The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Chapter V - Forms Of Vajrapani


Table V

A. Human form:
I. Symbol: vajra (thunderbolt)...   Dhyani-Bodhisattva.
II. Symbols: vajra, sometimes third eye.
ghanta (bell).
paSa (lasso).
Acarya-Vajrapani (Dharmapala). [1]

B. Other forms:
I. One head,
four arms.
Symbols : vajra.
Treads on personage lying on snakes.
Nilambara-Vajrapani (Yi-dam). [2]
II. Three heads, six arms. Symbols : vajra.
Holds snakes.
Treads on Brahma and Siva
Form : yab-yum.
Mahacakra-Vajrapani (Yi-dam).
III. Four heads, four arms, four legs. Symbols: khadga (sword)
pasa (lasso)
vajra (thunderbolt)
Threads on demons.
IV.   Form with head, wings, and claws like Garuda.

Vajrapani (Second Dhyani-Bodhisattva)


God of Rain.

(T.) p'yag-na rdo-rje (pro. tchagdor) (holding the thunderbolt).
(M.) vacirbani (corruption of Vajrapani) or modur taghan vacirtu (with a thunderbolt in his hand).
(C.) Ssu-kin-kang ().
(J.) Kongo. [3]

Symbol: vajra (thunderbolt).
Colour: blue (dark).
Emblem: utpala (blue lotus).
Sakti: Sujata.
Mantra: Om, Vajrapani, hum!

Corresponds with the Brahmanical god Indra.
Dhyani-Bodhisattva of the second Dhyani-Buddha Akshobhya.
Dharmapala (Drag-ched) forms.

Symbols: vajra, khadga (sword), paia (lasso), ghanta (bell).
Distinctive marks: serpent, small garuda (mythical bird).
One of both groups of five and eight Dhyani-Bodhisattva.

Vajrapani is both the ferocious emanation of Vajradhara and the spiritual reflex, the Dhyani-Bodhisattva, of Akshobhya; [4] but in the early Buddhist legends, when mentioned as accompanying Gautama Buddha, he is referred to as a minor deity. In fact, according to certain accounts, he lived in the Trayastrimsa heaven as king of the devas.

Grunwedel identifies Vajrapani with Sakra or Indra, the Indian god of Bain. In the Buddhist records, Sakra is mentioned as being present at the birth of the Tathagata [5] and as assisting at his flight from the palace. In the incident of the return of Sakya-muni from Kapilavastu, however, Vajrapani is referred to as multiplying himself into eight devas to escort him, while the

'divine Sakra, with a multitude of devas belonging to Kamaloka, took their place on the left hand'.

Hiuen-tsang mentions Vajrapani as being with the Tathagata when he subdued the gigantic snake in Udyana. It is also related that when the Nagas (serpent gods) appeared before the Buddha to listen to his teachings, Vajrapani was charged by the Tathagata to guard them from the attacks of their mortal enemies, the garudas [6] and that, in order to deceive and combat the garudas, Vajrapani assumed a form with head, wings, and claws like the garudas themselves. At the Parinirvana of the Buddha it is recorded that 'letting fall his diamond sceptre [7] in despair, he rolled himself in the dust'.

The Nagas are believed to control the rain-clouds, hence Vajrapani, as their protector, is looked upon as the Rain God, and it is to him the Northern Buddhists appeal when rain is needed, or is too abundant.

Vajrapani is rarely seen in statues alone, but often in a triad with Amitayus (or Manjusri) and Padmapani. One finds him in religious paintings and in the miniatures of Nepalese books, where he is either at the left of the Dipankara Buddha or at the right of Tara. He is represented holding the vajra and standing with his legs crossed. [8] This detail is of especial interest in identifying the personage in the Gandhara sculptures who often accompanies Gautama Buddha, holding an object in his right hand which may be the primitive form of the vajra, [9] and whose legs are sometimes crossed. This same personage, holding the primitive vajra, was also found in the frescoes [10] discovered by Herr von Le Coq in Chinese Turkestan, as well as a Vajrapani carrying a most ornate thunderbolt.

The non-Tan tra Bodhisattva form of Vajrapani is very rare. In Pander's Pantheon he is represented seated with the legs locked, balancing the vajra on his hands lying in 'meditation' mudra on his lap, but he may be also making 'witness' (bhumisparsa) mudra, the vajra being balanced in the palm of his left hand on his lap. [11] In the collection of Mr. Gustave Schlumberger there is a Vajrapani brandishing the vajra in his right hand while his left is in vitarka mudra.

Besides being the protector of the Nagas against the Garudas, Vajrapani is the implacable enemy of the demons, the reason for which is explained in the following Buddhist legend.[12] Once upon a time the Buddhas all met together on the top of Mount Meru (Sumeru) to deliberate upon the best means of procuring the Water of Life (amrita) which lies concealed at the bottom of the ocean.

The evil demons were in possession of the powerful poison, Hala-hala, and using it to bring destruction on mankind. In order to procure the antidote, they decided to churn the ocean with the Mount Meru. When the amrita had risen to the surface of the water, they put it in the keeping of Vajrapani, until they should decide on the best means of using it; but Vajrapani left the Elixir of Life a moment unguarded and the monster, Rahu, stole it. Then followed a fearful struggle for the possession of the amrita. Rahu was conquered in the end, but the Water of Life had been defiled; and the Buddhas, to punish Vajrapani, forced him to drink it, whereupon he became dark blue from the poison mixed with the amrita.

This legend seems to explain the presence of Vajrapani as guardian of the Elixir of Life in a triad with Amitayus, who holds the ambrosia vase, and Padmapani, who carries a kalasa (ewer of amrita).

Vajrapani is the second Dhyani-Bodhisattva corresponding to the five Celestial Jinas. He is also one of the group of eight Dhyani-Bodhisattva found in the Northern Buddhist temples, in which case he is represented standing, with the vajra and ghanta supported by lotus-flowers, the stems of which he holds in his hands in 'charity' and 'argument' mudra.

He has several ferocious (Dharmapala) forms, assumed to combat the various demons.

The most important of these forms are:

Vajrapani-Acdrya (Dharmapala).

He is represented in human form, with his dishevelled hair standing on end and wearing a skull crown. His expression is angry, and he has the third eye. Around his neck is a serpent necklace, and at his waist a belt of heads, underneath which is a tiger skin. He steps to the right, and in his uplifted hand is a vajra. If painted, he is dark blue, and is generally surrounded by flames in which are small Garudas.

Nilambara-Vajrapani (Yi-dam).

He has one head, a third eye, a skull crown, with sometimes a vajra, and snake in his dishevelled hair, and has four or six arms. Two hands are held at his breast in a mystic mudra, and the second right arm is uplifted holding the vajra. He steps to the right on a crowned personage [13] lying on a bed of serpents.

Acala-Vajrapani (Dharmapala).

He has four heads, four arms as well as four legs, and his symbols are vajra, sword, lasso, and skull-cup (kapala). He treads on demons.

Mahacakra-Vajrapani (Yi-dam).

He has three heads with the third eye, six arms, and two legs. He is painted blue — the head at the right is white, at the left red. His symbols are the vajra and a long serpent, and he holds his yum with the two original arms. The sakti holds a kapala (skull-cup) and grigug (chopper). He steps to the right on Brahma and his left foot treads on Siva.

Garuda form.

He is usually standing and has the wings and claws of a Garuda (PI. lix, fig. c). He may have a human head with a beak, or a head like a Garuda. He sometimes carries a sword and a gourd-shaped bottle, or his two hands may be in ' prayer mudra. [14]


a. Avalokitesvara b. Avalokitesvara
c. Avalokitesvara d. Avalokitesvara


Avaloktesvara with twelve Emanations

Footnotes and references:


v. Dharmapala.


v. Yi-dam.


v. Ni-o.


Hodgson, however, calls him the 'aeon of Vajrasattva Buddha'.


Grunwedel, Buddhistische Kunst (English translation), p. 90.


A mythical bird of gigantic size.




Foucher, Iconographie bouddhique, p. 121.


v. Vajra.


Now in the Museum fur Volkerkunde, Berlin.


In one of the miniatures in the MS. Add. 1643 in the University Library, Cambridge, Vajrapani is represented balancing the vajra in his left hand lying in his lap. He is painted white instead of blue.


Schlagintweit, Buddhism in Tibet.


Grunwedel suggests that it is Siva, Mythologie du Bouddhisme, p. 164.


Museum fur Volkerkunde, Berlin.

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