Wrathful Guardians: Iconography of Tibetan Buddhism

A magical walk in Sikkim

Traveling to Sikkim in India, I came across loads of images of fiery demons in intricate and colorful paintings and mandalas. We spent our days in Sikkim walking many miles on narrow roads in the ethereal Himalayan mist to visit the various monasteries, where this art form was at its spectacular peak.

There are many ‘wrathful deities’, some of which are called ‘dharmapalas’ which is Sanskrit for “defender of the dharma.”  They may be off-putting at first glace, especially to the Western eyeball. Worship of the dharmapalas began in the 8th century when the holy Padmasambhava is believed to have conquered the demons in Tibet and forced them to protect Buddhists and path of Buddhism from that point on. The demons were transformed, and became agents of the divine. They represent the kind of fierceness we should have against obstacles of the spiritual path. We are meant to be warriors, the protectors of our own path, defending against the inner and outer enemies.

A key group of wrathful deities are the eight dharampalas of Vajrayana (the diamond thunderbolt vehicle) Buddhism:

  • Yama, the God of Death;
  • Mahakala, the Great Black One;
  • Yamantaka, the Conqueror of Death;
  • Kubera or Vaisravana, the God of Wealth;
  • Hayagriva, the Horse-necked one;
  • Palden Lhamo, The Goddess;
  • Tshangs Pa or ‘White Brahma’;
  • Begtse, the God of War.

For more pictures and descriptions of myths surrounding each ‘wrathful deity,’ click here.

A great exhibit on the Tibetan Book of the Dead from University of Virginia.

Full text of Tibetan Book of the Dead online

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