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Should "assuras" be translated as "demons"?

Hi friends,

I wonder why Bhante Sujato @sujato translated “assuras” as “demons”.

Are all assuras demons? If the Buddha taught the Dhamma to assuras (AN 8.19 With Pahārāda), is it possible that some assuras are not corrupted and some are even noble disciples of the Buddha? If so, they might not be pleased with Bhante Sujato :blush:.

With Metta,

Starter

I believe Bhante @sujato works from the principle that all Pali must be translated (with just a few exceptions). In other translations asuras is given as titans, which doesn’t seem quite right.

It looks like he translates yakkha as spirit.

I think they’re all reckoned to be beings of the apāyabhūmi. That is, unlike with petas, there’s no suggestion of there being any sub-species of asūra who are a cut above all the rest.

I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.

Note that there’s no inconsistency between the facts that (1) the Buddha taught the Dhamma to some asūras, and (2) the asūra state is not one in which it’s possible to live the brahmacariyā (according to the Saṅgīti Sutta). The Buddha taught all sorts of beings of this type, for an inability to live the brahmacariyā in the present life doesn’t necessarily mean an inability to do anything kusala at all.

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Asuras as a category of supernatural beings is ancient, and even older than the Vedas. Apparently they were originally humans who got later mythologized to be anti-devas. In time they became synonymous with the rakṣasas, which was a category of pure demons. So, as anti-devas ‘demons’ is a decent translation.

Asuras mostly have a parable-like function in the suttas (especially in SN 11), they are rarely actual characters. In a few Vedic and sutta contexts Asuras are rather unsightly demigods but that shouldn’t deter from the clear majority of cases where they are anti-devas and thus well rendered as ‘demons’.

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“Demon” is indeed one of the closest words in the english language to “asura”.

Just remember that it is not exact. Personally I prefer the term “titan”.

Interesting. I have rendered asura as “antigod”, based on how they are portrayed as fighting with the gods and as having qualities that are largely the opposite to those of the gods. According to Wiktionary an antigod is:

A preternatural being opposed to the gods.

which fits the bill almost perfectly. I think.

But I am still curious, does “antigod” work? Or is the meaning referred to by Wiktionary too obscure for most people to get it?

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Perhaps not so relevant for the Pali translations, but considering just the Vedic evidence it is noteworthy that asura- in the earliest, family books of the Ṛgveda was used in reference to many gods, e.g. Agni (most frequent, e.g. RV 3.3.4), Mitrā-Varuṇā (RV 2.27.10), Rudra (RV 5.42.11) etc etc. It was also used to refer to humans who were patrons of the poet or otherwise friendly (RV 5.42.1) as well as human foes.

An excellent work on this topic is Asura- in Early Vedic Religion by Wash Eward Hale.

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I personally like ‘antigod’. Because that’s what they mostly represent. In contrast ‘demon’ might give the idea that they directly harm humans - which, if I recall correctly, they mostly don’t do.

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According to this article, there are such beings called “Deva-Asura” which are not in the lower realms. Vecacitti is one such being, according to the article, though I’m not sure who that is (EDIT: I guess it means Vepacitti) .

In the suttas, there are only 5 realms. The Asura realm as a 6th type of rebirth appears to be a later development.

UPDATE: Here is the source for the controversy in the Kathāvatthu.

Controverted Point: That there are six spheres of destiny.

Theravādin: Did not the Exalted One name five destinies—purgatory, the animal kingdom, the Peta-realm, mankind, the devas? And did not the Kalakañjaka Asuras, who resembled the Petas in ugly or frightful shape, sex-life, diet, and length of life, intermarry with them? And did not Vepacitti’s troop, who in the same respects resembled the devas, intermarry with devas? And had not Vepacitti’s troop been formerly devas?

Andhakas and Uttarapāthakas: But since there is an Asura-group, it is surely right to speak of it as a possible destiny?

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Myself, I just transliterate the names of these beings. It’s not that I don’t think demon or titan works, but I’m afraid of obscuring the mythological distinctions these beings had in the Buddhist tradition with the myths that we’re familiar with in English.

Titans in Greek myth have a similarity in that they lost a war with the Olympians, but they don’t seem to be an actual parallel with asuras, which were an ever-present threat to the gods, not an origin story for how they came to reign supreme.

As for demons: There’s all kinds of demonic beings in Buddhist texts. Which ones get the honor of being THE demons? I guess asuras would be the leaders of them, but then what do I call rākṣasas and the others?

Oh, that’s a good solution. I think we end up coining terms one way or the other with these mythological beings (either this or borrowing the Indic names) if we want to represent them better.

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