The Vajrabhairava Tantra is attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha (6th century BCE). It is part of his transmission of the Tantras, which are complex esoteric teachings meant for the rare disciples capable of understanding and practicing them. The characteristics of fearsome divinities such as Vajrabhairava may be understood as connoting higher truths, but they must not be taken in a literal, concrete manner. This can be seen in the attributes of Vajrabhairava. He has thirty-four arms, most of which hold terrible weapons. His sixteen legs trample on a variety of humans, gods, and animals. His nine heads are ornamented with crowns of skulls, and some of his mouths have long, sharp fangs. His body is festooned with a long garland of freshly severed heads. He stands in Tantric union with his beautiful consort, the goddess Vajravetali, whose ornamentation is equally fearsome. A literal view would leave little room for understanding Vajrabhairava as a supreme manifestation of the Buddha’s wisdom, loving-kindness, and universal compassion. The deeper meaning involves the Buddhist conviction that loving-kindness and compassion are of little value unless they are guided by profound wisdom and backed by sufficient energy and power.
Vajrabhairava demonstrates that wisdom with the presence of Manjushri, the Buddhist god of wisdom, as the topmost of his nine heads. He demonstrates great energy and power in his physical appearance and in the variety of symbolic attributes he and his consort hold in their hands. Each weapon symbolizes a different technique to be developed in austere meditative practice and used to eliminate a specific obstacle to the ultimate liberation of living beings. He demonstrates loving-kindness and compassion in his limitless efforts to benefit living beings. All of this is set out in detail in the Vajrabhairava Tantra and its canonical commentaries.
This particular image was cast in several pieces that were gilded and assembled with interlocking parts. The body of Vajrabhairava and the lotus throne were cast hollow to allow for the required prayer and mantra scrolls and sacred objects to be sealed inside before the consecration ceremony that transformed the bronze object into a divine presence. In preparation for such a consecration, a monastic artist applies pigments to key parts of the image. In this case, the divinity’s hair must be orange-red, his tongue scarlet, and his fangs and teeth brilliant white. The final step is called “opening the eyes of the deity.” This is the most delicate procedure, as the eyes must be very lifelike, with white orbs, perfect irises of several colors, dark pupils, and lines of red along the eyelids and in the corners of the eye. Once the eyes are opened, the image is installed on the altar and is said to become an object of veneration and worship for gods and men, and an object of terror and trepidation for demons and ghosts.
Robert W. Clark, "Vajrabhairava," 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), 173.
- Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Met
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