Opposed to the beneficent gods of Hindu mythology, the Devas and Suras, is a body of malevolent beings called by various designations. Asura is throughout the Hindu Vedic literature the name of the celestial demons who are regarded as the regular adversaries of the gods in their mythical conflicts and who only rarely appear as present foes of men.
The term asura, however, occurs only four times in the Rigveda, and has the meaning of demon.
The sense of “demon” is also found in the epithet asurahan , “Asura-slayer”, which occurs three times and is applied to Indra, to Agni, and to the Sun.
The Asuras are presented as being frequently at war with the Devas, and many of the undertakings of the gods are meant to combat the Asuras:
- Agni promises to devise a hymn by which the gods may vanquish the asuras.
- Brhaspati is asked to pierce with a burning stone the heroes of the wolfish Asura.
- Indra shattered the forts of the crafty Asura Pipru, while Indra-Vishnu killed the 100000 heroes of the Asura Varcin.
The older Rigvedic notion of the conflict of a single god against a single demon, mainly exemplified by Indra and Vrtra, gradually developed into that of the gods and the Asuras in general fighting against each other in two hostile camps. A and frequent feature of the conflicts constantly described in Vedic texts is that the gods are beaten at the outset and only win by trickery.
In the Brahmanas, the Asuras are associated with darkness, where the day belongs to the gods, night to the Asuras.
They are, however, constantly spoken of as being the offspring of Prajapati (a creator deity whose name means “Lord of Creatures”) and as having originally been equal to and like the gods. It is perhaps for this reason that malignant spirits are sometimes included by the term deva (meaning “gods”).
In later Vedic texts, Asura means “demon” only; but in the Rigveda the word is predominantly a designation of gods, and in the Avesta Ahura (ahura = asura) is the name of the highest god.
Thus, all evidence suggests Asura initially meant “god”, and only later acquired the meaning of “demon”.
It’s possible the transition from this meaning to that of “devil”, happened because of national conflicts and wars where tribes or invaders were associated with the “Asuras” or demons, when compared to the Indian Vedic peoples.
Another explanation is that Asura, as compared with Deva has in its older sense a peculiar shade of meaning. It is especially applied to Varuna or Mitra-Varuna, whose maya or “occult power” is particularly pronounced.
But the word maya in the sense of “craft” is also applied to hostile beings and is closely connected with the bad sense of asura.
To the Vedic poets asura must therefore have meant “possessor of occult power” and as such would have been potentially applicable to hostile beings. In one hymn of the Rigveda, both senses seem to occur.
Towards the end of the Rigvedic period the application of the word to the gods began to fall into disuse. This tendency was perhaps aided by the want of a general word to denote the higher hostile demoniac power and by popular speech recognising a negative in the word and leading to the invention of sura, “god”, as opposed to “asura” meaning “demon”.
The meaning of the name Asura
The word “Asura” is common Hindu sacred literature, but it’s origin is unclear and can have many different meanings.
“Sura” means god and A-sura indicates a non-god. Sura also means one who drinks alocoholic beverages, then A-sura means one who abstains from drinking.
The ancient Indo-Aryans were heavy drinkers, and Asuras were probably non-Aryans who did not know the art of distilling.
One myth says that when the goddess of wine appeared on the milk-ocean with a bowl of Sura (liquor) the gods drank from it and their Asura enemies did not.
Yet another interpretation is that Asura is the Hindu name for Assyrian. The Indo-Aryans were once inimical to the Assyrians and had occasion to fight many wars with them. One possible evidence of this is that the Assyrians called themselves “Assur”, and from Assur to Asura there is little distance.
Another possible source of the word “Asura” is from the main Assyrian god “Ahura-Mazda”. Since “Ahura” was the god of the enemies of the Indo-Aryans, it would have been a natural evolution that the God of the inimical Assyrians was also the enemy of the Indo-Aryan gods.
Another theory supports the view that “asura” is derived from as “to be, to exist”, or from “ašu” meaning “breath, life”.
Because of the association of “asura” with light, the derivation from “svar”, to shine, has also been suggested.
In any case, “asura” appears to be of Indo-Aryan-Iranian origin and signifies the personification of the imperfectly understood forces of nature, especially of those favourably associated with fertility.
But other natural phenomena, like drought, eclipses, disease, etc., were regarded as demons, always in conflict with personified beneficent phenomena (the Devas, or Sura), and thus called Asuras.
Creation of the Asuras
According to the Taittirya Brahmana text, the breath (asu) of Prajapati became alive, and “with that breath he created the Asuras.”
In another part of the same work it is said that Prajapati became pregnant and created Asuras from his abdomen.
The Satapatha Brahmana text agrees with the former statement, and states that ” Prajapati created Asuras from his lower breath.”
The Taittirya Aranyaka represents that Prajapati created “gods, men, fathers, Gandharvas, and Apsarases” from water, and that the Asuras, Rakshasas, and Pisachas sprang from the drops which were spilt.
Manu’s (the progenitor of the human race) statement is that they were created by the Prajapatis.
According to the Vishnu Purana, they were produced from the groin of Brahma (Prajapati). The account of the Vavu Purana is : “Asuras were first produced as sons from his (Prajapati’s) groin.”
Types of Asuras and where they live
They consist of several classes, Daityas, Danavas, Dasyus, Ealakanjas, Kaleyyas, Kha-lins, Nagas, Nivata-Kavacas, Paulomas, Pipacas and Raxasas.
The Asura’s have their strongholds and haunts in mountain caves. In the bowels of the earth do they dwell in the region of Patala, where they have several large cities: Hiranya-pura, Pragjyotisa and Nirmocana.
Further we find them in the sea where chained and were delivered into Varuna’s keeping.
But also in Heaven they have three fortresses, one of iron, one of silver, and one of gold, from where they attack the Triloka, the three worlds.
After conflicts with the gods however, they were thrust down to earth.
Powers of the Asuras
Asuras were described in a similar way to the Titans in ancient Greek mythology.
Physically, the Asuras are very powerfull, in battle they uproot trees and hurl the tops of mountains against their enemies.
They are skilled in sorcery and magic power, especially do they understand transforming themselves into all sorts of shapes and making themselves invisible, and they frighten people with their awful roaring.