Thursday, August 13, 2009

Buddhism's "Three Divine Messengers"

Ven. Nyanatiloka (WQ Editors)

Divine Messengers (deva-dūta) is a symbolic name for old age, disease, and death in that these three remind humans of their future and rouse them to earnest striving. In the Numerical Discourses, Book of the Threes, Discourse 35 (AN III.35), it is said:

"Did you, O good person, never see in the world a man or woman eighty, ninety, or a hundred years old, frail, crooked as a gable-roof, bent down, resting on crutches, with tottering steps, infirm, youth long since fled, with broken teeth, grey and scanty hair, or bald, wrinkled, with blotched limbs? Did it never occur to you that you also are subject to old age, that you also cannot escape it?

"Did you never see in the world a man or woman, who being sick, afflicted, and grievously ill, and wallowing in their own filth, was lifted up by some people, and put down by others? Did it never occur to you that you also are subject to disease, that you also cannot escape it?

"Did you never see in the world the corpse of a man or woman, one or two or three days after death, swollen up, blue-black in color, and full of corruption? Did it never occur to you that you also are subject to death, that you also cannot escape it?"

The Three Fates (Flemish Tapestry, probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England). The Three Fates -- Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, who spin, draw out, and cut the thread of Life -- represent Death in this tapestry (

Greek and Roman Parallels
The symbolism of the Three Fates was adopted and modified by the ancient Greeks (and Romans), whose empire bordered Buddhist India's frontier regions and whose nascent culture was greatly influenced by the East and its ideas. (See Indo-Greek map). In depicting the Three Fates, the symbolic figures triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. Ancient Indian Buddhist lore was incorporated into Western mythology, rife with deep symbolism.

The tapestry, also known as the "Triumph Over Death," is based on the third subject in Petrarch's poem "The Triumphs." Petrarch elaborates: First, Love triumphs, then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time, and Time by Eternity.

In the Buddhist original, the symbolism of lifespan-factors defines these messengers: Both Buddhists and Greeks recognize these Three Moirae as the "Apportioners" of life, personifying one's destiny -- just as aging, morbidity, and mortality do.

When they were three to the Greeks, the Moirae were:
  • Clotho ("spinner") spun the thread of life. (Her Roman equivalent was Nona, the "Ninth," who was originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy).
  • Lachesis ("allotter" or drawer of lots) measured the thread of life allotted to each person, just as illness cuts short our lives. (Her Roman equivalent was Decima, the "Tenth").
  • Atropos ("inevitable," literally "unturning," sometimes called Aisa) was the cutter of the thread of life. She chose the manner and timing of each person's death. When she cut the thread with "her abhorrèd shears," someone on Earth died. (Her Roman equivalent was Morta ("Death").

Recollecting the Devas
These shocking messages of aging, sickness, and mortality are distinct from what is normally contemplated with regard to fortunate devas. Rather than promoting their worship and supplication -- the asking of favors and miracles from them -- the Buddha advised people with a devotional disposition to practice devatānussati or "recollection of light beings." (See anussati). By doing so one may attain rebirth as a deva.

But what are devas from a Buddhist point of view? The cosmology is clear. The word literally means "the Radiant [or Shining] Ones," related to the Latin deus. The word also relates to their penchant for play and sport. Sometimes called gods, godlings, demigods, or even "angels," they are semi-terrestrial (i.e., dryads or bhumi-devas) and sky or space-beings who live in happy worlds, love to play, and are to varying degrees self-luminous and capable of remarkable feats.

As a rule, they are invisible to the human eye. But attuned by meditation, with the development of the divine eye, they can be seen. They may also make themselves visible by taking on a denser form.

As magical as all this may sound, however, they are subject to the same things all human and other beings are: ever-repeated rebirth, old age, and death. Thus, as happy as their lives are, they are not free from the cycle of existence or from misery, nor are they necessarily wiser or more aware of the future than humans. There are many classes of devas in the worlds beyond the Sensuous Sphere (i.e., the Fine-material Realm and the Formless Realm). But within the Sensuous Sphere, which is the same sphere as the human world, there are six classes of devas in ascending order:
  1. Devas under the Four Great Kings (Cātumahārājika-deva)
  2. Devas in the World of the Thirty-three (Tāvatiṃsa)
  3. Devas deligting in space (Yāma)
  4. Devas who are contented (Tusita)
  5. Devas who create (Nimmāna-rati)
  6. Devas who enjoy other's creations (Paranimmita-vasavatti)
(See all 31 Planes of Existence).

Skillful karma and frequent recollection of devas leads to rebirth among them as a devaputra or "one born among devas" (literally, a "son of god").

See Gods and the Universe by Francis Story (Buddhist Publication Society, Wheel 180/181) for more details on these joyful beings.