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VAJRAPĀI . "As for Vajrapāi I confess to finding him by far the most interesting divine being throughout the whole history of Buddhism, for he has a personal history and considerable personal character." David Snellgrove's words were published in his magnum opus, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (p. 134) in 1987, the year of this encyclopedia's first edition. Only now has Vajrapāi (Tib., Phyag na rdo rje [Chagna dorje]) gained his own independent entry. His promotion in the secondary literature echoes his unparalleled rise within the history of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (with successes also in Central Asian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Japanese Buddhisms). From a half-tamed spirit who became the Buddha's constant companion, this protean shape-shifter graduates first into a bodhisattva and then into a deity before transcending everything as the primordial Ādibuddha, Vajradhara. However, Vajrapāi's progress extends backwards too, before Buddhism, to the beginnings of Sanskrit literature, the Vedas.

Indo-European Etymology and Divinity

In Sanskrit, vajrapāi means "he who has a vajra in hand." The word vajra refers to a thunderbolt, thunder crash, or lightning flash, and to its embodiment in unbreakable diamond (cf. the Tibetan neologistic translation Rdo rje [dor je ], "Lord of Stones") and the invincible weapon made thereof. Vajra is linguistically related to its Indo-European cousin, the Zoroastrian Zend vazra, Mithra's "club" (cf. Vedic Mitra), and the English cognates vigor, wacker, and wake.

In pre-Buddhist Indian literature, the vajra is wielded by powerful gods, above all Indra, lord of the gods, sky, and rains. From the gveda onward, Indra's attribute is the vajra. Nevertheless, while the gveda often refers to vajrabāhu : (vajra in arm) and vajrahasta (vajra in hand), their synonym, vajrapāi, is not found before the aviśabrāhmaa.

The vajra's bearer has close correspondents in Greek, Roman, and northern European mythology. Zeus and Jupiter, kings of the gods and sky gods, hold the thunderbolt, while the Norse Þórr (Thor) brandishes a meteoric hammer that flashes lightning. Greco-Roman depictions of the bundle of thunder and lightning are barely distinguishable from the double-ended trident vajra used today across the northern Buddhist world. A Buddhist legend explains the adapted form, since the Buddha had grasped Indra's weapon and blunted it, forcing the aggressive open prongs together to create a peaceful regal scepter.

Following his gvedic supremacy, Indra, whose avatar Vajrapāi originally is, comes down in the world. A second-rank divinity, his supremacy is usurped by his storm-god colleague Rudra (Śiva), an opponent Vajrapāi will meet again many centuries later. In the Mahābhārata, for example, Indra is defeated, kidnapped, and humiliated, whether with the epithet vajrapāi or vajradhara. By this point, Vajrapāi had begun an alternative career that would lead him to the innermost heart of the Buddhist fold.

Separated from his godly prototype, Vajrapāi is an ambivalent yaka, neither divine nor human, albeit the general of the yaka army (yakasenādhipati ) and master of the whole guhyaka (secret) class of yakas (guhyakādhipati ). His mastery over secrets was reinterpreted to apply to the mysteries of esoteric Buddhism. With him, military metaphors are always explicit and sustained, and his vajra was conceptually assimilated to the legal staff (danda ) of a law enforcer.

VajrapĀi and the Buddha

Although Vajrapāi's initial Buddhist incarnation may have been as the Buddha's associate, he was not a pushover. In a rare appearance in the Pali canon, Vajrapāi extracts a response from Ambaha to the Buddha's twice-unanswered question about his ancestry. To illustrate the threat that a third refusal will result in his head being shattered, Vajrapāi appears in the sky, visible to only the two interlocutors, wielding a blazing iron thunderbolt. The terrified Ambaha's tongue is loosened, and he keeps his head.

In the fifth century ce Buddhaghosa, the preeminent Pali commentator, glosses Vajrapāi as Indra, possibly reflecting the contemporary Brahmanization of Buddhism during and after the Gupta period. But the memory of their earlier identity is re-remembered everywhere in Indian Buddhist history. Vajrapāi and Indra are certainly depicted together enough times to have autonomous existences.

Numerous postcanonical narratives depict Vajrapāi's feet on the ground. Many Gandharan Buddhist bas reliefs from northern Pakistan from the first centuries of the Common Era show a Herculean strongman, under obvious Hellenistic influence, holding a vajra. Like a bodyguard, Vajrapāi is ever-present (nityānubaddha ), mostly silent, at the Buddha's side. His desolation at the Buddha's deathbed even inspired an entire sūtra, transmitted in Chinese: On Guhyaka Vajrapāi's Grief and Love When the Buddha Entered into Nirvāa.

However close to the Buddha, Vajrapāi remained a menial. Smashing a boulder dropped by Devadatta, Vajrapāi's ill-judged blow sent a shard into his Lord's foot. Later, to spare the Buddha's nonviolent reputation, he defeated the nāga dragon Apalāla. Varying accounts of the episode, detailed in Étienne Lamotte's authoritative Vajrapå-i en Inde (2003), eventually credit him with single-handed conquest, in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, localizing the event in northwest India.

When with the Mahāyāna, the historical Buddha and his human entourage lost their preeminence, while Vajrapāi, still judiciously aggressive, became venerable.

Three Bodhisattvas

Around the beginning of the Common Era, the young Mahāyāna Buddhism enthusiastically adopted Vajrapāi, if at first as a glorified protecting assistant, in such early classics as Aasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (The perfection of wisdom in eight thousand verses sūtra).

With the Mahāyāna multiplication of bodhisattvas, Vajrapāi also becomes one, and he too is multiplied in the new tradition's proliferating style. The bodhisattva equivalent of the Buddha's intimate attendant, he mirrors Ānanda's function, with added Mahāyāna expansiveness: just as Ānanda guards and transmits the Śrāvakayāna sūtras, Vajrapāi protects and compiles fresh Mahāyāna sūtras. He is by the side of countless buddhas in multiple buddha realms, and constantly attends any bodhisattva who has attained the eighth to tenth of the ten bodhisattva stages.

Of the myriad Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, few merited dedicated religious cultivation. Apart from Maitreya, in particular, three stand out. Early Buddhist protectors, the Brahmanical gods Indra and Brahmā, are consequently recast as Vajrapāi and Padmapāi, bearers of the vajra and lotus respectively. Padmapāi became identified with the great bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, a Mahāyāna discovery, prompting Vajrapāi's subsequent parallel upgrade. With Mañjuśrī as the bodhisattva manifestation of Śākyamuni Buddha, the triad is complete.

In Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (Mañjuśrī's fundamental instructions) in the earliest Kriyā Tantra phase of Tantric Buddhism, the trio lead three families (Skt., trikula ), symbolized by the wheel, lotus, and vajra, specializing in wisdom, compassion, and power or energy (positive transmutations of the immemorial Buddhist root poisons: ignorance, greed, and hatred). Spiritual sons and heirs of the three crowning buddhas (Vairocana, Amitābha, and Akobhya (Tib., Mi bskyod pa [Mi kyö pa]), immoveable as the adamantine vajra ), the three are ranked vertically, or at least on a slope. On the less auspicious left, Vajrapāi, with his entourage of fierce goddesses, remains inferior to the two embodiments of more primary Buddhist qualities. Their inequality means that one consecrated in the vajra family is entitled to perform fierce activities (coercing, destroying, and slaying), but not the beneficent ones, while those initiated into the gentler families are also entitled to perform the fierce activities in an emergency.

Bodhisattvas, not buddhas, the lords of the three families (Tib., Rigs gsum mgon po [Riksum gönpo]) are commemorated throughout the Himalayas wherever there is Buddhism, in wayside shrines, images, or a row of three stupaswhite for compassionate Avalokiteśvara, orange for wise Mañjuśrī, and black or blue-grey for powerful Vajrapāi. Most common are mai walls of piled-up flat stones carved with the mantras of the three bodhisattvas : o mai padme hū; o vāgīśvarī hū; and o vajrapāi hū. Later Tibetan historians retrospectively identified their incarnations in the three kings who promoted Buddhism in Tibet: Srong brtsan sgam po (Songtsen gampo, r. 627649/650); Khri Srong lde btsan (Trisong detsen, r. 755c. 797); and Ral pa can (Rälpachen, r. 815838), respectively Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, and finally the fierce Vajrapāi. Many people have been, and continue to be, recognized as incarnations of Vajrapāi, and of the others. While Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara inspired philosophers and enduring Mahāyāna cults, Vajrapāi was going right to the top.

Five Buddhas

Tantric Buddhism is the Vajrayāna, the "Vajra Way." Naturally, the vajra holder will be most powerful in such an eponymous religion. In earlier Kriyā and Caryā Tantras, the vajra family had been inferior, but in the Yoga Tantras, the family system operates with theoretical equality, graphically expressed in the maala 's horizontal layout.

In the Yoga Tantra Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha (Congregation of the truth of all the buddhas, seventh century ce at the latest), Vajrapāi comes to the fore. With the main Vajradhātu Maala, his family is paramount, pervading all others. The buddha family's Vajradhātu Maala is scarcely distinguished from the vajra family's Trailokyavijaya Maala, where the expertise remains slaying and destroying. Here are located the non-Buddhist deities that Vajrapāi has forcibly converted, the achievement that gave him everlasting fame in Indian and Tibetan Tantric Buddhist institutional literature.

Without a single Tantric Buddhist origin myth, alternative stories compete. The literary winner is the account of Vajrapāi's defeat of Maheśvara Śiva. Many texts narrate Śiva's slaying and subjugation by Vajrapāi. Key is the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha's telling, translated in Snellgrove (1987, pp. 136140). Enlightened, Vairocana generates Vajradhara, from whom arises Vajrapāi to order Maheśvara into the maala. Śiva objects to obeying a mere yaka, but Vajrapāi threatens to destroy the whole threefold world (trailokya ). Even when reduced to a prostrate corpse and then resurrected, the proud god refuses to submit. Finally, Vajrapāi triumphs and stands with his right foot on Maheśvara, and his left on that god's consort, Umā. Thus is mythologized the assimilation of non-Buddhist traditions, mediated by Vajrapāi, who acquires a new title, Trailokyavijaya, "Conqueror of the three worlds."

In the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha, Vairocana had been in the center of the maala, but in the transitional Yoga/Yogottara Guhyasamāja Tantra (Secret union Tantra), the vajra family's buddha, Akobhya, takes the central position as the direct Sambhogakāya incarnation of Vajradhara. Vajrapāi's erstwhile synonym is now the sum of everything, and will be of supreme importance in the Tibetan tradition. In Yoganiruttara cycles the chief deities are all vajra family. Akobhya's emanationsHeruka, Hevajra, Savara, Yamāri, Vajrakīla, Buddhakapāla, and Mahāmāya are buddhas in the style of Vajrapāi, with Akobhya on their crown, blue, fierce, and personifications of vajra power.

Multiple VajrapĀis

Already before the plethora of Yoganiruttara wild buddhas, VajrapāIthe bodhisattva himselfhad multiple wrathful aliases in addition to Trailokyavijaya, conqueror of Śiva: these included Mahābala (great strength), subjugator of Māra and subject of the Mahābala Sūtra (dateable to between the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa and the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha ); Ucchuma (the "incinerator" of impurities); Kuali; "fierce" Caavajrapāi (Tib., Phyag rdor gtum po [Chagdor tumpo]); and four-armed Bhūtaāmara (Tib., 'Byung po'i dul byed [Chungpö dulched]), his spirit-subduing form. Many of these independent deities are still cultivated today in the Tibetan tradition. The triple practice of Hayagrīva, Vajrapāi, and Garua for the removal of obstacles, particularly nāga afflictions, reflects Vajrapāi's association with Garua, natural enemy to snakes and nāgas.


Given the wealth of identity-shifts Vajrapāi has enjoyed over the last 2,500 years, his iconography is manifold. From his late Mahāyāna phase on he is crowned with the vajra family buddha, Akobhya. Like Akobhya, he is blue, the color of space or the night sky, or black like thunderclouds or kohl. Vajrapāi wears the tiger skin that represents hatred harnessed (elephant skin signifies ignorance, and a flayed human skin, desire). The tiger skin's phallic stripes make it male, while the consort wears a female leopard skin. Yet, Vajrapāi is rarely depicted in union. The emphasis on wrath seems to have precluded passion, however explicitly phallic the vajra is in Tantric Buddhism (where it is regularly united with the female "lotus"). Usually Vajrapāi wields only a vajra (five- or nine-pronged) in his raised right hand, while his left is held at the heart in the threatening (tarjanī ) gesture. His left hand can hold the noose to bind enemies, actual or metaphorical, or a bell. In more wrathful manifestations, the big-bellied dwarf has three eyes, a skull crown, and a snake necklace, and he steps towards the right to show his energy, standing on a sun disk on an open lotus, orange hair flaring upwards as if on fire. His bodhisattva form is peaceful, holding a lotus with vajra atop in his right hand, and making the gesture of generosity with his left.

VajrapĀi's Commentary

In addition to all his ahistorical history, Vajrapāi was also the name of one of the three "bodhisattva " authors who interpreted Tantric Buddhism in the light of the Kālacakra Tantra (Wheel of time Tantra) in the late tenth century ce. His Laghutantraīkā (Commentary on the shorter Tantra) analyses the first ten and a half stanzas of the Cakrasavara Tantra (Wheel of bliss Tantra).

See Also



Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. London, 1999.

Bischoff, Frédéric A. Contribution à l'étude des divinités mineures du bouddhisme tantrique: Arya Mahabalanama-Mahayanasutra, tibétain (mss. de Touen-Houang) et chinois. Paris, 1956.

Cicuzza, Claudio. The Laghutantraīkā by Vajrapāi: A Critical Edition of the Sanskrit Text. Rome, 2001.

Davidson, Ronald M. "Reflections on the Maheshvara Subjugation Myth: Indic Materials, Sa-skya-pa Apologetics, and the Birth of Heruka." The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 2 (1991): 197235.

Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York, 2002.

Himalayan Art. "Buddhist Deity: Vajrapani." Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation. Available from: A collection of paintings, bronzes, and prints of Vajrapāi, from across the northern Buddhist world, ninth to twentieth centuries ce.

Lalou, Marcelle. "Four Notes on Vajrapani." Adyar Library Bulletin 20 (1956): 287293.

Lalou, Marcelle. "A Fifth Note on Vajrapani." Adyar Library Bulletin 25 (1961): 242249.

Lamotte, Étienne. "Vajrapå-i en Inde." In Mélanges de Sinologie offerts à Monsieur Paul Demiéville, pp. 113159. Paris, 1966. Translated as "Vajrapå-I in India." In Buddhist Studies Review 20, 1 (2003): 130, and 20, 2 (2003): 119144.

Linrothe, Rob. Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. London, 1999.

Mayer, Robert. "The Figure of Maheshvara/Rudra in the rNying ma pa Tantric Tradition." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21 (1998): 271310.

Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan Successors. 2 vols. Boston, 1987.

Stein, Rolf A. "La Soumission de Rudra et autres contes tantriques." Journal Asiatique 283 (1995): 121160.

Isabelle Onians (2005)