Warning: include(domaintitles/domaintitle_wiki.exoticindiaart.php3): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/exotic/newexotic/header.php3 on line 921

Warning: include(): Failed opening 'domaintitles/domaintitle_wiki.exoticindiaart.php3' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/lib/php:/usr/local/lib/php') in /home/exotic/newexotic/header.php3 on line 921

Subscribe for Newsletters and Discounts
Be the first to receive our thoughtfully written
religious articles and product discounts.
Your interests (Optional)
This will help us make recommendations and send discounts and sale information at times.
By registering, you may receive account related information, our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. Please read our Privacy Policy for details.
By subscribing, you will receive our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. All emails will be sent by Exotic India using the email address info@exoticindia.com.

Please read our Privacy Policy for details.
Sign In  |  Sign up
Your Cart (0)
Best Deals
Share our website with your friends.
Email this page to a friend

Wrathful Guardians of Buddhism - Aesthetics and Mythology

Article of the Month - February 2001
Viewed 161814 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

Buddhist Sculptures




An enigmatic aspect of Buddhist iconography is the presence of wrathful, terrifying forms. Though these awesome, hair-raising images seem contradictory to Buddhist ideals, they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces. Rather they symbolize the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos in general, and of the human mind in particular. In addition to destroying the passions of the mind, the purpose of gods is to protect the faithful. The wrathful deities, who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil, especially perform this function.







In the arena of Buddhist art, the two main classes of objects that constitute our interest are the small bronze sculptures, kept on altars, and the scroll-paintings, better known as thangkas. Both are intended as temporary dwellings for the spiritual, beings into which Buddhism projects its analysis of the nature of the world. They are thus not aesthetic objects but roosting places, actual dwellings for the energies projected into them with the aid of mantras, which are often inscribed on them; the power of those energies can then be canalized towards the Buddhist goal.

Not surprisingly thus, these wrathful deities, though benevolent, are represented in visual arts as hideous and ferocious in order to instil terror in evil spirits which threaten the dharma.



Mahakala in Yab Yum


According to the norms of canonical iconography, these wrathful protective deities are described as figures possessing stout bodies, short but thick and strong limbs and many of them have several heads and a great number of hands and feet. The color of their faces and bodies and faces is frequently compared with the characteristic hue of clouds, precious stones, etc. Thus we often read in the Sadhanas (Canonical texts) that one or the other wrathful deity is black “like the cloud which appears at the end of a kalpa (aeon)”, blue “like an emerald” or white “like a mountain of crystal”. The yellow color is compared to that of pure gold, and the red color of some of them is supposed to be “like the hue produced when the sun rises and its rays strike a huge mountain of coral”. These Sadhanas often mention that the body of a ferocious protective deity is smeared with ashes taken from a funeral pyre and with sesame oil or that their skin is covered with grease-stains, blood spots and shining specks of human fat.


The Night of Compassion - Mahakala MaskTheir faces possess a typical wrathful expression: the mouth is contorted to an angry smile, from its corners protrude long fangs – often said to be of copper or iron -, or the upper teeth gnaw the lower lip. A “mist of illnesses” comes forth from the mouth and a terrific storm is supposed to be blowing from the nostrils of the flat nose. The protruding, bloodshot eyes have an angry and staring expression and usually a third eye is visible in the middle of the forehead.

The most important category of these deities is the group of eight, known as Dharampalas (Sans. Dharam: religion; Pala: protector), known in Tibetan as Drag-ched. The Dharampalas, or defenders of Buddhism, are divinities with the rank of Bodhisattva, and are supposed to wage war without any mercy against the demons and enemies of Buddhism.

These eight deities are:

  • Yama
  • Mahakala
  • Yamantaka
  • Kubera
  • Hayagriva
  • Palden Lhamo
  • Tshangs pa
  • Begtse

Yama: The God of Death

Yama and ChamundiAccording to the popular version of the mythological origins of Yama, a holy man was told that if he spent fifty years living in deep meditation in a cave, he would reach enlightenment. On the night of the twenty-ninth day of the eleventh month of the forty-ninth year, two robbers entered his cave with a stolen bull whose head they proceeded to cut off. When they realized that the hermit had witnessed their act, they decided to kill him. He begged them to spare his life, explaining that in a few minutes he would reach enlightenment and that all his efforts would be lost if they killed him before the expiration of the fifty years. The thieves ignored his request and cut off his head. Immediately, he assumed the ferocious form of Yama and put the bull’s head on his own headless body. He then killed the two robbers and drank their blood from cups made from their skulls. In his fury, he threatened to destroy the entire population of Tibet. The Tibetan people appealed to the deity Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of wisdom), to protect them from Yama. Manjushri then assumed the form of Yamantaka (conqueror of death), defeated Yama, and turned him into a protector of Buddhism, in order to save the people.

In visual imagery he is often shown accompanied by his consort, Chamundi, who offers Yama a skull bowl full of demon-blood elixir. He is represented nude, wearing a garland of severed human heads. Dark blue in color he has a buffalo’s head, and is shown in a dynamic position on this animal.

Mahakala: The Great Black One

Eleven Headed Thousand Armed AvalokiteshvaraThe legendary history of Mahakala was written by Khedrup Khyungpopa, founder of the Shangpa Kagyu tradition, in the eleventh century. He says that the reason for the special powers and effectiveness of Mahakala goes back to Avalokiteshvara’s vow to remain in the mortal world and not reach Buddhahood until all sentient beings were enlightened. After helping hundreds of thousands of people for countless years to reach enlightenment, Avalokiteshvara saw no decrease in suffering, but rather an increase in defilements. He then became discouraged. As soon as he had that thought, his head immediately split into a thousand pieces. Amitabha, one of the five transcendent Buddhas, put the pieces back together and made eleven heads, telling Avalokiteshvara to make the same promise again but to keep it better. Accordingly out of Avalokiteshvara’s eleven faces, ten are peaceful, but one is wrathful, representing Mahakala.

Avalokiteshvara, saddened, fell unconscious for seven days, after which he thought that the world’s suffering souls needed results in a hurry without excessive effort. He then wished to turn himself into a wrathful deity in order to defeat more rapidly and effectively the obstacles to the happiness of others. With this thought the letter HUM in dark blue color came out of his heart. That Hum became Mahakala. It is not without significance that in the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, the syllable Hum invokes energetic powers.

Thangka Painting of MahakalaThe birth of Mahakala was followed by an earthquake and with one voice the Buddhas in the heaven declared that he would have the power to grant all wishes if the wishes were honest and good.

Mahakala was the personal tutelary deity for the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. His terrifying imagery ultimately derives from the angry form of the Hindu god Shiva, known as Bhairava. In Tibetan iconography he typically has one head with three bulging eyes. His eyebrows are like small flames, and his beard is made of hook-like shapes. He can have two to six arms.

The essential nature of Mahakala in the Tibetan pantheon can be gauged from the fact that he is worshipped as the Protector of the tent. Because of the nomadic nature of the Tibetan people, much of their life is spent in arduous and hazardous travel, complicated by the generally hostile environment they live in. During their sojourns, they use the Tent as a temporary abode, making it a very important part of their lives. He is also unquestionably the most vital Dharampala, since every monastery, no matter what the order, has a shrine devoted to this deity.

Yamantaka: The Conqueror of Death

Yamantaka - Nepalese SculptureYamantaka, the ferocious emanation of Manjushri (Bodhisattva of wisdom), is the most complicated and terrible of all the wrathful Buddhist divinities. Under this from he conquered the demon king of death, Yama, who was depopulating Tibet in his insatiable thirst for victims. According to this myth, in his paroxysm of insight, Manjushri traveled all the way to the underworld to seek out Yama, the God of death, who dwells with all his minions in the sealed up iron cities of hell. Yama appears in Indian mythology with the head of a water buffalo. To tame Yama, Manjushri adopted the same form, adding to it eight other faces and a multiple array of arms, each holding fearful and deadly weapons. He further sprouted a corresponding number of legs, and surrounded himself with a vast host of terrifying beings. To confront death, he thus manifested the form of death itself, magnified to infinity. Death (Yama) saw himself endlessly mirrored back to himself, infinitely outnumbered by himself. Death was literally scared to death. Thus the yogi who meditates through the imagery of Yamantaka intends and hopes to develop a sense of identity strong enough to face down death, and the fear that attends upon it. Each head, each limb, each attribute, symbol and ornament of Yamantaka expresses the total mobilization of the faculties of enlightenment needed for this ultimate confrontation.

Both Yama and Yamantaka are represented with bull’s heads, but Yama always has an ornament, shaped like a wheel on his breast, which is his distinctive mark.

Continued in Page 2

Next Page »

Post a Comment
  • Mahakala: The Great Black One is wrong interpretation of the meaning KALA. KALA means TIME, not BLACK.
    by Sugato Goswami on 8th Jun 2011
  • Thank you for your article about the wrathful guardians of Buddhism. I'm just back from a trip in Laddakh where I have admired the monasteries' paintings without understanding them. Your article gave me better comprehension and interesting details about the legends and their functions in buddhism.

    I haven't found such good information in other sites.

    Best regards,
    by Jocelyne Delarue on 8th Aug 2009
  • The information on Palden Lhamo is quite off. The skin on her donkey is her son. She killed her son because her husband was persecuting Buddhists on the island of Lanka, and she saw that her son would complete the job. She also often carries a sack of disease, is the primary protector deity of Tibet and the Dalai Lamas, etc.
    by J C on 29th Apr 2009
  • hi anybody known or heard about JHAMBALA (the hidden city) still exists.

    My sister had a dream, she saw a place called Jhambala & the king name called "prithinga raja" am not sure about the name. but the name is similar to this. i didn't believe on this & i thought of searching it in google i saw the word Jhambala is exists & Myths are there. please mail me if u find any inofrmation about this,
    by sainath on 18th Dec 2007
  • hi plz send me article of yamantaka and bhairavi
    with best regards
    by jinamitra on 24th Jul 2007
  • I am
    by Yamantaka on 6th Mar 2007
  • this explains my attitude, and the fire that consumes my soul. indignant wrath like the white hot thunderbolt...
    compassion for all sentient beings and the wrath of an asura.... thank you.
    by todd perkis on 27th Dec 2005
  • wey interesting
    by johnny hoeiby on 10th Dec 2005
  • Another excellent article on Buddhist history and sacred images. Your site is one of the best for helping people understand the vast richness of this subject. Thank you for doing this. LuminQuest, --www.SpiritualSymbology.com
    by LuminQuest on 19th Apr 2004
  • I love this article, especially the art work, please, when you sell the art works , keep some sort of record. I return constantly to the article on mahakala and Avalokiteshvara, I have not found a rival on the internet that has such a rich source of beautiful buddhist artwork
    by Neil on 8th Oct 2003
  • I was pleased and informed by this exceptional article. The combination of erudition and readablity was striking, and I thank you very much for sharing your knowledge with us.
    by Donnalee on 21st Jan 2002
  • The summary of wrathful deities was excellent. I really enjoyed reading it. It is especially helpful that there are corresponding links. I rarely forward mail that I receive but this is going to be an exception. I know a few people who will also learn something from this. Thank you for sharing!
    by Jen on 3rd May 2001
Namaste and many thanks! Lovely collection you have! Tempted to buy so many books!
Revathi, USA
I received my order. Thanks for giving the platform to purchase artifacts of our culture. You guys are doing a great job. Appreciate it and wish you guys the best.
Manju, USA
Fantastic! Thank You for amazing service and fast replies!
Sonia, Sweden
I’ve started receiving many of the books I’ve ordered and every single one of them (thus far) has been fantastic - both the books themselves, and the execution of the shipping. Safe to say I’ll be ordering many more books from your website :)
Hithesh, USA
I have received the book Evolution II.  Thank you so much for all of your assistance in making this book available to me.  You have been so helpful and kind.
Colleen, USA
Thanks Exotic India, I just received a set of two volume books: Brahmasutra Catuhsutri Sankara Bhasyam
I Gede Tunas
You guys are beyond amazing. The books you provide not many places have and I for one am so thankful to have found you.
Lulian, UK
This is my first purchase from Exotic India and its really good to have such store with online buying option. Thanks, looking ahead to purchase many more such exotic product from you.
Probir, UAE
I received the kaftan today via FedEx. Your care in sending the order, packaging and methods, are exquisite. You have dressed my body in comfort and fashion for my constrained quarantine in the several kaftans ordered in the last 6 months. And I gifted my sister with one of the orders. So pleased to have made a connection with you.
Thank you for your wonderful service and amazing book selection. We are long time customers and have never been disappointed by your great store. Thank you and we will continue to shop at your store
Michael, USA
Subscribe to our newsletter and discounts
Share with friends
Items Related to
Meditation on Vajrabhairava
Meditation on Vajrabhairava
Meditation on Vajrabhairava
The Four Positive Karmas of Mahakala
The Four Positive Karmas of Mahakala
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 14.5 inches X 20.2 inches
Size with Brocade 25.5 inches X 34.0 inches
The Four Positive Karmas of Mahakala
Krodha Vajrapani
Krodha Vajrapani
Copper Sculpture Gilded with 24 Karat Gold
11.0" X 8.5" X 3.0"
Krodha Vajrapani
Tibetan Thangka Painting
18.5 inches X 28.5 inches
Japanese Wrathful Guardian with Twin Sided Vajra Trident
Japanese Wrathful Guardian with Twin Sided Vajra Trident
Kaima Wood Sculpture
Artist Vishwakarma Family of Varanasi
25" X 10" 6"
Japanese Wrathful Guardian with Twin Sided Vajra Trident
Mahakala Phurpa
Mahakala Phurpa
Brass Sculpture
8.7" X 1.1" X 1.0"
Mahakala Phurpa
The Esoteric Dance (Hevajra in Yab Yum)
The Esoteric Dance (Hevajra in Yab Yum)
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 15.0" X 21.5"
Size with Brocade 26.0" X 36.0"
The Esoteric Dance (Hevajra in Yab Yum)
Chakrasamvara Father Mother
Chakrasamvara Father Mother
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 22.0 inches X 30.0 inches
Size with Brocade 32.0 inches X 45.0 inches
Chakrasamvara Father Mother
Red Tara Kurukulla with Wrathful Deities
Red Tara Kurukulla with Wrathful Deities
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 24.5" X 35.0"
Size with Brocade 36.0" X 50.0"
Red Tara Kurukulla with Wrathful Deities
The Guardian Deities of Tibet
The Guardian Deities of Tibet
Ladrang Kalsang
The Guardian Deities of Tibet
The Buddhist God of Rain
The Buddhist God of Rain
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 15.8 inches X 20.5 inches
Size with Brocade 24.5 inches X 35.0 inches
The Buddhist God of Rain
Oracles and Demons of Tibet
Oracles and Demons of Tibet
Rene De Nebesky- Wojkowitz
Oracles and Demons of Tibet
Cosmic Wrath (Vishvarupa of Heruka in Yab Yum)
Cosmic Wrath (Vishvarupa of Heruka in Yab Yum)
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 14.5 inches X 20.0 inches
Size with Brocade 24.0 inches X 34.0 inches
Cosmic Wrath (Vishvarupa of Heruka in Yab Yum)
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
W.Y. Evans-Wentz
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Mother Goddess Kali (Scroll Painting)
Mother Goddess Kali (Scroll Painting)
Watercolor on Patti
Artist Rabi Behera
41.0 inches X 53.0 inches
Mother Goddess Kali (Scroll Painting)
An Eminent Practitioner of Yoga
An Eminent Practitioner of Yoga
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Size of Painted Surface 14.5 inches X 21.0 inches
Size with Brocade 26.0 inches X 33.0 inches
An Eminent Practitioner of Yoga
Show More
Links Related to
"Iconographic representations tend to show the dakini as a young, naked figure in a dancing posture, often holding a skull cup filled with menstrual blood or the elixir of life in one hand, and a curved knife in the other. She may wear a garland of human skulls, with a trident staff leaning against her shoulder. Her hair is usually wild and hanging down her back, and her face often wrathful in expression, as she dances on top of a corpse, which represents her complete mastery over ego and ignorance. Practitioners often claim to hear the clacking of her bone adornments as the dakinis indulge in their vigorous movement. Indeed these unrestrained damsels appear to revel in freedom of every kind."
Dance of the Yogini: Images of Aggression in Tantric Buddhism
"Each of the three forms of Mahakala has some distinctly different qualities and aspects.... The continuous counting of the rosary is a symbol of perpetual activity, which Mahakala achieves on a cosmic scale.... An elephant-headed entity lying crushed under his legs represents our instinctive, primary animal force and urge... The blazing fire surrounding him demonstrates his powerful energy out to consume all neurotic states of minds.... Mahakala's typical blackness symbolizes his all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because it is the hue into which all other colors merge; it absorbs and dissolves them. Just as all colors disappear in black, so do all names and forms melt into that of Mahakala. Black is also the total absence of color, again signifying the nature of Mahakala as ultimate reality.... He is the transcendent-time (maha-kala), absolute, eternal, measureless, and ever present."
The Many Forms of Mahakala, Protector of Buddhist Monasteries
"...there exists in Buddhism the concept of a rainbow body... the rainbow body signifies the awakening of the inner self to the complete reservoir of terrestrial knowledge that it is possible to access before stepping over the threshold to the state of Nirvana..."
Color Symbolism In Buddhist Art
"Rites and rituals are an essential part of Tibetan religion and reflect its practical side. Not restricted to temples alone, they are performed in a variety of places and circumstances, for a myriad of purposes. Daily ceremonies are conducted in temples, although they are perhaps not so elaborate as those that take place in Hindu temples in India and Nepal."
Ritual Implements in Tibetan Buddhism: A Symbolic Appraisal
Show More
All rights reserved. Copyright 2021 © Exotic India