At least 4000 years ago, India went ahead and created a new economic model without slavery. The Occident and the Levant were using slaves till 20th century. Middle East’s labour laws even today smack of slave owner mentality.
Imported words like गुलाम ghulam or the xenophobic, Euro-interpretation of asuras as ‘Dravidians’, ‘foreigners’ or ‘others’ further dimmed Indian perception of slavery. Instead, created divisions within Indians. On the contrary, asuras could even be Indians – and even ‘righteous’ kings like Bali. The entire Ravana characterization was not about Sita being abducted. The outrage was the ‘asuras’ i.e. slave traders, trading her.
Similarly, the story of Dadhichi, from whose bones the vajrastra was made to kill the ‘demon king’ Vritrasur. Dadhichi was a former king, son of Atharvan, and Vritrasur was a brahman who became a slave trader – an asura. Or the ‘Nahusha’ story, where a mere mortal was made Indra, to defeat the ‘demons’.
Asuras in History
Interesting are the many Mahishasurmardini statues, coins and seals, especially by the Gupta kings and coins by many other Indic rulers, recovered from Afghanistan and Iran. The issuance of Mahishasurmardini seals and coins continued, going by by appearances, celebrated the victory of Tomyris, over Cyrus, for the next 800-1000 years. Such coins, seals and statues have been found in modern day Iran, Afghanistan, which support this linkage.
The possible link between Ahura Mazda and Mahishasura (Sanskrit root of Mazda Ahura?) has been the source of much speculation. Ahasuerus, is the Persian King, in the Hebrew Book Of Esther and Ezra – who is considered by some to be Xerxes. The commonality of Sanskritic language, symbols between Zend Avestha and Aryan India are well known for me repeat. After all, Zarathushtra was also from Bactra (Bharata-ah).
The Persian linguistic makeover from the Dravidian-Elamite language to Sanskritic-Old Persian however did not change everything. The Elamite element in Zoroastrian revolt against the daiwas (devas), continues today in Elamite-Dravidian-Tamil Nadu, where asura kings like Ravana and Neduncheziyan are respected.
Rural, Tribals and Urban
The Desert Bloc typically, targetted tribals for slavery – and in recent history, it was the Africans. In India though, the relationship was different. The interaction of tribals with the urban populations, limited to the extent of trade of produce needed by the urban dwellers – and urban products needed by these forest dwellers.
Early Indian records like the Ramayana recognized these rights – when Ramachandra on his way to exile was welcomed into the forest by Guha, the forest king, hunter king of the Nishada tribe – the ruler of the forests. Such centuries of tradition are today being trampled by the Indian State, which continues with some colonial practices – in the name of progress and public good.
tataH niSaada adhipatim dR^iSTvaa duuraat avasthitam |
saha saumitriNaa raamaH samaagacchad guhena saH || 2-50-35
35. dR^ishhTvaa= seeing; duuraat= from the distance; nishhaadaadhipatim= the king of Nishada; upasthitam= coming; saH raamaH= that Rama; soumitriNaa saha= along with Lakshmana; tataH= thereupon; samaagachchhat= went forth to meet; guhena= Guha.
Seeing from a distance the king of Nishada coming, Rama along with Lakshmana thereupon went forth to meet Guha.
Slavery – in recent Indian history
This also adds another layer to the Rajput opposition to Mughals. And the Rajput women committing sati and jauhar was a response to the huge slave market that operated in the entire Central Asian geography and the Levant. The Central Asian region from the 10th century to the 17th century, imported Indian slaves – and exported horses.
In modern era, India’s unceasing opposition to South African apartheid was another example. But before that, suddenly intrepid Indians discovered kaala paani - a response to indentured labour, which was a close parallel to slavery.
Unremitting and unceasing opposition to slavery – that is what Indian history is about. In fact, Sanskrit language, which is a synthetic and artificial language, works on the system of relational data base system, has no word for a slave. Ghulam is an imported word, daas /daasi is an attendant. Slavery as a concept does not exist. And it is this unceasing opposition to slavery, which has made India the longest, continously extant civilization in human history.
Where Do We Go From Here
The world has looked to India for answers. But modern India looks to the West. And Western history, by drawing away our attention from the elephants in room has irrelevant answers – a trail of red herrings. It is this lack of slavery, it is these values that gives India the lowest prison populations in the world – and few positions in the Forbes ‘Most Wanted’ List.