Wrathful Deities of Buddhism

Frightening Teachers and Protectors

An 18th century Tibetan depiction of Mahakala. Photographed by Conrad Shultz at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Conrad Shultz, Wikepedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License

It's a basic Buddhist teaching that appearances can be deceiving, and things often are not as they seem to be. This is doubly true of the wrathful deities of Buddhist art and scripture.

These iconic characters are intended to be terrifying. They bare sharp tusks and glare from various numbers of angry eyes. Often they wear crowns of skulls and dance on human bodies. They must be evil, right?

Not necessarily. Often these characters are teachers and protectors. Sometimes their monstrous looks are intended to frighten away evil beings. Sometimes their monstrous looks are intended to frighten humans into diligent practice. Especially in tantric Buddhism, they illustrate that the poisonous energy of negative emotions can be transformed into a positive, purifying energy.

Many wrathful deities appear in the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead. These represent the harmful karma a person created in his life. A person who runs from them in fear is reborn in one of the lower realms. But if one has wisdom, and recognizes that they are projections of one's own mind, they can do no harm.

Types of Wrathful Deities

We most often encounter wrathful deities in Tibetan Buddhism, but some of them originated in the ancient Vedic religion and can be found in the earliest Buddhist scriptures and in all Buddhist schools.

Wrathful deities come in many forms. Dakinis, a frequent subject of tantric art, are nearly-always-wrathful women who are portrayed nude, representing liberation from defilement. Their role is to guide the practitioner toward transforming negative thoughts and emotions into pure awareness.

Many iconic figures have peaceful and wrathful manifestations.For example, the Five Dhyani Buddhas have five wrathful counterparts. These are the vidyaraja, or wisdom kings. The wisdom kings are protectors of the dharma who appear in terrifying form because they destroy obstacles to enlightenment. The five are:

  • Acala, which means "immovable protector," is also called Fudo Myoo in Japan.
  • Trailokyavijaya is the "conqueror of the Three Worlds," signifying he is victorious over enemies of the entire phenomenal cosmos.
  • Kundali, also called Gundari Myoo, dispenses the nectar of immortality.
  • Yamantaka is the wrathful form of Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom. It was as Yamantaka that Manjushri conquered the rampaging Yama and made him a protector of the dharma
  • Vajrayaksa is the luminous king who defeats earthly demons.

Statues of the wisdom kings often stand outside temples to guard them.

The wisdom king Yamantaka also is one of the Eight Principal Dharmapalas, or dharma protectors, of Tibetan Buddhism. Dharmapalas are wrathful creatures who carry out various functions, such as curing disease and pacifying hindrances. The female dharmapala Palden Lhamo, who is also a dakini, is the protector of Tibet.

Yamantaka is the conqueror of Yama, one of the oldest and most prominent of the dharmapalas  Yama is lord of the Hell Realms who sends his messengers -- sickness, old age, and death -- into the world to remind us of the impermanence of life. He is the monstrous creature who holds the Wheel of Life in his hooves.

The dharmapala Mahakala often is depicted standing on two human corpses, but it is said he has never harmed a living being. He is the wrathful form of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. The two corpses signify negative patterns and habits that are so dead they will not come back. He is considered to be a guardian of the Dalai Lama.

Like many iconic characters, Mahakala comes in many forms. Usually he is black, but sometimes he is blue, and occasionally he is white, and he comes with various numbers of arms and in various poses. Each manifestation has its own unique meaning. .

There are many other iconic wrathful creatures in Buddhism. Listing all of them and describing all their variations and symbolic meanings would require an encyclopedia. But now when you see them in Buddhist art, you may appreciate what they actually represent.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Wrathful Deities of Buddhism." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/wrathful-deities-of-buddhism-450162. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). Wrathful Deities of Buddhism. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/wrathful-deities-of-buddhism-450162 O'Brien, Barbara. "Wrathful Deities of Buddhism." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/wrathful-deities-of-buddhism-450162 (accessed April 1, 2023).