Tibetan Mahakala Deity, Tibet 2012
Mahakala is a Dharmapala, a protector of religious law. He is always depicted as an extremely fierce and terrifying deity.His purpose is to help in overcoming negative obstacles on the path to enlightenment. A compassionate and wrathful deity, he appears evil like a demon, but functions more like a guard dog or guardian angel. His crown of five skulls represents the transformation of the five afflictions (greed, aggression, ignorance, pride, jealousy) into the five wisdoms.
The dharmapālas are shown in painting, in sculpture, and in masks used by dancers as scowling figures with a third eye and disheveled hair, wearing crowns of skulls and garlands of severed heads; they are depicted treading on human beings or animals, usually in the company of their female consorts. They are worshiped singly or in a group called the “Eight Terrible Ones,” which most commonly includes the following:
(1) ལྷ་མོ Lha-mo (Tibetan: “Goddess”; Sanskrit: Śrī-devī, or Kāla-devī), fierce city goddess of Lhasa and the only feminine divinity in the group;
(2) ཚངས་པ་དཀར་པོ་ Tshangs-pa Dkar-po (Tibetan: “White Brahmā”; Sanskrit: Sita-Brahmā);
(3) བེག་ཙེ་ Beg-tse (Tibetan: “Hidden Sheet of Mail”);
(4) ཡ་མ་ Yama (Sanskrit; Tibetan: གཤིན་རྗེ་ Gshin-rje), the god of death, who may be accompanied by his sister, Yamī;
(5) Kubera, or Vaiśravaṇa (Tibetan: རྣམ་ཐོས་སྲས་ Rnam-thos-sras), god of wealth and the only one among the eight who is never represented in a fierce form;
(6) Mahākāla (Sanskrit: “Great Black One”; Tibetan: མགོན་པོ་ Mgon-po);
(7) Hayagrīva (Sanskrit: “Horse Neck”; Tibetan: རྟ་མགྲིན་ Rta-mgrin); and
(8) Yamāntaka (Sanskrit: “Conqueror of Yama, or Death”; Tibetan: གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་ Gshin-rje-gshed).