In Pali Literature the Asuras are
classed among the inferior deities together with the
Rebirth as an Asura is considered as one
of the four unhappy rebirths or evil states (apāyā), the others being
tiracchānayoni and pettivisaya (E.g., It.93; J. vi.595; J. v.186; Pv.iv.11).
The fight between the Devas and the
Asuras is mentioned even in the oldest books of the Tipitaka and is described in
identical words in several passages (E.g., D.ii.285; S. i.222; iv.201ff; v.447;
M.i.253; A.iv.432; also S. i.216ff).
A chief or king of the Asuras is often
referred to as Asurinda (*), several Asuras being credited with the role of
leader, most commonly, however, Vepacitti (E.g., S. i.222; iv.201ff; J. i.205) and
Rahu (A.ii.17, 53; iii.243).
(*) Sakka was also called Asurinda and
Asurādhipa; see, e.g., J. i.66 (Asurindena pavitthadevanagaram viya) and
J. v.245, where we are told that from the time he conquered the Asuras he was
Besides these we find Pahārāda
(A.iv.197, 200) (v.l. Mahābhadda), Sambara (S.i.227),
probably another name for Rāhu, see DA.ii.689), Bali (D.ii.259),
(D.ii.269) and Namucī (D.ii.269).
The Asuras are spoken of as dwelling in
the ocean after having been conquered by Vajira-hattha (Indra, elsewhere,
[J.v.139] called Asurappamaddana) and are called Vāsava's brethren, of wondrous
powers and of great glory. They were present at the preaching of the
Sutta (see DA.ii.689). Buddhaghosa says that they were all descendants of an
Asura maiden named Sujātā. This cannot be the Sujātā, Vepacitti's daughter, whom
Sakka married (J.i.205-6). See also Dānavā.
There were evidently several classes of
Asuras, and two are mentioned in the Pitakas, the Kālakañjakas and the
Dānaveghasas. The Dānaveghasas carried bows in their hands. The Kālakañjakas
were of fearsome shape (D.ii.259), and were considered the lowest among the
Asuras (D.iii.7; see also Kālañkajaka and Vepacitti).
Once the Asuras dwelt in Tāvatimsa
together with the devas. When Magha Mānavaka was born as Sakka, he did not
relish the idea of sharing a kingdom with others, and having made the Asuras
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 Tāvatimsa. Here grew the
Cittapātalī tree, and when
it blossomed the Asuras 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 Vejayantaratha. Fearing that his chariot hurt the young
had it turned back. The Asuras, 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 Asuras from coming back again, Sakka set up as guard in five places
Kumbhandas, Yakkhas and the
Four Great Kings. Everywhere were
images of Indra bearing the thunderbolt in his hand. (J.i.202-4; DhA.i.272-80;
the same story, differing slightly in details, is found in SnA.484-5). There it
is said that when Sakka was born among them, the Asuras received him with great
cordiality; see also the various incidents of the Asura war mentioned in the
Samyutta Nikāya I. 216ff.
The Asuras are sometimes called
Pubbadevā (SnA.484) and their kingdom is 10,000 leagues in extent. SnA.485;
elsewhere, in the same page, it is given as 100,000 leagues.
In Buddhaghosa's time, the bygone lustre
of the word Asura (as equivalent to Ahura) seems to have faded. His explanation
(SA.i.260) of the name is interesting. When Sakka was born with his followers in
the Asura-world (which later became Tāvatimsa) the Asuras prepared a drink
called gandapāna. Sakka warned his companions not to drink it, but the Asuras
became drunk and were thrown down Sineru. Halfway down they regained
consciousness and made a vow never to drink intoxicants (surd) again; hence
their name Asura.
The Anguttara Commentary (ii.526)
defines Asura as bībhaccha, awful, vile. They had a drum called
made of a crab's claw. They left it behind in their flight from Sakka, and since
then Sakka has the use of it (J.ii.344).
A story is told by the Buddha (S.2,
v.446) of a man who once saw a whole army with its four divisions enter a lotus
stalk and the man thought he was mad. But the Buddha says that it was an Asura
army in flight. Here the Asuras would seem to be fairies or nature spirits.