Wrathful Deities of Buddhism

An enigmatic aspect of Tibetan Buddhism iconography is the presence of ferocious, terrifying forms known as the wrathful deities. Though these hideous, hair-raising images seem contradictory to Buddhist ideals, they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces.

Rather, the wrathful deities are benevolent gods who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil, the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos and the human mind and protect the faithful by instilling terror in evil spirits.

In Sanskrit, the wrathful deities are known as dharmapalas, which means "defender of the dharma." In Tibetan, they are drag-gshed, meaning "cruel, wrathful hangman."

The Eight Wrathful Deities

The most important category of wrathful deities is the group of eight dharampalas. The dharampalas, or defenders of Buddhism, are divinities with the rank of Bodhisattva who wage war without any mercy against the demons and enemies of Buddhism. These eight wrathful deities, which can be worshipped as a group of "Eight Terrible Ones" or individually, are:

  1. Lha-mo (Tibetan: “Goddess”; Sanskrit: Sri-devi, or Kala-devi) - fierce goddess of the city of Lhasa and the only feminine wrathful deity
  2. Tshangs-pa Dkar-po (Tibetan: “White Brahma”; Sanskrit: Sita-Brahma)
  3. Beg-tse (Tibetan: “Hidden Sheet of Mail”)
  4. Yama (Sanskrit; Tibetan: Gshin-rje) - the god of death, often shown gripping the Tibetan wheel of life
  5. Kubera, or Vaisravana (Sanskrit; Tibetan: Rnam-thos-sras) - the god of wealth and the only wrathful deity who is never represented in a fierce form
  6. Mahakala (Sanskrit: “Great Black One”; Tibetan: Mgon-po)
  7. Hayagriva (Sanskrit: “Horse Neck”; Tibetan: Rta-mgrin)
  8. Yamantaka (Sanskrit: “Conqueror of Yama, or Death”; Tibetan: Gshin-rje-gshed)

History of the Wrathful Deities

Worship of the wrathful deities was initiated in the 8th century by the magician-saint Padmasambhava, who is said to have conquered the malevolent deities in Tibet and forced them to vow to protect Buddhists and the Buddhist faith. Many of the wrathful deities can be linked to Hinduism, Bon (the indigenous religion of Tibet), or folk deities. {2}

Wrathful Deities in Buddhist Worship and Devotion

Images of the wrathful deities are kept in the homes and temples of Tibetan Buddhists to protect them against evil influences and remind them to destroy passion and evil in themselves. In general Buddhist practice, sculptures and thangkas 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 just aesthetic objects but actual dwellings for the energies projected into them with the aid of mantras. The power of those energiescan then be directed towards the Buddhist goal. The wrathful deities, though benevolent, are represented in visual arts as hideous and ferocious in order to instill terror in evil spirits which threaten the dharma.

The wrathful deities can also be a focus of Buddhist devotion and worship. "The dharmapalas are worshiped in the mgon khang, a subterranean room, the entrance to which is often guarded by stuffed wild yaks or leopards. Priests wear special vestments and use ritual instruments often made of human bone or skin. Worship includes the performance of masked dances ('cham)." {2}

"External offerings" made to the wrathful deities differ from those provided to tranquil deities and are traditionally six in number: a cemetary flower, incense of singed flesh, lamp burning human fat (or a substitute), scent of bile, blood (usually symbolized by red water) and human flesh (usually symbolized by parched barley flour and butter realistically colored and modeled). {3} Similarly, the "internal offering" or Offering of the Five Senses given to wrathful deities is a skull cup containing a heart, tongue, nose, pair of eyes, and pair of ears. In Tibetan texts, these are human organs, but in actual ceremonies barley-flour-and-butter replicas are used instead. {4}

Iconography of Wrathful Deities

The wrathful protective deities are depicted in sculptures, paintings and masks as figures with stout bodies, short but thick limbs, several heads and a great number of hands and feet. They have scowlingfaces, a third eye and disheveled hair, and they wear crowns of skulls or severed heads. They are often depicted treading on animals and in the company of a female consort.

The color of their faces and bodies is frequently compared with the characteristic hue of clouds, precious stones, or other natural objects. 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."

Their 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.

  1. Wrathful Guardians of Buddhism - Aesthetics and Mythology. Article of the Month - February 2001, Buddha Art. <http://www.buddhart.com/article/wrathful/>
  2. dharmapala." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9030217>
  3. "phyi-mchod." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9059852>.
  4. "nang-mchod." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9054776>.
See Also
  • Buddhist Objects: Mandalas
External Links on the Wrathful Deities
  • Mirrors of the Heart-Mind: Protective Deities. Gallery of photos with explanatory captions. From Ohio State University.
  • Robert A.F. Thurman, "Erotic and Terrific Images of Tibetan Buddhism." Article excerpted from Tibet, Its Buddhism, and Its Art, published 1996 by Harry N. Abraham.