APSARAS. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] The Apsarases are the celebrated nymphs of Indra's heaven. The name, which signifies 'moving in the water,' has some analogy to that of Aphrodite.
They are not prominent in the Vedas, but Urvasi and a few others are mentioned. In Manu they are said to be the creations of the seven Manus. In the epic poems they become prominent, and the Ramayana and the Puranas attribute their origin to the churning of the ocean. (See Amrita.) It is said that when they came forth from the waters neither the gods nor the Asuras would have them for wives, so they became common to all. They have the appellations of Suranganas, 'wives of the gods,' and Sumadatmajas, daughters of pleasure.'
"Then from the agitated deep up sprung The legion of Apsarases, so named That to the watery element they owed. Their being. Myriads were they born, and all in vesture heavenly clad, and heavenly gems:Yet more divine their native semblance, rich With all the gifts of grace, of youth and beauty. A train innumerous followed ; yet thus fair, Nor god nor demon sought their wedded love: Thus Raghava! they still remain their charms. The common treasure of the host of heaven" (Ramayana) WILSON.
In the Puranas various ganas or classes of them are mentioned with distinctive names. The Vayu Purana enumerates fourteen, the Harivansa seven classes. They are again distinguished as being daivika, 'divine,' or laukika, 'wordily.' The former are said to be ten in number and the latter thirty-four, and these are the heavenly charmers who fascinated heroes, as Urvasi, and allured austere sages from their devotions and penances, as Menaka and Rambha. The Kasikhanda says "there are thirty-five millions of them, but only one thousand and sixty are the principal."
The Apsarases, then, are fairylike beings, beautiful and voluptuous. They are the wives or the mistresses of the Gandharvas, and are not prudish in the dispensation of their favours. Their amours on earth have been numerous, and they are the rewards in Indra's paradise held out to heroes who fall in battle. They have the power of changing their forms; they are fond of dice, and give luck to whom they favour. In the Atharvaveda they are not so amiable; they are supposed to produce madness (love's madness?), and so there are charms and incantations for use against them.
There is a long and exhaustive article on the Apsarases in Goldstucker's Dictionary, from
which much of the above has been adapted. As regards their origin he makes
the following speculative observations: "Originally these divinities seem
to have been personifications of the vapours which are attracted by the sun
and form into mist or clouds; their character may be thus interpreted
in the few hymns of the Rigveda where mention. is made of them. At a subsequent
period...(their attributes expanding with those of their associates the Gandharvas),
they became divinities which represent phenomena or objects both of a physical
and ethical kind closely associated with that life" (the elementary life of
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