Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Mahakala (Buddhist Protector) - Shadbhuja (Six-hands, Shangpa)

མ་ཧཱ་ཀཱ་ལ། ནག་པོ་ཆེན་པོ། 玛哈嘎拉
(item no. 637)
Origin Location Mongolia
Date Range 1800 - 1899
Lineages Shangpa Kagyu and Gelug
Size 50.17x41.28cm (19.75x16.25in)
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Black Background on Cotton
Collection Rubin Museum of Art
Catalogue # acc.# P1996.20.32
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Shadbhuja Mahakala (Tibetan: pal nyur dze ye she kyi gon po chag drug pa. English: the Swift Acting Lord of Pristine Awareness with Six Hands). The wrathful manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara after having taken on the form of Mahakala - the principal protector of the Shangpa Kagyu and Gelugpa Schools.

Fiercely wrathful, blue-black in colour, with one face and six hands, he has glaring eyes, a gaping mouth and upward flowing yellow hair. The first pair of hands hold to the heart a curved knife and skullcup, the upper pair a skull mala and trident, and the lower pair a damaru drum and lasso. Adorned with a crown of five skulls, gold and jewel ornaments, snakes and a garland of fresh heads, he wears an upper garment of an elephant hide and a tiger skin below. With the right leg bent and left straight atop the prone figure of white Ganesh, a sun disc and multi-coloured lotus seat he is surrounded by the flames of pristine awareness. Below, two skull bowls filled with ornate red torma (stylized food) are arranged as an offering.

At the top center is the buddha Vira Vajradharma, red in colour, peaceful, with one face and two hands holding upraised in the right a damaru and to the heart a skullcup, richly attired in jewels and silks, in a seated posture. He is the Mother Tantra counterpart to the primordial buddha Vajradhara. At the right and left are two figures, yellow and white in colour, wearing similar attire.

At the sides and below are five wrathful deities - the inner retinue to the Lord. At the top left is Takkiraja, black, holding a damaru in the right hand and the left extended outward holding a lasso; standing in a dancing posture. At the right is the Lord of Maras, Trakshe, black in colour holding a banner in the right hand and a skullcup to the heart with the left. Wearing a black flowing cloak, he rides a black daemon horse. At the bottom left is Jinamitra, dark red, holding a hand drum aloft with the right and a skullcup to the heart in the left; standing in a dancing manner. In the middle is yaksha Kshetrapala, black, holding a curved knife in the right hand and a skullcup in the left, riding atop a crazy black bear. At the right is Shri Devi Mahakali, black, with one face and two hands holding aloft a vajra handled sword in the right and a skullcup to the heart with the left, atop a light brown mule riding in a sea of blood.

Shadbhuja Mahakala arises from the Eight-Chapter Mahakala Tantra belonging to the Kriya classification. The interlocutor or sponsor of the tantra was Hayagriva. There are numerous other forms of Shadbhuja, the most popular being the wealth deity White Mahakala practiced in all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Generally, a number of variations in appearance are found in the different traditions principally the leg postures of Mahakala, the number of arms of Shri Devi and the colours and hand objects of the remaining retinue. A further 75 deities, in Tibetan called lords (mgon po) make up the outer retinue and this enumeration hinging on the word 'mgon po' the common name used in reference to Mahakala, has led to the mistaken Western notion that there are 75 forms of Mahakala in Tibetan Buddhism. Iconographically there may be fewer forms but textually there are thousands, tens of thousands, a myriad of potential possibilities.

Lineage: Vajradhara, Jnana Dakini, shri Shavaripa, lord Maitripa, mahasiddha Rahulagupta, Khedrup Khyungpo Naljor (founder of the Shangpa Kagyu School, 11th century), Nyam Med Rinchen Tsondru, Bonton Kyergangpa (famous terton of the Hayagriva cycle of practice), etc.

Jeff Watt 4-99

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