11/09/2012 07:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hindu Gods in Video Gaming

In discussing the upcoming Indian festival of Diwali, a festival of lights observed by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs, an Indian colleague asked me why so many Christian themes emerged in video games when rich narratives from other faiths do not?

Good question. But it's worth pointing out an exception released just this year, Asura's Wrath. Asura"s Wrath is a story-driven, God of War-style action game that takes place over a 15,000 year period. It charts the betrayal of a god named Asura by his fellow gods and then his subsequent revenge. While Diwali is a holiday of unity and forgiveness, the story of Asura's Wrath is solely a story of vengeance.

And in a year when the most popular games seem to all be sequels -- Assassin's Creed 3, Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil 6 -- it is refreshing to see something unique and original.

What makes this game so interesting is the ways that it draws on the material in Hindu religious texts while building on them through reader interpretations of those texts. The game falls much in line with my earlier findings about the connection between religion and violence and in many ways critiques the R-rated material in the religious text itself (and, by the way, Asura's Wrath sports a "teen" rating).

The game's producers said upfront that the game was meant to be a mix of Hindu mythology and science fiction. Hindu mythology has a rich pantheon perhaps only rivaled by that of Greek mythology (which has its own revenge-centered game series). Not everyone was a fan of the game. Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, claimed to speak on the behalf of Hinduism when he sent out a press release condemning the game shortly after its release earlier this year. According to a press release: "Such trivializing and reimagining of highly revered symbols and concepts of Hinduism was not okay as it is upsetting for the devotee. ... No faith, larger or smaller, should be plundered."

Of course, the fact that Zed claims to be speaking on the behalf of Hinduism is itself a problem since Hinduism lacks the kind of clear hierarchy that one would find in, say, Catholicism.

Asura's Wrath includes many characters lifted from the Vedas: the dragon Vitra (Vlitra) serves as the key antagonistic force, the goddess Durga, Deus and Mithra.

Yet in some cases the roles have changed. For example, in Hinduism, asuras are lesser deities than better known gods like Agni, Siva and Indra. Yet the game's protagonist is named Asura and at times he takes on characteristics of each of these gods.

While the game has changed the gender roles, some of the underlying themes of those roles remain the same. In the game, Asura is married to a woman named Durga. The character is based on the original material female who serves as the mother of material nature. In Hinduism, Durga serves as Siva's female consort and her sexual union with Siva inserts all souls into material nature. So in a way, Durga's greatest offering is that which she can provide in collaboration with her husband Siva. The warrior goddess, interestingly enough, slays an army of asuras. Yet in Asura's Wrath, Durga is depicted more like a Leave It To Beaver housewife than a warrior goddess. If she overcomes Asura, it is only through her femininity. She doesn't fight, she just tries to calm Asura (who, aptly so, is a pretty wrathful guy). She stays home, she raises their daughter. Like the religious narrative, Durga's most important role is done with the necessity of a male figure.

Asura's daughter Mithra seems to be based off the god Mitra -- a god of friendship and accord -- which makes sense since, in the game, it is she who brings Asura together with an ally, and her sacrifice that allows the gods to rule over humanity. Mithra is the quintessential damsel in distress. While she holds great power as priestess -- able to channel the power of human prayers into weapons -- she is unable to put this power to use in defending herself. Here Mithra serves a similar function to Durga in that she appears most often in relation to male figures. In scenes with Asura similarly, her gentleness and fragility serves as a contrast to his hard, vitriolic personality.

Yet Asura's Wrath also includes elements that have been read into the Vedas. Some have read the Vedas as prophetic texts and drawn out spaceships and nuclear weapons. Thus in the game, the gods largely reside in outer space, ruling over humanity from spaceships and enforcing their rule with lasers powered by souls. The Brahmastra in Hinduism is a weapon of Brahma that he uses to destroy his own creation. According to the Mahabharata, the weapon is so powerful it can cause environmental damage. And thus in the game, the gods have a Death Star-like weapon called the Brahmastra they use to fight the dragon the Vlitra.

The video game is often a medium of social critique. In some ways, Zed has a point -- but it is not a point with which all Hindus would agree. In Asura's Wrath, Hindu themes and images have been appropriated and lifted out of a religious and cultural context. Yet by appropriating these images, the game also works as a subtle critique of the religious text.

Top and middle images courtesy of Capcom USA. Bottom image a screenshot by KasaiKnight, Asura's Wrath Wikia.