Buddhist Iconography Main Page
Deities: Categories & Divisions:
- Terminology (below)
- Visual Categories
- Conceptual Categories
- Goddess Terminology
Video: Deities: Terminology
Categories and divisions of deities in Tantric Buddhism is a broad subject with many variations on explanation depending on early Indian text, time period, religious tradition and region. Terminology can often overlap and meanings conflated or confused. The common terms used in translation are: god, deity, worldly, beyond worldly, unenlightened, and enlightened. Tantric Buddhism describes two categories which are the worldly deities which is the same as unenlightened and enlightened which is equal to beyond worldly. The beyond worldly/enlightened deities are also referred to as wisdom deities.
Enlightened, enlightenment or awakened, strictly refers to a buddha. The term enlightened is also loosely used to refer to the Eight Great Bodhisattvas from Mahayana Buddhism. In Mahayana these figures are still on the bodhisattva path and have attained one of the ten bodhisattva grounds or levels which are traversed prior to reaching enlightenment, or complete enlightenment. In Vajrayana Buddhism the important characters from Mahayana such as Lokeshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani are already believed to be enlightened and on the same level as a buddha.
Wisdom Deities (enlightened)
Wisdom deities include all the different forms of buddhas and meditational deities of the four classifications of Tantra, along with any deity that is deemed an emanation of a buddha or another enlightened deity. In general, those figures that are categorized as enlightened are referred to as deities. (This use of 'wisdom deities' is not the same as 'wisdom producing deities' such as as Manjushri and Sarasvati).
Worldly Deities (Unenlightened)
Figures and characters that can be described as Worldly Deities can be divided into three sub categories: deva, naga and ghost. These three are based on the theory of Buddhist cosmology as described in the Abhidharma literature and the depictions of the Wheel of Life. Deva and devi are the Sanskrit words for god and goddess. A naga is a half human and half serpent water being of which some interact with the human realm and classified as belonging to the animal realm. The third is ghosts which inhabit the preta realm of Buddhist cosmology. A very small but powerful few ghosts of the preta realm can also interact in the human realm.
The deva comprise all of the Indian classical gods, male and female, such as Brahma, Indra, Shiva, Vishna, Pritidevi, Ganapati, Sarasvati, the Four Guardian Kings, Surya, Chandra and others. (Take note that the Hindu Ganapati and Sarasvati are not the same entities as the Tantric Buddhist Ganapati and Sarasvati).
The naga beings are known for a set of eight naga kings which are routinely employed in the Tantric imagery of wrathful wisdom/enlightened deities. Some naga are virtuous and beneficial while others are considered dangerous and sometimes subjugated and oath bound to protect Buddhist teachings and temples. Representations of the eight kings are typically depicted in the eight cemeteries that surround the semi peaceful/wrathful and wrathful mandalas.
Ghosts of the preta realm are commonly referred to as mountain gods, regional protectors, local deities, water spirits (other than nagas), and spirits (bhuta, pishaci, dakini). There are many sub categories and lists of the different types of ghosts that interact with humans. Many of the very powerful ghosts are believed to be subjugated by great Buddhist teachers of the past and bound to protect the Buddhist teachings in the Himalayas and Tibet. Examples of these controlled and oath bound spirits are Pehar, Dorje Setrab, Tsi'u Marpo, Drala, Tseringma and others. There is no consensus or consistency among the various Tibetan religious traditions over the status of some of these oath bound protectors with some claimed to be enlightened emanations in the appearance of oath bound protector deities.
The deva of India are typically referred to in translation as gods. The many Himalayan and Tibetan regional spirits are also often referred to as gods in both the indigenous languages and in translation.
Jeff Watt 8-2020