The Asura are a class of divinities that appear in Dharmic (i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism) religious traditions and mythology, generally as embodiments of wickedness. Though the term "Asura" usually refers to a group or class of beings, because of the proliferation of Dharmic thought across much of the Asian continent, many different and wide-ranging interpretations of the concept exist, from a race of beings expelled from a heavenly mountain to a singular guardian deity.
The word "asura" is etymologically rooted in the culture and language of the ancient Indo-Europeans, known as the Vedics. Their population consisting of dozens of tribes of warrior nomads, the Vedics would grew larger and larger apart, thus producing a yawning dissemination of similar, though eventually distinct, ideas. As a result, the term "asura" is related to many other similar words for deities, including those as far away as the Aesir, the gods of Scandinavia, including Odin.
The most significant cultural relationship between asura and other vernacular is that to the Persian term "ahura," which is of unclear meaning but often written as "great" and is notable as the epithet of the Zoroastrian god of light, Ahura Mazda. Through a combination of inter-tribe hostility, the continually distancing nomadic life, and expanses of time, the asura-ahura correlation would begin to split in definition. In response, what was sacred to the Persians, ahura, became profane to the Indians, asura; and vice-versa, the names of the benevolent gods of the Indians, the Devas, were demonized in Persia as the Daevas, the chief of which was the wicked Persian spirit of falsehood, Angra Mainyu.
In Dharmic mythology
In Hinduism the Asura are the enemies of the Devas, the designation of the benevolent gods which includes Shiva, Vishnu, Indra, and others. The Asura of Buddhism are lesser figures compared to their Hindu counterparts but still symbolize the evil of the unrighteous path, though at times can be seen as protectors.
Within Hinduism, the Asura are of the same lineage as the Devas, but represent material greed rather than matters of higher importance. In effect, they are defined by what they lack, which is godliness.
The Asura appear in numerous Hindu stories. One of the chief among them is the story of the churning of the Ocean of Milk. When the Asura were given power over the Devas due to another of Indra's transgressions, they decided to churn the Ocean of Milk to produce Amrita, the nectar of immortality. However, under the lead of Vishnu, the Devas planned to work together with the Asura and gain the Amrita for themselves. After churning the Ocean using the great snake Vasuki and an entire mountain, the Amrita was produced and the Asura and Devas warred over its control. Eventually, Vishnu, in the guise of a beautiful woman, distracted the Asura long enough to gain the Amrita. Thus was dominion of the universe wrested from the Asura back to the Devas.
Many Asura in Hinduism are named and display individual characteristics.
- Vritra, a dragon who plays part in the early Vedic story of his damming essential, life-giving rivers with his own serpentine body. Indra then fashioned his Vajra (thunderbolt) to slay Vritra and restore the rivers' flow.
- Rahu, who participated in the churning of the Ocean of Milk, sprang to drink the Amrita when it was produced. However, before he was able to swallow it, Vishnu cut off his head, which remained immortal.
- Mada, the asura of intoxication and of almost infinite size, was created by a sage during his quarrel with Indra.
Though not explicitly an Asura himself, the great demon king Ravana is given lordship over the Three Worlds (heaven, earth, underworld) and command over all the Asura.
In Shin Megami Tensei
The character of the Asura of Shin Megami Tensei is primarily based on that of the Japanese depiction, with three heads and six arms. Its two front hands are rapt in the Anjali mudra (a hand pose) of two palms folded together, a gesture of respect and veneration.