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Peaceful and Wrathful Deities

The Buddhist deity Mahakala as a Brahman, 1700-1800

The Buddhist deity Mahakala as a Brahman, 1700-1800. Tibet, Ngor Evamchos-idan. Thangka; colors on cotton. The Avery Brundage Collection, B63D4.

The vast Tibetan pantheon includes numerous peaceful and wrathful deities, who guide and protect believers on their paths to enlightenment. Among the images of peaceful deities are those of buddhas and bodhisattvas, great teachers, and high monks. Wrathful deities, such as the guardian deities, use their power to protect Buddhism and to destroy the three major obstacles to enlightenment: anger, greed, and ignorance.

The chart below shows differences between depictions of peaceful deities and those of wrathful deities. However, within the Tibetan pantheon there are many exceptions. For instance, while most peaceful deities have only one head and two arms, some depictions of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, have multiple heads and many arms. Adding to the complexity, peaceful deities can have wrathful manifestations and vice versa.




plain or jeweled halo

flaming halo

jeweled crown

necklaces and garlands of jewels

crown of five skulls

garland of freshly severed heads

usually one head and two arms

numerous heads and arms

bodies of regular proportions

squat bodies with rotund bellies

blue hair, hair neatly arranged

orange hair, hair standing on end

two eyes

three bulging eyes

serene expression

fierce expression

hold peaceful objects such as lotus blossoms and vases

hold fearsome weapons and implements such as curved choppers and skull bowls

peaceful gestures: meditation, dispelling fear, gift granting, or preaching

threatening gestures

sit on moon (white) disk

sit on sun (gold or orange) disk