Hinduism Classes of Beings
Danielle Feller, Chiara Policardi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0012


Besides gods, men, and beasts, Hinduism, including its earlier phase Vedism, contains a whole array of semidivine beings. They appear most importantly in Vedic, epic, purāṇic, and kāvya literature. There is no obvious hierarchy among the different groups, whose natures range from benevolent to frankly evil (with considerable fluctuation over time). Some classes are more prominent than others, but each has its own mythological history: in purāṇic genealogies their origin is frequently traced back to certain demiurges. In Hinduism these beings, though powerful, are usually not immortal—not any more than most of the gods themselves—and are hence subject to rebirth according to the nature of their deeds. They are supposed to live in different realms, on the earth but also in underground worlds or in heavenly abodes in the vicinity of the gods. However, they frequently flock together to witness important events and are then listed in copulative compounds, such as “heavenly musicians, nymphs, sages, ghouls, demons, serpents, genies.” These lists display considerable variation, but the more prominent among them, which we shall examine here, are the Nāgas and Garuḍas; Apsarases and Gandharvas; Yakṣas; various types of demons, especially Asuras and Rākṣasas; Ṛṣis; Pitṛs, Pretas, and Bhūtas; and finally, Gaṇas and Yoginīs.

General Overviews

The works listed in this section provide vast panoramas of Indian Brahmanical religion and mythology. Given these books’ broad scope, the classes of beings necessarily form only a part of their concerns, yet they provide detailed and indispensable information. Most of them are pioneering studies, yet they are still relevant to modern research, as their re-editions show. Oldenberg 1988 and Keith 1998 deal with Vedic religion. Hillebrandt 1980–1981 and Macdonell 1974 with Vedic mythology, Hopkins 1974 with epic mythology, and Dimmitt and Buitenen 1978 with purāṇic mythology.

  • Dimmitt, Cornelia, and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāṇas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

    This reader presents the English translation of some of the most famous purāṇic legends. Chapter 6, “Seers, Kings, and Supernaturals,” is of special interest to the present topic.

  • Hillebrandt, Alfred. Vedic Mythology. 2 vols. Translated by Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980–1981.

    First published in German (Breslau, 1891–1902), Hillebrand’s work is an interesting though somewhat partial description of Vedic mythology, its first volume being nearly entirely dedicated to soma. Volume 2 contains a lot on the Indra-Vṛtra myth, and some references are made to inferior demons.

  • Hopkins, Edward Washburn. Epic Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.

    First published in Strassburg in 1915, the Hopkins survey remains one of the principal reference works in the field. Densely written, with a plethora of references (though obviously not to the critical editions of the epics). Hopkins’s classification of beings is rather curious, but his detailed table of contents helps circumvent the problem.

  • Keith, Arthur Berriedale. The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads. 2 vols. Harvard Oriental Series 31–32. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.

    A detailed description of Vedic religion. The portions dedicated to the various classes of beings are found in part 2, “The Gods and Demons of the Veda.” Originally published in 1925 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. Vedic Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.

    First published in 1897 (Strassburg: Trübner), this book remains the main reference on Vedic mythology. Its bulk concerns the gods (including here Apsarases and Gandharvas), but a full section (4) is devoted to sages and another (6) to demons of various denominations. The work is invaluable for its exhaustive and precise textual references.

  • Oldenberg, Hermann. The Religion of the Veda. Translated by Shridhar B. Shrotri. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.

    First published in German in 1894 as Die Religion des Veda, Oldenberg’s work contains a full exposition of the Vedic religion, including its cult and rituals. Chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated to the various classes of beings and to individual representatives of these.

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