"Asura", I recalled the word from my childhood, the first encounter from the earliest bedtime stories of my grandmother and mother, where they were the staple villains: Asura the demons of the Hindu mythology, until I read Buddhism and the earliest Hindu texts and stopped viewing the world in rigid black and white or as they call it in.
Thereafter, I vaguely remember seeing disks on display in a game shop of various games of the Asura Blades Genre. Back then, I had never realised why Japanese games bore the word until I reached middle school and in the Indian History curriculum, inadvertently encountered a brief column on the infringed, marginalised Asura tribe (who hold are considered as descendants of Asura Mahishasura, aka Ravana) who made an exceptional quality of steel via a scientifically advanced, avant-garde rather anachronical technique of smelting and treatment.
The ancient wisdom of traditional steel making art, like all things in popular lore in India, were "destroyed by foreign assailants". But no, this was no muse of the jingoist right wing conspiracy lobby that predominates India but the subject of research work of international academia and modern Indian secular scholars and historians, who knew better than to conflate myth with history. This eminent steel a relative, perhaps a predecessor and surely not a descendant of the famed Damascine steel, was of world renown and reached far and wide, via trade routes, in the ancient period itself, while the invaluable technique of steel making was kept secretive.
When the English colonised India, their inability to pronounce its indigenous name (as almost everything in the subcontinent) corrupted it to the subsequently well-known Wootz Steel. But more than the nominal popularity, they helped it garner, the British, as with their treatment of every exhaustible resource of India, from gold to forests, the British abused and casually exploited the technique and once firearms were refined it fell into neglect and impoverishment meant consumership fell.
The Asuras were tribals, already dwelling the fringes, as indigenous people were alienated by the ruling Aryan-Dravidian semi-Caucasoid who formed the vast majority of the composite Indian population. Under the later colonial atrocities, the tribes succumbed to dwindling forests and incurred collateral damage from rail and timber industry that incurred a double whammy: clearing forests to laying railways and logging for use elsewhere.
The Asura tribe dwelt the once-thickly Deccan Plateau in Central and Central South India. Mainstream, Conventional and majoritarian Hindu festivals feel alien to them: their traditions are distinct and older, albeit sharing unmistakably common traits and at least proximous origin but ulterior evolution, even polar contrary.
For instance, they worship Ravana, a demon, as their forefather, who was killed by the Hindu God Rama. Demons in Hindu mythology and contemporary Indian pop culture are invariably and unmistakably very dark skinned and Australasoid. Vali, Tarakasura, Ravana and Mahishasura were all benevolent kings with exceptionally prosperous kingdoms who had vanquished the lesser Gods, their antitheses Devas , in combat, before the Higher Gods vanquished them by ulterior means under specific circumstances.
Best described in the words of the illustrious Tribal Leader Shibu Soren “Ravana is our ancestor, We won’t burn his (festive ritual) effigy”, referring to the extremely popular ceremony, a hallmark of the Hindu festival Dussehra.
Devas were forever in privileged positions and Asuras evicted and displaced them after undertkaing painstakingly long and ardous penances and industry, training in combat and earning benevolent boons from Gods by pleasing and appeasing them with the afore offerings, sacrifices and penances.
The Asura tribes are native to my region of Jharkhand, yet I seldom stumble upon them in their native state of existance. Maya or illusion was a weapon and plot utilised in mainstream Hindu scriptures to firmly establish the asuras and consolidate their credentials as firmly established “bad guys”: the banal trope.
But from Rama to Vamana and Murugan to Durga, Asuras have an antiparallel lore than envisions asuras as mighty simpletons and aryans as conquerors who by deceit and underhanded tricks, tempt and manipulative snares lured and fooled them into defeat.
One is vaguely reminded of the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal divide, which to some solace, was liaised by sizeable yet diminutive intermixing of gene pool.
History is written by victors, hence it is canonised as such in popular lore and culture. In the popular manga and anime franchise Naruto, the eponymous protagonist is said to be an incarnation of asura, who albeit protagonistic,has his signature technique in the form of spontaneous creation of kagebunshin or shadow clones that can number in thousands, drawing an explicit parallel with the illusory (oft connoted as deceitful) maya ability of several demons mentioned in the Hindu scriptures.
In the same story, the predecessor incarnation of Asura, Hashirama Senju, the patriarch of Naruto’s village shared a similar vigour and he could manifest several limbs or morph them at will, a stark, accurate resemblance to the 20 handed Ravana or the 1000-handed Sahastrabahu, the prime antagonist of Vishnu’s sixth incarnation Parshuram (Rama and Krishna follow), subsequently slain by him.
One could argue that Hindu Gods wield multiple appendages too, as depicted in modern icons, but they’re mostly metaphors, a modern rendering and markedly fewer in number than the demons. Moreover, the dexterity of the Asuras was in the sinister, odd nature of their limbs, depicted to be malleable at will to wicked contortions and unexpected manipulations. Those who have born privy to the Real Steel Franchise might find their minds inadvertently drawn to the supernumerary appendages of the android combat bot Asura, a testimonial to the all-pervasiveness and the depth of seepage of the etymology into the popular cultural subconsciousness.
The Kofuku-ji Asura Statue is perhaps the best impression of this multihanded trait, the demonkind are depicted with. In a number of Shounen (a vibrantly banal action-adventure genre of anime typically targeted at young male audiences) anime, this innuendo is drawn upon either subconsciously or directly, whereby the Asura character is a famed, elusive and formidable master of mechanisations and legendary bladesmithery, encountered later in quest by a hero, or a formidable, dexterous, striving, adversary or rival.
Recently, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the incumbent HRD minister of India were embroiled in an Almighty brouhaha over the latter’s objections, vehement rebuttals and threatening insinuations to the former’s student union’s statement echoing a claim by the Asura tribe, amongst others, of Durga being a manipulative Aryan antagonist. In contemporary India, putting own self in others shoes, let alone your ideological opponents, is an alien concept, despite it being the cornerstone of the land’s rich eclectic culture and history.
It is a further testimony to the intimate entwinement of the Indian and Sino-Japanese cultures that the popular Indian mythical story and the folklore of Nagas (race of the esoteric serpent-people) and the Naga-Mani (the coveted mystical gem, that bestows upon its possess transcendental powers) are literally inherited in the Japanese lore as the Sea-King and The Dragon Ryujin and its sea-jewels, respectively. The legend of Urashima Taro presents an interesting case of distinct adaption. Legends do not get analogically and merely proportionally inherited.
The Indians who visited ancient Japan were predominantly merchants, besides Buddhist monks, preachers and students. This gets reflected in the fact that the inherited cultural figments were skewed and disproportionately mercenary. The nature of the deities in the eclectic Shinto-Buddhist-Hindu set, a distinct assortment, salient to Japan comprises The Seven Gods of Fortune, colloquially known as the Seven Lucky Gods contain Bishamonten, the Hindu Deva (Lesser God, a supernatural trans-human entity) of auspiciousness and wealth, a relatively lower entity in Hinduism.
Two of the other Hindu Gods inherited by Japan are Benzaiten and Kichijoten-Patrons of the aforementioned scholarly friars and mercenary voyagers respectively, and two thirds of the female Supreme Deity Triumvirate (Tridevi) in Hinduism.
But mercantile interests drove the distinction skewed in favor of mercenary selectivism, which further contributed to enriching the diversity of our world. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t mean making the world the same but rather it’s essence lies in distinction. This is a lesson, the Hindu-National radical needs to take a leaf out, of Japan’s book of syncretisation.
The elegance of the transience lies in merchants taking an ascetic deity of destruction (and subsequent procreation) and the macabre and adapting him as a jolly corpulent fortune sac-bearer, akin to an euphemism of Budai, with a hammer which when wielded strikes, not terror but gold coins.
Asuras, I fondly recall, were the lesser Gods in Rigveda, A- being a diminutive prefix for Sura, a synonym of Deva but with A being used as a negating prefix, in later (more popular) traditions, became demons: A thing no Hindu in his good mind would tell you, lest he be a hardboiled scholar. Asuras were ordinary folk who with their labour, focus, sacrifice and industry, trembled and upon numerous instances, toppled the entitled throne of the Gods.
Written byPitamber Kaushik
The author is a freelance journalist and amateur researcher in philosophy and minority studies, having previously written for The Telegraph, The New Delhi Times, The Gulf News, The Sunday Independent, Rising Kashmir, The Quint, Intersectional Feminism India, Sudharma, and The MilliGazette.