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. Two weeks ago we explored Meditational Deities, and this week we will move the discussion onward to Protector Deities.

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Protector Deities – Mahakala & Shri Devi

There are two types of Protector Deity: worldly and beyond worldly. The latter is typically called a wisdom or enlightened protector, meaning that they are beyond samsara or worldly existence. All of the principal protectors in Tibetan Buddhism are wisdom deities and tied to specific systems or cycles of Tantric practice. Over time these wisdom protectors became more popular and were no longer tied exclusively to the Tantric cycle they originally derived from. This means that meditations on different protectors could be practiced individually, outside of a larger system or cycle of practice, or could be practiced in conjunction with formerly unrelated practices. 

The protector deity Mahakala is the most important in hierarchy standing. In general Mahakala is a wrathful form of the primordial Buddha Vajradhara. In various other forms Mahakala can be an emanation of Akshobhya Buddha or any number of other Buddhas. The three main Anuttarayoga Tantra deities—Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, and Guhyasamaja—each have a specific Mahakala associated with their particular Tantra. For instance, Panjara Mahakala is paired with the Panjarnata Tantra (Hevajra), Chaturmukha Mahakala with the Guhyasamaja Tantra, and Chaturbhuja Mahakala with various Chakrasamvara Tantras. Another popular form of Mahakala, known as Shadbhuja (six-armed), is an emanation of the meditational deity Avalokiteshvara. The image depicted here is of Panjara Mahakala with the meditational deity Hevajra placed directly above. This form of Mahakala has one face and two hands standing in a slightly squat posture.

Shri Devi is the female equivalent to Mahakala and belongs to her own category of Tantric Buddhist protector deities. Like Mahakala, there are dozens of different variations and forms of Shri Devi. She is not one entity or personality. Depending on the form of Shri Devi she could be a wrathful emanation of a number of different figures. For example, Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo is the wrathful form of Sarasvati. Other forms of Shri Devi, such as Dudusolma (depicted with four arms), are the wrathful emanation of Shri Lakshmi (Pal Lhamo). In this context Sarasvati and Shri Lakshmi are enlightened deities—not to be confused with the Indian worldly goddesses.

Shri Devi is typically in wrathful appearance following the Indian model of a Rakshasi demon. Most forms of Shri Devi ride atop either a donkey or a mule—unlike their Mahakala counterpart who is generally standing or seated. The image of Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo depicted here is a typical of this class of deity. She is wrathful in appearance with one face and two hands, black in color, and slightly emaciated. Mahakala and Shri Devi are the two most important protectors in Tantric hierarchy and the two that appear most frequently in Himalayan art.

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