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The Danavas and Daityas are referred to as Asuras in the Puranas but in The Vedas many Devas are also referred as Asuras.

May the golden-handed, life-bestowing, well-guiding, exhilarating and affluent Savitri [Asura] be present; for the deity, if worshipped in  the evening, is at hand, driving away Rakshasas and Yatudhanas.(Rig Veda 1.135.10)

Even Devas like Indra, Agni, Varuna, Rudra (Shiva) are often called Asuras in the Vedas especially in Rig Veda.

So what does the word Asura mean in the Vedas? Does the word have a deep or spiritual meaning in the Vedas?

  • Asura word has multiple meanings. Asura also means Powerful. Basically, Asura can be anyone who emerges from Prajapati/Brahma. – user6990 Nov 14 '17 at 12:38
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    @OnkarKarambe Shatapata Brahmana says that Prajapati/Brahma in creation created two groups of beings devas and asuras and valmiki Ramayana says devas drink sura so they are called suras while the asura does not drink sura so they are called asuras.But there may be some diffearent meaning of asura IN Rig veda.It is possible that powerfully beings may have called asura. – Karmanya Nanda Nov 14 '17 at 15:02
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    @KarmanyaNanda An interesting question and challenging too. I will try to answer in detail soon. For time being I am quoting a couplet from RigVeda " mahat devanam asuratva ekam". – B.N. Bhaskar Nov 14 '17 at 19:12
  • @B.N.Bhaskar ok waiting for it:) – Karmanya Nanda Nov 15 '17 at 4:23
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Yāska in 7th century BCE analysed/interpreted the Vedas. He is the first known grammarian which traced the meaning of Vedic words. He provided various meaning of Asura in his work Nirukta

1. a-su-rata > a (na) su (susthu) ra (rata) sthanesu 'not fixed at one place' or 'not very happy'

2. as (√as 'to throw') -u-ra 'thrown out or striped out from their place'

3. asu + ra 'possessed of breath'

4. a (na) - su (good) -ra 'born out of evil'

5. (v)-asurtva > vasurtva 'possessor of water/wealth'

Outside samhita text Asura only has negative connotation.

  • That's Informative! – user6990 Nov 15 '17 at 11:26
  • Btw see my answer the word Asura has two meanings in the vedas – Karmanya Nanda Nov 15 '17 at 12:43
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The word Asura has 2 meanings in the text Rig Veda In positive sense and negative sense.

The word asa means breath and the word Asura would mean who has his strength in the breath or who is the possessed of breath (the meaning given by yaksha nirukta).That means an asura is someone who is posser of breath that he could perform Great actions by his power or a very powerful supreme Being.

For they are Asuras of Gods, the friendly make, both of you, our lands exceeding fruitful.(Rig Veda 7.65.2)

Here Varuna Mirta as called asuras as they are very powerful beings and similiarly powerful deities like Rudra(Shiva),Indra,Agni have been called asuras.

Asuras in negative sense is also discribed in vedas like yajur Veda tattireya samhita kanda 2 Prapathaka 4.3

The gods and the Asuras were in conflict;

Gods means devas and yajurveda provides further detail of the fight between devas and asuras.also in Rigveda asuras have negative meaning like

BRING song and hymn to Agni, Asura-slayer, enlightener of all and thought-bestower.(Rig Veda 7.13.1)

Here Agni deva has called the asuravan which means asura slayer

This prelude of my speech I now will utter, whereby we Gods may quell our Asura foemen.(Rig Veda 10.53.4)

Here Agni deva says that may we defeat our foeman that is the asuras.

Radiant, as high Truth, cherished, best at winning strength, Truth based upon the statute that supports the heavens, He rose, a light, that kills Vṛtras and enemies, best slayer of the Dasyus, Asuras, and foes.

Here Surya deva has said to slay the Asuras.

Finally,the word 'Asura' in the Vedas means possessed of breath or very powerfull beings and it also means the diffearent class of beings who quarell with the Devas as discribed in Brahmans and Puranas.

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' mahat devanam asuratva ekam' is a couplet repeated at the end of every hymn of the verse RV.3.55.(1-22). The entire verse is devoted to Agni.At first I could not understand why Rishi is refering to Deva and Asur. Then the concept of poetic analysis came to my mind,according to which a poet wants to emphasise the main theme by repeating. And in this sense it becomes clear what Rishi wants to tell us - Agni is known as Deva by many names such as Apam Napat, Matrishwa, Vaishwanar etc, but as Asura he is only one i.e. Sun. Thus the meaning of Asura here is Sun. In the hymn RV.3.29(14) Agni is said to be born from the abdomen of Asura (yat Asurasya jattarat ajayat).

One more verse of Rig Veda RV.10.92.6 indicates that the term Asura mean 'Sun'-

krAnA rudrA maruto vishva kristyo divah shyanAso asursya nilayah

meaning- RudrA Maruts speedly reach to the farmers of the world, as the eagles move in the blue sky of Asura i.e. Sun.

The epithet of Sun is given to important gods like Yama, Varuna and Indra etc. For example Indra is compared with Sun at many places in RigVeda but in the hymn RV.1.131(1) he is called Asura of this world (Indraya hi dhyo Asura). Asura as Sun is also described in the hymn RV.1.35 (7) " vi suparno antrikshanya akhyad gabhir vepa Asurah sunithah" (there at the horizon speaking with serious quiver/vibration Sun with golden wings (suparno Ashura) gives good guidance).

There was a cult of Sun worshiping before the emergence of 'fire cult' and followers of earlier cult were called as Asura. This distinction can be seen in RigVeda itself in the hymn RV.1.123(3) "devo no atra Savita damuna anagaso vochati Surya" (our god here is Savita (Sun) in villages Nagas call it Surya).

There was some historical development which changed the meaning of Asura in the later scripture. However the traces of brilliant craftmanship of Asura we find even in Mahabharata e.g. Mayasur.

  • Yeah but I want to know what is the meaning of the word Asura? – Karmanya Nanda Nov 15 '17 at 11:59
  • Didn't I explain the meaning is Sun. – B.N. Bhaskar Nov 15 '17 at 14:27
  • I like the etymology that asura could also mean sun in the vedas,so I upvoted the answer. – Karmanya Nanda Nov 15 '17 at 15:42
  • @KarmanyaNanda So, truth is what we collectively "like?" – Rubellite Yakṣī May 6 '18 at 16:39
  • Having said that, Surya comes from PIE "súHr̥," so this is a line of reasoning worth investigation. Particularly interesting as (a-)/(an-) would mean "not __." – Rubellite Yakṣī May 6 '18 at 16:49
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According to Etymonline,

Indo-Iranian asuras, from suffixed form of PIE root ansu- "spirit"

where PIE means Proto-Indo-European. Source also of,

Aesir
collective name for the chief gods of the pagan Scandinavian religion, from Old Norse plural of ass "god," from Proto-Germanic ansu- (source also of Old High German ansi, Old English os, Gothic ans "god"), from PIE root ansu- "spirit"

Perhaps related to (but unproven),

Asherah
wooden pillar used as symbol of Canaanite goddess Ashera, 1839, a name of unknown origin.

Ashera/Asherah is called Ašratu(m) in Akkadian and Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s) in Hittite. Akkadians were later called Assyrians. She was consort of El in ancient Canaan and perhaps also consort to YHVH to early Hebrews.1


On a related note, Etymonline says,

Deva
"god, good spirit" in Hindu religion, from Sanskrit deva "a god," originally "a shining one," from div- "to shine," thus cognate with Greek dios "divine" and Zeus, and Latin deus "god" (Old Latin deivos), from PIE root dyeu- "to shine," in derivatives "sky, heaven, god."

This PIE root relates also to,

diva "by day;" Avestan dava- "spirit, demon;" Greek delos "clear;" Latin dies "day," deus "god;" Welsh diw, Breton deiz "day;" Armenian tiw "day;" Lithuanian dievas "god," diena "day;" Old Church Slavonic dini, Polish dzień, Russian den "day;" Old Norse tivar "gods;" Old English Tig, genitive Tiwes, name of a god.

as well as,

PIE dewos- "god" (source also of … Old Persian daiva- "demon, evil god," Old Church Slavonic deivai…)

and further to the English words adieu, day, deity, dial, diary, diva, and

Jupiter … from Latin Iupeter, Iupiter, Iuppiter, "Jove, god of the sky and chief of the gods," [from Old Latin Iovis,] from PIE dyeu-peter- "god-father"`.


Attribution:
1. Wesler, Kit W. (2012). An Archaeology of Religion. University Press of America. p. 193.
2. All else, Etymonline.com

  • See also related "wind" roots *spreg- “to make a sound, utter, speak,” *(s)peys- “to blow, breathe,” *h₂enh₁- "breathe," *h₂ey- "vital force," *h₂ens- “to engender, beget” as well as related "light" roots *h₂ews- "dawn," *dyew- "to be bright, shine; sky, heaven," *dyḗws "sky, heaven; sky god," *déywih₂ "goddess," *deywós "god" – Rubellite Yakṣī Oct 13 '18 at 20:03

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