Used generically to designate the supernatural and celestial beings, or ‘gods’, praised and invoked in the Ṛg Veda as a component part of the sacrificial ritual. Conventionally 33 in number, like their brothers the asuras (their opponents in the ritual and, subsequently, the cosmic context), they were born from Prajāpati. The devas are both the personifications of natural forces, and the embodiment of particular powers or concepts, and are accordingly distributed between the three worlds (loka) of heaven (svar), the atmosphere (bhuvaḥ), and earth (bhūr). They are frequently described in unequivocally concrete and anthropomorphic terms. In particular, they require the ‘food’ offered to them in the sacrifice by human beings. Agni (the ritual fire) and Soma (a plant, and the drink made from it)—the devas who act as intermediaries between humans and heaven—are therefore among the more important gods. Most frequently invoked in the Ṛg Veda is the warrior king, Indra (in post-Vedic mythology invariably identified as the king of the gods), the leader of the storm gods, the Maruts. Other significant devas include the Ādityas (the sons of Aditi), chief among them Mitra and Varuṇa, who, as well as being linked to natural phenomena, are regarded as personifications of the important social functions. Natural phenomena themselves, such as the sun (Sūrya), the sky (Dyaus), the earth (Pṛthivī), and the wind (Vāyu), are also conceived of as deities. Some goddesses (devīs), including Uṣas (the dawn), and Vāc (speech), are invoked, but the majority of divine beings are thought to be male. Viṣṇu and Rudra (later a name of Śiva), although appearing amongst the devas, play only minor and circumscribed roles in Vedic religion.
In the Brāhmaṇas, and later ritual texts, the power and significance of the devas is substantially transferred to the performers of the sacrifice (yajña), the brahmin priests, referred to as the ‘human gods’ (Skt.: mānuṣya devāḥ). This is reflected in the theology of the Pūrva Mīmāṃsaka exegetes, where statements about the devas are said to be arthavāda, their purpose being not to signify independently existent entities, but simply to shore up the sacrificer's performance. In Epic and Purāṇic mythology, the Vedic devas exist alongside, and interact with the great gods of devotional Hinduism—Viṣṇu, Śiva, and the Goddess, although ultimate power, and religious significance, now rests with those sectarian deities. See also asura.