Gandharvas are a type of male celestial being or spirit in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain pantheons.
There remains some dispute about the origin of their name.
Gandh may mean “scent,” or “fragrance.”
Arva may derive from an-arva, and refer to something irresistible, or unrestrained.
Other sources claim Gandharva means literally, “one who feeds on smells,” or “scent-eaters.”
Gandharvas Deep Dive
The Gandharvas’ role and origin in Hindu mythology is varied. Rather than seeing Gandharvas as benign or malevolent, some Hindu historians classify them as “strangers,” among many types of beings that inhabit the unseen. Much about Gandharvas remains unknown and/or contested.
They are best known for their depiction as skilled musicians, vocalists, and dancers, and are said to play music for the Devas, another type of divine being or deity. They are also known as formidable warriors, and the owners and guardians of the soma. The Nagas are among their worst enemies.
Gandharvas have long been considered intermediaries between the heavens and earth, delivering messages – and even other beings – from one to the other.
Frequently associated with nature and the wilderness, they are said to inhabit remote areas in forests, ponds, and in the mountains. Various accounts in Hindu mythology claim their natural home is the Gandharva Loka, a specific world of their own. Other accounts place them at the Saraswati River and the mouth of the Ganges.
In the Buddhist tradition, a Gandharva is a demi-god from Cāturmahārājakāyika, the lowest of the heavens.
Mischievous by nature, Gandharvas are connected to the world of illusions and concealment. They are often associated with sensuality, love, lust, and sense of smell.
Early accounts depict them as looking like personified sunlight. In later stories they are described as being rather animal-like and unattractive, but they can also attract women by shapeshifting into handsome male figures. Some claim they impregnate young, unmarried women and then disappear.
They are better-known, however, for being enamored and partnered with Apsaras, female celestial spirits.
In the scriptures, Gandharvas often appear as half-human half-bird, or half-human half-horse. Many accounts depict them flying. They are also said to smell very fragrant, like bark, blossoms, or sap.
In some accounts they are said to be the sons of Lord Brahma, while others say they are descendants of Vach. Other stories say they were born by Arishta and her husband Rishi Kashyapa.
In certain traditions it is claimed that one can be re-born a Gandharva, or be possessed by one.
Gandharvas in Your Life
Many of the lessons you can learn from Gandharvas are to be found in the Rig Veda, epics, Puranas, and other stories. If you are not familiar with these scriptures, now is a good time to start learning!
Generally, the scriptures seem to be pointing us to the existence of a pantheon of heavenly beings that can influence our lives. Sometimes they help. Sometimes they’re trouble.
Perhaps the best you can do is believe in the unseen, that there are things you don’t know, or cannot understand. Admitting ignorance is sometimes the first step towards learning.
One way to start is by simply paying attention. Watch your thoughts and actions. Meditation and mindfulness are good places to start. Understanding yourself by connecting with your mind and body is the first step. Over time, your senses will become more attuned to what really is.
And then, proceed on your yoga journey with truth, courage, humility – and Gandharvas – as your friends.
To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.