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A dharmapāla (Wylie: chos skyong) is a type of wrathful god in Buddhism. The name means "Dharma protector or defender" in Sanskrit, and the dharmapālas are also known as the Defenders of the Law (Dharma), or the Protectors of the Law.
A protector of Buddhist dharma is called a dharmapala in Buddhism. They are typically divinities, usually depicted with wrathful iconography in the Mahayana and tantric traditions of Buddhism. The wrath depicts their believed willingness to defend and guard Buddhist followers from dangers and enemies. The Aṣṭagatyaḥ (the eight kinds of nonhuman beings) is one category of dharmapālas, which includes the Garuda, Deva, Naga, Yaksha, Gandharva, Asura, Kinnara and Mahoraga.
In Vajrayana iconography and thangka depictions, dharmapālas are fearsome beings, often with many heads, many hands, or many feet. Dharmapālas often have blue, black or red skin, and a fierce expression with protruding fangs. Although dharmapālas have a terrifying appearance and countenance, they are all bodhisattvas or buddhas, meaning that they are embodiments of compassion that act in a wrathful way for the benefit of sentient beings.
The devotional worship of dharmapālas in the Tibetan tradition is traceable to early 8th-century.
In Tibet, principal Dharmapālas include:
- Mahakala (Tib. Nagpo Chenpo)
- Yama (Tib. Shinje)
- Yamantaka (Tib. Shinje Shed)
- Hayagriva (Tib. Tamdrin)
- Vaisravana (Tib. Kubera)
- Shri Devi (Tib. Palden Lhamo)
- Ekajaṭī (Tib. ral chig ma)
- Rāhula (Tib. gza)
- Vajrasādhu (Tib. Dorje Legpa)
- Brahma (Tib. "Tshangs Pa")
- Maharakta (Tib. tsog gi dag po, mar chen)
- Kurukulla (Tib. rig che ma)
- Takkiraja (Vajrayaksa) (Tib. du pai gyal po)
- Prana Atma (Tib. Begtse)
In Tibet, most monasteries have a dedicated dharmapāla which was originally comparable to a genius loci. The many forms of Mahakala, for example, are emanations of Avalokiteshvara. Kalarupa, and Yamantaka are considered by practitioners to be emanations of (Manjushri) the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
The main functions of a dharmapāla are said to be to avert the inner and outer obstacles that prevent spiritual practitioners from attaining spiritual realizations, as well as to foster the necessary conditions for their practice.
In Japanese Shingon Buddhism, a descendent of Tangmi, dharmapālas such as Acala and Yamantaka are classified as Wisdom Kings. Other dharmapālas, notably Mahakala, belong to the Deva realm, the fourth and lowest class in the hierarchy of honorable beings.
- Kalsang, Ladrang (1996). The Guardian Deities of Tibet Delhi: Winsome Books. (Third Reprint 2003) ISBN 81-88043-04-4.
- Linrothe, Rob (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art London: Serindia Publications. ISBN 0-906026-51-2.
- De Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene (1956). Oracles and Demons of Tibet. Oxford University Press. Reprint Delhi: Books Faith, 1996 - ISBN 81-7303-039-1. Reprint Delhi: Paljor Publications, 2002 - ISBN 81-86230-12-2.