Asura Aesir A’Sura

There can be few terms which have caused more confusion and misaligned conflation within the realms of the comparative Indo-European theology than ‘Asura’, ‘Aesir’, and ‘A’Sura’. 

Many people coming in from the Germanic sphere presume that because they understand ‘Aesir’ – that Vedic ‘Asura’, as a linguistic cognate, should mean effectively the same thing.

That is to say, that as ‘Aesir’ is, in its way, a ‘Divine Ethnonym’, a ‘Tribal Identity’ for a ‘Grouping’ of Gods … so, too, should ‘Asura’ be likewise. A labelling for a class of Divinities. 

Except here’s the thing. That’s not how ‘Asura’ ( असुर ) actually works in archaic Vedic scriptural usage. 

The way I tend to translate ‘Asura’ is as ‘Sire’ – both because it has the ‘kingly’ connotations (of rulership, potency, power) but also the progenetorial ones that are also relevant (particularly in terms of its underlying PIE etymology). 

This is actually not that far removed from how ‘Ahura’ is understood in Avestan – “Lord” is a reasonably standard translation thereof. 

Yet here is our difficulty. It would be simple enough to presume that this ‘Kingly’, ‘Lordly’ title might be a one-for-one way to say ‘God’, ‘Deva’. That is certainly not that far removed from how people might colloquially use ‘Aesir’ or its (singular) related forms.

And therefore it sets up the implicit question of why seemingly the same term shows up in later Vedic and post-Vedic Hindu scripture to mean … something decidedly other than (indeed outright opposite and opposed to) Divinity instead. With the logical inference being that some sort of ‘mirror’ of the Zoroastrian demonization of the Devas has somehow taken place. Suffice to say it hasn’t. We’ll get onto that in due course. 

In the RigVeda, ‘Asura’ gets used a fair few ways. It is applied to a number of Vedic Gods in particular – Rudra / Dyaus (fittingly, given the Odinic correlation, no?) Pajranya and Agni (but, then, I repeat myself, don’t I), Indra (i.e. Thor), and rather prominently in the minds of some, Varuna and Mitra, and Savitar. There are also some occasional Goddess attestations – Saraswati at RV VII 96 1, Ushas at RV X 55 4, or Rodasi at RV I 167 5.

These are all, technically speaking, Devas – and c.f. the well-known cognates for this term in other Indo-European languages & attendant theologies. Deus in Latin, and Tyr (more usually encountered as -Tyr, a suffix), in Germanic (‘Tivar’ being the plural or collective formulation).  

I mention this, because there is an inveterate presumption that, as we would find in the (late) Nordic mythology, there’s ‘supposed to be’ two ‘tribes’ of Gods – Aesir & Vanir, or Asura & Deva, here. Except that isn’t at all how it works. Vanir and Deva are not linguistically cognate nor are they functionally cognate. Various Aesir have clear cognate deific expressions with prominent Devas … Who are, Themselves, in various cases, also hailed as ‘Asura’ in the RV. 

In fact, a good example for this is provided for us by RV V 42 11 – where worship is directed to Rudra, the “devam asuram”. Literally, right next to each other, the same God is hailed as both Deva and Asura. (And, as a brief point of comparative Indo-Iranic theolinguistic analysis – it is interesting to observe that Odin, too, has both ‘Aesir’, /  Áss (Or, if we are being Old English, Ōs) designations, as well as an extensive array of “-Tyr” hailings, likewise. There is simply no contradiction in evidence therein. Even if not every Nordic deific understanding is axiomatically an ‘Aesir’ right from the get-go.)

So, is ‘Asura’ a subset of ‘Deva’ ? Well, not really. 

It IS most definitely a term usually used for a more limited range of deifics than each individual member as to the whole entire suite of Devas, that much is true. 

But actually, it’s a rather freestanding term. One that can be utilized for those aforementioned powerful (and in some cases, progenitorial) Gods … and yet can ALSO be used for figures being fought by said Gods. In the RigVeda. 

So, to take an easy example – RV VII 6 1 addresses Agni as being the Samraja (‘Emperor’), the Asura, the Pumsa (‘The Man(ly)’) ; which we mention, because shortly afterwards within the very same mandala, we encounter RV VII 13 1 – wherein we hear of Agni as ‘Asuraghne’, that is to say the ‘Smiter [ -ghne, interestingly somewhat cognate with modern English ‘Gun’] of the Asura(s)’. 

So – same God, Agni, hailed in one verse as being an Asura … and then in another verse, as the great Slayer-of-Asuras. And both verses, as it happens, perceived (‘written’/’composed’ is not quite the right word) by the same Rsi (‘seer’), Vasistha. 

How does this work? Well, quite simple. As we have said above (and repeat again for further emphasis) – Asura is NOT a word for a clade of Deities, in the collective-noun or ‘tribal’ typology one expects due to ‘Aesir’.

It is rather, as I had intimated previously, a term of demarcation for a position of prominence or potency … one which DOES NOT have to be affixed only to a divine figure.

Now we can tell this by looking fairly directly at some of the other occurrences which ‘Asura’ has in the RV. 

In RV X 53 4, for instance, we find an intricate expression, again from Lord Agni, that (through Vak, it should seem) the Gods (‘Devaa’) may ‘overcome’ the Asuras. ” […] whereby we Gods may quell our Asura foemen”, as Griffith puts it; “by which we gods will overcome the Asuras”, has Jamison / Brereton, and Horace Hayman Wilson basically the same (only subbing in a “may” instead of a “will” there). Personally, I suspect that  “asāma” could be interpreted to mean, effectively, ‘differentiate’ [literally ‘not-same’, with the inherent sense of superiority, an inequality between the two points of comparison], something that has rather important bearing as applies a later SBr ritual operations typology featuring a certain ‘priestly duel’ … but more upon that, perhaps, some other time. 

The point is – while some might have, perhaps, taken the earlier situation viz. Agni in RV VII 13 1, of Agni the ‘Asura-Slayer’ as still leaving the door open for the Asura(s) being Slain being, well, other God(s) … here we have a rather quite direct and literal instance of the Gods (Devas) being one group, and these Asuras that are to be prevailed against being another group entirely. Interesting stuff.

A similar pattern is in evidence with RV X 157 4 – the opening words of which, “hatvaaya devaa asuraan”, effectively mean “the Gods, [having] slain the Asuras”; and with the next part to the verse having the Gods as “protecting” (abhiraksamaanaah – ‘raks’ being the guardianship stem, cognate with the key first ingredient of ‘Alexandros’ (‘Protector of Men’ – Andros) etc.) Their ‘God-Ness’ (‘Devatvam’ – ‘Godliness’, ‘Divinity’, or, as Griffith puts it, ‘Godlike nature’). 

Now, I must, of course, reiterate here that the fact that we have Devas contra Asuras in these relevant Xth Mandala hymnals, does not mean that the term axiomatically refers to ‘Demons’ in its Vedic context (as in – it may or may not be used to refer to demons, but it doesn’t mean ‘demon’, itself, therein).

Instead, it is a denotation of ‘Strength’, ‘Power’, ‘Might’. The Gods contra those most ‘worthy’ of prospective challengers. Agni (the Asura, per RV VII 6 1) as Asura-Slayer (per RV VII 13 1) as something, perhaps, akin to how ‘Giant-Killer’ is constructed and connoted in modern English. Vanquishing, indeed, the ‘Biggest’ of Foes. And The Gods, at large, as similarly capable of fighting and triumphing against even the most mighty of opponents. Able to “Decapitate Kings and Overthrow Their Thrones”, as somebody put a not  unrelated matter not so long ago. 

Some might seek to suggest that a ‘transition’ of some kind had already taken place by the time of the overall rather late Xth Mandala of the RigVeda – yet the evidence does not really support that. Hence, we have Indra Himself as an Asura – or, at least, associated with a quality of ‘Asura-ness’ (‘Asuratvaa’) at RV X 99 2. And, concordantly, we have both RV VIII 96 9 and RV VIII 97 1 – wherein Indra (Et Co.) are hailed as having successfully assailed Asuras and liberated from them ‘useful / good / enjoyable’ (‘bhuja’) things, indeed rendering them ‘weaponless’ (‘anaayudhaaso’).

Nor is it the case that simply because it is encountered in plural, in reference to a collective, that this axiomatically means that the reference is to a clade of demons. RV I 64 2 has ‘Asuraa’ utilized to refer to those justly-famed Sons of Rudra / Dyaus, the Maruts. RV VIII 27 20 (a Vishvedeva – All-Gods – Hymnal) seems to use ‘Asuraa’ for a hailing of the (All-)Gods in question, as a group. And we would also consider the situation in RV III 55 – wherein, of twenty two lines, ‘Asura’ is encountered twenty two times … “Mahad Devaanaam Asuratvam Ekam”, rendered by H.H. Wilson as “for Great and Unequalled is the Might of the Gods” (Jamison/Brereton have “Great is the one and only lordship of the Gods.”), being the refrain both continuous and continual .

RV X 151 3 has the rather remarkable construction of the Gods (‘Devaa’) ‘creating / imbuing / selecting’ (‘chakrire’) ‘trust / faith’ (‘Shraddhaam’ – c.f. Latin ‘Credo’, as J/B note) in the ‘Asuresu […] Ugresu’ – that is to say, the Powerful Asuras. H.H. Wilson attempts to read in a phrase – and therefore presents it as “As The Gods had Faith in (Their fight with) the Asuras”, yet this is unnecessary. Griffith renders it “Even as the Deities maintained Faith in the mighty Asuras,” and Jamison/Brereton have “Just as the Gods created trust in Themselves among the powerful lords,”. The next part to the line makes the verse’s purpose clear – as Jamison / Brereton renders it: “so among the benefactors who offer sacrifice make what has been spoken by us trust(ed).” Or, as Griffith has it: “So make this uttered wish of mine true for the liberal worshippers.” H.H. Wilson, in case you were wondering, went with “so grant the boon which has been asked for to our sacrificers who solicit happiness.”

In other words, what is being demonstrated via that verse is a pair of things irreducible to the Indo-European (ornate) ritualistic experience and trenchant understanding: i) the notion of ‘Do Ut Des’ / ‘Dehi Me Dadami Te’ (Latin and Sanskrit, respectively – the latter being an actual Vedic operational phrase, found at TS 1.8. 4.1, or VS 3.50), “I Give, So That You Might Give” – that is to say, ‘ritual reciprocity’ … an essential ingredient as to which, is, of course, the inherent ‘Trust’ (Sraddha) between the two parties (Human and Divine); ii) the ‘mythic templating’ inherent to the notion of the ‘Mythic Recurrence’ (or ‘Eternal Return’) – wherein various ritualistic actions are undertaken to follow in the template, the footsteps, of previous and more overtly Mythic forerunners (whether Gods, Heroes, or Ancestors – or, of course, all Three at once ! ).

There is also a most interesting occurrence at RV I 108 6, wherein Jamison / Brereton have the sense of the verse being one of the worshippers of the Gods being in “competition with the (other human) lords” for the Gods’ appearance and blessed visitation. ‘Come to our Sacrifice!’, sort of thing. Griffith’s rendering, by contrast, has the first half to the line as: “As first I said when choosing You, in battle we must contend with Asuras for this Soma.” It is that word that J/B have as ‘contest’ that Griffith has as ‘battle’, in case you were wondering. It might prove tempting to speculate about this in light of the ‘ritual combat’ / ‘ritualist combat’ parsings aforementioned of the Brahmanas (which would therefore take things in a bit of a different direction than one might at first assume), but more upon that some other time. 

As applies ‘human lords’, there are a small number of instances wherein we find ‘Asura’ used quite directly to refer to specific individuals that are named human kings (or, in the case of RV V 27 1, a war-leader, Tryaruna, son of Trivrsna, evidently favoured of Agni – or, at least, who wished to be). RV I 126 2 has the patron of the Rsi Kaksivan, a king by the name of Svanaya Bhavya, hailed thusly. RV X 93 14 has a certain Rama (occasionally thought to be that Rama by some) the bearer of the term. Although given the nature of Vedic Kingship – wherein one could very well, as the king Trasadasyu did, be declared to be ‘Ardhadeva’ [‘Demigod’] and invested with essence of Indra and Varuna, – perhaps it is not so far removed to ponder whether these human kings being declared ‘Asura’ might not vitiate a ‘Divine’ (or ‘Spirited’, I suppose) inference to the term, after all. 

That said, we can be fairly certain that ‘Asura’ does NOT in fact mean ‘Divine’ when we consider some of the other (and, interestingly, more archaic) occurrences for it, as found in the Family Books. Appropriately, one of these in particular represents a much more “familiar” figure for the sort we would habitually presume the sound of “Asura” to affix to in later scripture – that being the Eclipse Demon, Svarbhanu, declared as ‘Asurah’ (‘Asuric’) at RV V 50 5 & 9. And certainly, there are also other Demonic figures – prominently identified in later treatments, often, as being such and literally ‘A’Suras’ – who bear the ‘Asura’ labelling in the RigVeda (for instance, Namuci, as encountered at RV X 131 4).

However, there is one in particular that we feel it potentially useful to draw attention to, here – that additional  Foe of Indra (and Vishnu), the ‘Asura’ Varcin, seemingly a lieutenant of the more (in)famous Shambara (Śambara , if with the fancy accenting).

He is identified as an Asura at RV VII 99 5 (although elsewhere in the RV is ‘merely’ a Dasa), in amidst the rather forceful encomium of the Two Gods encountered therein – wherein it is said that They have effortlessly smashed not only the ninety nine fortresses of the aforesaid Shambara, but have also slain without meaningful resistance or difficulty, the … translations differ – either ‘heroes’ (viran) by the hundred and by the thousand, or, more hyperbolically (as Griffith has it), “a hundred times a thousand” of such mighty warriors. Impressive stuff. Sayana takes the similar mention for Indra’s deed as hailed in RV II 14 6 as having been the elimination not merely of ‘vira’, as in ‘heroes’ or martial combatants – but rather, as H.H. Wilson’s translation puts it, the destruction of Varcin along “with all his children and dependants”. We uh .. we have a word for that in modern English, I suppose. But I digress. 

Now, there are several reasons that we might choose to speak of Varcin and Sambara herein. The first is to echo the point made by W.E. Hale, that what we appear to behold here (as with, in brighter and more positive terms, the war-leader of the Aryas, Tryaruna, son of Trivrsna, as we had met at RV V 27 1; and, again, rather negatively, the evidently adversarial figure of Vrkadvaras whose own ‘viran’ forces were to be slain by Brihaspati in RV II 30 4), is the association of ‘Asura’ as a title based at least partially upon the fact of its bearer having an army or war-host about him. This makes logical sense – in terms of ‘regal’ connotation, it is difficult to think of a more frequently conjured (if cynical) predicate than having a body of armed men prepared to enforce and uphold one’s rule, or to project power and vigour out across the realm and into those of others. If, as P.L. Bhargava had pointed out, Asura is taken to mean ‘Mighty’, then the ‘Might’ stemming from such a force cannot be underestimated in its purport. 

There is quite a lot more we could (and most definitely should) say about these two figures – but for now, we shall (with great effort and difficulty) deliberately restrain ourselves from dwelling upon this pair any further. For the moment, at any rate. 

To return to our main and major conceptual thread … our point and purpose thus far has been to sketch out a broad cross-section of ways in which ‘Asura’ has been deployed within the RigVeda. 

We have shown that – while there ARE a number of instances wherein divinities find Themselves with ‘Asura’ or ‘Asuric’ as a descriptor (or even groups of divinities at the collective level) … ‘Asura’ does NOT connote ‘Divinity’ – and instead refers to some other quality. 

Hence why we find it also in evidentiary application as applies human(ish) kings or war-leaders, priestly enactors of ritual worshipping the Gods, and dire demonic threats to the cosmos (viz. Svarbhanu) or other demonic or anti-divine sorts as well. 

The only unifying quality which all of these seem to possess is that of ‘potency’ – and often, it would seem, either the implicit or express ‘rank’ if not outright ‘title’ that should thusly correlate to same. 

But where are we going with this?

Well, two places, in fact. 

The first – a brief stopover – is to the Nordic sphere once more, in order to account for the seeming divergence which has thusly taken place here between the Nordic sphere and the archaic Vedic. 

Because there, we DO find Aesir – that Asura cognate we are all so familiar with – as a ‘Divinity’ hailing most directly. 

So how do we explicate this?

Well, there are several probabilities. And my supposition is, as per usual, that the answer to which of these is “Yes”. 

The first and most obvious is just exactly what it says on the tin. If we take ‘Asura’ correlate with as ‘Power’, ‘Might’ … then Aesir, its cognate, should be similarly arrayed. 

We already encounter ‘The Powers’ (and perhaps, sometimes, ‘The Mighty’ – at least, in theory) as ways to refer to the Gods in modern English. Gods are, after all, powerful

Although I think this might be somewhat missing something. 

We are also aware of ‘Regin’ as a group-naming, a collective noun for The Gods in Old Norse usage. Indeed, due to its presence as the first half of ‘Ragnarok’, it would perhaps be fair to say that (other than ‘God’, ‘Gods’) it might even constitute the most immediately ‘familiar’ (endogenously) Germanic way to refer to Them. Even if people probably don’t pause to parse it out as a separate element therefrom in practice all that often.

What does it mean? 

Well, effectively, ‘The Rulers’ – perhaps inferentially ‘The Governors’ or even ‘Controllers’ (and again, I shall refrain myself from indulging in explication viz. comparable Vedic typological conceptry of divine hailings). 

If we choose to emphasize the ‘Commanding’ dimension to ‘Asura’ – that of Rank and Title and Esteem and Power through the ability to (re)shape the world around us … then ‘Aesir’ makes quite logical sense as a correlate. And we would observe the identified cognate terms in both Hittite (‘ḥaššū’) and potentially in Latin (‘erus’ – although this has come in for some criticism and another etymology is speculatively possible).

Another possibility is that ‘Aesir’ is – much as with ‘Aditya(s)’, or ‘Tuatha De Danann’ – a collective grouping with a progenitor or ruler providing the name-stem. The Adityas are Sons (well, descended of, aligned with) Aditi (the Solar, the Infinite, Rta Herself); the Tuatha De Danann are the Tribe of the Goddess Danu. And whilst those two typological exemplars are Matronymics, it does not seem entirely improbable to have the other style of formulation – a patronymic-oriented ‘tribe name’ – in evidence here.

Why? Because the Aesir are, indelibly, aligned with The Áss (Or, if we are being Old English, The Ōs) – that is to say, Odin. If it were the other, feminine possibility, we would be looking for an Ásynja derivation – however we cannot assume that even in spite of typological modelling, because there is simply no evidence that might support such. 

So, the Tribe of Odin, then. The Ass. The Asura. Fits handily with Rudra et co in that regard, we would have to say. 

And, as we have earlier demonstrated – not at all in contravention of the status of these Gods, these Nordic / Germanic perceptions of the Indo-European Pantheon, as being Deva … or, as we might say in Old Norse, as being Tivar (Tyr in plural formulation). 

No Asura contra Deva scenario in evidence HERE then. 

Yet that does not help us to account for the situation wherein there IS A’Sura against Deva – and we shall come to that in a moment. 

In order to more properly understand that which is going on there, it is necessary to do two things. First (and we shall address it second), see what’s actually going on in those A’Sura contra Deva instances in the Hindu scripture.

But second (and we meant to do this first) – to address the ‘archaeology of knowledge’, so to speak … the process which have lead to the ‘misalignment’ of views in this department. 

And with that in mind, we arcen back around to where we had begun (almost), in something like the sixth (or so) line to this very piece.

There, we had observed that ‘Ahura’, in Avestan, effectively means ‘Lord’. And that this is used for a clade of divinity. Most particularly their over-deific figure, Ahura Mazda. 

Now, as near everybody who takes an interest in these matters is by now more than well aware, the otherwise fairly pervasive Indo-European designation for Gods, “Deva” [or its local cognate] is not used to mean Gods in Zoroastrian scripture. 

Or, rather, it does appear to be used to mean the same figures that we know as Gods elsewhere across the Indo-European sphere … hence why there is an Indra and a Sauruua (Sarva – that is to say, Rudra) etc. listed in the Videvdad (‘Against the Daevas Given’).

It’s just that in Zoroastrian usage the term that otherwise means Gods, which is applied to specific figures that are otherwise (and elsewhere) hailed as Gods, they have rather Orwellianly reinterpreted to instead mean “Demons”. Because yes, quite literally, a ‘Demonization’ of particular of the Indo-Iranic / Indo-European Gods is what appears to have gone on here. 

Now, why this matters for our purposes, is because for a long time it was presumed that just as there had been a ‘revaluation’ occurrent within the Zoroastrian sphere … well, so, too, should there have been such a thing visible within the Vedic / Hindu. It was phrased as a sort of linguistic trace evidence for a religious civil war of sorts.

Except we now know that that’s … not what happened. Insofar as yes, yes there absolutely WAS a religious civil war – it’s just that it was fought out in the original Zoroastrian heartland around Balkh, out on the Steppe and nothing to do with the Vedic Aryas in India. Even though the religion the nascent Zoroastrian adherents were seeking to cast down and to overthrow was one which was strongly coterminous with that Vedic Arya faith aforesaid. 

What this means, in short, is that while we DO observe some pretty strong evidence for said religious conflict taking place and preserved both within the linguistics as well as the scripture of the Zoroastrians (as in, they quite literally tell us that that’s what they were seeking to do – triumph in a conflict against the adherents of the prior (and Indo-Iranic-orthodox) faith) … there’s no evidence that this had anything to do with the Vedic Aryas all the way on the other side of the Hindu Kush etc. from what was going on out there around Balkh. 

Hence – there is no reason to presume that there would be evidence for such a conflict and a ‘defining in opposition to’ , taking place within Vedic and subsequent Hindu scripture. 

However, as I say – this is the result of steady development within our field; and a hundred years and more ago when all of these sorts of things were being ‘codified’ out into publicly-digestible format, the picture was a bit more murky than it is now. 

And so it was supposed that the alleged shift in status for Vedic Sanskrit “Asura” to a negative and demonic labelling was the result of, as I say, a ‘counter-push’ against the Zoroastrian rebels. 

And, as part and parcel to that – because the Iranic cognate, ‘Ahura’, had come to designate ‘Divinity’ (or, at least, to be presumed to do so due to its prominent applications thereto therein) … the fact that ‘Asura’ now meant ‘Demonic’ in later Hindu texts was simply seen as a direct and straightforward inversion.

Except we can demonstrate that wasn’t at all the case. Because, as we have shown – ‘Asura’ in the archaic RigVedic sectors of the Vedic canon … does NOT mean “Divinity”. Instead, it means “Powerful”, “Lord” (or “King”) – much as it does in Zoroastrian scripture in its cognate form of ‘Ahura’. There is no shift between these two spheres – the Zoroastrian meaning has stayed remarkably motionless (at least, compared to the situation of Daeva , Vipra, etc.), even if it may be that it wound up being rather more unilaterally ‘positive’ as compared to the much broader (in potential application / connotation / attendant valuation) affixion for the Sanskrit ‘Asura’, as we have shown above.

That is to say – I do not know that in Zoroastrian scripture there is anything like the array of more ‘mixed’ or ‘negative’ figures being termed ‘Ahura’ as there are in the RigVeda for ‘Asura’ in such [non-Divine] applications. There is their over-god as the Ahura [Mazda], there are other deifics (with coterminity with Vedic correlates) such as Mithra and Apam Napat that seem to (if rarely) be referred to with ‘Ahura’. There are also some (again, rare – and in some cases, subject to interpretation) applications for ‘Ahura’ in relation to human(ish) lords – including the specific figure of Kavay Haosravah (per Yasht 19 77). But as I say – no demons referred to in such terms; and presumably no human / mortal lords of less-than-heavily-positive repute. Certainly, we would not expect to find it utilized to declare a grouping of enemies of the Gods, mighty or otherwise, as we find in RigVedic usage upon occasion as noted much above. 

So, no ‘value-inversion’ going on, then. Although it is not impossible to argue that a ‘speciation’ of values had gone on in the Zoroastrian ‘carrying forward’ of their cognate term.

The Zoroastrian scriptural corpus is, after all, a span of centuries younger than the RigVeda; although if we are to properly run a comparative timeline, then that requires us countenancing some perhaps more speculative variables around not only the dating for the Zoroastrian religious revolt, but also the approximate periods for the codification of the later Vedic texts such as the SamaVeda, YajurVeda, AtharvaVeda, and the Brahmanas which append to the Samhitas. Because it is within those texts that we start to see some … different things happening within the Vedic span.

Now we are not going to get into all of the ins-and-outs of “Asura” in subsequent (i.e. Post-RigVedic) Hindu scripture. It’s not necessary. 

We shall instead content ourselves by noting that there is a bit of a ‘mixed’ usage going on in the later Vedic Samhitas (i.e. the YV & AV-S (and, for that matter, the more recently recovered yet more archaically codified, AV-P), but also the SV). Insofar as we still find Asura being utilized to refer to particular Gods … and we also find Asura(s), particularly in plural, to be used for clades of figures that are, in fact, slain by the Gods. It’s all mixed in, across all three subsequent Vedas, and various of Their recensions etc. And whilst it might be possible to argue that there is a greater preponderance of Asura in plural formulation, to refer to those aforementioned ‘Slain by the Gods’ groupings … as we have noted above, this is absolutely not incongruent with RigVedic usage for the term. Think of it, as applies the collective designation, as ‘The Mighties’, perhaps. As in, Gods slaying ‘the mighties’, ‘the greatest’, that sort of thing. It is not entirely unexpected for there not to be a similarly prominent suite of ‘Asura’ in plural / group formulation to refer to The Gods in these texts, precisely because it wasn’t a very common thing to have happen in the RigVeda that preceded Them, either. 

Now, where we DO begin to observe something of a departure from this prior ‘multi-faceted’ sphere of employments for the term … is in the subsequent Brahmana layerings of texts. For those unaware, the Brahmanas are ‘ritual commentaries / manuals’ – and for the sake of logical coherency, we shall also be including the Taittiriya Samhita of the Yajurveda in amidst this grouping (even though it is, obviously, a Samhita – it’s a bit different to various other Samhitas, insofar as it ‘folds in’ various of what are otherwise Brahmana-style elements (the ‘how-to’s’ of ritual proceeding and instructional) into the main text alongside the requisite ‘operative elements’ themselves, rather than keeping the two components separate. Hence Its ‘birds-nest’ (to paraphrase) naming). 

And that’s pretty much exactly as we should expect. Because a rather core fundamental of a fair swathe of Hindu ritual – at least, in terms of the big and ornate sacrifices of the Vedic operations proper – is the notion of Ritual Combat (symbolically and otherwise). 

Herein we encounter detailings of particular clashes between two opposed groups … one of the Gods (Devas), and the other being various designators. Gandharvas turn up a few times [e.g. SBr III 2 4] (and with a rather .. different approach to ‘ritual combat’ than what one might be thinking), Rakshasas are also mentioned in such a manner (with a much more conventional style of ‘ritual combat’ – and most definitely ‘familiar’ to later scripture and myth in this regard) [c.f. SBr VII 3 2 5-6]. And, of course, we have the Asuras [c.f. SBr III 5 1 21] – mentioned, even, in the same passages as those Rakshasas aforementioned and not infrequently as conjoined terminology [SBr IV 1 1 6, 19-20].

Now, here it is generally much less ambiguous – Asuras are demons. Mighty demons, to be sure (there’s actually at least two places I can think of offhand,  TS VI 2 7 4 and TS VI 4 6 1, wherein we seem to even encounter them wielding Vajras ( ! ); ), but demons nonetheless. 

And effectively, it is precisely that fact of their occurrence as the ‘counter’, the ‘opposite’, the ‘antithesis’ to the Gods – that presents us with the answer to how we come to find ‘Asura’ used in the manner that it has in later (i.e. post-Vedic) Hindu scripture.

So, if Asuras – and here we shall start using my preferred designation, ‘A’Sura’, for the later encountered labelling employing the otherwise homophonic term (for ease of distinguishment, you understand) – are the ‘Opposite of Gods’ … well, what are Gods in the Vedic (and, more broadly speaking, Indo-European) world-view?

Why, it is right there in the name – viz. Deva (etc.). 

They are ‘Shining Ones’, Celestials.

And, not at all coincidentally, They are ‘Sura’ ( सुर ) … the Solar – a term which should, upon the face of it, be cognate with ‘Solar’ itself – viz. PIE  *sóh₂wl̥ (Pokorny has *su̯el-, *sūl- etc., resulting in Sanskrit ‘Suvar’, and things taking shape from there), which also produces ‘Surya’ (The Sun), ‘Svar’ (The Sun, Heaven), etc.. 

Yet there is a rather curious alternate proposition to be had from the works of Taraporewala and A.A. Macdonell, who insist instead upon ‘Sura’ actually being from the familiar ‘Asura’ as a fairly direct continuance (just minus the initial ‘A-‘, which had (in their view) become differently interpreted as the ‘anti-‘ styling and therefore removed when in relation to Gods).

If this were the case, then that would make our ‘difficulty’ as applies where ‘Aesir’ has come from rather much more easily resolved. Except it is simply not the case that the usual use of ‘Asura’ (in plural / collective, most significantly) is, in RigVedic usage, the ‘normal’ / conventional way to refer to The Gods. And in singular, as we have established, quite an array of figures can be intended – sometimes individual Gods, sometimes quite the opposite. Svarbhanu, in particular, being most definetly NOT a God – and as an Eclipse Demon, rather pointedly the Opposite of Solar, as well, into the bargain. 

And, in any case, it would seem most peculiar indeed that ‘Sura’, as a designation for the Gods (hence its figurative meaning of ‘Thirty Three’ in later texts – for ‘Thirty Three’ are the traditional (abstract) number of the Gods), would come into being … connoting a suite of Solar-linked and empowered Divinities, no less … in a way that is so remarkably resemblant of already-extant Solar terminology IN Vedic Sanskrit (i.e. Sūra – सूर ;). Which is used, quite directly, to refer to i) the Sun (e.g. in RV I 121 10 – Sūras , RV VIII 1 11 – Sūra etc. ), ii) the ‘Divine Quality’ (e.g. RV I 110 4 – Sūracakṣasaḥ , effectively, the ‘Solar’ (Sura) Radiance’ (Caksas) – and which Jamison/Brereton’s extended edition commentary note, assumedly referencing Geldner, “is characteristic of gods; in I.89.7 it is used almost as a definition of such.” The context being the Rbhus attaining such a status).

Put bluntly – it just simply does not make sense to postulate that the most logical explanation for a term such as ‘Sura’ to mean God(s) should come into being as a mere ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘sanding down’ of ‘Asura’ at a very late juncture (i.e. the Upanishadic phase of the Vedic Era).

The word matches too well with the aforementioned notions of the Divine (including that very specific notation of the ‘Suura’ ‘radiance’ or ‘appearance’ (‘Cakshas’ / ‘Caksas’) being the calling-card characteristic of Deva-Divinity) in earlier (indeed, the much more archaic) Vedic verses. Its best explication, therefore, is exactly as it seems – a direct development from the same archaic cluster which had produced other terminology so irreducibly Divine in ambit and Solar in empoweration … albeit of a more ‘general’ characteristic than The Sun (‘Sūra’) ought imply. ‘Solar(s)’, as we say. 

And perhaps more to the point – as ‘Asura’, as we have demonstrated, NEVER in fact (merely) meant ‘Divinity’ in Vedic usage, nor did it mean ‘Demon’ … there should be little use in conjuring a retrospectively constructed ‘opposite’ in order to represent the ‘inverse’ to ‘Asura’. 

Yet having said that – there can be little doubt that in subsequent usage, Asura (or, as I have insistently tended to phrase it for ease of conceptual distinction – ‘A’Sura’), is indeed encountered as the de facto ‘Opposite to Sura’ … Opposite to the Divine, Opposite to Solar – and, eventually, essentially ‘Anti-the-Divine Law’. 

So what happened?

Well, put simply – it appears that within the Brahmana layer of texts, two different terms which are effectively homophonic and which can be applied in different ways with different meanings to the same group … executed a most subtle ‘transition’. 

Going in, we have ‘Asura’ as in ‘Mighty’. It is applied occasionally as the group-form simply by itself – just as we have seen in Vedic usage aforehand (c.f. RV X 157 4). Yet often we instead encounter it as part of these conjoined ‘Asura-Rakshasa’ formulations … ‘Mighty Demons’, indeed. And in various Brahmanas (e.g. SBr IV 1 1) – we start out with an Asura-Raksas style of hailing, and then a few verses later the text switches to simply using ‘Rakshas(a)’ by itself.

Yet this is ‘necessary’, but not entirely ‘sufficient’. Where does our ‘A’Sura’ thread of conceptry begin to rear its tenebrous head? (And ‘tenebrous’, as it happens, from PIE *temh, shares a root with a certain pertinent Sanskrit term – ‘tamas’; hence my choice of wording there, as we shall soon see)… 

Let’s take a look at SBr IV 3 4 21. Herein we find one of those ‘ritual combat’ situations we had aforementioned earlier:

“Then, approaching in the same way, he gives some gold to an Ātreya. For, at the time when they recite the morning prayer, they were once upon a time singing praises here in front. Now Atri was the Hotṛ of the Ṛṣis. Then the darkness of the Asuras came rushing into the Sadas. The Ṛṣis said to Atri, ‘Come back here, and dispel this darkness!’ He dispelled that darkness; and thinking, ‘He indeed is the light who has dispelled this darkness,’ they brought him this light, gold, for a sacrificial gift,–for gold is indeed light; and by that same splendour and energy the Ṛṣi dispelled the darkness. And so does he now also dispel the darkness by that light: therefore he bestows gold on an Ātreya.”
[Eggeling translation]

SBr XI 5 5 makes things more expansively direct in its correlations:

“1 Now, when the Gods were passing upwards to the World of Heaven, the Asuras enveloped Them in darkness. They Spake, ‘Verily, by nothing else save a sacrificial session is there any way of dispelling this (darkness): well, then, let Us perform a sacrificial session!’

2 They entered upon a sacrificial session of a hundred Agniṣṭoma (days), and dispelled the darkness as far as one may see whilst sitting; and in like manner did They, by (a session of) a hundred Ukthya (days), dispel the darkness as far as one may see whilst standing.

3 They Spake, ‘We do indeed dispel the darkness, but not the whole of it: come, let Us resort to Father Prajāpati.’ Having come to Father Prajāpati, They Spake, ‘Reverend Sir, when We were passing upwards to the World of Heaven the Asuras enveloped Us in darkness.’

4 ‘We entered upon a sacrificial session of a hundred Agniṣṭomas, and dispelled the darkness as far as one may see whilst sitting; and in like manner did We dispel the darkness as far as one may see whilst standing: do Thou teach Us, Reverend Sir, how, by dispelling the Asuras and darkness, and all evil, We shall find (the way to) the World of Heaven!’

5 He spake, ‘Surely, Ye proceeded by means of two sacrifices, the Agniṣṭoma and Ukthya, which do not contain all Soma-rites;–enter Ye upon a sacrificial session of a hundred Atirātras: when Ye have thereby repelled the Asuras and darkness, and all evil, Ye shall find the World of Heaven.’

6 They entered upon a sacrificial session of a hundred Atirātras; and, having thereby repelled the Asuras and darkness, and all evil, They found (the way to) the World of Heaven. In Their first fifty days the night-hymns reached into the day, and the day-hymns into the night.”
[Eggeling translation]

And, speaking thusly of Prajapati … SBr II 4 2 5:

“5 Thereupon–so they say–the Asuras also straightway approached Him [i.e. Prajapati]. To them He gave darkness (tamas) and illusion (māyā): for there is indeed what is called the illusion of the Asuras. Those creatures, it is true, have perished; but creatures still subsist here in the very manner which Prajāpati ordained unto them.”

See what I said about Tenebrous becoming pertinent? Via cognate, at any rate. 

This contrasts, as a point of interest, with what’s in the verses immediately aforehand, wherein the Gods are Told – ” ‘The sacrifice (shall be) your food; immortality your sap; and the sun your light!’ ” ; the Pitrs (the Ancestors / Forefathers) are Told – ” ‘Your eating (shall be) monthly [i.e. the monthly Pitr-rites]; your cordial (svadhā) your swiftness of thought; and the moon your light!’ ” ; and for Men – we are Told : ” ‘Your eating (shall be) in the evening and in the morning; your offspring your death; and the fire (Agni) your light!’ ” [SBr II 4 2 1-3, Eggeling translation]

And thus it is also that further into the same commentary, viz. SBr II 4 2 15:

“He lays it [the firebrand] down, with the text (Vāj. S. II, 30), ‘Whatsoever Asuras roam about at will, assuming various shapes,–be they large-bodied or small-bodied,–may Agni expel them from this world!’ Agni is the repeller of the Rakṣas, and therefore he lays (the firebrand) down in this way.”
[Eggeling translation]

I am also rather partial to Griffith’s rendition for the relevant Vājasaneyi-Saṃhitā (VS, of the Shukla Yajurveda – as distinct from the Taittiriya Samhita, the other major recension of the YV that we have already met and mentioned) verse (II 30):
“30 The Asuras, attracted by oblation, who roam at will assuming varied figures, from this our world may Agni drive them, whether they clothe themselves in large or little bodies.”

And, to make the whole thing a helluvalot more explicit, in case you haven’t quite grasped the (respective) essences here yet – 

“Now what daylight, as it were, there was for Him [i.e. Prajapati], on creating the Gods, of that He made the Day; and what Darkness, as it were, there was for Him, on creating the Asuras, of that He made the Night: they are these two, Day and Night.”
[SBr XI 1 6 11, Eggeling translation]

Well, how about that

Day (Light) – Gods, Darkness – Asuras (Demons). 

Little wonder, then, that in SBr I 9 2 35, where the conceptual schema is one of the ‘shares’ of the sacrifice being apportioned between Gods and Demons (effectively, the Gods mount a ‘distraction’, we might say, ensuring that They retain the best portions of the Sacrifice, and the Demons get something much less substantively worthwhile … ), we find the following:

“Hence what share the Gods set apart for those (Asuras), that same share he now makes over to them in pouring (the refuse of the rice) right under the black antelope skin. He thereby casts it into blind darkness, where there is no (sacrificial) fire. And in the same way he casts the blood of the victim into blind darkness, where there is no fire; thinking, ‘Thou art the Rakṣas’ share!’ For this reason they use not the gore of the victim (for sacrificial purposes), since it is the Rakṣas’ share.”

So, once again, we have the Gods [Deva] and what I suppose, herein, we might term the ‘Anti-Gods’ [ADeva – c.f.  “asurā adevāś” at RV VIII 96 9]. The Shining , and the Dark … that is to say – the Sura (Solar) and the A’Sura (‘Anti-Solar’, ‘Anti-Light’, ‘Darkness’). 

A beauteous symmetry – all right there and all handily directly explicated. And, you might say, making rather ingenious use of a pre-standing terminological saliency to provide an additional ‘shade’ of meaning via the direct incorporation of another word into the epithetic labelling in question – such is, as it happens, the not infrequent state of affairs one encounters within the Brahmanas. “For the Gods”, as They so frequently seem to suggest, “Love a Mystic!”. 

Namely – as it is the Puranic era Hindu corpus which has presented the Asura (A’Sura’) terminology which is perceived to be the ‘outlier’ and ‘exception’ as compared to ‘Asura’ (in its more archaic Vedic situation), Ahura, Aesir … well, perhaps we ought take a look at an exemplar drawn therefrom.

And I have just the encounter in mind with which to draw from.

That would be the recounting given in the Skanda Purana (inter alia) for the epic conflict between the forces of the Gods (Light) on one side, and those benighted followers of the demon-lord, Tarakasur.

Because, quite directly, this is presented as a war of Suras (‘Solars’) against A’Suras (‘Anti-Solars’) … and yet it also makes some very interesting and decidedly unexpected deployment of some of the pertinent conceptry. Suffice to say, one encounters the ‘Anti-Solar’ Demons using pointedly solar weaponry and magics; and the side of the Gods having Rakshasas (including a male Nirrti as a Prince of Rakshasas) and Pishachas fighting among Them and hailed as Suras likewise. 

But as this writeup is already closing in upon the eight-thousand word mark, we shall choose to restrain ourselves from going into depth and detail (it’s already written up, mostly, we’ll save it for a future outing) and instead head back around for a recapitulation. 

‘Asura’ doesn’t mean ‘Divinity’ – although it can and most definitely has been applied to particular Gods. We have cited various of the exemplars up above. 

‘Asura’ doesn’t mean ‘Demon’ – although, again, it can and certainly has found itself being utilized as the trenchant descriptor for both individual figures and indeed for entire clades of beings who found themselves vanquished by the Gods, as extolled in various Vedic verses. 

‘Asura’, as it happens, doesn’t even have to mean something so inveterately remote as a non-human being of myth (a ‘Spirit’, we might cautiously say, with due deference to the occasionally advanced supposition for ‘Asura’ as deriving from ‘Asu’, as in ‘Spirit’ – or, it would seem, ‘Life Force’). It finds usage in the Vedas also for humans – albeit with the ‘standard’ rider that the figures extolled within the Shruti, even if they are human (or, in the case of some supposedly demonic adversaries, linkable to likely human material cultures – the BMAC, for example, or the points surrounding Shambara and Afghanistan as made by several scholars) are still, themselves, operating within something of a mythic context. That just so happened to also be in syzygy with the sidereal for that by now far-distant span of materially-attestable time. 

The term itself does not connote belonging to any particular tribal or ontological grouping – even as we also encounter its plural formulation utilized to designate groups of forerunners, foes, or faithfully worshipped Divinities. 

Nor is it, strictly speaking, a rank, a ranking, a position, or a title. Although it would seem that there is some degree of potential correlation to be observed with certain figures that do hold office of varying kinds and claim command – whether of armies or forces of ‘natural’ or more overtly metaphysical nature. 

About the only thing that we can say is that it communicates a sense of ‘power’ and of ‘powerfulness’. And with all the manifold shadings of potential application that a generalized labelling like “power” in modern English itself entails. 

And that, I suspect, greatly avails us in terms of seeking to make sense for just how and why there has been such an evident pervasive pattern of ‘miscommunication’ and ‘misapprehension’ as applies ‘Asura’. Most specifically, why people seem to keep insisting that it ‘should have’ archaically meant ‘God’. 

In our own – modern – language(s), we are used to parsing terms which can have quite the array of interlinked (yet mutually incompatible) meanings, and almost instinctively arriving at the actual intended interpretative affixion for same. 

Take “Lord”, for instance. It means, I suppose, somebody with power – and who is recognized as holding such and same. Which often has them as part of a formalized power-structure, replete with an official and legally bestowed title. 

So, in Britain today we hear of a ‘House of Lords’ as part of the political system; we (or, rather, they) have persons bearing the title of ‘Lord -‘ where it’s (these days) a largely ceremonial thing; we have ‘Drug Lords’ and ‘Crime Lords’, Lord Mayors, and occasionally even ‘Warlords’ … and these do not tend (necessarily) to be confused for the folks bearing the august peerages most immediately aforementioned. The term, itself, ‘Lord’, having derived ultimately from the notion of the ‘Loaf-Warden’ (seriously, that’s the etymology – ‘hlāf weard’) and connoting the powerful figure as ‘provider’ (c.f. Sanskrit ‘Bhaga’ – also utilized as a title and titular theonymic), “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”, indeed. 

And, of course, we also hear of The Lord – in the singular, these days, for obvious (and monotheistic) reasons. Yet in theory, with “the Lord” also being a perfectly viable way to refer to one’s own local human feudal factotum. And it all makes reasonable sense and doesn’t cause great heaving debates about ‘inversions of values’ simply because in most of the Anglosphere, one doesn’t tend to encounter ‘lord’ as a positive appellation for humans replete with noble title but instead only hear of those ‘Drug Lords’ or ‘Crime Lords’ instead. 

But, of course, as soon as we slip into a foreign language and culturo-religious context – particularly where we’ve been ‘pre-primed’ by subsequent suites of information which go in a rather different trajectory – it can be difficult to maintain a similar sense of context-contingent nuance. Big, sweeping statements instead abound. And the ‘things we’re set up to be looking for’ turn out to be much and most of what we’re in fact now able to see anyway – rather than what might actually have proven to be there in earnest if we took things as we found them, instead. 

None of this invalidates, of course, the later and more specialized applications for cognate terms to be found in the Iranic or Nordic Indo-European milieus. Although I do think that a proper comprehension of what ‘Asura’ actually entailed in Vedic usage can most definitely assist with a broader and richer appreciation of that which is connoted and entailed by ‘Ahura’ and ‘Aesir’, as well. 

I tend to like finishing upon a scriptural quotation or prayer, and this piece shall be no exception. 

RV VIII 20 17:

“Yathā rudrasya sūnavo divo vaśanty asurasya vedhasaḥ।
yuvānas tathed asat ॥”

Or, phrased another way – 

“As the Sons of Rudra, the Asura Dyaus [or Asura – Lord – of Heaven], The Pious, Command।
O Ye Youths, So Shall It Be ! ॥”

3 thoughts on “Asura Aesir A’Sura

  1. Your reference to Adeva Asuras is interesting as it reminds me of references to the dee and andee (‘gods and non-gods’) in old Irish texts. There is a lot of speculation as to who these Irish ‘andee’ were though for me I am most inclined to link them with the Fomorians as both seem to be linked with agriculture in some way. I think the Rigveda refers to ‘voracious Adeva’ as well, which seems like an early reference to Rakshasas, and I think that in pre-Christian Ireland that the Fomors may sometimes have appeared in the veneration of the Tuathe De just as Rakshasas appear in the army of the Devas or as some Daityas/Asuras like Mahabali are venerated by some Hindus.


  2. Pingback: Asura Aesir A’Sura – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. Pingback: Asura Aesir A’Sura — arya-akasha | Vermont Folk Troth

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