A Deva (Sanskrit: meaning "radiant" or "shining") refers to a "god" or "deity" found in both Vedic Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism's oldest scripture, the Rig Veda, contains hymns of praise to thirty-three different devas (gods) who help to regulate the cosmos in opposition to asuras (demonic forces). While devas are viewed positively in Hinduism as celestial beings of high excellence, they are, however, seen as demonic figures in Zoroastrianism. Devas are also a classification of beings in Buddhism that are viewed as higher than humans but not the absolute powers in the universe. In Buddhism, devas differ from gods because they are not seen as eternal as they are trapped in the cycle of suffering.
The word Deva likely derives from the Proto-Indo-European deiwos, originally an adjective meaning "celestial" or "shining." It may also have some relation to the root diiv meaning "to play." Cognate to deva are the Lithuanian Dievas, Latvian Dievs, Prussian Deiwas, Latin deus "god" and divus "divine," from which the English words "divine," "deity," and the French "dieu," and Italian "dio" are derived. Related but distinct is the proper name Dyeus, which while from the same root, may originally have referred to the sky, and hence to "Father Sky," the chief god of the Indo-European pantheon, continued in Sanskrit as Dyaus. Today, Hindus also refer to Devas as Devatā and the feminine of Deva is Devi ("goddess").
The Vedas, the earliest comprehensive literature of the Indo-European people, contain mantras for pleasing the devas to obtain blessings. The Rig Veda, the earliest of the four, enumerates 33 devas, which in later Hinduism increased to 330 million to symbolize the infinity of divine manifestations in the universe. Some devas represent the forces of nature while others represent moral values. The supreme deva or god of the early Vedic pantheon was Indra (the god of war). Other important devas were in the Vedic pantheon were: Agni, Soma, Vayu, Varuna, Rudra, Vishnu, Brahma, Brihaspati, Ashvins, Vishvedavas, Prithvi, Dyaus, and Prajapati. Varuna was an important deva who is identified by some to have become the Supreme God of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda, and thus has the dual title of deva and asura. There are also other devas like Savitŗ, Vishnu, Rudra (later given the exclusive epithet of Shiva), Prajapati (later identified with Brahmā), and devis (goddesses) like Ushas, Prithvi and Sarasvati. All gods taken together are worshipped as the Vishvedevas.
As Hinduism evolved in later centuries three deities eventually rose to prominence. These three deities were known as the Hindu trinity of Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva, and they eclipsed the power of the other devas. Additionally, various forms of Shakti or Devi (the Great Mother Goddess) were eventually seen equal in power to the Supreme One God.
It also seems to be the case that as Hinduism evolved from its Vedic roots the concept of deva was eventually vilified by India's western neighbors—the Persian Zoroastrianism. Some scholars have argued that due to the similarity of the Avesta and Sanskrit words for deva, a religious split may have occurred between the early Indo-Aryans and Iranians. (The cognate word in Avestan is daēva and in Zoroastrianism ahuras are supreme, while daevas are demonic.) In early Vedic religion, however, some Asuras are still worshipped. It is also possible that the Indo-Iranians, and probably already the Proto-Indo-Europeans (the Germanic Aesir are cognate to the Asuras) worshipped two classes of gods, without any moral dichotomy.
Devas, in Hinduism, are celestial beings that control forces of nature such as fire, air, wind, etc. They are not to be confused with the One and the Supreme God or His personal form, Saguna Brahman which can be visualized as Vishnu or Shiva, among others. God (Ishvara) or Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) is the ultimate controller. A famous verse from the Katha Upanishad states: “From fear of Him the wind blows; from fear of Him the sun rises; from fear of Him Agni and Indra and Death, the fifth, run." In Hinduism, it is often said that Brahman is the only Ultimate Reality, and all devas are simply mundane manifestations of Him. Smarta Hinduism allows God to be worshipped in any anthropomorphic form for the sake of devotion. The devas are functionally equivalent of angels who serve God in the Jewish and Christian traditions. There are also many other lesser celestial beings in Hinduism such as Gandharvas or celestial musicians.
The Vaishnavites (who often translate deva as "demigod") cite various verses that speak of the Devas' subordinate status. For example, the Rig Veda (1.22.20) states, oṃ tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ: "All the suras (i.e., the devas) look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu." Similarly, in the Vishnu sahasranama the concluding verses state: "The Rishis (great sages), the ancestors, the Devas, the great elements, in fact all things moving and unmoving constituting this universe, have originated from Narayana," (i.e., Vishnu). Thus the Devas are stated to be subordinate to Vishnu, or God.
In the Bhagavadgita Krishna himself states that worshipers of deities other than the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, are incorrect (Gita 9.23) as such worship leads only to temporal benefits, rather than to the Lord Himself (Gita 7.23). Krishna also says: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are granted only by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22) Elsewhere in the Gita Lord Krishna states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe." (Gita: 9:23)
In Buddhism, a deva is one of many different types of non-human beings who share the characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and, in general, living more contentedly than the average human being. Other words used in Buddhist texts to refer to similar supernatural beings are devatā "deity" and devaputra (Pāli: devaputta) "son of the gods."
Although the word deva is generally translated "god" (or, very occasionally, "angel") in English, Buddhist devas differ from the "gods," "God," or "angels" of western religions in many important ways. For example,
The world of Buddhist meditation and practice includes several types of being that are often called "gods," but are distinct from the devas.
From a human perspective, devas share the characteristic of being invisible to the physical human eye. However, it is said that the presence of a deva can be detected by those humans who have opened the divyacakṣus (Divine eye), an extrasensory power by which one can see beings from other planes. Their voices can also be heard by those who have cultivated a similar power of the ear. Most devas are also capable of constructing illusory forms by which they can manifest themselves to the beings of lower worlds; higher and lower devas even have to do this between each other. Devas do not require the same kind of sustenance as humans do, although the lower kinds do eat and drink. The higher sorts of deva shine with their own intrinsic luminosity. Devas are said to also be capable of moving great distances speedily and of flying through the air, although the lower devas sometimes accomplish this through magical aids such as a flying chariot.
The term deva is defined anthropocentrically to include all those beings more powerful or more blissful than humans. It includes some very different types of beings that can be ranked hierarchically. The devas fall into three classes depending upon which of the three dhātus, or "realms" of the universe they are born in.
1) The devas of the Ārūpyadhātu ("formless-realm") have no physical form or location, and they dwell in meditation on formless subjects. They achieve this by attaining advanced meditational levels in another life. They do not interact with the rest of the universe.
2) The devas of the Rūpadhātu ("form-realm") have physical forms, but are sexless and passionless. They live in a large number of "heavens" that rise, layer on layer, above the earth. These can be divided into five main groups:
Each of these groups of heavens contains different grades of devas, but all of those within a single group are able to interact and communicate with each other. On the other hand, the lower groups have no direct knowledge of even the existence of the higher types of deva at all. For this reason, some of the Brahmās have become proud, imagining themselves as the creators of their own worlds and of all the worlds below them (because they came into existence before those worlds began to exist).
The devas of the Kāmadhātu ("Pleasure-realm") have physical forms similar to, but larger than, those of humans. They lead the same sort of lives that humans do, though they are longer-lived and generally more content, indeed sometimes they are immersed in pleasures. This is the dhātu that Māra has greatest influence over.
The higher devas of the Kāmadhātu live in four heavens that float in the air, leaving them free from contact with the strife of the lower world. They are:
The lower devas of the Kāmadhātu live on different parts of the mountain at the center of the world, Sumeru. They are even more passionate than the higher devas, and do not simply enjoy themselves but also engage in strife and fighting. They are:
Sometimes included among the devas, and sometimes placed in a different category, are the Asuras, the opponents of the preceding two groups of devas, whose nature is to be continually engaged in war.
Humans are said to have originally had many of the powers of the devas: not requiring food, the ability to fly through the air, and shining by their own light. Over time they began to eat solid foods, their bodies became coarser and their powers disappeared.
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