“Human life is distinguished from animal life due to its heavy responsibilities. Those who are cognizant of these responsibilities and who work in that spirit are called suras (godly persons), and those who are neglectful of these responsibilities or who have no information of them are called asuras (demons). Throughout the universe there are only these two types of human being.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shri Ishopanishad, 3 Purport)
Friend-One: How would you describe Ravana, the famous villain of the Ramayana?
Friend-Two: He is a ruthless person who thinks only of satisfying his senses. Lust tells him where to go instead of the other way around.
F1: Right, but what kind of species?
F2: The Sanskrit word is Rakshasa. They are human-like. They don’t look all that different from normal people. The notable distinction is that they like to eat human flesh. You can say “cannibal,” but that doesn’t tell the whole story. They are cannibals by choice, and that choice is made under the spell of the mode of darkness, i.e. complete ignorance.
F1: I’m trying my best to get you to say one word and you’re not complying. Isn’t Ravana commonly described as a demon?
F2: Yes, of course. The same goes for Hiranyakashipu, though technically he’s a Daitya instead of a Rakshasa.
F1: And Ravana’s associates are demons too, like Maricha, Khara, Dushana and Indrajit.
F2: Yes, that is obvious. They are bad folks. Why are you asking?
F1: Just indulge me for a little bit. And according to the acharyas of the Vedic tradition, the Ramayana describes real events. Though they seem unbelievable to us, the events actually unfolded in real life.
F2: Yeah, there’s no metaphor or personification going on. You have that in some places in Vedic literature, but there’s never an attempt to deceive. Moreover, the events of the Ramayana are described in many places, by many people. So it would have to be a great conspiracy in order for everyone to be making the same stuff up.
F1: Alright, so here’s my real question. By using terms like “gods” and “demons,” isn’t that making Vedic literature a tough sell for the common man, who will immediately equate these terms with mythology?
F2: Yes, even people who inherit the culture from their parents fall victim to this mindset.
F1: I mean I can’t tell you how many times I hear people saying that you need to look at the symbolism of all this stuff. I’ve even read people saying that the sages of ancient times couldn’t reveal the truths of spiritual life openly. So they instead decided to present it through story.
F2: That’s ridiculous from the mere fact that a brahmana, one of the priestly order, is by nature honest. They don’t lie. There is some validity to the idea of symbolism, as the Supreme Lord descends to this earth to teach many valuable lessons that are otherwise difficult to understand. So the factual events are automatically symbolic at the same time.
F1: As soon as someone hears “demons” they’re going to think we’re talking about a fantasy role playing game, Harry Potter, a comic book or something of the like.
F2: Yeah. Listen, that is simply the shortcoming in translating these works into a different language. You pick the best word you can. Fortunately, we still have the original Sanskrit to consult. Do you know the Sanskrit word for “demon”?
F1: Is it “rakshasa”?
F2: Well, it can be, but “rakshasa” is more of a subtype. The word is “asura.” If you know a little bit of Sanskrit, you immediately recognize that this word is a negation of another word.
F1: That’s because of the “a” prefix, right?
F2: Yeah. The base word is “sura.” So sura is a god and asura is a demon. This is the conventional translation into English. This is what the translators have settled on, but obviously there is something lost in translation.
F1: So a sura is not really a god?
F2: It’s someone who is godly. We think of a god as someone who has special powers and lives in the heavenly region. Those conditions can certainly exist in a sura, but they don’t have to. The defining characteristic is allegiance with the Supreme God. In the Vedic tradition the Supreme is known through names like Vishnu, Krishna, Rama and others which address His personal nature.
F1: Would it be safe to say, then, that a sura is basically a “good guy”?
F2: Right. If you’re doing the good and evil comparison, the sura is good and the asura is bad. I find it very interesting that “asura” translates to demon. That tells a lot. Someone who is against God is a bad guy, plain and simple. They don’t have to have ten heads, the ability to change shapes at will, or fire coming out of their mouths. They can be an ordinary looking person, but since they are against god, they are an asura.
F1: I see. Why am I thinking of two sisters here, Diti and Aditi? Don’t they have significance to this discussion?
F2: Diti is the mother of the asuras and Aditi the suras. The direct descendants from Diti thus were known as Daityas. This references the specific races, suras and asuras, but the qualities can be found in anyone. For instance, Prahlada was born in a Daitya family but had the qualities of a sura.
F1: This is interesting stuff.
F2: You should also know that the amazing abilities often exhibited by the asuras is no accident. Being truly godless actually means something. We’re not talking about someone who just hasn’t made up their mind yet. We’re talking about those who are openly against any idea of a supreme controller. Their next move is to work themselves up to that post, to become the most feared in the world. Everyone has free will to some degree, so the asuras are able to amass power.
F1: Right, because they desire it. Sort of like the guy who bulks up by going to the gym and eating a lot of protein.
F2: And so the asura becomes what we know as the trademark demon because of how they use those powers. They oppress the innocent. They steal. They kill innocent life. These things are not unbelievable. Though we don’t see people with ten heads and an ability to change shapes today, there are still plenty of Ravanas around. “Demon” is probably not the best word to use for asura. “Bad guy” would be better.
F1: And there are certainly plenty of “bad guys” in this world.
F2: The suras serve the ultimate good guy, the Supreme Lord. When asked, He comes to their side for protection. All souls are His children, so by default He is neutral. Especially when it comes to material advancement, He does not pick favorites. For service to Him and finding happiness that transcends birth and death, He breaks from His neutrality and takes on the role of friend [Bhagavad-gita, 9.29].
Translators a word to choose,
For asura demon is used.
Not giving meaning complete,
Asura with bad qualities replete.
At core God going against,
Towards sinful path bent.
Found today, needing not ten heads,
Suras everywhere too, serving God instead.