Buddhist Deities: Mahakala–the Protector of Dharma

Buddhist Deities: Mahakala–the Protector of Dharma

Oct 15, 2014

The many faces of Mahakala

Mahākāla is a fearsome form that assumes many faces, and many names that span across a multitude of cultures. Otherwise known as the God of Time, or the Great Black One, Mahakala is a "Protector of Dharma" in Buddhism that takes different deistic forms in Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhist cultures. In Hindu texts he is recognized as one of the eight protective deities associated with or represented as an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer of the universe.

Mahakala may look frightening, but his rabid glare is not directed at you! Mahakala is the menacing and powerful embodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment, and so, Mahakala is here to help!  He is always depicted as an extremely fierce and terrifying deity. His purpose is to help in overcoming negative obstacles on the path to enlightenment, and protecting that path of righteousness (also known as “dharma”) from hindrances.

Like a gargoyle, the mask of Mahakala is also meant to scare bad spirits and energy away from the place it protects. He is revered as a compassionate protector, with all his aggression directed at those who would do harm. His anger is necessary because it gives him the fearsome power to demolish any enemies or obstacles on the way to enlightenment. His face is frightening also to scare away negative thoughts, actions, and energy.  The power of his fiery demeanor exists to guide spiritual seekers who are falling victim to deception, delusion, or who  are lacking confidence in their abilities to change, grow, or find their most positive place in the world.

Originally when the Tibetans began using the face of Mahakala for protection, they were a nomadic people, living in tents and moving from here to there all the time. He is still often referred to as “Lord of the Tent”, as roughly 40% of the Tibetan population is still nomadic or semi-nomadic, though now the mask of his face frequently hangs on more permanent walls. Because he is considered a protector of religious law in particular, Mahakala masks are frequently found in temples and monasteries in Tibet, as well as in private homes.

The blaze of fire above Mahakala’s eyes and coming from his mouth represents his powerful energy for consuming neurotic states of mind. His third eye denotes him as a protector; three orbs of vision express his ability to see the past, present and future. Staring at the world with widened eyes signifies that he is incensed at the current state of affairs, and none shall pass him without being affected.

Mahakala has a crown of five skulls, which represent the transmutation of five negative afflictions of human nature into virtues. As he confronts negative forces and crushes them with his anger, his crown of skulls neutralizes what remains and works to transform it into something positive. Thus ignorance becomes wisdom, pride is humbled, attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment, jealously shifts to feeling satisfied with one’s own accomplishments, and anger is released and soothed.

Mahakala is always a protective deity with these features, but he manifests in several different colors:

  • Often he is dark blue, which symbolizes the steady and enduring nature of dharma.
  • Sometimes he is black; as black absorbs all other colors, so does Mahakala represent ultimate or absolute reality and transcendence of all form.
  • Red Mahakala reflects in color his passionate and fiery nature.
  • Mahakala in his white form helps one attain riches and a long life.

Consider Mahakala your spiritual bodyguard. He appears to be tough and larger-than-life scary, but he is somebody you want to have on your side as you face the trials and stresses of life. That face is angry only in the service of a greater good: your happiness, wisdom, and karmic health!

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