Wrathful Deities

January 5, 2005 · updated February 15, 2022

An enigmatic aspect of Tibetan Buddhism iconography is the presence of ferocious, terrifying forms known as the wrathful deities. Though these hideous, hair-raising images seem contradictory to Buddhist ideals, they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces.

Rather, the wrathful deities are benevolent gods who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil, the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos and the human mind and protect the faithful by instilling terror in evil spirits.

In Sanskrit, the wrathful deities are known as dharmapalas, which means "defender of the dharma." In Tibetan, they are drag-gshed, meaning "cruel, wrathful hangman."

The Eight Wrathful Deities

The most important category of wrathful deities is the group of eight dharampalas. The dharampalas, or defenders of Buddhism, are divinities with the rank of Bodhisattva who wage war without any mercy against the demons and enemies of Buddhism. These eight wrathful deities, which can be worshipped as a group of "Eight Terrible Ones" or individually, are:

    - Lha-mo (Tibetan: “Goddess”; Sanskrit: Sri-devi, or Kala-devi) - fierce goddess of the city of Lhasa and the only feminine wrathful deity - Tshangs-pa Dkar-po (Tibetan: “White Brahma”; Sanskrit: Sita-Brahma) - Beg-tse (Tibetan: “Hidden Sheet of Mail”) - Yama (Sanskrit; Tibetan: Gshin-rje) - the god of death, often shown gripping the Tibetan wheel of life - Kubera, or Vaisravana (Sanskrit; Tibetan: Rnam-thos-sras) - the god of wealth and the only wrathful deity who is never represented in a fierce form - Mahakala (Sanskrit: “Great Black One”; Tibetan: Mgon-po) - Hayagriva (Sanskrit: “Horse Neck”; Tibetan: Rta-mgrin) - Yamantaka (Sanskrit: “Conqueror of Yama, or Death”; Tibetan: Gshin-rje-gshed)