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The Gods of the "Realm of the 33"

cosmology
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#1

Have you ever wondered who the Gods of the Realm of the 33 are (as they are never explicitly named in the Pali Canon, other than Sakka/Indra)? By looking in the Upanishads (where the 33 almost certainly were inherited from), we can construct that very likely list as to who these are.

First we look in:
“The Upanishads Part II” by Friedrich Max Muller: The Upanishads Part II - Friedrich Max Muller.pdf (6.7 MB)

See pdf’s pg. 200
(inner pg. 139)
From Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: Section “Ninth Brahmana”, we get the 33 gods listed briefly:

When we fully expand that list, here’s what it looks like:

- The 8 Vasus (attendant deities of Indra):
    - 1) Agni (fire)
    - 2) Prithivi (earth)
    - 3) Vayu (air)
    - 4) Antariksha (sky)
    - 5) Aditya (sun)
    - 6) Dyu (heaven)
    - 7) Kandramas (moon)
    - 8) the Nakshatras (stars)


- The 11 Rudras (10 "vital breaths", plus Atman):

     - The 5 Jnanendriyas (The 5 sense organs):
         - 9) Shotra (ears)
         - 10) Chakshu (eyes)
         - 11) Grahna (nose)
         - 12) Jivha (tongue)
         - 13) Tvak (skin)

    - The 5 Karmendriyas (The 5 "exit doors"):
         - 14) Vāk (speech)
         - 15) Pāṇi (hands)
         - 16) Pāda (feet)
         - 17) Pāyu (excretory organ, anus)
         - 18) Upastha (organ of reproduction, penis)

    -  19) Atman (self)


- The 12 Adityas (The 12 months of the year):
   - 20) Chaitra (March–April)
   - 21) Vaisākha (April–May)
   - 22) Jyaiṣṭha (May–June)
   - 23) Āṣāḍha  (June–July)
   - 24) Śrāvaṇa (July–August)
   - 25) Bhādrapada or Proshthapada (August–September)
   - 26) Āśvina (September–October)
   - 27) Kārttika (October–November)
   - 28) Mārgaśirṣa (November–December)
   - 29) Pauṣa (December–January)
   - 30) Māgha (January–February)
   - 31) Phālguna (February–March)


- 32) Indra (the Thunderer)
- 33) Prajapati (the sacrifice)

PS: Where did I get this connection to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad from? From an Appendix in the new free-for-distribution Dhamma book called “Therigatha - Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis”, by Anagarika Mahendra:


#2

31 planes of existence.
I am not sure who compile this.

https://accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sagga/loka.html


#3

Oh, very interesting!

We often assume that the Buddhist cosmology is influenced by the Brahmanical, but we sometimes don’t take the time to learn what that means.


#4

I just read “Lomasakaṅgiya and One Fine Night”, MN 134. The diety Chandana would be Kandramas, the moon deity of the Realm of the 33, diety number 7 above.

Chandana relates how the Buddha taught his “One Fine Night” teaching to the gods of the Realm of the 33:

“This one time, the Buddha was staying among the gods of the Thirty-Three at the root of the Shady Orchard Tree on the stone spread with a cream rug. The he taught the recitation passage and analysis of One Fine Night to the gods of the Thirty-Three:
‘Don’t run back to the past,
don’t hope for the future.
What’s past is left behind;
the future’s not arrived;
and phenomena in the present
are clearly seen in every case.
Knowing this, foster it—
unfaltering, unshakable.
Today’s the day to keenly work—
who knows, tomorrow may bring death!
For there is no bargain to be struck
with Death and his mighty hordes.
The peaceful sage explained it’s those
who keenly meditate like this,
not slacking off by night or day,
who truly have that one fine night.’


#5

One has to distinguish, those who live in the heaven of the thirty-three, like Sakka or Candana; and the gods who “make appear and occur” this realm (heaven).


#6

@suci1 Could you expand on that?

The reference for the source text is BU 3.9.2-6

A most probably even older source is the Aitareya Brahmana 1.10 (repeated in 2.18, 2.37, 3.22) It’s basically the same list, except instead of Indra we find the ‘vaṣaṭ call’ (a final exclamation of the priest).

Only at Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa 12.6 we find the BU list with Indra.


#7

Hi Gabriel,

Well, I can expand on two grounds.

The first is that the realm is made up of the gods themselves. That is to say made of fire, water, …, sun, moon, heaven, …, sense organs, …, Self, months, power, … etc.
Was it considered strictly as such by the Bhudda, is another question.

The second ground is that MN 90 and its MĀ 212 parallel, address the old Jain and Buddhist issue, concerning which gods, including the ones living in the realm of the thirty three, come back or not in this world - and for what reason . I hardly see how the gods of the thirty three (the thirty three gods themselves, as stated above,) could be concerned by that issue - for they belong to, and make up, not only the realm of the thirty-three; but also all of the realms below.

Ha ! the genius of the early Indian philosophy, will never cease to amaze me.


#8

My distinct impression from the texts is that the realms exist independently from the gods. After each world-contraction for example another maha-brahma appears in the empty realm - so this seems to be a ‘cosmic invariable’. Needless to say that it’s futile in the context of EBT to philosophize what the nature of an empty realm would look like.

In general the vision of cyclic time is quite revolutionary but not convincingly presented. It’s an anachronistic projection of the present into the past. Because Buddha lives in India, has a varna, two main disciples etc. all the former Buddhas must have had exactly the same, live in ‘India’ - Billions of years ago that is! -, be either khattiya or brahmana (never a vessa or sudra it seems) etc.

So it seems to be with the gods and their realms too. The 33 gods were mentioned already in the Rgveda (not by name though), so there must have been 33 gods in each iteration of the universe.

I am not aware at least of suttas that say “sometimes there are 25 gods only” or “sometimes there is a universe without a mahabrahma” or “sometimes there is a universe without a Mara”.

The (for Buddhist philosophy) uncomfortable implication is that beyond the process of anicca there would be a quite stable structure of the universe (mathematically a first and second derivative).


#9

Hi Gabriel.

This is very interesting.
I just wished you could refer to specific suttas, when it comes to your first paragraph.

Emptiness of the realm would be indeed the first thing one could think about. But not just as the beginning of each maha-brahma; but also at any point of experience. There is emptiness to be filled, “to be felt”).
The second thing to consider is that some of these “gods’ components” are not ours. They are empty, and not ours.
As the creatures of Prajapati (Pajapati) - as many little Ka(s) - we are experiencing the feeding up of these internal empty “gods’ components”, (that are not ours), through the external - and the experience depends on how we manage the indriya(ni) - the
Indra + ॰ईय -īya, (lit. what belongs to Indra, the “Power”).

(Not ours = SN 22.33, SN 35.138 / Empty = SN 35.238 / “To be felt” = SN 12.37 / Indriya = SN 22.47 - AN 6.55)

Ultimately, when the great cycle comes to an end, the new expansion starts again as empty, and goes on and on - boringishly, again and again - through the emptiness of the “gods components”.

What are exactly the “god components” of the realms above the Thirty-Three - remains the question.

Metta.

“It’s not yours, it’s empty, and it’s impermanent”, says the Buddha.


#10

Sorry, I was a bit lazy with references. With Mahabrahma appearing I meant DN 1. Now personally I don’t buy into the polemics of DN or many MN suttas. But beyond that much of the cosmology seems to have been accepted in the EBT.

Do you read the stuff as actual cosmology or metaphorically or mostly as a refutation of the brahmin ontological importance they attach to it?


#11

I agree with you, that “much of the cosmology seems to have been accepted in the EBT” .

Now, do I “read the stuff as actual cosmology or metaphorically”? - is hard to say.
Although I went to Buddhism through Vedism (with not an ounce of Hinduism), I still had, before that, a Judeo-Christian background that does not make this choice so easy for me.
I would tend to say that it is actual, and not metaphorical. But I would also say that, I apply to the word deva, another meaning than our western meaning of god or angel.

Now, definitely, Buddha did refute, as you know, the brahmanical view of selves as Ka(s), that could be permanent and continuous and blissful, and therefore “ours” in a universal kind of way.
The gods of the dharman (dhr-man - viz. paticcasamupada), are impermanent - even if paticcasamupada is constant throughout the maha-brahmas, as you mentioned earlier.
And none of them, and definitely not Ka, and what belongs to Ka (Ka-iya), can bring blissfulness.
I suppose this is one of the major difference in the Buddhist creed.


Don’t get me wrong.
I don’t go for any of the wrong views in DN1.
I side up with the eternalist wrong view of the cosmos, because modern science seems to prove this theory of the particular universe we are leaving in (energy) .
But modern science proves also, that there are other universes with no energy. For what we know today, all these universes have “information” as a common denominator.

What I want to express is that neither the eternalist view or the nihilist view are wrong per se.
What is meant by wrong view is that they are neither THE proper views. Neither views in DN 1 is proper.
The proper view is that the world, as wrongly defined by these particular two views, as either eternal, or annhiliated, for instance, is a wrong view.

“There are, monks, other “matters” , profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced…”, says Buddha.

In other words, an eternalist, for instance, might remain in his eternalist view, and in this expanding and contracting world, because of his wrong view.
While one who takes the right view of “the hand full of leaves”, and train to escape, will know these “other matters” - or we should say more properly these other “informations” - (for indeed, energy & “matter” seem to be the particular characteristic of our universe) .

In other words, wrong view does not mean it is not true view. Eternalism might be true, for one who sides up with eternalism. As long as he keeps this wrong (but relatively true) view, the eternalist will remain in this somewhat eternalism of dukkha, through the cycle of life and death, and the cycles of expansion/contraction of the universe.

"There are other matters (informations) ", is the only right view. And you attain it only through escape. Through the Teaching.
Don’t do it and you will remain in whatever wrong (and painful) view you’re in, I suppose.

Metta.


#12

In your link concerning Ka, you make the following reading

Sakkāyadiṭṭhi (saṃ+ka+iya+diṭṭhi - lit. “with what belongs to Ka”),

This is opposed to readings of satkāyadṛṣṭi or svakāyadṛṣṭi. Why saṃ?


#13

Are you sure, this list from the Upanishads is correct?
I am missing Pancasikkha, the heavenly musician, who played music in front of Lord Buddha. and Pajjuna the rain god.


#14

There is also the story about Maagha and his 33 companions who did good deeds together leading to their rebirth as 33 gods.


#15

Not sure what you mean with ‘correct’. The oldest tradition of the Rgveda is different. It has 33 deities (Vasus, Rudras, Ādityas), but they are 3x11 (RV 1.34.11, RV 1.139.11, RV 8.35.3, RV 8.39.9, RV 8.57.2, RV 9.92.4) and not in one realm but in heaven, mid-space (atmosphere), and earth (RV 3.6.8), or in heaven, earth and waters (RV 1.139.11).

This is probably not the direct source for the EBT. They are much more likely informed by a transmission in line with the Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa which already have 8+11+12 gods and don’t mention different realms anymore.

Are Pancasikkha and Pajjuna from the suttas or Jatakas? If Jatakas they can be anything from a little bit to very much later than the EBT


#16

I tend to interpret Buddhist cosmology, especially references to heavens and hells, symbolically, especially due to the possible Brahmanical influences.

If there is no permanent self, what is it that’s reborn into either heaven or hell? Is it the same person from the previous lifetime or a new person? Also, if there is no creator god, then who created the heavens and hells?


#17

One should understand that in Veda, things are never clear cut.
Devas are what concepts make them, as concepts change or evolve.
See below, in the soma sacrifice (Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa), how Agni becomes one above many. How could one conceive him as being one?
When is he the best of Devas ? - In one occasion he is, in another he is no more. He can even be better than “him-selves”.

One cannot conceive a Deva in Indian philosophy, as we conceive gods in our western mind.

May Agni here be above the other Agnis ’ and ’ The Agni who guardeth from the foe’. Having sacrificed with the two Viraj verses, the gods won the world of heaven ; verily thus also the sacrificer having sacrificed with two Viraj verses wins the world of heaven. They are of thirty-three syllables ; the gods are thirty-three, eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Prajapati, and the vasat call.

Note: see here, how the vasat call is power.


#18

Before You put up your information, I never gave much thought to which gods belonged to the Thirty-three. But they are so often mentioned in the Pali literature (including the commentaries) that I discovered vague ideas in my head: Sakra = Indra is the king. He has four queens, and the 33 did good deeds together in a former life. That is a Jataka story, of course.

Pancasikkha is mentioned in the Suttas: Sakkapanhasutta (DN?). The commentary explains that he has five hairknots (panca + sikha), like an adorable child. It is one of the few places in the Suttas, where music is mentioned.

The Vedic antecedents, must be earlier than Buddhism, particularly, if they already show an historical development within the early Sanskrit literature like 3 x 11 gods, and 11 + 8 + 12 gods + atman. That later list looks very artificial to me, as if it was derived from the earlier list with a specific purpose in mind. It seems unlikely to me, that it was taken over into Buddhism.
Since when is Aatman a Buddhist deity? How old is the concept of 12 Nakshatras?

A fool can ask more questions, than many wise people can answer, it is said. But you seem to be well acquainted with Vedic gods, so you can probably answer this.

If the gods mentioned are found all around: in the sky, the clouds, and even lower, they cannot belong to the realm of the 33, because that is already a stratified plane of existence, situated at the top of Mount Meru, between Catu-mahaa-raajika below and Yaama above.

This concept is still active in modern Theravada Buddhism. In Sri Lanka the daily recitations morning and evening mostly consist of late Pali verses, which are well known throughout the country, because the are taught to children in Buddhist Sunday schools.
Near the end of the recitation the merits are shared as follows :

"Aakasa.t.thaa bhumma.t.thaa/
deva-naaga-mahiddhikaa/
punyam mam anumoditvaa/
ciiram rakkhantu …(sammaa-sambuddha-saasana.m)/

repeated three times, also for … sammaa-sambuddha-desana.m and sammaa-sambuddha-saavaka.m.
ciira.m rakkhantu …
ciira.m rakkhantu …
Six times, daily.
… It tends to reverbate in your memory, and follow you into your dreams.

But who are these “powerful devas and naagas living in the sky (aakaasa) and on the earth (bhumma)”?
Do the naagas (mythical snake-like or dragon-like beings, who can assume human shape) really protect the Triple Gem?

The deities may be different in different countries. At least they are not the same in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, except a few like Sakra, and others mentioned in the Tipitaka.
Sri Lanka has a much stronger influence from Tamil Hinduism here.

  • In the Californian desert I get the feeling that the “local deities” are mostly connected to the indigenous population, that originally lived there.
    – In Scandinavia, I somtimes feel that “local deities” may tend in the direction of the spiritual world prevalent in pre-Christian Northern Europe.

Talking about old Indian “gods” mentioned in Buddhist scriptures. I have two questions:

.1) has anyone made a detailed study of the deities mentioned in the Aa.taa.naa.tiya Sutta (in DN)? Many of these are obviously ancient pre-Buddhist deities, which were still well known and highly respected when this Sutta was compiled.
But little is known about many of them now.

  1. There is a very late Pali text compiled in Chiangmai in the 15th century AC with the title “Uppata-santi-gaathaa”.
    It is used as a Paritta recitation when the danger of war is eminent. There are nearly 400 verses, mentioning all Buddhas, Paccekabuddhas, Aggasaavakas, Mahaasaavakas, Arahant monks, Arahant nuns, and so on down the ladder of living beings. Even powerful evil beings are implored to give protection and peace. …

I find it interesting, because it seems to be a complete pantheon of beings considered important in almost contemporary Theravaada Buddhism.

The new huge pagoda, resembling the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, but built in 2005 by the military head of state in the new capital of Myanmar, is named “Uppata-santi pagoda”.
Not all the human beings mentioned in this text were identified by me so far, e. g. there are 80 Mahaasaavaka, but where is the list of 80 such monks? … It must be quite late, of course.


#19

Not forgetting the tree devatas, who apparently belong to the realm of the four great kings as depicted when Nakulapita was passing away- hallucinating as he was dying (sutta?)?

with metta,


#20

I find this bewildering - what do these names/qualities of the 33 gods mean? What do they look like? Is there really such a place or is this all just religious fantasy? I struggle with this kind of stuff as it is so far from my experience. Are we not just accepting it all as a buddhist meme because we’ve seen it printed in books and other buddhists have talked about it? I’d love to feel it was all true, but I just can’t. Any advice would be welcome.