The carvings of Apsaras in Khmer and Angkor Wat are famous. We can notice similar carvings in Indian temples as well. In Indian temples, we find Apsaras and Gandharvas grouped together.
Apsaras are known for their legendary beauty and attractiveness. They find a place in temple carvings. Purana texts promulgate the idea of Apsaras being of a celestial origin. Secondly, they are dancers in the domain of Indra. We imagine Apsara to be amorous because the Puranas tell stories about their affairs with Kings and ascetics. Generally, in these stories, Indra sends them to the Earth to distract an ascetic. This is Indra’s way of testing an ascetic before they gain more spiritual powers. However, what is the real nature of an Apsara? Why are Apsaras known as the companions of Gandharvas? For an alternate viewpoint on Apsaras, we turn to the Vedas.
Churning of the Milky Ocean
To begin with, let us review the most famous story about the origin of Apsara. Apsaras emerged when the Devas, the celestials and Asuras (the enemies of Devas), churned the legendary ocean. In short, they emerged immediately after the Kalpa Vriksa, the wish fulfilling tree. Therefore, a dazzling Apsara is caring and full of love. Also, she can intoxicate anyone and bring a sense of satisfaction by a mere touch. Let us now understand why the Apsara and Gandharva energies are invited to a Yagna. Through this we can get to an alternate viewpoint on them.
Gandharvas and Apsaras complement each other in a Yagna. Gandharvas carry away any excess after a Yagna. On the other hand, Apsaras can take care of deficits at the end of a Yagna. A Yagna is a ritual which is designed to create balance. Brahma and the Devas performed a celestial Yagna to make a totally balanced cosmos. They wanted to assure that no offering was leftover or in excess at the end of their Yagna. They invited the Gandharvas to rectify this. Similarly, they invited the Apsaras to rectify any feeling of lack.
Yagna, Apsaras and Gandharvas
Human beings continued this tradition of Yagnas. A Yagna technically completes with an offering called the Poorna Ahuti or the fullness offering. However, the Yagna continues a bit more after this. This sounds absurd. However, this is the time to rectify. Gandharvas and Apsaras bring their skills at this time. Per Vedic tradition, every person or a being plays an equally important role in existence. Gandharvas and Apsaras are helpers. The stories make this clear. However, the all-powerful Devas do not themselves have the skills to identify deficit and excess. They therefore rely on the Gandharva and Apsara pair.
The Vayu Purana supports the alternate view of Apsara. According to it, the Apsaras arise from sacrificial fire.