Appearances and Identifications of Vajrapani
Vajrapani is one of the earliest and most recognizable characters of Buddhist art. He is known for carrying a vajra scepter and being a close attendant to the historical Buddha according to the Mahayana Sutras. In Vajrayana, Buddhism Vajrapani is entrusted to safeguard all of the Tantra literature and in this regard, he is known as Guhyapati – the Lord of Secrets.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Different Forms of Vajrapani
- 2 - Vajrapani as Second Dhyani-Bodhisattva
- 3 - Identification of Vajrapani in different Countries
- 4 - Gallery of vajrapani
Different Forms of Vajrapani
Vajrapani manifests in a variety of forms and looks, ranging from placid to semi-wrathful to wholly wrathful. He is usually represented as white, green, or blue in hue, seated or standing, in a calm look. He can be in a relaxed position with one leg pendant or in a vajra posture with both legs folded together in the sat posture. The vajra scepter held in the right or left hand in a simple form, or both a vajra and a bell in the two hands, is a way to recognize him. When he is depicted with both attributes, vajra, and bell, placed on flower blossoms over the shoulder then there is a danger of misidentifying the form as the primordial Buddha Vajradhara.
One of the groups of Eight Great Bodhisattvas, also known as Buddha Shakyamuni’s Heart-sons, is a peaceful Vajrapani, which is usually blue or green in color. These are primarily derived from the Mahayana Sutras and depict the most enlightened of bodhisattva devotees. A system of sixteen major bodhisattvas exists as well, but they are rarely shown in art.
In depictions and sets of paintings or sculptures of the Eight Bodhisattvas, Vajrapani holds either a vajra scepter alone or a vajra and a bell. There is no standard iconography for these presentations and their appearance depends mostly on the artist and regional tradition.
Vajrapani and Vajrasattava
Sometimes the representation of vajrasattva, the tantric meditational deity, and vajrapani can be very confusing because of the identical appearance. The only way to tell the difference is to look at the inscriptions on the base of a sculpture, or, if it’s a painted composition, to look at the iconographic context and connected deities in the composition, as well as any inscriptions. Vajrapani is the most ancient figure in Buddhist mythology, but Vajrasattva appears as a meditational deity only later in Tantra literature. Vajrasattva is most likely based on the form and some of the functions that originated with Vajrapani’s character.
Vajrapani is described as “In the north is Guhyapati, blue, the right [hand] holds a vajra to the heart and the left a bell supported at the hip, seated in sattva posture” in an important Kriya classification Tantric mandala alongside Manjushri and Lokeshvara as the triad of the Lords of the Three Families.
Vajrapani in Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra
There are four mandalas in the Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra that represent a peaceful Vajrapani, white in color, in the middle. They are Mind-Vajrapani with four deities, Vajrapani and the Four Direction Kings, Vajrapani and the Eight Dikpalas, and Vajrapani and the Eight Great Nagas.
Vajrapani in Mitra Gyatsa of Mitra Yogin
In the Mitra Gyatsa of Mitra Yogin, there is a peaceful form of Vajrapani, white, with a surrounding complement of twelve retinue deities. This is known as the Vajrapani Thirteen Deity Mandala.
Vajrapani as Second Dhyani-Bodhisattva
Vajrapani is the second Dhyani-Bodhisattva corresponding to the five Celestial Jinas. He is also one of the groups 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 Acharya is Dharmapala. He is represented in human form, with his disheveled hair standing on end and wearing a skull crown. His expression is angry, and he has a 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 is yidim. He has one head, a third eye, a skull crown, with sometimes a vajra, and snake in his disheveled 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.
Mahacakra Vajrapani is yidim. 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.
Vajrapani in Garuda form
He is usually standing and has the wings and claws of a Garuda. He may have a human head with a beak, or ahead like a Garuda. He sometimes carries a sword and a gourd-shaped bottle, or his two hands may be in ‘ prayer mudra. ”
This form is complicated in that in some legends Vajrapani protects the rain-giving Nagas from the Garudas by assuming the form of a Garuda and leading them away from harming the Nagas.
In all of the forms, the Garuda represents a powerful force of Wisdom protecting against inner, outer and secret obstacles.
Identification of Vajrapani in different Countries
Vajrapani in Cambodia
The image of Vajrapani with four arms is venerated in one of these monasteries. Also, in niches are standing images of Vajrapani carved with four or two arms on each of the four faces of monoliths found in Western Cambodia.
Vajrapani in Gandhara
As Buddhism expanded in Central Asia and fused with Hellenistic influences into Greco-Buddhism, the Greek hero Heracles was adopted to represent Vajrapani.
In that era, he was typically depicted as a hairy, muscular athlete, wielding a short “diamond” club. Buddhaghosa associated Vajrapani with the deva king Indra. Some authors believe that the deity depicted is actually Zeus, whose Classical attribute is the thunderbolt.
Vajrapani in India
During the Kushana period, Gandhara art depicted Vajrapani’s images in which he is shown primarily as a protector of Sakyamuni and not in the role of a bodhisattva. In the Indrasalaguha scenes, mountains form a part of his environment where his presence during the conversion of the naga Apalala is shown. In these depictions, he is shown wearing exclusive Western attire and always in the presence of other deities. The reliefs in this art form depict Vajrapani always present in the scenes where Buddha is converting people; his presence is shown when the Buddha confronts the opponents of the dharma like Mara before his enlightenment. Scenes of Sakyamuni competing with the heretics are also part of this art tradition. Scenes of Buddha using the vajra of Vajrapani as the “magic weapon” to perform miracles and propagate “superiority of his doctrine” are also common.
In the western groups of caves in Aurangabad, Vajrapani is depicted as a bodhisattva with his vajra in a tableau, a votive panel of sculptural composition in which he is a standing posture (the only extant figure) over a lotus to the left of a Buddha in a dhyanasana. In this panel, he is adorned with a tall crown, two necklaces, a snake armlet, and holds the vajra in his left hand, and resting on a scarf tied across his hips. This close iconographic composition is at the entrance to the porch of cave 2 and in the incomplete porch of cave 1. Such votive carved panels with Vajrapani are also seen in the interior of pradkssina passage of cave 2 in which his presence is with other the ascetic bodhisattvas like AvalokiteÅ›vara; in this panel, he has a crown in the form of a stupa with a scarf fastened over his left thigh.
In the eastern group of caves at the entry to cave 6 in Aurangabad, Vajrapani is carved as a commanding persona in the form of a huge dvarapala along with AvalokiteÅ›vara. Vajrapani image is flanked by a small attendant. He carries Vajra, his luminous weapon on the left hand, which rests on a scarf tied across his hip. His right arm is bent forward -perhaps he held a lotus-like his paredros Avalokitesvara. Both the bodhisattvas guarding the entrance to cave 6 are carved wearing princely headdresses (crowns).
In Indonesia, Vajrapani is depicted as a part of a triad with Vairocana and Padmapani. A famous 3 meters tall stone statue of Vairocana, Padmapani, and Vajrapani triad can be found in the central chamber of Mendut temple, located around 3 kilometers east from Borobudur, Central Java.
Both seated Padmapani and Vajrapani, regarded as the guardian of Buddha Vairocana, are depicted as handsome well-built men with serene expressions adorned with exquisite crowns and jewelry. The statues are a fine example of the 9th century Central Javanese Sailendran art, which influenced the Buddhist art in Southeast Asia, including the Srivijayan art of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula (Southern Thailand).
Vajrapani in China
In China, Vajrapani, known as the “vajra-holding god”, is widely venerated in his dual manifestation as the “vajra warriors” or “Benevolent Kings”, two muscular guardian deities that usually stand at each side of the shamen in Buddhist temples and monasteries.
The statue on the left side is traditionally named “Guhyapada”, while the one on the left is traditionally named “Narayaa, both of whom are Dharmapala in the Chinese Buddhist canon. In Chinese folk religion, they are also known as “Generals Heng and Ha”, so named because the right statue usually has its mouth open to pronounce the sound “a”, while the other usually has it closed to utter the sound “heng”.
The two sounds are the start and end sounds in Sanskrit, symbolizing the basis of sounds and bearing the profound theory of Dharma.
Guhyapada, in particular, is also considered one of the Twenty Devas or Twenty-Four Devas in the Chinese Buddhist pantheon. In the Shaolin tradition, VajrapÄni is venerated as an avatar of AvalokiteÅ›vara who manifested to protect the monastery during the Yuan dynasty.
Vajrapani in Japan
In Japan, Vajrapani is known as “the vajra-wielding god”, and has been the inspiration for the Benevolent Kings, the wrath-filled and muscular guardian gods of the Buddha, standing at the entrance of many Buddhist temples under the appearance of frightening wrestler-like statues. He is also associated with Acala, the mantra for Fuda-myaa references him as the powerful wielder of the vajra.
The origin of the image of Vajrapani should be explained. This deity is the protector and guide of the Buddha Sakyamuni. His image was modeled after that of Hercules. The Gandharan Vajrapani was transformed in Central Asia and China and afterward transmitted to Japan, where it exerted stylistic influences on the wrestler-like statues of the Guardian Deities (Nio).
In Japan, though he is not a very popular form of statue worship, he is frequently depicted in diagrams (Mandala); the sixth form of the Garbakhosa mandala is named as “Vajrapani enclosure” in which he is represented in 20 different forms with Kongsatta as the presiding deity. In Japanese iconography, he is depicted in red color at the death of Buddha.
Vajrapani in Nepal
In Nepal, Vajrapani is depicted holding a vajra supported on a lotus with its stem held in the right hand while the left hand is shown in a posture of “charity and argument”. His paintings are in white color.
Vajrapani in Tibet
In Tibet, Vajrapani is represented in many fierce forms. Some of the notable ones are Vajrapani-Acharya in a human form with only one head with the third eye with hair raised and crowned by a skull with fiery expression. His neck is adorned with a necklace of snakes, and with a waistband made of tiger skin covered with skulls. Stepping to the right, his lifted hand holds a vajra.
When painted in blue color the image is encircled by flames with images of small Garudas; Nilambara-Vajrapani with one head, with a third eye, a crown made of the skull with four or six arms, and in some cases with untidy hair bedecked with vajra and snake. Two hands are crossed to the breast in mystic posture (mudra), the second right hand is lifted up and carries a vajra.
Stepping to the right, regally crowned and lying over a bed of snakes; in Achala-Vajrapani form, he is shown with four heads, four arms, and four legs adorned with symbols of vajra, sword, lasso, and skull cup (kapala) and trampling over demons; Mahachakra-Vajrapani is a form with three heads and a third eye, and with six arms and two legs. The icon is adorned with symbols of vajra, the snake with yum held in its main hands, and as shakti, it to his left is shown holding a skull-cup (kapala) and grigug (chopper or hooked knife).
The icon is shown stepping over Brahma on the right and on Shiva to the left; in the Thunderbolt-Wielder form known as “snake charm form” to protect from snake bites, he is depicted sitting on a lotus throne carried by peacocks. The right-hand posture holds one end of the rope noose to capture snake demons while the left hand held over the hips carries the other end of the noose. He is followed by two bodhisattvas – “Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin, Effacer of Stains, and Samantabhadra, the Entirely Virtuous One”.