In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Devatās, Nats, And Phii In South and Southeast Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Reference Works
  • Art Historical Reference Works
  • Devatās in Buddhist South and Southeast Asia
  • Nats in Burma
  • Phii in Thailand
  • Pii In Laos

Buddhism Devatās, Nats, And Phii In South and Southeast Asia
Ellison Banks Findly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0229


In South and Southeast Asia, Buddhism developed in the midst of local religious worship that was peopled by beings called devatās, occupying a space somewhere between humans and gods. This resulted in a rich synchronism between Buddhist practice and the ritual, mythic, and artistic life of spirit believers. When Buddhism moved into Southeast Asia, it came not only with Indian notions of karma and rebirth, but also with these devatā worlds that, in their Indian forms, seeped into settings like Burmese, Thai, Lao, and Khmer such that their local names reflected their Sanskritic origins, and their configurations expressed their Indian counterparts. In contemporary Southeast Asian communities, monks and laypeople recognize terms such as kinnaras, gandharvas, apsaras, and nāgas, and are able to identify them among the stone and gilded reliefs, the painted images, and the brilliant sculptures of Buddhist temple grounds. The experience of these devatās for local populations today is a visceral and immediate one, and for many in Southeast Asia, as in South Asia, the world is filled with spirit beings who are alive, active, and intimately involved in human lives. While the Sanskrit and Pali word for these beings is devatā, two translations cover different aspects: “semi-divine,” or intermediate, focuses on their place in the cosmos, and “spirit deity” focuses on their interaction with human activity. The term devatā is found throughout South and Southeast Asia, while nat is used in Burma and phii (or pii) in countries like Thailand and Laos. These semi-divines inhabit levels of the cosmos—underworld, earth, atmosphere, and heavens—among which they move easily. They marry with humans, are emissaries between worlds, and are guardian powers of the human body, of human spaces, and of material objects like treasures or jewels. However, spirit deities require rituals of honor and appreciation to remain beneficial for humans, and rituals of reconciliation to avoid feeling offended. Devatās often have dwelling places in nature—a tree, a river bend, or a stone— and their power is held in amulets like clothing or jewelry to assure well-being. From the beginning, local practice of Buddhism accommodated to the worship of the spirit beings, and this facilitated its spread across Asia. There are many lists of semi-divine beings in Hindu sources, and included here is a selection of those also found in Buddhist art, literature, and practice. While not all called devatā, each group occupies the space between human and divine, and usually belongs to a specific cosmic arena.

General Works

General works that cover semi-divine beings in South and Southeast Asia are represented, first, by studies that use textual sources. While an early work, Macdonell 2007 is invaluable for its detailed, textually based presentation of gods and spirit deities that classifies them according to their spatial categories and identifies precise characterizations of their mythologies. In like manner, drawing on Buddhist materials, Haldar 1977 elucidates early Buddhist pantheons, and includes a generous section on spirits and semi-divine beings. Other general works discuss the context of spirit deities in pre- or non-Sanskritic materials, in popular culture, or in nonliterary sources such as oral narratives. With a more ethnographic focus, Elmore 1984 is a study of deities in village south India that reflects the interpretative views of its time and features discussions of demon possession, a common ritual setting for spirit deities and those deities the author notes are of “Dravidian origin.” Casting a broad net is the edited volume Nash 1966, a helpful collection of articles on spirit deities in local Buddhist cultures of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia. Ames 1964 gives more specific focus to Buddhism in South Asia, with a theoretical analysis of the religious system of Sri Lanka, specifically focused on the syncretism of Buddhism and spirit religion. Finally, as traditions develop in the 20th to early 21st century, studies like Endres and Lauser 2012 examine the role of spirit religions in responding to the process of modernization, using case studies from Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam.

  • Ames, Michael M. “Magical-animism and Buddhism: A Structural Analysis of the Sinhalese Religious System.” Journal of Asian Studies 23.Suppl. 1 (1964): 21–52.

    DOI: 10.2307/2050620

    Presents a structural analysis of the religious system of Sri Lanka, specifically Buddhism and spirit religion. It is the science of spirits (bhuta or yakshabhuta vidyāva) that undergirds the non-Buddhist religious tradition, and these include spirits like goblins (yakās), ghosts (prētayās), planetary deities (graha deviyās), and village guardians (gamadēvatās).

  • Elmore, Wilbur Theodore. Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism: A Study of the Local and Village Deities of Southern India. New Delhi: Asian Educational Service, 1984.

    First published in 1915 in Hamilton, New York by the author, this interesting study is a reflection of interpretative views of its time. The small volume features discussions of the seven sister deities, demon possession, deities of Dravidian origin, and Brahmanic figures such as the rākshasas.

  • Endres, Kirsten W., and Andrea Lauser. Engaging the Spirit World: Popular Beliefs and Practices in Modern Southeast Asia. New York: Berghahn, 2012.

    Examines the role of spirit religions in responses to modernizing processes, using case studies from Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam.

  • Haldar, J. R. Early Buddhist Mythology. New Delhi: Manohar, 1977.

    A detailed and well-documented presentation of early Buddhist cosmology, gods, and goddesses, and the Buddha. It contains a substantial section on spirits and semi-divine beings.

  • Hopkins, Edward Washburn. Epic Mythology. Varanasi, India: Indological Book House, 1968.

    First published in 1915 and patterned after Macdonell’s Vedic Mythology, this volume has entries for pretas, rākshasas, piśācas, asuras, apsarasas, gandharvas, kinnaras, and vidyādharas, as well as deities of the rivers, trees, groves, and mountains.

  • Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. Vedic Mythology. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007.

    First published in 1897 (Strassburg, France: Trübner), this concise and detailed presentation of Vedic gods classifies them according to the spatial categories of terrestrial, atmospheric, and celestial. It includes references to apsarasas, asuras, ganas, gandharvas, nāgas, and rākshasas.

  • Nash, Manning, ed. Anthropological Studies in Theravada Buddhism. Held under the Auspices of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies of the University of Chicago. Cultural Report Series 13. New Haven, CT: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1966.

    An excellent collection of articles on local spirit deities and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia.

  • Pranāndu, Mihindukulasūrya Susantā. Rituals, Folk Beliefs, and Magical Arts of Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Godage, 2000.

    Covers folk beliefs, rituals, and symbols, deities and spirits, and demons and pretas, with an emphasis on figures populating folk cults. This is a popular book, but it has decent footnotes and a bibliography.

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