Enlightment of Devas and the term deity

I need help because in Wikipedia there’s a debate and I would need good reference to work with it.

There’s a user who claims to things:
a) That no Deva can attain Buddhahood or Enlightment, only humans.
b) That the term deity is incorrect for Buddhas and Boddhisatvas but correct for Buddhism according to Buddhists.

I’m dubious of both. I think Devas can attain Buddhahood too and I’m pretty sure some text say so. And also, I believe the term deity is absolutly wrong regarding Devas. Any thoughts?

If you have any text, whether ancient Scripture, Suttra or recent scholarly work it will be welcomed. Thank you.

Deity is a cultural word, word usage can differ by time, place, culture. I see no issue with using deity for devas. The objection to using deity for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (in Mahayana, referring to Bhumi 10 Bodhisattvas) would be that it could create confusion that the enlightened ones are just gods, whereas, they are way above gods level. In Theravada, Bodhisattas can be in any realm, many Jataka stories has Bodhisatta as animals, so naturally deity is only applied to Bodhisatta if they are reborn in the deva realms.

From Meriam Webster dictionary:

Definition of deity

1 a**:** the rank or essential nature of a god : DIVINITY

b capitalized : GOD sense 1, SUPREME BEING

2**:** a god (see GOD entry 1 sense 2) or goddessthe deities of ancient Greece

3**:** one exalted or revered as supremely good or powerfulsuch established American deities as Daniel Boone, Kit Carson— J. D. Hartthe deities of the banking world

In using deity for devas, we are using definition: 1a, 2, 3. Since there’s no such thing as 1b in Buddhism. In terms of the understanding of the outside world with regards to gods, we tend to equate devas with the Greek gods, or Egyptian gods, or Norse gods, or angels in Christianity, or the various gods in Chinese folk religion, it’s best to use deity to refer to those, and not downgrade Buddhas to those levels.

Many religions has the aim to be reborn in heaven, become a god, whereas Buddhism goes way beyond that aim to end samsara all together. If you use the term deity for enlightened beings, you’re risking a miscommunication of the ultimate aim of Buddhism for others.

As for devas to attain to enlightenment, here’s some logic.

  1. Once returner and stream winners are destined to become arahants, they can be reborn in the deva worlds.
  2. Specifically for once returner, once they got reborn in deva world, in that very life they got to go higher up the enlightenment rank as they only come back to the sensual world once, as their name implies. Thus it’s minimum possible to train to become a non-returner in deva realms.
  3. Since it’s possible to become non-returner, which requires the cultivation of Jhanas in deva realms, there’s no a priori objection to devas attaining any of the other enlightenment stages, from stream winner to arahant.
  4. As for Buddhahood, it’s a special attainment which has many lores associated with it. One of the Theravada lore is that Buddhas only appear in human realms. So the Bodhisattas, just before their final birth to become a Buddha are devas in the Tusita heaven, then purposely got reborn as a human then become a Buddha. All Buddhas follow the same pattern. Thus, it’s not possible for devas to become Buddhas, but as Bodhisattas, they can certainly hang out in deva realms while biding their time to appear as the next Buddha.
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Hi L ,

If the Buddha also an arahant , were to be equal in the attaintment or enlightenment with a disciple arahant . Then the deva of pure abode would attain arahant stage as a deva . Therefore , one can say the deva are capable of attaining Buddhahood . The only difference are but the Buddha is the Teacher , the arahant is the disciple .


SN 22.58

The Tathagata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One, liberated by nonclinging through revulsion towards feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness, through its fading away and cessation, is called a Perfectly Enlightened One.

A bhikkhu liberated by wisdom, liberated by nonclinging through revulsion towards feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness, through its fading away and cessation, is called one liberated by wisdom.

“Therein, bhikkhus, what is the distinction, what is the disparity, what is the difference between the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One, and a bhikkhu liberated by wisdom?”

The Tathagata, bhikkhus, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One, is the originator of the path unarisen before, the producer of the path unproduced before, the declarer of the path undeclared before. He is the knower of the path, the discoverer of the path, the one skilled in the path. And his disciples now dwell following that path and become possessed of it afterwards.

We need to make these statements more precise. There is indeed no mention in the suttas of a deity/deva to become an arahant. But of course in the round of rebirths beings can be deities and then eventually find liberation.

For example in MN 50 Mahamoggallana reveals that he was Mara Dusi once.
Most prominently, in DN 21 Sakka declares to be a stream-enterer and predicts that he will be reborn as a human for some time, then again as an Akaniṭṭha deva, and then attain liberation.

As @NgXinZhao mentioned this is more a question of convention. In the main Theravada suttas the Buddha is no deity, and ‘Bodhisatta’ is mostly the term for Gotama before his liberation. Exception is the (same) content of MN 123, AN 4.127, and AN 8.70 where bodhisatta is applied to former heavenly births of the Buddha as well. The term is spread further in Jataka literature.

I’m no specialist in later Mahayana literature, but the different Bodhisattvas there can probably be called with more justification deities, even though I’d argue for keeping them in their own category of ‘Bodhisattva’ rather than lumping them together with deties or demigods.

Hi @Gabriel ,

Is that so ? What about this text ,

there is the case where a monk… enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: ‘This is peace, this is exquisite—the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.’

“Staying right there, he reaches the ending of the mental fermentations. Or, if not, then—through this very dhamma-passion, this very dhamma-delight, and from the total wasting away of the first five of the fetters—he is due to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world.



No, that is not the definition of a Buddha. A Buddha is one who attains enlightenment on their own without the help of a teacher. You are mixing up arahant and Buddha. They have the same enlightenment, but they are not the same.

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I don’t understand how your quote fits here (also, which sutta is it?). Does the sutta say that when a deity practices it becomes an arahant? I only see there that a monk can become an arahant or a non-returner.

This is the sutta
AN 9.36

When a monk rebirth in pure abode arent they appear as a deva and attain enlightenment there ? Or when a lay person that practices and rebirth as a pure abode deva , later attain arahant in the pure abode .

I see what you’re saying, namely that arahantship of devas is implied by non-return. But nowhere in the suttas does a deva actually become an arahant. All we have are implications and theretical predictions, but no factual narrative statements.

Thats what i quoted above . The Buddha is the Teacher whom also an arahant . As an disciple arahant the Student possessed the Teacher same enlightenment .

What does the sutta saids about “unbound” (parinibbāyī)
right there meant then ?

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In my experience with Mahayana and Vajrayana, the English word “deity” is never used to describe bodhisattvas or buddhas. However, you do encounter various spirit beings like devas, yakshas, etc., in Mahayana texts, just like you do in the Pali suttas. Those words might all be translated as “deity” without distinguishing between them. Mahayana never blurred the distinction between worldly deities/spirits and buddhas and bodhisattvas. You do encounter the English term “deity” in Vajrayana as a translation for yidam, but that term is usually fully translated as “meditational deity.” It doesn’t mean “god” in that context, though. Yidam - Wikipedia

Is there actually a Pāḷi word that means “deity” that means something apart from devas, bodhisattvas or buddhas? (None of which are gods, I think.) Doesn’t English deity mean god (as opposed to God)?

And this one:

AN4.123 But a disciple of the Buddha stays there until the lifespan of those gods is spent, then they’re extinguished in that very life.
Bhagavato pana sāvako tattha yāvatāyukaṁ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṁ tesaṁ devānaṁ āyuppamāṇaṁ taṁ sabbaṁ khepetvā tasmiṁyeva bhave parinibbāyati.

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According to your perception, what’s the difference between devas and gods then? I see it as a reasonable english translation of the pali word.

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My “perception” is extremely misty, Venerable. I thought devas were spirits, but I’ll research the dictionaries properly in the morning… :yawning_face: :sleeping_bed:

That will be fun :exclamation::bird: :smiley:

I don’t know enough Pali to say, but in the West we seem to use the words spirit and deity interchangeably. This Wikipedia article is a good example of that: List of tree deities - Wikipedia. I have a feeling that in post-Christian Western culture a lot of the nuance in regards to the various kinds of nature spirits and “gods” was lost. Ancient pre-Christian cultures, like the druids, probably had a much more refined taxonomy of spirits, as it were, than we do today. This is certainly true of Japan, where there is the huge variety of spirit creatures. In English we basically translate all of those as “ghost.”

We will not find a clear-cut taxonomy, but without losing much detail it’s much better to regard devas as deities or gods. Sakka, Shiva, Krishna, the other Gods of Thirty-three are certainly no ‘spirits’. Yama, the god of Death neither. The Four Great Kings could be considered as gods as well. Mara/asuras belong more to the demons, but sometimes I would still consider them as deities in a broader sense.

Thanks for your answers, thay have been very insightful.

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Read this sutta this morning SuttaCentral, where it says

“…But sir, do gods absolutely exist?”
“But what exactly are you asking?”
“Whether those gods come back to this state of existence or not.”
“Those gods who are subject to affliction come back to this state of existence, but those free of affliction do not come back.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it slightly differently. Instead of “this state of existence” he has “human existence.” Bhikkhu Bodhi has a footnote that quotes a commentary that claims “do not come back” refers to such a god being a non-returner.

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