In this article, we will explain the Japanese word Shura. We will look at the etymology (origin of the word), and how it is used today in popular culture.
This journey will take us through this word’s connection to Buddhist myths, manga/anime and… forestry terms?
- 1 An Introduction to the word Shura
- 2 The dictionary definition of Shura
- 2.1 The first definition: intensity
- 2.2 The second definition: a Buddhist deity
- 2.3 The third definition: An ancient building technique whose name is a dad joke
- 2.4 The fourth definition: A giant playground slide, for logs
- 3 How Asura/Ashura became Shura
- 4 Shura in popular culture
An Introduction to the word Shura
Shura is written using two kanji (Chinese characters): 修羅. The first one, 修, gives the word the “shu” sound and roughly translates to “discipline”.
The second character, 羅, gives the word the “ra” sound and means something like “lightweight fabric”.
So, does shura refer to disciplined fabrics? Not at all. The characters in 修羅 are used as Ateji当て字, that is, picked purely for their phonetic readings.
The dictionary definition of Shura
What does Shura mean? The Daijirin Dictionary lists four definitions:
The first definition: intensity
The first definition is straightforward: 激しい戦闘 “intense fighting”.
This is the most common definition for the word 修羅, and you can see it used in expressions, such as shuraba, written 修羅場 and meaning, “a scene of carnage or bloodshed.”
Shura can also describe intense emotions. The expression shura wo moyasu (修羅を燃やす), literally “to burn shura,” means “to be extremely furious or jealous.”
The second definition: a Buddhist deity
The second definition has “[仏]” in front of it, denoting the origins of this word.
You might think that this character futsu 仏 stands for French, like in the word wafutsu jiten 和仏辞典 (Japanese-French dictionary), but that is not the case.
Here, 仏 stands for bukkyō 仏教, which means Buddhism.
After that, the dictionary tells us that the word is an abbreviation of the words Ashura 阿修羅 and Shuradō 修羅道, which are both concepts in the religion of Buddhism.
The word Ashura 阿修羅, as is the case with many Buddhist terms in Japanese, is a transliteration of a word from the Sanskrit language. In this case, the original Sanskrit word is असुर ásuraḥ.
Asuras in Buddhism are beings that are sometimes translated as “demigods” or “titans.”
They are usually depicted as having three heads with three faces each, and three or four pairs of arms.
They symbolize envy and conflict, and a person may become an asura in their next life if they were extremely jealous or violent.
The asuras live in a realm called the Asura realm, or Shuradō 修羅道. It is said to be a world thousands of miles beneath the sea floor, where clothing and food appear when the asuras wish.
The Asura realm and is ruled by four kings, named Rāhu, Bali, Kharakaṇṭha, and Vemacitra.
In Japanese, their names are Ragou羅睺, Bachi婆稚, Kyarakenda 佉羅騫駄, and Bimashittara 毘摩質多羅.
Diving deeper into the origins of Ashura
The Asuras of Buddhism are derived from even older, Hinduist deities, also known by the name of Asuras. These Hindu Asuras are a class of powerful superhuman beings.
The good Asuras are called Adityas and are led by Varuna, and the evil ones are called Danavas and are led by Vritra. Asuras compete against the Devas, the gods of the Hindu world.
Diving even deeper: The Asura-Æsir connection
Linguists say that the Sanskrit word असुर ásuraḥ comes from a Proto-Indo-Iranian word, reconstructed as *n̩suras, which in turn is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root *H2ensu-.
This root *H2ensu- also evolved into the Proto-Germanic *ansiwiz, which became the Æsir of Norse mythology.
Much like the Asuras oppose the Devas, the Æsir oppose the Vanir. The two are also associated with warfare and conflict.
Perhaps the Proto-Indo-Europeans had a group of gods that evolved into the Asuras and Æsir.
The third definition: An ancient building technique whose name is a dad joke
The third definition says “大石‧大木などを運搬する車”: a cart (車) that transports (運搬する) big rocks and logs (大石‧大木).
Although the dictionary describes it as a cart, it is actually a gigantic sled with lengths ranging from 3 meters to 9 meters.
Historians speculate that usage of these Shura sleds started in the Kofun era, approximately 1400 years ago.
They were used to build the megalithic Kofun tombs, like the Mozu Tombs in Osaka prefecture.
So how did these sleds come to be called Shura? This is in fact a pun. Although 大石 is usually read taiseki, it can also be read taishaku as well.
Taishaku is also the Japanese name for Śakra, the lord of the Devas. Because the sled moves big rocks, it was compared to the Asuras who were at conflict with Śakra and thus made him move.
The fourth definition: A giant playground slide, for logs
In the days before heavy machinery, it was much more difficult to transport logs and timber. The people of Japan devised a clever way to carry wood from the mountains; the fourth definition of Shura, a humongous slide in the shape of a half-pipe made out of logs that served to guide wood down mountains.
The best part about this slide was that once the timber arrived at the bottom, the slide could be disassembled bit by bit from the top and transported using the remaining lower part of it.
How this system of carrying wood came to be called Shura is unknown, perhaps the name was inspired by the enormous sleds.
However, the name is quite fitting; the sight of logs sliding down at tremendous speeds is extraordinary and intense.
How Asura/Ashura became Shura
Buddhism was introduced to Japan from its neighbors, China and Korea, sometime in the 6th Century (historians cannot agree on a fixed date).
This means that most of the Buddhist vocabulary in Japanese consists of Sanskrit words transliterated into Chinese, then read with on-yomi readings.
As we saw previously, the Sanskrit word असुर ásuraḥ was transliterated with Chinese characters as 阿修羅 ashura.
Why did they drop the first character to make the word 修羅? The character 阿 in Chinese, when put before people’s names or kinship terms, shows familiarity.
For example, 阿 put before 爸 (father) makes the word 阿爸 (dad). In the same way, 阿修羅 could be interpreted as “Little Shura.”
Since the presence of 阿 makes the name cuddly and friendly-sounding, some people dropped it, and the name 修羅 stuck.
Shura in popular culture
In the manga series Hokuto no Ken (北斗の拳), known in English as Fist of the North Star, there is a brutal land of warriors called the Kingdom of Shura (Shura no kuni/修羅の国). This is the homeland of the protagonist Kenshiro, and many other characters.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.