Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Protectors - Common Confusions

Common Confusions | Confused Visual Subjects (List)

There are many common misconceptions concerning Protector Deities both in general and specifically. Look to the Glossary Caution Words & Sensitive Subjects.

Protector Deities: a specific category of personalities (deities) found in Tantric Buddhist literature and art that have a very defined function. Protector deities are quite often wrathful in appearance but not always. In the past many Western scholars erroneously believed that wrathful appearance was synonymous with the function of protection. This is of course quite mistaken. For example many Anuttarayoga ishtadevata are wrathful in appearance. There is also confusion amongst some scholars with the deities that have neither a peaceful nor wrathful classification appearance and fall in the middle and are described as both semi-peaceful and semi-wrathful at the same time.

Begtse Chen: Begtse Chen, (English: the Great Coat of Mail. Sanskrit name: Prana Atma), the main protector for the Hayagriva cycle of practice. For over one hundred years Western scholars have published the history of Begtse erroneously as beginning with the 3rd Dalai Lama and the subjugation of a Mongolian war god - referring to the protector deity Begtse. In Tibetan Buddhism Begtse is believed to have originated in India. The practice entered Tibet with Nyen Lotsawa. Lineage from India: Vajradhara, Mahadeva, Nyi Od Dragpa, Dawa Nagpo, Shridhara Krashu, Nyen Lotsawa Dharma Drag, Khau Chokyi Gyaltsen, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158), (the lineage also went to the translator Marpa Chokyi Lodro), etc.

Chitipati: or more correctly called Shri Shamashana Adhipati - the Glorious Lords of the Charnal Ground - arise from the Secret Essence Wheel Tantra and are associated with the collection/cycle of Chakrasamvara Tantras (Anuttarayoga). Primarily employed as a wealth practice, with emphasis on protecting from thieves, they also serve as the special protector for the Vajrayogini 'Naro Khechari' practice. Shri Shmashana Adhipati is now common, to a greater or lesser degree, in all the New (Sarma) Schools of Himalayan and Tibetan influenced Buddhism.

The deities Shmashana Adhipati are unrelated to Yama the Lord of Death, inhabiting the Hell Realm in Buddhist Wheel of Life paintings. They are also unrelated to the dancing skeletons found in the Tibetan Cham dances. The skeletons in the dance performances are merely representations of spirits inhabiting cemeteries, sometimes acting as jester figures in the performances.

Dragpa Sengge: a Bon worldly protector believed to be the subjugated spirit of the 10th Shamar incarnate lama of the Karma Kagyu (Kamtsangpa) School of Tibetan Buddhism. Although a Bon Religious belief and part of the living tradition with active liturgies and offering services, this belief is not however shared with the current Karma Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism or the current Shamar incarnation.

Mahakala: often described incorrectly as a form or emanation of Avalokiteshvara. Only one form of Mahakala, Shadbhuja, with one face and six hands is associated with Avalokiteshvara, as stated in the Eight Chapter Mahakala Tantra. This form of Mahakala is Avalokiteshvara manifesting, or emanating, as Mahakala. The interlocutor for the Eight Chapter Tantra was Hayagriva.

Magzor Gyalmo, belonging to the category of Shri Devi (Tibetan: pal den lha mo, mag gyi zor le, gyal mo. English: Glorious Goddess, the Queen who Repels Armies, or the Queen who has the power to turn back armies. Sanskrit: Shri Devi, Yakshi Remati): belonging to the larger class of enlightened protector deities known as Shri Devi (palden lhamo). Magzor Gyalmo is regarded as a wrathful emanation of the peaceful goddess Sarasvati, popular in Hinduism and Buddhism. Within the Gelug Tradition Magzorma is commonly referred to as Palden Lhamo while in the Sakya, Kagyu (generally) and the Jonang traditions Palden Lhamo would refer to a four armed form of Shri Devi. In the Shalupa School Palden Lhamo would refer to Dorje Rabtenma - another form of Shri Devi.

Panjarnata Mahakala: Western scholars, such as Laurence Austine Waddell and Albert Grunwedel, in the 19th and early 20th century believed that the meaning of the name was 'tent' and that this Mahakala was a special protector of the Tibetan and Mongolian nomads who lived in tents. This academically erroneous belief was however supported by Mongolian folk belief where they believed that Panjara Mahakala, originally introduced to Mongolia by Chogyal Pagpa in the 13th century, was indeed special for them based on the Chogyal Pagpa and Kublai Khan relationship. Panjara Mahakala was also used by Mongolians as a war standard during the time of Kublai Khan.

'Vajra Panjara' means the vajra enclosure, egg shaped, created from vajra scepters large and small - all sizes, completely surrounding a Tantric Buddhist mandala. The name of the Tantra is Vajra Panjara and the name of the form of Mahakala taught in this Tantra is also Vajra Panjara. The full name for the protector is Vajra Panjara Nata Mahakala.

Shugden, Dorje Shugden (T.): the name of an indigenous Tibetan Buddhist deity. This is a highly emotional and volatile subject. The propitiation of this deity has been outlawed/banned by the 14th Dalai Lama since the 1980s.

The Three Lords: Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani are not protector deities. In many non-Tibetan publications it is common to see the Three Lords mistakenly referred to as Protectors. The confusion is based on the Tibetan word 'gonpo' meaning 'lord' which is also used as a term for the class of Mahakala deities and others. The confusion also arises from Tibetan and Himalayan folk culture where a cairn is located at the entrance to a village and referred to as the shrine of the 'Gonpo Sum' - Three Lords (protectors). The village shrines most likely predate Buddhism and were originally unrelated to the Three Lords of Tantric Buddhism.

For all questions concerning Yama, Yama Dharmaraja, Yamantaka and Vajrabhairava see the specific Yama Glossary

Jeff Watt 5-2008 [updated 8-2018]