Dharma Protector : Mahakala

 Mahakala, a wrathful deity, is considered to be the fierce and powerful emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. This tutelary deity is one of the Dharmapalas in Vajrayana Buddhism who defend the Dharma from corruption and degeneration and from forces hostile to it; to keep the site of the ritual free from impure thoughts and actions; to guide and protect the individual practitioner from all kinds of deception and delusion; bestow the power to overcome life struggles; and to eliminate one’s obstacles and impediment that hinders.

Every evening at the monastery, offering pujas to the great protector Mahakala and entourage are performed in the evening. At the end of every year, it is traditional for all tibetan monasteries to perform the year-end Mahakala Grand Puja and Sacred Dance.

Forms of Mahakala

Mahakala is typically black in color. Just as all colors are absorbed and dissolved into black, all names and forms are said to melt into those of Mahakala, symbolizing his all-embracing, comprehensive nature. Black can also represent the total absence of color and signifies the nature of Mahakala as ultimate or absolute reality and transcendence of all form.

The most notable variation in Mahakala's manifestations and depictions is in the number of arms, but other details can vary as well. For instance, the two-armed Mahakala was transformend from the first Buddha, Ardhalma and is worshiped for his spiritual wisdom. The four-armed Mahakala was transformed from the Sambhogakaya Buddha. The six-armed Mahkala comes in two forms : one white and one black. His white form helps one attain riches and a longlife. His black form was transformed from Avalokitesvara and helps people conquer any obstacles on their path to enlightenment.

Great Black Cloak

The two-armed Mahakala called Bernakchen is a protector of the Karma Kagyu school. It is often thought to be the primary protector, but it is actually the main protector of the Karmapas specifically.

This protective deity is is described as figures possessing stout bodies, short but thick and strong limbs. His flaming hair, decorated with a crown of skulls, rises from his forehead, while a circle of flames dance around him. His face possesses a typical wrathful expression. The mouth is contorted to an angry smile from its corners protrude long fangs. The protruding, bloodshot eyes have an angry and staring expression and usually a third eye is visible in the middle of the forehead.

In his right hand, he holds a chopper, which symbolizes the cutting through of negative patterns such as aggression, hatred, and ignorance. In his left hand, he holds a skull cup, a ritual element typically filled with blood or human brain matter. He is seen standing on the corpse of two human bodies, thus symbolizing the death of negativities and the complete uprooting of negative patterns to such a point that, like a dead body, they will not come to life. 

Four-Armed Mahakala

The four-armed Mahakala perform one of the following four positive karmas or actions, which are said to be his specific boon to his worshippers:

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.

Various four-armed Mahakalas are the primary protectors of the Karma Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. But four-armed Mahakala is also found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Six-Armed Mahakala

The Six-armed Mahakala is favored by the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism, and in this manifestation is considered to be a fierce and powerful emanation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

He is adorned with the following symbolic attributes:

The arms hold various implements each of which has a symbolic significance. The first right hand holds a curved knife. In Mahakala's symbolism the curved knife cuts through the life veins of enemies such as oath-breakers and hindering spirits.

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.

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 Dharma.

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.

Another left hand holds a trident which represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.Finally there is the noose for lassoing those of us who have strayed away from the path of the Dharma.

His 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. 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.

White Mahakala

The six-armed White Mahakala is known as Wish-Granting Gem and is very popular in Gelugpas. This is the wealth aspect of Mahakala which specifically supports the comfort and economic well-being of tantric practitioners. 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 various jewels,and his crown is made up of five jewels instead of the trademark five skulls.

The following description is according to his sadhana:

  1. His body is white. His face is wrathful and he has three eyes. His main right hand holds a wish-fulfilling jewel (chintamani) mounted on a jewel-tipped handle,in front of his chest.
  2. The other notable departure from the normal Mahakala iconography is the elephant goad held in the center left hand, the sharp point of which symbolizes penetrating awareness.
  3. Also, in contrast to other Mahakalas, he stands on two elephants rather than one. The elephant skin stretched at the back refers to the deity having torn asunder the pachyderm of ignorance.

Another interesting aspect of White Mahakala is that he is occasionally shown in the tribhanga posture. In this typical stance of the body, the head, torso, and legs slant in contrary directions. The legs and hips shift to the right, the trunk to the left, and the neck and head then again gently to the right. It is a lyrical, dreamy, very graceful pose. The three curves formed by the body symbolize the three worlds, upper, lower and middle, better known in Sanskrit as triloka. This is also popularly known as the posture of three bends.

White Mahakala is popular for both mundane as well as spiritual reasons, ranging from the basic desire for wealth and prosperity to the ultimate attainment of the precious jewel, which is none other than the Buddhist Dharma.