By Dr Manish Pandit
There are three different Sanskrit roots I have considered for the word Devata:
दीप् दीपीँ दीप्तौदिवादिः, आत्मनेपदी,
दे देङ् रक्षणेभ्वादिः, आत्मनेपदी, सकर्मकः
देव् देवृँ देवनेभ्वादिः, आत्मनेपदी, अकर्मकः
Thus Deva could mean, a being or an entity who plays, who shines : ie. whose natural being is that which shines and also that which protects if we go right down to the very basic meaning in the root दे . We will also try and explain the idea behind why the term Devata helps in the personification of the Deity by the devotee in the everyday experiential side of Hinduism.
Let us see how true each of these meanings is when we consider that they come from the roots of Sanskrit, when translated to real life. Let’s take the first root: “to play” or देव्
Tukaram Maharaj often used to say that Vittal plays with his devotees. There are many saints who have said that the Deity has come to play with them. This idea of a playful Deity is in fact enshrined in various modern books on the subject too where Hindu Deities are said ti be playful in nature (of course the play is a Divine play and a leela)
This particular idea of देव् encoded in the Sanskrit roots underpins that meaning and also shows us the sharp contrast between this term Devata (to protect and one who is playful) and the term God, however, normally the two terms are used interchangeably by most Hindus.
Let’s come to the second root दे. The root meaning दे gives us the idea of protection which is another familiar adjective used by most saints to describe Deities or Devatas. Thus Tyagaraja, the famous saint described that Sri Rama and Lakshmana appeared as Devatas (pratyaksha) to protect the caravan when they were attacked by a gang of dacoits in a forest. It is however the term दीप् which is sometimes used as a Sanskrit root for Devata which may give further context to the entity Devata as an abstract notion: to be more precise, the root दीप् would fit with the Devata being responsible for an inner experience, especially a Kundalini type experience or indeed in Aavesha where the Deity is described as shining within the body of the sadhaka.
The Deity is also usually described as being surrounded by an effulgence which is shining in nature in experiences where the Deity appears in the dreams or in front of one’s eyes.
Thus we have gone to the roots of the term Devata and seen that the roots match the real life experience which comes from the life of the saints and of common devotees. This gives us a greater understanding of the term Devata from a Hindu perspective and since the term is very old, it also points to the Hindu belief that the Devata is veritably a part of one’s family and indeed in his/her playful (sportive) incarnation someone who can be personified as a Mother (and indeed as a sister/son/brother and as a friend).