From the hymns addressed to these deities it is not at all easy to know who or what they are. Yāska, the commentator of the Vedas, deriving the name from a root meaning “to fill,” says they are called Asvins because they pervade everything, the one with light, the other with moisture. Another commentator says they are called Asvins because they ride upon horses. Some say that by them heaven and earth are indicated; others that they are day and night; others, again, that they are the sun and moon. Professor Roth says, “They hold a perfectly distinct position in the entire body of the Vedic deities of light. They are the earliest bringers of light in the morning sky, who hasten on in the clouds before the Dawn and prepare the way for her.” * In some hymns they are said to be sons of the sun (vide Surya); in others are called children of the sky; in others, again, as the offspring of the ocean. They seem to represent the transition from night to morning—night when it is passing into day.
The Asvins are said to have had Suryā, the daughter of Savitri, as their common wife. She chose them, as her life was lonely. Her father had intended her to marry Soma; but, as the gods were anxious to obtain so beautiful a bride, it was agreed that they should run a race, Surya being the prize of the winner. The Asvins were successful, and she ascended their chariot. * In another passage Soma is said to have been her husband; the Asvins being friends of the bridegroom.
The Asvins are regarded as the physicians of the gods, and are declared to be able to restore to health the blind, the sick, the lame, and the emaciated amongst mortals. They are the special guardians of the slow and backward; the devoted friends of elderly women who are unmarried. They are said to preside over love and marriage, and are implored to bring together hearts that love. †
A number of legends are found illustrating the power of the Asvins in healing the sick and assisting those in trouble, from which we learn that they could restore youth and vigour to the aged and decrepit; they rescued a man from drowning, and carried him in safety to his home. The leg of Vispalā, that was cut off in battle, they replaced by an iron one. At the request of a wolf, they restored sight to a man who had been blinded by his father as a punishment for slaughtering a hundred and one sheep, which he gave to the wolf to eat. They restored sight and power to walk to one who was blind and lame. As a result of these and other similar legends, the Asvins are invoked for “offspring, wealth, victory, destruction of enemies, the preservation of the worshippers themselves, of their houses and cattle.
The following legend of the cure they effected on Chyavana, from the “Satapatha Brāhmana,”24 will illustrate the peculiar features of the work of the Asvins:—Chyavana, having assumed a shrivelled form, was abandoned by his family. Saryāta, a Rishi, with his tribe settled in the neighbourhood; when his sons seeing the body of Chyavana, not knowing it was a human being, pelted it with stones. Chyavana naturally resented this, and sowed dissension amongst the family of Saryāta. Anxious to learn the cause of this, Saryāta inquired of the shepherds near if they could account for it; they told him that his sons had insulted Chyavana. Saryāta thereupon took his daughter Sukanyā in his chariot, and, apologizing for what had been done, gave his daughter to the decrepit man as a peace-offering.
Now the Asvins were in the habit of wandering about the world performing cures, and, seeing Sukanyā, they were delighted with her beauty and wished to seduce her. They said, “What is that shrivelled body by which you are lying? Leave him and follow us.” She replied that whilst he lived she would not leave the man to whom her father had given her. When they came to her a second time, acting on her husband’s suggestion she said, “You speak contemptuously of my husband, whilst you are incomplete and imperfect yourselves.” And on condition that they would make her husband young again, she consented to tell them in what respect they were imperfect and incomplete. Upon this they told her to take her husband to a certain pond. After bathing there, he came forth with his youth renewed. Sukanyā told the Asvins that they were imperfect because they had not been invited to join the other gods in a great sacrifice that was to be celebrated at Kurukshetra. The Asvins proceeded to the place of sacrifice, and, asking to be allowed to join in it, were told that they could not do so, because they had wandered familiarly among men, performing cures. In reply to this, the Asvins declared that the gods were making a headless sacrifice. The gods inquiring how this could be, the Asvins replied, “Invite us to join you, and we will tell you.” To this the gods consented.
In another account of this legend, it is said that, as the Asvins were physicians, they were consequently unclean; hence no Brāhman must be a physician, or he is thereby unfitted for the work of a priest; but as the work of the Asvins was necessary, they were purified, and then allowed to join the gods. They then restored the head of the sacrifice. Professor Goldstücker25 says, “The myth of the Asvins is one of that class of myths in which two distinct elements, the cosmical and the human or historical, have gradually become blended into one. . . . The historical or human element in it, I believe, is represented by those legends which refer to the wonderful cures effected by the Asvins, and to their performances of a kindred sort; the cosmical element is that relating to their luminous nature. The link which connects both seems to be the mysteriousness of the nature and effects of light and of the healing art at a remote antiquity. It would appear that these Asvins, like the Ribhus, were originally renowned mortals, who, in the course of time, were translated into the companionship of the gods.”