My thoughts on Asura (or the Asuras)

Asura-Oh, from Shin Megami Tensei. Probably based on the Japanese Buddhist depiction of Asura.

Asura is a figure of intruige in my opinion. He is a strong and powerful. A bright and brilliant god, yet also associated with dark, demonic forces. A fierce god, a god of war.

In Indian myth, they are considered power-seeking deities who exist alongside the devas, the gods in heaven. They are often considered materialistic nature-beings. The term first appeared in Vedic religious literature, in which asura was mainly a title for various gods. It means “mighty”, or “powerful”. Many Vedic gods were described as asura, and have been ascribed that epithet many times, such as Indra, Agni, Varuna, Mitra, and Rudra. This epithet, and its variants (such as asurya, meaning “strength”), indicate the strength and power of gods.

Indian art of an Asura or Rakshasa.

Unfortunately, when Hinduism began interacting with Islam and Christianity, through the Muslim invasions and British conquests respectively, Hinduism became something more black and white, and Asura became demon. While in the lands of Persia (a.k.a. Iran), where Zoroastrianism was prevalent, asura become “ahura”, and refers to three entities: Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Apam Napat. Ahura Mazda’s name comes from “asura medhira” which was a title given to the Vedic god Varuna, thus Ahura Mazda’s link with Varuna. I’ve heard that Ashura was also the name of a sun goddess from somewhere who was feared for bringing droughts.

A statue of Asura in Japanese Buddhism.

In Buddhism, they are gods of war, and quarrelsome demigods who always fight with the devas. The Japanese seem to have fleshed out Asura’s warrior characteristics and fierce expression. Fitting when you consider that in Japan, Asura is also a guardian.

Asura in Asura’s Wrath by CyberConnect2

Then we have the game, Asura’s Wrath, which heavily incorporates and fleshes out the Hindu and Buddhist themes it was inspired from. Asura here is shown as a being of potentially infinite strength, someone who won’t back down from a fight. The game itself is also awesome.

I consider Asura a god of war, light (like the sun), fire (Ahura Mazda was also associated with fire), power, and dark forces (in reference to its demonic status in Hinduism). Not a demon, not a demigod, but a fierce war god who is both light and dark. A symbol of power, maybe even the power we could potentially have.

The influence of Indian religion on Japan

Kangiten, the Japanese incarnation of a popular Hindu god, Ganesha.

Hinduism is one the oldest religions in the world, and was around thousands of years before the time of Jesus, let alone the first religion of Abraham, or even the first dedicated monotheistic religion. Surely, then, it would be no surprise that such a religion would have spread far and wide over the course of its development and evolution. Hinduism as a religion is not commony practiced in Japan, and is considered a minority religion, with only 4,000 registered Hindus living there. Nevertheless, Hinduism has played a very significant and important role in shaping Japanese culture.

Buddhism, which shares a common root with Hinduism, came to Japan in the 6th century AD from China, where the Buddhist teachings had been translated into Chinese, via the Korean peninsula. Buddhist missionaries would introduce gods from Hinduism to Japan, as well as Buddhist ideas, most of which were ultimately born from Hindu thought. Hundreds of Hindu deities were adopted into the Chinese and Japanese Buddhist pantheons, and nearly all of them have a Hindu counterpart, and many of these deities are still popular. Here’s some examples.

First is Benzaiten. In Hinduism, Saraswati as the goddess of rivers, beauty, and the arts, such as music. In Japan, she become a lucky goddess, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune to be exact. Worship of her came to Japan in the 6th-8th centuries through Chinese translations of the Sutra of Golden Light.

Benzaiten, the Japanese counterpart to the Hindu goddess Saraswati.

Another god of fortune is Bishamonten, who is also a god of war and warriors in Japan, in contrast to his other depictions in Buddhism, where he is called Vaisravana, in which he is a more pacifist figure. Bishamonten comes from Vaisravana, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, who himself originates from a Hindu god of wealth called Kubera.

Shiva has also entered the Japanese pantheon, mainly in the form of Daikokuten, another lucky god of happiness of wealth. He is said to be combination of the Shinto god Okuninushi and the Tibetan and Mongolian Mahakala, and he most likely entered Japan from Mongolia. Daikoku’s status as a god of wealth possibly originates from Mahakala’s association with Kubera, indicated by reports from Chinese pilgrims of seeing Mahakala placed in Indian temples carrying a bag of gold. And there is a white form of Mahakala who is sometimes seen as a god of wealth.

Shiva’s son, Ganesha, also appears in the pantheon, brought to Japan in the 9th century by the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and images of him have been throughout Japan. He is known there as Kangiten or Shoten, and is worshipped as a god of bliss, endowed with great power and beleived to confer happiness to couples and devotees, as well as conjugal blessings. He is also said to be a manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. There is a popular temple at Futako Tamagawa in Tokyo, in which figures of Ganesha are displayed more prominently than those of the Buddha.

Indra, king of the gods in Vedic mythology, appears as Taishakuten, and a deity presiding over the Four Heavenly Kings.

Yama, the lord of the departed, appears in Japan as Enma, or Enma Dai-O.

I can go on with many more examples of Hindu gods adopted in Japanese Buddhism. Shinto adopted Hindu gods alongside Buddhism, despite Japan’s efforts to separate itself from foreign religions, including Indian religions, during what is called the Meiji Restoration, and many Hindu gods became Shinto gods, or Shinto gods adopted characteristics and links with Hindu gods.

A komainu guarding a temple in Japan.

Some Hindu symbolism also appears in temple iconography. For instance, many Shinto shrines in Japan are guarded by lion-dogs called Komainu, which resemble Chinese guardian lions, who ward off evil spirits. A common characteristic of these statues is that there are pairs of two identical statues, but with one’s mouth open and the other’s closed. This pattern is Buddhist in origin, but is laced with Hindu symbolism. The one whose mouth is open is uttering the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced “a”, while the one whose mouth is closed is uttering the last letter, pronounced “um”. Together, they represent the beginning and end of all things and form the sacred syllable in Hindu thought, the Aum. The same is true of a pair of fierce, muscular guardian gods called Nio (or Kongorikishi), where one’s mouth is open (often he is called Agyo), and the other is closed (called Ungyo).

The influence of Indian ideas was noted by the Japanese scholar, Hajime Nakamura (1912-1999). He stated that “Without Indian influence, Japanese culture would not be what it is today. As most Japanese profess the Buddhist faith, needless to say, they have generally been influenced by Indian ideas to a great extent”.

Ultimately, Hinduism is one of the most important religions for Japanese culture, for its ideas were carried on the back of Buddhism’s arrival to Japan, many centuries ago.

Here is a good website on Buddhism in Japan if you want more information:

Violent Gods

Zaou-Gongen, a deity found in Japanese esoteric Buddhism.

Possibly my favourite part of Buddhism, especially in Tibet and Japan, is the presence of wrathful deities. Common traits include colourful skin (usually black or blue), being covered in fire, fierce facial expressions, long hair, and holding various weapons,  including swords, tridents, and vajras. People can take them in different ways, even wondering why they are in Buddhism, but here’s how I see them. They are symbols of great and limitless power, freedom from all shackles through strength and personal power, energy, and the wild dance of the human psyche, considering the movements of many wrathful deities of Tibet and Japan call to mind the cosmic dance of Shiva.

Mahakala, a wrathful deity in Tibet.

For a while, I thought they symbolized the total sublimation of sensual desires or ego, probably because of the myth of the subjugation of Maheshvara by Vajrapani (or Gozanze Myo-o depending on the version of the myth) and came close to declaring it immoral. But I have passed that. I simply like these deities far too much. Besides, how can they symbolize the domination, subjugation, and destruction of desires, when they themselves can be sensual and they do ostensibly resemble beings of desire?