from Angkor Wat, Cambodia, shows Vishnu in the centre, in his Kurma Avatar, with the Asuras and the Devas on either side.]]
In Hinduism, the Asura (Sanskrit: असुर) are a group of power-seeking deities, sometimes referred to as demons or sinful. They were opposed to the Devas. Both groups are children of Kasyapa. The views of Asuras in Hinduism vary due to the many deities who were Asuras then later became known as Devas. The name is cognate to Ahura—indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the use of the term in reference to Zoroastrianism, where "Ahura" would perhaps be more appropriate—and Æsir, which implies a common Proto-Indo-European origin for the Asura and the Æsir. In entry 48 of his Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Julius Pokorny reconstructs this common origin as *ansu-.
Statue, Chamundi hills, near Mysore.]]
The negative character of the Asura in Hinduism seems to have evolved over time. In general, the earliest texts have the Asuras presiding over moral and social phenomena (e.g. Varuna, the guardian of Ṛtá, or Bhaga, the patron of marriages) and the Devas presiding over natural phenomena (e.g. Ushas, whose name means "dawn", or Indra, a weather God).
In later writings, such as the Puranas and Itihasas, we find that the "Devas" are the Godly beings and the "Asuras" the demonic ones. According to the Bhagavad Gita (16.6), all beings in the Universe partake either of the divine qualities (Daivi Sampad) or the demonic qualities (Asuri Sampad). The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita describes the divine qualities briefly and the demonic qualities at length. In summary, the Gita (16.4) says that the Asuric qualities are pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance.
The term Asura is linguistically related to the Ahuras of Zoroastrianism, but has in that religion a different meaning. For one, the term applies to a very specific set of divinities, only three in number (Mazda, Mithra and Apam Napat). For another, there is no direct opposition between the Ahuras and the Daevas: The fundamental opposition in Zoroastrianism is not between groups of divinities, but between Asha "Truth" and Druj "Lie/Falsehood". The opposition between the Ahuras and Daevas is an expression of that opposition: the Ahuras, like all the other Yazatas, are defenders of Asha; the Daevas on the other hand are in the earliest texts divinities that are to be rejected because they are misled by "the Lie" (see Daeva for details).
The notion of an "inverted morality" and the supposition that a dichotomy between Ahuras/Asuras and Daevas/Devas already existed in Indo-Iranian times is not supportable from either the Iranian or Indian perspectives. Not only is such a dichotomy not evident in the earliest texts of either culture, neither the RigVeda's Asuras nor the Gathas' Daevas are demons. The demonisation of the Asuras in India and the demonisation of the Daevas in Iran both took place "so late that the associated terms cannot be considered a feature of Indo-Iranian religious dialectology".
The idea of a prehistorical opposition between the *Asurás/*Devás, originally presented in the 19th century but popularized in the mid-20th century had for some time already been largely rejected by Avesta scholars when a landmark publication (Hale, 1986) attracted considerable attention among Vedic scholars. Hale discussed, "as no one before him" (so Insler's review), the attestations of ásura and its derivatives in chronological order of the Vedic texts, leading to new insights into how the Asuras came to be the demons that they are today and why the venerated Varuna, Mithra, Indra, Rudra, Agni, Aryaman, Pusan and Parjanya are all Asuras without being demonic. Although Hale's work has raised further questions—such as how the later poets could have overlooked that the RigVeda's Asuras are all exalted Gods—the theory of a prehistoric opposition is today conclusively rejected.
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 runs as follows: Indo-Iranian *Asura developed into Varuna in India and into Ahura Mazda in Iran. Those divinities closest related to that "Asura [who] rules over the Gods" (AV 1.10.1, cf. RV II.27.10) inherit the epithet, for instance, Rudra as Devam Asuram (V 42.11).
Asuras also appear as a type of supernatural being in traditional Buddhist cosmology.
In today's Hinduism, the Asuras are demons. But this was not always that way. The idea of the Asuras is very, very old, from long before the time people learned how to read and write. The Asuras only became demons much time had passed. Buddhism also has Asuras. These are from Hinduism but have also changed a lot in their own way.
Some of the Asuras are very important, and have been worshiped for thousands of years. The most important of these are Varuna and Mitra. Varuna is the god of the ocean, which in olden times was thought to be flowing under the earth. So, Varuna came to be seen as god of the underworld. In ancient times, water was thought to be where wisdom came from. So Varuna is considered very wise, and he gives his wisdom to those who honor him. Varuna's closest companion is Mitra. Mitra mostly means "friend" in Hinduism, but it originally meant "promise". And so Mitra is the god of friendships and promises. He protects people who honor the truth and punishes those who tell lies. The Mi- in "Mitra" means "to tie tightly". Friendship and promises tie people to one another.
Hinduism has many stories of Asuras and Devas fighting each other. Mostly they fight about who will get the best prayers from the worshipers.
In Hinduism the Asuras are said to be beings of moral and social things. Like truth and marriage. The Daevas are said to be beings of natural things. Like the sun and the rain. In Hinduism, the Asuras are said to be "older". And the daevas are said to be "younger". There are very many Asuras and Daevas. Two hundred years ago someone counted them and said there were over 2,000 Daevas and Asuras. So naturally not all Asuras are very important. But some names have been forgotten since then, and others have been added. This is why Hinduism is called a "living religion." It is changing all the time.
Mostly the Asuras of Buddhism represent some mental state of humans that is not nice. For example, anger or pride or violence. There are many different kinds of Asuras. They are always angry with everyone and are always fighting. Their leaders are called the Asurendra, which means "Lord of Asuras".
The Vedas are the most holy books of the Indian religions, especially of Hinduism. There are four Vedas, and they are all very, very old. The oldest of the Vedas is called the RigVeda, and it is more than 3,000 years old.
In the RigVeda the Asuras are not yet demons. At that time the Asuras and the Devas were both still groups of gods. In fact, many of the figures of the RigVeda are both asuras and daevas. This is because, at that time, the two words were not yet names of groups. They were just names of characteristics. "Asura" means "life", and so the gods who were called asuras were thought to give life. And the daevas were shining. This is the original meaning of the names. In later books they became different.
In the RigVeda many of the devas are called asuras, and many of the asuras are called devas. Sometimes they are also called both at the same time: Like "daevic asuras" or "asuric devas". The "-ic" makes those words a part of the other word. There are some beings who are both ahuric daevas and daevic ahuras. This shows that there was no big difference between 'ahura' and 'daeva' in the RigVeda.
The forefathers of the people who wrote the Vedas spoke Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the source of many Indian languages. The stories in the Rig Veda are seen in the books of various North Indian peoples, and also in the books of some Iranian peoples like the Zoroastrians.
One of the books of the Iranian peoples is called the Avesta. It is not really one book, but a collection of many books, but together they are called the Avesta. The Avesta is the holy book of Zoroastrianism. The language of the Avesta is very similar to the language of the RigVeda. The Avesta also has asuras and devas. But in Iran they are written as "ahura" and "daeva".
The old part of the Avesta is almost as old as the RigVeda. In this old part of the Avesta the ahuras and the daevas are almost like they are in the RigVeda. In both books they are groups of supernatural beings. But they are very different in character.
Some time after the RigVeda was written, stories were told about the asuras and devas that made them not friends any more. A similar thing also happened in the Avesta. Only that the two groups had been switched: The Asuras became demons in regions where North Indian languages were spoken, and the Daevas became demons in regions where Iranian languages were spoken.
It is not known for sure why this happened. It was a very, very long time ago.
One possible reason why the Asuras became demons in India is this: Some time after the RigVeda was written Indians started to think that asura means a-sura, which means "not a hero". So, maybe that way the asuras got a bad name.
One possible reason why the Daevas became demons in Iran is this: At about the same time as the Indians were writing the last part of the RigVeda, a very thoughtful man named Zoroaster appeared in Iran. He thought and thought a lot about why there was goodness and badness in the world. Finally, he told everyone what he had been thinking about. And one of those things was that Daevas were not to be trusted because they could not tell the difference between truth and lies. After some time Zoroaster became very popular for his ideas. And so, with time, the Daevas became demons in Iran.
In both cases, the one side did not know what the other side was thinking. So in India only the Asuras became demons. And in Iran only the Daevas became demons.
Many, many centuries before the RigVeda and before Zoroaster, a name that sounds like "Asura" was the proper name of a very mighty god. Some scholars say his name was "Ansu" but this is not sure. So that is why they write the name as *Ansu. That '*' means it is not sure. *Ansu was the god of life from which the name 'asura' and 'ahura' comes. We know that this god existed because far, far away in Northern Europe there was also a god named 'Aesir', who was also a giver of life. It sometimes can happen that a similar name appears in two or three places. But it is very rare that the same name with the same function appears. So, that is why 'Asura' and 'Ahura' and 'Aesir' must be all come from '*Ansu'. And we know that such a god must have been very powerful because he was very popular for so very long.
Although the Asuras and the Ahuras are related, they should not be mixed up. This is not only because their names are slightly different. It is also because they are very different. But the most important thing is that they are from different cultures. Even if they came from the same place, that was very long ago. After such a long much time, people have very different ideas about them.