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Le Défi magique, volume 2

Massimo Introvigne
Jean-Baptiste Martin

Approches du démon

The concept and the role of demon in the indian thought

Dr. John Chethimattam


Le culte du démon dans l’Hindouisme et le Bouddhisme n’est pas une négation de Dieu ou de la religion. Le démon est seulement une projection de la psyché humaine avec toutes ses aspirations déviantes, et une personnification des pouvoirs cachés de la nature. Le mal même n’est pas représenté comme une négation, mais comme une force positive que défie l’homme dans son chemin vers la libération. Le démon représente l’espace d’origine de l’homme et toutes les choses dans le monde. L’histoire des aventures des démons dans le Rayamana et le Mahabharata indiquent un psychodrame de l’univers humain en contraste avec l’univers de Vishnu, le sauveur de l’homme. Le culte des démons comme partie intégrale de la religion montre que celle-ci, bien qu’elle traite avec Dieu, est néanmoins un phénomène humain, une anthropologie de l’homme pour Dieu plus qu’une ontologie de Dieu pour l’homme.

Texte intégral

1The Indian religious thought, right from the early Aryan literature represented by the RgVeda, dearly indicates the structure of the religious experience of human beings. In it the Demon represents a pole of experience quite different from that of God. These do not indicate so much ontological realities but rather the reality of the human psyche, and hence give us more anthropology than theology. In this anthropological understanding of religious experience, Vrtra, the demonic primeval Dragon in the Ramayana may be taken as typical examples that illustrate the concept and role of Demon in Indian religious thinking.

1. Conception of Evil in the Rgdeva

2The ancient Indian religious experience started with the question: «Who am I?». If for the Greeks philosophy started with wonder at the sun and the moon and the other phenomena of nature as both Plato and Aristotle testify, the initial question for the Aryan settlers in the Indo-Gangetic plain was the source of human suffering. Though substantive concepts like the divine reality, human created existence, suffering, ignorance and bondage, sin, redemption and salvation, may be present in some manner in all tradition of human thought, their specific understanding is very much conditioned by the total world vision in which the particular concepts are incorporated. Each tradition has its own distinctive patterns in which problems are articulated and their solutions sought. The emphasis a particular concept is given in total perspective differs from tradition to tradition. Finally the concrete expressions a particular concept obtains is determined by the specfic tradition itself. The Indian world vision starts assuming that unity is prior to the multiplicity of things, and supposes that all things are grounded in one really Real, the One-without-a-second. The Vedic sage goes to the depth of the I-conciousness, an origin the beginning of which cannot be imagined. All that can be said of that beginning is simple possibility, «the energy to exist», the ultimate ground, a force and a project.

  • 1 RgVeda X, 108.

3But to imagine this initial possibility is at the same time to contemplate the opposing forces engaged in the situation, threatening human beings with destruction. Here the idea of evil was not of a mere lack, negation of privation but of a positive threat to existence itself. So in the one thousand and eleven hymns of the RgVeda, a collection dating from 2000 B.C., evil is represented by the colorful personality of Vrtra, the primeval Dragon, who stole all the cows that provided milk for the humans and drank up all the waters1. He is assisted in this inimical adventure by Nirriti, the cosmic floods of inaction, Namuci, the power of evil, as well as Asuras and Panis, classes of beings who are partisans of evil. They all symbolize the uncertain futurity implied in man’s own initial potentiality. There is need for an Indra, the God of energy and light to come forward and liberate the pent-up energy and to build up the positive structures.

  • 2 RV VII, 104, 9-10.

4The original precarious existence of human beings represented by the list of evil forces functions as the original «space» out of which all forms and names are derived. It is space in the sense that it constitutes a non-visual model for focusing all human experience. In a way it also indicates the convergence of the sensoria of sight, hearing, touch and speech in a colorless common ground. The harm done by the demons is that «they distract the simple and spoil the courageous men of their concentration... spoil the taste of our drinks, and hurt the bodies of our cows and horses»2.

2. The Philosophical Conception of Demons

  • 3 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I, iii, 1. One can compare with this the Esau-Jacob story of the Book of (...)
  • 4 Brih Up. V, ii, 1-3.
  • 5 Chandogya Up. VIII, ix-xiv; cf. Maitri Up, VII, 9.
  • 6 Kaushitaki Up. IV, 20.

5When later this early mythological thought was subjected to a rational analysis one had to realize that these forces of evil had the same creative sources as the forces of good. Both the gods and the demons were children of Prajapati, the creator of all beings. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: «The gods and the demons were the twofold offspring of the Prajapati. Of these the gods were the younger, the demons the older»3. The demons by brute force had dominated everything but the gods by their intelligence and cunning got them all under their control. Of the threefold «Da-advice» of Prajapati to his three classes of children, gods, human beings and demons, Da to the gods meant self-restrain Da to men generous giving and Da to the demons, compassion4. According to the Chandogya Upanishad, when Prajapati gave instruction regarding the nature of the Self, Virocana, the head of the demon took it in a purely physical and material meaning of bodily beauty, while Indra, the head of the gods persisted in his inquiry and reached a spiritual understanding5. As long as Indra did not understand the Self, the demons were able to overcome him; once he attained the true knowledge of the self he was able to conquer them and attain supremacy, sovereignty and overlordship of all gods and of all beings. Likewise those who attain true knowledge can conquer all evil and reach supreme happiness6.

6In the evolution of Hindu thought in the age of the epics, the whole human life came to be conceived as a fight between the gods and the demons. In the Zend Avesta of the Persians, the branch of Aryans that settled in Iran, the ahuras were the good beings and the devas the devils. But for the Aryans when they settled down in Indo-Gangetic plain the roles were reversed, and the asuras became the demons and the devas the gods. The whole epic of Bharata, known as Mahabharata is the story of the fight between the good people and the bad people, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. In an earlier nothern version of the epic the Kauravas were the good people, and the Pandavas the bad people, but in a later southern recension the five brothers, the Pandavas, became the good people, and their cousins, the hundred and one Kauravas became the bad people. The philosophical ideal of the whole epic is shown in the very first stanza of the Bhagavad Gita, a summary as it were of the whole Mahabharata doctrine. Dhrtarashtra, the father of the Kauravas desiring to get a report of the battle between his sons and the Pandavas, the sons of his brother Pandu asks Sanjaya the narrator: «On the Field of Dharma, the Kurukshetra, when my sons and the sons of Pandu were assembled, eager to fight, what did happen?» The answer to the question is the story of the hesitation of Arjuna, the Pandava warrior, to enter the battle against his own kith and kin, and Krisha’s response to his doubts in eighteen discourses concerning the ideal of disinterested action for the sake of duty without any preoccupation with the results. The Gita is a masterly synthesis of the different religious traditions of the time, focusing on the moral duty of each person and each class, and presenting life itself as a constant battle between right and wrong, symbolized by the fight between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. It presents an uncompromising affirmation of the absolute reality of Brahman, represented by Krishna, the divine Avatar who puts his wisdom in the service of the Pandavas, while lending his armies to the Kauravas. He is to be realized only through knowledge and devotion. The Gita reconciles with the genuine Hindu doctrine the Samkhya dualistic psychology of Spirit and matter, which stands for a constant struggle between the spiritual ideals and the material concerns of life. But the central thrust of the book is the Buddhist moral ideal of detachment from this transitory world. Evil and suffering appear almost as a divine technique to divert the attention of the human spirit from this passing world of pain and pleasure, lead it to the silence and emptiness of the spirit and finally to realization of the authentic ground of being.

3. The Place of Demons in the Ramayana

7The classical Hindu book which shows best the positive value of the Demon in religion is Ramayana. In it Ravana, the demon king, appears as the opposite extreme to all that Rama, the divine avatar, stands for. Ravana, from the time we first hear of him, is already established as a great warrior, who through asceticism obtained important boons from Brahama, the creator god. In Valmiki’s development of Rama’s story, Ravana is the mirror of human nature, with all its complexities and contradictions. Ravana’s will and senses are fundamentally uncontrolled. He is a prey to powerful passions, instantly «lovelorn» at the sight of Sita, Rama’s wife, easily angered by event the hint of insubordination in his kingdom, and hostile to sound advice when it comes against his passions. His conduct proposes and answers important questions concerning the conditions necessary for conversion from a man of brute force to a well-disciplined human individual. In fact the incarnations of Vishnu are mostly in the Kshatriya caste, the class of warriors like Parasurama and Rama, in order to present role models for the rulers. The demon represents the dark side of human nature.

8In Ramayana the main line of devotion is represented by Rama and his brother Lakshmana and Bharata who show humble obedience even to the irrational commands of their parents and elders, pious and obsequious service to the brahmins and sages and all other domestic virtues of loyalty, austerity and tranquillity in the midst of adversity. Ravana, on the other hand, gives a demonstration of what may be called devotion through confrontation. The focus of his attention also is divine since he concentrates constantly on Rama, his spiritual and material possessions, which he looks upon with jalousy and hatred. His failure to recognize Rama is not for lack of intelligence, but owing to the fact that his ego, vanity, pride and anger hinder his discriminate vision. But these passions serve him well since they function as his friends as well as ennemies.

  • 7 Bhagavad Gita, VI, 6-7.
  • 8 Gita. VI, 8.

9In Ramayana’s poetic vision not all friends and enemies are people. The terms are also allegories for emotions, habits, deeds, accomplishments and attitudes. In coping with the world they act as friends and allies. Only with courage and a certain amount of war within oneself can one let them go. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, one has to lift the Self by the self and not allow the Self to sink, for self or one’s inner identity is the real friend of the Self or Atman. «Self is a friend of that Self by which self has been conquered; but in its enmity towards him who has not Self, like a true enemy the self shall be. Of him who has conquered self and come to peace the Self remains absorbed in contemplation of the Highest (paramattan), in cold and heat, in pleasure and pain, in honour and dishonour too»7. What one finds in Ramayana is the clash between two ideals of asceticism, one emphasizing the religious ideal of the brahmins and the other of the kshatriyas. The priestly class of brahmins always tended to emphasize the passive virtues of silence, tranquillity, patient suffering and peace and praised the yogic ideal of purity. «They tried to bring the divine avatars of the Rama and Krishna to the status of contemplatives, ascetics whose spirit is content with knowledge and experience, immovably exalted, victorious over sense, to whom earth, stones, and gold are all alike»8. For them withdrawal from the corrupting environment into one’s own inner self or into the wilderness was an ideal. The warrior class of kshatriyas, on the other hand, tried to emphasize the active virtues of courage, righteous anger, hatred of evil and conquest of the environment. For them the dominant ideal was not purity but auspiciousness and prosperity.

  • 9 Ramayana, Yuddhakanda ch. 113.

10The epics that were composed mostly by the brahmin scholars tried to emphasize the yogic ideal of purity, but the active spirituality of the kshatriyas was taken care of by the demon figures. Those who through their asceticism obtain lavish boons from Brahma, the Creator, were not after all, insignificant people. These demons were not actually evil beings, but actors brought by Vishnu along with him from Vaikunta, his heavenly kingdom, to play their appropriate roles in the incarnational dramas. At their death at the hands of the incarnate Vishnu they return to Vaikunta. Rama after killing Ravana is rather lavish in his praise for the fallen hero: «Though unjust and wicked, this dark warrior was ever energetic, valiant and courageous in war... He was magnanimous and powerful, this oppressor of the worlds. Death brings enmity to an end; we have accomplished our purpose, let us perform the obsequies; it is meet for me as well as for these to do so»9. In fact according to Adhyatma Ramayana, a brilliance equal to the sun emerges from the slain Ravana and enters directly into Rama on the battle field!

4. Ravana the symbol of the human ego

  • 10 Ramayana, Uttarakanda, ch. 11.

11Ramayana can be seen as a psychodrama in which Rama is the true Self which tries to liberate human beings from their individual and limited expressions of conciousness. Here Ravana with his ten heads is the personification of all the wild emotions of human beings. In fact Ravana was the son of a great sage and with his brothers performed great austerities to attain liberation. His brother Vibhishana performed penance standing on one leg for five thousand years, and another five thousand years standing facing the sun, and attained spiritual maturity and became an ally of Rama. Ravana went without food for ten thousand years sacrificing one of his heads to fire at the end of every thousand years. When he was about to sacrifice his tenth head, gods became afraid of him, and Brahma their leader tempted him with a boon, and Ravana fell to that final lure of long life. Though he desired immortality he is only granted longevity and invulnerability both to gods and men. The point is that after all these efforts Ravana failed to conquer his clinging to the ephemeral and glamorous life of the transitory world. So immediatly after accepting the boon Ravana’s other nine heads grew back, and he became subject to pride and arrogance. He overpowered his bloodbrother Vaisravana, who was Kuvera, the lord of wealth, and stole from him both the kingdom of Lanka and the aerial chariot, Pushpaka. At this, Kuvera aptly remarked: «He his perverse and the boons he has received have so intoxicated him that he can no longer discriminate between what is just and unjust»10.

  • 11 Ramayana, Yuddhakanda, ch. 101.

12Rather than an individual person Ravana is actually a graphic representation of the trajectory leading to the purification of conciousness. Highly intelligent, extremely courageous and well versed in the Vedas, Ravana has very little reason to be anxious or afraid. But the preceptor of Ravana is Marichi, whose name means mirage or visionary illusion. Marichi is also a magician from whom Ravana learns the trick to assume any form at will. Ravana also learns a hundred forms of magic from the Nivatakavachas, the sons of the sea-god Varuna. Instead of going inwards to discover the real Self of the individual self, Ravana’s movement is outwards. The Pushkapa aerial chariot which he stole from his brother Kuvera is the symbol of this outward movement: this would go anywhere at will with the swiftness of thought and with all its golden rooms it looks a palace in the sky. Ravana in effect places himself within range of the cosmic vision of the Total Reality, unveiled in the pursuit of all his ambitions and desires, when finally he encounters Rama, his destroyer. When he realizes that his life and reputation are in danger, his fear produces fluctuations of the mind stuff, which in turn creates fluctuations in the body. Ravana’s rage and outbursts of anger are intense because they are in no way suppressed but show his mighty ego. This is a psychological encounter between the authentic Self and the authentic ego. So Rama, the Self says: «That wretch today has come within my range of vision and shall therefore cease to live. Appearing before me, Ravana cannot survive»11. At Ravana’s death the Pushkapa chariot returns to Rama, who gives it back to Kuvera.

5. The Role of the Demon

13The role of the Demon in Indian religious thought is distinctive in the sense that it presents a sort of focal point, of gather up of all of man’s dissipated psychic energies as a counter point to the inner divine Self in which one has to realize one’s ground and primal meanings. This sharply contrasts with the role of demon in other traditions. In the Garden of Eden of the Bible Satan comes in the form of a serpent to tempt the first parents Adam and Eve to renounce their subservience to the Creator, violate his prohibition to eat the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil, and to seek to be like God in their independence. In this depiction of sin as disobedience, rebellion and a quest to lead one’s life independently of God, Satan is a sort of pseudo-absolute, the first rebel, the model and prototype of all sin. In the dualistic thinking of the Persians, Ahriman, the evil creator of the material world is the adversary of the God of the spirit, Ahura Mazda. In Greek mythology Prometheus, the Titan, is a friend of human beings against the jealous hegemony of Zeus, the chief Olympian Deity. He steals fire from the gods to bring light and warmth to human beings who were living like ants beneath the ground. He taught them mathematics, a synthesis of letters, crafts, and the art of taming wild animals. For this favour shown to human beings Prometheus is cruelly punished by Zeus, and it took him thirty thousand years to get back into friendship with Zeus.

  • 12 See Kenneth K.S. Ch’en, Buddhism, The Light of Asia, Woodbury N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1 (...)

14The role of the demon in the Indian perspective is somewhat more subtle. He plays the character of a villain in the psychodrama of salvation with the divine Avatar as the hero. While the divine incarnation provides a role-moclel for human beings to imitate, the demon shows what one should not be. This is best exemplified in the story of the illumination of Buddha: Mara, the personification of evil, the lord of the world of desires, with his three daughters, Desire, Discontent and Passion, makes every effort to distract Gautama from his spiritual determination of attaining delivrance from the cycle of rebirth. Once these attempts are defeated by the bodhisattva the instruments of Mara become a positive advantage to proclaim Buddha’s message to the world. Thus the Tempter appears as a personification of the internal struggles of the human being on the path to liberation12.

  • 13 Cf. Ranjini & Gananath Obeyesekere, «The Tale of the Demoness Kali: A Discourse of Evil», History (...)

15There is no conception of evil as a mere lack, a negative concept, as it has been in the Western traditions in general, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: «The antithesis of good in all its principal senses». Hence the Demon is not a personification of evil. It is rather a positive concept as move in the wrong direction, leading to demerit and bondage. In a soteriology of karma, rebirth and nirvana, one could not think of the demonic as «radical evil» tending towards an alienation from God. The focus of salvation is not God and His redemptive activity, but man and the different directions he could take in his vision and activities13.

16What we find in the Indian demonic philosophy is a total departure from the binary conception of the Greek and Persian philosophies, between good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness and the like. In fact in Hindu mythology the demons appear in many cases far better than the gods. In the story of Vishnu’s incarnation as Vamana, a man of small stature, Mahabali, the demon king who then ruled the earth, was a competent and benevolent monarch who provided his people with peace and plenty. So the gods have to use deceit and cunning and take advantage of the well-known generosity of Mahabali by sending Vishnu to request from him just three feet of land, measured by his small foot. When the request was readily granted in good faith, Vamana, the avatar grows into a giant, in two steps covers heaven and earth, and asks where he should put his third step. Mahabali, true to his word, asks Vishnu to put his foot on his own head, and Visnu without any qualms about the morality of the act puts his foot on Mahabali’s head and thrust him down to the nether world, from where he was allowed to come and visit his people only once a year. Gods wrest the world from the demons only through crafty and deceitful means.

17Hence in the many redemption stories that involve the intervention of the avatars of Vishnu there is no central protagonist and no tightly knit plot. The story goes in many directions bringing to light the different dimensions of human existence. In the law of karma and reincarnation even the gods can fall from their divine status and become demons or animals. Even Brahma, the creator has only a limited tenure of his office, though it embraces millions of human years. So the demon is something any one can turn oneself into through one’s actions.


18What becomes clear from the above discussion is that the Indian concept of demon is radically different from the Western idea of Satan/Devil or of evil. Religion is not an ontology of God or other superior beings for the benefit of man, but rather an anthropology of man in the light of his ultimate concerns and the final meaning of his existence. The very method of starting with the accepted reality of finite beings and postulating God as an Infinite Being, other than and outside of the finite and then postulating the Devil as the antithesis of God is bad logic. When God is realized as the really Real, the One-without-a-second, human existence is recognized as only unreal real or only practically real. In this perspective a God-Demon polarity is unacceptable. The demonic is, after all, only a dark-side of our own psyche, showing the possibility of our getting lost in this phenomenal world and its power-play. In the Christian conception, in which the devil is a fallen angel, the adversary of God and of human beings, any cult of the devil is a denial of God’s love, benevolence and power, and hence apostacy. But in the hindu and Buddhist conception of the demon as one direction in which rational beings can evolve, devil worship is not taken as a serious deviation from the ideals of religion. It is only a slightly deviant version of the veneration of saints.


1 RgVeda X, 108.

2 RV VII, 104, 9-10.

3 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I, iii, 1. One can compare with this the Esau-Jacob story of the Book of Genesis.

4 Brih Up. V, ii, 1-3.

5 Chandogya Up. VIII, ix-xiv; cf. Maitri Up, VII, 9.

6 Kaushitaki Up. IV, 20.

7 Bhagavad Gita, VI, 6-7.

8 Gita. VI, 8.

9 Ramayana, Yuddhakanda ch. 113.

10 Ramayana, Uttarakanda, ch. 11.

11 Ramayana, Yuddhakanda, ch. 101.

12 See Kenneth K.S. Ch’en, Buddhism, The Light of Asia, Woodbury N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1968, p. 23.

13 Cf. Ranjini & Gananath Obeyesekere, «The Tale of the Demoness Kali: A Discourse of Evil», History of Religions, 1990, pp. 318-334.


Fordham University, New York.

© Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1994

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