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Asurā

In Pāḷi Literature the Asurā are classed among the inferior deities together with the supannā, gandhabbā, yakkhā,¹ garuḷā, and nāgā.² Rebirth as an Asura is considered as one of the four unhappy rebirths or evil states (apāyā), the others being hell (niraya), an animals (tiracchānayoni), and hungry ghosts (pettivisaya).³ The fight between the Devā and the Asurā is mentioned even in the oldest books of the Tipiṭaka and is described in identical words in several passages.⁴ A chief or king of the Asurā is often referred to as Asurinda,⁵ several Asurā being credited with the role of leader, most commonly, however, Vepacitti ⁶ and Rahu.⁷ Besides these we find Pahārāda (v.l. Mahābhadda),⁸ Sambara,⁹ Verocana,¹⁰ Bali,¹¹ Sucitti,¹² and Namucī.¹³

The Asurā are spoken of as dwelling in the ocean after having been conquered by Vajira-hattha ¹⁴ and are called Vāsava’s brethren, of wondrous powers and of great glory. They were present at the teaching of the Mahāsamaya Sutta.¹⁵ Buddhaghosa says that they were all descendants of an Asura maiden named Sujātā. This cannot be Sujātā, Vepacitti’s daughter, whom Sakka married.¹⁶ See also Dānavā.

There were evidently several classes of Asurā, and two are mentioned in the Piṭakas, the Kālakañcikā and the Dānaveghasā. The Dānaveghasā carried bows in their hands. The Kālakañcikā were of fearsome shape,¹⁷ and were considered the lowest among the Asurā.¹⁸

Once the Asurā dwelt in Tāvatiṃsa together with the devā. When Magha Māṇavaka was born as Sakka, he did not relish the idea of sharing a kingdom with others, and having made the Asurā drunken, he had them hurled by their feet on to the steeps of Sineru. There they tumbled into what came to be known as the Asurabhanava, on the lowest level of Sineru, equal in extent to Tāvatiṃsa. Here grew the Cittapātalī tree, and when it blossomed the Asurā knew they were no longer in the deva-world.

Wishing to regain their kingdom, they climbed Sineru, “like ants going up a pillar.” When the alarm was given, Sakka went out to give battle to them in the ocean, but being worsted in the fight, he fled in his jewelled chariot (vejayantaratha). Fearing that his chariot hurt the young Garuḷā, he had it turned back. The Asurā, thinking that Sakka had obtained reinforcements, turned and fled right into the Asurabhavana. Sakka went back to his city and in that moment of victory, the Vejayantapāsāda sprang up from the ground. To prevent the Asurā from coming back again, Sakka set up as guard in five places Nāgā, Garuḷā, Kumbhaṇḍas, Yakkhas, and the Four Great Kings. Everywhere were images of Indra bearing the thunderbolt in his hand.¹⁹ There it is said that when Sakka was born among them, the Asurā received him with great cordiality.²⁰

The Asurā are sometimes called Pubbadevā ²¹ and their kingdom is 10,000 leagues in extent.²²

In Buddhaghosa’s time, the bygone lustre of the word Asura (as equivalent to Ahura) seems to have faded.²³ When Sakka was born with his followers in the Asura-world (which later became Tāvatiṃsa) the Asurā prepared a drink called gandapāna. Sakka warned his companions not to drink it, but the Asurā became drunk and were thrown down Sineru. Halfway down they regained consciousness and made a vow never to drink intoxicants (surā) again; hence their name Asura.

The Aṅguttaranikāya Commentary ²⁴ defines Asura as awful, vile (bībhaccha). They had a drum called Ālambara (q.v.), made of a crab’s claw. They left it behind in their flight from Sakka, and since then Sakka has the use of it.²⁵

A story is told by the Buddha ²⁶ of a man who once saw a whole army with its four divisions enter a lotus stalk and the man thought he was mad. However, the Buddha says that it was an Asura army in flight. Here the Asurā would seem to be fairies or nature spirits.

¹ DA.i.51. ² Mil.117. ³ E.g., It.93; J.vi.595; J.v.186; Pv.iv.11.

E.g., D.ii.285; S.i.222; iv.201 ff; v.447; M.i.253; A.iv.432; also S.i.216 ff.

Sakka was also called Asurinda and Asurādhipa, where we are told that from the time he conquered the Asurā he was called Asurādhipa.

E.g., S.i.222; iv.201 ff; J.i.205. A.ii.17, 53; iii.243.

See, e.g., J.i.66 (Asurindena pavitthadevanagaraṃ viya) and J.v.245

A.iv.197, 200. S.i.227.

¹⁰ S.i.225; probably another name for Rāhu, see DA.ii.689.

¹¹ D.ii.259. ¹² Ibid. ¹³ Ibid.

¹⁴ Indra, elsewhere, [J.v.139] called Asurappamaddana.

¹⁵ See DA.ii.689. ¹⁶ J.i.205‑6. ¹⁷ D.ii.259.

¹⁸ D.iii.7; see also Kālakañcika and Vepacitti.

¹⁹ J.i.202‑4; DhA.i.272‑80; the same story, differing slightly in details, is found in SnA.484‑5.

²⁰ See also the various incidents of the Asura war mentioned in the Saṃyuttanikāya (S.i.216 ff).

²¹ SnA.484.

²² SnA.485; elsewhere, in the same page, it is given as 100,000 leagues.

²³ His explanation (SA.i.260) of the name is interesting. ²⁴ AA.ii.526.

²⁵ J.ii.344. ²⁶ S.2, v.446.

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