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Buddhist Worldly Protector: Rahula (History, Narrative & Myth)

Rahula Main Page

Rahula (Tib. Sgra gcan 'dzin), whose name literally means "The grasper of Rahu," is one of three main Nyingma protectors along with Ekajati and Dorje Legpa. He is also commonly known in Tibetan as "Khyab 'jug chen po" which is the Tibetan name for the Hindu god (Maha) Vishnu. The Tibetan Rahula is thus an amalgamated deity that combines aspects of Vishnu and the eclipse demon Rahu, who is one of the nine main planets in Indian astrology. In Indian mythology, Vishnu is well known for having cut off the head of Rahu after he stole the elixir of immortality from the gods. Angered at the sun and moon for revealing him to Vishnu, Rahu's immortal severed head perpetually pursues, and occasionally temporarily swallows, them, thus causing eclipses.

In India, Rahu was commonly depicted as either a disembodied head, a head with torso and hands grasping the sun and moon, or with the lower body of a snake. His serpentine tail is usually recognized as its own deity, Ketu, who causes comets. The Tibetan Rahula is usually depicted with a snake tail, nine heads crowned by a raven head, a face in his belly, and four arms. His two main arms usually carry a bow and arrow. His body is covered with eyes. While the serpentine tail and the face in the belly were likely borrowed from Rahu's Indian depictions, the addition of the nine other heads, which are associated with the nine planets, possibly refer to Vishnu's avatars and their association with the planets in Indian astrology. The eyes covering his body may be a remnant of the Hindu god Indra's iconography, as he is also said to be covered in eyes, and in Vedic mythology is said to have also slain an eclipse demon, named Svarbhanu. One of Indra's main weapons is also a bow and arrow which are associated in Hindu mythology with rainbows. Rahu and Rahula are also thought to cause rainbows.

According to a thirteenth-fourteenth century Nyingma treasure text discovered by Pema Ledreltsel, called The History of the Seer, Rahula in his previous life was a Buddhist sage named "Planet Man," who was invited to be the royal priest of a local king by the king's four wives. Planet Man was then falsely accused of having an affair with the queens, and the king had him burned alive. Before he died, he swore revenge, vowing to be reborn as a demon in order to punish evil-doers. The queens made similar vows and followed Planet Man in death, throwing themselves on his funeral pyre. Planet Man was then reborn as Khyab 'jug chen po, the son of a rakshasa who lived at the top of Mount Meru and a nagini who lived in the ocean at the base of the cosmic mountain. The rakshasa father in other texts is identified as being a form or emanation of Manjushri-Yamantaka, and the mother is usually named "Frog-Headed Blood-Eye" (who in some texts in identified as Rahula's consort). Thus Rahula has a hybrid rakshasa-naga appearance. The four queens from his previous life were reborn as his sisters, rakshasis with different animal heads (usually said to be a tiger, bear, elephant, and makara). These female demons are usually depicted as Rahula's main retinue deities, along with the planets and the twenty-eight lunar constellations.

The History of the Seer continues with a Buddhacized version of the Indian myth of Rahu's theft of the elixir of immortality, except Mahavishnu (Khyab 'jug chen po) takes Rahu's role, and Vajrapani takes the role of subjugating deity. The History of the Seer explains that Rahula attempted to escape Vajrapani by turning into a flock of ravens, who were then stopped by Vajrapani, also in raven form, thus explaining the raven head that crowns Rahula. It should be noted that there is cross-cultural association between ravens and eclipses, found in myths across Asia as well as in Western alchemy.

Perhaps the main root tantra focused on Rahula is The Black Nail Tantra found in the Nyingma Gyubum. This text is most probably earlier than The History of the Seer, and does not contain the theft of the elixir of immortality episode. However it does mention nine aspects of Rahula (one associated with each head) which are later described as Rahula's retinue deities. These are Vitripatra, Drang srong ("rishi"), Sgra gcan 'dzin, Du ba mjug ring (Ketu), Khyab 'jug chen po, Bishnu Radza, Caraka, Ljang sngon drag po, and Bdud po rog ti (identified with the raven head). Each of these aspects are said to cause different calamities in the world, such as hail, famine, war, and earthquakes. In The Black Nail Tantra Yamantaka, not Vajrapani, is said to be the deity that subjugates Rahula. The association between Yamantaka and Rahula may be due to the influence of Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (ninth-tenth century), whose main meditational deity was Yamantaka, and who is the earliest figure to whom Rahula rituals are attributed. One of these Rahula invocation rituals, part of a cycle called The Fiery Razor of Magical Redeflection, is what Milarepa supposedly used to massacre the wedding party of his aunt and uncle.

Cameron Bailey, May 26, 2015


Bdud bya rog mgo brtsegs gsang ba sgrol byed kyi rgyal po ki kang rog ta'i mdo snying gzer nag po'i rgyud chen po. In Rnying ma rgyud 'bum (Mtshams brag). Thimphu, Bhutan: National Library, Royal Government of Bhutan. Vol. 46, pp. 276-361. 1982. TBRC Resource ID: W21521.

"History of the Seer" is from the "Accomplishment cycle of the Wild Planetary Seer":

Padma las 'brel rtsal. Drang srong gza' rgod kyi sgrub skor. Thimphu, Bhutan: Khyentse Rinpoche. 1974. TBRC Resource ID: W1KG11708.

Martin, Daniel. 1982. "The Early Education of Milarepa." The Journal of the Tibet Society 2. pp. 53-76.

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