In Himalayan Buddhism, besides the deities, there are references to a spirit world. From such a perspective, there are three kinds of beings known as protectors. They are called in Sanskrit, dharmapalas, lokapalas and kshetrapalas. That is, the powerful beings sworn to support and protect the Buddha's Doctrine, the worldly-protectors who guard the directions and the wealth of the world, and the regional or field-protectors. The latter are believed to be attached to physical surroundings such as the places we live.
People who are not accustomed to the "language" of Tibetan Buddhist images are often surprised to see the wrathful deities for the first time.
One category of these is the herukas, a class of Vajrayana deities such as Chakrasamvara that is semi-wrathful with intimidating, even terrible, features. They are represented as partially nude with an upper garment of human skin and a tiger skin around their hips. They have a 5-skull headdress and carry bone rosaries, a staff or trident and a damaru (pellet drum) like the Hindu god, Shiva. Herukas are described in Tibetan books as beautiful, heroic, awe-inspiring, stern and majestic.
From Judith Simmer-Brown's, Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Boston & London: Shambhala Pub., 2001,) 154-156:
* Blood (trak) was considered horribly unclean as the
another human being that could pollute one's family line for generations. The "blood-drinker" would ordinarily be unimaginable
eight Dharmapalas, Protectors of the teaching of the buddhas, have this appearance but in fact they are bodhisattvas
-- embodiments of
compassion that can manifest out of Emptiness to act in an extremely
wrathful way for the sake of sentient beings. [link is to Nitin's newsletter of Feb.
Tantric texts describe the very wrathful deities as terrifying. Stout with short but very strong limbs, many have several heads, hands and feet. Their complexions are likened to storm clouds, metals or precious stones: Black as the "cloud which appears at the end of a kalpa,” or “like a mountain of crystal” or like pure gold; of a red as "when the sun rises and its rays strike a huge mountain of coral.”
Their skin is oiled with sesame in the fashion of ancient times, or is dusted like
that of a sadhu with ashes from a funeral pyre. More horribly, it is covered with
spots of blood and shiny specks of human fat.
Mahakala [Great Dark One] is the name given to a number of the wrathful forms, mainly of Chenrezig. But not all wrathful forms of Chenrezig are Mahakala.
The details of Mahakala's form depend on the different lineages and situation contexts. There are several six-armed ones characteristic of the dharma protector, and there are also four-armed and two-armed ones.
As protectors of the different teaching lineages, there are: two-armed, big-mouthed Mahakala Bernachen of the Karma Kagyu, four-armed Mahakala, protector of the Drikung Kagyu, and six-armed Gelugpa Mahakala.
Changpa Karpo (White Brahma) is the Buddhist view of Brahma. In
this context, the usually 4-faced, 4-armed deity of Indian mythology
is here mounted on a white horse, brandishing a
sword. He is a "defender of the faith" and does not usually have
the fearsome attributes of the others. His head-dress is topped by a
conch shell jewel and over his robes he wears Mongolian armor.
The Tibetan Buddhist account has a similar motif:
This wound, similar to that received by Jacob in the Old Testament
when he wrestled with the angel, transformed "The White King" into a protector or dharmapala.
Hevajra is also known as Heruka, who some consider a form of Chakrasamvara. As Shastradhara, (Weapon-wielder,) he is portrayed in conjunction with his consort, Nairatmya (Self-less.) They display sixteen items, each a faculty for overcoming obstacles to Awakening. They are: a hook, trident, staff, cup, wheel, arrow, sword, vajra, lasso, gesture of subjugation (tarjani mudra), jewel, skull cup, ceremonial staff, bow, lotus, and bell.
Vajrabhairava seems derived from Indian god Shiva in his fierce form of Bhairava (Terrifier.) To Buddhists, this dark bull-headed figure has become Yamantaka, Dorje Jigche [Jigji] the Death-Slayer, who is a fierce form of the gentle Mañjusri, one of the Buddha's disciples. Fearsome in appearance though they be, all of these deities are manifestations of Compassion.
Some Nepalese Buddhist deities are particular to that culture such as Mahasamber, The Great Defender, a form of Chakrasamvara:
There are also four main arms, besides the four with which he embraces his consort, Vajravarahi.
Nila (midnight blue) Vajravidarana is a manifestation of ultimate wisdom who is evoked to exorcise evil from individuals and from nations that arise from inner demons. "From the sky of all Buddhas' wisdom and love, you arise like a band of powerful summer clouds. Able to shower the rain of healing, nourishing, controlling, and liberating deeds -- I salute you, glorious lord of the fierce!"
Ucchusma (Ususama Myo'o) is a Japanese protector.
There is a category of wrathful deities who are believed to help in the removal of obstructions or obstacles. An example of one of these is The Immovable, Achala (or, Acala. Tib.: Mi yo wa, Jap.: Fudo.)
Ragaraja ( Jap.: Aizen Myo-o) is a Buddhist tantric deity practiced in Japan who is believed to act in such a way as to transform negative habits associated with desire.
In Female Form
In her extensive entourage (not depicted) are the 5 Long Life Sisters, along with the Protectrices or 12 Tenma.
Rachigma is described as acting out of wrathful compassion like a mother grabbing her child out of the way of traffic. She is only called upon in the most desperate situations.
Troma (Tronyer Chenma) is a dark dakini used in a form of the Chod practice.
Attributes of Wrathful Deities
Some of the attributes (symbolic implements)
wielded by Dharmapalas such as Mahakala and other wrathful manifestations can include:
~ Mirrors of the Heart-mind at Kaladarshan Arts, Ohio State U. No longer accessible.
Different teachers give variant explanations for these weapons or tools.
A belief in Four Guardian Kings defending the Dharma at the quarters of the compass arose in association with the early sutras and is common in the Mahayana including Himalayan Buddhism.
The fiercest of the four is the blue, pop-eyed, sword-wielding protector of the South, Virudhaka (Tib. phag pa'i kye po.) He is leader of the Kumbhanda, a class of "titan," or ashura, the opponents of the Indian gods. To some degree, he resembles, GuanDi, the "Heavenly General" of the Chinese, but like the other Kings: Vaishravana (or his sometime equivalent Kuvera, Lord of Wealth,) Virupaksha, and Dritarashtra, he is sworn to the protection of the dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni.
There is a tradition that Virudhaka was the actual name of the King of Kosala, who defeated the Sakyas in a battle that was followed by a massacre. In Chinese, he is called Zeng-zhang; in Japanese, Zocho.
In the Asian tradition, East is usually at the top of a chart, diagram or mandala. Normally we would begin there and continue clockwise, but as we have already discussed the Protector of the South, we will continue clockwise and go to the West.
Red, Virupaksha, (Tib. Mig midang) King of the West, is depicted as a naga or with a snake coiling around him; in China he is called Guangmu. Komoku, in Japanese.
Green, Vaishravana, King of the North, holds an umbrella (as Kubera, he is golden, in association with wealth.) A Chinese source gives his Sanskrit name as Dhanada (Bestower) and as such he is known as Duowen. Then, his animal is considered an ermine or "snow weasel." In Japan, he is called Bishamon or Tamon.
White, lute-playing Dhritarashtra, (Tib. Yul Khorsung) King of the East is called Chiguo in Chinese. Jikoku, in Japanese.
GuanDi: He derives from an actual historic personage, the popular hero Guan Yu (d. 219 BCE.)
wound: also cf. the Fisher King in the Arthurian cycle.