Table of Content IntroductionThe Symbolic Iconography of the Three Mahakala BrothersThe Four-Armed (Chatur-bhuja) Mahakala (mGon po phyag bzhi pa)The White Mahakala (Skt. Shad-bhuja Sita Mahakala; Tib. mGon po yid bzhin nor bu)Conclusion
Table of Content
The Symbolic Iconography of the Three Mahakala Brothers
The Four-Armed (Chatur-bhuja) Mahakala (mGon po phyag bzhi pa)
The White Mahakala (Skt. Shad-bhuja Sita Mahakala; Tib. mGon po yid bzhin nor bu)
The Dhe-Tsang monastery,
built in 1414 by a close disciple of Je Tsongkhapa
is situated in the Gyalrong district of eastern Tibet.
When its founder, Ngawang Drakpa, came to the region
intending to build a monastery there, he realized
that the place was special but couldn't decide on
the best location to build the hermitage. At that
very moment, a huge crow swooped down on him, picked
off his scarf, and flew away with it. The monk hastened
to follow the crow. Eventually, the garment was found
hanging from the branches of a Juniper tree. Here
it is relevant to observe that the crow is visualized
in Tibetan Buddhism as an incarnation of Mahakala,
whose name literally means the 'Great Black One.'
Taking this occurrence to be an auspicious omen,
Ngawang decided to build the monastery around the
tree, which would itself serve as a natural pillar
of the prayer hall.
During the actual construction of the monastery,
the revered monk faced many obstructions from
the local Bonpo masters who practiced a primitive
form of shamanism and thus felt threatened by
the unfolding of the Buddhist faith in Tibet.
Whatever was constructed of the building during
the day would collapse during the night. These
mishaps were attributed to the black magic performed
by the Bonpos. One day, when Ngawang Drakpa was
contemplating the problem, the crow reappeared.
Much relieved by its presence, the venerable
monk wrote a letter to his guru Tsongkhapa in
Lhasa, asking for help. The master in response
to his pupil's plea then composed a practice
brimming with spiritual potency and gave it the
name: 'The Solitary Hero Vajra Bhairava Sadhana.'
He gave it to the crow to deliver it to Ngawang
Drakpa. When the latter received the manual he
performed the practice immediately, which led
to the subduing of all the leading Bonpo priests.
This text later became one of the most significant
one used in all Gelukpa monasteries and retains
its popularity to the present day.
When the major part of construction was completed,
the lama began to look for master sculptors who
could create spiritually charged images for the
retreat. One day, three black men came to the
monastery and stayed there for some time. They
later revealed that they were sculptors from
India. Delighted on hearing this, Ngawang Drakpa
eagerly sought their services in building the
required deity statues. Of the three men from
India, only one agreed to stay on and help. As
per his promise, the sculptor created all the
statues requested except that of Mahakala, which
alas, was only half-finished when the day of
The celebrations for the occasion consisted
of various ritual dance performances. At the
end of the program, the Indian sculptor declared
that he too wished to perform a dance for the
contemplation of the audience and proceeded to
enthrall them with an exceptionally energetic
performance wearing a swirling costume and a
large wrathful mask, leaving the viewers in raptures.
Towards the conclusion of the dance, his physical
form suddenly started to shrink until finally
only the giant mask remained on the ground and
there was no trace of the body of the dancer.
Taken aback by the bizarre turn of events, the
monks rushed to the chamber where the half finished
statue of Mahakala lay. To their utter surprise,
the statue was complete. The sculptor had merged
with his creation, granting it an unparalleled
spiritual potency.The story does not end here however. Later they
were informed that the two companions of the
Indian sculptor, who had declined to stay on,
had each made a Mahakala statue at two different
monasteries and had likewise mysteriously disappeared
into their respective creations. It was not long
before the perceptive adepts realized that these
sculptors were none other than the great god
Mahakala in his various manifestations, incarnating
himself as the savior and protector of monasteries.
Thus at Ngawang's hermitage he was the Six-Armed
Mahakala and had created a sculpture of himself
with half-a-dozen hands. In a similar manner
the other two had created icons of the Four-Armed
and the White Mahakala respectively. Collectively,
they were named the three Mahakala brothers and
became vastly popular all over Tibet.
Though Mahakala's image
is honored in all Tibetan monasteries, it is
only at Dhe-Tsang that he
is regarded as a living member of the sangha.
Thus for example during offering ceremonies it
is still customary for the chant leader to announce: "Do
not forget the black man's share," and the
same of what each monk receives is also set aside
for Mahakala and presented to his sacred image.
This tradition originated in the fact that when
the so called 'black man from India' was sculpting
the icons and was asked what he desired in return
for his services replied "Only that much
that is offered to the monks." When counting
the number of residents at this exceptional monastery,
this generous protector is also taken as a member.
As an interesting fact it should be mentioned
here that this monastery was destroyed in the
1950's, falling victim to the political and revolutionary
activities of the day. It was however, rebuild
spectacularly and was reopened in 1997, with
the best wishes and participation of 170 representatives
from fifteen nations under the patronage of his
holiness Khejok Rinpoche.
Each of the three forms of Mahakala has some
distinctly different qualities and aspects, symbolized
by the physical forms and also the various implements
they hold in their hands. The Six-Armed (Shadbhuja) Mahakala (mGon po phyag
This form is most favored by the Gelukpa order
of Tibetan Buddhism, and in this manifestation
Mahakala is considered to be the fierce and powerful
emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva
He is adorned with the following symbolic attributes:
1). A crown of five skulls: This is worn by
all manifestations of Mahakala and represents
the transmutation of the five negative afflictions
of human nature into positive virtues. Thus:
a). Ignorance transforms into
the wisdom of reality.
b). Pride becomes the wisdom
c). Attachment becomes the wisdom
d). Jealousy becomes the wisdom
e). Anger becomes mirror like wisdom.
2). The Six Arms signify the successful completion
of the six perfections (shad-paramita), which
are practiced and brought to perfection by
bodhisattvas during the course of their training.
a). The perfection of generosity
b). Morality (shila-paramita)
c). Peace (shanti-paramita)
d). Vigor (virya-paramita)
e). Meditation (dhyana-paramita)
3). The arms hold various implements each of
which has a symbolic significance:
a). The first right hand holds
a curved knife. In Mahakala's symbolism the curved
through the life veins of enemies such as oath-breakers
and hindering spirits.
b). The skull cup in his
primary left hand is filled with the heart-blood
of these enemies.
The crescent shaped chopper of the right hand
corresponds in shape to the cavity of the skull
cup and functions to make 'mincemeat' of the
hearts, intestines, lungs, and life-veins of
enemies hostile to the Dharma, which are then
collected in the skull cup. A similar crescent
shaped hand cleaver is used in oriental cuisine
to chop meat and dice vegetables.
c). The next right hand holds a damaru - the
hourglass-shaped drum, signifying the primordial
sound from which is said to have originated all
manifested existence. Its rattle is also said
to emanate the sound that arouses us from our
ignorant state, coaxing us on to the path of
d). The uppermost right hand holds a rosary
of skulls. The continuous counting of the rosary
is a symbol of perpetual activity, which Mahakala
achieves on a cosmic scale.
e). Another left hand holds a trident which
represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the
Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
f). Finally there is the noose for lassoing
those of us who have strayed away from the path
of the Dharma.
The Six-armed Mahakala's left leg is outstretched
while the right is bent at the knee. The former
symbolizes his accomplishments for the benefit
of others and the latter those for himself. An
elephant-headed entity lying crushed under his
legs represents our instinctive, primary animal
force and urge, which when unleashed can prove
to be extremely destructive. These cravings however,
can also be extremely useful to our self-development
and -realization when we master them and bring
them under our moderation. Indeed, it is warned
that dreaming about a herd of elephants is a
sign that instinctive and irrepressible forces
that may have been suppressed for too long are
about to be unleashed.
The sun-disc on which Mahakala stands denotes
his illumination of the darkness of ignorance,
and the lotus on which this disc rests signifies
his undefiled purity. The blazing fire surrounding him demonstrates
his powerful energy out to consume all neurotic
states of minds. Further, his three organs of
vision express his ability to see the past, present
and future. That he stares at the world with
wide eyes signifies that he is incensed at the
current state of affairs.
Snakes slither across his body as ornaments
and also as the scared thread of Brahmins. The
writhing serpent is a metaphor for the stirring
of our psychic instinctive and primordial energy
and Mahakala's wearing them as adornments expresses
the fact that rather than impede our spiritual
progress, such emotions have been tamed and harnessed,
becoming in the process, crowning glories of
our spiritual achievements.
The four arms of this manifestation of Mahakala perform one of the following four positive karmas or actions, which are said to be his specific boon to his worshippers:
a). Pacify sickness, hindrances, and troubles.
b). Increase life, good qualities and wisdom.
c). Attract whatever Dharma practitioners need and bring people to the Dharma.
d). Destroy confusion, doubt, and ignorance.
In addition to the ubiquitous skull cup and
chopper, the Chatur-bhuja Mahakala holds in his
other two arms a khatvanga (left hand) and flaming
sword respectively. The khatvanga is a kind of
ritual staff having three human heads at the
upper end. These represent the overcoming of
the three roots of evil, namely greed (raga),
ill will (dvesha), and delusion (moha).
The sword is the flaming weapon of transcendental
wisdom (prajna) with which Mahakala destroys
ignorance. The latter is the principal attribute
of Buddhist deities especially associated with
overcoming ignorance and embodying the wisdom
aspect of enlightenment within their physical
forms. The four-armed Mahakala is significant to the
Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
This is the wealth aspect of Mahakala which
specifically supports the comfort and economic
well-being of tantric practitioners. The following
description is according to his sadhana: "His body is white.
His face is wrathful and he has three eyes.
He has six arms. His main
right hand holds a wish- fulfilling jewel (chintamani)
mounted on a jewel-tipped handle, in front of
his chest." and his crown is made up of five jewels instead
of the trademark five skulls.
The White Mahakala is known as mGon po yid bzhin
nor bu in Tibetan with the last four meaning
'Wish-Granting Gem,' and he is the special protector
of Mongolian Buddhists. His iconography is rich
in symbols delineating his 'wealth-deity' status.
For example his skull bowl, rather than contain
the mortal remains of his victims, is full of
Key TakeawaysMahakala is a deity associated with time, death, and transformation, and is known as a protector and a destroyer of obstacles.Mahakala is worshiped in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tibetan culture, and has different forms and depictions across different traditions.In Hinduism, Mahakala is associated with the god Shiva, and is often depicted with multiple arms and weapons.In Buddhism, Mahakala is associated with the teachings of Vajrayana, and is often depicted as a wrathful deity with a skull cup and a trident.In Tibetan culture, Mahakala is an important figure in the Bon religion, and is associated with protection and exorcism.The worship of Mahakala is believed to bring protection, spiritual transformation, and the removal of obstacles.
Mahakala is a deity associated with time, death, and transformation, and is known as a protector and a destroyer of obstacles.
Mahakala is worshiped in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tibetan culture, and has different forms and depictions across different traditions.
In Hinduism, Mahakala is associated with the god Shiva, and is often depicted with multiple arms and weapons.
In Buddhism, Mahakala is associated with the teachings of Vajrayana, and is often depicted as a wrathful deity with a skull cup and a trident.
In Tibetan culture, Mahakala is an important figure in the Bon religion, and is associated with protection and exorcism.
The worship of Mahakala is believed to bring protection, spiritual transformation, and the removal of obstacles.
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