A Dynamic Explanation Of Gods In The Theravāda Buddhist Social Philosophy

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The God’s idea and the Buddha’s teachings are not correlated because the Gods are theocentric origin and the Buddha’s teachings which are not theocentric origin, have been rejected the God’s idea. However, there are many elements in the discourses of the Buddha which go along with the theocentric God’s ideas.

God has always been discussed in the context of cosmic philosophy within Buddhism, although there is possibility to reduce gods from cosmic philosophy to social philosophy. Gods have never been given social strata, or have not been discussed by any scholar in connection with social philosophy. For this reason, it has still been remained mysterious and vogue among many Buddhist practitioners, including scholars in the contemporary Buddhist societies. One of the most complex issues is whether or not the gods exist, although it is impossible to prove its real existence mythically.

This article focuses to give a dynamic explanation of gods in the context of Theravāda Buddhist social philosophy. In Buddhist social context, gods are of three types: conventional gods, gods by birth, and gods by purification. This article is to give a detailed analysis of these three categories of gods, and at the same time, it will also show the gods in the Theravāda Buddhist scriptures have been misunderstood mythically because of the insufficiency of analytical knowledge in Buddha’s teachings. By carefully studying and examining of any part of the department of gods in Theravāda Buddhist texts, we can understand, gods can be reduced to pragmatic social beings.

Keywords: Dynamic explanation, Gods, Theravāda Buddhist, Social philosophy


2600 years ago, in the period of the sixth century BC, it is very hard to imagine what was the condition of socio-religious and cultural environment. However to understand that we have to depend on our Buddhist literatures. It is said that the environment was like spiritual unrest and philosophical fermentation. There were four main social grades ancient India introduced by the so-called Brahmins at that time: Brahmana, Khattiya, Vaisya and Sudda.[1] The beliefs toward the supernatural agents were widespread among those of social groups of people. The god “Brahma” was considered supreme and therefore was given highest authority to him in order to fulfill any desire expected by the performers of sacrificial rituals along with various valuable materials for the purpose of leading of a good life. However, such way, Buddhism has never been embraced. The Brahmanas encouraged the wealthy persons to believe such supernatural agent (brahma) and to perform sacrificial rituals in order to gain plenty of material wealth. In the Buddhist scriptures, we have evidenced that the Brahmin priests had occupied prominent post in becoming advisors of the kings and ministers. On the other hand, the Buddha delivered discourse to those wealthy persons on how to protect one’s wealth or property, at the same time he taught them how to manage and expense of their money.[2] The Buddha’s main thing was to fix socio-religious corrupt condition by not directly interfering of the Brahmins but in a way that could be settled the socio-religious problems by peaceful understanding.

The Explanation Of Gods In The Buddhist Cosmology

Many were confused whether the supernatural agent, like God Brahma and many other semi-gods exist or not exist. A Brahmin student named Saṅgārava had to go to the Buddha to know about this and asked him:“Indeed the good Gotama’s striving was steadfast, indeed it was that of a true man such as that of a perfected one, a fully Self-Awakened One. But now, good Gotama, are there devas? “Certainly, Bhāradvāja, it is known to me that there are devas.” “But why do you, good Gotama, on being asked if there are devas say that it is certainly known to you that there are devas? Even if this is so, good Gotama, is it not a vain falsehood?” “If on being asked, Bhāradvāja, ‘Are there devas?’ one should say: ‘There are devas’ and should say: ‘Certainly they are known to me,’ then the conclusion to be reached by an intelligent person is indubitable, namely that there are devas.” “But why did not the revered Gotama explain this to me at the beginning?” “It is commonly agreed in the world, Bhāradvāja, that there are devas.” [3]

Again, a Brahmin named Doṇa also asked the Buddha whether he was a god or not:‘Your worship will become a deva?’‘No indeed, brāhmin. I’ll not become a deva.’‘Then your worship will become a gandharva?’‘No indeed brāhmin, I’ll not become a gandharva.’‘A yakkha, then? ‘No indeed, brāhmin, not a yakkha.’‘Then your worship will become a human being?’‘No indeed, brāhmin, I’ll not become a human being.’ [4]

According to the Buddhist cosmology, the following 31 planes of existence[5] is to be understood as our whole planet of earth in which the different levels of gods are placed as their abodes. Indian and Buddhist cosmology of earth is almost the same and has been understood in popular and mythological context.

I. The Sensuous World (kama-loka)States of deprivation (apaya)

No.RealmGodsCause of rebirth here
1PurgatorynirayaTen unwholesome actions [6], murdering parents or arahant, injuring arahant, creating schism in the Sangha
2AsurasasuraTen unwholesome actions
3Hungry ghostspetaTen unwholesome actions, lack of virtue
4AnimalstiracchanaTen unwholesome actions, behaving like an animal

Happy Destinations (sugati)

Numbers 5 – 11 are in the realm of the sense world, can experience sense pleasures and displeasures, mostly pleasure for the devas (impermanent gods).

No.RealmGodsCause of rebirth here
5Humansmanussadevelopment of virtue, wisdom, stream-entry guarantees rebirth as human or deva
6Devas of the Four Great Kingscatumaharajika devaTen wholesome actions [7], virtue, generosity, wisdom
7The 33 godstavatimsa devaTen wholesome actions, virtue, generosity, wisdom
8Yama devasyama devaTen wholesome actions, virtue, generosity, wisdom
9Contented devastusita devaTen wholesome actions, virtue, generosity, wisdom
10Devas delighting in creationnimmanarati devaTen wholesome actions, virtue, generosity, wisdom
11Devas wielding power over others’ creationsparanimmita-vasavatti devaTen wholesome actions, virtue, generosity, wisdom

II. The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka)

Numbers 12 – 27 are in the realm of form. There is a subtle body and these deva realms are superior to those in the sense realm. One attains rebirth to these planes based on kamma and spiritual attainments.

No.RealmGodsCause of rebirth here
12Retinue of Brahmabrahma-parisajja devaproficiency in first jhana, minor degree
13Ministers of Brahmabrahma-purohita devaproficiency in first jhana, medium degree
14Great BrahmasMaha brahmaproficiency in first jhana, highest degree
15Devas of limited radianceparittabha devaproficiency in second jhana, minor degree
16Devas of unbounded radianceappamanabha devaproficiency in second jhana, medium degree
17Devas of streaming radianceabhassara devaproficiency in second jhana, highest degree
18Devas of limited gloryparittasubha devaproficiency in third jhana, minor degree
19Devas of unbounded gloryappamanasubha devaproficiency in third jhana, medium degree
20Devas of refulgent glorysubhakinna devaproficiency in third jhana, highest degree
21Very fruitful devasvehapphala devaproficiency in fourth jhana
22Unconscious beingsAsaññasatta devaproficiency in fourth jhana

Realms 23 to 27 are the Pure Abodes (suddhavasa), which are accessible only to non-returners (anagami) and arahants. Beings who become non-returners in other planes are reborn here, where they attain arahantship. Among its inhabitants is Brahma Sahampati, who begs the Buddha to teach Dhamma to the world (Samyutta Nikaya 6.1).

No.RealmGodsCause of rebirth here
23Devas not falling awayaviha devaproficiency in fourth jhana
24Untroubled devasatappa devaproficiency in fourth jhana
25Beautiful, clearly visible devassudassa devaproficiency in fourth jhana
26Clear-sighted devassudassi devaproficiency in fourth jhana
27Peerless devasakanittha devaproficiency in fourth jhana

III. The Immaterial World (arupa-loka)

Numbers 28 – 31 are in the realm of the formless. This means there is no body of any kind. There is just a type of consciousness, conventional existence as we know it, but without a body. The life spans are very long in the formless realm and one attains to these levels by the formless jhanas these planes are named after, jhanas or realms 5 to 8. Numbers 28- 31 are not necessarily the best places to be. At these levels, one cannot hear the Dhamma from a Buddha or arahant on earth or any other planet. The best destinations are the pure abodes at numbers 23 – 27 which are deva realms for non-returners. Rebirth to these planes means that enlightenment will be attained while at one of these planes of existence.

No.RealmGodsCause of rebirth here
28Sphere of Infinity of Spaceakasanañcayatanupaga devaproficiency in fifth jhana (the first formless jhana)
29Sphere of Infinity of Consciousnessviññanañcayatanupaga devaproficiency in sixth jhana (the second formless jhana)
30Sphere of No-thingnessakiñcaññayatanupaga devaproficiency in seventh jhana (the third formless jhana)
31Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-PerceptionNevasaññanasaññayatanupagadevaproficiency in eighth jhana (the fourth formless jhana)

The lowest area (planes 1-11) is called the sensuous realm; here sense experience predominates. Next comes the fine-material realm (12-27) attained by practicing the fine-material absorptions (rupa-jhanas). Above that is the immaterial realm (28-31) attained by practicing the immaterial absorptions (arupa-jhanas).

Although humans appear to be rather low on the scale, many intelligent deities long for rebirth on the human plane. Because the best opportunity to practice the Dhamma and attain liberation is right here on earth. On the lower four planes, little progress can be made as suffering is gross and unrelenting and the opportunity to perform deeds of merit is rarely gained. The very bliss of the higher planes beclouds the universal characteristics of all phenomena: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the lack of any lasting, controlling self. And without fully comprehending these principles, there is no motivation to develop the detachment from the world that is essential to liberation.

We find in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya. Having seen the Licchavis from afar, the Buddha said: “Monks, any of you who have not seen the Thirty-Three Gods (Tāvatiṁsa devas), just look at the troops of the Licchavis! Take a good look at them and you will get an idea of the Thirty-Three Gods!”[8] A similar comparison between the Tāvatiṁsa devas and the Licchavis is also made in the Vinaya text.[9] It is stated that the Buddha preached the Lomasakangiyabhaddekaratta Sutta to the Tāvatiṁsa devas at the Red Marble Seat and under the Pāricchattaka tree.[10] The Tāvatiṁsa devas had a regular meeting hall called “Sudhammā”. A description of such meeting is found in the Janavasabha Sutta, in which it is said that the Cātummahārājika devas acted as guards, and the other devas from the Brahmā-lokā were seen attended as guests, for example, the Brahmā Sanankumāra who came in the guise of Pañcasika.

Historians have been featured the mythological gods from ethnographical standpoint. They are of the opinion that the entire gods depicted in the canonical literature of Saṁyuttanikāya and other scattered Buddhist scriptures were the various tribal groups inhabited surroundings of ancient India. The Yakkhas[11] in the Yakkha-saṃyutta of Saṃyutta Nikāya are the only evidenced the tribal group of Yakkha at the Buddha’s time in India. As the discourses have shown that they were capable to ask philosophical questions, capable to understand the Buddha’s ethical and moral teachings and able to distinguish the Dhamma between the mundane and supramundane. Therefore, in this ground, the Yakkhas undoubtedly be considered as one of the early tribal groups existed at the Buddha’s time. They were converted to Buddhism from their uncivilized ritual sacrifices. The general notion of certain customs and manners commonly shared by most early tribal societies which enable us to understand the mysterious aspect of the Yakkhas. In the early tribal societies admission to the secrets was allowed only to the initiation of the ceremonies were held in secrecy. From the foregoing statements, it would be clear that the Yakkhas found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya were not mere tribesmen. They were mythologized in the later textual interpretation in Buddhism.[12] Scholar like M. M. J. Marasinghe observed that the Yakkhas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya were the tribal peoples. According to him Yakkha Āḷavaka was a tribal chief of the Yakkhas inhabited at the time of the Buddha and the other Yakkhas such as, Indaka, Sūciloma and Maṇibhadda would have been at least respectable tribesmen, if not tribal chief.[13] Among the Yakkhas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, Indaka Yakkha would be considered as the most intelligent person. Therefore, many of them were taken up the words of the Buddha and converted to rise to higher sphere of existence in saṃsāra. Among the Yakkha Saṃyutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Sānu Sutta and the Sudatta Sutta in particular in which the Yakkhas appeared as not in the ethnographical character, but are attached with the popular meaning presented in the Vedic literature. But according to the commentary stated that the Yakkha who possessed Sānu was his previous mother.

Explanation Of Gods Reduced To Social Philosophy

Any explanation of gods both in the non-Buddhist and the Buddhist literatures, our general and main ideas is supernaturalistic. However, interestingly and importantly in this subject is to show how supernaturalistic of gods can be reduced to social philosophy. The gods in the context of social philosophy, the Buddhist scriptures divided into three: (1) the conventional gods (sammuti devas), (2) the gods by birth (uppatti devas) and (3) the gods by purification (visuddhi devas). All these gods we can interpret as different groups of people living in the world. The conventional gods refer to the members of the members of royal families. The gods by birth refer different stages of rebirth of human beings on the basis of Karmic or Kammic consequences either good or bad actions. The gods by purification are the reference to the Buddha and his disciples who attained enlightenment by their knowledge.

A righteous ruler in Buddhism is called Universal Monarch (Cakkavatti Rāja). The Universal Monarch is of three kinds stated in the Theravāda Buddhist scriptures: Cakkavāḷacakkavatti,[14] Dīpacakkavatti[15] and Padesacakkavatti.[16] Among these Cakkavatti king, the Cakkavāḷacakkavatti king is the most powerful who is entitled to rule the Four Great Continents (cakkavatti dhammiko dhammarājā cāturanto).[17] According to Buddhism, the king should observe and possess four sets of virtues and qualities. The first set is called the Dasa Rājadhamma (“Ten Virtues of the King”): namely, charity, high moral character, self-sacrifice, integrity, gentleness, austerity (or nonindulgence), non-anger, non-oppression, tolerance, and non-deviation from the norm.[18] These virtues are the best known and the most emphasized of the four sets of royal virtues.

However, anyone of the threefold Cakkavatti king recognizes as the foremost among the kings existed in the early times. In the Buddhist scriptures, there has not been found any Universal Monarch that ruled the country unless in some Jātaka stories, when the Bodhisatta was born as princes, hermits and teachers etc. gave moral instructions to the kings and the ministers and people. In the Sīlavanta Jātaka, when Bodhisatta was born as a prince, he saw his own father ruled the country with unrighteous means. Therefore, he promised that when he would become king after his father then he would lead the country by righteous way and would resolve the conflict in the kingdoms with peaceful means.[19] The Bodhisatta was seen instructing the norms to rule the country. The Buddha during his Dhamma teachings and propagation always taught the norms to establish ideal or moral qualities into the administrative model in the country. In the Theravāda Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha said:

Here, bhikkhu, a wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king who rules by the Dhamma, relying just on the Dhamma, honoring, respecting, and venerating the Dhamma, taking the Dhamma as his standard, banner, and authority, provides righteous protection, shelter, and guard for the people in his court. Again, a wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king who rules by the Dhamma, relying just on the Dhamma, honoring, respecting, and venerating the Dhamma, taking the Dhamma as his standard, banner, and authority, provides righteous protection, shelter, and guard for his khattiya vassals, his army, brahmins and householders, the people of town and countryside, ascetics and brahmins, and the animals and birds. Having provided such righteous protection, shelter, and guard for all these beings, that wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king, who rules by the Dhamma, turns the wheel solely through the Dhamma, a wheel that cannot be turned back by any hostile human being.”[20]

The Buddha clearly declares righteous administrative models of the kings to run the country in the following:

When kings are righteous, the royal vassals become righteous.”[21] “When the royal vassals are righteous (Dhammikā honti), Brahmins and householders become righteous. When Brahmins and householders are righteous, the people of the towns and countryside become righteous. When the people of the towns and countryside are righteous, the sun and moon proceed on course. When the sun and moon proceed on course, the constellations and the stars proceed on course. When the constellations and the stars proceed on course, day and night proceed on course … the months and fortnights proceed on course . . . the seasons and years proceed on course. When the seasons and years proceed on course, the winds blow on course and dependably. When the winds blow on course and dependably, the deities do not become upset. When the deities are not upset, sufficient rain falls. When sufficient rain falls, the crops ripen in season. When people eat crops that ripen in season, they become long-lived, beautiful, strong, and healthy.[22]

Buddhist scripture provides evidence, the kings were moulded by the belief system of sacrificial rituals prompted by the Brahmins, but the Buddha encouraged the kings not to perform sacrificial rituals, if there was any killing involved, so he directed and encouraged to them for the benefit of the society. In this connection, we read the Buddha’s saying:Brahmin, once upon a time there was a king called Mahāvijita. He was rich, of great wealth and resources, with an abundance of gold and silver, of possessions and requisites, of money and money’s worth, with a full treasury and granary. And when King Mahāvijita was reflecting in private, the thought came to him: ‘I have acquired extensive wealth in human terms, I occupy a wide extent of land which I have conquered. Let me now make a great sacrifice that would be to my benefit and happiness for a long time.’ And calling his chaplain, he told him his thought. ‘I want to make a great sacrifice. Instruct me, venerable sir, how this may be to my lasting benefit and happiness.’ “The chaplain replied: ‘Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves. It is ravaged; villages and towns are being destroyed; the countryside is infested with brigands. If Your Majesty were to tax this region, that would be the wrong thing to do. Suppose Your Majesty were to think: “I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats, and banishment,” the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague. To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great; the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves; and the people, with joy in their hearts, playing with their children, will dwell in open houses.’ “And saying: ‘So be it!,’ the king accepted the chaplain’s advice: he gave grain and fodder to those engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, capital to those in trade, proper living wages to those in government service. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, did not harm the kingdom. The king’s revenues became great; the land was tranquil and not beset by thieves; and the people, with joy in their hearts, playing with their children, dwelt in open houses.”[23]

If there is righteous king exist of the country, his ministers and citizens possess the following ten wholesome actions, such as: three righteous bodily conducts, four righteous verbal conducts, and three righteous mental conducts.

Three Righteous Bodily Conducts: (1) Someone, abandoning the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings (pāṇātipātā paṭivirato); with rod and weapon laid aside, gentle and kindly, he abides compassionate to all living beings. (2) Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given (adinnādānā paṭivirato); he does not take by way of theft the wealth and property of others in the village or in the forest. (3) Abandoning misconduct in sensual pleasures (kāmesu micchācārā paṭivirato), he abstains from misconduct in sensual pleasures; he does not have intercourse with women who are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, or with those who are garlanded in token of betrothal.

Four Righteous Verbal Conducts: (1) Someone, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech (musāvādā paṭivirato); when summoned to a court, or to a meeting, or to his relatives’ presence, or to his guild, or to the royal family’s presence, and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So, good man, tell what you know; or not knowing, he says, ‘I do not know; or knowing, he says, ‘I know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I do not see; or seeing, he says, ‘I see’; he does not in full awareness speak falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end. (2) Abandoning malicious speech, he abstains from malicious speech (pisuṇāya vācāya paṭivirato); he does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide [those people] from these, nor does he repeat to these people what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide [these people] from those; thus he is one who reunites those who are divided, a promoter of friendships, who enjoys concord, rejoices in concord, delights in concord, a speaker of words that promote concord. (3) Abandoning harsh speech, he abstains from harsh speech (pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato); he speaks such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable, as go to the heart, are courteous, desired by many, and agreeable to many. (4) Abandoning gossip, he abstains from gossip (samphapphalāpā paṭivirato); he speaks at the right time, speaks what is fact, speaks on what is good, speaks on the Dhamma and the Discipline; at the right time he speaks such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.

Three Righteous Mental Conducts: (1) Someone is not covetous (anabhijjhālu); he does not covet the wealth and property of others thus: ‘Oh, may what belongs to another be mine!’ (2) Someone mind is without ill will (abyāpannacitto) and he has intentions free from hate thus: ‘May these beings be free from enmity, affliction and anxiety! May they live happily!’ (3) Someone has right view (sammādiṭṭhi), undistorted vision, thus: ‘There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed; there is fruit and result of good and bad actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings who are reborn spontaneously; there are good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realised by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.’[24]


Even majority of the Buddhist followers in the predominant Buddhist countries of Asia believe that gods are residing in the heavens and the hells and they are superior in the cases of strength and powers to humans. They also misunderstand by pointing out the fingers, heavens are located at above the sky and the hells are located under the ground, although Buddhism emphasizes the heavens and the hells are mentally originated of any good or bad qualities. Good qualities of the mind are heavens and bad qualities are compared as hells. The totality of the world is represented in the planet where the humans are living (manussaloka) and the other planets are the representation of karmic consequences. In Buddhism, there is no place of gods in dogmatically that other theocentric religions place gods as supreme: creator of all things in the world and they are permanent entity. In entire Buddhist doctrines, the Buddha was adopted very carefully in dealing with any issue relating to the supernatural gods. Any supportive explanation about supernatural gods found in the Buddhist scriptures has been shifted from the Brahmanical religion.

True Buddha’s social philosophy of gods is that the Buddha drew people to get attention of his 45 years of Dhamma propagation to concentrate in the human’s world, because only in the human’s world, there is available to do good things for the benefit of personal welfare as well as for the benefit of welfare of others. There are different groups of people and different creatures are living in this world and they need reciprocal relationship in order to live with harmony and to make the word a perfect living place for all sentient beings.



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