Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Protector: Mahakala Confusions

Mahakala Religious Context

佛教保护神: 玛哈嘎拉释疑

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Category
- Appearance
- Origins
- Numbers
- Panjara
- Brahmin Form
- Kakamukha
- Avalokiteshvara
- Shiva Bhairava
- Others...

Mahakala is the name of a category of a type of deity. He is not a single entity or individual with many forms or emanations. Mahakala is male and can be both a meditational deity and also the principal protector deity of Tantric Buddhism. In both cases Mahakala belongs to the category of a wisdom deity rather than that of a worldly protector deity. There are numerous visual forms of the deity appearing in a variety of shapes and colours. Some forms and mandala configurations of Mahakala are primarily meditational deities while other forms derived from various texts and traditions function solely as protector deities.

Mahakala typically appears in a fierce or wrathful form. Unless identified by iconographic attributes or context, or both, Mahakala is indistinguishable from other male wrathful deities. Wrathful Appearance in Buddhist art is modeled after a raksha demon from the island of Lanka as described in the Ramayana and other early Indian literature. The body of a raksha is described as short and squat, the face is fierce with large bulging bloodshot eyes, the mouth gaping with a lolling tongue, and large bared canine teeth. The hair is bristling upwards and the body is adorned with skulls, bone ornaments, snakes and animal skins. The Buddhist forms of Mahakala have him completely surrounded by massive flames of pristine awareness fire.

There are three principal Sanskrit tantra texts for the practice of the deity Mahakala: the Fifty Chapter Mahakala Tantra, Twenty-five Chapter Mahakala Tantra, and the Eight Chapter Mahakala Tantra. Aside from these there are also numerous chapters in many different tantric texts that describe unique forms and practices related to that specific tantra and meditational deity which is the main focus and metaphor for the subject of the text.

There is no such thing as seventy-five (75) different forms of Mahakala. This notion of 75 is a 19th century European misunderstanding in reading the texts of the Shadbhuja Mahakala. The origins of the mistake are found with the description of the principal form of Shadbhuja Mahakala of the Shangpa Kagyu Tradition. This form of Mahakala is described as having seventy-five (75) accompanying retinue figures. In the Tibetan language the group of 75 are referred to as 'gonpo' (mgon po. English: lord). This usage of the word 'gonpo' is a standard Tibetan epithet for the Three Lords of the World, Manjushri, Lokeshvara and Vajrapani, along with many other deities, both peaceful and wrathful, and likewise all forms of Mahakala can be referred to as 'lord.' These 75 retinue ‘lords’ are also included within the outer circle of the worldly protector Pehar Gyalpo, yet Pehar is not referred to as having 75 different forms, or having a retinue of 75 forms of Mahakala.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the Tibetan term 'gonpo,' has led to the mistaken Western notion that there are 75 forms of Mahakala in Tibetan Buddhism. In documented iconography there are fewer forms but text references might allude to a much larger number.

Panjara Mahakala, or Panjaranata Mahakala, is the protector for the Shri Hevajra cycle of Tantras. The iconography and rituals are found in the 18th chapter of the Vajra Panjara Tantra (canopy, or pavilion) a Sanskrit language text from India, and an exclusive 'explanatory tantra' to the Hevajra Tantra itself. It is from the name of this tantra that this specific form of Mahakala is known. '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.

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 current 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.

Brahmin Form:
The Brahmanarupa form of Mahakala is a creation of the early founders of the Sakya tradition to disguise the true appearance of Chaturmukha Mahakala. It was considered inappropriate to exhibit in sculpture or painting the very wrathful wrathful form of this Mahakala to anyone who had not received the initiation. For this reason the iconographic tradition arose for painting Chaturmukha in the form of the Brahmin servant of Nyen Lotsawa. The Brahmin Form of Mahakala is the only form of the deity to have Siddha Appearance rather than the typical Wrathful Appearance.

Short History of the Brahmin Form: When the great Tibetan Translator Nyen Lotsawa received the Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja (also known as the Jnanapada Lineage) empowerment from the dakini Risula, she also bestowed the initiation of the Mahakala (Chaturmukha) in the special form according to the Guhyasamaja Tantra. At this time she gave him as a servant a dark skinned Brahmin (Brahmanarupa Mahakala). When Nyen Lotsawa and the Brahmin reached Nepal the servant changed appearance and took on the form of a monk, an appearance more conducive for travelling in Tibet. After the passing of Nyen Lotsawa the monk remained with Lama Nam Ka'upa and then later with Sachen Kunga Nyingpo.

Also known as Kakasya Karmanata, this raven-headed 'activity lord', is the principal retinue figure, or emanation, of Chaturbhuja Mahakala. Kakamukha is black in appearance, with a raven head, two arms, and sometimes with extended wings, but not always. This figure can be found in painting or sculpture independent of the larger Chaturbhuja Mahakala context and is easily confused with the Black Garuda of the Rechungpa Tradition.

From the Eight Chapter Mahakala Tantra, Shadbhuja Mahakala is described as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara. This Mahakala is mostly closely alighned historically with the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The term 'shadbhuja' refers to the six arms. The vast majority of all of the other different forms of Mahakala, other than the Eight Chapter Tantra form, are emanations of Vajradhara Buddha or various meditational deities of the Yoga-niruttara (Anuttarayoga) Tantra category, such as Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, or Guhyasamaja. There are a number of different types of Shadbhuja, six armed, Mahakala. It is possible that there are Nyingma Tradition, 'Revealed Treasure,' forms of Mahakala that are regarded as emanations of Lokeshvara.

Shiva Bhairava:
Mahakala in Tantric Buddhism and Shiva Bhairava in Shaiva Hinduism are not the same entity or deity. There are shared cultural symbols however, but the Buddhist origins, purpose and goals as explained between the two philosophically different traditions are not the same.

Jeff Watt 3-2020

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).