“Worlds there are without suns, covered up with darkness. To these after death go the ignorant, slayers of the Self” (Isha Upanishad 3). (“Verily, those worlds of the asuras are enveloped in blind darkness; and thereto they all repair after death who are slayers of Atman.” This is the translation of Swami Nikhilananda).
The upanishadic seer opened by speaking of the way of fulfilled and joyful life: seeing the Divine in all things, and living on the earth according to Divine Law. But this is not the only world in which we can find ourself as we move through a cycle of continuous birth and death–birth into one world after having died out of another, or another birth into the world where we were just living. When we speak of birth we usually think only of physical embodiment on this earth. But when we die in this world we are born into an astral world where we remain for some time and then die to that world and become born back into this world. Although this world remains virtually the same–despite the fact that every generation thinks it is a great advance over previous eras–we can spend time in a vast array of astral worlds, positive and negative, pleasant and unpleasant. The earth becomes a kind of stable place of return for us. Or is it?
Many births, many worlds
Although the earth accommodates a wide range of spiritual and psychological evolution, the astral worlds are more specialized. There is an astral world for every degree of consciousness. These worlds can be classified just as sentient beings are classified. That does not say much, since each person can have a different set of criteria for such classification. But the masters of wisdom have generally agreed: there are two basic kinds of people–suras and asuras, those who dwell in the light and those who live in the dark. “Divine” and “demonic” are commonly used to translate sura–or deva–and asura. A sura/deva is in the light, an asura is not. Sometimes a person dwells in the dark by choice, but most often it is a state of ignorance rather than negative volition. Because of this we need to avoid a “deva is good, asura is bad” reaction in all cases, though there are instances when this is accurate, and to repress it would be foolish–and asuric.
The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita
Practically speaking, however–that is, looking at the result of manifesting those natures–it is just that simple. An entire chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is directed to this manner of divine (daivim) and demonic (asuric) nature as it manifests in human beings. I know it is pretty lengthy, but it is so insightful and complete that it merits inclusion here. Sri Krishna speaks:
“A man who is born with tendencies toward the Divine, is fearless and pure in heart. He perseveres in that path to union with Brahman which the scriptures and his teacher have taught him. He is charitable. He can control his passions. He studies the scriptures regularly, and obeys their directions. He practices spiritual disciplines. He is straightforward, truthful, and of an even temper. He harms no one. He renounces the things of this world. He has a tranquil mind and an unmalicious tongue. He is compassionate toward all. He is not greedy. He is gentle and modest. He abstains from useless activity. He has faith in the strength of his higher nature. He can forgive and endure. He is clean in thought and act. He is free from hatred and from pride. Such qualities are his birthright.
“When a man is born with demonic tendencies, his birthright is hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, cruelty and ignorance.
“The birthright of the divine nature leads to liberation. The birthright of the demonic nature leads to greater bondage. But you need not fear, Arjuna: your birthright is divine.
“In this world there are two kinds of beings: those whose nature tends toward the Divine, and those who have the demonic tendencies. I have already described the divine nature to you in some detail. Now you shall learn more about the demonic nature.
“Men of demonic nature know neither what they ought to do, nor what they should refrain from doing. There is no truth in them, or purity, or right conduct. They maintain that the scriptures are a lie, and that the universe is not based upon a moral law, but godless, conceived in lust and created by copulation, without any other cause. Because they believe this in the darkness of their little minds, these degraded creatures do horrible deeds, attempting to destroy the world. They are enemies of mankind.
“Their lust can never be appeased. They are arrogant, and vain, and drunk with pride. They run blindly after what is evil. The ends they work for are unclean. They are sure that life has only one purpose: gratification of the senses. And so they are plagued by innumerable cares, from which death alone can release them. Anxiety binds them with a hundred chains, delivering them over to lust and wrath. They are ceaselessly busy, piling up dishonest gains to satisfy their cravings.
“‘I wanted this and today I got it. I want that: I shall get it tomorrow. All these riches are now mine: soon I shall have more. I have killed this enemy. I will kill all the rest. I am a ruler of men. I enjoy the things of this world. I am successful, strong and happy. Who is my equal? I am so wealthy and so nobly born. I will sacrifice to the gods. I will give alms. I will make merry.’ That is what they say to themselves, in the blindness of their ignorance.
“They are addicts of sensual pleasure, made restless by their many desires, and caught in the net of delusion. They fall into the filthy hell of their own evil minds. Conceited, haughty, foolishly proud, and intoxicated by their wealth, they offer sacrifice to God in name only, for outward show, without following the sacred rituals. These malignant creatures are full of egoism, vanity, lust, wrath, and consciousness of power. They loathe me, and deny my presence both in themselves and in others. They are enemies of all men and of myself; cruel, despicable and vile. I cast them back, again and again, into the wombs of degraded parents, subjecting them to the wheel of birth and death. And so they are constantly reborn, in degradation and delusion. They do not reach me, but sink down to the lowest possible condition of the soul” (Bhagavad Gita16:1-20).
Am I an asura?
What are the basic traits that render someone an asura? The Upanishad has already given them: 1) spiritual blindness, 2) spiritual darkness, 3) spiritual ignorance, and 4) engaging in deeds that “kill” the awareness and the freedom of the eternal, immortal, divine Self. The first three are what dispose us to the fourth, destructive trait. Krishna has already given us quite an exposition of the ways of the asuric personality, but it can all be summed up in their effect: the negation of consciousness of the individual spirit. Now this point that spiritual ignorance is a matter of unawareness of the individual spirit, our own atman, is particularly important because many asuras think to hide their status under an externalized cloak of religiosity, of supposed belief in and dedication to God. But this is all nonsense. Saint John the Apostle comments that no one can legitimately claim to love God Whom they have not seen if they have no love for their fellow human beings whom they have seen (I John 4:20). In the same way, it is absurd to pretend that we know or are aware of the infinite Spirit when we are not aware of the finite spirit–our own Self–which is right within us. This is why Buddha simply refused to speak about God or gods, and insisted that each one must seek for nirvana alone, rejecting all other matters as harmful distractions.
Another Upanishad states that if we learn about ocean water from a single cup of water we can then know about oceans of water. In the same way, if we come to truly comprehend our nature as spirit we will be able to know God the Infinite Spirit. Thus Self-knowledge–knowledge of our spirit–is essential. Shankara says that until we know the Self we are all asuras in the absolute sense, but if we are seeking to know the Self I expect the distinction is not so drastic.
An asura, then, is one whose life and thought obscure and darken the inner consciousness so the true Self remains unknown and buried–often even unsuspected as to its existence. It has nothing to do with what philosophers and theologians say about it; the matter is thoroughly pragmatic. Do we or do we not, are we or are we not? Verbal claims mean nothing here. State of being alone matters.
The worlds of the asuras
Because it is their will, asuras are born over and over in worlds “enveloped in blind darkness” at the time of their death, earthly or astral. Naturally our thoughts go to the ideas of hell so beloved to all religionists, East and West, whether it is the absurdly simplistic fire pit of Christianity or the horrifically complex and lurid hell(s) of Hinduism, Taoism, or Buddhism. But what is this world in which we presently find ourselves–a world ravaged with hatred, violence, disease, cruelty, and aggressive ignorance and greed? The fact that there is also kindness, love, mercy, and toleration in the world makes it even more crazy: schizophrenic and schizophrenogenic (making us crazy). No wonder The Onion, a satirical magazine, ran an article entitled: “God Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder.” It might seem blasphemous, but it is the preposterous religion prevailing in the West that is blasphemous, and the satire is just pointing it out.
Someone once asked Paramhansa Yogananda if he believed in hell. Paramhansaji smiled and asked: “Where do you think you are?” A very good question, indeed.
We write our own ticket by the way we think and act. No amount of rationalization or assurance from others will change this fact. If we seek darkness we will find darkness; if we seek the light we will find the light. Nothing more; nothing less.
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8).
Just be aware of the consequences.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Undivided, Unmoving Self
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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