A Deva (Sanskrit: meaning "radiant" or "shining") refers to a "god" or "deity" found in both Vedic Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism's oldest scripture, the Rig Veda, contains hymns of praise to thirty-three different devas (gods) who help to regulate the cosmos in opposition to asuras (demonic forces). While devas are viewed positively in Hinduism as celestial beings of high excellence, they are, however, seen as demonic figures in Zoroastrianism. Devas are also a classification of beings in Buddhism that are viewed as higher than humans but not the absolute powers in the universe. In Buddhism, devas differ from gods because they are not seen as eternal as they are trapped in the cycle of suffering.
The word Deva likely derives from the Proto-Indo-European deiwos, originally an adjective meaning "celestial" or "shining." It may also have some relation to the root diiv meaning "to play." Cognate to deva are the Lithuanian Dievas, Latvian Dievs, Prussian Deiwas, Latin deus "god" and divus "divine," from which the English words "divine," "deity," and the French "dieu," and Italian "dio" are derived. Related but distinct is the proper name Dyeus, which while from the same root, may originally have referred to the sky, and hence to "Father Sky," the chief god of the Indo-European pantheon, continued in Sanskrit as Dyaus. Today, Hindus also refer to Devas as Devatā and the feminine of Deva is Devi ("goddess").
Early Vedic religion
The Vedas, the earliest comprehensive literature of the Indo-European people, contain mantras for pleasing the devas to obtain blessings. The Rig Veda, the earliest of the four, enumerates 33 devas, which in later Hinduism increased to 330 million to symbolize the infinity of divine manifestations in the universe. Some devas represent the forces of nature while others represent moral values. The supreme deva or god of the early Vedic pantheon was Indra (the god of war). Other important devas were in the Vedic pantheon were: Agni, Soma, Vayu, Varuna, Rudra, Vishnu, Brahma, Brihaspati, Ashvins, Vishvedavas, Prithvi, Dyaus, and Prajapati. Varuna was an important deva who is identified by some to have become the Supreme God of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda, and thus has the dual title of deva and asura. There are also other devas like Savitŗ, Vishnu, Rudra (later given the exclusive epithet of Shiva), Prajapati (later identified with Brahmā), and devis (goddesses) like Ushas, Prithvi and Sarasvati. All gods taken together are worshipped as the Vishvedevas.
As Hinduism evolved in later centuries three deities eventually rose to prominence. These three deities were known as the Hindu trinity of Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva, and they eclipsed the power of the other devas. Additionally, various forms of Shakti or Devi (the Great Mother Goddess) were eventually seen equal in power to the Supreme One God.
It also seems to be the case that as Hinduism evolved from its Vedic roots the concept of deva was eventually vilified by India's western neighbors—the Persian Zoroastrianism. Some scholars have argued that due to the similarity of the Avesta and Sanskrit words for deva, a religious split may have occurred between the early Indo-Aryans and Iranians. (The cognate word in Avestan is daēva and in Zoroastrianism ahuras are supreme, while daevas are demonic.) In early Vedic religion, however, some Asuras are still worshipped. It is also possible that the Indo-Iranians, and probably already the Proto-Indo-Europeans (the Germanic Aesir are cognate to the Asuras) worshipped two classes of gods, without any moral dichotomy.
Relationship to God
Devas, in Hinduism, are celestial beings that control forces of nature such as fire, air, wind, etc. They are not to be confused with the One and the Supreme God or His personal form, Saguna Brahman which can be visualized as Vishnu or Shiva, among others. God (Ishvara) or Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) is the ultimate controller. A famous verse from the Katha Upanishad states: “From fear of Him the wind blows; from fear of Him the sun rises; from fear of Him Agni and Indra and Death, the fifth, run." In Hinduism, it is often said that Brahman is the only Ultimate Reality, and all devas are simply mundane manifestations of Him. Smarta Hinduism allows God to be worshipped in any anthropomorphic form for the sake of devotion. The devas are functionally equivalent of angels who serve God in the Jewish and Christian traditions. There are also many other lesser celestial beings in Hinduism such as Gandharvas or celestial musicians.
The Vaishnavites (who often translate deva as "demigod") cite various verses that speak of the Devas' subordinate status. For example, the Rig Veda (1.22.20) states, oṃ tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ: "All the suras (i.e., the devas) look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu." Similarly, in the Vishnu sahasranama the concluding verses state: "The Rishis (great sages), the ancestors, the Devas, the great elements, in fact all things moving and unmoving constituting this universe, have originated from Narayana," (i.e., Vishnu). Thus the Devas are stated to be subordinate to Vishnu, or God.
In the Bhagavadgita Krishna himself states that worshipers of deities other than the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, are incorrect (Gita 9.23) as such worship leads only to temporal benefits, rather than to the Lord Himself (Gita 7.23). Krishna also says: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are granted only by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22) Elsewhere in the Gita Lord Krishna states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe." (Gita: 9:23)
Devas in Buddhism
In Buddhism, a deva is one of many different types of non-human beings who share the characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and, in general, living more contentedly than the average human being. Other words used in Buddhist texts to refer to similar supernatural beings are devatā "deity" and devaputra (Pāli: devaputta) "son of the gods."
Although the word deva is generally translated "god" (or, very occasionally, "angel") in English, Buddhist devas differ from the "gods," "God," or "angels" of western religions in many important ways. For example,
- Buddhist devas are not immortal. They live for very long but finite periods of time, ranging from thousands to billions of years. When they pass away, they are reborn as some other sort of being, perhaps a different type of deva, perhaps a human or something else.
- Buddhist devas do not create or shape the world. They come into existence based upon their past karmas and they are as much subject to the natural laws of cause and effect as any other being in the universe. They also have no role in the periodic dissolutions of worlds.
- Buddhist devas are not incarnations of a few archetypal deities or manifestations of an all-embracing pantheistic One. Nor are they merely symbols. They are considered to be, like humans, distinct individuals with their own personalities and paths in life.
- Buddhist devas are not omniscient. Their knowledge is inferior to that of a fully enlightened Buddha, and they especially lack awareness of beings in worlds higher than their own.
- Buddhist devas are not all-powerful. Their powers tend to be limited to their own worlds, and they rarely intervene in human affairs. When they do, it is generally by way of quiet advice than by physical intervention.
- Buddhist devas are not morally perfect. The devas of the worlds of the Rūpadhātu do lack human passions and desires, but some of them are capable of ignorance, arrogance and pride. The devas of the lower worlds of the Kāmadhātu experience the same kind of passions that humans do, including (in the lowest of these worlds), lust, jealousy, and anger. It is, indeed, their imperfections in the mental and moral realms that cause them to be reborn in these worlds.
- Buddhist devas are not to be worshipped. While some individuals among the devas may be beings of great moral authority and prestige and thus deserving of a high degree of respect, no deva can be a refuge or show the way of escape from saṃsāra or control one's rebirth. The highest honors are reserved to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha.
The world of Buddhist meditation and practice includes several types of being that are often called "gods," but are distinct from the devas.
- Bodhisattvas – A bodhisattva may be a deva in a particular life, but bodhisattvas are not essentially devas, and if they happen to be devas it is only in the course of being born in many different worlds over time. A bodhisattva is as likely to be born as a human or as an animal, and is only distinguished from other beings by the certainty that eventually, after many lives, the bodhisattva will be reborn as a Buddha. For example, the current bodhisattva of the Tuṣita heaven is now a deva. In his next life, however, he will be reborn as a human—the Buddha Maitreya. Advanced Bodhisattvas are also capable of manifesting themselves in a great variety of forms, including the forms of devas, depending upon the circumstances.
- Yidams – These meditational deities sometimes take the form of ordinary devas and sometimes appear as manifestations of bodhisattvas, but they are in all cases to be taken as manifestations of enlightened mind with which the meditator intends to unite.
- Buddhas – A Nirmāṇakāya Buddha (physically manifesting Buddha) is always a human and not a deva, as the right conditions for attaining supreme enlightenment do not exist in the deva-worlds. A Sambhogakāya Buddha has the form of a very high-ranking deva, but does not exist within the universe, subject to birth and death, as all the devas do. The Dharmakāya is beyond all worlds and limitations.
From a human perspective, devas share the characteristic of being invisible to the physical human eye. However, it is said that the presence of a deva can be detected by those humans who have opened the divyacakṣus (Divine eye), an extrasensory power by which one can see beings from other planes. Their voices can also be heard by those who have cultivated a similar power of the ear. Most devas are also capable of constructing illusory forms by which they can manifest themselves to the beings of lower worlds; higher and lower devas even have to do this between each other. Devas do not require the same kind of sustenance as humans do, although the lower kinds do eat and drink. The higher sorts of deva shine with their own intrinsic luminosity. Devas are said to also be capable of moving great distances speedily and of flying through the air, although the lower devas sometimes accomplish this through magical aids such as a flying chariot.
Types of Buddhist Deva
The term deva is defined anthropocentrically to include all those beings more powerful or more blissful than humans. It includes some very different types of beings that can be ranked hierarchically. The devas fall into three classes depending upon which of the three dhātus, or "realms" of the universe they are born in.
1) The devas of the Ārūpyadhātu ("formless-realm") have no physical form or location, and they dwell in meditation on formless subjects. They achieve this by attaining advanced meditational levels in another life. They do not interact with the rest of the universe.
2) The devas of the Rūpadhātu ("form-realm") have physical forms, but are sexless and passionless. They live in a large number of "heavens" that rise, layer on layer, above the earth. These can be divided into five main groups:
- The Śuddhāvāsa devas are the rebirths of Anāgāmins, Buddhist religious practitioners who died just short of attaining the state of Arhat. They guard and protect Buddhism on earth, and will pass into enlightenment as Arhats when they pass away from the Śuddhāvāsa worlds. The highest of these worlds is called Akaniṣṭha.
- The Bṛhatphala devas remain in the tranquil state attained in the fourth dhyāna.
- The Śubhakṛtsna devas rest in the bliss of the third dhyāna.
- The Ābhāsvara devas enjoy the delights of the second dhyāna.
- The Brahmā devas (or simply Brahmās) participate in the more active joys of the first dhyāna. They are also more interested in and involved with the world below than any of the higher devas, and sometimes intervene with advice and counsel.
Each of these groups of heavens contains different grades of devas, but all of those within a single group are able to interact and communicate with each other. On the other hand, the lower groups have no direct knowledge of even the existence of the higher types of deva at all. For this reason, some of the Brahmās have become proud, imagining themselves as the creators of their own worlds and of all the worlds below them (because they came into existence before those worlds began to exist).
The devas of the Kāmadhātu ("Pleasure-realm") have physical forms similar to, but larger than, those of humans. They lead the same sort of lives that humans do, though they are longer-lived and generally more content, indeed sometimes they are immersed in pleasures. This is the dhātu that Māra has greatest influence over.
The higher devas of the Kāmadhātu live in four heavens that float in the air, leaving them free from contact with the strife of the lower world. They are:
- The Parinirmita-vaśavartin devas, luxurious devas to whom Māra belongs;
- The Nirmāṇarati devas;
- The Tuṣita devas, among whom the future Maitreya lives;
- The Yāma' devas.
The lower devas of the Kāmadhātu live on different parts of the mountain at the center of the world, Sumeru. They are even more passionate than the higher devas, and do not simply enjoy themselves but also engage in strife and fighting. They are:
- The Trāyastriṃśa (Thirty-three gods) devas, who live on the peak of Sumeru and are something like the Olympian gods. Their ruler is Śakra.
- The Cāturmahārājikakāyika devas, who include the martial kings who guard the four quarters of the Earth. The chief of these kings is Vaiśravaṇa, but all are ultimately accountable to Śakra. They also include four types of earthly demigod or nature-spirit: Kumbhāṇḍas, Gandharvas, Nāgas and Yakṣas, and probably also the Garuḍas.
Sometimes included among the devas, and sometimes placed in a different category, are the Asuras, the opponents of the preceding two groups of devas, whose nature is to be continually engaged in war.
Humans are said to have originally had many of the powers of the devas: not requiring food, the ability to fly through the air, and shining by their own light. Over time they began to eat solid foods, their bodies became coarser and their powers disappeared.
All links retrieved January 29, 2024.
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