Religion was created to provide people with a framework of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in society. Religion also provides moral guidelines to help us become the best version of ourselves. This is why mythology associated with religion is driven by clear heroes and villains. Heroes in religious text embody good qualities like honesty, sacrifice, love and honour.
The villains, meanwhile, represent evil. They are the cold-hearted monsters who lack these desirable qualities and must be defeated for good to prevail. Demons, evil spirits and vile creatures are found in all stories recounted in religious texts from across the world. As earliest civilisations feared Nature the most, these evil creatures represented death, destruction and natural disasters. But if we look at the villains in religious mythology, we will realise they are actually just anti-heroes, often not necessarily evil but overlooked by us.
Take Duryodhan for instance. His father Dhritarashtra had to abdicate the throne due to his disability and Pandu ruled in his stead. When Pandu died, Dhritarashtra, though visually impaired became the king. But when the Kauravas and Pandavas grew up, Duryodhan, as first born son of the king, claimed his right to succeed his father. Was he so wrong? Didn’t the Pandavas act dishonourably by refusing Duryodhan his rightful claim?
In fact, there is an old but unverified theory that Duryodhan and Dushasan were actually named Suyodhan and Sushasan. In Bharat Bhushan Agarwal’s Hindi epic Mahabharat Ki Ek Saanjh, a dying Duryodhna has one last conversation with Yudhisthir and says, “Mrityu ke vakt toh mujhe mere asli naam se bula lo (At least address me by my correct name as I lay here dying)”. When Yudhisthir refuses and says that is the name by which he will be remembered, Duryodhan quips, “Yeh srishti wahi jaanegi jo inhe itihaas batayega aur mujhe gyat hai ki tum itihaas apni dekh rekh mein likhwaoge (The world will know what history will tell them and I know you will have history written under your supervision)”. It is these layers in the Mahabharat that make it a masterpiece, and therefore inspirational.
When it comes to Abrahamic religions, Satan or Shaitaan is the most reviled creature. The word Satan is a Hebrew word meaning ‘opposer’ or ‘obstructor’. With a mention in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is reviled both in Christianity and Islam. However, the story has it that Satan was once an angel named Lucifer, meaning ‘bringer of light’. He believed in free will as opposed to God’s will or destiny and rebelled against him. He fell from God’s grace after being consumed by hubris. After his defeat he was condemned to rule hell or the netherworld.
According to the Holy Quran, Shaitaan hated mankind because God asked him and other angels to bow down to Adam, the first man. A blow to Shaitaan’s pride, he swore to corrupt mankind. He is seen as someone who seduces, incites and tempts people to commit sin because of his hatred of mankind.
But Sufism has an interesting take on Satan. It believes that Satan refused to bow down to Adam as his devotion was only to God and would bow to no one else. But his divine love for God was seen as ego and Satan who was actually a selfless lover of God made the ultimate sacrifice by forever burning in the fires of hell.
Even the Yazidis have a version of Satan called Melek Taus, who did stray from the path of good but was forgiven and redeemed when he repented and changed his ways. He is therefore revered by them and in fact one of the biggest reasons why ISIS never spares Yazidis, as it sees them as Devil worshippers.
But was Lucifer really evil or did he just choose a path different from God’s? According to religious and mythological texts the Devil can’t and doesn’t lie. He always gives people a choice and it is those whose character is weak that succumb to the temptation. So in that sense, the Devil can’t and doesn’t control anyone. It is this textured characterisation of Satan in different Abrahamic religions that makes him such an interesting anti-hero.
And that brings us to the purpose these villains and anti-heroes serve in religious mythology and folk lore. Were these inherently bad or just characters created to make the hero look good, because every hero needs a villain?