- 18th century
Striding fearlessly above the waves of the ocean of blood that symbolizes the world with its endless rounds of birth, sickness, aging, and death, Simhavaktra looks forward with her wide, bulging eyes, her large lion nose, and mouth filled with long, sharp fangs. Her hair looks like a mass of writhing snakes, and her forehead is deeply lined and bulges with frightful protuberances. Simhavaktra means "lion-faced." She has the body of a woman and the head of a lion. She is closely associated with Palden Lhamo, (a wrathful protective goddess in Tibetan Buddhism) and also appears as a Tantric goddess in her own right. Like other Tibetan tantric goddesses, or dakinis, Simhavaktra reflects the Hindu cult of Kali, the death goddess. Simhavaktra is naked, demonstrating that she is free of all worldly conventions and concerns. Her cape is fashioned from a human skin. This is a sign of her yogic powers.
Simhavaktra is a major guardian or protective goddess in Buddhism, who counters all threats and dangers that could harm living beings in general, and those engaged in Buddhist practices in particular. Her special power is to mirror negative forces back to their sources. In the center of the body of the 18th-century Tibetan bronze is an eight-spoke wheel of Dharma (dharmachakra). This wheel, covering Simhavaktra's navel region, represents her ability to catch the harmful forces of evildoers, transform them into something beneficial, and reflect them back. Rather than harm the evildoer, the Dharma wheel rectifies their patterns of thought. In her right hand is a crescent-shaped ritual flaying knife (kartika) with a half vajra (thunderbolt) handle representing the skillful means of the Dharma to cut off all misconceptions and erroneous thoughts. Simhavaktra is therefore worshipped as a goddess of great compassion who frees beings from the cognitive errors that are the ultimate source of all their own misery. Simhavaktra, like all wrathful Buddhist deities, uses her powers not to kill or harm the evildoer, but rather to vanquish the true enemy, the erroneous and afflictive state of mind (greed, anger, ignorance, etc.) that is the cause of their harmful behaviors.
Robert Warren Clark, "Simhavaktra" in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 169.
Anne Bromberg, DMA unpublished material, 1998.
- Simhavaktra's gruesome attributes including her cape of human skin and skull cup of blood reflect the tradition of Indian yogis making their abodes in the remote and fearsome charnel ground where the corpses of the deceased were deposited. Here they could engage in their meditations undisturbed by the affairs of the ordinary world. They would stretch skin on skull cups and use them for hand drums (damaru), carve human bones for ornaments, and use cured skin for blankets and capes. The use of such discarded human remains is an ancient custom of Indian and Tibetan yogis. It facilitates a constant awareness of impermanence and the steady approach of one's own death. It increases sympathy and compassion for all beings, and makes it easier to look beyond the things of the world to the spiritual goals of the next life.