Asura

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The bas-relief of Samudra manthan from Angkor Wat, Cambodia, shows Vishnu in the center, in his Kurma avatar, with the asuras and the devas on either side. See an annotated version in the Wikimedia Commons.

In Hinduism, the asuras (Sanskrit: असुर) are a group of power-seeking deities different from the benign deities known as devas (which are also known as suras). They are sometimes considered naturalists, or nature-beings, in constant battle with the devas.


Deities[edit]

In early Vedic texts, both suras and asuras were deities who constantly competed with each other, some bearing both designations at the same time. In late-Vedic and post-Vedic literature the Vedic asuras became lesser beings while in the Avesta, the Persian counterpart of the Vedas, the devas began to be considered lesser beings.

Later, in the Puranas, Kashyap is portrayed as the father of both, devas and asuras. In the Puranas, Kashyap is said to have married 60 daughters of Prajapati and fathered all beings on earth including devas, asuras, manavas and the entire animal world.[1]

According to the Vishnu Purana, during the Samudra manthan or "churning of the ocean", the daityas came to be known as asuras because they rejected Varuni, the goddess of sura "wine", while the devas accepted her and came to be known as suras.[2]

Alain Daniélou says:

It is significant that it was not for their sins that the anti-gods had to be destroyed but because of their power, their virtue, their knowledge, which threatened that of the gods—that is, the gods of the Aryas. The antigods are often depicted as good brahmanas (Bali, Prahlada). Defeated, they serve the gods faithfully (Siva Purana).[3]

In order to explain the demonization of asuras, mythology was created to show that though the asuras were originally just, good, virtuous, their nature had gradually changed.[2][3] The asuras (anti-gods) were depicted to have become proud, vain, to have stopped performing sacrifices, to violate sacred laws, not visit holy places, not cleanse themselves from sin, to be envious of devas, torturous of living beings, creating confusion in everything and to challenge the devas.[2][3]

Alain Daniélou explains the nature of social division between the devas and asuras; and the subsequent assimilation thus:

With new political alignments and alliances, as well as with changes in moral conceptions and ritual, some of the gods changed side. The teachings of the wise asuras came to be incorporated into those of the Vedic sages and often, more or less openly replaced by them.

On the other hand, the asuras gradually assimilated the demons, spirits, and ghosts worshipped by the aboriginal tribes and also most of the gods of the other non-Vedic populations of India. In the later epics the term asura becomes a common name for all the opponents of the Aryan gods and includes all the genii, the daityas, and danavas and other descendants of the seer Vision (KaSyapa) , although not usually the demons (rakshasa) said to be descended from Smooth Hair (Pulastya).

Some of the ancient heroes, later recognized as incarnations of Visnu or connected with their legend, came down from the background of pre-Vedic culture and have carried with them the tales of the great asuras whose names and wisdom had remained untarnished.

Tales referring to the peoples and the aboriginal tribes with whom the Aryas were first in conflict when they settled in northern India came to be incorporated in the myths of the asuras and the rakshasa. The allusions to the disastrous wars between the asuras and the suras, found everywhere in the Puranas and the epics, seem to include many episodes of the struggle of the Aryan tribes against earlier inhabitants of India. The rakshasa appear as guerrillas who disturb the sacrifices. A rakshasa carries off Bhrgu's wife, who was originally betrothed to the rakshasa Puloman. Many Aryas contracted alliances with asuras. Arjuna married King Vasuki's sister. Matali's daughter married the naga Sumukha (Mahabharata 5.3627). The naga Taksaka is an intimate friend of Indra (ibid. 1.18089). Ghatotkaca is a son of Bhima by the rakshasi woman Hidimba. Rakshasas and yaksas are named occasionally as being in the army of the devas. In the war described in the Mahabharata, some asuras support the Kurus in battle (ibid. 7.4412). The asuras are often grouped with different Hindu tribes such as the Kalinga, the Magadha, the Nagas. There are still today Naga tribes in Assam, and the Asur are a primitive tribe of ironsmiths in central India.[3]

Characteristics[edit]

In general, in the earliest text, the Rigveda, the asuras preside over moral and social phenomena. Among the asuras are Varuna, the guardian of Rta, and Aryaman, the patron of marriages. Conversely, the Sura preside over natural phenomena. Among the devas are the Ushas, whose name means "dawn", and Indra, the leader of the Devas. However, by the time that the Brahmana texts were written, the character of the Asuras had become negative.

History and etymology[edit]

In later texts, such as the Puranas and the Itihasas, the devas are the good beings, and the asuras are the bad ones. According to the Bhagavad Gita (16.6), all beings in the universe assume either the divine qualities (daivi sampad) or the material qualities (asuri sampad). The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita describes the divine qualities briefly and the materialistic qualities at length. In summary, the Gita (16.4) says that the asuric qualities are pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance.

P.L. Bhargava says,

The word, Asura, including its variants, asurya and asura, occurs 88 times in the Rigveda, 71 times in the singular number, four times in the dual, 10 times in the plural, and three times as the first member of a compound. In this, the feminine form, asuryaa, is included twice. The word, asurya, has been used 19 times as an abstract noun, while the abstract form asuratva occurs 24 times, 22 times in each of the 22 times of one hymn and twice in the other two hymns.[4]

Meaning and change[edit]

Bhargava believes that, in most of the ancient hymns, the word, asura, is always used as an adjective meaning "powerful" or "mighty". In the Rigveda, two generous kings, as well as some priests, have been described as asuras. One hymn requests a son who is an asura. In nine hymns, Indra is described as asura. Five times, he is said to possess asurya, and once he is said to possess asuratva. Agni has total of 12 asura descriptions, Varuna has 10, Mitra has eight, and Rudra has six. Bhargava gives a count of the word usage for every Vedic deity.

Moreover, Bhargava states that the word slowly assumed a negative connotation toward the end of the Rigvedic period. The Avesta, the book of the Zoroastrians, describes their supreme God as Ahura Mazda (compare Vedic Asura Medhira) —Mighty and Wise. For them, the word Deva (daeuua) is negative. Asura is therefore regarded as an epithet. Ravanasura means mighty Ravana. Ravana was a Brahmana—Rakshasa (powerful flesh-eating demon). There was no "Asura Jati" in the way that there were Rakshasas, Daityas, Devas, and Brahmanas.

In music[edit]

In Sanskrit, sura denotes chromatic musical harmony or, by metonymy, a person who can sing (and especially one who can sing Vedic poetry) in sura. Asura (a ["without"/"opposite"] + sura) denotes a person who cannot properly pronounce the words of the Vedas or sing in chromatic harmony. In the past, rishis (priests) avoided teaching the Vedas to asuras on the grounds that a mispronunciation would alter the meaning of the phrase being recited.

Indo-Iranian context[edit]

The term asura is linguistically related to the ahuras of Zoroastrianism, but has, in that religion, a different meaning. The term applies to three deities--(Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Apam Napat). Furthermore, there is no direct opposition between the ahuras and the daevas: The fundamental opposition in Zoroastrianism is not between groups of deities but between asha (truth) and druj (falsehood). The relationship between the ahuras and daevas is an expression of that opposition: on the one hand, the ahuras, like all of the other yazatas, are defenders of asha. On the other hand, the daevas are, in the earliest texts, deities that are to be rejected because they are misled by "the lie" (see Daeva). For example, in Vendidad (Avestan "Law against Daevas") 10.9 and 19.43, Indra and Shiva (Sauru) are 'cursed' by Ahura-mazda: Ahura Mazda answered: 'After thou hast thrice said those Thris-amrutas, thou shalt say aloud these victorious, most healing words: '"I drive away Indra, I drive away Sauru, I drive away the daeva Naunghaithya, from this house, from this borough, from this town, from this land; from the very body of the man defiled by the dead, from the very body of the woman defiled by the dead; from the master of the house, from the lord of the borough, from the lord of the town, from the lord of the land; from the whole of the world of Righteousness. (FARGARD 10.9. Formulas recited during the process of cleansing) [5]

The supposition, regarding the existence of the dichotomy between ahuras/asuras and daevas/devas in Indo-Iranian times, was discussed at length by F.B.J. Kuiper.[6] The dichotomy is evident in the earliest texts of either culture, though neither the Rigveda's asuras nor the Gathas' daevas are 'demons'. However, sometimes the deities cooperate. Nevertheless, the demonisation of the asuras in post-Rigvedic India and the demonisation of the daevas in Zoroastrian Iran took place "so late that the associated terms cannot be considered a feature of Indo-Iranian religious dialectology".[7]

Originally presented in the 19th century but popularized in the mid-20th century, the idea of a prehistoric opposition between the asurás and the devás had already been largely rejected by Avesta scholars when a landmark publication (Hale, 1986[8]) attracted considerable attention among Vedic scholars. Kuiper, and then Hale, discussed, "as no one before him" (so Insler's review[9]), the attestations of ásura and its derivatives in chronological order within the Vedic texts, leading to new insights into how the asuras came to be the evil beings that they are today and why the venerated Varuna, Mitra, Agni, Aryaman, Pusan and Parjanya are all asuras without being demonic. Hale's work has raised further questions—such as how the later poets could have overlooked the idea that the RigVeda's asuras are all exalted gods.

Following Hale's discoveries, Thieme's earlier proposal[10] of a single Indo-Iranian asura began to gain widespread support. In general (particulars may vary), the idea is as follows:

  • Indo-Iranian asura became Varuna in India and Ahura Mazda in Iran.
  • Those deities are the most closely related to that "Asura [who] rules over the Gods" (AV 1.10.1, cf. RV II.27.10) and inherit the epithet, Deva Asura (V 42.11).

Asuri[edit]

For disambiguation see Asuri

Asuri is the feminine of an adjective from asura and therefore means primarily belonging to or having to do with demons and spirits.[11] The term Asuri is a secondary nominal derivative of Asura and a personal name.[12] asur was a title, or part of an individual name, in the Assyrian king-lists after 2000 BC, example: Puzhur-Asur (of circa 1975 BC); with the Rigvedic usage purported by Malti Shengde to be parallel to the Akkadian.[12] Asur, meaning The Beneficent, was the national god of Assyria,[13] with the city of Asur named after the deity.[14]

Asuri is also one of the names of the feminine divinity, Devi.[15] Other names for the Mother Goddess include Vak, Savitri, Gauri, Kali, Katyayani, Chamunda, Siva, Kausiki, Parvati, Chandika, Brahmarti, Mahesvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Narasimhi, Indrani, Raktadantika, Satakshi, Sakambhari, Bhima, Bhramari, etc.[15] Asuri is also rendered as an attribute, asuri māyā, in a mantra addressed to the Earth Goddess in the Yajurveda.[16][17] While the conception of Devi and the Mahishasura story is supposedly rooted in the Vedic tradition and in the Devī-Māhātmya, it is purported the Bhāgavata movement gained acceptance by the Puranas and Tantras in the Gupta Age of renaissance leading to a synthesis of deities, such that the Goddess herself came to be conceived as Vishnu-Maya, and Katyayini came to be identified with Narayani.[15] The author of Devī-Māhātmya with a rare faculty of synthesis brought together different forms of the Mother Goddess cult prevailing in different regions.[15]

The term Asuri was used for Dirghajihvi, a Rakshasi in the Rigveda, also mentioned as a dog.[18] In the Aitareya Brahmana Maya is also referred to as Dirghajihvi.[19] Hostile to gods and sacrifices, Maya was killed together by Indra and Sumitra during an act of purported love making with Indra.[19] Prithvi Kumar Agrawala was of opinion, the non-Aryan Asura cult of worship of the mother-goddess, was associated with a fertility myth as evidenced in the Jaiminiya Brahmana.[19]

The asuri plant (Sinapsis ramosa), a symbol of asura women, was supposedly the first to be used as a remedy against leprosy.[20] In Atharva Veda, Asuri referred to a female demon, wife of an asura; and the demoness was the first to produce a remedy for leprosy (Atharva 1.24).[21] Additionally, the asuras are said to dig for the remedy (Atharva 2.3.3).[21] Ganga Ram Garg hypothesizes the demoness Asuri may be a personification of the plant.[21] The common name for the asuri plant is black mustard.[22] The plant is also used as a love charm by women to obtain the love of a man as did Asuri to entice Indra.[16] In Atharva Veda, the thirty-fifth paricista termed Asuri Kalpa is an abhichara (craft) which contains various rites in connection to the Asuri plant.[23][24] The Asuri-Kalpa must have once occupied a position of some importance as it is mentioned — according to Weber, Ind. Stud. xiii. 415 — under the name Asuriya Kalpa, in the Mahabhasya iv.1.9., Vartt.f 19 b.[25] The Asuriya Kalpa is one of the sections of the Angirasa-Kalpa of the Atharva Veda.[26]

Buddhism[edit]

Asuras also appear as a type of supernatural being in traditional Buddhist cosmology.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Asura is a powerful attack from Roronoa Zoro in the manga and anime One Piece.
  • Asura is the past life of the main character, Ruca Milda, in the portable DS game Tales of Innocence
  • In the popular MMORPG, Ragnarok Online, Asura Strike is a powerful attack able to be performed by the Monk Class of character.
  • In the manga/anime series Toriko, the intimidation used by the character Mansam takes the form of an asura. One of the animals in the Gourmet World is also called the Asura Tiger due to having three heads reminiscent of an asura's common depiction.
  • The Shura (a Japanese derivative of asura) are a nationality that live in the Land of Shura, an island located near China in the manga/anime series Fist of the North Star and its sequel, Fist of the Blue Sky.
  • Asura is a powerful kishin and main antagonist in the manga and anime Soul Eater.
  • Asura is the main character in the Japanese arcade video game Samurai Showdown: Warrior's Rage.
  • Asura is the main character in the Capcom video game Asura's Wrath.
  • The asura is a subclass of the slayer in Dungeon Fighter Online. He is a blind swordsman who trades his sight for more power, turning him into a magic warrior. Several of his attacks have Hindu references such as 'Agni Pentacle'. The Asura awakens as a Mahakala and then an Indra.
  • In the popular Elder Scrolls video game series, one of the Daedra is named Azura. The Daedra and the Aedra within the games lore draw parallels to the concept of suras and asuras, having the aedra, similar to suras, are the main gods whom are revered, in contrast to the daedra, who are often considered chaotic or evil, though they are not always so.
  • Asura is a playable race in the MMORPG "Guild Wars 2".
  • Asura is a fictional deity in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age stories of Conan the Cimmerian.[27]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Viśvanātha Limaye (1985). Historic Rama of Valmiki: Shastragrahi Rama: Volume 2 of Historic Rama of Valmiki, p.23. Gyan Ganga Prakashan
  2. ^ a b c Roshen Dalal (2011). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide, p.46. Penguin Books India. ISBN 0143414216 [1]
  3. ^ a b c d Alain Daniélou (1991). The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series, pp. 141–142. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. ISBN 0892813547.
  4. ^ in his book Vedic Religion and Culture
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^ F.B. J.Kuiper, Ancient Indian Cosmogony, Bombay 1983, ISBN 0706913701.
  7. ^ Herrenschmidt, Clarisse; Kellens, Jean (1993), "*Daiva", Encyclopaedia Iranica 6, Costa Mesa: Mazda, pp. 599–602 
  8. ^ Hale, Wash Edward (1986), ÁSURA in Early Vedic Religion, Delhi: Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 8120800613 
  9. ^ Insler, Stanley; Hale, Wash Edward (1993), "Review: ÁSURA in Early Vedic Religion by Wash Edward Hale", Journal of the American Oriental Society 113 (4): 595–596, doi:10.2307/605791 
  10. ^ Thieme, Paul (1960), "The 'Aryan' Gods of the Mitanni Treaties", Journal of the American Oriental Society 80 (4): 301–317, doi:10.2307/595878 
  11. ^ American Oriental Society (1852). Proceedings (American Oriental Society) 1874-1893, p.xv
  12. ^ a b Shendge, Malti J. (1997). The Language of the Harappans: From Akkadian to Sanskrit, p.24, 203. Abhinav Publications. ISBN 8170173256 [3]
  13. ^ Johnston, Christopher (1898). The epistolary literature of the Assyrians and Babylonians, p.86. Johns Hopkins University. [4]
  14. ^ Cheyne, Thomas Kelly & Black, John Sutherland (Eds)(1899). Encyclopædia biblica: a critical dictionary of the literary, political and religious history, the archæology, geography, and natural history of the Bible, p.362. Macmillan Company [5]
  15. ^ a b c d University of Kerala (1964). Journal of Indian History, Volume 42, p.824.[6]
  16. ^ a b Hale, Wash Edward (1986). Ásura: In Early Vedic Religion, p.120-133. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. ISBN 8120800613. [7]
  17. ^ Coburn, Thomas B. (1988). Devī-Māhātmya, p.200. Motilal Banarsidass Publications. ISBN 8120805577 [8]
  18. ^ Bodewitz, H. W. (1990). The Jyotiṣṭoma Ritual: Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa I, 66-364, p.265. Volume 34 of Orientalia Rheno-traiectina. ISBN 9004091203. [9]
  19. ^ a b c Agrawala, Prithvi Kumar (1984). Goddessess in Ancient India, p.121-123. Abhinav Publications, ISBN 0391029606 [10]
  20. ^ Shende, N.J. (1967). Kavi and kāvya in the Atharvaveda, p. 22. Issue 1 of Publications of the Centre of Advanced Study in Sanskrit, Centre of Advanced Study in Sanskrit, University of Poona
  21. ^ a b c Garg, Gaṅgā Rām (1992). Encyclopaedia of the Hindu World: Ar-Az, p.751. Volume 3 of Encyclopaedia of the Hindu World. Concept Publishing Company. ISBN 8170223733 [11]
  22. ^ Franklyn, Julian (2003). Dictionary of the Occult 1935, p.152. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0766128164 [12]
  23. ^ Magoun, Herbert William (1889). The Āsurī-Kalpa: a witchcraft practice of the Atharva-Veda, [13]
  24. ^ Goudriaan, Teun & Gupta, Sanjukta (1981). Hindu Tantric and Śākta Literature, p.114. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 3447020911 [14]
  25. ^ American Oriental Society (1852). Proceedings (American Oriental Society) 1874-1893, p.xiv.
  26. ^ Suniti Kumar Chatterji (1978). Select writings, Volume 1, p.154. ISBN 0706905334 [15]
  27. ^ Hour of the Dragon

External links[edit]