Ashura (the transcription of asura in Sanskrit with the meaning of non-heaven) is a guardian god of Hachi Bushu (or Eight Legions, Protectors of Buddhist Teachings) in Buddhism. It is also called Shura. With a combative character, it was added between human and chikusho (Buddhist realm of beasts) of Goshu in the Mahayana Buddhism period and became the master of Ashura-do, Asura realm (path of bellicose demons) which was one of Rokudo (six posthumous worlds).
Ashura is said to correspond to Ahura Mazda, which is the highest-ranking deity appearing in the ancient Persian scripture "Avesta" (see the article of historical background). It became the demon Asura of ancient India, and was taken into Buddhism later. It was the good deity for spark of life in ancient India. It is located next to heaven, but it is not heaven and the man is not handsome. After failure in brewing alcohol, it ran out of luck and is said that it could not live even in the Toriten (Trayastrimsa Heaven). Ashura was said to be a good deity, because originally 'asu' meant 'life' and 'ra' meant 'give' in Sanskrit. With the negative prefix 'a' and 'sura' meaning 'heaven,' however, Ashura was translated to non-heaven, non-human, and others. Therefore, it was thought to be demoted due to the fixed image as a villain in Hinduism with the rise of Taishakuten (Sakra devanam Indra). Ashura often battled with Taishakuten. Though Ashura was used for the strongest sexual justice in The Rig-Veda, it has been recognized as an awful Kijin (fierce god) since the Middle Ages (the times around the Heian period).
Taken into Buddhism, Ashura was added in Hachi Bushu as a Buddhist guardian. Though it is not recognized in the theory of Goshu (Five Realms), in the theory of Rokudo it refers to the world in which people with fighting spirit at any time live in such mental condition, or refers to such a mental condition.
The interpretation of a treasure hall of Kofuku-ji Temple describes 'Ashura' as "Taiyoshin" (the sun god) or "Hinokami" (the god of fire) in Indian Hinduism.
Ashura always loses in the battle with Taishakuten. The situation of this battle is called Shuraba (dreadful scene).
The figure of Ashura is often represented in Buddhist statuary with three faces and six arms.
Famous statues include the statues of eight legions and the statue of Asura (fighting demon) (National Treasure) of Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture as well as the statues of twenty-eight legions and the statue of Asura (fighting demon) (National Treasure) of Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto Prefecture.
In Japanese, the situation with constant conflicts is sometimes called shuraba, using an analogy from Ashura precept (pandemonium). It refers to the place where fierce fighting is going on or the situation associated with such a place.
Generally, asura in Sanskrit exactly corresponds to ahura in Avesta in historical linguistics and is considered to be old divinity that probably goes back to the India-Iran period. In view of religious studies, Varuna (deity), which was considered to be the master of Asura in Veda materials, and Mithra correspond to Ahura Mazda and Mithra of Zoroastrianism in various aspects and are considered to correspond to the principal function (judicial and religious sovereignty) in Indian and European comparative mythological views. Though Asura is currently positioned as evil or a demon, it should be noted that it was often positioned as the highest-ranking deity rather than the evil conflicting with Indra and others in the older Veda period.
However, one theory shows that the origin of Ashura is Sumerian, Assyrian, and Persian civilizations of the ancient Mesopotamia civilization.
The deity Anshar enshrined in pantheons in Sumer and Akkad. The highest-ranking deity of Assyria, Ashur. The highest-ranking deity of Zoroastrianism in Persia, Ahura Mazda. These deities were introduced into India and became Asura, which was transliterated into 阿修羅 in China. It is also transliterated into 阿素羅, 阿蘇羅, 阿須羅, 阿素洛, 阿須倫, 阿須輪 and others.
The transmissions about Ashura of Buddhism have great similarities to the ancient histories of Sumer and Assyria and are noted as credible facts.
According to the transmissions of Buddhism, Ashura lived in the north of Mt. Sumeru (in Buddhism - said to be the highest mountain rising in the center of the world) and continued to fight with Taishakuten. There is a description that Ashura came to life many times after being killed and destroyed by Taishakuten and then continued to fight with it. The following are the events that likened these transmissions to ancient history.
The Assyrian Empire, revering Ashur as the highest-ranking deity, built a huge empire in the northern part of Sumer (currently, around Iraq) and continued wars of invasions into Babylonia, which had emerged after Sumer and Akkad.
Though Babylonian destroyed Assyria in alignment with Median, Babylonia was destroyed by Assyrians, who rebuilt their country. Later, Chaldea was built on the site of Babylonia and destroyed Assyria again. Later, Persia, revering Ahura Mazda, was built and occupied Chaldea. Later again, ancient Makedonia destroyed Persia.
In addition, there is similarity between Sumer and Mt. Sumeru (pronounciated 'Sumer' in Sanskrit). One theory points out the similarity between the highest-ranking deity of Sumer, Marduk, and Taishakuten Indra, and the pattern of Ashura and Taishakuten is exactly the same as the one of Ashur and Marduk. Some divines argue that these ancient histories were probably introduced for the transmission of Buddhism.
Background of becoming the fighting deity
Ashura is generally recognized as a devil deity who kicked against Taishakuten. Eventually, however, the facts are said to be a little different. Ashura was originally Tenbu-shin (deity who resides in a heavenly realm, one of six realms in which the souls of living beings transmigrate from one to another). There is the following story about the reason why Ashura was exiled from Tenbu and formed the world of Ashura (fighting demon).
Ashura is said to be the deity controlling justice, while Taishakuten is said to be the deity controlling power.
The family of Ashura lived in the Toriten (called Sanjusanten [Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods] as well) with Taishakuten as its master. In addition, Ashura had a daughter named Sachi and wanted her to marry Taishakuten some day. However, Taishakuten took Sachi by force (he is also said to have abducted her and committed indecent conduct). Ashura got angry with it and challenged Taishakuten to a fight. Taishakuten fought back, sending Shitenno (four guardian kings) and others under his command and the army of Sanjusanten. Taishakuten had prevailed in the battle. However, they came across a row of ants and Taishakuten mercifully stopped his army from stomping them to death when the army of Ashura changed to prevail once and Taishakuten backed off. Ashura was surprised to see Taishakuten's behavior and drew off doubting if he had some plots.
One theory shows that Ashura was exiled because this story spreaded in Tenbu. Another theory shows that Ashura's challenges to fight deprived him of the mind to permit Taishakuten in spite of justice though Sashi had already became the lawful wife of Taishakuten. Thus, sticking around even justice too much deprives one of the right mind and brings evil caused by obsession. Based on this, it is said that Ashura was exiled from Tenkai in Buddhism and the world of Asura (fighting demon) was added between Ningenkai (Human world) and the world of hungry spirits.
The free translation of Ashura is 'non-heaven,' which was named in the meaning that Ashura is not heaven though the luck of Ashura is remarkable and is similar to Tenbu-shin.
Ashura-o (Ashura King) and his home
There are differences depending on Buddhist theories in the name, home, behaviors and other aspects of Ashura. In Pali, Ashura-o has five names, Rāhu, Vepacitti, Sambara, Pahārāda, Verocana, Bali. However, Ashura-o is generally considered to be the four kings in Mahayana Buddhist scriptures.
The Johon (Introduction) of "Hokke-kyo Sutra" (the Lotus Sutra) lists the names of four kings and shows that each of them have a thousand of kenzoku (disciples or followers of Buddha). In addition, "Juji-kyo Sutra" and the eighteenth to twenty-first volumes of "Shobonenjo-kyo Sutra" (Meditation on the Correct Teaching Sutra) explain the homes, behaviors, and life durations of these four kings and suggests that their homes are located separately in the four-layered grounds between 84000 yojana (an ancient Indian scale: seven miles or nine miles) under the bottom of the sea to the north of Mt. Myoko (Mt. Sumeru). The following explanations are based mainly on Shobonenjo-kyo Sutra.
In Sanskrit and Pali: Rāhu, Rafu, in Pali: translation: 障月,執月, lunar eclipse and others. Its name is based on the fact that it keeps out the sunlight by its hands shading the sun and moon.
- It lives in the first-layer which is located 21000 yojana under the bottom of the sea. It is big like Mt. Sumeru and lives in Komyo Castle in the size of 8000 yojana in height and width.
- When it was Brahman in the previous life, it prevented a Buddhist pagoda from burning down and wished a later self to be 大身相 due to its fortune and luck. It did not conduct various good deeds after ahimsa, so its body dwas estroyed into death, resulting in a fall into Ashura-do, Asura realm.
- Its life duration is 5000 years old on the basis of a day and night being equal to 500 years for a human.
In Sanskrit and Pali: Bali, translation: being fastened
This name came from the fact that it lost in the battle with Taishakuten and was fastened up. In Shobonenjo-kyo Sutra, it is called Yugon-Ashura-o. It is the brother of Rafu and his children have the name, Veroca.
- It lives in Soyu Castle in the size of 8000 yojana in height and width in Getsuman located 21000 yojana in the second-layer below the first-layer.
- In the previous life, it stole others' belongings, followed the heretical doctrine of selflessness without a sense of injustice and was satisfied with eating and drinking, so it died, resulting in a fall into Ashura-do, Asura realm.
- Its life duration is 6000 years on the basis of a day and night being equal to 600 years for a human.
Śambara in Sanskrit and Śambara in Pali, translation: easy win, fraud, cotton, and others
In Shobonenjo-kyo Sutra, it is translated into Keman-Ashura-o.
- It lives in Kanbira Castle in the size of 8000 yojana in height and width in Shunaba located 21000 yojana in the third-layer below the second-layer.
In the previous life, it fed a depraved ill person and enjoyed various games including sumo and target practice on the day of Sechi-e (seasonal court banquets) and made an improper offering, so it died, resulting in a fall into Ashura-do, Asura realm.
- Its life duration is 7000 years on the basis of a day and night being equal to 700 years for a human.
Vemacitra, Vimalacitra in Sanskrit and Vepacitti in Pali, translation: purification, 絲種種, 綺書, jewelry, tattoo, and others
It married the daughter of Kendatsuba, Gandharva, and had a daughter, Sachi. As described above, Sachi married Taishakuten and it is the father-in-law.
- It lives in Kanbira Castle in the size of 13000 yojana in height and width in Fudo located 21000 yojana in the fourth-layer below the third-layer.
- In the previous life, it made offers to people keeping precepts with the unreasonable mind and preserved trees for its own benefit, so it died, resulting in a fall into Ashura-do, Asura realm.
In addition, "Kisekyo" (literally, "Sutra of the World Arising") shows that there is the palace of Bimashittara-o 1000 yojana away from the east and west sides of Mt. Sumeru, in the size of 80000 yojana in height and width. In addition, the extremely weak shura (timber chute) lives in the human-living mountain, and therefore, it is said that now there is a big and deep cave in the western mountain in which many non-heavens; i.e. the palace of Ashura, are located.