Mayadanava and Beyond
In Hinduism, the Asuras (Sanskrit: असुर) are a group of power-seeking deities, sometimes considered sinful and materialistic. The Daityas and Danavas together are Asuras. The Asura were opposed to theDevas. Both groups are children of Kasyapa. However, in early Vedic religion, both the Asura and the Devas were deities who constantly competed with each other, some bearing both designations at the same time.
In general, in the earliest text, the Rigveda, the Asura preside over moral and social phenomena. Among the Asura are Varuna, the guardian of Ṛtá, and Aryaman, the patron of marriages. Conversely, the Devas 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 Asura had become negative.
In later texts, such as the Puranas and the Itihasas, the Devas are the good beings, and the Asura 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 theBhagavad 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.
Per P.L. Bhargava, in his book Vedic Religion and Culture, “The word, Asura, including its variants, asurya and aasura, occurs 88 times in the Rg Veda, 71 times in the singular number, 4 times in the dual, 10 times in the plural, and 3 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.”
Bhargava believes that, in most of the ancient hymns, the word, Asura, is always used as an adjective meaning ‘powerful’ or ‘mighty’. In the Rig Veda, two generous kings, as well as some priests, have been described as Asura. 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 Rig Vedic 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. There was no ‘Asura Jati‘ in the way that there were Rakshasas, Daityas, Devas, and Brahmanas.
In an Indo-Iranian context
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).
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. 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”.
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) attracted considerable attention among Vedic scholars. Kuiper, and then Hale, discussed, “as no one before him” (so Insler’s review), 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 andParjanya 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 of a single Indo-Iranian *Asura began to gain widespread support. In general (particulars may vary), the idea is as follows:
Asuras also appear as a type of supernatural being in traditional Buddhist cosmology.