The Concept of Buddhist Gods
Buddhist gods and goddesses in the Buddhist pantheon have different meanings, forms and origins. These Buddhist gods exist as divinities throughout the 6 realms of existence and thousands of world cycles. However, Buddhas and Buddhist gods should be considered mutually exclusive.
Generally speaking, there are several types of divinities who inhabit the spheres above and below the human realm. The most powerful are the Buddhist gods (devas and brahmas). Additionally, there are other lower level divinities that can be found in the human realm such as nagas, kinnaras and garudas. Finally, the Dharmapala can dwell in the upper realms but also in hell.
Descriptions of the Buddhist Divinities
- Devas and Brahmas – heavenly beings that exist in five main heavens that are structured in layers above the human realm. Additionally, they can exist in material or immaterial form.
- Nagas – are semi-divine beings who exist in the form of snakes and they can take human form. The most infamous naga “Mara” tempted the Buddha while he was meditating under the bodhi tree on the verge of enlightenment. Nagas are associated with bodies of water such as lakes and rivers.
- Kinnaras – mythical half human, half bird creatures that come from the Himalayas and assist humans in times of trouble. They are in a perpetual state of bliss and are always dancing and singing.
- Garudas – the garudas are giant birds who are enemies of the nagas and are often depicted grasping a snake in their claws. They have limited divine characteristics and some can take human form if necessary.
- Dharmapala – this is a Sanskrit word that translates literally as “Protector of the Dharma”. These fierce deities are the protectors of Buddhism and the destroyers of obstacles to spiritual realization. Their fearsome appearance belies their compassionate intentions.
Although they are quite powerful, one thing these diverse beings have in common is that they have fallen short of the ultimate objective – Nirvana. As such, these Buddhist gods are superior life forms to those of us in the human realm but they are not Buddhas.
Who are the real Buddhist Gods?
Indeed, what most people think are Tibetan gods or Mahayana Buddhist gods are not really “Buddhist gods” at all (devas or brahmas). Instead, they are accomplished Bodhisattvas who could have already become Buddhas (but elected to delay their full enlightenment). Additionally, they could be Pure Land Buddhas (Amitabha) who endeavor to assist sentient life and lower level Bodhisattvas.
To appear as “Buddhist gods”, Buddhas and high level Bodhisattvas use an embodiment called Sambhogakaya. By using Sambhogakaya they can appear at anytime, as anything, anywhere. Additionally, this Sambhogakaya embodiment can be peaceful, semi-wrathful or wrathful and it is also endowed with special powers and attributes.
Then what is the Buddhist god called and how many Buddhist gods are there? The answer is that there are many Buddhist gods, but they are all subordinate to the supreme Buddha.
Buddhist Gods Have Human Frailties
This is because Buddhist gods (devas and brahmas) and also Bodhisattvas still exist in the cycle of rebirth known as samsara. In that sense, they have the same frailties as humans such as sensuous desire, conceit and emotion. Therefore, they all venerate the supreme Buddha who has eliminated all traces of these mundane frailties.
Additionally, Buddhist gods and Bodhisattvas can still be reborn in the human realm. If so, they would need to start over and accumulate enough merit to return to the heavenly realms. However, a fully fledged Buddha has transcended the cycle of rebirth.
Theological Limitations of Buddhist Gods
Powers attributed to Buddhist gods are rooted in their origins. The three primary variations of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism). Additionally, beliefs and practices of each denomination range from very conservative to extremely progressive. Theravada Buddhism being the most conservative, Mahayana moderate and Tibetan Buddhism would be considered very progressive.
However, even the most conservative Theravada Buddhist must acknowledge the existence of Buddhist gods (devas and brahmas). Indeed, the Buddha’s own mother ascended to the Tusita heavenly realm after her death. Plus, thousands of devas and brahmas attended the Buddha’s first sermon when he set the “Wheel of Dharma” in motion. The existence of these devas and brahmas is evidenced in the most venerable and original teachings of the Buddha such as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and the Bhavacakra.
Additionally, it can be assumed that all religions would agree that “God” or that gods and goddesses have divine powers. Nonetheless, it is universally agreed among Buddhists that all beings in samsara are subject to the laws of conditionality (karma). Therefore, good things result from wholesome actions and bad things will result from unwholesome actions.
So this is the million dollar question – Do the Buddhist gods have the power to turn bad karma into good karma? The answers would vary between Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhist doctrines. No, possibly and yes – respectively.
Can the Buddhist Gods Preform Miracles?
The Buddhist gods venerated by devotees are predominantly derived from Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the orthodox teachings of Theravada Buddhism would consider the concept of Buddhist gods and Bodhisattvas to be irrelevant regarding personal salvation.
This is very significant because Theravada Buddhism (also known as Hinayana), is what the original Buddha taught his disciples. In the Buddha’s own words, “One’s own karma is one’s own property.” – Shakyamuni Buddha
Therefore, it is a settled matter that in Theravada beliefs a person’s salvation is in their own hands and the Buddhist gods cannot perform outright miracles. The only way to correct a person’s bad karma is to replace it with good karma.
The Most Progressive Buddhist Gods
However, in Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism there is a much greater acceptance of Buddhist gods and their divine powers. As a result, their devotees are much more sympathetic to the concept of miracles.
Although Mahayana Buddhism is based on the original teachings of the Buddha, it takes some populist liberties with what the Buddha actually taught and it was not developed until 2-3 centuries after the parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Additionally, it should be noted that the school of Tibetan Buddhism is the Tibetan version of Vajrayana Buddhism which was not developed in Tibet until the 8th century A.C.E. – approximately 1200 years after the parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha.
As such, Mahayana Buddhist gods would take an approach that would help devotees help themselves, so to speak. But Tibetan Buddhism is much more progressive, with sufficient faith, devotees can induce outright miracles from the Tibetan gods. This would include karma purification, wealth creation, longevity and bending an estranged lover or even a king to your will.
How do you pray to Buddhist Gods?
To gain favor from Buddhist gods, devotees would preferably make a combined effort which includes a virtuous lifestyle e.g. good karma. A virtuous lifestyle would include abstaining from harming other sentient life forms, improper sexual acts, speaking untruths, taking what is not given to you and consuming intoxicants.
Additionally, most Buddhist gods have a mantra which devotees recite in order to gain their favor, the more recitations the better. Many devotees also make offerings on the altar of the deity, such as food.
However, there are also rituals that are performed in Tibetan Buddhism with the assistance of a shaman or priest. These rituals can be performed in addition to prayer, offerings, clean living and liberal recitations of the Tibetan gods mantra.
Top Buddhist Gods List
I have compiled a list of the most powerful Buddhist gods which can be found below. All of these Buddhist gods listed will include a brief description, their historical origin and also photos. Additionally, I have listed the deity’s mantra which devotees can recite to gain favor from the Buddhist deity.
For devotees, it is important to have some form of representation of the deity such as a sculpture, picture or painting. Having physical representations such as Buddhist god statues in your home, meditation room or on your Buddhist altar will increase the effectiveness of your practice.
This is because the virtues Buddhist gods represent can influence your future actions for the better and help to purify karma.
Shakyamuni Buddha – The Ruler of the Buddhist Gods
Is Shakyamuni Buddha the ruler of the Buddhist Gods? As discussed above, the short answer is yes, although he is not considered a Buddhist god. Unfortunately, western theology tends to classify everything as “god or not god”. Additionally, it should be re-clarified that Buddhists are not atheists because all Buddhist schools acknowledge the existence of Buddhist gods.
Instead, Shakyamuni Buddha is best described as the Buddha of our time. This is because he rediscovered Buddhism in our world cycle when it had been forgotten and sentient life had fallen into disarray.
Shakyamuni Buddha was reincarnated into our world cycle in the 6th century B.C.E. as the Prince Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in Northern India (present day Nepal) and his father was the King named Suddhodana and his mother was Queen Maya. He was the only child after 20 years of marriage and Queen Maya proclaimed that it was an immaculate conception.
The Path To Enlightenment
To the dismay of King Suddhodana, Prince Siddhartha renounced his claim to his father’s kingdom when he was 29 years old and set out to end all suffering. 6 years later at the age of 35 years, he became a “Buddha” which is a Pali term for “all knowing or awakened one”.
From that time forward he was known as “Shakyamuni Buddha” or “Gautama Buddha”. However, he then set out to completely fulfill his vow of eradicating all suffering – for all sentient life. Therefore, he dedicated the remaining 45 years of his earthly life to teaching the Dharma path. This is very significant because not all original Buddhas choose to teach after they rediscover the Dharma.
As a result, Shakyamuni is considered to be a Sammasambuddha. This is because he rediscovered the Dharma completely on his own and then chose to reintroduce it into a world cycle or era where it had been long forgotten. As a result, he is similar to his predecessor Dipankara Buddha and also his successor who is prophesied to be Maitreya (the Buddha of the future).
Shakyamuni Buddha Mantra (Tibetan Buddhism)
“Om Muni Muni Maha Muniye Soha”
Amitabha Buddha – Buddhist Deity of “Infinite Light and Life”
Amitabha is known as the “Buddha of Infinite Light and Life.” As a Bodhisattva named Dharmakara he accumulated an infinite amount of merit during thousands of Bodhisattva lifetimes. Additionally, he is the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism and he has his own pure land called “Sukhavati”.
To gain admittance to Sukhavati, Amitabha asks his devotees to recite his name or mantra. As a result, they are able to enter his land of sonorous and visual bliss.
Once they gain admittance to Sukhavati, they will be protected and nurtured until they are to able to obtain the highest achievement of Nirvana.
“Om Amitabha Hrih”
Amitayus – Buddhist Deity of Longevity
Amitayus Buddha is also known as Aparmita and he represents the longevity attribute of Amitabha Buddha. In Sanskrit, the Amitayus meaning translates as “infinite life”. Additionally, Amitayus practice is commonly performed in Tibet in the hopes that he will prolong the lives of devotees.
Amitayus statues feature his immortality vessel filled with “amrita”, the sacred elixir of immortality and awakening. A replica of his immortality vessel is filled with consecrated wine and it is the centerpiece of the longevity ritual. After the Amitayus practice is performed devotees each drink some of the consecrated wine and also consume some small pills made of dough.
It is believed that the effectiveness of the ritual depends on the faith of devotees in the longevity powers of Amitabha. Therefore, if the ritual is not effective it is blamed on a lack of devotion.
An Amitayus statue is also a central aspect of Amitayus practice. Amitayus statues depict him in full lotus pose with the immortality vessel resting on his lap.
“Om A Ma Ra Ni Dzi Wan Ti Ye Soha”
Green Tara – Buddhist Deity of Protection
Green Tara is the most popular of all female Mahayana Buddhist gods. However, Green Tara is only one of the 21 emanations taken by the Bodhisattva Tara.
Tara was born from a teardrop which fell from the eye of Avalokitesvara. When Tara’s tear fell from his eye it landed in a lake filled with his tears and formed a lotus on the surface, from which Tara sprang forth.
Tara is also an ardent feminist and she has refused reincarnation as a male until there are more female Buddha names. However, the rank Green Tara is given among the Buddhist Gods can fluctuate. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism she is already considered to be a full Buddha. However, in other Buddhist schools such as Mahayana she is still not included as one of the female Buddha names.
Green Tara is also known as Khadiravani and she resides in her pure land, Mt Potala. Mt Potala is an idyllic verdant forest filled with forest animals, waterfalls and lush vegetation.
However, the color green, is also affiliated with speed and agility. Therefore, Green Tara is always ready to swiftly provide aid to devotees. Depictions of her are with one leg partially extended resting on a lotus flower, this is so she can quickly spring into action.
Green Tara is associated with protection from fear and the eight obscurations of pride, delusion, hatred, jealousy, wrong views, avarice, desire and deluded doubts. Devotees are encouraged to recite her mantra when they are in need.
Green Tara Mantra
“Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha”
Chenrezig Buddhist Deity of Compassion
Chenrezig is also known as Avalokitesvara and he is an embodiment of the Buddha’s compassion. Chenrezig has chosen to indefinitely delay his entrance into Nirvana until universal cessation of all suffering is achieved.
Upon realizing the immensity of his vow, it is believed that Chenrezig imploded into thousands of pieces. Amitabha Buddha pieced him back together again so he would be better prepared to accomplish the task at hand. This is how Avalokitesvara became the Buddhist god with many arms.
Depictions of Chenrezig can vary. In fact, some depictions of him have 1000 arms and others are limited to 4 arms. Additionally, he is sometimes depicted with 11 heads so he can better hear and see the suffering of all sentient beings. Until his goal is achieved he will serve to fill the gap between Shakyamuni Buddha and the Buddha of the future – Meitreya.
Avalokitesvara is the most venerable and well known of all Mahayana Buddhist gods. Since his origination in India, he has spread eastwards and been widely accepted into other Asian counties.
However, he is not always depicted as a male and in China, Avalokitesvara has chosen to take female form. As a result, Avalokitesvara has become the most popular of Chinese Buddhist deities known as Guanyin. Additionally, Guanyin has been widely accepted in Japanese and Korean Buddhist beliefs.
“Om Mani Padme Hum”
Manjushri – Buddhist Deity of “Perfected Wisdom”
Manjushri is another very venerable and time tested Bodhisattva in the pantheon of Buddhist gods. Most commonly, depictions among Buddhist gods show Manjushri wielding the sword of wisdom over his right shoulder.
Indeed, Manjushri is believed to represent the Buddha’s wisdom. The power of wisdom is used to gently annihilate ignorance and delusion so practitioners can achieve spiritual realization.
Although he is wielding a flaming sword, the death of ignorance will be non-violent. Indeed, wisdom can outsmart ignorance and it will be a painless death conducted with surgical precision. Therefore, the flaming sword is a symbol of its effectiveness but not the means.
Manjushri resides in his pure land of Vimala which is believed to have a terrestrial presence on Mt Wutai in northern China. As a result, it is possible for worldly beings to visualize Manjushri as he sits in his earthly bodhimanda.
Manjushri is also known as the “Prince of Wisdom” because of his youthful looks. This is because acquiring wisdom is believed to create new perspectives which will preserve a youthful appearance.
The recitation of Manjushri’s mantra is believed to enhance speech, increase memory capacity and sharpness of mind. The origins of Manjushri lie in the Prajnaparamita Sutta and he is quite popular with intellectuals.
“Om A Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhih”
Vajrapani – Buddhist Deity of Power
Vajrapani is one of the most venerated Buddhist gods that represents the Buddha’s power of wisdom. Additionally, Vajrapani is well known as the protector of the Buddha.
Indeed, Vajrapani is believed to have protected the Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) during his renunciation and he also helped him escape from the palace. After his escape the Buddha would go on to became the founder of the Buddhist religion.
Vajrapani can take a peaceful, semi-wrathful or wrathful appearance. In Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrapani is considered to be one of the wrathful Tibetan gods. Additionally, he is known as a “Dharmapala” which is one of the Buddhist guardian deities.
In Tibetan Buddhism, he is often depicted alongside Manjushri and Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara). Collectively, they represent the Buddhas wisdom, power and compassion.
Vajrapani is also well known among Mahayana Buddhist gods. In Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrapani is called Mahasthamaprapta which is a peaceful manifestation popular in Pure Land Buddhism.
As a one of the more popular Chinese Buddhist deities Mahasthamaprapta is often depicted alongside Amitabha Buddha and Guanyin (Avalokitesvara), together they are known as the “Pure Land Trinity”. Additionally, Mahasthamaprapta is depicted as a female in Mahayana Buddhism.
“Om Vajrapani Hum”
Vajrasattva – Buddhist Deity of Karma Purification
Vajrasattva is a Bodhisattva that is venerated as both Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhist gods. However, he is considered to be one of the more complex Buddhist gods who is not recognized in Theravada Buddhism.
According to these Buddhist doctrines there are three forms (bodies) that Buddhas and accomplished Bodhisattvas can take. These 3 bodies are known as the Trikaya which consist of 1) Dharmakaya 2) Sambhogakaya and 3) Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya is the body of truth, Sambhogakaya is the body of limitless form and the Nirmanakaya is the Buddha’s physical body as he would appear in the human realm.
Vajrasattva is believed to be an embodiment of Sambhogakaya. Theoretically, he can take any form imaginable. These forms can be something sublime such as a clear light manifestation. However, he can also appear as a one of the Buddhist guardian deities such as wrathful Vajrapani. Vajrasattva endeavors to appear in a manner which best appeals to his audience and his objective.
Additionally, in Tibetan Buddhism he is considered to be one of the Tibetan gods capable of purifying karma. Vajrasattva rituals are believed to purify bad karma derived from broken samaya vows and even more overt commissions of the “5 acts with immediate retribution”. Vajrasattva has vowed to forgo enlightenment until those who have recited his mantra receive complete redemption from sin.
There are two Vajrasattva mantras, a 6 syllable mantra and also a 100 syllable mantra. Although devotees believe that they are both equally effective.
Vajrasattva 6 Syllable Mantra
“Om Vajrasattva Hum”
Medicine Buddha – Buddhist Deity of “Lapis Lazuli” Light
Medicine Buddha emerges in the 7th century A.C.E. in the eponymous Medicine Buddha Sutra. Also known as Bhaisajyaguru, Medicine Buddha is one the most popular deities on the Mahayana Buddhist gods list.
Additionally, Bhaisajyaguru has a strong affiliation with Amitabha Buddha and they work as an effective team for the salvation of their devotees. Medicine Buddha concentrates on eliminating earthly suffering, while Amitabha is focused on providing devotees a favorable rebirth in his Pure Land Sukhavati.
The Medicine Buddha is easily recognized by his enigmatic deep blue “lapis lazuli” color. Indeed, the Medicine Buddha himself is the color of the gemstone called lapis lazuli. The ground in his eastern Pure Land is also composed of the lapis lazuli gemstone. Additionally, his Pure Land is called “Lapis Lazuli Pure Land”.
As a Bodhisattva, the Medicine Buddha made 12 great vows in the Medicine Buddha Sutra. These vows promise to cure all illness and every imaginable type of mundane suffering. The only requirement is for devotees to hear his name or recite his mantra. If so, they will be immediately cured. As a result, he is very popular with devotees and testimonies abound regarding miracle cures and auspicious events.
The Medicine Buddha Sutra was translated by the Chinese monk Xuanzang in the 7th century and brought to China. As a result, Bhaisajyaguru has become widely accepted among Chinese Buddhist deities. His popularity has spread throughout Pure Land Buddhist beliefs in East Asia.
Medicine Buddha Mantra
“Om bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajya-samudgate svāhā.”
Palden Lhamo – Buddhist Deity of the Dalai Lama
In a former life, Palden Lhamo was a Sri Lankan queen named Remati. However, her husband the king was extremely hostile to Dharma practitioners. Despite her persistent warnings his executions and persecutions of Buddhists continued. Remati warned him one last time however, he did not stop his evil ways and he also persuaded their son to join him.
Queen Remati was furious and she vowed to destroy the king and his lineage. She carried out her threat by killing their son and flaying him while the king was out hunting. Additionally, she ate their son’s flesh and drank his blood from a skull cup known as a kapala.
Afterwards she fled on the back of a mule that was gifted to her by the gods. She used her son’s flayed skin as a saddle and rode the mule across a sea of blood through India, Tibet, China and Mongolia. She did not stop until she reached Siberia.
After her death she was reborn in hell but she escaped taking a bag of diseases and a sword with her. She emerged in the charnel grounds where Buddha Vajradhara appeared to her and suggested she become a Dharmapala (Protector of the Dharma). She agreed and she has since become the patron deity of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Additionally, she is the protector of the Tibetan government.
Palden Lhamo resides in her mountain home outside Lhasa, Tibet where she is the guardian spirit of the sacred lake Lhamo La-tso.
Palden Lhamo Mantra
“JO RAMO JO RAMO JO JO RAMO TUNJO KALA RACHENMO RAMO AJA DAJA TUNJO RULU RULU HUNG JO HUNG”
Guru Rinpoche – Buddhist Deity of Tibetan Buddhism
Guru Rinpoche is an enigmatic figure who is highly venerated as the founding father of Tibetan Buddhism. Additionally, he is believed to be of divine origin and was born in the mythical land of Oddiyana (modern day Pakistan).
He is also widely known as Padmasambhava which translates as “lotus born”. His name, Padmasambhava was attributed to him by the king after he was discovered inside a lotus blossom.
As a young man Guru Rinpoche developed a reputation as being very persuasive in the spiritual realm. As a result, he was called to Tibet in the 8th century to assist with the establishment of the first Buddhist monastery.
The monastery had been plagued by local demons who were impeding it’s completion. To exorcise the demons Guru Rinpoche performed some esoteric rituals which were effective. As a result, the Samye Monastery was finally completed.
Afterwards, Guru Rinpoche stayed in Tibet at the request of the Tibetan king. Over time, his Tantric Buddhist teachings were chosen by the Tibetan king over the sutra teachings of Santaraksita. As a result, Guru Rinpoche is believed to be a second Buddha and he is the founder of the Nyingma school school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The historical records of Guru Rinpoche are very sparse, however his spiritual history is indeed very rich. Additionally, Guru Rinpoche is hailed as the savior of Tibetan Buddhism because he foresaw the rise of a future Tibetan king who would be hostile to Buddhists. Although Tibetan Buddhism would be nearly destroyed by the hostile king, it would experience a rebirth on account of the Buddhist deity Guru Rinpoche. Click the link below for more details.
Kubera (Dzambhala) – The Buddhist God of Wealth
Kubera is the Hindu “God of Wealth”. However, while Kubera was being incorporated into Buddhist beliefs, he became known as Dzambhala or Jambhala. Additionally, his mandate was not only to create material wealth. As such, he was to create both material wealth and spiritual wealth and generously give it to the downtrodden (especially spiritual wealth). Dzambhala is also one of the eight Dharmapalas that have been given the mandate of protecting the Dharma.
The main focus of Dzambhala as one of the Buddhist gods was to alleviate poverty. Most certainly, devotees would be better able to practice the Dharma if their most basic needs were met. Additionally, the eradication of poverty would eliminate the need for desperate action to relieve hunger and disease. As a result, practitioners would not feel compelled to commit theft or violence in order to survive.
There are five Dzambhalas and they are all members of the jewel family. The most popular of the five Dzambhalas is Yellow Dzambhala and he is an emanation of Buddha Ratnasambhava. Ratnasambhava is the Dhyani Buddha of equanimity which makes Dzambhala well suited for the task of eradicating poverty.
One of the most common features of Dzambhala statues is the mongoose that is perched on his left forearm. This mongoose is named Nehulay and he is always spitting forth precious jewels and treasures. Additionally, Dzambhala is adorned with the crown and jewels of a Bodhisattva and he sits with his right leg in panhandle. He is also commonly depicted with citron fruits which have medicinal qualities such as the relief of fever.
Yellow Dzambhala Mantra
“Om Jambhala Jalendraye Svaha”