Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Vajrapani (peaceful, vajra & bell)

Vajrapani (Peaceful, Vajra & Bell) | Vajrapani Main Page | Bodhisattva Main Page

Vajrapani is one of the earliest and most recognizable characters of Buddhist art. He is known for carrying a vajra scepter and being a close attendant to the historical Buddha according to the Mahayana Sutras. In Vajrayana Buddhism Vajrapani is entrusted to safeguard all of the Tantra literature and in this regard he is known as Guhyapati - the Lord of Secrets.

Vajrapani has many different forms and appearances beginning with quiescent to semi-wrathful and then completely wrathful. In peaceful appearance he is typically depicted as white, green, or blue in colour, seated or standing. In the seated posture he can be in a relaxed pose with one leg pendant or in vajra posture with the two legs folded together. He is recognizable by the vajra scepter held in the right or left hand in simple form, or he can hold both a vajra and a bell in the two hands. Sometimes the bell is placed on a flower blossom above the left shoulder and the stem held in the relaxed left hand. When he is depicted with both attributes, vajra and bell, placed on flower blossoms over the shoulder then there is a danger of misidentifying the form as the primordial Buddha Vajradhara.

Vajrapani and the Tantric meditational deity Vajrasattva can easily be confused because they can have the same identical appearance. The only possible way to distinguish between the two is through inscriptions written on the base of a sculpture, or if a painted composition, then through a study of the iconographic context and related deities in a composition, along with any inscriptions. Vajrapani is by far the earlier figure in Buddhist narrative and Vajrasattva only arises from the later Tantra literature as a meditational deity. It is very likely that Vajrasattva is modeled on the form and some of the function that was originated in the character of Vajrapani.

A peaceful Vajrapani, generally in a blue or green colour, is one of the group of Eight Great Bodhisattvas, also known as the Heart-sons of Buddha Shakyamuni. These are principally derived from the Mahayana Sutras and represent the best and brightest of the bodhisattva followers. There is also a system of sixteen great bodhisattvas but they are not commonly depicted in art.

In depictions and sets of paintings, or sculpture of the Eight Bodhisattvas, Vajrapani holds either a vajra scepter alone or a vajra and a bell. There is no standard iconography for these presentations and their appearance depends mostly on the artist and regional tradition.

In an important Kriya classification Tantric mandala Vajrapani is placed with Manjushri and Lokeshvara as the triad of the Lords of the Three Families and is described as "In the north is Guhyapati [Vajrapani], blue, the right [hand] holds a vajra to the heart and the left a bell supported at the hip, seated in sattva posture."

In the Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra there are four mandalas that depict a peaceful Vajrapani, white in colour, at the center. They are Mind-Vajrapani with four deities, Vajrapani and the Four Direction Kings, Vajrapani and the Eight Dikpalas, and Vajrapani and the Eight Great Nagas.

In the Mitra Gyatsa of Mitra Yogin there is a peaceful form of Vajrapani, white, with a surrounding complement of twelve retinue deities. This is known as the Vajrapani Thirteen Deity Mandala.

Jeff Watt 6-2013