Wrathful deities

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Yamantaka Vajrabhairav - a Dharmapala as well as a Heruka, British Museum.

In Buddhism, wrathful deities are enlightened beings who take on wrathful forms in order to lead sentient beings to enlightenment. They are a notable feature of the iconography of Mahayana Buddhism and of Tibetan Buddhism, and other Vajrayana traditions in particular. A wrathful deity is often an alternative manifestation of a bodhisattva or other normally peaceful figure, making the representations of all human vices and atrocities. True to their name, in Tibetan art, wrathful deities are presented as fearsome, demonic beings adorned with human skulls and other bone ornaments.

The wrathful (or terrifying deities) are representations of negative karmas, in the same way as peaceful deities are representations of positive karmas. The symbol of the wrathful ones is the kapala, a half skull filled with blood.


Wrathful deities can be divided into several categories:[1]

  • The Herukas (Tb. khrag 'thung, lit. "blood drinker"), which are enlightened beings who adopt fierce forms to express their detachment from the world of ignorance.
  • The Wisdom Kings (Sanskrit vidyarāja), known particularly as the protectors of the Five Dhyani Buddhas; more a feature of Japanese than Tibetan Buddhism
  • The Protectors (Sanskrit pāla), usually subdivided into three categories:
    • Lokapālas or "Protectors of the World" are guardians of the four cardinal directions
    • Kṣetrapālas or "Protectors of the Region"
    • Dharmapālas or "Protectors of the Law" which vary in the level of realization attributed to them. This can be anything from fully enlightened to an oath-bound worldly spirit. Most of the major Dharmapalas are said to be enlightened.

Eight Dharmapalas[edit]

The Eight Dharmapalas (Sanskrit: Dharma, 'religion'; Pala, 'protector'), known in Tibetan as Drag-gShed (Standard Tibetan: དྲག་གཤེད). The Dharmapalas, or defenders of Buddhism, are supernatural beings with the rank of Bodhisattva, who "are supposed to wage war without any mercy against the demons and enemies of Buddhism".[2] The Eight Dharmapala are:

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