Interesting article by Neil Schmid on the nature of the Buddhist hierarchy of divinities:
Buddhism is often labeled an atheistic philosophy or religion because Buddha is not considered a god by Buddhists and no “creator god” exists. Such a conclusion lays bare Abrahamic assumptions of what a religion and theism should be. In fact, Buddhism is polytheistic. The Buddhist cosmos at its most basic level is divided into two realms—one where beings are subject to karma and rebirth, called samsara, and one where they no longer are, called nirvana. Within the cycle of samsara are thirty-one types of existence, each a state of being resulting from a previous karma. At the lowest end of the spectrum are hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, and warring gods. Next are humans, and above them in assorted heavens and higher worlds are twenty-six types of divinities or devas— related to the Greek theos and Latin deus.
The hierarchy of these divinities, and of all beings, reflects their increasingly refined states of consciousness—one is motivated less and less by delusion, hate, and greed and progressively more by wisdom, love, and lack of attachment. Beyond samsara is nirvana, a state of mind in which one has awakened to the true nature of reality and to that which motivates karmic action: greed, hatred, and delusion. Although one who has fully understood this, a Buddha, may continue to live in this world during that lifetime, the cycle of rebirth ends at death.
This model of a reality divided between the samsaric realm—subject to the law of karma and the nonsamsaric, or nirvana, indicates three crucial aspects of the Buddhist understanding of what a “god” is: the position of gods, like all other beings, is at once cosmological and psychological; gods are subject to karma and hence to mortality; and all gods are inferior to the (or to a) Buddha who is no longer subject to karma. Thus, one’s mental state places one in a physical state arranged along an ever-ascending hierarchy of mental refinement. The porosity of the various states of rebirth—one may move from a life as a god to that of an animal depending on how previous karma plays out—reflects the ability to experience different psychological states in one’s day-to-day life. Undergoing momentary hate, delusion, or greed gives one a foretaste of what it would be like to experience that mental state, and consequently that state of being, over longer periods of time. At the same time, this model of reality clearly indicates that all beings have the potential to experience refined states of consciousness, and ultimately liberation.
Within this samsaric realm, the characteristics and quality of consciousness that living beings experience consists of three general types: one fully implicated in the senses (“sense world,” kāmaloka); one tied only to a finer materiality, that of form (“form world,” rūpaloka); and one beyond materiality and form (“formless world,” arūpaloka) consisting of pure consciousness. The last two represent increasingly nuanced meditative states of consciousness and are free from sense desires.
However, most gods are subject to desires and so inhabit the higher levels of the world of the senses, kāmaloka. These gods consist of six general types: the four guardian kings with their retinues of various chthonic spirits such as yakshas, gods of the thirty-three heavens, Yama, gods of the Tushita heaven, gods who delight in creation, and gods who have power over the creations of others. The Heavenly Kings and the thirty-three gods sometimes take an interest in the affairs of man, but man is not encouraged to worship them. It is only Buddha and his teachings that will bring mankind to salvation, and paying homage to gods is a distraction. Sexuality and sexual relations become emblematic for desire and its inability to be satiated, and they provide one with the means to express an increasingly refined consciousness. Whereas with humans who manifest their passion through sexual contact resulting in ejaculation, with the four guardian kings it is satiated with an embrace, holding hands, a smile, and a glance.
Beyond these gods and the sense-world are the higher gods or Brahmas in the world of pure form (rūpaloka). Having transcended all desire and attachment, they are neither male nor female and exist only in terms of form, body, and consciousness, and as such are exemplars for lower beings. In their selflessness, they have attained the four sublime states of mind (dhyana, jhana, chan [Chinese], and zen [Japanese]). These four sublime states are viewed as their abodes (brahma-vihara) and are the outcome of ongoing meditation on the core quality of each state: loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) —all of which result in the fourth state of equanimity or a perfectly balanced mind (upekkha). In their divinity, these states of mind provide the basis for interaction with all living beings. However, in a lower realm humans can emulate these gods through meditation and mindfulness of each divine state in an effort to make these qualities the basis through which they too interact with all living beings.