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Vajrabhairava (Yamantaka)

Solitary Hero

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Vajrabhairava (Yamantaka) :

Vajrabhairava or Yamantaka is an important yidam or meditational deity of the Highest Yoga Tantra class, whose practice is especially important in the Gelug and Sakya Schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Along with Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava - as a single figure or ‘Solitary Hero’ (Skt. ekavira) - is one of the three principal yidam deities of the Gelug Tradition, and his practice belongs to the ‘Father Tantra’ class, which emphasizes the cultivation of ‘method’ (Skt. upaya) or skilful means. The Gelugpa practice of Vajrabhairava as a principal yidam deity was introduced by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelug Tradition, who received this transmission through the lineage of the Indian Mahasiddha Lalitavajra. From the Indian lineage of the Mahasiddhas Lalitavajra, Amoghavajra and Padmavajra, the practice of Vajrabhairava was later established in Tibet through two separate lineages that descend from the Tibetan translators Mal Lotsawa and Ra Lotsawa (Rwa Dorje Drak), with Ra Lotsawa’s tradition being adopted by Tsongkhapa. From Tibet the practice of Vajrabhairava later became very popular in Mongolia and also China during the Manchu Dynasty.

The name Vajrabhairava (Tib. rDo-rje ‘jigs-byed) means ‘Indestructible Terror’, and the name Yamantaka means the ‘Slayer of Yama’, where Yama is the 'Lord of Death'. Vajrabhairava is the wrathful form of the wisdom-deity Manjushri, who appears at the top centre of this thangka holding his attributes of a sword and book. In the upper left corner is the Indian Mahasiddha Lalitavajra, who holds a nectar-filled skull-cup in his left hand. And in the upper right corner is a Gelugpa practitioner of the Vajrabhairava Tantra, who sits upon a low throne with a nectar-filled skull-cup at his side.


Vajrabhairava Description

Vajrabhairava is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with nine faces, thirty-four arms and sixteen legs. His naked and youthful body is very powerful, with a protruding stomach, strong limbs, and an erect penis that symbolizes his virility and great bliss. He stands upon a golden sun disc and a multicoloured lotus, as he leans toward the right in pratyalidha posture with his eight right legs bent, and his eight left legs extended, as he crushes underfoot eight mammals, eight birds, and eight great Vedic gods.

His main face is that of a ferocious black buffalo, with two sky-blue horns that extend upward towards the realm of Brahma, with blazing tongues of vajra-fire curling around their tips. The snout of his buffalo face is wrinkled in anger and red like molten copper, with the force of his breath being like the great wind at the end of time. His three round red eyes are bulging and bloodshot, and his tawny-red facial hair and eyebrows blaze upward like tongues of fire. He bares his four sharp white canine teeth, his red tongue twists like lightning, and his voice resounds with the eight-fold vajra-laugh. His alert ears point upward, and the bulges of his forehead, cheeks, and chin are smeared with funeral ashes, fresh blood, and human fat.

On either side of his buffalo face are two groups of three faces, which are coloured yellow (inner), blue (centre), and red (outer) to his right; and smoky-gray (inner), white (centre), and black (outer) to his left. The three faces to his right are described as being ‘angry and taut’, while the three faces to his left are described as ‘baring their sharp fangs’. Each of these faces is extremely wrathful, with three round red eyes, upward blazing facial hair, and a grimacing mouth that reveals its four sharp fangs and twisting red tongue. Each face is adorned with a jewel-topped crown of five dry white skulls, which are joined together by hanging jewels and delicate vajra-chains.

Above his buffalo face is the red face of an angry demon with fresh blood oozing from its mouth, whose terrifying voice resonates with the roar of Pem Kara. Above the five-skull crown of this demonic red face is the slightly wrathful yellow face of Manjushri-kumara, whose youthful three-eyed face is adorned with a five-jewel crown. Manjushri is described as having five topknots, although his black hair is invariably shown bound up into a single topknot and crowned by a wish-granting gem. Vajrabhairava’s matted mass of tawny-yellow hair-locks stream upwards like fire, and his nine heads are visualized as a central stack of three faces (buffalo, red demon, and Manjushri), with two groups of three faces to the right and left of his main buffalo face.

Around his neck he wears a garland of fifty freshly severed and blood-dripping heads that are strung together on a twisted thread of human intestines, while two long black serpents coil around his upper body as his sacred thread. He wears the six bone ornaments of: (1) an eight-spoke bone wheel with hanging loops of bone beads on the crown of his head: (2) bone earrings: (3) intricate bracelets, armlets and anklets made from filigree shards of bone: (4) an intricate bone belt and apron with sixty-four hanging loops: (5) a filigree bone necklace with an intricate circlet of bone beads, which loops around his chest with the insignia of an eight-spoke bone wheel positioned above his heart: (6) his sixth bone ornament are the cremated human bone ashes that are smeared all over his body. He abides within a blazing mass of awareness fire, which is like kalagni, the cosmic fire at the end of time.

With his first pair of right and left hands Vajrabhairava holds a vajra-handled curved knife or chopper above a skull-cup full of blood in front of his heart. His other thirty-two hands are arranged into groups of eight frontal and eight rear hands on either side, such that two levels of radiating arms and hands extended around his body. With his upper or second pair of right and left hands he stretches the freshly flayed and bloody skin of an elephant behind his back, with two of the elephant's legs billowing out behind his lower body and his sixteen legs.

With his other seven front right hands he holds: (1) a bhindipala or dart with a flight of three peacock feathers: (2) a wooden pestle: (3) a wave-bladed fish knife: (4) a harpoon or lance: (5) a vajra-marked iron axe: (6) a spear-flag: (7) an arrow. And with his eight rear right hands he holds: (1) a vajra-marked iron hook: (2) a skeletal skull-club: (3) a khatvanga: (4) an iron discus or chakra with eight sharp points: (5) a five-pointed golden vajra: (6) a vajra-hammer: (7) an iron sword: (8) a damaru or pellet-drum.

With his other seven front left hands he holds: (1) the four-faced head of Brahma: (2) a shield: (3) a severed leg and foot: (4) a vajra-snare or noose: (5) a bow: (6) a noose of human entrails: (7) a vajra-handled silver bell (ghanta). And with his eight rear left hands he holds: (1) a severed arm and hand: (2) a cotton funeral shroud: (3) a criminal impaled on a wooden stake: (4) an iron brazier: (5) a blood-filled skull-cup with the scalp attached: (6) a severed arm and hand that makes the threatening tarjani gesture: (7) a precious staff bearing a silken triple-valance: (8) a ‘wind-cloth’ for fanning the sacrificial homa fire.

Each of his seventeen right hands point upwards, with their index fingers raised in the threatening tarjani gesture, while his left hands point downwards, with their index fingers similarly raised in the gesture of threat. The palms of his hands and the soles of his feet are blood red in colour, and the stacked and talon-like toes of his sixteen feet spread outwards like a fan or concertina.

With each of his eight right feet he tramples upon a male mammal: (1) a human; (2) a buffalo; (3) a bull; (4) a donkey; (5) a camel; (6) a dog; (7) a ram; (8) a fox. Although in this painting only seven mammals appear, with the camel missing and the donkey depicted more like a carnivorous animal.

Underneath these eight mammals are the four great Vedic gods: (1) yellow four-faced Brahma: (2) white Indra: (3) blue-black Rudra: (4) green Vishnu. These four worldly gods represent the four maras or ‘great spiritual obstructions’, and are described as ‘having been pushed over onto their faces’, and they all wear the divine silk garments and jeweled ornaments of the gods.

With his eight outstretched right feet he tramples upon eight different birds: (1) a vulture: (2) an owl: (3) a crow or raven: (4) a parrot: (5) a falcon: (6) a kite or eagle: (7) a black myna bird or a red cockerel: (8) a white swan.

Underneath these eight birds are the four Hindu gods: (1) six-faced red Kumara or Karttikeya (the war-god): (2) elephant-headed white Vinayak (Ganesha): (3) white Chandra (the Moon): (4) red Surya (the Sun). These four Hindu gods have been similarly pushed over onto their faces, and are likewise adorned in the divine silk and jeweled ornaments of the gods.


In brief the collective symbolism of Yamantaka’s nine faces; two horns; thirty-four arms plus his body, speech and mind; sixteen legs; erect penis; eight mammals and eight birds; his upward flowing hair and his nakedness, is as follows:

“The subject matter of the nine categories of scriptures (nine faces) is essentially the doctrine of the two truths (two horns) – the relative and absolute. The method for understanding these two truths is the thirty-seven aspects of the path to enlightenment (thirty-four arms, plus his body, speech and mind). The essence of this path is an understanding of the sixteen types of emptiness (sixteen legs), and the method to attain this is to remain inseparable from great bliss (erect penis). The fruit of this path is the attainment of the eight mundane (eight mammals) and the eight supreme (eight birds) siddhis or accomplishments, which results in nirvana (upward streaming hair), wherein all obstacles are eliminated (nakedness)”.


In front of Vajrabhairava’s multicoloured lotus throne are three of the principal protector deities or Dharmapalas of the Gelugpa tradition, who are traditionally associated with Yamantaka. These are: Yama Dharmaraja and his consort (left), Six-armed Mahakala (centre), and Palden Lhamo Magzor Gyalmo (right).

Yama Dharmaraja (Tib. gShin-rje Chos-rgyal), the ‘Lord of Death, King of the Law’, is the ‘outer’ or activity aspect of Yama’s three forms (outer, inner and secret), and is a special protector of Vajrabhairava in the Gelugpa tradition. He is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with the head of an angry buffalo, with two sharp horns, three round red eyes, and a gaping mouth. His brown hair streams upwards above his five-skull crown, his penis is erect, and his powerful naked body is adorned with the six bone ornaments and a garland of fifty severed heads. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire and stands in pratyalidha posture upon the back of a black buffalo that tramples on the corpse of an enemy, which lies upon the golden sun disc of his lotus throne. With his right hand he brandishes aloft a skull-club, the shaft of which is fashioned from human vertebrae, and its top is crowned with a dry white skull and a half-vajra. With his left hand he makes the threatening tarjani gesture as he holds a black rope-noose with a hook and ring. Striding across his left leg is his black consort Chamunda, who is extremely fierce with sagging breasts, three round red eyes, a gaping mouth, and tawny locks of hair that hang freely down her back. Her naked body is adorned with bone ornaments and she wears the flayed skin of a jackal over her back. With her right hand she wields aloft an iron trident with a skull and silk ribbon attached to its shaft, and with her left hand she holds a skull-cup full of blood that she offers to her lord, Yama Dharmaraja.

At the centre is Six-armed Black Mahakala (Skt. Shadbhuja Mahakala; Tib. mGon-po phyag-drug-pa nag-po), the principal wisdom-protector of the Gelugpa tradition. He is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with six arms, three round red eyes, bared fangs, upward-blazing facial hair, his tawny hair-locks stream upwards, and he abides in the midst of a blazing mass of awareness fire. He stands in pratyalidha posture above a golden sun disc and lotus, with his two feet trampling upon the elephant-headed form of white Ganapati, who is adorned with silks and jewels and holds a white radish (mueli) in his right hand, and a skull-cup filled with blue nectar or alcohol in his left hand. Mahakala’s powerful body is adorned with gold and bone ornaments, a tiger-skin loincloth, a silk vajra-scarf, a five-skull crown, and a garland of severed heads. With his first pair of right and left hands he holds a vajra-handled curved knife above a skull-cup full of blood in front of his heart. With his second pair of hands he holds aloft the freshly flayed skin of an elephant that he stretches behind his back, while his right hand holds a rosary of dry white skulls, and his left hand holds an iron trident that bears a skull, red yak-tail, and a white silk ribbon on its shaft. And with his third pair of right and left hands he rattles a wooden damaru and holds a rope-noose that bears a vajra-hook and ring.

The ‘Glorious Goddess’ Shri Devi (Tib. Palden Lhamo) appears in the lower right corner in her form as Magzor Gyalmo, the ‘Army Repulsing Queen’. She is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, and she sits sidesaddle upon her wild brown mule (kyang), which she rides amidst a maelstrom of swirling green-black wind and above a turbulent red ocean of blood and fat. Her mule’s reins and bridle are fashioned from poisonous snakes; its saddlecloth is fashioned from the flayed skin of a cannibal spirit or rakshasa, with the upper part of a rakshasa’s skull forming the front of her saddle. At the saddle’s front hang Shri Devi’s ‘magical weapons’ of the ‘bundle of red curses, a skin sack full of diseases, and a pair of divination dice’, and hanging on a serpent at the rear of her saddle is her ‘ball of variegated thread’. She wears the charnel ground attributes of a five-skull crown, gold and bone ornaments, a human-skin shawl, a tiger-skin skirt, billowing garments of multicoloured silks, and a garland of freshly severed heads. Her tawny hair streams upwards, a peacock-feathered parasol floats above her head, a crescent moon adorns her crown, and the sun shines from her navel. She has three round red eyes, a corpse lies within her gaping mouth, a white lion leaps from behind her right ear, and a green snake darts from behind her left ear. With her right hand she wields aloft a red sandalwood club crowned with a half-vajra, and with her left hand she holds the skull-cup of a ‘misbegotten child’ born from an incestuous union, which is full of magical ‘charm blood’.

Behind these three Dharmapalas are four offerings, with the two outer ones being tripod-mounted skull-cups that contain offerings of swirling red blood. Between Yama and Mahakala is the wrathful ‘flower offering’ of the five sense organs, which consists of a tripod-mounted skull-cup that contains blood and the five sense organs of: a heart (touch), a tongue (taste), a nose (smell), two ears (sound), and two eyes (sight). Piercing the centre of the heart is an arrow adorned with a black silk banner and a small silver mirror, which represents the sixth sense faculty of consciousness as the body, speech and mind of the deity (Vajrabhairava) empowering the organs of the five senses. And in between Mahakala is a peaceful offering of the five senses, consisting of: a mirror (sight), cymbals (sound), a silk ribbon (touch), a conch shell full of perfume (smell), and three rounds fruits and a large fruit behind (taste). The swirling waters of a lake appear in the lower landscape, along with the vajra-rock formation upon which Mahakala’s lotus throne rests, and the sharp mountain peaks that enclose Shri Devi’s ocean of blood.

The landscape that arises above Vajrabhairava’s lotus throne depicts the symbolic imagery of one of the ‘eight great charnel grounds’ that forms the outer protection wheel of his and most other wrathful deity mandalas. In each of which appear eight different: lakes, mountains, clouds, fires, trees, stupas, naga-serpents, directional protectors, realm protectors, mahasiddhas, and the zombies, severed limbs, corpses, skeletons, wild animals and vultures that populate the eight great charnel grounds of ancient India.

The cloud, lake and mountain appears on the lower left, with Yaksha, the wrathful blue directional protector of the southwest, riding upon a blue horse amidst a mass of billowing wind. Behind him is one on the eight great trees, within which one of the eight realm protectors resides, while nearby vultures are devouring a corpse. The charnel ground scene on the lower right shows a tiger and leopard devouring a corpse, while a great naga-serpent coils around the leafless tree behind. Beneath this tree sits a Mahasiddha holding a damaru and skull-cup, while one of the eight stupas can be seen above, and at the top are tongues of fire, a severed leg and a skull.

© text by Robert Beer

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