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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Devas and the Asuras

Most of us who are familiar with Eastern religions would associate the word Deva with supernatural beings of light and therefore as 'gods' while the term Asura would be associated with beings of darkness and therefore 'demons'. Apparently this was not always so.

While researching the religion of the Zoroastrians on, imagine how surprised I was to come across this text in a translation of the Avesta:

Ahura Mazda spoke unto Spitama Zarathustra saying:
...The first of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda created, was the Airyana Vaego, by the good river Daitya.
Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created  by his withcraft the serpent in the river and winter, a work of the Daevas.

The Devas are evil? And that was not all, according to the Avesta, the Asuras are the beings of light while the Devas are the beings of darkness. It seemed impossible that two ancient religion had exactly opposite views  on something so fundamental as gods and demons!

The churning of the ocean, Samudra Mantan. Bas-relief sculpture from Ankgkor Wat, Cambodia.
 Image from Wikimedia

Further research showed that both the Avesta (ancient Persia) and the Vedas (ancient India) came from the same Indo-Iranian and an even older Indo-European source. According to a commentary on the Avesta in, Asura meant 'the Lord' and Daeva meant 'the Shining One'. So in the begining, both Asura and Daeva were supernatural beings of light. Apparently, the two religions evolved along separate paths - in the religion of the Avesta, the Daevas were demonised. Among the Hindus, the Devas were the gods and the Asuras became the demons. (Ahura Mazda is also spelt as Asura Mazda and means 'the Lord of High Knowledge'.

But the Rig Veda holds both Devas and Asuras as august beings of light. (The Rig Veda is a collection of ancient vedic Sanscript hymns. It is the oldest of four sacred text of Hinduism known collectively as the Vedas and is thought to be composed between 1700 - 1100 BC). 

In the Rig Veda , the Devas were gods of nature (elemental beings) while the Asuras were gods of social/moral values. Among the original Devas were Indra - god of thunder and lightning, Soma - the sacred potion and the plant, Agni - god of fire, Ushas - the dawns etc. Among the Asuras were Mithra - god of the oath/covenant/contract, Varuna - god of law, Aryaman - god of marriage etc In fact, the original Asuras were also known as the Adityas; seven celestial dieties who were the sons of Adithi. Headed by Varuna and Mitra, they were described as 'bright and pure as streams of water..." Among the Hindus, the Adityas would later be regarded as Devas as well. Varuna, attended by the Nagas, became god of the sky and ruler of the celestial ocean (the Milky Way). In ancient times, there was no air and light pollution and the Milky Way in the clear night sky would have been an awesome spectacle!

The Devas and the Asuras churn the milky ocean for Amrita,
the divine nectar. The living rope around Mount Meru is Vasuki,
 the king of the nagas.
The turtle is Kurma, an incarnation of Vishnu.
In one of the ancient myths, the Devas and Asuras agreed to work together to obtain Amrita, the divine nectar of immortality from the ocean. Using Mount Mandhara/Mount Meru as a churner, the king of the nagas, Vasuki agreed to be the living rope they would use to churn the ocean. The Devas, who pulled the tail end of Vasuki had an easier time compared to the Asuras who pulled the head end. The long-suffering Vasuki  belched out fire and smoke, which singed the Asuras (Vasuki belching fire and smoke indicates that nagas are in fact dragons). The mountain itself was supported on the back of a gaint turtle, Kurma, who was an incarnation of Vishnu himself. The milky ocean threw up fourteen divine treasures, including Lakshmi- goddess of wealth and fortune (she became the consort of Vishnu), Chandra - the moon, Parijata - the flowering tree and last of all, Amrita the nectar of immortality. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the Devas ultimately obtained Amrita while the Asuras were denied this prize.

The Devas pull the tail end (left)
while the Asuras pull
the head end (right) of Vasuki.
In later Hindu texts, the rivalry between the Devas and the Asuras broke into all-out war. They battled for dominion over the three worlds: Svarga, Bhumi and Patala or Heaven, Earth and the Netherworld. Patala is not actually 'hell', in fact it is the watery domain of the nagas (who were also Asuras). In this epic war, the Devas created Devi (who in turn created Kali as mentioned in a previous post - 'The Pontianak, the Vampire...) in order to defeat the mighty Asuras. So who won this War of the Worlds?

Initially, it was the Gods of Civilisation, the Asuras. For over a millenium, the Avesta was the supreme religion in the world. The preisthood of the Avesta, known as the Magi (the Three Wise Men from the East of the Nativity), were known and respected throughout the ancient world while Hinduism evolved in relative isolation. However, an examination of popular culture and numerous entries on Wikipedia would indicate that the Gods of Nature, the Devas are the winners of this cosmic struggle at the present moment. Anand Neelakantan takes a more sympathetic look at the Asura in his book, Asura: Tale of the Vanquished. This is a retelling of the Ramayana, from the point of view of the Asura antoganist, Ravana. For those unfamiliar with the original Hindu epic, the Ramayana is the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who is exiled into the wilderness with his beautiful wife Sita and his faithful brother, Lakhsmana. While Rama is out hunting with his brother one day, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the ruler of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Rama and Lakhsmana set out to rescue Sita, with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god. Neelakantan tells the story from the point to view of the people of Lanka.

RAVANA, performed by the Petronas Philharmonic Theatre

However as my interest is in plants, the question arises, what is Soma - the sacred potion and the plant? Soma was a ritual drink of great importance in Vedic culture and was frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda. Soma was not only offered to the Devas in ritual sacrifice but also consumed by the priests themselves. It is known as Haoma among the Persians and was also used in rituals in the Avestan/ Zoroastrian tradition. The plant was described as having long stalks and as being yellow in colour. The juice of the plant was extracted by pounding the stalks with stone mortar and pistil and straining the juice with a cloth.
Unfortunately the exact identity of the plant, Soma is derived from, is lost in the mist of time! How can this happen to this most  important sacrificial offering in Vedic rituals? In fact, Hindu priests offer prayers apologising to the gods for their inability to offer Soma in their rituals now. In South India, Somalatha, a substitute derived from the plant Sarcostemma acidum, is offered as a substitute during Somayajna.

Some experts think that Soma could have been made from hallucigenic mushrooms/ or even cannabis/marijuana type of plants. However, the physical description of the Soma plant does not match mushrooms or cannabis. Hallucinogens are also unlikely as a priest needs to concentrate during ritauls - a mistake in the recitation of vedic hymns to invoke the gods would result in failure. Recent opinion seem to favour a species of Ephedra, most probably Ephedra sinica, mainly because the Zoroastrians still use this plant. Ephedra sinica, known as Ma Huang in Chinese, has been used in traditional Chinses medicine for centuries. Ma Huang is a decongestion i.e. it improves breathing and elevates symptoms of asthma and bronchitis (very useful for Hindu priests since smoke inhalation is an occupational hazard); it also improves concentration, increases blood pressure and reduces hunger and fatigue. Exactly what a priest needs during long exhausting rituals which involves the recitation of hundreds of hymns!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Saya and Diva

Saya and Hadji - the two protagonists of Blood+
Blood+ probably ranks as one of the best stories ever written in the vampire genre. Produced by Production I.G and ANIPLEX, and directed by Junichi Fujisaku, the anime series is based on a  movie called Blood - The Last Vampire which was released in 2000. The TV series is actually much more interesting than the movie and more thought provoking. And of course there are the amazing theme songs - who could forget the hauntingly beautiful  Season's Call by Hyde? (Hyde is the lead singer/songwriter for Japanese rock group, L'Arc en Ciel. His real name is Hideto Takarai). If you have never heard it before, click below.

The expanded version of the song by l'Arc en Ciel:

Blood+ is the story of Saya Otonashi, a girl with a dark secret, who slowly discovers that she has superhuman abilities. Saya's discovery that she is actually a vampire, whose blood is lethal to monsters called chiropterans, comes as a devastating shock to her. Saya has bonded with her adoptive human family (who gave her the name of Otonashi) and friends and has always regarded herself as nothing more or less than an ordinary young girl growing up on the sunny island of Okinawa. Saya eventually comes to accept her true nature and armed with a specially adapted samurai sword (katana), she uses her power to ruthlessly destroy chiropterans. She is assisted in her mission by Hadji - a cello playing vampire who is both her faithful guardian, friend and servant. Initially, Saya has no memory of Hadji even though he claims to know her in past incarnations. However, Hadji never strayed far from Saya and secretly carried her weapon with him; carefully hidden in his cello case. One of the most fascinating part of the series is Saya's discovery of her own past.

Kai, Riku and Saya enjoy their carefree childhood in Okinawa

Hadji reveals Saya's katana and his own dagger.

In a series of flashbacks, it appears that Saya was actually one of twin sisters. An extremely wealthy archeologist/naturalist called Joel Goldschmidt discovers the mummified remains of a giant bat-like creature which he calls a chiropteran (after the Order Chiroptera, which includes all bats) in Iceland in 1833. He brings the mummy back to his mansion in Bordeaux, France. After dissecting the mummy, he finds that the creature was carrying two cocoons inside its body. His assistant and perhaps younger half-brother (?) Amshel attempts to cut open the cocoons but accidently cuts himself instead. The drops of blood which fell on the two cocoons brought them to life, causing noticeble heart-beats beneath the cocoons. Joel and Amshel were astonished to discover that each cacoon contained a perfect baby girl - one with fiery red-brown eyes and one with icy blue eyes.

The red rose represents Saya, the blue rose, Diva
The two brothers decided to make the girls the subject of a monstrous experiment, possibly to test the Nature vs Nurture theory - this was after all the age of Darwinism. I can only suppose that they felt no remorse because they did not regard the two baby girls as truly human (which was partly true as both baby girls needed blood rather than milk to survive). So while the red-eyed twin was named Saya and raised as
The grim gates to the Zoo
Joel Goldschmidt's daughter in his mansion, the unnamed blue-eyed twin was locked up on top of a desolate overgrown tower in a place called the Zoo (reminescent of Rapunzal?). While Saya was lavished with attention and given the best education, including music lessons, that money can buy; the unnamed twin remained locked in the cold tower with no one to care for her even as an infant. Amshel was tasked with providing the unnamed twin with the basic needs required to ensure her survival. Both girls grew up but never seemed to age after reaching adolescence. In 1863, Saya discovered her twin sister in the tower after hearing her singing. She named her Diva because of her beautiful voice and visited her                                                                                                secretly in the tower.

A young Hadji brings flowers for Saya
In 1870, Amshel purchased a 12-year-old boy named Hadji from his parents for a loaf of bread! He was to be Saya's friend and companion. Hadji was allowed to live in Joel's mansion, and one assumes was given the same education as Saya had, in yet another social experiment. Saya eventually accepts him as a true friend (when he gives her some rare blue roses he picked himself from a nearby cliff) and even teaches him to play the cello, although he soon surpasses her. Saya's fascination with the blue rose is perhaps an unconscious longing for her blue-eyed twin. It was a flower that would remain close to her heart, even when she was later to be associated with the red rose, while Diva with the blue.

Saya and Hadji when they were truly young and still living with Joel Goldsmith
While Hadji grew up into a cultured young man, Saya remained a 16-year-old girl, never aging a day. In a fateful day in 1883, Hadji falls from a cliff, while attempting to pick the rare blue rose Saya wanted to give Joel for his 72nd birthday. His injuries are fatal and while he lays dying Saya makes a desperate attempt to save him by feeding him some of her blood. Thus she unwittingly turns him into her chevalier - her first knight. It is implied that she believes that blood is necessary for life as she herself needs to drink blood to live, but it is also possible that she has a long-buried genetic memory that her blood would heal him.
Saya also made another fatal decision on that day - she freed Diva from her cage to allow her to sing for her beloved father, Joel, on his birthday. But Diva exacted her revenge by killing or mortally injuring everyone present - including Joel. She also turned Amshel into her chevalier on the same day. Joel was turned into a chiropteran and Saya was forced to kill him with her own blood to prevent him from turning into a monster. Saya was heartbroken and vowed to kill Diva and all the chiropterans she created.

Hadji tries to protect Saya from the horror. There is a mistake in the picture -
Hadji's right hand should still be undamaged and human at this time in the past.
At least one person survived the massacre - a grandson of Joel Goldschimdt who sets up an organisation called Red Shield with the express purpose of helping Saya to hunt down Diva and her minions. It is entirely possible that Amshel was the architect behind all the events in the life of Saya and Diva, and perhaps Joel was not even aware of the fact the Diva was locked up in the tower. As time passed, Diva created four more chevaliers, including Solomon Goldsmith who was another member of the Goldsmith family.

An analysis of Blood+ indicates that while the two queens, Saya and Diva and their chevaliers could be classified as vampires i.e. vetalas, however the chiropterans created by Diva's chevaliers could not be regarded as such since they become mindless flesh-eating monsters unable to resume their human forms.

One lesson one can take from Blood+ is that while Nature is important, when it comes to sentient beings Nurture is even more so!