How do Apsara and Devi differ?

They’re obviously not one and the same, right? They’re different. Do apsaras come from catumaharajika and accepted as servants in tavatimsa or something like that? They don’t seem to be equal to a Devi. Are there any sources about this explained in the suttas?

Apsarā is a Sanskrit word; its Pali equivalent is accharā.

As far as I know, the only differences between devī and accharā are:

  1. The former can also be used of human queens.

  2. Accharā is the usual term in the older parts of the Pali Canon, while devī (except when it’s being used of queens) only starts to become common in later works like the Vimānavatthu and Apadāna.


So Apsaras were only mentioned in kudaka nikaya?

Here in Cambodia apsaras are the main form of devotional figure. Here, Apsara is the name given to a devata who is dancing.

" Apsaras represent an important motif in the stone bas-reliefs of the Angkorian temples in Cambodia (8th–13th centuries AD), however, not all female images are considered to be apsaras. In harmony with the Indian association of dance with apsaras, Khmer female figures that are dancing or are poised to dance are considered apsaras; female figures, depicted individually or in groups, who are standing still and facing forward in the manner of temple guardians or custodians are called devatas.[7]

"The bas-reliefs of Angkorian temples have become an inspiration of Khmer classical dance. The indigenous ballet-like performance art of Cambodia is frequently called “Apsara Dance”. The dance was created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in the mid-20th century under the patronage of Queen Sisowath Kossamak of Cambodia. The role of the apsara is played by a woman, wearing a tight-fitting traditional dress with gilded jewelry and headdress modelled after Angkor bas-reliefs,[8] whose graceful, sinuous gestures are codified to narrate classical myths or religious stories.[9]—Wikipedia

This is a drawing/watercolour, one of a series done by Auguste Rodin during the Cambodian Royal Ballet’s visit to Paris in 1906:


No, I didn’t say that.

In the earlier texts of the KN, like the Udāna, accharā is the usual term for a female deva, just as it is in the other Nikāyas.

In the later KN texts devī starts to become the preferred term, in effect displacing accharā.

1 Like

So they’re basically the same?

The difference is like between an actress and a woman.

1 Like

I believe so.

I don’t see any evidence for that.

Your comparison might, however, be apt for the difference between the apsarās of Hindu texts like the Mahābhārata and the accharās of the Pali texts. But one would need to add the qualification that the former are not just entertainers (i.e., the female counterpart to gandharvas), but also play a role like that of the Valkyries of Nordic myth:

varāpsaraḥ-sahasrāṇi śūram āyodhane hatam
tvaramāṇāhi dhāvanti mama bhartā bhaved iti.

(MBh. 12.99.45)

“Thousands of the foremost of apsarās run with great speed after the hero slain in battle, thinking that he might become their husband.”

Poor guy! :woozy_face:

1 Like

But if they were interchangeable, why would 1 Deva have 500 Devi? That makes no sense to me.

If you’re alluding to the Nandasutta, the accharās there were the handmaidens of Sakka, the chief of Tavatimsa, not just any old deva. Most ordinary devas have only one wife.

1 Like

There is also this Sutta where a Deva was with 1000 apsaras and the next moment it’s only 500 left, and he found out that they’re being reborn in hell. Or something like that. Was he a dweller of Yama heaven or something?

I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this story. But if it exists, the odds are heavily against it being Yāma. This heaven, along with Nimmānaratī, almost never features in Buddhist celestial narratives.

1 Like

The value of rhythm in Buddhism is enough to elevate beings to a higher level, so there is a qualitative difference between devata and apsara. Apsaras are associated with air and so movement, and the in and out rhythm of the breath is a primary component throughout the Anapanasati sutta. The Nimmanarati are artists, and this mind state is associated with the highest attainable in the sensuous realm. All SE Asian Buddhist kingdoms are based upon planes 10 & 11 of the sensuous realm. There is an underlying structure of the arts in the suttas:

" These musical terms recur throughout the Buddha’s discussion of meditation [§§66, 74, 86, 150, 161, etc.]. For instance, in one context the Buddha says that one should establish one’s persistence to the right pitch, attune the remaining faculties to that pitch, and then pick up one’s theme. In other contexts, he says that one should become attuned to a particular theme, or that one should develop meditation in tune with a particular object. Impossibilities are said to be “non-base,” analogous to tones that cannot function as musical notes. There are enough passages to show that the Buddha used this terminology conscious of its musical connotations, and that he wanted to make the point that the practice of meditation was similar to the art of musical performance. We should thus try to be sensitive to these terms and their implications, for the comparison between music and meditation is a useful one."—Thanissaro

1 Like

I’m sorry too I can’t remember what Sutta it was. I think I read it somewhere alongside the story of the disciple that was once a Mara in one of his previous life. He threw a rock at the Kessapa Buddha’s student and made his head bleed. So Kessapa said that he had no moderation even for a Mara, and cursed him. He died and was reborn in hell as a creature with the head of a fish.

It’s very interesting. Thank you.

1 Like

In ritual healing in Cambodia, the patients body is seen as a representation of the 31 planes of existence. In this sense Apsaras are a beneficial higher influence because of dance being connected with the rhythm of life as traditionally perceived. Parts of the body and mind states are linked, and this is referred to in the suttas where attainments are ultimately known ‘in the body’. Because of being connected with higher parts of the body, the breath is a spiritually beneficial focus:

"“In the same way, in whomever mindfulness immersed in the body is developed, is pursued, Mara gains no entry, Mara gains no foothold.”—Majhima Nikaya 119

1 Like