Definition: Mahasiddha | Mahasiddha Main Page | Eleven Figurative Appearances
Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Mahasiddha Appearance Definition (below)
- Mahasiddha Graphic Page
- Mahasiddha Outline
- Mahasiddha Technical Glossary
- Heruka Meaning & Forms
Mahasiddha (Sanskrit) (Tibetan: ): great (maha) accomplished one (siddha), or great [spiritually] accomplished one, also known as Indian adepts. They are the principal Indian teachers of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, or any great religious teacher that is credited with having special attainments and powers. Although most of the famous mahasiddha are from India, there are a number from bordering countries such as Luipa (Tibetan: ) and Aryadeva (Tibetan: ) from Sri Lanka, and Suvarnadvipapa from the Golden Land (Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia).
The Three Meanings of the Term
The term mahasiddha has three basic meanings:  Accomplishment, someone that has accomplished the fourth level of spiritual attainment in the Buddhist Tantric system of paths and levels, specifically relating to the Four Empowerments and the level of attainment called mahamudra (Skt.), the great symbol or seal.  Inclusion, any person that is included in one of the several sets of eighty-four mahasiddha as defined in the early Tibetan literature attributed to the authors Vajrasana, Abhayadatta Shri, or Palde.  Appearance means a siddha described in literature and depicted in art with the Tantric regalia of a wrathful deity - in Heruka Appearance; bone ornaments, tiger skin skirt, holding a skullcup, in the company of a consort, etc. (Please note that not all mahasiddha have this Tantric Heruka Appearance). A primary Tantric source for the description of Mahasiddha appearance is the Hevajra Tantra, part 1, chapter 6 - Application of the Vow. Other descriptions are found in the various Chakrasamvara Tantras.
The Three Functions of Mahasiddha Depictions
Mahasiddha represented in art are divided into three distinct groups based on three different literary sources and functions.  Lineage Teachers beginning with the historical Buddha, or the primordial Buddha Vajradhara, and depicting each holder of the teaching line up to the date of the creation of a work of art. This is the most important function of mahasiddha representation in Buddhist art.
 Sets of Eighty-four Mahasiddha (Tibetan: ) in art are based on the literary works of Vajrasana and Abhayadatta Shri. Both systems of enumerating the eighty-four are commonly depicted as murals, individual paintings or sets of three or more paintings. There are also other authors and literary sources that describe sets of eight, fifty and one-hundred mahasiddha. The eight siddha are commonly found in painting while no examples of the fifty and one-hundred siddha have yet been located.
 Guruyoga, or guru devotion rituals and meditation texts, are a common source for painting and sculpture that depicts specific mahasiddha in detailed and fixed iconic poses. The most common examples are depictions of Virupa, Padmasambhava, Padampa Sanggye and Machig Labdron. As a painting or sculpture, these works are created as individual pieces to be used as devotional objects by the owner.
The Three Types of Appearances that a Mahasiddha Can Take
From the point of view of Himalayan art the appearance of the mahasiddha can be classified into three types  Monastic,  Layperson, and  Tantric Siddha. The monastic type always appears attired in the robes of the Buddhist monastic community. The Layperson appearance varies according to the occupation such as a farmer will be pictured tilling a field, a king attired in regal garments and seated on a throne. The Tantric Siddha appearance, generally described as dressed in bone ornaments and often depicted in contrived and contorted postures, is the best known and the most recognizable of the three different appearances. It is only the last of the three types of appearance where the Tantric Siddha wears the bone ornaments, tiger skins, etc., that have what is known as 'mahasiddha appearance' as described in Buddhist Tantric literature such as the Chakrasamvara and Hevajra Tantras. The appearance of the siddha in these particular instances is modeled after the wrathful or semi-wrathful deity, Chakrasamvara or Hevajra, and is known as taking on the appearance of the Heruka. The Heruka is the generic name used for a one faced, two-armed form of either Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, or a number of other semi-wrathful Anuttarayoga deities.
Jeff Watt 4-2006 [updated 5-2017]