Living in Peace: Insights from Buddhism
Buddhist women, Ásuras (Hindu deities), Buddhist gods in art
Strife, and the violence begotten from it, has long been a concern of Buddhism. Anger, ignorance, and greed, namely the three great evils, must be understood and overcome in order to advance towards enlightenment. Buddhism, as a syncretic religion, incorporated other religious figures from the Asian continent into it as a part of the process of appealing to new converts. The Asura embodies all three of these vices and yet in the process of being adopted into Buddhism, he was able to change from a violent demon into a peaceful guardian of the Buddha.
The Asura devas battled Indra in the Hindu myths. Nicholas Gier describes how violence by humans or demigods against the gods, has been central not only in the Western religions but also in Eastern religions. The hubris exhibited by humans (or those representing humans), what Gier calls "Hindu Titanism", is seen in the Asuras' constant struggle against Indra. The story of the Hindu Asura, part of this "Hindu Titanism", is one of "radical humanism...gone berserk...(they) deliberately reserve the positions of humanity and divinity; they take over divine prerogatives, and as a result of their hubris, they lose sight of their proper place in the universe."
Far from the hubris described by Gier of these "Asura Titans", in Japan the asura came to be re-imagined as a more humble and peaceful deity. As the asura developed and evolved over the centuries as he moved east, being absorbed from Hinduism into Buddhism, he became a part of the six realms of existence: deva/heavenly being, human, asura, animal, hungry spirit, and the hellbound. Once he arrived in Japan, he reached a point where he was imagined by the Japanese as a kind of dual being: at times retaining his warlike character and at other times being a herald of peace and compassion. This study examines how from the earliest visualization of the asura in Japanese art (8th century) to his reincarnation in the twentieth century poetry of Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933), the Asura has maintained a powerful presence as a Buddhist avatar of peace in the popular imagination of the Japanese.
Holt, Jon. “Peaceful Warrior-Demons in Japan: from Empress Kōmyō’s Red Repentant Asura to Miyazawa Kenji’s Melancholic Blue Asura,” in Living in Peace: Insights from Buddhism, Honolulu: Blue Pine Books, 2013.