Monday, June 22, 2009

What are Buddhist "devas"?

A deva (देव Sanskrit and Pāli) in Buddhism is one of many different types of non-human beings who share certain characteristics: They are more powerful, longer-lived, and generally more contentedly than the average human being.

Synonyms in other languages include Tibetan lha, Chinese tiān, Korean cheon, Japanese ten, Vietnamese thiên. The concept of devas was adopted in Japan partly because of the similarity with the Shinto concept of kami.

Synonymous words used in Buddhist texts to refer to devas are devatā "deity" and devaputra (Pāli devaputta) "son of god." Putra, which literally means "son," generically designates that one has spontaneously been born among the devas. (Devas do not give birth, but they do act as parents when karma leads to spontaneous rebirth in proximity to other devas).

Powers of the devas
From a human perspective, devas share the characteristic of being invisible to the physical human eye. The presence of a deva can be detected by those humans who have opened the divyacakṣus (Pāli dibbacakkhu), 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 beings in 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, instead sustaining themselves on manna or the nectar of the gods. The higher (as in the Abhassara world) devas feed on joy. Deva literally means "shining one" since they are beings of light radiating their own intrinsic luminosity.

Devas are also capable of moving great distances flying through the air and through space quickly. The lower devas sometimes accomplish this through spacecraft (vimana) such as flying chariots and mounts (in the form of birds, animals, or platforms).
Types of devas
The term deva does not refer to a natural class of beings. It is defined anthropocentrically to include all of the beings more powerful or more blissful than humans. It includes some very different types ranked hierarchically. The lowest class of these beings are closer in nature to humans than to celestial and immaterial devas.

Devas fall into three general classes depending on which of the three dhātus, or "realms," in a world-system they are born in.

The devas of the Ārūpa-dhātu (Formless Realm) have no physical form or location, dwelling absorbed in meditation on formless subjects. They achieve this by attaining advanced meditative levels in a previous life. They are extremely long lived and do not interact.

The devas of the Rūpa-dhātu (Fine Material Realm) have physical form, but are sexless and passionless. They live in a large number of "heavens" or deva-worlds that rise, layer atop layer, above the earth. These be divided into five main groups:
  1. The Śuddhāvāsa (Pure Abode) devas are the reborn Anāgāmis, Buddhist meditation practitioners who died just short of attaining the state of Arhat. (Brahma Sahampati, who appealed to the newly enlightened Buddha to teach, was an Anagami from practicing with a previous Buddha[1]). They guard and protect Buddhism on earth and will become fully enlightened as Arhats from the Śuddhāvāsa worlds. The highest of these worlds is called Akaniṣṭha.
  2. The Bṛhatphala devas remain in an equanimous state attained in the fourth dhyāna (Pali jhana).
  3. The Śubhakṛtsna devas rest in the bliss of the third dhyāna.
  4. The Ābhāsvara devas enjoy the delights of the second dhyāna.
  5. The Brahmā devas (or simply Brahmās) participate in the more active joys of the first dhyāna. They are more interested in and involved with the world below than other higher devas and sometimes intervene with advice and counsel.
Each deva-world contains different grades of devas -- weak attainment of the dhyāna corresponding to that class, moderate accomplishment, and mastery. On the one hand, all of those within a single group are able to interact and communicate with each other. On the other hand, the lower groups may have no direct knowledge of the existence of higher types of deva at all. For this reason, some of the Brahmās have become proud, imagining themselves as the creators of their own and lower worlds (having come into existence before those worlds began to exist). They may fancy themselves "the alpha and the omega."

The devas of the Kāma-dhātu (Sensual Realm) have physical forms similar to humans. They lead the same sort of lives as humans, though longer-lived and generally more contented; indeed, they oftentimes recklessly immerse themselves in pleasure. It is the Sensual Realm that Māra has greatest influence over.

Higher devas of the Kāma-dhātu live in four celestial heavens, leaving them free from contact with the strife of the world. They are:
  1. The Parinirmita-vaśavartin devas, luxurious devas to whom Māra Devaputra belongs;
  2. The Nirmāṇarati devas;
  3. The Tuṣita devas, among whom the future Buddha Maitreya lives;
  4. The Yāma devas.
The lower devas of the Kāma-dhātu live on different parts of a mountain or axis at the center of the world, Mt. Sumeru. Like the "gods" of Greek mythology, they are more passionate than higher devas. They do not simply enjoy themselves but also engage in strife and fighting. They are:

The Trāyastriṃśa devas, who live on the peak of Sumeru and are something like the Olympian gods, constantly at war with the Asuras. Their ruler is Śakra.

The Cāturmahārājikakāyika devas, who include the four great kings who guard the four quarters of the Earth. The chief of these kings is Vaiśravaṇa, but all are ultimately accountable to Śakra. Their kingdoms include four types of earthly demigods or nature-spirits:
  1. Nāgas, and
  2. Yakṣas (and probably also the Garuḍas).
The Buddha advised that rather than praying to devas as was common in India, one should strive to become one. Good karma leads to rebirth among them. "Furthermore," he said, "you should recollect the devas: 'There are the devas of the Four Great Kings, the devas of the Thirty-three, the..."[2] [196. Dh.] "Feeders of joy we shall be like the radiant beings (devas)."

Sometimes included among the devas, and sometimes included among the demigods and nature-spirits, are the Asuras, the opponents of the preceding two groups of devas. Their nature is to be continually engaged in war. This corresponds to Christian legends of the "war in heaven" between archangels and fallen angels.

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 giving off light (Aganna Sutta). But over time humans began to eat solid food, so their bodies became coarser and their powers faded away.

Devas vs. gods
Although the word deva is generally translated "god" (or "angel") in English, Buddhist devas differ from the "gods," "God," or "angels" of Western religions past and present in many important ways.

For example, Buddhist devas are not immortal. They live very long but finite periods of time, ranging from hundreds to billions of years. When they pass away, as with all beings, they are reborn according to their karma as some other class 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 on their past karmas, and they are subject to the natural law of action and result (or cause and effect) as other beings in the world-system. They also have no role in the cyclical dissolution and evolution of worlds.

Buddhist devas are not incarnations of a few archetypal deities or manifestations of an all-embracing pantheistic One (as conceived of in some forms of Hinduism). Nor are they merely symbols. Like humans, they are considered distinct individuals with their own personalities and paths in life.

Buddhist devas are far from omniscient. Their knowledge is inferior to that of spiritual teachers, Arhats, and Buddhas, lacking knowledge and even awareness of beings in worlds higher than their own.

Buddhist devas are not omnipotent. 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 rather than physical intervention.

Buddhist devas are far from morally perfection, though generally better off than humans. The devas of the worlds of the Rūpa-dhātu lack human passions, but they are capable of delusion, arrogance, and pride. The devas of the lower worlds of the Kāma-dhātu experience the same kind of passions as humans, including (in the lowest of these worlds), lust, jealousy, and anger. Indeed, it is their imperfections in mental, moral, and ethical arenas that caused them to be reborn in these worlds.

Buddhist devas are gone to for refuge ("guidance" or sarana). While some individuals among the devas may be beings of great moral authority and prestige and thus deserving of a high degree of respect, devas do not show the way to escape saṃsāra or to control one's rebirth. The greatest respect is reserved for the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha.