Beginner's guide to South Asia
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Mahakala, Protector of the Tent
This is a thangka, done in central Tibet, about 1500 A.D.. The central deity, Mahakala, emerges out of this halo of flames, a demon from your worst nightmare. Within Buddhism, Mahakala means the “great dark one” or “blackness.” You would have been in a dark temple with a candle, and seen portions of this deity emerging from the darkness. He stands on a corpse baring his fangs, and holding a knife and a skull full of blood and gore. Surrounded by this host of demons that dance brandishing weapons, while dogs, jackals and crows devour the flesh of dead bodies. I find it shocking that you have this host of respectable monks sitting on the edges. Texts tell us that a student who does not respect the Buddha is eaten up raw by Mahakala. He is a protector of the monastery and of Buddhist teaching, and capable of destroying obstacles that hold them back from attaining enlightenment. The most deeply seated desires and attachments that bind us to this world: greed, lust, but more to the point, ego. And this idea of severing one’s ego is linked to the cutting off of these heads. It’s almost life size, and would have had great impact simply because of its scale. There’s a very careful under-drawing that’s proportionally correct; if the image was improperly constructed, the meditator would be psychically damaged. In a sense it’s this idea of giving this realm that’s beyond our understanding real form. It not only grabs my attention and pulls me into this alternate reality, but it plays very much with issues that I find threatening. That tension is very sublime. You are looking into his eyes, and you’re confronted with his aggression that triggers all of your anxiety and fear in the world. And yet at the same time, there is something reassuring that a deity as powerful as this is going to be on your side. He’s a fierce ally. That sense of dread or that sense of the unknown gives him great gravity and meaning.