33 Devas before the Buddha

I read somewhere that the vedic pantheon has 33 devas, and I also read in the suttas that there are said to be a realm of the 33 as well. I know that the buddha took a lot of the mainstream philosophy and cosmology at the time and redefined them to fit his new dynamic, and that often his new definitions were entirely different than the original meaning. My question is kind of two part, first is it just coincidence that there were 33 in the vedic religion and the buddha also mentioned the number 33? And also, how do you know when the buddha meant something else when he uses these mainstream concepts of the time, or when he meant them literally? It seems like there’s a few times that concepts were taken from the mainstream ideas and that they are taken in the same way today. So either some people are wrong about how they understand it, or some of these higher truths about cosmology and other things were already figured out somehow by people before the buddha. Did the vedic meditation techniques still allow them to experience some type of higher knowledge and vision, it just didn’t lead to true liberation?

You mention many complex aspects, but just to provide one source: from the most probably pre-Buddhist Brhadaranyaka-Upanishad

3.9.2 “who are those three and three hundred, and those three and three thousand?”
“They are only the powers of the gods,” Yajnavalkya replied. “There are only thirty-three gods.”
"Who are those thirty-three?" “The eight Vasus, the eleven Rudras, and the twelve Adityas—that makes thirty-one. Then there are Indra and Prajapati, making a total of thirty-three.”
…"The Vasus are fire, earth, wind, the intermediate region, sun, sky, moon, and stars.
…"the Rudras are the ten vital functions (prana) in a man, with the self (atman) as the eleventh.
…The Adityas are the twelve months of the year for they carry off this whole world as theyproceed
…“Indra is just the thunder, and Prajapati is the sacrifice.”

These are not the ‘Buddhist 33’ but an old Indic source nonetheless
Edit: I’m pretty sure that there was no Vedic Pantheon of 33 devas, or an idea of a fixed pantheon at all…


To relate again to part of your questions. It’s probably not a coincidence that Buddhism had the notion of 33 gods. And once again we are in a dilemma: The notion of tāvatiṃsā is too wide spread to be a (simple) editorial insertion. We find them mentioned in all nikayas at different places.

So it seems that we have to choose: If the Buddha taught it, then the faithful position is that it must be true - those gods exist, Sakka /Indra exist etc.

But if they do exist it means that other people before the Buddha were advanced enough to experience the gods and communicate with them (Indra e.g. is Rgvedic and hence 1000 years older than the Buddha). And that supposedly is only possible with jhana or equally high development of mind.

So either the whole god-shabang is a lie, the Buddha never taught it, it’s a late edition (If that kind of change is possible then everything could be a later edition). Or Jhanas and other high developments were spread before the Buddha, ergo the Buddha was not the discoverer of Jhana etc.

Or, even less likely, the was ‘a time’ when the gods walked the earth and one needed no special powers at all to experience them. This opens the gate of course to the gods being aliens and all that craziness.

Can any of you save the day?

Edit: our notions of pre-Buddhist meditation are very slim. Sorry to bring it up again, but the vedic seers had ‘soma’, an apparently hallucinogenic drink that induced their visions. After the aryans relocated and the soma went lost, there were visions and developments of mind, but we don’t well know what the poets did to replace the drug. Jurewicz makes a case for a breathing-induced trance e.g.


There’s a sutta of a Brahmin using his divine eye, a psychic power, to see the Buddha. I also recall reading a sutta saying Niganta nataputta could go up to the second jhana. Then there are EBTs of monks in jungles communicating with devas. I assume it could happen to anyone in a similar situation.

Buddha wasn’t the only person who could see devas. Ven Anuruddha was the foremost in divine eye (he ‘specialised’ in this, but it eventually became a hindrance to him in becoming fully enlightened). He could see and spoke to them as did Ven Sariputta, Ven Moggallana and lay disciples like Citta and others.

With metta

Interesting question - I would just add that there are people who have claimed to see divine beings across culture and time. Even now, there are tons of people who claim to see various kinds of beings in near death experiences, out of body experiences, lucid dreams, and as has been discussed here recently - drug induced experiences.

I’m not saying that we should take all of this at face value but in no way is the claim that such beings exist unique to Buddhism, and why should it be? I don’t think the Buddha ever said that he would only teach about things that no one but him had experienced - he was more concerned, I think, with teaching about what was true and would lead to liberation.

As to whether you can only see devas having attained the fourth jhana - you remember in the EBTs when someone (Ambatha) refuses to answer a question put to them by the Tathagata for a second time, then the yakkha Vajrapani appears and menaces them? Did they have to master the fourth jhana in order to see that yakkha? (Of course, not everyone will interpret this passage literally :grin:)

Are there other places in the EBTs where some person can see/hear a divine being without a meditative attainment/psychic power?

Small correction, Nataputta is portrayed to ridicule the idea of even a second jhana - SN 41.8:

One who thinks that thought and examination can be stopped might imagine he could catch the wind in a net or arrest the current of the river Ganges with his own fist.

The question about who and why people could communicate with devas is not trivial. The Buddhist world is soaked with conditionality. People couldn’t just randomly see / talk with gods, there must have been a certain development of the mind to enable it - something that for example Sariputta didn’t have!

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Sorry for the late reply, but this is such an interesting topic I couldn’t resist:-)

I thought it was pretty well accepted that at least some jhanas were known by others before the Buddha. For example, wasn’t the Buddha taught jhana like states by his most notable teachers prior to the Buddha’s enlightenment?

This seems like perhaps going from one extreme to another: that only enlightened or highly spiritual beings can perceive gods and beings of higher orders to every Tom, Dick, and Harry could perceive them in the past. Another possibility is that there were advanced, non-enlightened seers before the Buddha, which the EBTs seem to support. For example, when the Buddha refers to the originators of the hymns and Brahminism, he seems to speak very highly of them.

On the other hand, in Carlos Castaneda’s books, “Don Juan” is reported as saying that what he called inorganic beings (Devas) would manifest themselves more readily in the past. That makes some sense given that the earth is so heavily populated now and very different than it was 3,000 years ago. But again, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone was able to perceive gods, angels, demons, etc., just perhaps more people.

Sounds like shamanism, which seems to be a part of many if not most ancient civilizations, including the ancient Americas.

From a somewhat scientific perspective, the existence of gods seems likely because we can find beings of every kind in varying degrees of complexity and size in every nook and cranny of the world we can examine and measure. To me, it just seems likely that this pattern of life and awareness everywhere would permeate the world extends beyond the realm we can readily see and measure.

with metta,

Details matter here: These were not jhanas but the ‘arupa’ ayatanas. And nowhere do we have - to my knowledge - acknowledgments that non-Buddhists were communicating with gods.

Occasionally, yes. But there is little room in the hierarchical model of Buddhist development to be able to talk to the gods and yet not to do Buddhist practice. People can be praised for many things, also just for being ‘the virtuous ancestors’.

Sorry, but I don’t see how that has any authority here

Just because we don’t see connections clearly doesn’t mean that gods are teeming everywhere. Before Pasteur 150 years ago people argued that the ‘spontaneous generation of life’ is a proof for god. ‘The gods’ then apparently disappeared when he sterilized the samples… There may be philosophical arguments for gods, but not scientific ones. Anyway, different topic…

What suttas are you relying on here to assert that these were not two of the immaterial jhanas?

I’m not sure what your argument is here? It seems like most historical records, from India, to Greece, to Africa, to Australia, to the Middle East, to China, to the Americas, talk about people communicating with Gods. Perhaps they’re all eerily similar but somehow false, but how do you do know that’s true or not?

Not sure that’s true according to the EBTs. In the sutta below, SN 6.3, Brahma Sahampati appears to a Brahmin mother and teachers her about the best way to give. The sutta doesn’t suggest she had any special powers or was a highly developed Buddhist meditator.

I’m pretty sure there are other similar suttas. For example, a spirit communicated with Anathapindika before he met the Buddha urging him on toward the Buddha when he became afraid and hesitated.


Also, why would the Buddha teach lay people in the Uposatha sutta to recollect deities if they did not have some sort of relationship with them?

Regarding the scientific perspective I mentioned, sorry that was a poorly developed and rushed argument. I don’t have time to flesh out this argument at this time; however, what I was referring to is the science of fractals.

“A fractal is a geometric pattern that repeats at every level of magnification.” That seems to apply to the infinite variety of life forms that we’re aware of, not to speak of the life forms we’re surely not aware of.

For example, at the smallest known level, we have viruses, bacteria, etc., and it seems that life forms get bigger and more complex from there up to arguably the earth as a whole. It just doesn’t make sense to me that in the infinitely vast universe, life forms end at what we know and see on earth.

It seems like the universe populates every speck of the earth with life, which seems like a fractal or pattern. So, why would the universe end this fractal on earth when there is a seemingly infinite amount of space and matter available? We even see life forms on the bottom of the ocean that never “see” sun light but feed off of heat emitting from the earth.

Moreover, there was a time we couldn’t see and weren’t aware of these microorganisms, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist.

Thank you, Gabriel, for your perspective and investigative questions.

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It seems like the bottom line is to say that, “there are no gods, devas, and spirits,” despite the fact that the Buddha talks about them hundreds if not thousands of times in the EBTs is like saying, “the Heaven and Hell realms, which are inextricably linked to rebirth, are also false.” That view seems dangerous and counter to having confidence in the Buddha’s teachings.

That view also reminds me of some “secular” Buddhists who assert that rebirth is probably false. It seems like these views stem from the argument that, “if I cannot directly see something, it must be false.” What helps me in this context is having confidence in the Buddha and EBTs, which is built on my personal experience practicing the Dhamma–something I can “see.”

with metta,

‘Arupa jhana’ is not a sutta term, not sure when it came up actually. DN 33 for example simply says ‘Cattāro āruppā’ without another label, i.e. ‘four no-forms’ or ‘four formlessnesses’. I know it’s a technicality, but if for nibbana samadhi is essential, and for samadhi jhana, then it’s relevant that ‘jhanas’ are not attributed to other teachers.

Sorry, I meant in the suttas.

You’re right of course and my assessment on this was premature. It would be interesting actually to collect all instances where apart from the Buddha and the ‘usual suspects’ other EBT characters conversed with deities or other supernatural beings.

Good question, but not necessarily based on actual interactions. It is rather normal to ‘pray’ without ever having a direct response by the deity.

Yet, the Buddha’s message comes down to us in the flawed shell of the transmitted texts, and everyone has to decide where to draw the line of faith - I don’t think that a specific decision is more ‘dangerous’ than another. We live our lives and change our opinion based on how we assess the historical context of the Buddhist transmission.

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