Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Protector: Mahakala Main Page

Mahakala Masterworks

- Art History

- Iconography

- Religious Context


General Introduction: Mahakala (Great Black One) is a category of male Tantric Buddhist deities. The common function of Mahakala is as a protector (Dharmapala) deity and specifically the primary Wisdom Protector of Himalayan and Tibetan Buddhism. In some cases, Mahakala can also be a meditational deity (ishtadevata) in the highest Anuttarayoga Tantras. For the study of Mahakala there are three important topics: Principal Texts, Principal Systems and Principal Iconographic Forms.

There are dozens of different variations and forms of Mahakala. He is typically in wrathful appearance following the Indian model of a Raksha demon. In most occurrences and uses of Mahakala, he is paired with a meditational deity such as Shri Hevajra and as Panjarnata Mahakala, Chakrasamvara and Chaturbhuja Mahakala, Guhyasamaja and Chaturmukha Mahakala. In most cases Mahakala is an emanation, or wrathful aspect, of the principal meditational deity that he is associated with. For instance Panjarnata Mahakala is the most wrathful emanation, or form, of Shri Hevajra. In other situations Mahakala might be a wrathful emanation of Vajradhara or Akshobhya Buddha. Aside from the individual Anuttarayoga Tantras that teach various forms of Mahakala, the principal texts are the Eight Chapter, Twenty-five Chapter and Fifty Chapter Mahakala Tantras.

In one specific case, that of Shadbhuja Mahakala of the Eight Chapter Tantra tradition, Avalokiteshvara takes on the form of Mahakala. Therefore, it can be said that the Shadbhuja form, with one face and six hands is a wrathful form of Avalokiteshvara performing the function of a protector.

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Jeff Watt 5-2003 [updated 3-2015, 5-2017, 12-2019]