Sakyapa Monastary, Centeral Tibet, 17th Century
Copper with traces of gilt and paint
 LA County Museum of Art,Giftof Dale Crawford, M. 78.184

 The Figure
 Origin and Forms


Mahakala, “Lord of the Tent”, is one of the mostrevered Tibetan protector deities.  He is worshipped as a protectorof the entire realm as well as a personal tutelary deity.  Well representedand revered in all orders of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism, Mahakala is especiallypopular with the Sakyaorder.  In his most common form he is believed to be the fierce manifestationof the bodhisattva Avalokitesvarawho plays a prominent role in Tibetan Buddhism, andwas the tutelary deity of the Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan. (Fischer. 52)

Mahakala is a  Dharmapala,a protector of religious law.  He is always depicted as an extremelyfierce and terrifying deity.  His purpose is to help in overcomingnegative obstacles on the path to enlightenment.  A compassionatewrathful deity, he appears evil, like a demon, but functions more likea guard dog, or guardian angel. (Sergent)  His aggression is necessary,for it allows him to demolish obstacles and negativities one faces on thepath to enlightenment.  Mahakala is depicted in a variety of differentways, sometimes with six arms, other times with two.  He is oftenbrown skinned and associated in tankas with  PendenLhamo.

Mahakala’s role as “Lord of the Tent” explainshis popularity in Tibetan religion. Tibetans are historically a nomadicpeople and tents have always been an important form of protection and shelter,providing the basis for their way of life.  Tents being essentialfor survival resulted in Mahakala, the “Lord of the Tent”, becoming oneof the most important protector deities.
(Picture. O'Rorke)

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This copper figure of Mahakala displays his typicalfierce expression with a third eye above his eyebrows, signifying thathe is a protector deity. His flaming hair, decorated with a crown of skulls,rises from his forehead, while a circle of flames dance around him. Inhis right hand he holds a chopper, which symbolizes the cutting throughof negative patterns such as aggression, hatred, and ignorance; all ofwhich are hindrances on the path to enlightenment. (Rinpoche)  Inhis left hand he holds a skull cup, a ritual element typically filled withblood or human brain matter.  It is an important element in traditionaltantric ceremonies, for human bones and skulls are often used to frightenevil spirits.  The Tibetan custom of offering dead bodies to be eatenby vultures has allowed human bones to be readily available.  Also,using human bones in ceremonies enhances the tantric buddhist belief inthe transient nature of human life. (Fischer. 92)  Over his handslays a magic staff or club.    He wears short pants, hisstomach slightly protruding over them showing his navel.  Hangingbetween his legs is the end of the green scarf that Mahakala historicallywears.  Here, looping around his ears, arms, stomach, and legs, itappears as a cloth or chain with balls suspended from it.  The figurecrouches on a base of lotus flowers in Mahakala’s distinctive squattingposition, with knees bent, ready to leap on anything that stands in theway of the path to enlightenment.  He stands upon a dead man symbolizingthe death of negativities, the complete uprooting of destructive patternsso that like a dead body, they will not come to life (Rinpoche). He is sometimes depicted standing on two men, or on a dead Tiger.

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Originand Forms

Sources differ in regard to where and how Mahakalabecame a Tantric Tibetan deity.  The worship of Dharmapalasin Tibet is said to have began in the eighth century when Padmasambhavadefeated the malevolent Tibetan deities and forced them to take an oathpromising to protect the Buddhist faith. (Britannica)  Mahakala’sname is associated with gods from many related traditions, however mostconsistently he is associate with the Indian deity, Siva, convertedto Buddhism.  Siva is the Indian god of destruction, howeverlike Mahakala is a compassionate, beneficient deity who annihilates Avida(ignorance).(Musée)  Bhairava is the form of Siva that inspiresdread and terror.  It is in this form that he overcomes time (kala)and becomes the one transcending time (mahakala). (Mishra)

 It is believed by many that Tantric Buddhismarose from Tantric Hinduism.  This occurred when the bodhisttvaGautama stood on the bodies of Siva and his wife as a sign ofhis conversion to Buddhism.  The conversion of many deities followed.Kali,known as Bhadamramo in the Tibetan Tantra, is Mahakala’s sister. She was delivered to Tibet from the Indian patriarch Naropa to the Tibetanpatriarch Marpa when Marpa chose Kali as his protector diety. The worship of Mahakala in Tibet followed that of his sister.  Hehad been an important protector of Tantric Hinduism but after Gautama’senlightenment he vowed to protect the Dharma.

Mahakala comes in different forms, each havingoriginated from a different person and having different meanings. The two armed Mahakala shown in the tanka here (Dharmavajra.) wastransformend from the first Buddha, Ardhalma or Adi-Buddha,and is worshiped for his spiritual wisdom.    The four armedMahakala was transformed from the Sambhogakaya Buddha.  Thesix armed Mahkala comes in two forms, one white and one black.  Hiswhite form, shown here (Dharmavajra) helps one attain riches and a longlife.  His black form was transformed from Avalokitesvara andhelps people conquer any obstacles on their path to enlightenment. (Chen)

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Although Mahakala in one of the most popular Tibetandeities, the practices associated with him are known only by those monkswho have been ritually empowered and initiated in order to perform them. As a protector deity, Mahakala’s ritual is a medicinal, curing ritual;one that is used to protect against harm or illness.  The Mahakalatantra,the ritual of Mahakala, puts emphasis “on gaining the powers of health,wealth, and wisdom, through the utilization of medicinal substances.” (Stablein.18)   His wrath and power give him the ability to enter a person’sbody and neutralize evil and disease, similar to an antidote.  Hispower also allows him to be an agent of psychological transformation. In the early tantra, psychopharmacological agents are mentioned but notin later Tibetan ritual texts.  In later texts only a minimal amountof substances are called for.

In the many texts concerning this right, emphasisis placed on different aspects of Mahakala.    Some textsemphasize his role as protector in order to give a sense of security, whileothers put more emphasis on his ability to destroy.  For example,one text gives a  mantrafor blessing drinking water.  If the water is blessed one hundredtimes with this mantra it protects a pregnant woman, ensuring heran easy birth.  In contrast, a different text provides for a ritualknown as the “dagger ritual” in which a triangular iron box containingan effigy made of roasted barley is dramatically cut with a dagger. The effigy may represent an enemy or general parts of life such as stressand disease that impair a person on his path to enlightenment.  Clearlyin the first example Mahakala’s “guard dog” persona is accentuated, whilein the second, his destructive abilities are utilized. (Stablein)

Becky Kalman

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