Himalayan Art Resources

Mahakala: Shadbhuja Confusions (Ten Topics, Shangpa)

Shadbhuja Mahakala (Shangpa)

There are a number of confusions and questions concerning the origin, appearance and practice of Shadbhuja Mahakala which can be arranged and answered in Ten main topics.
1. Origins
2. Lineage
3. Associated Traditions
4. Nature & Entity
5. Function
6. Standing Posture
7. Variations in Iconography
8. Ornaments & Attributes
9. Inner Retinue Figures
10. Outer Retinue Figures

Video: Shadbhuja Mahakala, Nine Topics


1. Origins:
There are three main Mahakala Tantras, the Eight Chapter, Twenty-five Chapter and Fifty Chapter tantras. The six armed Mahakala of the Shangpa Kagyu tradition primarily follows the Eight Chapter Tantra. A six armed form is described in the Fifty Chapter Mahakala Tantra which is likely where the Ga Lotsawa Tradition originates.

2. Lineage:
The early lineage of the Shangpa is consistent with no apparent variations or branches beginning with Vajradhara and continuing with Jnana Dakini, Shri Shavaripa, Lord Maitripa, Mahasiddha Rahulagupta, Khedrub Khyungpo Naljor (founder of the Shangpa Kagyu School, 11th century), Nyam Med Rinchen Tsondru, Bonton Kyergangpa (famous terton of the Hayagriva cycle of practice), etc. After Kyergangpa the lineage spread widely to the Sakya, including Jonang and Bulug, along with various Dagpo Kagyu traditions.

3. Associated Traditions:
The Shangpa Kagyu tradition did not survive past the 16th century as an independent school with an administration, mother monastery and branch monasteries. The important and unique teachings and tantric practices became fragmented and portions were continued in the Sakya, Jonang and Kagyu schools. The practice of the Shangpa tradition Six-armed Mahakala was adopted by followers of Tsongkapa and subsequently became the primary protector of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The practice continues and flourishes up to the present time.

4. Nature & Entity:
The nature of of Shadbhuja Mahakala is that of a wisdom deity, understood to be a fully enlightened buddha. The entity of Shadbhuja is presented as a wrathful form of Avalokiteshvara. Mahakala in general is a category of deities and can be presented as a wrathful form of Vajradhara Buddha, Akshobhya, Hevajra and a number of other deities depending on the tantric cycle, Indian commentaries, and oral instructions.

5. Function:
The principal form of Shadbhuja Mahakala, known as 'Removing all Obstacles,' primarily functions as a protector deity, a Dharma protector (Dharmapala) and specifically serves to remove obstacles. Of the two types of protectors, worldly and beyond worldly, Mahakala is a beyond worldly wisdom protector (jnanapala), although some forms are intended for other purposes as well as being a guruyoga or meditational deity (ishtadevata) practice depending on the tradition and associated commentaries. It is not unusual for wisdom protectors to also function as meditational deities.

6. Standing Posture:
In the early Shangpa tradition two different standing postures were described. The first is with the two legs together, straight, and the toes of the right foot raised up with the heel firmly fixed to the ground. This is described as being the common or general form of the deity. The second posture, regarded as uncommon or more special, is with the two feet on the ground and the right knee slightly bent and the left leg stretched to the side in an active posture. Both stances can be found in art however the active posture is by far the more common in painting and sculpture.

7. Variations in Iconography:
Aside from the main form of Shadbhuja Mahakala 'Remover of All Obstacles' there are more than a dozen variations with various functions, colours, numbers of heads and sometimes embracing a consort. They can also be solitary in appearance or have a retinue of attendants that is different from the main Shadbhuja Mahakala.

8. Ornaments & Attributes:

9. Inner Retinue Figures:
The main form of Shadbhuja has five inner retinue figures, Jinamitra, Takkiraja, Raudrantika (Trakshe), Kshetrapala and Shri Devi. These five are not to be confused with other tantric deities with the same names. It is common in Buddhist tantra for different deities from different systems to be unrelated but share the same name. The retinue figure Raudrantika can be included under the separate category of Mahakala called 'Raudrantika' of which there are many types. The retinue figure Shri Devi can subsumed under the general category of 'Shri Devi.' As a retinue figure for Shadbhuja Mahakala Shri Devi can appear with four arms or two. She can ride atop a mule with four legs or three. These differences depend on the Tibetan religious tradition, commentaries and oral tradition. The Gelug school generally depicts shri Devi with two arms and conflates her closely with another form of Shri Devi named Magzor Gyalmo. Some Dagpo Kagyu schools conflate the retinue Shri Devi with Rangjung Gyalmo.

10. Outer Retinue Figures:
The outer retinue figures are the Seventy-five Lords of Pure Lineage who can be sorted into seven well known groups. It is also important to recognize that these seventy-five figures are what is erroneously described as the 'Seventy-five Forms of Mahakala.' The seven groups are (1) the Ten Guardians of the Directions (Tibetan - chog yong chu), (2) the Eight Great Gods (Tib. - lha chenpo gye), (3) the Eight Great Nagas (Tib. - lhu chenpo gye), (4) the Eight Great Planets (Tib. - za chenpo gye), (5) the Four Worldly Guardians (Tib. - jig ten kyong wa shi), (6) the Twenty-eight Constellations (Tib. - gyu kar nyi shu tsa gye) and the Nine Great Bhairavas (Tib. - jig je chenpo gu). These seventy-five are not unique to Shadbhuja Mahakala and can be found with other Buddhist protectors such as Pehar Gyalpo and Damchen Garwa Nagpo. The seventy-five retinue figures originate with the Kriya, Charya and Yoga tantra mandalas of India.

Jeff Watt 11-2023

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