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Buddhist deity: Mahakala

By Gaurav Manandhar at
Buddhist deity: Mahakala


Mahākāla is a common deity worshipped in different religions- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In Vajrayana Buddhism, in Tangmi (Chinese Esoteric Buddhism) and in Shingon (Japanese Esoteric Buddhism), Mahākāla appears as a protector deity, Dharmapala. In Chinese, he is known as Daheitian while in Japanese he is popularly known as Daikokuten.

In Sikhism, Mahākāla is referred to as Kal, who is the governor of Maya while Hinduism focuses Mahakala as the consort of Hindu Goddess Kali.

Iconography of Mahakala

As mentioned in Shaktisamgama Tantra, Mahakala has four arms, three eyes with a crown of five skulls. He dwells in the midst of eight cremation grounds. He is adorned with eight skulls, seated on five corpses, holds a trident, a drum, a sword and a scythe in his hands. He is also adorned with ashes from the cremation ground. He is often surrounded by numbers of loudly shrieking vultures and jackals.

Mahakala and his consort, Kali/Mahakali represent the ultimate destructive power of Brahman. They are not bounded by any rules or regulations. It is believed that they have supernatural powers. To mention few, they can dissolve time and space into themselves. They are responsible for the dissolution of the universe at the end of Kalpa. During this period, they can exist as a void.

The complexion of Mahakala is black. This is because all the colors are absorbed and dissolved into black, hence all the forms are said to be melt into those of Mahakala.

The most notable variation in Mahakala's manifestations and depictions is in the number of arms. But this doesn't mean there are other variations in the iconography. Eg, in some cases Mahakalas are portrayed in white with multiple heads, and without genitals. He may be standing on varying numbers of various things, holding various implements, with alternative adornments, and so on.

Manifestations of Mahakala

Two-Armed Mahakala

The two-armed Black-Cloaked Mahākāla is a main protector of the Karma Kagyu school clad. His imagery is derived from terma of the Nyingma school. He is often portrayed with his consort, Rangjung Gyalmo. It is believed that he was adopted by the Karma Kagyu during the time of Karma Pakshi, 2nd Karmapa Lama.

Four-Armed Mahakala

Four-Armed Mahakala is the primary protectors of the Karma Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Even though the primary protector of the Dzogchen teachings is Ekajati, a four-armed Mahākāla is also found in the Nyingma school.

Apart from this manifestation, there is also Six-Armed Mahakala who is also primary protector of Karma Kagyu.

Mahakala in Japan

In Japan, Mahakala is popularly known as Daikokuten. He enjoys an exalted position as a household deity since he is one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese folklore. Mahakala is also seen as the god of wealth or of the household, particularly the kitchen.

It is also seen that the Japanese also use the symbol of Mahakala as a monogram. During the traditional pilgrimage at the holy Mount Ontake, the pilgrims climb this holy mountain by wearing tenugui on white Japanese scarves along with the Sanskrit seed syllable of Mahakala.

The portrayal of Mahakala is different than fierce imagery portrayal in Tibetan Buddhist art. He is depicted with the wide face, smile and a flat black hat. He is often portrayed holding a golden mallet, otherwise known as a magic money mallet, and is seen seated on bales of rice, with mice nearby.

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