Mahakala, Yamantaka, Hayagriva, Hevajra

These tantric deities, a.k.a. Dharma protectors or dharmapalas, occupied significant positions in the exchange of Buddhism between lamas and political rulers. Various rulers identified themselves with or were identified as emanations of Yamantaka and Mahakala and Hevajra and Hayagriva. This identification stood to enhance their extraordinary status and strengthen their legitimacy to rule from a Buddhist perspective. If the rulers identified with the deity personally, the association must also have supported their sense of entitlement to rule and served as a source of confidence and courage. Since ritual initiation is a crucial element in the process of developing an effective connection with deities, the role of the lama is indispensable to the practitioner, in this case the ruler, who wants to create an affiliation with a tantric deity. Without the lama’s guidance, blessing, and ritual introduction, the connection will not be authentic or effective by Buddhist reckoning. Initiation is a necessity when working with peaceful deities as well, but it is particularly important with wrathful deities, since the stakes (often expressed in terms of rapid enlightenment or rebirth in hell) are so high. Ritual association with wrathful deities is considered as dangerous as it is powerful.

In Tibetan style Buddhism, wrathful deities and protectors are particularly potent representations of power and might, conceived of as terrific forces that conquer the “enemies” of mental and emotional afflictions while watching over the Dharma and its practitioners. Wrathful deities exist in a hierarchy of varying capacities. Some are fully enlightened beings who pair the unlimited capacity of a Buddha with the extraordinary strength of negativity and violence which they harness and redirect towards benefiting ignorant beings. These enlightened deities are inextricably enmeshed with pacific deities who work with the positive aspects of a Buddha’s power, namely wisdom and compassion. Depending on the particular situation, the wrathful or pacific aspect of an enlightened being might be more appropriate to call upon for protection, inspiration, and assistance. Other similar looking protectors are not enlightened and exist at lower echelons on the scale of wrathful capacity. These protectors need to be propitiated and dealt with carefully since their power is not tempered by full enlightenment. In any case, as part of the Buddhist pantheon they generally act for the benefit and safeguarding of the Buddhist Dharma and can be called upon to banish menaces of the mind and the external world alike.

It is common for practitioners to identify directly with Buddhas and bodhisattvas through visualizations that merge the mundane person with the enlightened being. These sadhana practices are a mainstay of Tibetan Buddhism. Anyone who has the necessary relationship with a qualified lama can identify with a tantric deity, in this context called a yidam, within the ritual boundaries of the sadhana practice. Once the practice session is completed, the person returns to his or her mundane identity, hopefully somewhat more similar to a Buddha than he or she was before the practice. The pervasiveness of this type of practice helps explain the context in which Mi-nyag, Mongolian, or Manchu rulers would have come to be identified with tantric deities. Although in their cases the association went far beyond the link between a usual practitioner and a yidam, since the claim seems to have been that the ruler was actually identical to the deity. The structure of sadhanas practice also highlights the importance of a qualified lama in facilitating the identification. Many of the rulers who adopted Tibetan style Buddhism took advantage of the extraordinary resource the sadhana tradition offered in relation to bolster their position of power by directly identifying with omnipotent, omniscient figures.

Mahakala (the Great Black one) is the wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. a particularly potent and pervasive presence in the wrathful sphere and is popular in all the sects of Tibetan Buddhism. He is depicted in over seventy forms of varying colors and with various implements. His most common form is a blue-black with four faces and four arms. Each arm performs one of the following actions: limiting sickness and troubles, increasing life and wisdom, attracting people to the Dharma, and destroying ignorance. He carries a skull cup, a hooked knife, a sword and a trident. Rites connected to Mahakala and Hevajra (see below) became regular elements in the enthronement of Yuan emperors and Mahakala was the national protector of the Mongols until very recently. Key military conquests and the occasional by-passing of armed violence were attributed to the aid Mahakala provided the Mongol forces.

Yamantaka (Slayer of Death) is the wrathful form of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. One of his most common forms is Vajrabhairava (Adamantine Terrifier), who played an especially important role in legitimizing rulers of the Yuan. This deity is usually blue-black in color, surrounded by flames, with nine heads. His main head is always that of a buffalo, and he usually has thirty-four arms, all holding different weapons and ritually potent implements. He has sixteen legs, which trample an array of animals that represent enemies of the Dharma. He is especially important to the Gelukpa sect. Initiation into Yamantaka practices were highly sought after in the Yuan, as demonstrated by the mention of the practice in the biography of Shalopa, who was trained in the practices and therefore highly esteemed among prominent Mongols.

Hayagriva is another wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara. He is typically red, with a horse-head emerging from the crown of his head. He usually has six arms, which hold various weapons and implements useful for overcoming afflictions and cutting through ignorance.

Hevajra is especially important to the Sakya sect although he appears in the practices of other sects as well. Closely associated with Mahakala, Hevajra is the wrathful emanation of Akshobya. As with the dharmapalas described above, he has several common forms, with varying numbers of limbs, heads, attendants, and implements. His role as a yidam deity is traditionally traced back to the Buddhist king of Uddiyana, Indrabhuti. This might help explain why he was appropriate as the yidam deity of Mongol emperors, starting with Kubilai, who is recorded to have undergone the consecration associated with Hevajra in 1253. There are several prominent accounts of ‘Phags-pa having conferred the Hevajra initiation on powerful Mongols, thus gaining their favor and support.

  • Herbert Franke. 1978. From tribal chieftain to universal emperor and god: the legitimation of the Yuan dynasty. Munchen: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
  • Herbert Franke. Sha-lo-pa (1259-1314), A Tangut Buddhist Monk in Yuan China.
  • Herbert Franke. Tan-pa, A Tibetan Lama at the Court of the Khans
  • Elliot Sperling. Some Remarks on Sga a-gnyan Dam-pa and the Origins of the Hor-pa Lineage of the Dkar-mdzes Region.
  • Vessantara. 1993. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Glasgow: Windhorse Publications.

Entry by Dominique Townsend, 2/13/07