Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Ashura" and the Anti-Buddhist Asuras

Compiled by Dharmachari (Wisdom Quarterly/Wikipedia) BUDDHIST COSMOLOGY
Celestial Asuras ("Titans") falling or descending from space

One may choose to see these things as unreal, only mythological. Nevertheless, it is important to understand our histories-mythologies because they are fueling very real conflicts in the world today -- American hegemony in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran (reminiscent of the Christian crusades), irrepressible Middle East tensions, deadly Indian border disputes, and so on. Where other traditions may only give lip service to the idea, Buddhism is in fact about peace.

December 27th marks the Muslim holiday Ashura, a day of peace to commemorate a great injustice. In Buddhist and Indian lore, the Asuras were a type of fallen deva, expelled from a relatively low celestial world (Tavatimsa, "the World of the Thirty Three") by Sakka. (Interestingly, suggesting that Asuras could not have been too different, Sakka is said to have married an Asuran princess). Whereas devas (ETs called deities) from the three space spheres immediately above the Earth plane had established contact with various human civilizations -- bringing literacy, technology, advanced masonry, as well as laws -- the Asuras were latecomers.


They are known as Titans, an angry, warlike alien race constantly battling with devas. In establishing contact in the vicinity of old Sumeria, their revelations led to the founding of Zoroastrianism. This religion holds that the supreme "God" is Ahura Mazda (Ahura = Asura). Since Sakka is a Buddhist (not only a constant companion of the Buddha but also a stream-winner, the first stage of enlightenment), it is sensible that his arch enemies would destroy the Dharma from the Near East to India.

What were once thriving centers of Buddhism and the frontiers of the Indian empire, the -- Bactria, Afghanistan/Pakistan (Gandhara) extending into Baluchestan (Persia/Iran/Iraq) or well into the Middle East. By the Buddha's time there were 16 great "countries" (Maha Janapadas), but there had been countless dominions (or "footholds of a tribe") before that.


The word ashura simply means "tenth" in Arabic. So the name of this remembrance day, literally translated, means "the tenth day" of Muharram. The day is indeed the tenth day of the month, although some Islamic scholars offer up different etymologies. In his book Ghuniyatut Talibin, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani writes that the Islamic scholars have a difference of opinion as to why this day is known as Ashura. Some scholars suggest that this day is the tenth most important day that God has blessed Muslims with.

Asuras (in Hinduism): The term Asura is linguistically related to the Ahuras of Zoroastrianism (an ancient religion in Persia/Iran). But in that religion it has a different meaning. For one, the term applies to a very specific set of divinities, only three in number (Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Apam Napat). For another, there is no direct opposition between the Ahuras and the Daevas: It is said that the fundamental opposition in Zoroastrianism is not between groups of divinities [extraterrestrials], but between Asha "Truth" and Druj "Lie/Falsehood."

This Wikipedia tidbit might make sense if linguistics were the only measure. Theology shows a different side to the argument. It is evident from both Buddhist and Hindu sources that the Asuras are the nemeses of the devas (at least of the Tavatimsa realm). Since Sakka, king of the 33 Tavatimsa devas, is also the "king of kings," that is, chief of the Four Great Kings (catu maharajika devas), there is considerable animosity between Asuras and devas. Because Yakkhas (ogres or demons of another sort) and Nagas (powerful Reptilian rulers) also inhabit the base of Mt. Sumeru, the terrestrial plane, one imagines Asuras at odds with various groups.

The opposition between the Ahuras and Daevas is an expression of that opposition. The Ahuras, like all the other Yazatas or Arha [Arhatas, those regarded as worthy of honor] are defenders of Asha. The Daevas, on the other hand, are in the earliest texts divinities [estraterrestrials] who are to be rejected because they are misled by "the Lie" (see Daeva for details). This is a classic portrayal of the conflict between "principalities," as understood in JudeoChristian terms. (Indeed, most modern Christian dogma is derived from pre-Christian sources, namely, Mithraism and Zoroastrianism, themselves taken from older Mesopotamian and Sumerian sources, including the key elements of Jesus' story even if only historians know it).

Buddhist thangka section depicting Asuras and devas in a war in heaven

Aššur (also Ashur, Assur; written A-šur, also Aš-šùr,ܐܫܘܪ in Neo-Assyrian often shortened to Aš) was the head of the Assyrian pantheon. [Interestingly, Surya is the Sun God, a visitor from space claiming to hail from the sky or Sun, in Indian and Buddhist lore. Might Assurya derive from anti-Surya?]. His origins are unknown, but he is one of the Mesopotamian city gods, namely of the city Assur (pronounced Ashur), once the capital of the Old Assyrian kingdom. It might therefore be that he was a personification of the city itself or be a city named in his honor. From about 1300 BC priests attempted to replace Marduk with Ashur in Enuma Elish.

We propose that whatever temporal meaning has been ascribed to the day of Ashura, it is actually centered on the Titans (Asuras) being worshipped as arch angels. They have come to be regarded as "demons" from the Indian point of view (whereas the Middle East may regard devas as "devils"). The message they brought, indeed, does not differ radically from that of angels (Tavatimsa devas), except that it is the other side of the story: Before being "cast out" of heavenly Tavatimsa, Asuras were angels. Unlike Christian teachings, they were not tossed into perdition but onto Earth (the base of Mt. Sumeru). This might make them the Annunaki of the Sumerians, upon which advanced Middle Eastern cultures were predicated.

Buddhist cosmology is, of course, only regarded as mythological nowadays. Demons are a silly superstition, and the Annunaki is pure myth and science fiction. But doubtless these "mythologies" were based on something. The Buddha in countless sutras refers to these superordinate planes, their inhabitants, and their visits to Earth. The Buddha specified no fewer than 31 planes (categories) of existence. Most of these are deva (light being) and brahma (divinity) spheres.

But there are also beings who are less than devas in rank yet live in conditions superior to humans. The order of being starts at immaterial devas, brahmas, fine-material devas, sensuous sphere devas, Four Great Kings devas, gandhabbas, garudas, suparnas, kinnaras, kumbandhas, nagas, bhumi-devas (earthbound elementals), then Asuras, then humans.

Egyptian hieroglyphs similarly record contact with alien visitors from space ("heaven").

The supposition that a dichotomy between Ahuras/Asuras and Daevas/Devas already existed in Indo-Iranian times is not supportable from either the Indian or Iranian perspectives. Not only is such a dichotomy not evident in the earliest texts of either culture, neither the Rig Veda's Asuras nor the Gathas' Daevas are demons. The demonization of the Asuras in India and the demonization of the Daevas in Iran both took place "so late that the associated terms cannot be considered a feature of Indo-Iranian religious dialectology."

The idea of a prehistorical opposition between the Asuras/Devas, originally presented in the 19th century but popularized in the mid-20th century, had for some time already been largely rejected by Avesta scholars when a landmark publication (Hale, 1986) attracted considerable attention among Vedic scholars. Hale discussed, "as no one before him" (so Insler's review), the attestations of asura and its derivatives in chronological order of the Vedic texts, leading to new insights into how the Asuras came to be the demons that they are today and why the venerated Varuna, Mithra, Rudra, Agni, Aryaman, Pusan, and Parjanya are all Asuras without being demonic. Although Hale's work has raised further questions — such as how the later poets could have overlooked that the Rig Veda's Asuras are all exalted gods — the theory of a prehistoric opposition is today conclusively rejected.

Following Hale's discoveries, Thieme's earlier proposal of a single Indo-Iranian Asura began to gain widespread support. In general (particulars may vary), the idea runs as follows: Indo-Iranian Asura developed into Varuna in India and into Ahura Mazda in Iran. Those divinities closest related to that "Asura [who] rules over the [g]ods" (AV 1.10.1, cf. RV II.27.10) inherit the epithet, for instance, Rudra as Devam Asuram (V 42.11).

Iranian turmoil, of course, has little to do with traditional Middle Eastern celebrations and the true meaning of Ashura. The holiday coincides with 2009 political conflicts. But it is more than coincidental that the warlike Titans (Asuras) so influenced the cultures that commemorate it that they expelled all traces of Buddhism and established rule by force. Buddhists remain pacifists.

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