No, devas aren't gods

The New Concise Pali English Dictionary translates the Pali word deva as:

a deity; a god

Deva literally means radiant or shining, and the term applies to all sorts of light-beings in the realms above the human but below the brahma realms.

For example, there are local devas, or “bumma devas”, which are bright little spirits that often live in plants or in the ground or in water.

There are also celestial devas, which are more radiant angelical beings that inhabit the higher realms. The higher their realm, the brighter they’re said to shine.

Devas have genders and enjoy sensual pleasures, including sex. There’s nothing god-like about them, unless we talk about Norse-type Æsir, which for some reason we call gods today. Originally Æsir were considered one of three types of nature spirits in Norse mythology; the other two were Vanir and Elves. All these were considered closely connected to natural phenomena. One example is Thor (an Æsir) who caused thunder and lightning bolts.

A modern (Western) person would probably consider the lower devas to be equivalent to nature spirits, and the higher devas to heavenly spirits or angels. In the Bible angels are often described as shining, like for example in Acts 12:7, which reads:

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell.

So we Westerners already associate radiant celestial beings with angels. That’s why I’ve always thought of devas as angels when I’ve read this kind of passage in the Pali canon:

Then in the dark of the night, a radiant deva illuminated all Jeta’s Grove.

Above the deva realms are the brahma realms.

The word brahma has many meanings. The New Concise Pali English Dictionary lists the following:

a brahma god, a happy & blameless celestial being, an inhabitant of the higher heavens

holy, pious, brahmanic, a holy person, divine, as incorporating the highest & best qualities, sublime, ideal best, very great

holy, sacred, divinely inspired

That’s a huge step up from deva, which literally only means radiant.

Brahmas don’t have genders, nor do they enjoy sensual pleasures like sex, which is why celibacy is called brahmachariya (holy/divine conduct) in Pali.

The lowest brahmas get all their pleasure from mentally produced piti connected to the four brahma-viharas (holy/divine states): kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

The higher brahmas get even more refined pleasure from the very subtlest mental qualities.

Everything about these beings is god-like, including the fact that they inhabit the highest realms in samsara. And in the very highest realms they don’t even have a form, so they are just pure and infinite minds. What could be more god-like than that!

Even though all these beings - devas as well as brahmas - are trapped in samsara, and need the guidance of a Buddha to get liberated, the Pali canon holds brahmas in much higher esteem than devas.

In the Pali canon the Buddha sometimes teaches laypeople how to get a rebirth in a deva realm, but it would have been considered a very low standard for a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni to aspire to a deva rebirth.

On the other hand, the Buddha said that any mendicant who has experienced jhana even for a second is worthy of his/her almsfood. The various jhana states correspond to the various brahma realms, meaning that if a mendicant experienced any brahma consciousness for even a second the Buddha considered that person a good and respectable mendicant.

If we use the word god to describe devas, then what will we call brahmas? As we saw above, the first translation in the New Concise Pali English Dictionary is:

a brahma god

I mean, sure, I guess “a brahma god” kinda works, but at the same time, translating brahma as “a brahma” seems pretty circular to me.

Either just call them devas and brahmas even in English, or use a distinction that makes sense to Western minds - like angels and gods.

Just don’t call all of them “gods”, because devas aren’t gods by any reasonable definition.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?

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I agree! Also this post must be at least 20 characters!! Hooray!!!

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Though my preference is that all these terms be imported rather than translated, nevertheless, if I were to translate them, for deva I would much rather use ‘god’ than ‘angel’.

Historically the word ‘god’ has been applied to all sorts of conceptions, and so seems a flexible enough term to apply to devas too. By contrast, the word ‘angel’ (before the New Agers got their grubby paws on it) only ever meant one thing: the servant or messenger of a capital-G God of the Jehovah or Allah type. And so for me the word has completely the wrong associations, even if the beings in question do happen to be shiny.

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And what are the gods of fairykind?
Katamā ca, bhikkhave, gandhabbakāyikā devā?
There are gods who live in fragrant roots,
Santi, bhikkhave, mūlagandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant heartwood,
Santi, bhikkhave, sāragandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant softwood,
Santi, bhikkhave, pheggugandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant bark,
Santi, bhikkhave, tacagandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant shoots,
Santi, bhikkhave, papaṭikagandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant leaves,
Santi, bhikkhave, pattagandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant flowers,
Santi, bhikkhave, pupphagandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant fruit,
Santi, bhikkhave, phalagandhe adhivatthā devā.
fragrant sap,
Santi, bhikkhave, rasagandhe adhivatthā devā.
and fragrant scents.
Santi, bhikkhave, gandhagandhe adhivatthā devā.
These are called the gods of fairykind.”
Ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, gandhabbakāyikā devā”ti.

SN 31.1
:sunny:

Doṇa, how is a brahmin equal to Brahmā?.. For forty-eight years he leads the virginal spiritual life (komārabrahmacariyaṁ) studying the hymns… Then they meditate spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will… Having developed these four Brahmā meditations, when the body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a good place, a Brahmā realm.

And how is a brahmin equal to a god (devasamo)?.. He has sex only with a brahmin woman. He does not have sex with a woman from a caste of aristocrats, merchants, workers, outcastes, hunters, bamboo workers, chariot-makers, or waste-collectors. Nor does he have sex with women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or outside the fertile half of the month that starts with menstruation… Having ensured his progeny through sex, he shaves off his hair and beard, dresses in ocher robes, and goes forth from the lay life to homelessness… Having developed these four absorptions, when the body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.

AN 5.192

:sunny:

The suttas use the words ‘brahma’ & ‘deva’ in different ways, such as:

“Householders, there are four ways of living together.“
Cattārome, gahapatayo, saṁvāsā.
What four?
Katame cattāro?

  1. A male zombie living with a female zombie;
    Chavo chavāya saddhiṁ saṁvasati,
  2. a male zombie living with a goddess;
    chavo deviyā saddhiṁ saṁvasati,
  3. a god living with a female zombie;
    devo chavāya saddhiṁ saṁvasati,
  4. a god living with a goddess.
    devo deviyā saddhiṁ saṁvasati.

AN 4.53

‘Brahmā’ is a term for your parents.
‘Brahmā’ti, bhikkhave, mātāpitūnaṁ etaṁ adhivacanaṁ.
‘Early gods’ is a term for your parents.
‘Pubbadevatā’ti, bhikkhave, mātāpitūnaṁ etaṁ adhivacanaṁ.
‘First teachers’ is a term for your parents.
‘Pubbācariyā’ti, bhikkhave, mātāpitūnaṁ etaṁ adhivacanaṁ.

Iti 106

:sunny:

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Etymologically angel means messenger and in the Abrahamic religions their role is pretty much exhaustively described by this word. So much so, that in Islam they are considered to have no free will. Well, whose messenger in the Buddhist case then?

There are other alternative translations, e.g. heavenly beings. Or we may go down the ISKCON route and translate devas as demigods (and adding Brahmas as gods if you will). Or we may go down the Antiquity route where beings on the intermediate level of existence between the Godhead and us puny humans were called daemonoi, i.e. demons.

This last variant is more of a joke, of course, but it proves the point that some terms are too loaded with cultural connotations for us to freely pick them up for a translation. Using angels for devas for us Westerners would be like using devas for the Thai translations of the Bible or the Quran, which is obviously not the case. I am sure that one can come up with other translations.

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I agree that angels isn’t the best alternative for devas, and that wasn’t my main suggestion either.

There just has to be better options than gods. If Pali has two completely different terms with completely different meanings for completely different types of beings, why should we translate both those terms as “gods”? It’s a confusing, misleading and just plain incorrect translation.

I really like the terms devas and brahmas even in English. Not a huge fan of demigods, since that has often been used as a term for the offspring of a god and a human.

The option I probably like most is to come up with new words for these beings. Something that corresponds to the Pali terms. For example:

  • Deva = Radiant being
  • Brahma = Holy being

Those are just random examples, but ones that I’d much prefer to the lazy option “god” for both.

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Oh, I did not intend to disagree with your idea that gods are not the best way to render ghe Pali terms in Englisch.

But then again, I would follow Ven. Dhammanando’s opinion that devas and Brahmas (or maybe even brahmas?) probably should be wholesale imported into English translations as the best way to solve this translation problem. There’s no shame in that.

If you still wish to translate them, I would go with renderings that I quite frequently saw and heard being used by Germans when translating Pali: heavenly beings (himmlische Wesen / Himmelswesen) and B/brahma (realm) beings / B/brahma gods (Brahma-Wesen / Brahma-Götter) respectively.

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You mentioned the New Agers as a sidenote, but it’s a significant point to take into consideration.

Yes, in old Abrahamic religions the word angel had that one specific meaning - but those religions are no longer dominating the Western world. Words take on new meanings as cultures change.

Search ‘Angelic meditation’ or ‘Communicate with angels’ on YouTube or google and you’ll see that the word ‘angel’ now refers to anything from heavenly beings, spiritual guides and dead relatives in heaven, to spiritually superior beings, pure spirits and inhabitants of the astral planes.

I agree with you in that angels isn’t the best translation of devas, but I’d much prefer a bold redefinition of the old word ‘angel’ to the mistranslation ‘god’.

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not an answer to your question, but possibly relevant: the hindu god indra and the god thor are very closely related - perhaps even referring to the same figure through proto indo-european mythological roots, and another name for indra is sakka … so … thor features in the pali canon …

Meh, I’d just coin a new term, like Radiants.

Or just keep using Deva.

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Yes.

Hindu Indra/Buddhist Sakka

  • Greek equivalent: Zeus
  • Roman equivalent: Jupiter
  • Norse equivalent: Thor
  • Slavic equivalent: Perun

Many of these have been called gods, but I think that’s because they were considered the highest beings in cosmos by their respective cultures. If the Greeks, for example, would had thought that the Olympians were vastly inferior to a much higher type of beings, then I think that the highest beings would have been consider gods while the Olympians would have been called something else.

There are some words in Pali that I like to leave untranslated in my mind and deva could be one of them. However, I understand the importance of translation. That said, off the cuff I would tend to prefer (in this order) heavenly being, god. Heavenly being feels pretty neutral. To me, god implies an elevated supernatural power. To me, angel implies a servant sent by a god to fulfill a job/mission.

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But not just today. In Old Icelandic the Æsir and Vanir were collectively known as guði (pl. of guð) and gyðjur (pl. of gyðja), meaning gods and goddesses. And a Pagan performer of sacrifices was a goði. All these terms are etymologically kin to ‘god’.

Except the impercipient beings, who occupy a fourth-jhāna plane but experience nothing.

And the aryans in the Pure Abodes, whose greatest pleasure consists in cessation rather than jhāna.

“Bhikkhus, the formless is more peaceful than the form realms.
Cessation is more peaceful than the formless realms.”
(Santatarasutta, Iti 73)

Because in the five gati scheme, (which seems to precede all the others) deva is a catch-all term that includes all beings inhabiting planes higher than the human.

Is there really anything in Buddhism that corresponds to the notion of “holiness”.

Suppose for discussion’s sake that there is (e.g., Buddhist purity = Abrahamic holiness, or whatever), then could such an attribute be predicated of the impercipient devas?

I think we should be wary of over-praising classes of samsāric beings with adjectives like “holy”. To quote an old dictionary:

Holy is stronger and more absolute than any word of cognate meaning. That which is sacred may derive its sanction from man ; that which is holy has its sanctity directly from God or as connected with him. Hence we speak of the Holy Bible, and the sacred writings of the Hindus.
(Century Dictionary, 1895).

But you’ve yet to make a compelling argument for it being a mistranslation. If a Vanur or an Ás can be a guð or a gyðja in the 10th century Norse world, why can a deva and a devī not be a god and a goddess in the 21st century Anglophone world?

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As far as I know there is only one Brahma and he is a deva, definitely of the masculine gender. He had an incestuous relationship with Sarasvati, his daughter. She is a devi. Rather I should say Devi. I do believe she is one … or rather I should say One.

Etymologically the English word god originally meant ‘the Invoked one’, ‘one that libations are offered to’. You ascribe to ancient Indo-European people something they did not really care about: speculations about ‘the highest beings in the Universe’ and, logically following from it, proto-philosophical speculations about the universal hierarchy, structure of the cosmos, etc.

In fact, early Indo-Europeans did not think of their gods as more advanced religiophilosophical systems would let us think (cf. Neo-Platonism, Advaita, etc.). For them, their relationship with gods was far more pragmatical and down-to-earth: we give them oblations and make sacrifices and they do us favours and give us blessings. There really was no radical divide between humans and gods in terms of their behaviour, thinking patterns and desires. So, applying words like 'highest beings’to gods is a bit of a stretch, they were just as much part of nature as cattle, spirits or leaves rustling in the wind.

Which brings us back to the point I made in my initial response. Our perception of the term gods is shaped by our Abrahamic cultural background that is inescapable in the West. It has a slightly unsavoury taste, because gods, unlike God, can only be false gods in Abrahamic cultures. It also creates an impression that Buddhism is a pagan religion, and it is my firm belief that this would be a false understanding of the Buddhasasana. And for our Christianized ears it may sound too lofty for devas of the lower heavens. So yes, it may be true that using the word gods for devas could create some unintended false perceptions and associations in the Western audience.

That said, I think it is still a better rendering than angels - at the very least it retains some connection to how devas were and still are perceived and treated by ancient and very many modern Indians. Whereas believing that New-Age movements hi-jacking angels would change the perception of this word that is deeply entrenched in our cultures after centuries of them being almost exclusively Christian - is wishful thinking at best. So, using it would create even more confusion.

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If one must translate the word, how about devas as ‘deities’? ( Or is deity too synonymous with ‘god’?) I’ve heard somewhere the word deity and deva are related…?

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I still have a reflex of mixing up “deva” with “diva”. I momentarily think of Madonna or Celine Dion. Work hard to improve your kamma and understand the dhamma. Be reborn as a glamorous pop singer.

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It could be worse. When I first met with “female goblin” (I think it was in Buddhist Legends, Burlingame’s translation of the Dhammapada Atthakathā) I couldn’t help but start humming Frank Zappa’s song “De Goblin Girl
:grin:

Raggedy black
Is the way she dress
Little green shoes
‘N her hair’s a mess
On Halloween night
At de costume ball
She’s a Goblin Girl
An’ she can gobble it all

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Wow venerable, never would have imagined you’d be a Zappa fan.

:sunglasses:

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‘God’ (capitalised) is the name of the unique deity of monotheism, while the common noun ‘god’ is equivalent to deity.

A deity is a supernatural being or divine nature, like a god or goddess, worshipped by people who believe it controls or exerts force over some aspect of the world. So, a deva is a deity, including yakkha, vana (the ‘forest’), Māra (as an individual name), and Brhamā (a name of the highest-ranking god).

Angel is a divine and supernatural messenger from a deity, or other divine entity. So, angel may be similar to devaputta/devaputra ‘son of a deva’ (devadhītā ‘daughter of a deva’).

The following articles by Choong Mun-keat may be relevant:

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