Buddhist deities – Conceptual and metaphoric refuge
Buddhism includes a wide array of divine beings that are venerated in various ritual and popular contexts.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Deities, spirits & local gods
- 2 - Buddhist deities in The Pali Canon
- 3 - Deities commonly used as a refuge
- 3.1 - Dakini
- 3.2 - Heruka
- 3.3 - Garuda
- 3.4 - Nāga
- 3.5 - Yamantaka
- 3.6 - Wrathful deities
- 3.7 - Yaksha
- 3.8 - Vajrakilaya
- 3.9 - Yamari
- 3.10 - Wisdom King
- 3.11 - Acala
- 3.12 - Begtse
- 3.13 - Hayagriva (Buddhism)
- 3.14 - Gandharva
- 3.15 - Apsara
- 3.16 - Ucchusma
- 3.17 - Kumbhanda
- 3.18 - Mahamayuri
- 3.19 - Four Heavenly Kings
- 3.20 - Ananta (infinite)
- 3.21 - Āṭavaka
- 3.22 - Vaiśravaṇa
- 3.23 - Twenty-Four Protective Deities
- 3.24 - Rāgarāja
- 3.25 - Narodakini
- 3.26 - Lokapala
- 3.27 - Eight Legions
- 3.28 - Kuṇḍali
- 3.29 - Kinnara
- 3.30 - Mahoraga
- 3.31 - Virūpākṣa
- 3.32 - Asura (Buddhism)
- 3.33 - Gongen
- 3.34 - Dhṛtarāṣṭra
- 3.35 - Deva (Buddhism)
- 3.36 - Virūḍhaka (Heavenly King)
- 3.37 - Vajrayakṣa
- 3.38 - Japanese Buddhist pantheon
- 3.39 - Trailokyavijaya
- 3.40 - Śakra (Buddhism)
- 3.41 - Mahabrahma
- 3.42 - Cāturmahārājakāyika
Deities, spirits & local gods
Initially Buddhist deities included mainly Indian figures such as devas, asuras and yakshas, but later came to include other Asian spirits and local gods.
They range from enlightened Buddhas to regional spirits adopted by Buddhists or practiced on the margins of the religion.
Buddhist deities in The Pali Canon
The Pali Canon and others suggest that the Buddha taught that belief in a Creator deity was not essential to attaining liberation from suffering.
The Buddha did not deny the existence of the popular gods of the Vedic pantheon, but rather argued that these devas, who may be in a more exalted state than humans, are still nevertheless trapped in the same sansaric cycle of suffering as other beings and are not necessarily worthy of veneration and worship.
Deities commonly used as a refuge
This is a list of Deities commonly used as a refuge conceptually and metaphorically for the practice of Buddhism.
The concept of the ḍākinī differs depending on the context and the tradition.
A ḍākinī in Hinduism is a demon and in Buddhism is a type of female spirit.
In Japan it is difficult to trace the exact origins of the Japanese Dakiniten cult but it flourished mainly via the network of Inari worship and vice versa.
Heruka, is the name of a category of wrathful deities, enlightened beings in Vajrayana Buddhism that adopt a fierce countenance to benefit sentient beings. In East Asia, these are called Wisdom Kings.
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Naga is mythical serpentine creature appearing as human or snake, or both together with a human torso above and a coiled snakes tail below. They inhabit the regions beneath the earth and the oceans.
Yamantaka literally means ‘The Destroyer of Yama, the Lord of Death’, is a wrathful form of Manjushri.
In Buddhism, wrathful deities or fierce deities are the fierce, wrathful or forceful forms of enlightened Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or Devas. Because of their power to destroy the obstacles to enlightenment, they are also termed krodha-vighnantaka, “Wrathful onlookers on destroying obstacles”. Wrathful deities are a notable feature of the iconography of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. These types of deities first appeared in India during the late 6th century with its main source being the Yaksha imagery and became a central feature of Indian Tantric Buddhism by the late 10th or early 11th century.
Yaksha/Yakshi is male and female nature spirits of India, of classical Indian literature and folk beliefs.
Vajrakilaya or Vajrakumara — the wrathful heruka Vajrakilaya is the yidam deity who embodies the enlightened activity of all the buddhas and whose practice is famous for being the most powerful for removing obstacles, destroying the forces hostile to compassion and purifying the spiritual pollution so prevalent in this age. Vajrakilaya is one of the eight deities of Kagyé.
A Yamari is a yidam or meditation deity of the Anuttara Yoga Tantra method (father) classification. The Word यमारि yamāri in Sanskrit means Yama’s Enemy There are three types of Yamari:Krishna Yamari Rakta Yamari Yamantaka sometimes referred to as Vajrabhairava
In Vajrayana Buddhism, a Wisdom King is a type of deity in Buddhism and classed as the third after buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Japanese statuary. The Sanskrit name literally translates to “knowledge king”, thus the Chinese character “明”, meaning “knowledgeable”, or “bright” is used, leading to wide array of alternative English names, including “Radiant King”, “Guardian King”, etc. In Tibetan Buddhism, they are known as Herukas.
Acala is a dharmapala primarily revered in Vajrayana Buddhism. He is seen as a protective deity particularly in Shingon traditions of Japan where he is known as Fudō Myō-ō, in Tangmi traditions of China and Taiwan as Búdòng Míngwáng, in Nepal and Tibet as Caṇḍaroṣaṇa, and elsewhere.
In Tibetan Buddhism Beg-tse or Jamsaran is a dharmapala and the lord of war, in origin a pre-Buddhist war god of the Mongols.
In Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, Hayagrīva is an important deity who originated as a yaksha attendant of Avalokiteśvara or Guanyin Bodhisattva in India.
Appearing in the Vedas as two separate deities, he was assimilated into the ritual worship of early Buddhism and eventually was identified as a Wisdom King in Vajrayana Buddhism.
In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, Gandharva is a class of celestial beings whose males are divine singers and females are divine dancers from Gandhara region. It is also a term for skilled singers in Indian classical music.
An Apsara is a class of minor female heavenly beings commonly portrayed as decorative elements in art, often depicted as flying in the sky.
Ucchuṣma is a vidyaraja in the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism. He is also known by various other names such as Burning Impurity Kongo, Jusoku Kongo (受触金剛) and Kazu Kongo (火頭金剛).
A kumbhāṇḍa (Sanskrit) or kumbhaṇḍa (Pāli) is one of a group of dwarfish, misshapen spirits among the lesser deities of Buddhist mythology.
Mahamayuri, or Mahāmāyūrī Vidyārājñī is a bodhisattva and female Wisdom King in Mahayana Buddhism. Her origins are said to derive from an Indian goddess of the same name. She is also the name of one of the five protective goddesses in the Buddhist Pantheon.
Four Heavenly Kings
The Four Heavenly Kings are four Buddhist gods, which originates from the Indian version of Lokapalas, each of whom watches over one cardinal direction of the world. In Chinese mythology, they are known collectively as the “Fēng Tiáo Yǔ Shùn” or “Sì Dà Tiānwáng”. In the ancient language Sanskrit they are called the “Chaturmahārāja” (चतुर्महाराज), or “Chaturmahārājikādeva”: “Four Great Heavenly Kings”. The Hall of the Heavenly Kings is a standard component of Chinese Buddhist temples.
Ananta is a Sanskrit term which means ‘endless’ or ‘limitless’, also means ‘eternal’ or ‘infinity’, in other words, it also means infinitude or an unending expansion or without limit. It is one of the many names of Lord Vishnu. Ananta is the Shesha-naga, the celestial snake, on which Lord Vishnu reclines.
Āṭavaka is a popular figure in Buddhism. He is a yakṣa and regarded as a Wisdom King in esoteric tradition.
Vaiśravaṇa (Sanskrit) or Vessavaṇa, is one of the Four Heavenly Kings, and is considered an important figure in Japanese Buddhism.
Twenty-Four Protective Deities
The Twenty-Four Protective Deities or the Twenty-Four Devas, sometimes reduced to the Twenty Protective Deities or the Twenty Devas, are a group of dharmapalas in Chinese Buddhism who are venerated as defenders of the Buddhist dharma. The group consists of devas, naga kings, vajra-holders and other beings, mostly borrowed from Hinduism with some borrowed from Taoism.
Rāgarāja is a deity venerated in the Esoteric and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. He is especially revered in Chinese Esoteric Buddhism in Chinese communities as well as Shingon and Tendai in Japan.
Nāroḍākinī is a deity in Vajrayana Buddhism similar to Vajrayogini who no longer appears in the active pantheon despite her importance in late Indian Buddhism.
Lokapala is worldly protector or guardian; in Buddhism, a lesser deity that has not yet reached complete enlightenment.
The Eight Legions are a group of Buddhist deities whose function is to protect the Dharma. These beings are common among the audience addressed by the Buddha in Mahāyāna sūtras, making appearances in such scriptures as the Lotus Sutra and the Golden Light Sutra.
Kundali or Amritakundalin, also known in Chinese as Juntuli Mingwang and in Japanese as Gundari Myōō (軍荼利明王), is a wrathful deity and dharmapala in East Asian Esoteric Buddhism.
A kinnara is a celestial musician, part human and part bird, who are musically paradigmatic lovers, in Hinduism and Buddhism. In these traditions, the kinnaras (male) and kinnaris are two of the most beloved mythological characters. Believed to come from the Himalayas, they often watch over the wellbeing of humans in times of trouble or danger. An ancient Indian string instrument is known as the Kinnari vina. Their character is also clarified in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata, where they say: We are everlasting lover and beloved. We never separate. We are eternally husband and wife; never do we become mother and father. No offspring is seen in our lap. We are lover and beloved ever-embracing. In between us we do not permit any third creature demanding affection. Our life is a life of perpetual pleasures.
The Mahoraga are a race of deities in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Like the nāga, they are often depicted as anthropomorphic beings with serpentine bodies from the waist down. However, their appearance can differ depending on artistic tradition, sometimes having serpent heads with humanoid bodies.
Virūpākṣa is a major deity in Buddhism. He is one of the Four Heavenly Kings and a dharmapala.
An asura in Buddhism is a demigod or titan of the Kāmadhātu. They are described as having three heads with three faces each and either four or six arms.
A gongen (権現), literally “incarnation”, was believed to be the manifestation of a buddha in the form of an indigenous kami, an entity who had come to guide the people to salvation, during the era of shinbutsu-shūgō in premodern Japan. The words gonge (権化) and kegen (化現) are synonyms for gongen. Gongen shinkō (権現信仰) is the term for belief in the existence of gongen.
Dhṛtarāṣṭra is a major deity in Buddhism and one of the Four Heavenly Kings. His name means “Upholder of the Nation.”
A Deva in Buddhism is a type of celestial beings or gods who share the god-like characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and, in general, much happier than humans, although the same level of veneration is not paid to them as to Buddhas.
Virūḍhaka (Heavenly King)
Virūḍhaka is a major deity in Buddhism. He is one of the Four Heavenly Kings and a dharmapala.
Vajrayakṣa is one of the Five Wisdom Kings. He is a manifestation of Amoghasiddhi.
Japanese Buddhist pantheon
The Japanese Buddhist Pantheon designates the multitude of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and lesser deities and eminent religious masters in Buddhism. A Buddhist Pantheon exists to a certain extent in Mahāyāna, but is especially characteristic of Vajrayana Esoteric Buddhism, including Tibetan Buddhism and especially Japanese Shingon Buddhism, which formalized it to a great extent. In the ancient Japanese Buddhist Pantheon, more than 3,000 Buddhas or deities have been counted, although nowadays most temples focus on one Buddha and a few Bodhisattvas.
Trailokyavijaya is the King of knowledge having conquered the three worlds, one of the five kings of knowledge of Buddhism. His mission is to protect the eastern part of the world.
Śakra is the ruler of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven according to Buddhist cosmology. He is also referred to by the title “Śakra, Lord of the Devas”. The name Śakra (“powerful”) as an epithet of Indra is found in several verses of the Rigveda.
Mahābrahmā, sometimes only called Brahma, is the ruler of the Brahma World (Brahmaloka) in the Buddhist cosmology. He is considered the protector of Buddhist teachings. Mahabrahma is generally represented in Buddhist culture as a god with four faces and four arms like other Brahmas, and variants of him are found in different Buddhist cultures. The Mahābrahmā, or the Great Brahma, is mentioned in Digha Nikaya as the being who dwells in the upper heaven; a Buddhist student can join him for one kalpa after successfully entering the first jhana in the form realm of Buddhist practice.
Cāturmahārājakāyika heaven is the first world of the devas in Buddhist cosmology. The word Cāturmahārājakāyika refers to the Four Heavenly Kings (Cāturmahārāja) who rule over this world along with the assemblage or multitude (kāyika) of beings that dwell there.