Heaven is For Real


> Quotes From People Who Know More Than Me > Regarding the Patala Sutta > Regarding the Devaduta Sutta > Regarding the Sangarava Sutta > Conclusion


Buddhism enjoys a position of acceptance and celebration among irreligious, secular people. It is often considered the most “scientific” of the living faiths, a sort of elaborate psychology or science of the mind. Such people are often disturbed to find records of the Buddha speaking about heaven, hell, gods, ghosts, and everything in between. Sometimes, this disturbance is allayed with a wave of the hand: “it’s all metaphor!”

In this essay, I want to make a small step towards debunking this idea. To do so comprehensively would require volumes; here, I will limit myself to claims made by the scholar Piya Tan.1 I will be referring to his analyses of three suttas: the Patala Sutta (SN 36.4), the Devaduta Sutta (MN 130), and the Sangarava Sutta (MN 100).

This is a basic summary of his arguments:
1) Hell does not literally exist; the Buddha merely used it as a metaphor for worldly pain.
2) Likewise, heaven does not literally exist, nor does any otherworldly realm.
3) The Buddha did not truly put forward that gods are real; all references to gods in the suttas are there merely because of popular convention.

My own thesis is simply that all of these interpretations are wrong, and a thorough analysis of the early Buddhist texts makes this clear. Hell is real. Heaven is real. Gods are real. If you personally don't believe this, that's one thing; to say that your disbelief is supported by the suttas is incorrect.


Lazybones says:
『I ain't readin' this whole dang page! 』
_(:3 」∠)_

Here are the highlights:

1. The Patala Sutta cannot be used as evidence for a denial of the existence of hell; the word "patala" does not have any relevance to the Buddhist idea of hell, referred to as "niraya" in the early Pali texts. Throughout the suttas, hell is presented as a real destination of rebirth where one may appear after death.
2. "Patala" is used in the early Buddhist texts to refer to an oceanic abyss. It almost exclusively appears in metaphors pertaining to obstacles which can overwhelm untrained individuals, evoking imagery of someone unable to find stable footing within a deep chasm in the sea.
3. The dichotomy of "neyyattha" suttas (those that require interpretation) and "nītattha" suttas (those with evident meanings) cannot be used to dismiss the plain discussions of hell, heaven, or gods as metaphor. The early Buddhist tradition used this dichotomy to identify instances where the Buddha spoke about persons and individuals using conventional language, without taking the time to acknowledge the doctrine of not-self. Suttas about supernatural things are not "neyyattha" discourses in need of strained reinterpretation.
4. No part of the Sangarava Sutta indicates that the Buddha rejected the existence of gods. On the contrary, careful analysis of this sutta, its Sanskrit parallel, and related texts clearly demonstrates that the gods were understood as real entities, and the Buddha's knowledge about these gods was presented as evidence of his authority.

Quotes From People Who Know More Than Me

Before I provide my own arguments, I want to begin with a few quotations from scholars and authors more learned than myself.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: "...when the suttas speak about rebirth into the five realms – the hells, the animal world, the spirit realm, the human world, and the heavens – they never hint that these terms are meant symbolically."2

Rupert Gethin: [even the earliest Buddhist texts depict a world] "alive with various kinds of being. The Buddha and his followers are represented as being visited by these various beings, as having discussions with them, as teaching them, as being questioned by them, and as being honoured by them... these so-called mythical elements are so embedded in, so entangled with the conceptual, ethical, and philosophical dimensions of early Buddhist literature that the task of extricating them is extremely problematic... What can be said with certainty is that we have no evidence, either in the ancient texts or in the different contemporary traditions, for a 'pure' Buddhism that does not recognize, accommodate, and interact with various classes of 'supernatural' being."3

Punnadhammo Mahathero, warning against reading supernatural elements in the early texts as "simply psychological metaphor": "...we have to conclude that the texts meant what they said. The so-called psychological interpretation does a disservice to the tradition... much of the cosmological material makes no sense at all when interpreted in psychological terms... the psychological interpretation not only trivializes the whole system but actually obscures the more important lessons we can learn from it."4

Étienne Lamotte: "The Buddhist tradition is steeped in the marvelous... We have accepted it as such without attempting to eliminate it in the name of western rationalism. To disregard it would be to offer a caricature of Buddhism and still not attain historical truth."5

Regarding the Patala Sutta


The first sutta I want to discuss is SN 36.4, the Patala Sutta. In this sermon, the Buddha addressed the idea of something called “patala.” The text informs us that “unlearned, ordinary people” believed “patala” referred to something within the Great Ocean. The Buddha instead instructed his disciples to understand “patala” as referring to “painful bodily feelings.”

A key issue here is how the term “patala” should be translated, because is is interpreted in different ways across Indian traditions. A common translation is “hell” or “hellish abyss,” which rests on the term’s function as a name for a suboceanic realm occupied by otherworldly beings. Relying on this translation, Piya Tan interprets this sutta as the Buddha rejecting the literal existence of hell. We are to understand that the Buddha was informing his monks that any discussion of “hell” was simply a metaphor for painful feelings. As he puts it, “hell is not a place we go to, but a suffering state of mind that can arise any time, anywhere.”6 He also says that "the Buddha declares that such things are merely ideas and stories,” meant to dramatically illustrate the subjective experience of suffering."7

There are two problems with Piya Tan’s analysis here:
1) across Indian traditions broadly, descriptions of “Patala” as a realm are markedly different from Buddhist descriptions of “hell.”
2) the suttas exclusively use the term “patala” to refer to a geographical feature, almost always within explicit metaphors.

Patala as a Realm in Indian Traditions

Hindu Traditions8

The details of Patala, as a location, vary between Indian traditions. I can’t say which version - if any - would have been dominant in the Buddha’s time. Many descriptions are relatively late. Critically, the term usually lacks the negative implications of words like “hell.” It is often described as a sort of paradise. In the Puranas, Patala is one of seven underworlds, said to be filled with beautiful cities and creatures such as the serpentfolk known as nāgas. They live there happily, unbothered by the passage of time, adorned with fine jewelry.9

Late Buddhist Traditions

Within later Buddhist traditions we see some ambiguity; the negative connotation is present in Nagarjuna’s Dharma-samgraha, but here the term broadly refers to a group of seven “lower regions,” only two of which are explicitly identified as “hells.” There is also a “water realm” included in this group of “Patala realms,” but it is not described as a hell. In early Vajrayana texts, “Patala” can be found with a more positive connotation, where it is understood as the name of a realm which exists spatially above hell, and is associated with serpentfolk, demigods, and sources of water. Neither usage seems to correspond to the Buddha’s usage of the term in the Patala Sutta.10

Buddhist Hell

When the suttas discuss “hell,” the term used is “niraya.” A detailed discussion of the Buddhist conception of hell is beyond the scope of this essay. A few salient details will suffice: Niraya is never associated with the ocean. Instead, it is usually depicted as a subterranean realm where individuals are tortured by beings called “Hell-Wardens,” ushered from one location to another, all the while being subjected to gruesome physical torment. Among these locations include a mountain of burning coals, cauldrons of boiling scumwater, an iron room filled with fire, two forests which inflict various injuries as one navigates through them, and a river of acid. Detailed descriptions are found in Snp 3.10, MN 50, MN 129, MN 130, with brief allusions to hell found all throughout the suttas, as well as in stories from the Vinaya. The term “patala” does not appear even once in any of these passages concerning hell. No description of hell found in the suttas associates that realm with the ocean.

Thorough investigation reveals that “patala” and “hell” are not the same. Piya Tan himself seems to be aware of this, as he acknowledges that “the Buddha makes this statement [of rejection] specifically regarding ‘a bottomless abyss,’ (pātāla),” but nevertheless he insists “we can safely surmise that it also applies to the other states, including the various hell-states.”11 There is no convincing argument for this leap in logic. The contents of the Patala Sutta are irrelevant to early Buddhist conceptions of niraya.

Even if we accept that the term “Patala” in the Patala Sutta refers to some otherworldly realm, such a realm does not correspond to Buddhist descriptions of “niraya.” Patala is not niraya. Patala is not hell. The Buddha rejecting the existence of “Patala” as such is not a rejection of the existence of “niraya.”

Patala as a Metaphor in the Early Buddhist Texts

However, the word “patala” may also refer to a geographical feature that we might call an abyss or a cliff. I believe this is how the term should be understood in the Patala Sutta, and throughout early Buddhist texts in general. Specifically, the Buddha and his disciples used this term poetically to evoke the imagery of someone becoming overwhelmed and unable to “find their footing” in the “chasm” of painful feelings, as if trying to stand within an oceanic abyss.

In the Patala Sutta, we see the poetic function of this term: when an untrained person experiences pain, they become overwhelmed - they “sorrow, wail, and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion.” This is described like being unable to “stand up in patala, finding no footing.” A trained disciple, however, is able to withstand the experience of pain without giving in to the sorrow and lamentation which could follow. This is described like being able to “stand up in patala, having found their footing.” When we translate “patala” as “an abyss” or “a chasm,” this imagery makes sense. Translating it as “hell,” however, renders the metaphor incomprehensible.

This imagery appears elsewhere in the early texts. In the Ekamūla Sutta (SN 1.44), we see a poem celebrating how the Buddha has “crossed over patala,” featured alongside other oceanic imagery, particularly whirlpools. Interestingly, I’m not aware of any translation which renders “patala” here as “hell” - they’re all unanimous in using “abyss.”

In the Māradhītu Sutta (SN 4.25), we see an amusing story demonstrating the Buddha’s equanimity. Māra, having failed to tempt the Buddha, is sitting on the ground and pouting, drawing in the dirt with a stick like a little child. Seeing their father in this pitiful state, his three daughters tried to tempt the Buddha themselves. Of course, they failed, and in poetic verse, Māra explained the futility of trying to lead the Buddha astray: “You seek a footing in patala while lifting a rock with your head!” Again, this metaphor makes sense when we understand “patala” as an oceanic chasm - tempting the Buddha is as impossible as trying to stand upright in a hole in the bottom of the sea with a stone on your head.

In the Viveka Sutta (SN 9.1), a forest god approaches a monk to advise him that it is “hard to cross'' the “dusty abyss” (pātālarajo) in order to encourage him to practice meditation more diligently. The term here is modified with the adjective of “dusty.” In the Theragāthā, the arahant Devasabha celebrates his enlightenment by declaring he has “avoided the cliffs,” here appearing in the plural (pātālā).

Every time we find the term “patala” in the early Buddhist texts, it is obviously not referring to “hell.” Instead, it refers to a geographical feature - most often one in the ocean - and is used in metaphors to represent difficulties or obstacles. 12 The Buddha is not rejecting the existence of hell in the Patala Sutta. Instead, the Buddha is explaining how the term serves a metaphorical function within his teachings, something that is consistent with almost every instance of the word in other early Buddhist texts.

Regarding the Devaduta Sutta


Piya Tan also denies the reality of hell in his analysis of the Devaduta Sutta (MN 130). This text features an elaborate description of what one may experience upon being reborn in hell. Again, the details are not terribly relevant to this essay. Instead, I want to address something Piya Tan uses to support his argument that “hell stories are a graphic means” of representing “worldly suffering” - the dichotomy of “neyyattha suttas” and “nītattha suttas.”

Neyyattha / Nītattha Dichotomy

The Buddha (for example, in AN 2.24) taught that his sermons were either “neyyattha” - those with meanings that were not immediately evident and required some sort of further interpretation - or “nītattha” - those whose meanings were straightforward and did not require elaboration. The tricky part about this is that the suttas do not present any criteria for determining which sermons were neyyattha and which were nītattha.

Piya Tan uses this dichotomy to identify passages about hell as “neyyattha,” proposing that the “further interpretation” required is understanding that every time the Buddha discussed hell, he was doing so with a wink and a nudge, expecting his audience to know that he was speaking with tongue in cheek.

This is an unusual usage of the dichotomy that does not represent what it meant to the early Buddhist community. Again, the suttas provide no criteria for differentiating “neyyattha suttas” from “nītattha” ones. However, the commentarial tradition understood neyyattha suttas as those where the Buddha spoke about people in simple terms as "individuals" or "selves," whereas nītattha suttas were ones where the Buddha spoke more philosophically in terms of impermanence, dukkha, and not-self (AA 2:118). To quote the Manorathapūranī, “Those suttas that speak of one person (puggala), two persons, etc., require interpretation, for their meaning has to be interpreted in the light of the fact that in the ultimate sense a person does not exist.”13

In other words, for the early tradition, suttas which required “further interpretation” involved the Buddha using conventional language to speak about individuals without taking the time to acknowledge the doctrine of not-self. This understanding persisted into late Buddhist traditions, as seen in Prajnakaramati’s commentary to Shantideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, where he defined neyyattha texts as those relating to discussions of the self.

The idea that this classification can somehow be applied to suttas about hell to disprove the realm’s existence is not compatible with the early texts, where hell is discussed as a truly existent destination of rebirth, nor is it compatible with the early commentarial tradition, which likewise accepted the reality of hell.

Interestingly, some suttas record instances where monks were unclear on the meanings of certain things said by the Buddha, and sought further explanation - either from the Buddha himself or a senior monk (ex: MN 133). I’m not aware of any such instance involving the reality of hell. By all accounts, the early disciples took the Buddha at his word on this topic, and spoke on the topic themselves on numerous occasions. In MN 50, we see Mahā Moggallāna recount a past life in which he lived as the adversarial Māra, and was subsequently reborn in hell as a result of his evil deeds. Any reading of this text as metaphor requires a cartoonish amount of mental gymnastics.

Furthermore, Piya Tan’s insistence that hell is a metaphor for a state of mind which “can arise any time, anywhere” is at odds with what the suttas say about niraya. Numerous passages declare that “when the body breaks up, after death” someone may be “reborn in a place of loss (apāya), a woeful destination (duggati), a state of ruin (vinipāta), hell (niraya)” (ex: AN 1.290). All throughout the suttas, hell is discussed plainly as a place, and it does not “arise any time, anywhere” - one is reborn in hell after dying.

Regarding the Sangārava Sutta


In his analysis of the Sangārava Sutta (MN 100), Piya Tan expands his rejection of the reality of hell to the gods and all the various realms of rebirth discussed by the Buddha. He boldly claims that the suttas show how the Buddha “rejects the historical reality of the gods and the various realms,” which are mere teaching tools in his stories.

This section will be a bit more dense than the preceding ones; for clarity, here is how I will proceed:
1) First, I will provide a brief summary of the sutta, particularly the relevant passage about the existence of gods.
2) Then, I will “zoom in” on a discussion which is difficult to translate for two reasons: the ambiguity of two Pali terms, and a confusing sequence of events.
3) After that, I will present Piya Tan’s analysis of this passage, in which he claims that the Buddha rejected the literal existence of the gods and heavenly realms.
4) Finally, I will explain why I think Piya Tan’s conclusion is wrong.

The Sutta

In this sutta, a young Brahmin student named Sangārava questions the Buddha on a number of topics. The boy had previously heard a Brahmin lady named Dhanañjānī praising the Buddha, for which he scolded her. She protested that the Buddha was worthy of such praise, and Sangārava resolved to go see the Buddha for himself. This context will be important - keep it in mind as we proceed.

Sangārava eventually meets with the Buddha, and after the usual exchange of pleasantries expected with such a meeting, he begins to question the Buddha. After asking about the Buddha’s opinion on the numerous teachers who claimed to have achieved perfect insight, the Buddha declared that there are three types of teachers: those whose claims rest on oral transmissions received from their masters (such as the Brahmins); those whose claims rest rest on faith, or processes of logic; and finally, there are those who have gained knowledge personally, not inherited from another, and have mastered the spiritual life through direct insight. The Buddha declared that he was one of the latter, and provided a narrative of his life story to support his claim.

Crucially, the gods played a role in that story. He recounted the time when he had left his former teachers after realizing they themselves didn't know the way to the enlightenment he was seeking. At that point, his body was in shambles as a result of intense ascetic practices. He was so frail and racked with pain that he couldn't achieve tranquility. Witnessing his condition, gods gathered and discussed with one another about whether or not he was dead. As this was happening, he considered starving himself completely, in an attempt to progress further in his asceticism. Detecting this thought in his mind, the gods immediately intervened, telling him that if he even attempted to stop eating they would "force feed" him by pouring divine nectar into his pores. He realized that it would be no use trying to carry on with his self-imposed starvation if these gods wouldn't allow him to become further emaciated, so he abandoned that plan. The Buddha related the rest of his story, concluding with his achievement of perfect enlightenment.

After the Buddha described his experience of enlightenment, Sangārava circled back to a point the Buddha had mentioned earlier: the gods. “How is it,” he asked, “are there gods?” The Buddha’s response, in Pali, was “Ṭhānaso metaṁ, bhāradvāja, viditaṁ yadidaṁ—adhidevā.” As with many things in Pali, translating this directly into English is tricky. The difficulty lies in the interpretation of two terms: “thānaso” and “adhidevā.”

Troublesome Terminology


“Thānaso” can mean either “on the spot/at once” or “as to the cause.”14 The latter sense comes through in Sujato’s translation: “I’ve understood about gods in terms of causes.” Both senses are somewhat conveyed in M.M.J. Marasinghe’s interpretation, where he takes the Buddha’s usage of the term to mean “in the above context” (or perhaps “in that moment”) calling back to the situation he had previously established when he mentioned the gods.

I.B. Horner, Bhikkhus Ñānamoli & Bodhi, and Piya Tan himself interpret the term here as functioning to emphasize the Buddha’s personal experience.

I.B. Horner: “Certainly, Bhāradvāja, it is known to me that there are devas.”

Ñānamoli & Bodhi: “It is known to me to be the case, Bharadvaja, that there are gods."

Piya Tan: “Certainly, Bhāradvāja, it is known to me to be the case, Bhāradvāja, that there are superior gods.”

Perhaps you noticed that Piya Tan is alone in modifying the subject of “gods” with the adjective “superior.” This brings us to the second term: adhidevā.


“Adhidevā,” in the most simple sense, means “superior gods.” However, the term can also be used to describe someone or something as “superior to the gods.” Furthermore, as noted in the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English dictionary, even though the word “adhi” often functions as a prefix to intensify the base word it modifies, it “very often has lost this power & become meaningless,” existing merely as a sort of linguistic mutation, like a vestigial tail. These various possibilities only add to the ambiguity of this statement. In either case, the Buddha’s specific usage of the word adhidevā when Sangārava used the simpler see devā seems puzzling. Bhikkhus Ñānamoli & Bodhi raise the possibility that the confusion is due to the text being corrupt.

A Strange Sequence of Speech

The difficulty in interpreting this passage is further complicated by the Brahmin’s response. Sangarava questioned why the Buddha replied in the way he did, by saying, in Pali, “Nanu, bho gotama, evaṁ sante tucchā musā hotī?” Essentially, this means something to the effect of "If that's the case, isn't what you said meaningless and untrue?"

This seems like a bizarre response to what the Buddha told him. The sutta's commentary explains that Sangarava "had the idea that the Buddha spoke thus without actual knowledge, and he therefore accuses the Buddha of false speech."15

The Buddha explained himself by saying, “‘Atthi devā’ti, bhāradvāja, puṭṭho samāno ‘atthi devā’ti yo vadeyya, ‘ṭhānaso me viditā’ti yo vadeyya; atha khvettha viññunā purisena ekaṁsena niṭṭhaṁ gantabbaṁ yadidaṁ: ‘atthi devā’.” Essentially, this means, "When asked 'Do gods exist?' whether one answers with 'there are gods' or 'it is known to me that gods exist' [or: 'I know about gods in terms of causes,' if one prefers that interpretation of "thānaso"], a wise person would clearly conclude that gods exist." To simplify this, the Buddha seemed to have been telling Sangarava that he was confused for no reason: either one of those answers should clearly indicate that, yes, gods exist.

Sangarava followed up by asking why the Buddha didn't respond that way in the first place. The Buddha answered bluntly, "It's widely accepted in the world that gods exist." It's almost as if he was saying, "It should have gone without saying!"

So, this sutta records the Buddha having recounted his journey towards enlightenment for Sangarava, a story which included references to gods. When the Buddha had finished, Sangarava questioned the Buddha about the existence of gods. The Buddha responded by firmly declaring his knowledge regarding the existence of “superior gods,” and then Sangarava essentially accused him of giving a nonsensical answer and lying. The Buddha retorted that, whether he had said “gods exist” or “it is known to me that gods exist,” the point any reasonable person should take away would be the same: gods exist. This is a confusing conversation; It raises some questions, two of which are pertinent to us:
1) Why did Sangarava ask the Buddha if gods exist? He was a well-trained Brahmin student who would have had extensive education about the Brahminical gods; why would he have asked a rival teacher whose authority he rejected such an elementary question?
2) Why did the Buddha suddenly use the term "superior gods" in his response to Sangarava's basic question about "gods"?

Piya Tan's Takeaways

Superior "Gods"

Let’s now look at Piya Tan’s analysis of this conversation. First, he focuses on that term “adhideva.” Citing K.R. Norman, he argues that the Buddha was being cheeky with his response to Sangarava, essentially saying, “I know there are those higher than any hypothetical gods, such as myself.” As I mentioned above, the term adhideva can function in this way. Furthermore, Norman insists that we should re-examine the term “deva” in this context as well, relying on the fact that “deva” is sometimes used as an honorific to refer to royalty. Norman concludes that, in this conversation, the Buddha “was merely saying that there were in the world earthly princes who were by convention called devas, but there were others, Buddhas like himself, who were superior to these.”

Because of this, Piya Tan relies on this sutta to deny the existence of the gods we see so often throughout the early texts. He even draws this conclusion from a Sanskrit parallel text, which records the Buddha as using the term deva and not adhideva. His reasoning for this is that, because the Buddha did not specify which kinds of “devas” he was referring to, “we can still accept that… the Buddha is not declaring that the gods exist.”

Piya Tan acknowledges the fact that the Buddha did not outright reject the existence of the gods, but he has an explanation for this: to have done so would have been “too big of a quantum leap for a... god-believer like the brahmin Saṅgārava, and like many of us today who simply cannot let go of the God-concept. There are those of us who still need our familiar security blanket like Linus van Pelt in the Christian-themed cartoon, Peanuts.” Piya Tan speculates that, had the Buddha said unambiguously that gods don’t exist – which Piya Tan believes was the real position held by the Buddha – Sangarava would have been “religiously traumatized.” He concludes by saying the Buddha’s answer “[provided] Saṅgārava (and those of us still holding on to a God-belief) a common ground to stand on — a ground that tolerates false notions or personal ideas, as it were — which at the same time, prepares us for a higher or less theistic vision of personal divinity and selfless sainthood in due course.”

In other words, Piya Tan’s argument here is that the Buddha hinted at his rejection of the existence of gods by using subtle wordplay which would be understood by those in-the-know, while being tactful enough to avoid melting the brains of simpletons too foolish to question their own beliefs, which they cling to like “a familiar security blanket.” From this, we are to understand that all instances of gods, heavens, and hells in the suttas are simply elaborate metaphors. Whenever the Buddha spoke of such things, he was “only reflecting popular beliefs.”

The Pericope of Six Wrong Views

He supports his claim by looking at a pericope that appears throughout the suttas defining six “Wrong Views” which other teachers and traditions held. I don’t want to analyze them at length; the salient point, according to Piya Tan, is that none of the Wrong Views explicitly mention gods or heaven. In other words, he believes that if the Buddha truly accepted the existence of gods and heaven, as well as hell, for that matter, we should see “there are no gods, and there is no heaven or hell” featured in the Wrong Views pericope.

Problems With Piya Tan's Positions

Making Sense of the Conversation

Let’s begin by establishing the context for this strange interaction between the Buddha and Sangarava. To do so, we can look at two texts: one is another sutta from the Pali Canon, while the other is a Sanskrit parallel to the Sangarava Sutta itself. The other Pali Sutta is the Dhanañjānī Sutta (SN 7.1), where a strikingly similar story plays out: a Brahmin woman of the same name16 was overheard speaking praise for the Buddha, and her husband scolded her for it. She defended the Buddha as being worthy of praise, and implored her husband to go see for himself.

In SN 7.1, the man declared his intention to meet the Buddha with the explicit purpose of embarrassing the Buddha in a debate. We should see Sangārava’s questions in this light: he was attempting to catch the Buddha in a “gotcha!” moment in order to demonstrate that he was not worthy of the praise Dhanañjānī had given him. We can see this same adversarial tone in Sangarava’s disgust at Dhanañjānī’s praise of the Buddha; he couldn’t fathom why a high-born Brahmin woman would pay respect to a “shaveling, fake ascetic” instead of “Brahmins proficient in the three Vedas.” When we understand this motivation behind his meeting with the Buddha, we are able to understand why an educated Brahmin would ask a rival – one he saw as lowly and foolish – whether or not gods exist. He was trying to best the Buddha in a rhetorical joust. The reality of the gods was never in question; essentially, he was challenging the Buddha: “What do you know about the gods?”

This is made even more clear when we look at the Sanskrit parallel to the Sangarava Sutta. As Bhikkhu Analayo points out, where the Pali version records Sangarava having asked about the gods at the end of the Buddha’s account of his journey to enlightenment, the Sanskrit version places his question at the beginning of their discussion.17 Again, this makes sense when we understand that Sangarava was testing the views of a rival teacher. We could punch up Sangarava’s question by rendering it like, “You’re a wise man, huh? What do you know about the existence of the gods?” The Buddha answered, quite plainly, that he knew gods existed. “How is it that you know this?” Sangarava asked. After this, the Buddha discussed the different types of teachers, and concluded with his personal story of enlightenment to demonstrate that he was the sort of teacher who gained his knowledge - including that of the existence of plain old devas, and not adhidevas here - through direct personal insight.

Perhaps the more puzzling version of events preserved in the Pali text is a product of textual corruption, as suggested by Ñānamoli & Bodhi. Regardless, comparing MN 100 with its Sanskrit parallel and SN 7.1 allows us to reliably conclude that the interaction here between the Buddha and Sangarava is not one of a curious Brahmin asking the Buddha whether or not gods exist, whereupon the Buddha gave a sly response which indicates that gods do not exist. Instead, we should understand this conversation as a meeting between two religious rivals, with the literal existence of the gods not being in question, but used as grounds for a test of authenticity, in which the Buddha proved his authority by explaining that he had achieved knowledge of the gods through direct experience, and not through being heir to an oral lineage like the Brahmins.

Sometimes, an Adhideva is Just a Deva

Piya Tan wants us to parse "adhideva" in this sutta as "superior to the gods." He cites Norman in rendering "deva" as an honorific for worldly royalty. He wants us to read this sutta and walk away with the understanding that the Buddha was subtly rejecting the existence of the gods. The first and most obvious problem with this is that in this very same sutta the Buddha literally told a story about interacting with otherworldly gods who could read his thoughts and infuse his body with ambrosia. How are we to interpret this as metaphor? Are we to understand these devas as being worldly royalty? Of course not! This was a story about the Buddha having an encounter with actual gods. It was included as a part of his journey to enlightenment alongside all of the other events which are taken as matter-of-fact by the entirety of the Buddhist tradition, such as his renunciation of the householder's life and his time spent studying under the ascetic teachers.

Before analyzing terminology and diving into textual comparisons, we could simply agree to acknowledge what is painfully obvious: this text, and the Buddhist texts at large, put forward that gods are real and sometimes the Buddha and his disciples interacted with them. Of course, temptations to downplay supernatural elements in Buddhism are not so easily stayed, so let's proceed. We have already seen the various possible meanings of the term "adhideva" - we should look at other early texts where this term appears to get a more comprehensive understanding of what it may mean in this sutta.

Kannakatthala Sutta

I want to begin with what is probably the most important example for our purposes here: the Kannakatthala Sutta (MN 90). This sutta records a time when King Pasenadi visited the Buddha to ask him questions. He asked the Buddha about the gods in almost the same exact wording used by Sangarava: "atthi devā?" meaning, "Do gods exist?" The Buddha asked him to clarify what he meant by the question. The king explained that he wanted to know whether or not gods will "return to this state of existence," or in other words, if gods can be reborn as humans. The Buddha explained that some gods will return, while others will not, depending on their moral character. Eventually, the monk Ananda asked the king's general if he had heard of the "devā tāvatiṁsā," or "The Gods of the 33," a special class of gods in Buddhist cosmology. The king's general confirmed that he has, and commented that King Pasenadi was incapable of seeing them (presumably because of his lack of spiritual development). All of this took place in the context of explaining some of the differences between different classes of gods.

After an interruption, the king praised the Buddha by saying, "Sir, I asked you about the gods, and you answered me; I approve of your response and am quite satisfied." However, we have to note that in this sentence the king suddenly switched to the term "adhidevā," despite the entirety of the sutta up to that point having used the more basic term "deva." This is incredibly similar to what we see in the Sangarava Sutta. In this case, it is absolutely undeniable that they were discussing literal gods, and not speaking in metaphor.

Gayāsīsa Sutta

In the Gayāsīsa Sutta (AN 8.64), the Buddha described his experience with meditation leading up to his enlightenment. Specifically, in this instance he was discussing his resolve to achieve "knowledge and vision" about the gods in eight stages. At first, he was only able to see a "light" or an "aura." Next, he saw "visions" or "forms." His description of the subsequent achievement confirms that these luminous forms were gods, and he said that he gained the ability to interact with them. After that, he learned which "orders" they belonged to, or in other words, he became able to discern what specific types of gods he was perceiving. Next, he discovered what sort of karma led to the particular rebirths of those different gods, and the stage after that gave him the ability to determine what sort of sustenance those gods consumed and what sorts of pleasures and pains they experienced as a result of that karma. Next, he became able to determine their lifespans, and finally, he learned which of those classes of gods he had previously been reborn with. The sutta concludes with the Buddha declaring that he only announced his perfect enlightenment after gaining this eightfold knowledge of the gods - once again, we see the sudden switch to the term "adhidevā." This is another example of a similar appearance of this term that is undeniably referring to actual gods, and not used as metaphor.


In the Pārāyanānugītigāthā (Snp 5.19), we see a lovely collection of verses spoken by the monk Pingiya to his former teacher, explaining why he became a disciple of the Buddha. Among the reasons given was, in Pali, "adhideve abhiññāya," meaning "he knows about the abhidevā." Sujato, Bodhi, Bhikkhu Ānandajoti, and Laurence Khantipalo Mills all agree in translating "adhidevā" here as "gods" or "great gods."18 This example differs from the others in that "adhidevā" does not appear suddenly after previous instances of "devā," but it does feature the motif of the Buddha's knowledge about gods - actual gods, not symbolic ones - being something that made him exceptional among myriad rival teachers.

Revisiting the Sangarava Sutta after having read these other texts should make what was obvious previously now undeniable: the Buddha was not using the term "adhideva" to reject the existence of gods. We can't say for certain why the Sangarava Sutta, or other texts for that matter, suddenly switch to the term "adhideva" when previous passages use "deva," but I would propose two explanations: perhaps the Buddha was using the modified form of the noun to emphasize the extent of his knowledge. "Do gods exist?" "I personally know about the highest gods." Alternatively, and perhaps most likely, these are instances of the prefix "adhi-" simply appearing as a linguistic anamoly, not meant to impart any particular meaning and not warranting the degree of speculation given to it here. In any case, I believe it is crystal clear that the Buddha was not rejecting the existence of the gods here; quite the opposite, he was declaring outright that he knew first-hand that they exist!

Looking Closely at the Wrong Views Pericope

Piya Tan relies on the fact that the Wrong Views pericope does not explicitly reference gods, heaven, or hell. This argument doesn't hold up because four of the six items included in the formulaic list implicitly involve the denial of such things.

The second item in this list of Wrong Views is "there is no result of good or bad karma." All throughout the suttas, karma (or kamma in Pali) is explained as producing results either in this world or in future lifetimes. Among these results are which otherwordly realm of rebirth one reappears in - from hell, to heaven, or anywhere inbetween. Examples of this are so plentiful that I don't feel the need to discuss them at length here. If you're interested, check out the section on kamma in my essay on rebirth. To deny the results of good and bad kamma is to deny the possibility of rebirth in heaven or hell.

The third item is "there is no this world, there is no next world." In the suttas, "the next world" always refers to the destination of rebirth where a person appears after death in "this world." The possibilities for that "next world" include the supernatural destinations such as heaven, hell.

The fifth item is "there are no spontaneously-born beings." In Buddhism, "spontaneous rebirth" (opapatika) refers specifically to lifeforms who are born asexually with fully-formed bodies. This applies to gods and beings reborn in hell. This is perhaps the most obvious reference to gods, heaven, and hell in this pericope.

The sixth item is "there are no recluses or brahmins who have directly known and realized for themselves this world and the hereafter." Once again, we must understand that the division between "this world" and "the hereafter" always fits in to the Buddhist cosmological framework wherein "this world" coexists with heaven, hell.

Although the words "gods," "heaven," and "hell" never appear verbatim in the Wrong Views pericope, context from wider Buddhist doctrine makes clear that this list necessarily involves the rejection of gods, heaven, and hell. This pericope, which Piya Tan relies on to support his claim that the Buddha did not teach that such things were real, instead establishes that very belief as Wrong View.


Piya Tan's analysis of these three suttas would have us conclude that the Buddha did not truly teach that we live in a cosmos inhabited by gods, and that we should deny the existence of heaven and hell. This goes against a wealth of examples from the early texts in which the Buddha and his foremost disciples spoke plainly about these things as being no less real than you, me, or the ground beneath our feet. I believe that a more careful analysis of these three texts demonstrates clearly that we should accept the reality of gods, heaven, and hell as aspects of Buddhist doctrine.

I hope that my arguments here (and alsewhere on my site) do not seem hostile to Piya Tan. I have the utmost respect for him and the work I share on this website would not be possible without relying on his vast body of research, which I consult whenever possible. The fact that he shares all of that research freely - an ideal I share - only further endears me to his Sutta Discovery project. I also don't want to present myself as a more authoritative voice than him regarding anything related to Buddhism. He has monastic and academic experience that far outweighs any claim I could make, and that's something I encourage you to consider when reflecting on what I've written here. I simply disagree with him on several important doctrinal matters, and such disagreements provide great opportunities to write about those topics.


[1] For clarity: I do not think Piya Tan is exactly what one would call a secular Buddhist. However, throughout his essays, he denies the reality of heaven, hell, and gods. As such, I am using his arguments to represent claims made by those who are secular Buddhists, partly because he is much more thorough in his presentation of supporting evidence than most secular Buddhists are, generally speaking. In other words, Piya Tan's arguments against the reality of certain "supermundane" elements of Buddhism are probably the strongest one can encounter; therefore, it is more fruitful to counter them as opposed to lesser arguments made by others.

I would also like to make this clear: despite my disagreements with conclusions that Piya Tan reaches regarding Buddhist doctrine, I have the utmost respect for him as a scholar of Buddhism. See the conclusion of this essay.

[2] Bodhi, Bhikkhu : Does Rebirth Make Sense?

[3] Gethin, Rupert: The Foundations of Buddhism

[4] Punnadhammo (Mahāthero) : The Buddhist Cosmos: A Comprehensive Survey of the Early Buddhist Worldview according to the Theravada and Sarvastivada sources

[5] Lamotte, Étienne : History of Indian Buddhism from the Origins to the Śaka Era, trans. by Sara Webb-Boin

[6] Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 2.25 - S 36.4 - Patala Sutta

[7] Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 2.23 - M 130 - (Majjhima) Devaduta Sutta

[8] I begrudgingly use the term "Hindu" here for lack of a better word; the vast expanse of traditions included under the umbrella-term "Hinduism" are so varied as to render the word almost meaningless.

[9] https://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/patala#hinduism & https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/compilation/puranic-encyclopaedia/d/doc241826.html

[10] Mayer, Robert : The Importance of the Underworlds: Asuras' Caves in Buddhism, and Some Other Themes in Early Buddhist Tantras Reminiscent of the Later Padmasambhava Legends

[11] Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 2.25 - S 36.4 - Patala Sutta

[12] We also see “Patala” featured in Thag 19.1; it appears alongside references to specific rivers as well as the sea, maintaining the oceanic theme, but the commentarial tradition interprets it as the name of a specific territory near the coast. In any case, it certainly isn’t “hell.” The Buddha is not rejecting the existence of hell in the Patala Sutta. Instead, the Buddha is explaining how the term serves a metaphorical function within Buddhist teachings, something that is consistent with every instance of the word in other early Buddhist texts.

[13] Bodhi (Bhikkhu) : The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha - A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (quote pulled from the footnotes to AN 2.24)

[14] New Concise Pali-English Dictionary

[15] Bodhi (Bhikkhu) & Ñānamoli (Bhikkhu) : The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha - A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya (quote pulled from the footnotes to MN 100)

[16] There is a minor variation in the spelling between some editions, where MN 100 has Dhanañjānī, while SN 7.1 has Dhānañjānī (note the additional long vowel). This is not reflected in the text used by Sujato.

[17] Analayo (Bhikkhu) : Madhyāma-āgama Studies

[18] Bodhi leaves the term as "devas," but the meaning of "gods" is clear given his conventions in translation.


[1] Analayo (Bhikkhu) : Madhyāma-āgama Studies

[2] Bodhi (Bhikkhu) : Does Rebirth Make Sense?
[3] Bodhi (Bhikkhu) & Ñānamoli (Bhikkhu) : The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha - A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya
[4] Bodhi, Bhikkhu : The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha - A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya

[5] Gethin, Rupert: The Foundations of Buddhism

[6] Lamotte, Étienne : History of Indian Buddhism from the Origins to the Śaka Era, trans. by Sara Webb-Boin

[7] Mayer, Robert : The Importance of the Underworlds: Asuras' Caves in Buddhism, and Some Other Themes in Early Buddhist Tantras Reminiscent of the Later Padmasambhava Legends

[8] Punnadhammo (Mahāthero) : The Buddhist Cosmos: A Comprehensive Survey of the Early Buddhist Worldview according to the Theravada and Sarvastivada sources

[9]Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 2.23 - M 130 - (Majjhima) Devaduta Sutta
[10] Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 2.25 - S 36.4 - Patala Sutta
[11] Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 10.9 - M 100 - (Deva) Sangarava Sutta
[12] Tan, Piya: SD 57.10 - Essay - Early Buddhist cosmology