The Sanskrit word asura is derived from two words, “asu” and “ramante.” Asu means life breath, and ramante means to enjoy. To enjoy one’s life breath, one’s body, is thus the preoccupation of an asura. Because the preoccupation with bodily identification is at the cost of one’s soul, asuras are also annihilators of the soul, ye ke catma-hano janah (Isopanisad 3). In describing the qualities of such persons to Arjuna in the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Sri Krsna assures his disciple that he should not worry, for his nature is not such, ma sucah.
In two words Krsna has summed up devotional life, ma sucah, don’t worry. The spirit of this expression is that we should depend on Krsna and not on our own strength, be it physical, mental, or intellectual. This is underscored in Krsna’s concluding words to Arjuna: sarva-dharman parityajya, give up all separate endeavor, and moksayisyami ma sucah, depend on me. To depend on one’s strength is thus also asuric.
That Arjuna would be concerned that he himself was of demonic nature is itself telling. This is the spirit of the devotees. They do not think that they are godly. First Krsna described the divine qualities to Arjuna. After then hearing the demoniac qualities, such as pride, arrogance, anger, and harshness, Arjuna naturally assumed that he was an asura, for these are indeed qualities that any warrior exhibits in battle. Krsna’s assuring him otherwise is significant. It informs us that one may exhibit such qualities and not be demoniac. The converse is equally applicable. Outward displays of humility, self-control, sacrifice, modesty, cleanliness, study of the Vedas, austerity, renunciation, and the host of other divine qualities may be outer expressions of an inner demoniac spirit. Krsna tells us to look beneath the surface.
To label anyone a demon in today’s world, where postmodern relativism often dictates the standards of behavior, will not win one the popular vote. The idea that there is no absolute truth and that truth is relative to each individual’s perception may be popular, but it is relativism itself that Krsna addresses when he tells Arjuna:
yah sastra-vidhim utsrjya
na sa siddhim avapnoti
na sukham na param gatim
“One who discards the sastra (scripture), acting whimsically, attains neither perfection nor happiness nor the ultimate goal of life.” (Bg. 16.23)
Relativism is demoniac in the most insidious manner. Truth stands absolutely firm to be served by all. It is our freedom to choose to serve the absolute truth. This individual choice results in further freedom. It is not our prerogative to subordinate truth to our bodily and mental impulses with the only provision standing that we grant the same right to others.
Bodily and mental impulses pull us in the two directions of raga and dvesa. Raga, attachment, and dvesa, aversion, are seated in our minds and senses. We can become free from them, raga-dvesa vimuktais tu, by controlling our senses through scriptural adherence. This is so because operating under the bodily premise we are forced by prejudices which inevitably violate the single provision of the modern relativist code—allowing others the same freedom to choose to do as their minds and senses dictate. These prejudices are often imperceivable to ourselves being part of the very fabric of our material identification.
Scriptural adherence, vidheyatma prasadam adhigacchati, invokes God’s mercy. The result of this is freedom from attachment and aversion, ultimate freedom. Freedom is the goal of relativism—the freedom to do as one chooses, finding ultimate value in that alone. This is achieved, however, only when one comes to know oneself, free from misidentification with the mind and body.
In the path of devotion, what the individual values takes shape as a loving relationship, rasa, with Godhead, who is ultimately akhila-rasamrta sindhu, an ocean of aesthetic experience in transcendence. Rasa reaches its fullest potential in Krsna, who personifies rasa as rasaraja. Love of Krsna is the devotee’s goal, raso vai sah, rasam hy evayam labdhvanandi bhavati. (Taittriya Up. 2.7.1)
Aesthetic experience we all seek, yet to think that we can experience it through the limiting adjuncts of the mind and senses is folly. What potential does the eye hold for experiencing beauty, the ear for experiencing the sound of life, when it it the soul’s prerogative to experience? Experience is the jurisdiction of consciousness, not matter. Thus freedom from material constraints is a prerequisite to the experience of rasam-anandam. Once such freedom is realized, we are free to pursue that which is valuable in our own estimation.
Only when what the individual values is of a spiritual nature can the relativists’ sole provision be met. We are all free to love Krsna as we choose, once we enter within the parameters of actual spiritual life, free from attachment and aversion. At the same time, Sriman Mahaprabhu’s Rupanuga guru-varga has for good reason stressed madhurya rasa, the mukhya, or full face, of aesthetic experience. Just as the attraction between man and woman in the material world is most intense and thus comprehensively entangles one in the grip of material illusion, so madhurya rasa entwines one in the embrace of the transcendental Cupid, Sri Krsna, as no other rasa can. This being so, the relativist’s provision is nonetheless met in this “transcendental relativism,” for each soul’s choice and subsequent pure love for Krsna in any of his expansions or incarnations is fulfilling. Because Krsna is the reservoir of reciprocation, no one need infringe upon another soul in the pursuance of their ideal, and each can be happy for the other, respecting the other’s individual values which take the form of an eternal, loving relationship with Krsna. We need but see the world as Sri Krsna and his saktis (understanding ourselves a particle of one of those saktis), and with proper understanding of what we are “do our own thing (devotional service).”
In Sri Gita, Krsna has emphatically stated the case for his own devotional service. Although the paths of karma, jnana, and yoga are also delineated, their merits and shortcomings are discussed in the course of revealing the faultless course of dependence on Krsna—bhakti. It is the course in which one admits his or her faults from the start, depending not upon oneself for success. Krsna has also made it abundantly clear that devotion is required in order that the efficacy of any path be realized.
In the Gita, jnana— the path of knowledge with its goal the same—is presented in its pure form. Its aberration as articulated by Adi Sankara is also discussed long before Sankara’s appearance. So also is Buddhism mentioned, and these two not in words of praise. As it is not possible in relativism for individual values to be varied and realized in a harmonious world, it is also not possible in Sankara’s Mayavada or in Buddhism. In each of these disciplines, values are set with no room for differences in the ultimate experience. While relativism is easily identifiable as asuric, this is not so for the doctrine of Mayavada and the Buddha’s Noble Truths. These paths are wolves in sheep’s clothing. While they outwardly appear divine, the inner conception from which they arise is asuric. They are paths that rely upon something other than God’s grace, and Krsna has pointed this out in his discourse on the demoniac.
About the demoniac nature Krsna says,
asatyam apratistham te
jagad ahur anisvaram
kim anyat kama-haitukam
“The demoniac say the world is unreal, that it has no foundation and no God from whom it emanates. It arises either out of nothing or is produced by lust alone.” (Bg. 16.8) Here Krsna has decried monistic Mayavada and Buddhistic sunyavada, along with relativism. Asatyam means two things. The world is unreal, as Sankara has advocated, and there is no truth (no Veda), as the Buddhists maintain. Apratistham means that the world is not supported by anything. This again is a Buddhist viewpoint, as is aparaspara-sambhutam, the notion that the world arises out of nothing. Anisvaram means without an isvara, or God. Such is the claim of both of these disciplines, either covertly in the instance of Sankara or overtly in the case of the Buddhists. Kim anyat kama-haitukam refers to the relativist.
Sri Chaitanya, while appreciating immensely Sankara, had little appreciation for the Mayavada doctrine. He cautioned his followers, mayavadi-bhasya sunile hoy sarva-nasa, “If one entertains the doctrine of illusion, all is lost.” Sri Chaitanya gave more credit to the Buddhists, applying the logic of “half truth is worse than no truth at all,” vedasraya nastikya-vada. While the Buddhists openly dismiss God and the soul, the doctrine of Mayavada does so covertly. Although speaking of God (isvara) and soul (jivatma), Mayavada in the final analysis denies the existence of both of these truths at the paramarthic (ultimate) level of reality. According to Mayavada philosophy, the material world is also unreal. It exists only as a dream of the imaginary jiva, who can realize that he himself does not exist as an individual or as anything definable (neti neti) by meditating on the illusion of isvara.
From where does this philosophy come? Its support appears to be the sastra, Vedic sriptures. But is it actually based on Vedic evidence? To answer this we can refer to the Vedic literature itself. In the Padma Purana, in the course of describing the scriptures of asuras, Siva tells Parvati:
pracchannam bauddham ucyate
mayaiva vihitam devi
vedante tu maha-sastre
mayaiva vaksyate devi
“In Kali-yuga I will appear as a brahmana and teach a veiled form of Buddhism, misrepresenting the sastra with the docrtine of illusion (Mayavada). By explaining Vedanta in terms of this same Mayavada philosophy, denying the form of God, I will mislead people.” The following supporting verse spoken by Siva is found in both the Padma and Siva Puranas:
dvaparadau yuge bhutva
svagamaih kalpitais tvam ca
janan mad-vimukhan kuru
“In Kali-yuga I will mislead people by expounding an imaginary meaning of the Vedas to bewilder them.” Thus Mayavada is not supported by Vedic evidence.
Here one might question why Siva would choose to bewilder people in Kali-yuga. The answer to this is also found in Krsna’s discussion of demons with Arjuna. Krsna tells his disciple, dvau bhuta-sargau loke’ smin daiva asura eva ca. “In this world there are two types of people, the devoted and the demoniac.” (Bg. 16.6) “This world” means earth, from where we may improve our lot or degrade ourselves under the influence of karma. Some choose degradation, disregarding the sastra. To save them from this and award them liberation, Mayavada has been introduced.
If the demoniac accept the Mayavada doctrine, they also accept the Vedas. They do not understand the entire import of the sastras, yet they conduct their lives in accordance with its injunctions. Their opposition to its conclusions bars them from pure devotional service, while their adherence to the sastra ultimately gives them liberation. What is that liberation? Because envy, matsarya, is the combination of lust, greed, anger, illusion and madness (kama, krodha, lobha, moha, and mada), it is the primary disposition of the demoniac. An envious person thinks only of himself. If such a person is fortunate, in pursuit of his self-consciousness, to follow the Vedas as propounded by Sankara (adding a touch of devotion), he will transcend the modes of material nature and live with himself alone forever, merging with Brahman. The Mayavada doctrine is thus a kind of blessing for those who will never serve God even after the opportunity to accept pure devotional service descends.
As for those who are opposed to both devotion and the Vedas, Krsna says, asurusv eva yonisu, they will remain here forever. Why then is God advertised as merciful? Merciful he is, but his mercy is given to his devotees. On the other hand, he punishes the nondevotees, which is an indirect form of mercy. This is love, to which Krsna is partial by nature. Those who are envious of his devotees will never receive his direct mercy. If he gave direct mercy to such persons, what then would become of his love for his devotees? If we love someone, we do not show mercy to those who oppose our loved ones. Doing so brings one down from actual love to impartiality. Similarly, pure devotees do not pray to Krsna to give mercy to those who oppose him. They may pray that such demoniac persons be purified, as did Prahlada for his father. And demoniac species of life are forms of punishment aimed ultimately at purification. Let us pray for the Buddhists.
Buddhism is a similar yet very different philosophy from Mayavada, one that at present has captured the interest of much of liberal (relativist) America. Just how much its new upbeat and affluent converts understand Buddhism’s philosophical ramifications is questionable. Recently, American Buddhists have been charged with Americanizing Buddhism to such an extent that its traditionalists can hardly recognize it. Japanese-Canadian religious professor Victor Sorgen Hori recently asserted, “Americans have turned to…Buddhism only insofar as that religion affirms American values…[they are] using Buddhist labels for Western concepts, making dharma into a middle-class commodity to be sold only to those who can pay, using Buddhism to reinforce Western notions of morality and psychotherapy.” It is doubtful, however, that the fact that Buddhism is both soul and God-denying would chase many of its American congregation away.
There are of course many strands of Buddhism, but all of them conjecture that nothing is at the bottom of everything. The world is real and eternal. Reality is the emptiness that the world us ultimately all about. Consciousness, if it exists at all, is momentary. This sounds very different from the Mayavada doctrine, yet the absolute posited in Mayavada is very similar to that of most Buddhists. Is there really any difference between saying that reality is a void (sunya) and saying that it is something that has no qualities, no form, no attributes, no name, etc.?
Yet traditional Buddhists will never cease from differing from the Mayavadins on many significant points. This fact serves to further illustrate the extent to which not only Buddhist but also Mayavada doctrine has been misunderstood by most Western adherents. It is not uncommon to hear over-simplifications of these doctrines that in a most uninformed fashion lump the two as well as other traditions into a soup of “all is one,” difference being only apparent in terms of terminology, ritual, and iconography. Such espresso-bar Buddhists and Mayavadins hold traditionalists in contempt, misunderstanding their convictions to be nonspiritual. In fact traditionalists are merely rejecing the relativism that popular Buddhist and Mayavada philosophies are more accurately representative of.
Yet traditional or nontraditional, relativist or genuine, Buddhists and Mayavadins have all been classed as asuras in Sri Gita. At this point one might ask, “Are not the Buddhists kind, nonviolent, compassionate, austere, moral, and so on, as are also the followers of Sankara? Is it not a bit harsh to call them demons?” But is Krsna any more harsh in his proclamation than these sects are when they call him imaginary, an illusion? Furthermore, the limits of the English language are a contributing factor. Buddhists and Mayavadins are asuras, or those who are by their own admission annihilators of the individual (Mayavadins) and collective (Buddhists) soul. It is not that Krsna is advocating that we send the Dalai Lama a pitchfork and pair of horns for his next birthday, but perhaps we could fill the void in his life.
The goals of these two sects pose a real problem for all souls. If we imbibe the impressions of these conceptions, samskaras are created that make it difficult for the self to experience its potential as described in the Bhagavata. These subtle impressions form our nature and thus our interests. One indoctrinated into these traditions may never develop interest in serving Krsna. If the goals of either of these traditions are attained, there is no question of ever experiencing rasam-anandam.
To practice these disciplines, much is required. To begin meditation, the heart must be pure. Without a pure heart once cannot have a peaceful mind. There is little meaning to being a Buddhist and not living in a monastery, and the same holds for the Mayavadins. Bhakti, however, is far more generous. She can afford to be so because she has more to offer. After all, the asuric sects offer nothing more than the cessation of the misery that material life consists of. Generous Bhakti-devi of her own accord comes to those whom she chooses through the medium of her devotees even while her new recruits are in the midst of material life. While other paths require many prerequisites, bhakti is not depedent on anything. In light of the generous nature of bhakti and the boon of her own self that she bestows (bhakti is krsna-karsati, she has the power to attract the all-attractive), who will hesitate to embrace her if she offers herself? To this Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura replies, ko vai na seveta vina naretaram, “only an animal” (one addicted to enjoying the material body). Or in the words of Suta Goswami, puman virajyeta vina pasughnat, “an annihilator of the soul” (an asura).
Asuras beware, and devotees beware that asuric notions do not clutter their hearts. Arjuna’s example in this regard is worth remembering. Devotion is best, but if you think, “I am a devotee,” you may be a demon.