Wrathful deities

In Buddhism, wrathful deities are enlightened beings that take on wrathful forms in order to lead sentient beings to enlightenment. They are a notable feature of the iconography of Mahayana Buddhism and of Tibetan Buddhism, and other Vajrayana traditions in particular. A wrathful deity is often an alternative manifestation of a bodhisattva or other normally peaceful figure. True to their name, in Tibetan art, wrathful deities are presented as fearsome, demonic beings adorned with human skulls.

Though these awesome, hair-raising images seem contradictory to Buddhist ideals, they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces. Rather they symbolize the dynamic activity of an enlightened being, brought forth to tame negative or unsettling impulses in the human mind. In addition to destroying the passions of the mind, the purpose of gods is also to protect the faithful. The wrathful deities, who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish negativity, especially perform this function.

Categories of Wrathful Deities

Wrathful deities can be divided into several categories:

  • The Herukas (Tb. tRak-thung, lit. "blood drinker"), which are enlightened beings that adopt fierce forms to express their detachment from the world of ignorance.
  • The Wisdom Kings (Sanskrit vidyarāja), known particularly as the protectors of the Five Wisdom Buddhas; more a feature of Japanese than Tibetan Buddhism
  • The Protectors (Sanskrit pāla), usually subdivided into three categories:
    • Lokapālas or "Protectors of the World" are guardians of the four cardinal directions
    • or "Protectors of the Region"
    • Dharmapālas or "Protectors of the Law" are bodhisattvas, beings one step from enlightenment, which have taken a vow to assist other sentient beings on their path

Eight Dharmapalas

The Eight Dharmapalas (Sanskrit: Dharma, 'religion'; Pala, 'protector'), known in Tibetan as Drag-ched. The Dharmapalas, or defenders of Buddhism, are supernatural beings with the rank of Bodhisattva, who "are supposed to wage war without any mercy against the demons and enemies of Buddhism". The Eight Dharmapala are: 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’ and Begtse, the God of War.


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