A deva (देव Sanskrit and Pāli) in Buddhism is one of many different types of non-human beings who share the godlike 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.
Synonyms in other languages include Khmer tep (ទេព), tepda (ទេព្ដា), tevada (ទេវតា), or preah (ព្រះ), Burmese nat (နတ္), Tibetan lha, Mongolian tenger (тэнгэр), Chinese tiān rén (天人), Korean cheon, Japanese ten, Vietnamese thiên nhân, Thai thep (เทพ), thewa (เทวะ), thewada (เทวดา), etc. The concept of devas was adopted in Japan partly because of the similarity to the Shinto's concept of kami.
Other words used in Buddhist texts to refer to similar supernatural beings are dēvatā (देवता; "deity") and dēvaputra (देवपुत्र; Pāli: devaputta; "son of god"). It is unclear what the distinction between these terms is.
Powers of the devas
Devas are invisible to the human eye. The presence of a deva can be detected by those humans who have opened the "Divine eye" (divyacakṣus), (Pāli: dibbacakkhu), (Chinese: 天眼) an extrasensory power by which one can see beings from other planes. Their voices can also be heard by those who have cultivated divyaśrotra, 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 also 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.
Types of deva
The term deva refers to a class of beings or a path of the six paths of the incarnation cycle. It includes some very different types of beings which can be ranked hierarchically according to the merits they have accumulated over life times. The lowest classes of these beings are closer in their nature to human beings than to the higher classes of deva. Devas can be degraded to humans or the beings in the three evil paths once they have consumed their merits.
The devas fall into three classes depending upon which of the three dhātus, or "realms" of the universe they are born in.
The devas of the Ārūpyadhātu 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.
The devas of the Rūpadhātu have physical forms, but are sexless and passionless. They live in a large number of "heavens" or deva-worlds that rise, layer on layer, above the earth. These can be divided into five main groups:
Each of these groups of deva-worlds 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 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 realm 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:
"Furthermore, you should recollect the devas: 'There are the devas of the Four Great Kings, the devas of the Thirty-three,..." [196. Dh.] "Feeders of joy we shall be like the radiant gods (devas)."
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.
There is also a humanistic definition of 'deva' [male] and 'devi' [female] ascribed to Gotama Buddha: a god is a moral person. This is comparable to another definition, i.e. that 'hell' is a name for painful emotions.
Differences from western polytheism
Buddhist devas differ from the western conception of gods and angels in several ways:
Hindus hold some of these points to be true about the devas. The Hindu view is that the devas are in nature very much akin to the gods or angels of other religions.