You may be horrified by the images you see in this exhibition. Monstrous figures, garlanded with freshly severed heads, gorge on human hearts. Flayed human skins, pocked with blood and fat, are worn as garments. Hideous mounted crones plunge through seas of blood. Wrathful deities are ubiquitous in Himalayan art, but what are we to make of these fearsome beings?
Dramatic coloring, exaggerated features, and actively posed figures give the works particular visual power. Although the featured deities are demonic in appearance, almost all are considered protectors of one type or another. They range from guardians of the individual person to protectors of a place, a monastery, or a community. They are capable of bestowing wealth and health, or reflecting the nature of the enlightened mind. Ultimately, “wrathful” deities symbolize one’s own inner powers to overcome obstacles.
This exhibition probes the paradox of compassionate ends through fierce means. Three kinds of beings with fierce aspects are distinguished:
Dangerous Protectors are typically early nature spirits associated with a specific mountain, lake, or animal species, or other primal forces, that were loosely absorbed into the fringes of the Buddhist pantheon. According to tradition, these spirits were subdued by powerful teachers, perhaps only partially so. Notoriously unpredictable, they are treated with respect tinged with fear.
Enlightened Protectors are wholehearted supporters of the greater good of those who petition them. Unlike the Dangerous Protectors, who are more limited in what they can do, Enlightened Protectors offer material as well as psychic benefits, protecting spiritual aspirants during times of vulnerability, nourishing religious communities, and safeguarding whole schools of Buddhism. Mahakala (The Great Black One) and Yama Dharmaraja (Death, the King Protector of the Law of Cause and Effect), in their many different forms and varieties, are the two who have perhaps inspired the most paintings and sculptures.
Wrathful Buddhas are understood to be totally enlightened Buddhas, even though they do not look like the traditional robe-clad figure of a monk. They take on terrifying forms in order to subdue the most tenacious, deeply rooted, and powerful inner and outer demons. Ultimately, their images are of the enlightened mind itself.
In Himalayan art, wrathful qualities do not convey demonic identity, but wrath is directed against the enemies of enlightenment. Thus, many deities have both a peaceful and a wrathful form, with neither necessarily “truer” than the other. One emphasizes compassion, and another emphasizes wisdom or power, but both are aimed at the same goal.
This exhibition was organized by the Rubin Museum of Art, New York City.