Fun with Buddhist Mythology

During a discussion on an online Buddhist sangha I brought up correlations between Beings of the Buddhist mythology in comparison to beings from Lord of the Rings(which in turn are really from various real world mythologies like Celtic etc). @Brenna suggested to put this up on the watercooler.

So I guess what this can be is a discussion of Buddhist mythology. When I read about the various beings in the suttas I am often times struck with how similar they are to beings in other mythologies half a world away.

This is what I have so far in my Buddhist/Lord of the Rings Comparison.

Devas = Elves (heck there are even devas who live in trees…Keebler anyone?.)
Asuras = ? not sure for LOTR, but the Titans of Ancient myth have been suggested
Yakkhas = Orcs or Ogres
Nagas = Dragons

anyone have any other correlations between buddhist beings and fantasy/historical mythology?


If only the Bodhi tree were an ent …

  • supanna/garuda = phoenix
  • kinnara/kinnari = fairy

Mara = Morgoth, the first Dark Lord and later Sauron, the second.

Anybody who has attempted to work their way through the (very dry) chronicles of Middle-Earth would know that Sauron was originally a Maia spirit named Mairon, meaning “the admirable”, who was good and uncorrupt. His greatest virtue was his love of order and perfection, disliking anything wasteful. However, this was the source of his downfall, for in Morgoth, Mairon saw the will and power that would help him achieve his own goals and desires faster than if he had pursed them on his own. Sauron’s desire was to dominate the minds and wills of all beings.

So Mara tempts with desire and wishes ultimate control.

Nazgûl = Petas, who were once the nine great Kings of Men, tempted by the desire to achieve great power, which their alliance with Sauron gave them. The Elves saw through those tricks so Sauron did not gain control over them.

Mahāmoggallāna = a wizard

Rivendell/Imladris/Karningul, Lothlórien and Valinórë = heaven realms
Mordor = hell realm


by the way, what does the word mythology mean?

when we say buddhist mythology, what comes to mind is a skeptical western materialist that views other realms of living beings that can not be perceived with the ordinary human eye as fictional/delusional/fantasy. in other words, a pejorative sense of being untrue.

does mythology encompass both real and fantasy creatures?

Well you could argue that the same type of beings (like dragons) in the mythology of far different and distant cultures points to some kind of ancient shared experience. I’ve always been fascinated by this in my studies.

Whether real, or fantasy, there are similarities, and that was really the point of this post, to be something light and fun, not necessarily a statement as to the nature of their existence.

Thanks for the question, it is a bugbear of mine! The real meaning of mythology is the study of myth. Myth, in turn, is sacred story.

It has nothing, in essence, to do with fantastic creatures (or how to find them!) Of course, fantastic creatures often appear in myth, but then so do rivers and rice-pots and nephews.

The purpose of myth is, rather, to give a people a sense of identity and meaning, which it does through entertaining and delighting and engaging the imagination. The purpose of mythology is to study how that happens.

By way of comparison, the Wikipedia article on Christian mythology is actually a survey of Christian mythology. The article on Buddhist mythology doesn’t deal with mythology at all, it merely itemizes a few fantastic creatures. The word for this is bestiary, not mythology.


I liked this definition in the Wikipedia article on Mythology:


That’s quite good, although I don’t really agree with his distinction of mythology as individual as opposed to history as universal. On the contrary, myths are shared stories that provide a common sense of understanding in a people. The experience of myth, through ritual or oral storytelling, is a communicative act, and their persistence through time creates a sense of continual culture. In this way it’s quite different from biography, which is individual stories.

History aims for universal relevance in a similar way, but using different methods.

Someone said—I forget who!—myth is about what never was, but is always.



a few years ago you had a “myth busting” workshop. i listened to some of the episodes, my impression was that the “myth” term in that context was truth and falsehood, rather than sacred story. did i misunderstand? i’m not trying to give anyone a hard time, just trying to understand more clearly what the term “myth” means, so i don’t use the word and mislead others.

some examples:
(1) ajahn mun after his arahantship, perhaps even before, regularly had groups of devas, nagas visiting him many nights every week. i re-read his biography frequently, so many interesting details. one of the deva groups was even led by Sakka. Devas and nagas would usually take on the appearance of humanoid forms, dressed according to rank in their society. a skeptical non-buddhist buddhist-scholar i read believed that the sutta accounts of Sakka and Brahma were outright fiction as a way to bolster buddhism against other religions by converting the gods to buddhism.

(2) in the vinaya, there’s the rule where nagas (dragon-like beings, not elephants or arahants) are not allowed to ordain as bhikkhus. in SN 46.1, first sutta of bojjhanga samyutta, the standard definition of 7 bojjhanga devlelopment has a beautiful simile of how a naga starts off as a tiny baby in a small stream in the himalayas, gradually moving downards into larger rivers and fully mature, enters into the ocean, a powerful naga.

(3) when the buddha was born, right after he came out of the womb he took sevens steps, pointed one finger up and said, “i am the greatest.” (something like that).

(4) the buddha felt that the humans weren’t ready for abhidhamma so he went up to tavatimsa heaven of 33, (whoops! wasn’t his mom reborn in tusita?) to teach abhidhamma. when he came back to the human realm to take his daily meal he would teach sariputta. sariputta taught his 500 close disciples and that’s how it was transmitted all the way till today. so, let me get this straight. abhidhamma is supposed to be for the most wise, not even the other chief arahants disciples were taught this. and humans today are learning the abhidhamma. so they’re wiser than ananda? mahakasssapa? mahamoggallana?

(5) according to mahayana, a month after the first council, ananda was secretly called back where they then recited all the secret mahayana sutras.

(6) also according to mahayana, don’t know if this is compatible with the account in #5, but the buddha knew the mahayana was too advanced for his hinayanist disciples, so he taught the dragon king and the mahayana sutras were recorded in scrolls under the sea to be re-discovered 500 years later. something like that, i don’t remember the exact details.

(7) in the mahayanas abhidhamma division, which differs in content and meaning quite significantly from theravada, they classifiy it as a commentary, not as the actual word of the buddha, which is quite different than theravada’s account from #4. The mahayana sutras on the other hand, they insist is the actual word of the buddha.

(8) vajrayana comes along with more super secret sutras that came directly from the mouth of the buddha, but mahayana does not agree with that, and neither does theravada.

What a mess. they’re all sacred stories, but are they all properly labeled as “myth”?

A post was split to a new topic: What is myth?

Yggdrasil as the world tree has many analogues in Indo-European religions. There is no direct equivalent in Buddhism, but it plays a role similar to that of Mount Sumeru. There are also some parallels with the Bodhi tree.

Nagas play roughly the same role as the wyrm Níðhöggr, and there are also similarities to the Kundalini of Hinduism, which sleeps coiled at the base of the spine.

The yakṣas have a roughly similar role to the dwarves, as earth spirits associated with the natural world.

There are no doubt Indo-European traditions that long predate both mythologies, and which informed both. Unfortunately few people study the similarities between religions, instead specializing in one or another.