From its very origins, Buddhism has recognized a wide range of divinities (devas, a term frequently translated as "gods"), while taking pains to emphasize that the Buddha himself is not divine, but human (Aṅguttaranikāya, 2.37–9). The various divinities are powerful superhuman beings who influence the world in manifold ways. Although many of these divinities have Vedic (Hindu) origins, in the early Buddhist tradition they are not considered immortal, but rather are trapped in samsara and thus, like all sentient beings, are subject to the law of karma (action) and therefore death and rebirth.
In the early texts of the Pāli canon, divinities inhabit several different realms. In the lower realm of desire (kāmadhātu), above the human realm, live the various deities and spirits, who frequently do battle with a group of jealous and mischievous deities, the asuras (similar to the Greek Titans). The various divinities include the four divine kings; the thirty-three gods residing in the trāyastriṃśa heaven, divinities incorporated from the Vedas and presided over by Śakra (Indra); MĀra and Yama, the gods of illusion and death; and bodhisattvas in their penultimate lives, including, currently, Maitreya (Pāli, Metteya). Above the sense realm, in the realm of pure form (rūpadhātu), abide the pure divinities, most significantly the Great Brahmā and his ministers, and, at the very top, the anāgāmins (nonreturners), who live out their penultimate existence before enlightenment in this realm.
One of the most important divinities is Māra, the god of death, lust, greed, false views, delusion, and illusion. Māra is a common presence in early Buddhist texts, distracting the Buddha and, after his enlightenment, questioning his very status as an enlightened being. Although Māra is "defeated" by the Buddha, he continues to cause trouble, and he figures prominently in later texts, iconography, and local traditions throughout the Buddhist world.
Especially active in the world are the nāgas, yakṣas, piśācas, and gandharvas, divinities generally thought to have been incorporated into Buddhism from non-Vedic, indigenous traditions. Nāgas (female, nāginī) are snakelike beings who in early texts typically live at the base of trees and are associated with both chaos and fertility. Likewise, yakṢas (Pāli, yakkha) are indigenous Indian tree spirits, wild, demonic, and sexually prolific beings who live in solitary places and are hostile toward people, particularly monks and nuns, whose meditation they disturb by making loud noises. Frequently, both nāgas and yakṣas are converted to Buddhism and "tamed," becoming active, positive forces in the world and protectors of Buddhism; for instance, when the Buddha-to-be was meditating just prior to his enlightenment, it was a naga who sheltered him from the elements.
The range of divinities in the Buddhist world is stag-gering when local traditions are taken into account. In Burma (Myanmar), such divinities are known collectively as nats, in Thailand as phi, in Sri Lanka as yakas; they are extremely important in popular Buddhist practice and frequently associated with kingship, since all serve as guardians of Buddhism. In Burma, for instance, there are thirty-seven official nats (although in practice there are many more), regarded as invisible, magical personal forces who inhabit trees, and in most villages there are small shrines in trees thought to be inhabited. These shrines, brightly decorated with colored cloth and tinsel, are tended and worshiped to ensure that the nats protect the village and provide prosperity, fertility, and other benefits. In Thailand, the various forms of phi include phi dong, which are the guardian spirits of the forest, the phi puya tayai (ancestral spirits), and the truly horrific phi mae mai (widow ghosts), who kill human men in their search for husbands.
In Sri Lanka, Hindu gods are frequently worshiped by Buddhists. Thus the god Kataragama, a local variant of the god Skanda, is typically regarded as a bodhisattva. Kataragama is extremely popular, to the point that the divinity's main shrine, in the southeastern corner of the island, is probably the most popular religious site in the entire country. Buddhists (as well as Hindus, Muslims, and Christians) go to Kataragama for special requests—protection, fertility, financial success, even vengeance—and repay his favors by performing a variety of penances, including body piercing, walking on hot coals, and hanging from hooks.
As the MahĀyĀna schools developed in both India and in East Asia, so did the pantheon of divine figures, and with this expansion the very conception of divinity also expanded. Bodhisattvas such as Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Maitreya become extremely important, using their skillful means actively to spread wisdom and to save beings in peril. Likewise, as the conception of the Buddha and buddhahood became more complex, the so-called celestial Buddhas (pañcatathāgātas) emerge, a group of five manifestations of the Buddha's divine qualities. In the Pure Landschools, the cosmos is imagined as an infinite collection of world systems, each of which is a Buddha field where a fully enlightened being resides; these become divinities, with whom especially accomplished devotees can continuously interact.
Avalokiteśvara in particular becomes extremely popular in East Asia, where he is known as Guanyin in China, Kannon in Japan, and Kwanu˘m in Korea; in the case of Guanyin, the divinity is manifested as a female figure. The female divinity Tārā—perhaps originally a local divinity herself—also emerges as a divine savior who protects and nurtures her devotees; she is popular throughout the Mahāyāna and VajrayĀna world, particularly in Nepal and Tibet. The perfection of wisdom texts (prajñāpāramitā sūtras) become personified in the figure of Prajñāpāramitā, wisdom incarnate, the divine "mother" of all enlightened beings.
With the rise of the Vajrayāna, the divine pantheon expands to a seemingly limitless degree, with a vast range of buddha families, bodhisattvas, goddesses, yogins, and all manner of fierce divinities. MaṄḌalas frequently depict these buddha families and their associated divinities. Meditations and rituals focused on such divinities are too numerous to mention and are frequently intended to bring the divinity to life. In the practice of deity yoga, for instance, the meditator can bring the divinity to life in him or herself by realizing the inseparability of the self and the divinity.
In sum, the Buddhist understanding of divinities must be seen as fluid and expansive. Divine beings multiply markedly as the tradition develops. New divinities are introduced at both the local and pan-Buddhist level, and the characteristics of the various divinities also shift, with new qualities—both abstract (passive) and concrete (active)—constantly being introduced. The Buddha himself took on increasingly complex divine characteristics as the tradition developed oped in India and beyond, which, in turn, frequently became manifest as individual divinities, a process that continues into the present day. Consistent with the early literature that lays out Buddhism's basic cosmological view, though, in a relative sense, such beings are very real and very active in the world; in an absolute sense, however, they are ultimately only creations of our minds, useful as symbols and metaphors for the enlightenment process, but, like everything else, empty.
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Jacob N. Kinnard