Published in Economic Times, 17 August 2008
Wealth in its most primal form comes from under the ground. Plants come from under the ground. Minerals come from under the ground. Water comes from under the ground. Even petrol comes from under the ground. Little wonder then that Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, is called Patala-nivasini, she who resides in the subterranean realm. She is also addressed as Pulomi, the daughter of the Asura-king, Puloman and Bhargavi, daughter of Bhrigus, another name for Shukra, who served as guru to the Asuras. But Asuras are demons who have been shoved under the ground by the gods! What make Lakshmi the daughter of demons? Is this an ancient moral judgment against wealth?
The problem lies in the word ‘demons’ an English translation chosen by early European scholars, blindly adopted by later Indian academicians, who assumed that Asuras had to be demons because their enemies were Devas, who were assumed to be ‘gods’ because the Devas were always the victims/victors who had the support of God (spelt in capital, Mahadev or Bhagavan in regional languages). Exposed to only Greek and Biblical tales, this binary interpretation seemed right then. But a deeper analysis reveals that such translations, though convenient, are far from correct. They try to forcibly fix Hindu mythology into a familiar Judeo-Christian-Islamic framework. Even today, they serve as obstacles to appreciate the Hindu paradigm.
In mythology, Devas are merely creatures who live above the sky. Asuras are creatures who live under the ground. Since all wealth comes from under the ground, Asuras are naturally seen as ‘wealth generators’ or ‘fathers of wealth’, especially because they also possess the secret of rejuvenation or Sanjivani Vidya that enables them to restore the fertility of the earth year after year. Asuras were mysterious subterranean beings held in awe. In fact, in early Vedic texts, Varuna, god of the waters and moral order, is addressed venerably as an Asura. In later texts he is Varuna, god of the sea, father of Lakshmi. Asuras became demons because they refused to share their subterranean wealth with humans. They were hoarders.
Humans got access to Asura wealth thanks to Devas who pulled this wealth out. The sun-god’s sunlight, the wind-god’s air and the rain-god’s water made the plants come out. The fire-god’s heat released metal from rocks. Without violence, wealth could not be secured: the field has to be ploughed, crops had to be cut, grains had to be threshed, rocks had be broken and smelted….in other words, ‘war’ had to be declared on Asuras and their wealth had to be taken forcibly. They would not share Lakshmi willingly.
Thus, Lakshmi, ‘daughter’ or ‘sister’ of demons, becomes ‘wife’ of gods. She is Sachi, the consort of Indra, king of the Devas, which is why he is called Sachin. Indra and the Devas live a life of luxury surrounded by wine and women and music and dance. Indra is very blessed. Unlike humans who have to work for a living he can get anything he desires by simply wishing for it for in his realm, Amravati, exists the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpataru, wish-fulfilling cow, Kamadhenu, and wish-fulfilling gem, Chintamani, and even the elixir of immortality, Amrita. That is why Indra’s abode is called Swarga or paradise.
Still Indra is extremely insecure. He fears he will lose his wealth. For unlike Asuras, he does not know how to create wealth; he can only procure and distribute wealth. A sage’s curse can cause Lakshmi to leave his side in an instant. And this invariably happens, no thanks to the megalomania stirred by wealth. Once again Indra leads the Devas to fight and kill the Asuras and get Lakshmi back, often with the help of God. Notice how, annual harvest festivals are violent – in Dussera Mahish-asura is killed by Durga; in Diwali, Narak-asura is killed by Krishna and in Onam, Bali-asura is killed by Vaman.
For humans, Devas are ‘gods’ because they bring wealth to man. Asuras are demons because they refuse to do so. The battle of Devas and Asuras is the battle of spenders/distributors and hoarders/creators. It begins with defeat of Devas and the loss of Lakshmi and ends with victory of Devas and return of Lakshmi. That it is never-ending indicates it is not a battle of good over evil. It is a fertility cycle. Defeat is natural and victory is inevitable. It is the eternal cycle of loss and apprehension created when we invest for wealth and profits and delight when the investments reap dividends as results. In between is the war – the struggle to go to the market and make the sale.