Asvins, the Hindu Gods of Healing and Medicine

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

The Asvins (also spelled Ashvins or Aswins) are inseparable twin gods of medicine and healing who occupy an important place in Hindu pantheon, whose origin is shrouded in myth, mystery and symbolism.

They are mentioned in the Vedic hymns and the Upanishads. They are extolled as possessors of horses, harbingers of the goddess of dawn Ushah, and knowers of the secrets of plant life.

A number of hymns are addressed to them because of their healing and curative powers. They said to descend to earth thrice a day to help the mankind with their restorative and curative powers.

The Asvins are considered brothers of Usha, the goddess of dawn and may actually represent twilight, when darkness and light appear intertwined on the horizon just before dawn as well as before dusk.

They are the earliest known physicians having the ability to perform organ transplanting surgery. They played a trick with Indra by replacing the head of Dadhichi with that a horse. When Indra beheaded him, they again retransplanted his original head. They did so because Dadhichi, the son of Atharvan, had the knowledge of honey (Madhu vidya), which made mortal beings immortal. Indra felt insecure about it and did not want any mortal man to learn it. He vowed to behead any person who taught that knowledge to others. The Asvins, devised a plan to learn it from Dadhici without the permission of Indra. They cleverly replaced Dadhici's head with that of a horse and learned the knowledge from him. When Indra came to know about it and out of anger cut off his head, they put back his original head upon him and revived him.

The Asvins are praised in the hymns as wonder workers, physicians of gods, with nimble hands and miraculous healing powers, bestowing beauty and health upon the worshippers.

In the epic Mahabharata, they were responsible for the birth of Nakula and Sahadeva, the handsome twins who had rare skills in rearing and taming horses.

The Rigvedic hymns describe them as lords of hundred powers, who constantly strive to do good to others, who can make the blind and lame see and walk, the injured recover quickly from their afflictions, and help men produce offspring or the cows yield more milk.

They can reduce the heat in the human body, cure the septic sores, store the germ of life in female creatures and perform even surgery. Traveling in a chariot with three spokes, they come down to the earth thrice a day carrying with them heavenly medicines.

Symbolically they are considered to the semidarkness before dawn. Because of their benevolence they are invariably invoked during vedic sacrifices. In the Hindu iconography, the asvins are usually depicted as handsome young men with the heads of horses.

The following is an excerpt from the book A Vedic Reader For Students By Arthur Anthony Macdonell (1854-1930) about Asvins.

These two deities are the most prominent gods after Indra, Agni, and Soma, being invoked in more than fifty entire hymns and in parts of several others. Though their name (asv-in horseman) is purely Indian, and though they undoubtedly belong to the group of the deities of light, the phenomenon which they represent is uncertain, because in all probability their origin is to be sought in a very early pre-Vedic age.

They are twins and inseparable, though two or three passages suggest that they may at one time have been regarded as distinct. They are young and yet ancient. They are bright, lords of lustre, of golden brilliancy, beautiful, and adorned with lotus-garlands. They are the only gods called golden-pathed (híranya-vartani). They are strong and agile, fleet as thought or as an eagle. They possess profound wisdom and occult power. Their two most distinctive and frequent epithets are dasrá wondrous and násatya true.

They are more closely associated with honey (mádhu) than any of the other gods. They desire honey and are drinkers of it. They have a skin filled with honey; they poured out a hundred jars of honey. They have a honey-goad; and their car is honey-hued and honey-bearing. They give honey to the bee and are compared with bees. They are, however, also fond of Soma, being invited to drink it with Usas and Surya. Their car is sunlike and, together with all its parts, golden. It is threefold and has three wheels. It is swifter than thought, than the twinkling of an eye. It was fashioned by the three divine artificers, the Rbhus. It is drawn by horses, more commonly by birds or winged steeds; sometimes by one or more buffaloes, or by a single asa (rásabha). It passes over the five countries; it moves around the sky; it traverses heaven and earth in one day; it goes round the sun in the distance. Their revolving course (vartís), a term almost exclusively applicable to them, is often mentioned. They come from heaven, air, and earth, or from the ocean; they abide in the sea of heaven, but sometimes their locality is referred to as unknown. The time of their appearance is between dawn and sunrise: when darkness stands among the ruddy cows; Usas awakens them; they follow after her in their car; at its yoking Usas is born. They yoke their car to descend to earth and receive the offerings of worshippers. They come not only in the morning, but also at noon and sunset. They dispel darkness and chase away evil spirits.

The Asvins are children of Heaven; but they are also once said to be the twin sons of Vivasvant and Tvastr's daughter Saranyú (probably the rising Sun and Dawn). Pusan is once said to be their son; and Dawn seems to be meant by their sister. They are often associated with the Sun conceived as a female called either Surya or more commonly the daughter of Surya. They are Surya's two husbands whom she chose and whose car she mounts. Surya's companionship on their car is indeed characteristic. Hence in the wedding hymn (x. 85) the Asvins are invoked to conduct the bride home on their car, and they (with other gods) are besought to bestow fertility on her.

The Asvins are typically succouring divinities. They are the speediest deliverers from distress in general. The various rescues they effect are of a peaceful kind, not deliverance from the dangers of battle. They are characteristically divine physicians, healing diseases with their remedies, restoring sight, curing the sick and the maimed. Several legends are mentioned about those whom they restored to youth, cured of various physical defects, or befriended in other ways. The name oftenest mentioned is that of Bhujyu, whom they saved from the ocean in a ship.

The physical basis of the Asvins has been a puzzle from the time of the earliest interpreters before Yuska, who offered various explanations, while modern scholars also have suggested several theories. The two most probable are that the Asvins represented either the morning twilight, as half light and half dark, or the morning and the evening star. It is probable that the Asvins date from the Indo-European period. The two horsemen, sons of Dyaus, who drive across the heaven with their steeds, and who have a sister, are parallel to the two famous horsemen of Greek mythology, sons of Zeus, brothers of Helena; and to the two Lettic God's sons who come riding on their steeds to woo the daughter of the Sun. In the Lettic myth the morning star comes to look at the daughter of the Sun. As the two Asvins wed the one Surya so the two Lettic God's sons wed the one daughter of the Sun; the latter also (like the Dioskouroi and the Asvins) are rescuers from the ocean, delivering the daughter of the Sun or the Sun himself.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: From A VEDIC READER For Students By Arthur Anthony Macdonell (1854-1930))

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