In the earliest Vedic literature, all supernatural beings are called Devas and Asuras. The concepts and legends evolve in ancient Indian literature, and by the late Vedic period, benevolent supernatural beings are referred to as Deva-Asuras. In post-Vedic texts, such as the Puranas and the Itihasas of Hinduism, the Devas represent the good, and the Asuras the bad. In some medieval Indian literature, Devas are also referred to as Suras and contrasted with their equally powerful but malevolent half-brothers, referred to as the Asuras.
Deva is a Sanskrit word found in Vedic literature of 2nd millennium BCE. Monier-Williams translates it as "heavenly, divine, terrestrial things of high excellence, exalted, shining ones". The concept also is used to refer to deity.
The Sanskrit deva- derives from Indo-Iranian *daiv- which in turn descends from the Proto-Indo-European word, *deiwo-, originally an adjective meaning "celestial" or "shining", which is a (not synchronic Sanskrit) vrddhi derivative from the root *diw meaning "to shine", especially as the day-lit sky. The feminine form of *deiwos is *deiwih2, which descends into Indic languages as devi, in that context meaning "female deity". Also deriving from *deiwos, and thus cognates of deva, are "Zeys/Ζεύς" - "Dias/Δίας", the Greek father of the gods, Lithuanian Dievas (Latvian Dievs, Prussian Deiwas), Germanic Tiwaz (seen in English "Tuesday") and the related Old Norse Tivar (gods), and Latin deus "god" and divus "divine", from which the English words "divine", "deity", French "dieu", Portuguese "deus", Catalan "déu", Spanish "dios" and Italian "dio" are derived. It is related to *Dyeus which while from the same root, may originally have referred to the "heavenly shining father", and hence to "Father Sky", the chief God of the Indo-European pantheon, continued in Sanskrit Dyaus. The abode of the Devas is Dyuloka.
According to Douglas Harper, the etymological roots of Deva mean "a shining one," from *div- "to shine," and it is a cognate with Greek dios "divine" and Zeus, and Latin deus "god" (Old Latin deivos).
Deva is masculine, and the related feminine equivalent is devi. Etymologically, Devi is cognate Latin dea. When capitalized, Devi or Mata refers to a divine mother goddess in Hinduism. Deva is also referred to as Devatā, while Devi as Devika.
The word Deva is also a proper name or part of name in Indian culture, where it refers to "one who wishes to excel, overcome" or the "seeker of, master of or a best among".
The Samhitas, which are the oldest layer of text in Vedas enumerate 33 devas,[note 1] either 11 each for the three worlds, or as 12 Adityas, 11 Rudras, 8 Vasus and 2 Asvins in the Brahmanas layer of Vedic texts. The Rigveda states in hymn 1.139.11,
ये देवासो दिव्येकादश स्थ पृथिव्यामध्येकादश स्थ ।
अप्सुक्षितो महिनैकादश स्थ ते देवासो यज्ञमिमं जुषध्वम् ॥११॥
O ye eleven deities whose home is heaven, O ye eleven who make earth your dwelling,
Ye who with might, eleven, live in waters, accept this sacrifice, O deities, with pleasure.
– Translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith
Deities who are eleven in heaven; who are eleven on earth;
and who are eleven dwelling with glory in mid-air; may ye be pleased with this our sacrifice.
– Translated by HH Wilson
Some devas represent the forces of nature and some represent moral values (such as the Adityas, Varuna, and Mitra), each symbolizing the epitome of a specialized knowledge, creative energy, exalted and magical powers (Siddhis). The most referred to Devas in the Rig Veda are Indra, Agni (fire) and Soma, with "fire deity" called the friend of all humanity, it and Soma being the two celebrated in a yajna fire ritual that marks major Hindu ceremonies. Savitr, Vishnu, Rudra (later given the exclusive epithet of Shiva), and Prajapati (later Brahma) are gods and hence Devas. Parvati (power and love) and Durga (victory) are some Devis or goddesses. Many of the deities taken together are worshiped as the Vishvedevas.
In Vedic literature, Deva is not a monotheistic God, rather a "supernatural, divine" concept manifesting in various ideas and knowledge, in a form that combine excellence in some aspects, wrestling with weakness and questions in other aspects, heroic in their outlook and actions, yet tied up with emotions and desires.
Max Muller states that the Vedic hymns are remarkable in calling every single of different devas as "the only one, the supreme, the greatest". Muller concluded that the Vedic ideas about devas is best understood neither as polytheism nor as monotheism, but as henotheism where gods are equivalent, different perspective, different aspects of reverence and spirituality, unified by principles of Ṛta and Dharma.
Ananda Coomaraswamy states that Devas and Asuras in the Vedic lore are similar to the Olympian gods and Titans of Greek mythology. Both are powerful but have different orientations and inclinations, with the Devas representing the powers of Light and the Asuras representing the powers of Darkness in Hindu mythology. According to Coomaraswamy's interpretation of Devas and Asuras, both these natures exist in each human being, both the tyrant and the angel. The best and the worst within each person struggles before choices and one's own nature, and the Hindu formulation of Devas and Asuras is an eternal dance between these within each person.
The Devas and Asuras, Angels and Titans, powers of Light and powers of Darkness in Rigveda, although distinct and opposite in operation, are in essence consubstantial, their distinction being a matter not of essence but of orientation, revolution or transformation. In this case, the Titan is potentially an Angel, the Angel still by nature a Titan; the Darkness in actu is Light, the Light in potentia Darkness; whence the designations Asura and Deva may be applied to one and the same Person according to the mode of operation, as in Rigveda 1.163.3, "Trita art thou (Agni) by interior operation".
All-powerful beings, good or evil, are called Devas and Asuras in the oldest layer of Vedic texts. A much-studied hymn of the Rigveda states Devav asura (Asuras who have become Devas), and contrasts it with Asura adevah (Asuras who are not Devas). They are born from the same father, Prajapati, the primordial progenitor; his sons are envisioned as the Asuras and Devas. They all share the same residence (Loka), eat together the same food and drinks (Soma), and have innate potential, knowledge and special powers in Hindu mythology; the only thing that distinguishes "Asuras who become Devas" from "Asuras who remain Asuras" is intent, action and choices they make in their mythic lives.
The oldest Upanishads mention Devas, and their struggle with the Asuras. The Kaushitaki Upanishad, for example, in Book 4 states that "Indra was weaker than the Asuras when he did not know his own Atman (soul, self). Once Indra had self-knowledge, he became independent, sovereign and victorious over the Asuras"; similarly, states Kaushitaki Upanishad, "the man who knows his inner self gains independence, sovereignty and is unaffected by all evil".
Chandogya Upanishad, in chapter 1.2, describes the battle between Devas and Asuras on various sensory powers. This battle between good and evil fails to produce a victor and simply manifests itself in the perceived universe, as good or evil sights witnessed by beings, as good or evil words shared between people, as good or evil smells of nature, as good or evil feelings experienced, as good or evil thoughts within each person. Finally, the Deva-Asura battle targets the soul, where Asuras fail and Devas succeed, because soul-force is serene and inherently good, asserts Chandogya Upanishad.
Chapter 3.5.2 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes Devas, Men, and Asuras as sons of Prajapati, the primordial father. Each asks for a lesson on ethics. Prajapati tells the Devas to observe the virtue of temperance (self-restraint, Dama), the Men to observe the virtue of charity (Dana), and Asuras to observe the virtue of compassion (Daya). At the end of the chapter, the Upanishad declares that these are three cardinal virtues that should always be observed by all Devas, Men and Asuras.
Medieval era Indian scholars, in their Bhasya (review and commentaries) on the Upanishads, stated that the discussion of Devas and Asuras in the Upanishads is symbolic, and it represents the good and evil that resides and struggles within each human being. Adi Shankara, for example, in his commentary on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad asserted that Devas represent the human seeking for the sacred and spiritual, while the Asuras represent the human seeking for the worldly excesses. Edelmann and other modern era scholars also state that the Devas versus Asuras discussion in Upanishads is a form of symbolism.
In the later primary Upanishadic texts, Devas and Asuras discuss and act to seek knowledge, for different purposes. In one case, for example, they go to Prajāpati, their father, to understand what is Self (Atman, soul) and how to realize it. The first answer that Prajāpati gives is simplistic, which the Asuras accept and leave with, but the Devas led by Indra do not accept and question because Indra finds that he hasn't grasped its full significance and the given answer has inconsistencies. Edelmann states that this symbolism embedded in the Upanishads is a reminder that one must struggle with presented ideas, learning is a process, and Deva nature emerges with effort.
In the Puranas and the Itihasas with the embedded Bhagavad Gita, the Devas represent the good, and the Asuras the bad. According to the Bhagavad Gita (16.6-16.7), all beings in the universe have both the divine qualities (daivi sampad) and the demonic qualities (asuri sampad) within each. The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita states that pure god-like saints are rare and pure demon-like evil are rare among human beings, and the bulk of humanity is multi-charactered with a few or many faults. According to Jeaneane Fowler, the Gita states that desires, aversions, greed, needs, emotions in various forms "are facets of ordinary lives", and it is only when they turn to lust, hate, cravings, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, hypocrisy, violence, cruelty and such negativity- and destruction-inclined that natural human inclinations metamorphose into something demonic (Asura).
Everyone starts as an Asura in Hindu mythology, born of the same father. "Asuras who remain Asura" share the character of powerful beings obsessed with their craving for more power, more wealth, ego, anger, unprincipled nature, force and violence. The "Asuras who become Devas" in contrast are driven by an inner voice, seek understanding and meaning, prefer moderation, principled behavior, morals, knowledge, and harmony. The hostility between the two is the source of extensive legends and tales in the Puranic and the Epic literature of Hinduism; however, many texts discuss their hostility in neutral terms and without explicit condemnation. Some of these tales are the basis for myths behind major Hindu festivals, such as the story of Asura Ravana and Deva Rama in the Ramayana and the legend of Asura Hiranyakashipu and Deva Vishnu as Narasimha, the latter celebrated with the Hindu spring festival of Holika and Holi.
In Bhagavata Purana, Brahma had ten sons: Marichi, Atri, Angira, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, Vasistha, Daksa, Narada. Marici had a son called Kasyapa. Kasyapa had thirteen wives: Aditi, Diti, Danu, Kadru etc. The sons of Aditi are called Adityas, the sons of Diti are called Daityas, and the sons of Danu are called Danavas. Bṛhaspati (Jupiter, son of Angiras) is a guru of devas (vedic gods). Shukracharya (Venus, son of Bhrigu) is a guru of asuras (vedic demons) or/and Danavas.
Edelmann states that the dichotomies present in the Puranas literature of Hinduism are symbolism for spiritual concepts. For example, god Indra (a Deva) and the antigod Virocana (an Asura) question a sage for insights into the knowledge of the self. Virocana leaves with the first given answer, believing now he can use the knowledge as a weapon. In contrast, Indra keeps pressing the sage, churning the ideas, and learning about means to inner happiness and power. Edelmann suggests that the Deva-Asura dichotomies in Hindu mythology may be seen as "narrative depictions of tendencies within our selves".
The god (Deva) and antigod (Asura), states Edelmann, are also symbolically the contradictory forces that motivate each individual and people, and thus Deva-Asura dichotomy is a spiritual concept rather than mere genealogical category or species of being. In the Bhāgavata Purana, saints and gods are born in families of Asuras, such as Mahabali and Prahlada, conveying the symbolism that motivations, beliefs, and actions rather than one's birth and family circumstances define whether one is Deva-like or Asura-like.
In Hinduism, Devas are celestial beings associated with various aspects of the cosmos. Devas such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, form the Hindu trinity known as the Trimurthi and preside over the functioning of the cosmos and the evolution of creation.