Divine Hierarchy - The who's who in the Indian pantheon of celestial beings

Most of the gods we know can be sorted into gods, demi gods, lesser gods, asuras, devas, rishis and the super gods. Buddha and Mahavira are more of saints than proclaimed gods.

The hierarchy starts with us humans being, the lesser mortals at the bottom, higher up are the lesser gods who are the gandharvas, kinnaras, vidhyadharas and apsaras. Their lords are the yakshis and yakshas - fertility goddesses and nature gods. Shalabhanjikas are fertility goddesses often depicted against trees with one leg bent up and one hand holding a branch. They are believed to be virgins who were capable of making a tree bear flower.

Nagas have a similar standing on this plain. Snakes are associated with water, the underground, and fertility. They were adopted into Hinduism as emblems of Shiva (perhaps reflecting Shiva's own origins from earlier nature cult), and were adopted into Buddhism as protectors of Buddha.

Above them are the rishis, devas, and demi gods etc who would be weather gods and their sons. Ganesha, the proclaimed son of Lord Shiva is the lord of the Ganas . Finally we have the super gods like Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and to a certain extent the Mother Goddess.

All gods have vehicles or vahanas and various hybrid creatures like griffins scattered through out the pantheon.

Now lets have a closer look at the lesser known demi Gods:

Vidyadharas :
They are wisdom bearers. always seen with a small garland, who fly above the heads of gods. The garland symbolizes the attainment of supreme (spiritual) wisdom.

Gandharvas :

They are "Fragrances," celestial musicians and husbands of the apsarasas.

Apsaras :
They are celestial dancers, most famous being urvashi, the lead dancer in indra's court.

Kinnaras :
Kinnaras, who in Hindu mythology, are heavenly musicians who are the followers of Vaisravana also known as Kubera, their lord, who is a yaksha also popularly known as the lord of wealth. They have human heads and the bodies of birds or horses. The Kinnaras were either the sons of Kasyapa, or sprang from the toe of Brahma. They are often identified with the Kimpurushas, whose appearance is the exact opposite and who are also followers of Kubera. Essentially they are entertainers.

Here are a few verses from the Bhagavat Gita where reference is made to kinnaras.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:20:45
"The mention of upadeva-vara refers to inferior demigods like the Gandharvas, Kinnaras and Uragas, who are not exactly demigods but between the demigods and human beings."

Srimad-Bhagavatam 4:1:54-55
"From the description given in this verse, Garuda appears to belong to the Kinnara planet. The inhabitants of the Kinnara planet have the same features as Garuda. Their bodily features are like those of a human being, but they have wings. The word gita-kirtih indicates that the inhabitants of Kinnaraloka are very expert in singing the glories of the Lord. In Brahma-samhita it is said: jagad-anda-koti-kotisv asesa-vasudhadi-vibhuti-bhinnam. In each and every universe there are different types of planets, and each planet has distinctive features. On the strength of this verse, we can understand that in Kinnaraloka the inhabitants can fly with their wings. There is also a planet, known as Siddhaloka, where the inhabitants can fly even without wings. ."

These are celestial couples who are a common motif across temples both buddhist and hindu. They are believed to exert an influence which is both auspicious and magically protective.

In the next level are:

Gods or celestial beings, they are the residents of heaven. These Devas are also called ‘Suras’ - those with soma, the wine or ambrosia of heaven. Soma is the elixir of ecstasy, joy and contentment. The heavens are divided into three parts, the realms of desire, the realms of form, and the realms of formlessness.(picture is of devas pulling the serpent to churn the ocean at Angkor wat)

Demons, rivals and enemies of Sakra Devendra (Indra) and the Devas (Gods) with whom they are constantly at war. The Asuras dwell in the oceans (the atmospheres, the realms of turbulence) whereas the gods (Devas) dwell in the serene palaces of heaven. Asura literally means ‘one without the ambrosia of heaven (soma)’ - that is, they are restless, without the bliss, joy and contentment of heaven - they must ever struggle in the realms of strife and turbulence. They appear in many forms, including Nagas (water spirits), Yakshas (earth spirits), Daityas (genies), Dasyus (barbarians), Kalakanjas (stellar spirits), Kalejas (demons of time), Khalins (threshers), Nivata-kavacas (wearers of armor), Pisacas (flesh eaters), Raksasas (night wanderers) and a host of others forms. There are four classes, according to their manner of their rebirth: no.1 egg-born no 2 womb-born no 3 metamorphosis born no 4 water/spawn born. They are the competitive forces of nature that are forever battling for dominance over one another. In human nature they represent the assertion & clash of rival egos.

(Literally 'Devourers') The king of birds, with golden wings, living below heaven but above the highest trees of the earth. The Garudas are associated with the legends of the Roc and the Phoenix, and they are said to be able to travel a hundred thousand miles in a single day. They are the enemies and devourers of serpents (Nagas). They are called 'The Wings of Speech', and they represent the spiritual power and magic of the spoken word, which conquers nature, invokes and inspires the mind and carries it far and wide. The god of knowledge (Vishnu) is said to ride on the Garuda's back and the Garuda is said to carry the 'Wish-Fulfilling (Cintamani) Gem' around its neck.

Demons shaped like boas or pythons, with large bellies; also called ‘human but not human’. Demons of reptilian personality.

These spiritual beings can all be forces for good and spiritual enlightenment when embracing the Sutra and the teachings of the Buddha. In embracing and protecting the Sutra, they are known as the Naga Kings, Yaksa Kings, Gandharva Kings, etc.


JC Joshi said...

The following is an extract from an e-mail I wrote to my daughter, which could perhaps be a small sample, or the 'tip of the iceberg':

"For a peep into the 'other world', this is in continuation of my earlier reaction to Gouri’s ‘bong pet-names’ - wherein I had indicated why ‘Rashi name’ was not made known to every Tom, Dick and Harry in Bengal - as it is a bit little longer narration as told to me by a friend from Agartala, Tripura…

For some days he had been staying with his sister at some place near Agartala. One day she told him that her expensive golden necklace was missing! They suspected that it could be the handiwork of her maid servant. However, they considered that as she had been honestly working with them for years, it wouldn’t be proper to start action based on mere suspicion. Hence, they approached a Tantrik to help her in locating the missing necklace…

He however asked them to arrange a minor, Tula Rashi, girl for use as ‘medium’. He was in a fix because he didn’t want to reveal that his own daughter was a Libran (Tula Rashi’s equivalent name in the Zodiac based on Solar cycle, but is reckoned as per Hindu tradition based on Moon’s position in the sky at the time an individual is born). However, for his sister’s sake he agreed…

On the first Saturday after that, the group assembled in the house and the Tantrik prepared for the act, after certain rituals. He applied, on the girl’s thumbnail, black paint prepared from the flame of a mustard oil earthen lamp, or diya, to use it as a mirror or ‘nakhdarpan’. He then asked her to concentrate on the ‘mirror’ and tell whether she was able to see images of certain old persons. She later confirmed that she saw images of four of those… He then told her to concentrate and look for the necklace in the ‘mirror’. When she confirmed that she could see it in the ‘pukhri’, i.e., a pool, she was asked to assure herself of the location clearly so that she could lead them to the right place straight away. When she said she would be able to locate it, the team went to the pool that each house possesses within the premises - for multiple uses… However, the girl got confused at the site. She was scolded and the whole process then had to be repeated. In the second attempt she led them straight to it and pulled the necklace out of water! Her aunt was much relieved and then said that it would have slipped out when she had washed some utensils in the morning at that place…"

"Moon is considered as a mysterious Heavenly Body, related even with madness, or malfunctioning of brain. The 'ancient 'Hindus' of the Indus valley fame, perhaps got their name from Indu, the Moon in Sanskrit, as they used Lunar cycle for developing their Calendar, which we in the Indian subcontinent continue to use till date for all our religious rituals!!! Tantriks perform all their rites at the crematoria in the nights, and as per one, I met in Gauhati, he had 'controlled a soul' after performing certain rites in a crematorium for a month - from one New moon to another! He said that the soul (kept inside a football bladder that is further placed inside a tin box containing mustard seeds) tells in his ears particulars of anyone who consulted him. Only one needed practice to understand what it says because it speaks very fast! Sounds strange as well as scary, isn't it? Still the 'black art' exists even today, as is being shown on Zee TV also sometimes... It is said that it is fine as long as the purpose is to help someone. However, it has bad consequences for the Tantriks if they misuse it... As per legend, Moghuls under Aurangzeb ultimately had to send Guru Tegh Bahadur in front of the sikh army to nullify the 'black art' practised in Assam because of which a single washer woman hadn't, till then, allowed Moghuls to cross over to Assam side. The place is named Dhubri after her!"

JC Joshi said...

It is said that a College student in the ‘West’ has become obsolete in the eyes of the School student today – there being demand for the latest in all aspects of life there!

With the above background, I now recall gist of a conversation with my sister’s the then four-year-old grand daughter on phone… I had thought it was a wrong number when I heard a child’s voice. I was surprised when she said she was Asavri. She told me that she had taught writing small and capital letters (of the English alphabet) to her grand dad and had performed puja, with lighted lamp revolved in front of God’s image… Replying to my question about the abode of God, she loudly thought that those who die go to the sky, but she wasn’t sure where God went… When I told her that He lived within each and every individual, she asked why she didn’t see Him… I told her that He can only be seen as light when one closed them! She was initially excited and said that she does see the light! However, she shot the question next: If He was within me, why does He not fulfil my desires?” I told her that He was within everyone and everything and has to take care of the entire universe and not you alone! She hasn’t asked any more questions on the subject after that day around four years ago…

The above incident raised hope in me that God is still alive - at least in some young Indian minds, thus hope for a brighter future, despite the apparent intervening lull and 'material' apparently becoming the dominating force! A mythological story shows how Lakshami ince told Vishnu that it was She who was actually running the universewhile he slept!

kavitha said...

Hi Joshi uncle,

It has been a long journey of learning before i got down to seriously believing something called God exists.

I used to be a sceptical youngster who like every other kid questioned faith. I went head on into finding it out for myself, not as a whim but more as a burning desire.

Today i am a die hard fanatic who believes more in what we do not seem to see than what really exists.

JC Joshi said...

Anonymous says, “… Isn't economics playing more important role than religion?
Unfortunately, my answer is India is not yet ready for this change. Is there a solution to this problem? Is it a problem?”

At the outset, I beg excuse for the long lecture!

Let us first try to forget the so-called 'religion' - of aping the generality, or rather ‘the slavery of time’ in other words. He being anonymous, I would say that at least those who are born in Hindu families, and accepted by the Society as ‘Hindus’, should at least care to read the so-called epics and mythological stories to reach at their own root, or the common ‘starting point’ of all physical forms, as well as the ‘goal’ - believably ‘shunya’ or ‘zero’ - as stated by ‘wise’ ancients, as the ‘Absolute Truth’!
(Example, subtle communication through the massive Kailash Temple in Ellora, a rock-cut temple that was built starting from one point at the top surface, that is from zero, as by definition also it doesn't occupy any space! And pyramids, starting from a large area (infinity) ended up in a point at the top!)

All that filled the gap was believed to be illusory! Even Shakespeare called earth a stage where each character played his role…

I am sure one knows that many animal species - including dinasaurs in one shot - have already, apparently, become/ are becoming extinct as time is advancing. And that one has just read how certain inhabitants of a part of Texas, in the most materially advanced nation, the USA, have perhaps thankfully been transported back to ‘primitive age’ just by one hurricane, named Rita… The news item from WOODVILLE, reads – “…Five days after Hurricane Rita came ashore, conditions remained primitive in parts of Texas, where some residents were taking baths and brushing their teeth using water from the Neches River and others were sleeping in tents. The plywood sign outside the home in East Texas where eight Beaumont families had sought refuge from Hurricane Rita carried a simple message: "Help Needed. Ice and Water. 43 People…"

Perhaps damage due to ‘Katrina’ and ‘Rita’ besides the unexpected Tsunami havoc in Southeast Asia needs serious considerations to determine who is supreme - ‘Nature’ or Man, who when disunited leads to their fall!

Regarding change that is understood to be the ‘order of nature’, the question is who in the Administration is asking the common man whether they are prepared for a change or not? Haven’t we, willingly or unwillingly, changed tremendously (some downwards and some upwards) just over the last 58 years, irrespective of the ‘ruling party’ - from being ‘slaves’ to ‘rulers’ ourselves (!)? And, why then there is more than one third of the population still below the poverty line as at the beginning under the British rule? Are the ‘economists’ alone responsible for that? Could it be because of naturally deteriorating quality of humans related with passage of time?

At least the ancients seem to have been convinced about real time being 'zero'!

However, we know, "One can lead a horse to water/ twenty cannot make him drink!"

Badhri said...

Mr. JC Joshi:
What you said is better known to me as "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.". Thanks to the fact that movies are not all about bad influence.

To me God is just a single name given to all the things that inspires us when we are lazy and bored, all the things that encourages us when we feel down and out and all the things that makes us feel happy and normal when we are sad. Simply put, anything (+) that restores anything (-) to normalcy (zero) is a part of God. In that perspective, everything animate and inanimate fits the bill. That is why I buy Advaitham (or atleast what I understood of that concept).

JC Joshi said...

Generally speking, Advaitham, as I understand it, suggests existence of a single indestructible Divine Person, or Supreme soul, called Swayambhu or the one who appeared on His Own, a formless being, or ‘Naadbindu’, who apparently is viewing the entire physical universe(s) (‘Brahmand’ or literally ‘the egg of the Creator’ that suggests the undelivered form(s) as in an egg or inside a womb) through different imaginary characters as parts of an unending chain of ‘life forms’ and ‘non-living things’...

Thus each temporary character, that has a beginning and an end, represents His ‘reflection’ or ‘image’ at a certain cross section of apparent time ranging from zero to infinity. The apparent hierarchy, from minus infinity to plus infinity in all aspects of 'Nature', amongst His innumerable ‘reflections’ - within zero or real time and space - could thus be considered as what He is viewing through different eyes, for some purpose known to Him only, as one apparently views a recorded film in slow motion.

That purpose, in my (maybe wrong)opinion, is to know His Own origin, for the ancients apparently couldn’t reach either His beginning or the end and that’s why perhaps the drama is unending – like He Himself is!

krishna said...

informative post..:)

shows ur passion in temple art, the hierarchy of gods and ur belief in them

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