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date: 08 December 2022

Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist Guardian Deities: Satara Varan Devilocked

Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist Guardian Deities: Satara Varan Devilocked

  • Sree PadmaSree PadmaResearch Associate in Asian Studies, Bowdoin College
  •  and John HoltJohn HoltWilliam R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies Emeritus, Bowdoin College

Summary

Satara varan devi, in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka, refers to the four guardian deities of the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka. It is a phrase that first appears in inscriptions at Buddhist temples in the 15th-century Sri Lankan upcountry region of Gampola to denote the protective gods of the divine hierarchy who have been warranted with powers by the Buddha to not only protect the kingdom as a whole, but to provide for this-worldly well-being of individual Buddhist devotees as well. In ensuing centuries, the identities of deities constituting the satara varan devi varied from era to era and from place to place. Moreover, the identities of these deities were often composite conflations of a number of collateral deity traditions. The singular popularity of each of these deities for many devotees continues to form a significant presence in contemporary iterations of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Each are regarded as Buddhist deities, even though the origins of most can be traced to Brahmanical beginnings in India. Even so, most Sinhala Buddhists would be surprised to learn that worship of Vishnu, for instance, originated in India, since he is so well known in Sri Lanka as the guardian of the Buddhasasana (Buddhist tradition).

Antecedent constructions of four guardian deities appear in earlier Vedic, Buddhist, and Puranic schemes that were articulated in the earlier history of Indian religions. These various constructions not only served the function of protecting temples, cities, regions, and, in the case of early Buddhism, the Buddha himself in cosmically configured contexts, but they also reflect the way in which deities from non-Vedic, non-Puranic, and non-Buddhist origins were also assimilated and subordinated, perhaps mirroring social and political processes that were historically in play.

Comparatively, analogous but not identical processes of incorporation or assimilation can also be seen within the contexts of other Theravada Buddhist-dominated religious cultures: how the Burmese have enfolded nats (mostly euhemeristic, but some Hindu deities), how the Thai and Lao have enveloped phi (various spirits or powers of place and space), and how the Khmer have embraced the worship of neak ta (again, spirits or powers of place and space). In each of these other Theravada Buddhist cultural contexts, important Brahmanic deities have also been absorbed and their significance reframed. In Mahayana contexts, other Buddhists have similarly accommodated the worship of non-Buddhist indigenous deities in Japan (kami), in Tibet (bon), and in China (Taoist and Confucian supernaturals, in addition to deities of the Chinese folk traditions).

Subjects

  • Buddhism

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