Devata or deity is a multifaceted concept in Sanatana Dharma. There are very many different aspects of devata. Apart from object of worship, devata is a symbol representing different things in different forms of knowledge.
Commonly we see that devatas are described as having consorts, weapons and vehicles. And they have number of heads, hands and feet. They are also associated with different sets of numbers. All these have different meanings in different senses, when we talk of different aspects of the devata. Some of the symbols become more important or less important based on the aspect we are talking of.
Then there are different likes and dislikes for each devata. Not having a form and qualities in the human sense, likes and dislikes do not apply to devata the way they apply to humans. They represent methods that make the devata easily reachable or in other words, they are the means to realize the devata.
Broadly, the different aspects of devata are:
Belonging to a level of consciousness - transcendental: Devata represents a faculty of higher consciousness. Consorts represent the associate consciousness powers of devata that are inseparable from devata. Weapons and vehicles represent powers, instruments and methods that enables one to reach the devata. Kapali epithet of Siva (Kapalini of Sakti too) is a good example of this, which means that He wears kapalas or in other words resides in the kapalas of the devotees.
Different forms of devata are said to reside in or rule different worlds. Though devatas pervade all the worlds, we usually apply the word devata in the seven urdhva lokas, especially from swarga loka and above.
What is symbolically narrated in general by allegories of gods killing demons is the story of transcendence. There are demons and gods. Demons do evil acts, hurt noble people; gods slay them and protect the noble. In Sanatana dharma, there is nothing that is noble or evil. Everything, good or bad, is seen as a part of evolution of man. Only evil is ignorance of man or nascience that will be transcended by gnosis. Devata killing an Asura, is also a psychological suggestion. It symbolises the growth of man over his inner enemies such as hatred and lust that emanate from ignorance, and his march towards truth. Gods are the nobler facets of human nature that are manifestations of knowledge and realisation. They help man elevate himself to higher states of consciousness by slaying demons. Man himself, by his will power, reaches to those states is another version of the same statement. Arjuna fighting gods and later knowing that gods were testing him, then taking astras from them, pleading Lord Shiva to get the Pashupata, Bhima defeating the Airawata of Indra are accounts of their divine romance and their quest for truth. Their consequent physical victory is an account of how dharma was established. These stories narrate a moral action followed and inspired by a spiritual realisation. In fact the great Mahabharata war followed a great discource on cosmic mechanism and its spiritual principle, Bhagavad Gita.
Part of Virat Purusha, a cosmic conceptionDevata is infinite and universal. Devata is depicted as a part of the Unviersal Being or Virat Purusha. Also, in the worship of each devata the devata is equated to the Virat Purusha Himself. It is said that the word "deva" applies up to Paramatma, that is each devata is not only a part of but also represents the whole of the Eternal. This is to say, the absolute/eternal could be realized through worship of any devata.
Devata is both universal and personal. Devata is said to grow when man worships. This is the personal aspect. The growth of devata in man is the development and fulfillment of man's being, material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
Sri Krishna says
Gods grow when men worship and please them. They in turn bring about man's wellbeing. Thus they mutually help each other.
Representative of a power of nature: The sound-form of each devata's energy is represented by Mantra. Mantras are of many types like stri and purusha mantras. They have waking and sleeping times. Each mantra devata represents a "nadi" and the active and inactive times of those are represented by this.
There are also different ragas in Sangita, which are said to please different devatas (Ex. Sivaranjani, Shanmukha priya).
Yogic Devata is a yogic symbol too. The various weapons and associate symbols of devata represent methods, clues and instruments to awaken higher levels of consciousness hidden in man. The heads, hands, legs of devata that are in different numbers, are also such suggestions. Vajrayudha of Indra, Bowl and Gada in the hands of Gayatri, the great Serpant that Vishnu sleeps on and Siva wears as adornment, Garuda and Mayura the vehicles of Vishnu and Kumaraswamy that are enemies of snakes, Vrshabha the vehicle of Union of Siva and Sakti, Kumaraswamy having Six heads, are all examples. They are all clues to yoga, that the sushumna marga in the spine could be used to awaken the hidden consciousness and union with the divine.
AstronomicalAlternately, Devata is an astronomical suggestion. Each devata represents a star, or a constellation.
The consorts, vehicles, symbols on flag, can also be seen in this light. The star closest to another star is depicted as an adornment or consort. A star while rising is followed by another, the latter is said to be the vehicle. While setting the direction changes and the latter gets ahead of the former - in this case the latter becomes symbol on the formers flagstaff. For instance, Mithuna (Gemini) is Parvati-Parameswara Mithuna. When Gemini rises after sunset, Vrshabha (Taurus) rises just ahead of it. Then Parvati-Parameswara become Vrshabha Dhvaja, with Taurus as the symbol on their flag. Before sunrise when Gemini sets, the positions are reversed and it appears above Taurus. Then Siva-Parvati are Vrshabha vaahana, Taurus becomes their vehicle. Durga as Simha vahana (Virgo over Leo), Kumara Swamy as Mayura vahana, Ganesha as Mushika Vahana, Manmatha as Makara Dhwaja are examples.
A devata killing an asura is an astronomical symbolism too. If a character A is said to kill a character B, it means that the star symbolised by B sets at the time at which the star symbolised by A rises. If it is an indirect killing then it means that these stars are not diametrically opposite but there is a small time difference between the rise of A and set of B. In general, enmity is to be seen as diametrically oppositeness. At the time of the set of B, the star nearest to A is said to have helped A in killing B. Indra killing Vritra, Rama killing Ravana, Arjuna hitting Bhishma with the help of Sikhandi, enmity between Garuda and Sarpa, are examples.
- Bhagavad Gita 3.11