Devatā or deity is a multifaceted concept in Sanātana Dharma. There are very many different aspects of devatā. Apart from object of worship, devatā is a symbol representing different things in different forms of knowledge. Commonly we see that devatās 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 devatā. 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 devatā. Not having a form and qualities in the human sense, likes and dislikes do not apply to devatā the way they apply to humans. They represent methods that make the devatā easily reachable or in other words, they are the means to realize the devatā.
Broadly, the different aspects of devatā are:
Belonging to a level of consciousness - transcendental : Devatā represents a faculty of higher consciousness. Consorts represent the associate consciousness powers of devatā that are inseparable from devatā. Weapons and vehicles represent powers, instruments and methods that enables one to reach the devatā. Kapāli epithet of Śiva is a good example of this, which means that He wears kapālas or in other words resides in the kapālas of the devotees.
Different forms of devatā are said to reside in or rule different worlds. Though devatās pervade all the worlds, we usually apply the word devatā 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 Sanātana 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 nescience that will be transcended by gnosis. Devatā killing an Asura, is also a psychological suggestion. It symbolizes 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 realization. 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 Śiva to get the Pashupāta, Bhima defeating the Airāwata 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 realization. In fact the great Mahābhārata war followed a great discourse on cosmic mechanism and its spiritual principle, Bhagavad Gitā.
- Part of Virāt Purusha, a cosmic conception
Devatā is infinite and universal. Devatā is depicted as a part of the Unviersal Being or Virāt Puruṣa. Also, in the worship of each devatā the devatā is equated to the Virāt Puruṣa Himself. It is said that the word "deva" applies up to Paramātma, that is each devatā 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 devatā.
Devatā is both universal and personal. Devatā is said to grow when man worships. This is the personal aspect. The growth of devatā in man is the development and fulfillment of man's being, material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
Śri Kṛṣṇa says:
Gods grow when men worship and please them. They in turn bring about man's well-being. Thus they mutually help each other. Representative of a power of nature: The sound-form of each devatā's energy is represented by Mantra. Mantras are of many types like stri and puruṣa mantras. They have waking and sleeping times. Each mantra devatā represents a "nādi" 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.
Yogic : Devatā is a yogic symbol too. The various weapons and associate symbols of devatā represent methods, clues and instruments to awaken higher levels of consciousness hidden in man. The heads, hands, legs of devatā that are in different numbers, are also such suggestions. Vajrayudha of Indra, Bowl and Gadā in the hands of Gāyatri, the great Serpant that Viṣṇu sleeps on and Śiva wears as adornment, Garuda and Mayura the vehicles of Viṣṇu and Kumaraswamy that are enemies of snakes, Vṛṣabha the vehicle of Union of Śiva and Śakti, Kumaraswamy having Six heads, are all examples. They are all clues to yoga, that the suśumna marga in the spine could be used to awaken the hidden consciousness and union with the divine.
Astronomical : Alternately, Devatā is an astronomical suggestion. Each devatā 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 former's flagstaff. For instance, Mithuna is Parvati-Parameswara Mithuna. When Gemini rises after sunset, Vrshabha 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 Śiva-Parvati are Vrshabha vāhana, Taurus becomes their vehicle. Durga as Siṅha vāhana Kumara Swamy as Mayura vāhana, Ganesha as Muṣika Vāhana, Manmatha as Makara Dhwaja are examples.
A devatā killing an asura is an astronomical symbolism too. If a character A is said to kill a character B, it means that the star symbolized by B sets at the time at which the star symbolized 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 opposite. 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, Rāma killing Rāvaṇa, Arjuna hitting Bhiṣma with the help of Śikhandi, enmity between Garuda and Sarpa, are examples.
Many religions have a divine council of some sort, mentioned even in the early Semitic religions of the Canaanites (headed by El) and Hebrews (headed by Yahweh El Shaddai.)
The Arya Samuday dharms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Yungdrung Bon, and Zoroastrianism mention one consisting of 33 Devas (gods); 12 Adityas, 11 Rudras, and 10 Vasus. These were humans of the mentioned 3 gotra (tribes) who had sociopolitical authority over the matters of governance and spiritual ethics. These persons were worshiped as Parmatma Itself so that worshipers can attain Moksh as the Devas on the council did. The council continued and consisted of representatives from the same gotras. Their assembly was called the Sudharma Devasabha and it was at Amaravati city on Mt. Meru (modern Mt. K2.)
This divine council is called in Hindu scriptures Trayastrimsati Koti, in Bauddh shastras Trayastrimsa Deva, in Jain shastras Trayastrimsa Dogundak, in Sikh shastras Thaethees, in Bonpo shastras as Sumchu Tsasumpai Liu, and in Zoroastrian scriptures Ratavô Thrayasca Thrisãsca.
This council, according to the Bauddh Digha Nikaya II, Majjhima II, Samyutta I, and Jataka VI, would normally convene on the 8th of each month, to hear sermons, and in festival days.
Succeeding Generation to Generation
This council existed throughout different generations to promote spiritual guidance and political harmony. The successor councils had 33 members who held the same titles in scriptures. This can be seen when Ravan [who postdated the 33 Devas mentioned in the Vedas, as well as earlier generations of avatars] is written in some Ramayana versions to have attained a boon from Shiva. Other examples of Asuras attaining boons from Devas are also of persons who lived later than the original 33 Devas of the Vedas. If there were avatars of Vishnu before Ravana and other Asuras, then logically Vishnu [like the rest of the 33 Devas’ council] would’ve had to come behind.
- It includes the Kapālini aspect of Śakti too.
- Bhagavad Gita 3.11
- For e.g. Śivaranjani, Śanmukha priya.
- It means Gemini.
- It means Taurus.
- It refers to Virgo over Leo.
- P. 31 The Kalpa Sutra, and Nava Tatva :: Two Works Illustrative of the Jain Religion and Philosophy By Bhadrabāhu
- Sri Guru Granth Sahib:
“Teen Dev Ar Korr Thaetheesa Tin Kee Hairat Kachh Na Rahee ||”
“The three Devas, and the thirty three crore [Devas], were astonished.”
“Kott Thaethees Jaachehi Prabh Naaeik Dhaedhae Thott Naahee Bhanddaar ||”
“Thirty three crore [Devas] beg of God the Master; even as He gives, His treasures are never exhausted.”
“Thith Naam Laag Thaethees Dhhiaavehi Jathee Thapeesur Man Vasiaa ||”
“The thirty three [Devas] meditate, attached to the Naam; it is enshrined within the minds of the celibates and ascetics.”
“Kott Kott Thaethees Dhhiaaeiou Har Japathiaa Anth N Paaeiaa ||”
“Crores and crores of the thirty three [Devas] meditate on Him; there is no end to those who meditate on the Lord.”
- Sum-cu-rtsa-gsum-pa’i le’u, which transliterates in Sanskrit to Trayastrimshat-parivarta; P. 475 Mahamudra: The Moonlight -- Quintessence of Mind and Meditation By Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, Bkra-śis-rnam-rgyal (Dwags-po Paṇ-chen)
- P. 152 Śūraṃgamasamādhisūtra The Concentration of Heroic Progress : an Early Mahāyāna Buddhist Scripture By Etienne Lamotte and Sara Boin-Webb