Buddhism as a religion and a philosophical system is filled with subtle complexities. One of them is the concept and role of a “creator-like” god. Unlike other major world religions, Buddhism does not have just one god, though “the Buddha” is often mistaken for one.
Let’s take a look at what the Buddhist gods are and how they fit into the overall Buddhist religion.
Are there any Buddhist gods?
An important first question to ask is if there even are any Buddhist gods.
If you asked “the Buddha” himself, he would likely say “no.” This original, historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was a regular, albeit rich, human being who, through introspection and meditation, managed to escape his suffering and achieve liberation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Buddhism teaches that this freedom from human pain and suffering is possible for everyone, if they only do the work to discover and embody their own “Buddha nature.”
Most Buddhist schools actually discourage the worship of gods and/or idols, as this is viewed as nothing more than a distraction from the truth that true happiness and peace can only be found from within.
However, this hasn’t stopped people throughout history from reverencing the Buddha and many of the individuals who came after him as gods or deities. And while the existence of these Buddhist gods may be a variation from the original intentions of the Buddha, they still have had a major impact on the development of modern Buddhism and influence their daily practices.
The 3 Main Buddhist Schools
There are three main Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayan. Each has their own particular set of Buddhist deities, which they also call buddhas.
The Theravada school is the oldest branch of the Buddhist religion. It claims to have preserved Buddha’s original teachings.
They follow the Pali Canon, which is the oldest writing that has survived in the classical Indic language known as Pali. It was the first to spread throughout India to reach Sri Lanka. There, it became the state religion with ample support from the monarchy.
As the oldest school, it’s also the most conservative in terms of doctrine and monastic discipline, while its followers venerate twenty-nine Buddhas.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Theravada Buddhism came into contact with Western culture, triggering what is called Buddhist Modernism. It included rationalism and science in its doctrine.
When it comes to doctrine, Theravada Buddhism bases itself on the Pali Canon. In that, they reject any other form of religion or Buddhistic schools.
From Hinduism, though, they inherited the concept of Karma (action). Based on intention, this school states that those not fully awakened will be reborn into another body, human or non-human, after their death.
This brings them to their final goal, not to be born again. Those who achieve this will attain Nirvana, or Nibbana as they call it. Different from the Hindu version of Nirvana, which means annihilation, Buddhist Nirvana is the freeing from rebirth and the achievement of a state of perfection.
READ MORE: Hindu Gods and Goddesses
To get to this state, Therevada Buddhists follow a careful path to awakening, one that includes heavy doses of meditation and self-investigation.
Mahayana Buddhism is often known as ‘The Wheel” because it encourages followers to put their practice into action to help and support others.
Together with the Theravada school, it includes the majority of Buddhists around the world. The Mahayana school accepts the main Buddhist teachings, but it also has added new ones known as the Mahayana sutras.
Slow to grow, it became the most widespread branch of Buddhism in India and throughout Asia. Today, more than half of the world’s Buddhists follow the Mahayana school.
The fundamentals of the Mahayana school are the Buddhas and the Bodhisattva (beings on their way to full Buddhahood). In this sense, the Mahayana school incorporated a vast number of deities residing in mythical places.
This school recognises Siddartha Gautama (the original Buddha) as a superior being who achieved the highest enlightenment. But it also reveres several other Buddhas or, for them, gods, as we will see below. These Buddhas are spiritual guides to those who seek the awakening of the mind.
The Bodhisattvas are not only beings on a superior path to becoming enlightened by themselves. They also seek to liberate other sentient beings from the world’s suffering. And that’s why they’re also considered deities.
Mahayana means the Great Vehicle and makes ample use of tantric techniques to achieve the sacred state.
Vajrayana, a Sanskrit word, means the Indestructible Vehicle. It is the third largest Buddhist school. It incorporates specific lineages of Buddhism or Buddhist tantras.
It spread mainly to Tibet, Mongolia and other Himalayan countries with arms also reaching East Asia. For this reason, this school of Buddhism is often called Tibetan Buddhism.
The Vajrayana school incorporates elements from Tantric Buddhism and philosophy and outlines the principles of meditation present in the Yoga practices.
The Vajrayana school spread through wandering yogis in Medieval India who used Tantric techniques of meditation. Its most known teaching is to transform poison into wisdom. They developed a large canon of Buddhist Tantra.
For this school, there is no separation between the profane and the sacred, which are seen as a continuum. Aware of that, every individual can achieve Buddhahood in this life, instead of having to be reborn several times.
The spiritual goal is also to achieve full Buddhahood. The ones on this path are the Bodhisattvas. For that goal, this school relies on the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas’ guidance to the full enlightenment.
Who is the Main God in Buddhism? Is He a God?
Sittartha Guatama, the historical founder of Buddhism and the future Buddha, is an elusive figure. Researchers agree that Sidharta lived in north India around 563 BCE, born to a noble family.
His mother, Maha Maya, had a prophetic dream that an elephant entered her womb. In ten moons, Siddharta emerged from under her right arm.
Siddharta lived a life of extreme luxury in his family’s palace, protected from the external world and its ugliness.
He married the princess Yashodhara at sixteen, and she bore him a son.
How did Siddartha Guatama live his life?
One day, when he was twenty-nine, he went on a carriage ride outside his palace’s walls and witnessed in bafflement the ghastly sufferings of the world. He saw hunger, anger, greed, arrogance, evil, and so much more, and was left wondering what was the cause of these sufferings and how they could be alleviated.
At that point, going against his father’s wishes, he renounced his life of luxury, power, and prestige and set out on a journey to discover an enduring cure to human suffering.
His first step was to become an aesthetic, one who denies themselves all worldly pleasures, including food. But he soon realized that this did not produce true happiness either.
And since he had already lived a life of tremendous material wealth and luxury, he knew this too wasn’t the way. He decided that true happiness must lie somewhere in between, a doctrine now known as “The Middle Way.”
How Did Guatama Become the Buddha?
Through meditation and introspection, Gautama searched for a cure to human happiness. Then, one day, while sitting under a tree, he realized his true nature and awoke to the truth of all reality, which turned him into an enlightened being capable of living a truly happy and peaceful life.
From there, the Buddha began sharing his experience, spreading his wisdom, and helping others escape their own suffering. He developed doctrines such as The Four Noble Truths, which describe the causes of human suffering and the way to alleviate them, as well as the Eightfold Path, which is essentially a code for living that makes it possible to confront the pain of life and live happily.
Is Siddartha Guatama a Buddhist God?
His wisdom and enchanting personality caused many to believe he was a god, but Guatma routinely insisted that he was not and that he should not be worshiped as such. Nevertheless, many people did, and after his death, his many followers disagreed on how to proceed.
This led to the creation of many different “sects” of Buddhism, all of which incorporated the Buddha’s teachings in different ways, and which gave rise to a number of different entities that many now call gods or Biddhist deities.
The 6 Most Important Gods in Buddhism
As one of the world’s oldest religions, there are countless entities referred to as Buddhist gods. Here is a summary of the primary ones from each of the three most important branches in Buddhism.
Who are the Main Gods from Theravada Buddhism?
In the Theravada School, there are the Bodhisattvas, deities who embody the states of the Buddha before his enlightenment. One of the main characteristics of Bodhisattvas is that they willingly rejected Nirvana, aka Enlightenment, to stay on Earth and help others reach liberation.
There are thousands of Bodhisattvas in the Theravada school, but the main one is Maitreya.
Maitreya is the prophesied Buddha that will appear on Earth and accomplish complete enlightenment. Maitreya is to remind humans of the forgotten Dharmas.
The Dharma is a fundamental concept in several religions that originated in the Indian subcontinent and can be understood as cosmic law.
In Sanskrit, Maitreya can be translated as friend. For the Theravada followers, Maitreya is striving to achieve enlightenment.
In the earliest iconographic representations, Maitreya appears most frequently alongside Gautama.
Depicted seated with his feet on the ground or crossed at the ankles, Maitreya typically dresses as a monk or royalty.
Who are the Main Gods from Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism?
The Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism both venerate five primary Buddhas, or Buddhas of Wisdom, considered the manifestation of Gautama himself.
One of the primordial Buddhas, Vairocana is the first manifestation of Gautama and embodies the supreme illumination of wisdom. He is believed to be a universal buddha, and from him, all the others emanate.
Considered to be the direct embodiment of the historical Siddhartha himself, Voiracana as the Primordial Buddha appears in several Buddhist texts as one of the most revered versions of Gautama.
Statues of Vairocana represent him sitting in the lotus position in deep meditation. Noble materials like gold or marble are commonly used to represent him.
Akshobhyia represents consciousness as an element stemming from reality.
Akshobhyia appears in the oldest mentions of the Buddhas of Wisdom. Written records tell that a monk wished to practice meditation.
He vowed not to feel anger or malice towards any being until he completed his enlightenment. And when he succeeded, he became the Buddha Akshobhya.
Meaning immovable in Sanskrit, those devoted to this buddha meditate in complete stillness.
Sided by two elephants, his images and sculptures represent him in a blue-black body, with three robes, a staff, a jewel lotus, and a prayer wheel.
Equanimity and equality are associated with Rathnasambhava. His mandalas and mantras endeavor to develop these qualities and eliminate greed and pride.
Associated with feelings and senses and its connection with consciousness, Rathnasambhava promotes Buddhism by perfecting knowledge.
He’s also connected with jewels, like his name Rathna indicates. That is the reason he sits in the yogi position of giving. It means that those who live in abundance should give out to those who don’t.
Depicted in yellow or gold, he embodies the element earth.
Known as the Infinite Light, Amitabha is associated with discernment and purity. He has longevity and understands that every phenomenon in life is empty, or the product of illusions. This perception leads to great light and life.
In some versions of the Buddhist texts, Amitabha appears as a former king who gave up his throne when he learned the Buddhist teachings.
After he achieved the Buddha state, he created the Pureland, a universe existing outside reality that embodied the utmost perfection.
Most often, the iconography shows Amitabha with his left arm bare, thumb and forefinger linked.
This Buddha works towards the lessening of evil and aims at the destruction of envy and its poisonous influence.
Amoghasiddhi embodies the conceptual mind, the highest abstraction, and promotes the appeasement of every evil using courage to face them.
The yogi position, or mudra, he uses is the one symbolizing fearlessness with which he and his devotees face up to poisons and delusions that lead Buddhists astray.
It’s common to see him painted green and associated with air or wind. The moon is also connected with him.
Who are the Bodhisattvas from the Mahayana School?
In the Mahayana School, Bodhisattvas (or Buddhas-to-be) are different from the Theravada School. They are any being who has triggered the Bodhicitta, or the awakening of the mind.
In this tradition, there are fifteen main Bodhisattvas, the most important being Guanyin, Maitreya, Samantabhadra, Manjushri, Ksitigarbha, Mahasthamaprapta, Vajrapani, and Akasagarbha.
The minor ones are Candraprabha, Suryaprabha, Bhaiṣajyasamudgata, Bhaiṣajyaraja, Akṣayamati, Sarvanivaraṇaviṣkambhin and Vajrasattva.
We will prioritize the most important ones below.
A very worshiped goddess in China, Guanyin is the Goddess of Mercy.
Her followers have dedicated numerous large Buddhist temples to her. These temples receive thousands of pilgrims even in the present day, especially in Korea and Japan.
Buddhists believe that when someone dies, Guanyin places them in the heart of a lotus flower. The most popular goddess in Buddhism, she is a performer of miracles and attracts those in need of her help.
Represented sitting in lotus position with her legs crossed, tradition has it that she wears white robes. With a palm standing towards the worshiper, it is a sign that means the moment Buddha started moving the wheel of learning.
The meaning of Samantabhadra is Universal Worthy. Together with Gautama and Manjushri, he forms the Shakyamuni Triad in Mahayana Buddhism.
Considered the patron of the Lotus Sutra, the most fundamental set of vows in Mahayana Buddhism, he is also associated with action in the tangible world, especially in Chinese Buddhism.
Magnificent sculptures of Samantabhadra depict him sitting over an open lotus resting on three elephants.
Seldon alone, his image often comes accompanied with the two other figures that compose the Shakyamuni Triad, Gautama and Manjushri.
Manjushri means Gentle Glory. He represents transcendent wisdom.
Buddhist theologians identified him as the oldest Bodhisattva mentioned in the ancient sutras, which confers him high status.
He inhabits one of the two purest lands in the Buddhist pantheon. As he attains full Buddhahood, his name also comes to mean Universal Sight.
In the iconography, Manjushri appears holding a flaming sword in his right hand, symbolizing the dawning transcendent wisdom cutting through ignorance and duality.
To give way to a blooming realization means to tame the mind and its disquietness. He sits with one leg bent towards him and the other resting in front of him, his right palm facing ahead
Mostly revered in East Asia, Ksitigarbha may translate into Earth Treasury or Earth Womb.
This Bodhisattva is responsible for instructing all beings. He vowed not to achieve the full Budha state until hell emptied and all creatures received instruction.
He is considered the guardian of children and patron of the deceased little ones. Which makes most of his shrines occupy the memorial halls.
Buddhism considers sacred not only human beings but also every creature that holds life in it as they are part of the wheel of rebirth.
Believed to have been a monk in charge of teaching, his image is that of a man with a shaved head in the Buddhist monk’s robes.
He is the only Bodhisattva dressed as such whilst the others show Indian royalty attire.
In his hands he holds two essential symbols: on the right one, a jewel in a tear shape; in his left one, a Khakkhara staff, meant to alert insects and small animals of his nearing to avoid harming them.
His name means The Arrival of the Great Strength.
Mahasthamaprapta is prominent, being one of the greatest Eight Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana School and one of the Thirteen Buddhas in the Japanese tradition.
He stands as one of the most powerful Bodhisattvas because he recites an important sutra. Amitabha and Guanyin often accompany him.
In his story, he attains enlightenment through the practice of continuous and pure mindfulness coming from Amitabha to achieve the purest state of mindfulness (samadhi).
Wearing luxurious garbs, he sits on lush cushions, legs crossed, hands positioned close to his chest.
Meaning Diamond in His Hand, Vajrapani is an outstanding Bodhisattva because he was the protector of Gautama.
He accompanied Gautama Buddha as the latter wandered in mendicancy. Also performing miracles, he helped to spread Gautama’s doctrine.
In the Buddhist traditions, he is believed to have enabled Siddhartha to escape his palace when the nobleman chose to renounce the physical world.
Vajrapani manifests the Spiritual Reflex, who has the power to uphold the truth amidst calamity and become invincible in the face of danger.
As Buddhism met the Hellenist (Greek) influence brought by Alexander the Great, Vajrapani became identified with Heracles, the hero that never budged from his daunting tasks.
READ MORE: Greek Gods and Goddesses
Depicted as the protector of the Sakyamuni, he wears Western attire and surrounds himself with other deities.
He connects with several objects that identify him as the Vajra, protector: a tall crown, two necklaces, and a snake.
In his left hand, he holds a vajra, a luminous weapon fixed with a scarf around his hips.
Associated with open space, Akasagarbha translates into Boundless Space Treasure. It symbolizes the boundless nature of his wisdom. Charity and compassion represent this Bodhisattva.
Sometimes, tradition places him as Ksitigarbha’s twin brother.
Stories also circulate that when a young Buddhist follower recited Aksagarbha’s mantra he had a vision in which Aksagarbha told him to go to China, where eventually he founded the Shingon Sect of Buddhism.
He’s shown sitting with his legs crossed holding a lotus flower in his right hand and a jewel in the left.
What are the Major Gods in Tibetan Buddhism?
In Buddhism, the Tibetans have developed their unique traits. Mostly derived from the Vajrayana school, Tibetan Buddhism also incorporates elements from the Theravada School.
Intellectual discipline deserves a special mention in this branch. It makes use of Tantric ritual practices that emerged in Central Asia, in particular in Tibet.
The Tibetan branch of Buddhism blended monastic asceticism coming from the Theravada School and the shamanistic aspects of the indigenous culture prior to Buddhism.
Unlike other parts of Asia, in Tibet, large portions of the population involve themselves in spiritual pursuits.
What is a Dalai Lama?
Erroneously called Lamaism, the definition stuck because of the name given to their leader, the Dalai Lama. This happens because this branch established a system of ‘reincarnating lamas’.
A lama merges the spiritual and temporal sides of leadership under the title Dalai Lama. The first Dalai Lama presided over their country and people in 1475.
Their greatest achievement was to translate all available Buddhist texts from Sanskrit. Many of the originals have become lost, making the translations the only remaining texts.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of this branch of Buddhism is the number of Tibetan gods or divine beings present in it, such as:
Female Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism
Those who think that Buddhism is a predominantly masculine religion will be surprised to learn that the Tibetans have mainly female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The majority of them stem from the Tibetan pre-Buddhist religion named Bon.
We will list the most important below.
Known as the Mother of Liberation, Tara is an important figure in Vajrayana Buddhism and embodies success in work and achievements.
As a meditation deity, she is revered in the Tibetan branch of Buddhism for enhancing the understanding of inner and outer secret teachings.
Compassion and action are also related to Tara. Later on, she became recognized as the Mother of All Buddhas in the sense that they received enlightenment through her.
Before Buddhism, she stood as the Mother Goddess, her name meaning Star. And is intimately connected with motherhood and the feminine principle to this day
Today, she manifests in the Green Tara and the White Tara. The first offers protection from fear; and the latter, protection from illness.
Represented in a generous form, she carries a blue lotus that releases its scent at night.
The translation to Vajrayogini is the one who is the essence. Or the essence of all Buddhas.
The substance of this female Buddha is a great passion, not of the earthen kind, however. She represents the transcendent passion devoid of selfishness and delusions.
Vajrayogini teaches two stages of practice: the generation and completion stages in meditation.
Appearing in the translucent deep red color, the image of a sixteen-year-old personifies Vajrayogini with the third eye of wisdom on her forehead.
In her right hand, she flays a knife. In her left one, is a vessel containing blood. A drum, a bell, and a triple banner also connect with her image.
Each element of her iconography is a symbol. The red color is her inner fire of spiritual transformation.
The blood is the one of birth and menstruation. Her three eyes are all-seeing of the past, present, and future.
Nairatmya means the one who has no self.
She embodies the Buddhist concept of deep meditation, intending to achieve a complete, bodiless self, the supreme detachment.
The state is not to be confused with indifference. Just the opposite, Nairatmya teaches the Buddhists that everything is connected when one overcomes ego and desire.
Her depiction is in blue, the color of space. A curved knife pointing skywards strives to cut through negative mindsets.
The skullcup on her head aims at pulverizing illusions to return them to a selfless condition.
Probably, Kurukulla was an ancient tribal deity who presided over magic.
The old tales speak of a queen who felt sorrow for being neglected by the king. She sent her servant to the market to find a solution to that.
In the market, the servant met an enchantress who gave magical food or medicine for the servant to take to the palace. The enchantress was Kurukulla herself.
The queen changed her mind and did not use the magical food or medicine, throwing it in a lake instead.
A dragon consumed it and impregnated the queen. Furious, the King was going to kill her, but the queen explained what happened.
The King summoned the enchantress to the palace, then learned her art and wrote about it.
Kurukulla, often called the medicine Buddga, is pictured with a red body and four arms. Her pose is of a dancer with a foot ready to crush the demon who threatens to devour the sun.
READ MORE: Sun Gods
In a pair of hands, she holds a bow and arrow made of flowers. In the other, a hook and noose also of flowers.
Female Bodhisattvas in Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism recognizes the same eight main Bodhisattvas from the Mahayana School–Guanyin, Maitreya, Samantabhadra, Manjushri, Ksitigarbha, Mahasthamaprapta, Vajrapani, and Akasagarbha–but in their female forms.
Two of them, however, are exclusive to this branch: Vasudhara and Cundi.
The translation of Vasudhara is ‘Stream of Gems’. And it indicates she is the goddess of abundance, wealth, and prosperity. Her counterpart in Hinduism is Lakshmi.
Originally the goddess of abundant harvest, she became the goddess of every kind of wealth as society evolved from agrarian to urban.
The story told about Vasudhara is that a layman came to the Buddha asking him how he could become prosperous to feed his extended family and donate to the needy.
Gautama instructed him to recite the Vasudhara sutra or vow. Upon doing it, the layman became wealthy.
Other stories too appoint to prayers for Vasudhara, with the goddess granting the wishes to those who used their newfound prosperity to fund monasteries or donate to those in need of it.
Buddhist iconography depicts her with consistency. The luxuriant headdress and abundant jewelry identify her as a Bodhisattva.
But the number of arms may vary from two to six, depending on the region where she appears. The two-armed figure is more common in the Tibetan Branch.
Sitting in the royal pose of one leg bent towards her and one extended, resting on treasures, her color is bronze or golden to symbolize the riches she can bestow.
Revered mostly in East Asia rather than Tibet, this Bodhisattva can be a manifestation of Guanyin.
Previously identified with the Hindu goddesses of destruction, Durga or Parvati, in the transition to Buddhism, she acquired other characteristics.
Reciting her mantra–oṃ maṇipadme huṃ–can bring about success in career, harmony in marriage and relationships, and academic achievements.
Cundi is easily recognizable as she has eighteen arms. Each of them holds objects that symbolize the guidance she dispenses.
Also, those eighteen arms may indicate the merits of attaining Buddhahood as described in the Buddhist texts.