The Asura and the Gita
IN the intellectual history of modern India, the Bhagavadgita and the various commentaries on it have found an unrivalled place. However, because of the obvious importance of the issue of violence and its possible justifications, as for example in the Gandhi-Tilak debate, other themes have got less attention. The strikingly different positions taken by Aurobindo and Vinoba on modernity is one such theme. Though by no means unrelated to the question of violence, the theological and interpretative issues involved are different and deserve separate attention. The connection between the demoniac, or the asuri, and the rajasic, and the significantly different receptions of it by Aurobindo and Vinoba, is where the differences between the two reveal themselves.
We call someone an asura jokingly, indulgently, or sometimes with a touch of grudging admiration. All these usages are parasitic upon a negative usage which in modern times has become dominant. By what processes of intellectual and cultural history this has come about is not easy to say. But this much is indisputable: the asuras were not always regarded as evil characters within ‘Hindu’ mythology, nor were the devas presented as the epitome of virtue and rectitude. In fact, since they were both created by Prajapati, the two are each others’ brothers. To start with, there was not much to distinguish between the two, both being ardent followers of dharma. But over time their paths diverged and they became each other’s adversaries.
There are different accounts within the mythology of how this happened. In some stories the differentiation occurs because of the competition between the two over the immortality conferring soma rasa. Some stories speak of the demons not performing sacrifice properly. And in yet another account, demons abandon the path of dharma – inexplicably – and become… demoniac! It is not clear who is to blame for this ‘fall’ – whether this is because of the passage of time or due to some other reason. And in the end we are forced to surmise that demons become such resolutely bad characters simply because God’s plan requires some antipodal force opposite the devas.
The devas, we know from several stories, are not infallible, nor do they refrain from devious acts against the asuras. The asuras, on the other hand, are shown as great ascetics in many stories. The only mistake they make is to use their powers, won after performing austerities for years, to usurp the devas. Or they become despotic and uncontrollable, wreaking havoc in the three lokas. Is it their ambition and greed that makes them demoniac? Probably. The commentaries on the Gita traditionally assume this identification of the asuric with ambition, greed, etc., and amplify it in the language of sattva-rajas-tamas. In the classical Sankhya perspective, these three constituents of Prakriti manifest as illumination or goodness, activity or passion, and fixture or delusion respectively. All the major commentators on the Gita from Sankara onwards share with Sankhya this trigunatmaka view of Prakriti (without, however, accepting the independent status that Prakriti has in the Sankhya view) and use it to expound on the godly and the demoniac natures.
The distinction between the daivy and the asuri is presented in the 16th chapter of the Gita. The division is simple: daivy nature is sattvic, asuri nature is a mixture of the rajasic and the tamasic. Persons with asuri nature must then be particularly lethal and obnoxious if they combine in themselves the passion of the rajo-guna and the delusion of the tamo-guna. And indeed they are. They are full of lust, anger, and haughtiness. They do not discriminate between the permissible and the prohibited, hurt others wilfully, and their insatiable desire makes them restless and destructive. But they are also stupid and lazy: stupid with respect to the shastric knowledge, and lazy in performing their duties. Given such a range of vices, it is no wonder that Bhagavan Srikrishna hurls them in the most horrific hell.
Do they ever return from there? Is there redemption for them? Let us not worry about this question, however important theologically it might be. Let us instead try to understand the reasons behind the ire of the Gita and its commentators. In describing the people with asuri tendencies, Sankara (16.7) and Madhusudana (16.10) say they are lacking in purity, or indulge in impure practices. The materialist Lokayats are explicitly mentioned by both as examples of the asuri nature. To them Madhusudan adds the practitioners of Tantra, and Ramanuja (16.10) speaks of the conceited ones who exhibit their unorthodox views. The main fault of the asuri nature is that it defies the authority of the Vedas. And that’s not acceptable.
What makes the asuri such a hopeless category is the mix of the rajasic and tamasic. But the asuri itself is a mixed category: in the 9th chapter, the Gita separates the asuras and the rakshasas, and the commentarial tradition tells us that the asuras are rajasic and the rakshasas are tamasic. They seem to have been put in one category by the Gita in the 16th chapter because it wants to uphold the supremacy of the goal of moksa over other goals and stress that only a sattvic person can be said to be ready for it. This sits rather uneasily with the other goal of reasserting the authority of the Vedas and the Smritis, but the commentarial tradition reconciles them. How it brings about the reconciliation is a matter of textual detail and can’t be presented here. But what all this untangling of ideas and arguments gives us is the equation of the asuri with the rajasic.
A Marathi book published a couple of years ago expresses incredulity at this equation. If, along with the lazy and stupid person, the active and passionate one is also condemned as asuri, then all that we are left with is the ‘pious inaction’ of the sattvic person, the author complains. A lot of people will share his unease. The identification of the rajasic with the asuri seems to leave no room for a world-affirming, action-oriented ethics. Tilak thought otherwise, and made a monumental effort to prove that a sattvic person can act, in fact must act, if he has correctly understood the message of the Gita, and act with utsaha. But the intimidating, awe-inspiring nature of his treatise obscures the fact that the rajasi is an ambivalent category, just as asuri used to be once upon a time.
In the commentaries on the Gita by the great acaryas, the rajasi person fares far better than the tamasi. While the latter treats adharma as dharma, the former has an incorrect understanding of the dharma; unlike the tamasi person, he is not vulgar, stubborn, and of unrefined intellect; he may covet others’ wealth and harm others but does not take pleasure in hurting them; he may indulge in sensuous pleasures, but is not fixated with one object; he performs sacrifices and charity for winning fame and admiration, but is not guilty, as the tamasi person is, of either a contempt-filled charity or of faithless and wrongly performed sacrifice. And far from being lazy, he is diligent, though this diligence is often at the service of desire and sometimes of forbidden goals. As a result he experiences joy and sorrow which overwhelm him. He is egoistic, active, ostentatious, proud. His actions are a mix of virtue and vice. He is convinced that dharma, artha and kama ought to be always pursued.
On reading this description, if some of our contemporaries feel that the rajasi person is more like a hero in a romantic novel than a repulsive demon, it is understandable. He is energetic, persevering, ambitious, passionate; he acts, pursues his goals, grieves and rejoices. His main flaw, and theologically the most fatal flaw, is that he assumes agentship and in the process misunderstands the nature of the Self. He thinks it is he who acts, who succeeds and fails, who loves and loses, who is admired or reviled by others. This sense of ego is what obscures his vision and clouds his sense of dharma and adharma. But otherwise there is nothing asura-like about him.
Even the classical Sankhya account of the rajo-guna makes it difficult to demonise it. The rajas is ‘bright and fiery’. True, it produces ‘hatred, violence, envy’; but it also activates the sattva, while tamas restrains and obstructs. Rajas causes excitement, stimulation, mobility. From excitement comes belligerence; from passion comes pain; from mobility, fickle-mindedness. That sounds like the price that has to be paid for something crucial, something indispensable, without which there will be no movement, no dynamism. The sattvic and the tamasic are opposed to each other like virtue and vice. Rajas, however, is not diametrically opposed to either. Gaudapada says in his commentary on the Sankhyakarika: among the gods, the sattva dominates, among men rajas, and among the animals tamas dominates. The rajas is thus a middle category. That’s what makes it attractive and problematic.
Interestingly, the Gita itself has a wholly positive account of the rajo-guna as manifested in the qualities expected of the Kshatriya: heroism, courage, steadfastness, generosity, natural tendency to rule, etc. (18.43). Intriguingly, this comes soon after 18.27 in which the rajasi actor is described as impure, greedy, acting out of expectation of results, and vulnerable to grief and exultation. If this sounds familiar to us, our discomfort about the attribution of impurities notwithstanding, that’s because it is human, all too human. Not everybody can be a hero, but most of us know from experience what it means to act out of expectation of results, what it means to have desires and what it means to wish for certain outcomes.
If, regardless of our locations, we have come to regard this as not only natural but also legitimate, the tremendous impact modernity has made on our ways of thinking has a lot do with it. Desires, interests and wants have come to occupy a place in our assessment of policies and laws, in our evaluation of social structures and institutions, in our understanding of ‘quality of life’. This has spawned a whole range of concerns concretized by concepts of rights, privacy, individuality and so on. But there is also a great deal of awareness, expressed in different vocabularies, that the modern world fails to honour its own norms. That the new ways of living and thinking inaugurated with much philosophical enthusiasm over four hundred years ago have led to their own subversion is now widely acknowledged. Subjugation by colonial power brought this realization much earlier in India. The Indian intellectuals responded by mounting a critique of the West for which they used ‘civilizational’ resources, recalling the insights of their ancient and venerated texts. This is why the Upanisads, the epics, and the Gita were discussed, written about, commented upon.
In his Essays on the Gita, Aurobindo has a chapter called, ‘Above the Gunas’. Its drift, however, is towards an interpretation that will allow him to claim that the powers of these gunas can be accessed by a person who has reached the highest level of spiritual evolution. He starts with a puranic position that sattva-rajas-tamas are represented by Vishnu, Brahma and Rudra respectively. Rudra is the destroyer, Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu the preserver. But at the ordinary material level, the same gunas appear in their imperfect, limited modalities as virtue, passion and ignorance. Even then, rajas as the element of initiation of action is more positive than tamas, but obviously leads to bondage. Even the sattvic man is merely someone who timidly follows the right and avoids what is wrong as laid down by the limited human understanding. Moreover, it is constantly engaged in a battle with rajas and tamas for supremacy. It is thus insecure and limited.
The question, as he states at the beginning of a later chapter, is how to rise above the inferior plane of the modes of nature and attain the capacity for the ‘infinite action of the liberated man who is no longer subjected to the gunas.’ Aurobindo knows the standard theological position within the tradition: to act is to act through the gunas, in fact it means to be activated by the gunas, no matter what illusions of agency we might have. How then can we act and yet be beyond the gunas? Aurobindo’s answer is: by living in the Spirit. Making a distinction between the human will and the spiritual will, he argues that human will is hopelessly entangled in and limited by the gunas, whereas the spiritual will is not because it is their very source. And the same gunas function differently at that level.
For example, tamas, which produces inaction and obstruction at the lower level, is the power of ‘calm and repose’ at its source in the spiritual will. As we make a transition to the supramental stage, the gunas also undergo a transformation; they no longer bind us and no longer limit each other. Sattva does not then need to secure itself against the other two, nor is it limited to following the rules of right and wrong already laid down. Similarly tamas, which produces inaction and obstruction at the human, natural level, appears there as the power of ‘calm and repose’. What this interpretative move allows Aurobindo to do with respect to the rajasi is most interesting.
In his commentary on the 16th chapter of the Gita (on the distinction between the daivy and the asuri), Aurobindo makes an insightful observation that ‘the asuric prakriti is the rajasic at its height.’ But before coming to that Aurobindo not only connects the asuri with delusion and falsehood, but also gives a portrait of the asuri man matching in its excess and exaggeration that given in the text of the Gita: the asuri man is arrogant, follows the ‘cult of desire and ego’, and is drunk with pride. He is fierce, titanic, violent, destructive, ‘a font of injury and evil.’ He acts with all the enormous, intimidating power at his command but acts for the sake of his desire, for his ambition, for enjoyment, and not for God. That is how the rajasi becomes asuri.
The right response to our asuri tendency is not to extinguish the force in us but only our impetuousness. The mighty powers of the asuri man need to be purified. They can be purified when from being in the service of his egoistic desires, they are made the instrument of god’s will, when the ‘unbridled force and gigantic civilization of the exaggerated ego’ are sublimated. It requires man’s liberation from his lower nature where he is slave to the gunas and his ascent to that level where gigantic force exists in harmony with the deepest delight and luminosity of sattva.
Aurobindo’s interpretation of certain parts of the Gita allows him to claim the titanic power of the rajasi without the blemish of the asuri. Extended to the question of modernity, this amounts to saying that the promethean powers represented by it pose no threat when used for divine purposes. Their destructiveness removed they can be harnessed for human welfare consistent with the divine will.
Speaking from a completely different perspective, Vinoba Bhave is clearly unimpressed by the powers humanity has acquired in modern times. ‘The chief mark of rajas is the desire to do all sorts of things, an overweening ambition to do superhuman deeds… We wish to remove the mountains here and fill up the lake there. We are impelled to drain the water from the sea and to submerge the deserts of Sahara. We think of digging a Suez Canal or Panama Canal. We are never at peace unless we are breaking and mending… The bird flies in the air. Why should I not fly too? The fish lives in the water. Why should I not make a submarine and live in water too? Thus, having got a human body, we find satisfaction in competing with birds and fish… The mind wanders all the time, as if innumerable desires, like so many demons, possessed it.’ Clearly, the rajasic cannot be purified of its asuric element.
Drawing upon the traditional connection between the rajasi and the asuri, Vinoba says that the essence of the demonic character is contained in power, culture, and wealth. Whether it is the attempt to impose one’s culture on others or concentrating wealth in order to distribute it, both are equally demonic. Thus he traces the imperialist civilization mission and the Soviet Union type communism – the two great and disastrous projects of modern times – to the tendency to generate gigantic capacities and deploy them for projects of vanity.
The issues involved here go beyond and amplify the question of justified violence as articulated by Tilak and Gandhi’s response to it. Tilak tended to see ‘evil’ as outside ‘us’, confronting and challenging the ‘good’ people. Gandhi saw the two as residing inside us and therefore refused to see political conflicts in terms of the struggle between good and evil. He also denied that we as mere mortals had any authority to ‘punish’ the evil; it was better left to the ways of the omniscient God. Tilak, on the other hand, had no hesitation in claiming such authority, turning it into our duty.
And finally, Tilak argued that apparently wrong or forbidden acts like killing, if performed with complete selflessness and complete absence of anger, are not sinful. Gandhi countered this, famously, by asking why one would resort to violence at all if one has overcome all attachments.
Implicit in this debate is the connection between desire and violence. Gandhi saw it clearly and went beyond the limited notion of violence as merely physical. In so doing he and his associates like Mahadevbhai Desai and Vinoba Bhave laid the basis of a critique of modernity. In the two perspectives on the rajasi and the asuri – by Vinoba and Aurobindo – we see an enlargement of the scope of the discussion of modernity and violence that took place during an intellectually fertile phase of Indian nationalism.
We have thus two significantly different positions on modernity, presented in the language of ‘Indian’ tradition: one confident of purifying and harnessing its powers, the other uncompromisingly rejecting it. We understand today how both kinds of responses to the West were typical of the intellectual situation prevalent in the early part of the last century. But does this mean that beyond historical interest, they do not have any philosophical value today? The question is not rhetorical and the answer is still awaited.
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita (second series), Arya Publishing House, Calcutta, 1928.
Vinoba Bhave, Talks on the Gita, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1960.
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1976.
T.G., Mainkar (Tr.), Samkhyakarika of Isvarkrsna (with the commentary of Gaudapada), Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, Delhi, 2004.
Rajeev Sane, Navapartha-Hridgat: Ek Adhunikatavadi Gita Chintan, Pratima Prakashan, Pune, 2008.
Jyotirmaya Sharma, ‘Digesting the "Other": Hindu Nationalism and the Muslims in India’, in Vinay Lal (ed.), Political Hinduism: The Religious Imagination in Public Spheres, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009.