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date: 28 June 2022

Guardian and Protector Deities in Tibetan Buddhismlocked

Guardian and Protector Deities in Tibetan Buddhismlocked

  • Cameron BaileyCameron BaileyDepartment of Indian Philosophy, Dongguk University

Summary

Dharma protectors are a critical and indispensable aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, but the full theological, psychological, political, and literary significance of this special class of deity and their cults is still relatively poorly understood and understudied in Western scholarship. Dharma protectors, who in their typically distinctively wrathful appearances embody and transmute negative emotion and terrifying existential realities, constitute a kind of spiritual or daemonic sangha that in their most immediate function is meant to act as an apotropic ward against any and all threats to the human Buddhist community. Further, these beings are often invoked and employed as something like “familiar” or servitor spirits for a range of purposes by Buddhist religious specialists.

While there are hundreds if not thousands of different protector deities in the shifting, kaleidoscopic “polytheon” of Tibetan Buddhism, there are a relative few main deities around which Tibetans have historically and continually produced a large body of art, ritual, and narrative literature. The most soteriologically and cosmologically significant protector deities, and consequently often the most popular, are usually figures directly borrowed from Indian Buddhism, such as Mahākāla, a wrathful Buddhist form of the Hindu god Śiva, or they are adaptations of Indian deities, such as the great goddess Śrī Devī and the astrological demon Rāhula. These more “Indian” deities tend to be regarded in Tibetan Buddhism as fully enlightened and are distinguished from native Tibetan deities who are more typically seen as unenlightened or more recently enlightened protectors.

The Tibetan mythology of these deities usually takes the form of a conversion narrative, describing how they were born and the events leading up to their becoming (under often quite violent circumstances) guardians of the Buddhist teachings. These Tibetan Buddhist myths, which have largely been neglected by Western scholars, imitate the structures and themes of Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Jātaka, Purāṇic, Māravijaya, and Avadāna literary genres, but also often transvalue and subvert them. Thus the “biographies” of these protector deities represent the dark tantric inversions of normative Buddhist hagiography.

Subjects

  • Buddhism

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