Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.
This week Jeff explores a subcategory of meditational deities called power deities.
Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Power Deities
Power deities are generally easy to spot. Most are red in color, signifying desire and power, and are either peaceful or semi-peaceful in appearance. The deities can be male or female and typically hold a hook, or elephant goad, in the right hand and a lasso in the left.
Power deities are minor meditational figures with the purpose and function to acquire power for the practitioner in order to accomplish some great purpose or task. They also form one of the four categories of tantric activity: Peaceful, Increasing, Powerful, and Wrathful. Usually these four activity groups belong to the Anuttarayoga level of Buddhist tantric practice. There is, however, a degree of overlap with deities and functions in the three lower tantra Classifications of Kriya, Charya, and Yoga.
The most familiar power deity is Kurukulla, a red-colored female with one face and four arms. She stands in a dancing posture. Her principal form, depicted here as an example, is the most commonly represented form in art. But there are also many other lesser known forms. In some systems of practice Kurukulla is regarded as an emanation of Tara. In other systems she is an manifestation of the major meditational deity Hevajra. All of the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, however, practice some form of the deity Kurukulla. She is a very popular subject in Himalayan and Tibetan painting, appearing as either a central figure or frequently, as a secondary figure.
Another power deity that is commonly represented in art and readily identifiable is the red form of Ganapati, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara (not to be confused with Ganapati, the son of Parvati and Shiva known popularly as Ganesh). This figure has an elephant head, twelve arms and dances atop a rat. There are many forms of Ganapati in Buddhist tantra, all classified as either wealth deities or power deities. The red forms are specifically for power and the white and yellow forms are for wealth.
A certain element of danger for the tantric practitioner is associated with power deity practices in tantric Buddhism. Caution is always stressed when taking on any intensive practice of either power or wrathful deity practices.
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