Vedā: Asuratva

Asura in the Rig Veda

In the Puranic and Epic theology and mythology of Hinduism, there are different classes of beings (super-human, human, sub-human, non-human) born from the creator Brahma. The major of these classes are the Devas (gods of light) and Asuras (anti-gods, older cousins of the gods), who are depicted as always warring with one another for the dominion of the worlds. Typically the Devas are victorious by virtue of them adhering to the Vedic doctrines and righteous performance of Vedic rituals.  The Asuras are almost equal in power to the Devas and, on occasion, do manage to defeat their younger cousins. However, what makes Asuras mythical villains is the unorthodox and uncivilized methods they use in administration, governance, and religious observance. The explanation is that Asuras cause more chaos in the universe whereas Devas maintain order and prosperity. Apart from these two, there are Rakshasas, who are evil spirits originally tasked to protect and nurture other creatures (Sanskrit “raksh” meaning “to protect”). This above situation is primarily found in the Puranas (i.e. books containing history and mythology) and the epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata). However, later parts of the Vedic literature (Yajur Veda Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas) at least have the core of the Deva-Asura conflict myth.

In contrast to the above-cited literature, in the oldest Vedic text, the Rig Veda, a very different situation is found. In the Rig Veda, there are no two feuding classes Devas vs. Asuras, but only the Devas who are also Asuras. The most common reference is of the singular ‘Asura’ in the sense of ‘one supreme power’. Moreover, the Asura symbol is part of a great and profound metaphysical doctrine and mystical experience. For a modern-day practising Hindu, who has been educated in the myths of the religion, it is very hard to believe that in the oldest and most sacred book the terms mean the very opposite of what he/she may be used to. This is due to the fact that classical Hinduism draws more inspiration from the Puranas and Epics than the ancient Vedic literature.

The Vedas, Puranas and Epics form one single corpus of literature whose core objective is to expound the ultimate reality as the experience of pure existence-consciousness at the individual level being identical with the cosmic reality. However, the expanded purpose of each of these texts is different and meaningful. The Vedas (comprising Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad texts) are the very heart and cornerstone of the Hindu world. They are the most ancient, most arcane and most technical in language and expression. The highest and most subtle spiritual experiences of sages are poetically recorded in the Vedas, along with intricate symbolism and metaphysical myth. The sages expressed their experience in the esoteric language of symbol and myth, which became the basis for elaborate ritual to re-enact the mystical experiences. Internal evidence shows differences in language and terminology from the earliest to the latest parts of the Veda. This is a natural process of change that is universal in all human cultures. However, through and through the external changes, it is also equally evident that the essential message has remained the same.

The Epics and Puranas represent the more ‘popular’ side of the religion. These texts primarily use the medium of stories of heroes, heroines, sages, gods, demons, superhuman beings, animals and birds to convey to a wider audience the spiritual teachings of the Vedas. This concordance is made pretty clear in the Puranas and Epics. Hinduism, by its very nature, has always been evolving with the times while recasting ancient truths in contemporary modes of thought and expression. By virtue of this, the language and myth of the Epics and Puranas are vastly different from that of the Vedas. This might partly explain why the notion of ‘Asura’ is so different in the Rig Veda as compared to the Epics and Puranas. However, there might be other historical causes for this shift – we will see this later.

Below I attempt to list the most important references to ‘Asura’ in the Rig Veda and give the metaphysical meaning.

1. Viśvāmitra Gāthina (RV 3.55)

This hymn of 22 verses is a majestic and magnificent depiction of the concept of Asura in the Rig Veda. Each verse ends with the following phrase:

“महद् देवानाम् असुरत्वम् एकम्” – “mahad devānām asuratvam ekam

“Great is the single Asura-hood or Asura-ness of the gods”.

In this hymn Asura is not a specific god or personality, but an abstract spiritual concept that encompasses all gods. It is an essential nature of every god. Moreover, the emphasis is on the unity or singular essence of all gods. Thus, Asura in the Rig Veda is equivalent to Brahman in the Upanishads.

2. Rig Veda 10.124

This hymn is a real hidden gem. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy has elegantly brought out the subtle meanings in this hymn that tie into the overall metaphysics expressed in the Rig Veda. I have already introduced this metaphysics in my series of articles on Agni. The hymn is a highly symbolic allegory describing the deepest ultimate truth as hiding in deep Darkness:

“ज्योगेव दीर्घम् तम आशयिष्ठा:” – “jyogeva dīrgham tama āśayiṣṭhāh” (1)

“You have been sleeping in the deep Darkness for far too long”.

This Agni who is hidden in deep Darkness for long, is prayed to come out of the Darkness and activate the yajña. This is a symbolism for the manifestation of the first principle of the universe. Darkness is seen as the primeval, original state of existence, and hence the deepest absolute, ultimate truth. As I have already elaborated on this in my articles on Agni, I shall refrain from that here. The noteworthy part of this hymn in the present context is this:

“शंसामि पित्रे असुराय शेवम्” – “śamsāmi pitre asurāya śevam” (3)

“I invoke well-being for Father Asura”.

This makes it very clear that Asura is a father figure, full of auspicious qualities. However, this Father Asura is the symbol of the primeval deep Darkness, which is the original ultimate truth experience. Hence, when Agni comes out of the Darkness, he is also rejecting his origin and home, and moving to a new state:

“अयज्ञियाद् यज्ञियं भागमेमि” – “ayajñiyād yajñiyam bhāgam emi” (3)

“I go from the non-yajña to the yajña“.

“इन्द्रं वृणानः पितरं जहामि” – “indram vṛṇānah pitaram jahāmi” (4)

“I give up the Father and choose Indra”.

Indra represents the manifested universe. He is the active, benevolent, protective “God” defined for the visible universe. So it becomes clear why Agni says that he quits the Father (i.e. the primeval unmanifest Darkness) and joins Indra in the manifest universe.

In consonance with the above, the previous forms of Agni, Soma and Varuna, who are the original old forms of divinity, fall away, and the new forms of gods Agni, Soma and Varuna are manifested:

“अग्निः सोमो वरुणस्ते च्यवन्ते पर्यावर्त् राष्ट्रम् … निर्माया उ त्ये असुरा अभूवन्” – “agnih somo varuṇaste cyavante, paryāvart rāṭram … nirmāyā u tye asurā abhūvan” (4)

“Agni, Soma and Varuna, they fall away … those Asuras become powerless”.

So Agni, Soma and Varuna are called “Asuras”, whose old form is destroyed, and they are recast as “gods” in the universe.

3. Asura’s sons (asurasya vīrāh)

In continuation of the theme of Asura described as the original primeval Father, I shall give examples here of the occurrence of the description of various revered personalities, including gods and sages, as the Asura’s sons, i.e. “asurasya vīrāh”.
  • RV 3.53.7: “इमे भोजा अङ्गिरसो विरूपा दिवस्पुत्रासो असुरस्य वीराः । विश्वामित्राय ददतो मघानि सहस्रसावे प्र तिरन्त आयुः ” – “ime bhojā aṅgiraso virūpā divasputrāsoasurasya vīrāhviśvāmitrāya dadato maghāni sahasrasāve pra tiranta āyuh” — Here, the Aṅgiras sages are called Sons of Heaven, and Asura’s Sons.
  •  RV 3.56.8: “त्रिरुत्तमा दूणशा रोचनानि त्रयो राजन्त्यसुरस्य वीराः । ऋतावान इषिरा दूळभासस्त्रिरा दिवो विदथे सन्तु देवाः ” – “triruttamā dūṇaśā rocanāni trayo rājanti asurasya vīrāh, ṛtāvāna iṣirā dūḷabhāsah trirā divo vidathe santu devāh” — Here, Agni, Indra and Surya are called Asura’s Sons.
  • RV 10.10.2: “न ते सखा सख्यं वष्ट्येतत्सलक्ष्मा यद्विषुरूपा भवाति । महस्पुत्रासो असुरस्य वीरा दिवो धर्तार उर्विया परि ख्यन्” – “na te sakhā sakhyam vaṣṭyetat salakṣmā yadviṣurūpā bhavāti, mahasputrāsoasurasya vīrā, divo dhartāra urviyā pari khyan” — Here, the gods in general are called Sons of the Great Asura.
  • RV 10.67.2: “ऋतं शंसन्त ऋजु दीध्याना दिवस्पुत्रासो असुरस्य वीराः । विप्रं पदमङ्गिरसो दधाना यज्ञस्य धाम प्रथमं मनन्त” – “ṛtam śamsanta ṛju dīdhyānā divasputrāso asurasyavīrāh, vipram padam aṅgiraso dadhānā yajñasya dhāma prathamam mananta” — Here, the Aṅgiras sages are called Sons of Heaven and Sons of Asura. Incidentally, Sāyaṇa’s commentary on this verse explains “Asura” as “Agni”.

4. Individual gods called as Asura


  • RV 3.3.4: “पिता यज्ञानामसुरो विपश्चितां विमानमग्निर्वयुनं च वाघताम्” – “pitā yajñānām asurovipaścitām vimānamagnir vayunam ca vāghatām
  • RV 4.2.5: “इळावाँ एषो असुर प्रजावान् दीर्घो रयिः पृथुबुध्नः सभावान्” – “iḷāvān eṣo asura prajāvān dīrgho rayih pṛthubudhnah sabhāvān
  • RV 5.12.1: “प्राग्नये बृहते यज्ञियाय ऋतस्य वृष्णे असुराय मन्म” – “prāgnaye bṛhate yajñiyāya ṛtasya vṛṣṇe asurāya manma
  • RV 5.15.1: “घृतप्रसत्तो असुरः सुशेवो रायो धर्ता धरुणो वस्वो अग्निः” – “ghṛtaprasatto asurah suśevo rāyo dhartā dharuṇo vasvo agnih


  • RV 1.24.14: “क्षयन्नस्मभ्यमसुर प्रचेता” – “kṣayann asmabhyam asura pracetā”
  • RV 2.27.10: “त्वं विश्वेषां वरुणासि राजा ये च देवा असुर ये च मर्ताः” – “tvam viśveṣām varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāh


  • RV 1.174.1: “त्वं राजेन्द्र ये च देवा रक्षा नृृन् पाह्यसुर त्वमस्मान्” – “tvam rājendra ye ca devā rakṣā nṛṛn pāhyasura tvamasmān
  • RV 3.38.4: “महत्तद्वृष्णो असुरस्य नामा विश्वरूपो अमृतानि तस्थौ” – “mahattad vṛṣṇoasurasya nāmā viśvarūpo amṛtāni tasthau


  • RV 1.35.7: “वि सुपर्णो अन्तरिक्षाण्यख्यद् गभीरवेपा असुरः सुनीथः” – “vi suparṇo antarikṣāṇi akhyad gabhīravepā asurah sunīthah”
  • RV 1.35.10: “हिरण्यहस्तो असुरः सुनीथः” – “hiraṇyahastoasurah sunīthah”
  • RV 1.110.3: “तत्सविता वोऽमृतत्वमासुवदगोह्यं यच्छ्रवयन्त ऐतन । त्यं चिच्चमसमसुरस्य भक्षणमेकं सन्तमकृणुता चतुर्वयम्” – “tatsavitā vo’mṛtatvamāsuvadagohyam yacchravayanta aitana, tyam ciccamasam asurasya bhakṣaṇameko santamakṛṇutā caturvayam”
  • RV 4.53.1: “तद्देवस्य सवितुर्वार्यं महद् वृणीमहे असुरस्य प्रचेतसः” – “tad devasya savitur vāryam mahad vṛṇīmahe asurasya pracetasah
As we see from the few examples above, the concept of Asura is an all-encompassing, universal subtle reality. The gods are called both “Asura” and “Asura’s Sons”. This shows the highly metaphysical and esoteric content of the Rig Veda. This is also consistent with what the Niruktam says about the nature of the Vedic gods, that they are “born from one another (itaretarajanmānah)”.
This again confirms my earlier conviction regarding the idea of Agni in the Rig Veda. The Vedic gods, especially Agni, are fully equivalent to the idea of Brahman in the Upanishads. The only difference is that the Rig Veda is also poetry, so it is loaded with intricate symbolism which hides the deep subtle metaphysics.
The meaning of ‘Asura’ is made clear by studying the traditional list of Vedic words, Nighaṇṭu. In chapter 3.9, the following list for the synonyms of knowledge or wisdom:
केतुः । केतः । चेतः । चित्तम् । क्रतुः । असुः । धीः । शची । माया । वयुनम् । अभिख्येति एकादश प्रज्ञानामानि ।
Note that “asuh” is in the list. The Niruktam derives the word “Asura” from this word, as “giver of wisdom, or the wise one”. There are also other meanings such as “giver of life”.
So far, we have seen that in the Rig Veda, the words ‘Deva’ and ‘Asura’ are synonyms.
Now, coming to historical reasons why the word ‘Asura’ came to have negative meanings, and became the complete opposite of ‘Deva’ in post-Rigvedic times.
A tectonic shift occurs in the later Vedic literature (Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda, Brahmanas, etc) where only ‘Deva’ is used for the Vedic gods, and ‘Asura’ is now used for the anti-gods. The derivation of ‘Asura’ now changes to ‘A-sura’ i.e. “not sura”, and “sura” now becomes a synonym of ‘Deva’. This is totally unknown in Rig Veda, where “Asura” has absolutely no negative connotation.
In parallel with the later Vedic literature, in the lands neighboring west of India, the person called Zarathushtra begins preaching a new set of beliefs that are distantly related to the old Vedic religion. But there are some radical new beliefs. A central tenet is that the god is called ‘Ahura’, which is the Sanskrit ‘Asura’, and the anti-god is called “daeva”, which is the Sanskrit ‘Deva’. It is from the Avestan “daeva” through Hebrew, then Latin that the European languages have the word “devil”, “diavolo” etc. So you see, in the Avesta, the words have the exact opposite meanings as the later Vedic texts.
Even in the earliest texts of the Zoroastrians, there is already an opposition between the positive ‘Ahura’ and negative ‘Daeva’; between positive ‘Vanguhi Daitya’ and negative ‘Angra Mainyu’. On the Vedic side, in Yajur Veda and later texts, the former set of characters is the negative one, and the latter set is the positive one. (‘Angra Mainyu’ is none other than our Angiras rishi).
But the Rig Veda sees no such dichotomy as there is no reason for it, as seen from the original meaning of the words.
So it can be concluded that in the later Vedic period there was a struggle between the Vedic people and their cultural cousins the Zoroastrians, which was so significant that the fundamental religious expression changed forever. Even now, most Hindus would not believe that “deva” and “asura” were once synonyms. And Zoroastrians would never consider the two words as synonyms either.
Author: Ram Abloh
July 15th 2019
Full profile of this Author can be viewed at :

 Sage: Prajāpati Vaiśvāmitra
Chandas: Triṣṭubh

Audio : Rig Veda. Mandala 3. Sukta 55

Please hear the audio as you read through this translation, since otherwise this is close to being unreadable given the extremely mystic nature. ​

Thence when the early dawns shone apart,
The Great Akṣara was manifest in the track of the Cow.
It beautifies very now the statutes of the Devas
Great is the one asuratva of Devas!

May not the Devas deflect us from here,
May not, the Pitṛs, the knowers of the track, O Agni!
In between the two ancient mansions is the Sign.
Great is the one asuratva of Devas!

Desires of mine fly apart many-a-place,
Exerting, I illuminate the earlier ones.
Let’s tell just Ṛta at the kindled Agni,
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Same is the ruler distributed many-a-place,
Nestling in places of rest, entangled along with the woods,
Another bears the calf; the mother dwells.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Dwells he in the earlier ones, growing through the later ones,
Within the just-born, tender ones.
Him within, they bring forth without having approached;
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

He was lying far beyond, the One of two mothers now,
The single calf, unbounded, roams.
These are the statutes of Mitra and Varuṇa.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

The Invoker, Of two mothers, the king of all in the station of wise,
His edge roams along, the base rests.
Pleasant people bear forth the pleasant speech;
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Like a hero battling in closely,
Approaching, he peeks into all.
Mind moves amidst, to the release of Cow,
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

He permeates, the grey messenger,
The great one roams amidst, by light,
Bearing various forms, he perceives us,
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

The pervading herdsman (Viṣṇu), protects the farthest shelter,
Establishing dear immortal settlements,
Agni knows all these worlds of beings.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

The twin ladies …. have themselves assumed many forms,
Among the two, one of them shines, the other is black.
Dusky and the ruddy ones are sisters.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Where both the mother and daughter, rich in milk,
Suckle jointly, yielding milk readily.
There amidst the stage of Ṛta, I hymn both.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

She bellows, licking another’s calf,
How has the milk cow set her udder?
Iḷā has teemed with richness of Ṛta.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Through the track, she of many forms wears various appearances,
Licking the tryavi, standing up straight.
I roam through the seat of Ṛta as the one who knows.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Like two footsteps set down amidst wonder,
One of the two is hidden, the other clear.
Aiming one their paths are divergent,
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Let them resound, the milch-cows without kids,
Those readily milking, unfailing, who are not milked,
Becoming young ladies anew.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

When the bull roars amongst one herd,
He deposits his seed in another.
He is the keeper of earth, the Bhaga, the king;
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

O People! May we declare now
Vīra’s “well-horsedness” – Devas know of that.
Sixfold yoked, five-five they convey (him) here.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

The Deva is Tvaṣṭar, Savitar, of all forms,
He flourishes, having given birth to offspring many ways;
All these beings are his.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Two great united realms he drove together,
Both of these are studded with his valuables.
The Vīra is famed for revealing the valuables.
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

And in this earth, the depositor of all for us,
Dwells by, as a king with his allies (Mitra) set,
Settled in the front, as heroes under divine care,
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

For you, the plants and the waters proffer,
For you, the Earth bears richness, O Indra!
May we be your friends, sharing your Grace,
Great is the one Asuratva of Devas!

Notes :-

This sūkta is likely by an anonymous descendant of Viśvāmitra or perhaps Viśvāmitra himself. The sūkta is notable for its reliance of on the quality of Grace “Vāma” throughout, (comparable to RV 1.164) and therefore is to be shifted more to your right brain as you read through. The sūkta is not to be approached in an analyzing and judging manner, looking for exactly which Deva is described where – rather, the Asuratva, the Asura nature – the living reality of Devas is wondrously depicted. The sūkta starts with the track of divine inspiration (“Cow”) still unmarked if not for the Akṣara that dwells in it. From Vāk, the Devas manifest and show up as the sūkta progresses – from Agni to Dyuniśa (day and night), Rodasī, Mitrāvaruṇā, Iḷā, Uṣas, Bhaga, Ādityas, Indra and Aśvins, Tvaṣṭar, Savitar, Prajāpati and finally back to Agni/Varuṇa and stopping in Indra.

To comment on this would take up so much of time, I will leave that for later – but while you go through this, you should surely realize the toughness of commenting/interpreting/translating the full-blown poetry of Rigveda.

*tryavi – “of three lambing seasons old”, ie; of one and half years. However, here it is meant to be a pun. Given avi has a protection/blanket connotation and the “threefold” protection of Ādityas in the three dimensions is supposed to be implied here.

Asuratva, other than in sūkta, is mentioned only two times in Rigveda, in 10.55 and 10.99.

In 10.55, the context is much similar, it is a sūkta ultimately referring to Indra, with Viśvedevas. In 10.99, the sūkta is for Indra, and Indra establishing asuratva is described.

Is Asuratva Brahma/HiranyaGarbha. Can you please elaborate this Asuratva in Upanishadic terms or metaphysics ? What the word Asuratva actully mean ?

Brahma and Māyā is not a good construct to come with, when we go through sūktas of sages. The asuratva is the living and effecting nature (<asu “life”, “spirit”) of Devas – which all the devas share. Elsewhere, Indra is credited for asuratva (10.99). He animates the Waters, releases them (sṛṣṭi = release) from Vṛtra. He himself chooses to be Indra so that Devas side with him and work for the life of universe. The universe is in the medium of Agni – everything exists and expresses in him. The ladies of slumber and wakefulness, night and day, let us experience time and existence. Pulsation, change, causes existence. This change is effected in the medium of Agni, through Devas, by Indra.

Regarding referrents in the sūkta, that is a long thing to speak about. 🙂

I will save that for a later time. Or probably make video because writing seems so lengthy and taking up much effort.

Author/Researcher/Translator: Kiron Krishnan
June 17th, 2020