The Gods are Merely Our Friends

by | May 5, 2024 | Buddhism for All

The early Buddhist relationship with the gods is very much unlike that in any religious tradition.  Typically, a religion is built around the worship of one or more gods, and they almost always take the central and highest place in that religion.  In early Buddhism, it is totally not the case, instead, the gods are merely friends.

In the volume of early Buddhist discourses called the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the first two chapters are devoted to the heavenly beings, the first one to the gods, and the second one to devaputtas (literally “god sons”), translated as “young gods”.  In almost all the discourses, the only role the gods play is to ask Dharma-related questions to the Buddha and receive answers.  They would usually appear at night and be described as “a heavenly being of stunning beauty” who would illuminate the area, and they would bow to the Buddha and then ask questions.  One such conversation, for example:

[The god asks:]
“What is good by not decaying?
What is good when made secure?
What is the precious gem of humans?
What cannot be stolen by thieves?”

[The Buddha answers:]
“Virtue is good by not decaying;
Faith is good when made secure;
Wisdom is the precious gem of humans;
Merit cannot be stolen by thieves.”[1]

That’s right, not much different from any conversation the Buddha would have with a typical human being, except for some reason, the conversations with the gods usually occur in verse (maybe because all good poets go to heaven).  After each conversation, the god would be satisfied, bow to the Buddha, and then disappear.

There are a few exceptions to this pattern, but even in 100% of those cases, the gods play a subordinate role to the Buddha.  For example, in one discourse, the young god Candimā was seized by a major demigod Rāhu, Candimā immediately took refuge in the Buddha, and Rāhu decided there was nothing he could do except to release him.  When Rāhu was later asked why he had to release Candimā, he answered because he did not want his own head to be “split into seven parts”. [2]  (Yes, I thought it was funny too.)

Given this context, I was initially very surprised when reading the ancient discourses to come across one where the Buddha gave an advice to “recollect the gods”, until I read the fine print.  This discourse was given to Mahānāma the Shakyan, the Buddha’s cousin and Anuruddha’s brother.  Mahānāma did not become a monk.  He did, however, attain stream-entry and he asked the Buddha what practice would support a stream-enterer’s further growth.  The Buddha prescribed to him the six recollections,[3] which are:

  1. Recollection of the Buddha
  2. Recollection of the Dharma
  3. Recollection of the Sangha
  4. Recollection of your own virtue
  5. Recollection of your generosity
  6. Recollection of the gods

For each recollection, the disciple gains wholesome joy and inspiration for deeper practice.  That’s not surprising to me, except the last one, I mean, what has the gods got to do with this?  And then the Buddha explained: the disciple recollects thus, “The gods had the good fortune to be reborn as gods because of their previous virtue, faith, generosity and wisdom, and I too have those same good qualities!”  Thinking thus, the disciple gains wholesome joy and inspiration for deeper practice.

So, even here, the gods are not the object of worship, but inspiring equals.  In the context of everything I know about early Buddhism, that makes perfect sense.

There is another fascinating story that illustrates the Buddhists / gods relationship from the perspective of early Buddhism.[4]  This one involves Brahmā (literally: “supreme”), the highest of the gods.  Our story begins with a monk with a profound question.  This monk, while meditating, arrived at a question he could not answer: “where do the four great elements cease without remainder?”  Since the monk had attained psychic powers, he decided to go to the heaven to ask the gods.

First, he went to the lowest heaven, the Heaven of the Four Great Kings, to ask the gods there.  They did not know the answer, so they suggested that he asked the Four Great Kings themselves. They are kings of those gods, surely they would know.  Turns out, they did not know.  They suggested he went upstairs to the next level of heaven, the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods.  So, he did.  He asked those gods, they did not know the answer, so he asked their king Sakka, and he did not know, so he suggested the monk go upstairs to the next higher heaven.  And so on.  And this went on all the way to the highest of heavens, the Heaven of Brahmā, the very seat of Great Brahmā, himself.

Once again, our friend went around asking those gods, and they did not know the answer, so they suggested that he asked Great Brahmā.  The monk approached Great Brahmā respectfully and asked the question, “Friend, where do the four elements cease without remainder?”  Great Brahmā answered, “I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Undefeated, the Champion, the Universal Seer, the Wielder of Power, the Lord God, the Maker, the Author, the Best, the Begetter, the Controller, the Father of those who have been born and those yet to be born.”  The monk said, “Friend, I did not ask if you are Great Brahmā, my question is: where do the four elements cease without remainder?”  Great Brahmā repeated, “I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Undefeated, the Champion, … etc etc … the Father of those who have been born and those yet to be born.” 

For the third time, the monk asked, “Friend, I did not ask if you are Great Brahmā.  What I asked is: where do the four elements cease without remainder?”  This time, Great Brahmā did not answer.  He grabbed the monk by the arm and took him to a quiet corner, and said to him, “All these gods think I know everything, but how would I know where the four great elements cease without remainder?  This is all your fault.  You are a disciple of the Buddha, go ask him yourself.”  And with that, the monk disappeared from that heaven and appeared in front of the Buddha.  The Buddha made a gentle joke about his little adventure before giving him the answer in verse:

“Consciousness unmanifest,
boundless, all-luminous:

Here water and earth,
fire and air find no footing;

Here long and short,
small and large, fair and foul;
Here name and form
are without remainder destroyed—
Here, with the cessation of consciousness,
This is all destroyed.”[5]

Oh, and did you notice, the main character in this story, a mere unnamed Buddhist monk, addressed Great Brahmā as “friend” (āvuso)[6], the same term monks use to address each other?  Whether you take the story literally or not, it illuminates the early Buddhist attitude towards the gods: that when it comes to the most important and most profound subjects like nirvana, the gods do not necessarily know more than we do, and an enlightened human would know more about those topics than a typical god, up to and including Great Brahmā himself.  And that is partly why, in early Buddhism, the total cumulative sum of worship of all gods is zero.  Gods are just friends.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • Recall the 6 recollections:
      • Recollection of the Buddha
      • Recollection of the Dharma
      • Recollection of the Sangha
      • Recollection of your own virtue
      • Recollection of your generosity
      • Recollection of the gods
    • Out of the 6 recollections, the ones that might be most useful as a start, would be to recollect your virtues and generosity. This is so simple, yet immediately uplifting and empowering. This is what I personally share with my family: to recall all the good they have done, on a regular basis. We want to habituate this recollection, which would be especially important at the time of death, as we want our mind to be in a virtuous state. 
    • Recollect your own virtues and generosity. Do this for a few minutes. Now note, what emotions have arisen? What sensations do you feel in your body? What is your mood now? 
    • What stood out to you from this article? Why?


[1] Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.52.

[2] Saṃyutta Nikāya 2.9.

[3] Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.10.

[4] The story is in Dīgha Nikāya 11.

[5] Maurice Walshe’s translation, with Soryu’s minor edits.

[6] Most translators translate āvuso as “friend” while Bhikkhu Sujato translates it to “reverend” because āvuso comes from ayu meaning “age”, which means it is a reverential term.  You can think of “āvuso” as addressing a friend in a respectful way, perhaps the same way a Chinese person like me might address a friend as “Old Chen” (老陈) or “Old Wang” (老王).

Also see: In early Buddhism, miracles are meh.

Artwork by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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