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6. Buddhist Deities

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Because its philosophy and practice are so difficult, Buddhism began as an elite religion. But Mahayana Buddhism did not forget the masses, and offered them an easier road to salvation: praying to buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gods.

Though Buddhism adopted large numbers of deities from other religions, it is essentially atheistic. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900) praised Buddhism as a religion that had done away with the concept of God. Buddhist deities do not by any means represent the highest existence; they are thought of as standing below the Buddha, protecting the Buddha and the Dharma. Gods are above the realm of human beings, but the buddha-realm is above all existences, and it is human beings, not the gods, that are able to reach this state. It is not easy, for it takes enormous amounts of religious training, but theoretically human beings are able to surpass the gods.


We saw in chapter 2 that most Buddhist deities were adopted from Hinduism. Examples include the Four Great Kings, fairly low-ranking gods who guard the four sides of Mount Sumeru, and the thirty-three gods dwelling on the peak of that mountain.

The most important god of the latter group is Indra, a valiant warrior deity who was in ancient times the most popular of all the Indian gods. The Aryans worshiped Indra when they invaded India in about 1,500 B.C.E. and proceeded to conquer the indigenous population. When Indra was brought into Buddhism, though, his status was much reduced and he became merely a protector of the Buddha. This Indra is often called the heavenly lord Sakra (Sakro devanam indrah), which was translated into Chinese andjapanese as the compound ten-taishaku, literally, the “powerful one” {shaku) that is “lord” {tai) of the “gods” {ten).

Indra’s origin appears to be linked with the Roman deity Jupiter. In ancient India people prayed to Indra for rain, believing he would smite the evil nagas (serpents) that prevented rain from falling. Indra is a personification of lightning, and his weapon is the vajra, a thunderbolt. Vajra was translated into Chinese as a compound that means “diamond pounder.” It is depicted in sculpture as an extremely simple weapon. A relief from northwestern India shows Sakyamuni attended by a god carrying this weapon, who is called either Vajra-pani or Vajradhara, both forms meaning “wz/ra-wielding god.” This god is a form of Indra, protector of the Buddha.

Dwelling in the sky above Indra is Yama, who later became the feared lord of the underworld. Above Yama’s abode is the Tusita heaven, from which Sakyamuni was believed to have descended when he was born in India. It is now the dwelling place of the bodhisattva Maitreya, the future buddha who is now waiting to appear, examining the state of our world. There are many Yama and Tusita deities living with their wives and children. The deities in yet higher heavens, the Nirmana-rati and Para-nirmita-vasavartins, are comparatively senior gods, who find satisfaction in fulfilling their meager desires.

All of the deities mentioned so far belong to the realm of desire and are superior to human beings only in their greater strength, not because they are any less captive to desires. Above the realm of desire is that of form, from the lowest Brahma heaven to the uppermost Akanistha heaven, each with its gods. Above that is the realm of formlessness, with its four heavens. Though we have translated deva as “god” and “deity,” there is a vast difference between the Indian gods and the modern Judeo-Christian idea of a deity. The Buddhist being that is closest to the Judeo-Christian notion of God is the Buddha. We cannot, though, in the narrowest sense of the word, call the Buddha a god.

In Judaism and Christianity, it was God who created the universe, and he exists in contradistinction to his creatures. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is the universe itself, and there is no distinction at all between the universe and the Buddha. Whereas Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic, Buddhism is pantheistic; that is, everything is god. The deity is everywhere—in each of us, in the smallest particle of dust, in the farthest corner of the universe. This idea was expressed in China by the phraseplants and earth may all attain buddha-hood.” A pantheistic god is an unlikely object of faith, and there is even the possibility that pantheism may, at one end of its spectrum, verge into atheism (though pantheism allows religious emotion and atheism proceeds rationally, without regard for human sentiment).

At first, the Buddha meant Sakyamuni alone. Even today that remains true in countries that follow the Theravada (a type of pre-Mahayana) tradition. At a very early period in Buddhist history, however, there arose the idea of the seven buddhas of the past: Vipassin (in Pali; Vipasyin in Sanskrit), Sikhin (Sikhin), Vessabhu (Visvabhu), Kakusandha (Krakucchanda), Konaga-mana (Kanakamuni), Kassapa (Kasyapa), and Sakyamuni (Sakyamuni). It is interesting to note that though Sakyamuni is the most recent of the buddhas, he is still considered a buddha of the past. As Mahayana developed, the buddhas of the past grew in number. In the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha (ca. 100 C.E.), eighty buddhas are said to have made their appearance while Amitabha Buddha was still training (the Chinese translation puts this number at fifty-three). The names of the seven buddhas of the past o not appear in this sutra, perhaps indicating that the eighty buddhas belong to an even earlier period.

If we can conceive of buddhas of the past, we can also consider buddhas of the future, the most important of which is Maitreya, who will appear in this world 5,670,000,000 years after Sakya-muni’s death. He is known as the “Future Savior,” and some scholars think that this belief exhibits the influence of Messianic thought, which flourished in western Asia, including Iran, in the first and second centuries C.E.

As time went by, the numbers of buddhas thought to exist increased, and one thousand buddhas were described as inhabiting each Kalpa of Adornment of the past, each Auspicious Kalpa of the present, and each Kalpa of the Constellations of the future. The Sutra of the Auspicious Kalpa (Bhadrakalpika-sutra, trans, into Chinese ca. 300 C.E.) lists the names of the thousand buddhas of the Auspicious Kalpa, starting with Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa, Sakyamuni, and Maitreya. Only four of those listed were said to have appeared in the past, however.

At this moment, we live in the time between Sakyamuni’s death and the coming of Maitreya. It thus seems correct to say that there is no buddha at present, although there are one thousand buddhas of the present kalpa. The idea of buddhas of the present may have grown out of a feeling of lack among some followers of Buddhism when they learned of the divinities of other religions, such as Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrianism and Jehovah of Judaism and Christianity. Amitabha, described in the next section, is such a buddha.

Three Bodies Doctrine

The profusion of buddhas, including those like Bhaisajya-guru (the Buddha of Healing) and Mahavairocana, made some kind of systematization necessary. What emerged (ca. 2d or 3d century C.E.) was the “three bodies” (tri-kaya) theory, which describes the Buddha as having three bodies: the body of manifestation

(nirmana-kdya), the reward body (sambhoga-kaya), and the absolute, or Law, body (dharma-kaya).

The Law body is the Buddha as Truth itself, the fundamental buddha beyond shape or form, purely abstract. The Law body is the source of other bodies; it takes form in the manifestation and reward bodies. Mahavairocana is the Law body. Followers of the Japanese Shingon sect, though they recognize many different buddhas, understand Mahavairocana to be the supreme existence and venerate this buddha.

The body of manifestation, also called the transformation body, is the Buddha in human form. Pre-Mahayana Buddhism does not accept that Sakyamuni was anything but human, only that his abilities were vasdy superior to those of an ordinary person. In Mahayana Buddhism however, Sakyamuni, the Buddha as Truth, is believed to have manifested himself in human form, and as such is termed “body of manifestation.”

A good example of the reward body is Amitabha. Unlike Sakyamuni, this buddha is not a historical person, but a manifestation of the Law body. Amitabha appears in only some sutras, and made a number of vows to save living beings (including one that promised salvation to any person who called his name). He practiced as a bodhisattva in life after life until he eventually attained buddhahood. Such a buddha is called a “reward body” because his body results from eons of religious practice. Those unable to gain enlightenment through their own efforts call upon Amitabha with all their might. Another example of the reward body is Bhaisajya-guru, the Buddha of Healing, who also made vows and has his own pure land. His statues are distinguished by the fact that they carry a medicine pot (perhaps originally the mani gem) in the left hand.


Bodhisattvas are beings undergoing religious training to attain buddhahood not only for themselves but also for other people; it s hard to say whether we should call them human beings or gods. Before becoming a buddha, Sakyamuni spent many existences as a bodhisattva, sometimes as a prince, sometimes as an elephant or a deer, but at all times manifesting his spirit of sacrifice and compassion. He trained in this way for three asamkhya kalpas. Many J a. takas relate the stories of his former lives.

Avalokitesvara. One of the most famous bodhisattvas is Avalokitesvara (Kuan-yin in Chinese; Kannon in Japanese). There are many theories about the meaning of this name. It was translated into Chinese using characters meaning “sound observer,” that is, one who listens to sounds, or more specifically, to the cries of the suffering in the world. A second translation, Kuan-tzu-tsai, means “one who sees everything without hindrance.” In the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hrdaya-sutra, ca. 5 th 6th century C.E.), Avalokitesvara looks down on the world from on high, equipped with many powers and abilities.

The bodhisattva Avalokitesvara appears not only in the Pure Land sutras but also in the famous Lotus Sutra (Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, ca. 1st century C.E.). He is popular throughout Buddhist Asia and is strongly associated with the geographical spread of Mahayana Buddhism. The sculptures in Cave 90 at Kanheri, north of Bombay, depict Avalokitesvara protecting devotees from shipwreck and wild beasts. The Chinese priest Fa-hsien (340?-420? C.E.) himself was shipwrecked twice on his return journey to China and called on Avalokitesvara for deliverance from danger. Avalokitesvara also came to be thought of as having his own Pure Land, called Potalaka. Local versions of this name are to be found in many places in China, Korea, and Japan. For example, Mount Futara (also called Nikko) in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, is a form of Potalaka, and in Lhasa, Tibet, the palace of the Dalai Lama is called Potala.

Statues of this bodhisattva are of many kinds. The usual form, the Holy Avalokitesvara, is human in appearance. Another form is the Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara, with ten small heads like a crown on top of an ordinary head, perhaps representing the various characteristics of the bodhisattva or symbolizing the bodhisattva’s ability to see all those who are suffering in the world below. The Unfailing Fishing Line Avalokitesvara carries a rope (pasa) looped in his hand; this he casts to capture those who are evil and to pull in those who are suffering. In this he is unfailing (amoghd). The Thousand-armed form expresses the idea that Avalokitesvara saves numerous suffering beings. Paintings excavated in Central Asia show one thousand arms, as does a wooden statue at Toshodai-ji in Nara. Due to the difficulty of carving, statues having forty arms are more common, each arm being said to represent twenty-five abilities. The Thousand-eyed form is a similar concept and symbolizes the bodhisattva’s encompassing power of salvation; the eyes are depicted on the palms of the hands. The Horse-headed Avalokitesvara appears in sculpture as a human body and head with a horse’s head on top. The origin and meaning of this form is not clear.

All these depictions are male, but female depictions also exist, such as the Kuan-yin called the wife of Ma-lang and the Cundi Avalokitesvara. Ma-lang was a man whom Kuan-yin wanted to bring to the Buddhist faith. The bodhisattva therefore took the form of a woman, promising Ma-lang that she would marry him if he became a Buddhist. Because Avalokitesvara expresses compassion, there was a strong tendency to link the image of the bodhisattva with that of a woman rather than a man. Moreover, in the Near East there existed a religion of the mother goddess, and Buddhists wanted a deity with the same characteristics. The Indic word Avalokitesvara is a masculine noun, however, and people in India and Central Asia felt a certain reluctance to depict him in female form in sculpture; indeed, Avalokitesvara always wears a mustache in that part of the world.

In China and Japan there is no grammatical gender, so people did not feel the same resistance to portraying the bodhisattva as female. Gradually the feminine form grew more and more prevalent. In Japan, most people think of Kannon as being a woman, and yearn for her loving warmth. A work by the nineteenth-century Japanese painter Kano Hogai, entided Compassionate Mother Kannon, shows Kannon appearing above the clouds holding a staff in one hand, from the end of which dangles a thread. On the tip of this thread is a balloon-like object containing a baby. As the title indicates, the painting can be interpreted as a depiction of womanhood, and Kannon does have a woman’s form. Nevertheless if we look closely at the face we can see a mustache, which recalls the Indian and Central Asian traditions.

Maitreya. Second only to Avalokitesvara in popularity is Maitreya, whose name derives from maitri, meaning “benevolence.” His cult grew at about the same time as that of Avalokitesvara and perhaps even predates it. He is the Future Buddha, who now resides in the Tusita heaven. Later there arose the belief that it was relatively easy to reach the Tusita heaven and that even an ordinary person might hope to achieve the religious training necessary to go there. This supported the cult of those who sought rebirth in that heaven. Between the third and seventh centuries the cult was extremely popular in eastern Asia. Early in the fifth century, the Chinese priest Fa-hsien crossed the Pamirs on the way from China to India. Deep in the Karakoram Range he came across a large wooden statue of Maitreya. The local people told him that Buddhism had begun spreading outside India when the statue was erected. After Sakyamuni’s death it was therefore Maitreya who had the ability to spread Buddhist teachings. The Maitreya faith subse-quendy gained great popularity in China, and spread from there to the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Among the statues in the Horyu-ji Treasure House at the Tokyo National Museum, there are many figures of Miroku (Maitreya), depicted sitting with one leg resting on the other knee and the right hand raised, touching the chin. Around the eighth century, the Maitreya cult’s popularity waned, perhaps because of the rise of the Avalokitesvara cult. Bodhisattvas and Pure Land thought. Also competing with the Maitreya cult was that of Amitabha Buddha (Amida in Japanese). His statues are often shown accompanied by two attendants, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta. With the rise of Pure Land thought, people began to ask which cult, that of Amitabha or Maitreya, was the most effective for salvation, and to wonder if it would be better to be reborn in the Pure Land of Sukhavati or in the Tusita heaven. It was, in fact, a straightforward decision: whereas the Tusita heaven was merely one of many abodes in the realm of desire, with its lord not a buddha but a bodhisattva, the Pure Land of Sukhavati was a buddha-land where the defilements no longer existed, and its lord was a buddha. No doubt proponents of the Pure Land cult would have stressed that a place like the Tusita heaven was neither one thing nor the other; rebirth there did not preclude falling at some later time into the lower realms. In eastern Asia, the Maitreya cult gradually weakened, while that of Amitabha grew ever more popular.

Other bodhisattvas. Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, is depicted riding on a lion. Samantabhadra symbolizes Buddhist meditation and is shown riding an elephant. Though Brahma and Indra appear in early pre-Mahayana Buddhist carvings, Manjusri and Samantabhadra belong only to the later Mahayana tradition. Ksitigarbha is determined to deliver all the beings of the world from their suffering. Like Amitabha Buddha, he has undergone eons of religious training, but Ksitigarbha has appeared in this world without accepting buddhahood. He is usually depicted as a bodhisattva with a shaved head. Other bodhisattvas portrayed frequendy in Buddhist art include Suryaprabha (“sunlight”) and Candraprabha (“moonlight”), the attendants of Bhaisajya-guru; and Mahasthamaprapta, who symbolizes wisdom and is one of the attendants of Amitabha.

Because bodhisattvas are still undergoing religious training, living beings of this world may be called bodhisattvas. Asanga and Vasubandhu, great Buddhist philosophers of the fifth century, have been given the title of bodhisattva, as have Gyogi (668-749) and Nichiren (1222-82) in Japan.

Avatars. The idea of the temporary transformation (gouge or gongen in Japanese) of buddhas and bodhisattvas is a distinctive feature of Buddhism. For example, the universal Buddha Mahavairocana manifests himself in the form of Sakyamuni or Maitreya, and Avalokitesvara may appear in the eleven-headed form or in the form of Ma-lang’s wife, adopting whichever manifestation best suits the circumstances.

This idea appeared in Buddhism after the rise of Mahayana; it derives from the Hindu concept of avatars, or incarnations. Visnu, one of Hinduism’s chief deities, has ten incarnations, including a boar, a lion, and the Buddha. Because followers of Hinduism consider Sakyamuni to be an avatar of Visnu, they tend to view Buddhism as part of their own religion. The idea of avatars has been extremely effective in the spread of Buddhism from region to region, allowing Buddhism to absorb the gods of other countries as temporary manifestations of its own deities. The Japanese kami (nature gods and deified heroes) were thus declared to be avatars of particular Indian deities. For example, Hachiman, said to be the deified emperor Ojin, was identified as a great bodhisattva, a Buddhist avatar.

Female Deities

Eros (Cupid), is the god of love. Both Kama and Eros pierce human hearts with an arrow. So close are the parallels between the Greek and Hindu myths that one is led to believe that there must have been some direct western influence.

In Vedic times (1,000-500 B.C.E.), Sarasvati was a river personified by a goddess. The area of Pakistan in which five rivers flow is called the Punjab, which literally means “five rivers.” In ancient times, though, the region had a name meaning “seven rivers.” Sarasvati was one of the two rivers that dried up due to climatic changes. Later Sarasvati became the goddess of eloquence, wisdom, and music. In Japan she has become part of folk belief and is counted as one of the seven gods of fortune (the Chinese character for the zai component of her name in translation is expressed as “wealth” rather than “learning”). Her shrines, like the one at Enoshima in Japan, still tend to be found near water, befitting her origin as a river deity.

Hariti is invoked today for the health of children and for an easy birth. In India she was originally a demon who fed on small children. Legend says that grieving villagers appealed to the Buddha to deliver them from her, and so the Buddha hid one of her ten thousand children from her. Mad with grief, Hariti searched frantically for the missing child and then, unable to find it, went to the Buddha for help, believing him omniscient. “Here you are,” said the Buddha, “grief-stricken because one of your ten thousand children is missing. How do you think the villagers, who have only two or three, feel when they lose one?” Hariti then awoke to the extent of her wrongdoing and became a deity that protected children.

Carvings found in the Punjab depict Hariti with a kind face, seated on a chair surrounded by five or six children and holding another to her breast, with other children in her lap, or surrounded by children playing at her feet. Many statues show her holding a pomegranate, a many-seeded fruit that symbolizes fertility. Pomegranates are grown widely in the dry heardand of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which suggests that the Hariti cult originated somewhere in northwestern India.

Another female deity that should be mentioned is Marici, literally “mirage,” a goddess who entered Buddhism from Hinduism. She rides before the sun, and is a personification of the sun’s rays. She also personifies the “wave of vapor,” that is, a wave of heated air on a summer street. Perhaps because of this, in Japan she became the protector-goddess of samurai, who wanted to conceal themselves like transparent vapor.


Before we leave the Indian deities I would like to touch upon Mahakala, the “great black one.” I-ching, a Chinese priest who visited India in the seventh century, commented that a wooden statue of the “great black deity” (Daikoku-ten in Japanese) stood beside the dining pillar in the temples, that it was continually blackened with oil, and that the deity had a protective function. From early times in Japan Mahakala was revered as a deity of good luck, apparently confused with an ancient native kami called Okuninushi no mikoto. (This confusion doubdess arose because both names can be pronounced “daikoku,” according to alternative readings of the Chinese characters.) It became the custom to call the central pillar of the house the daikoku-bashira (hashira, “pillar”). I think, despite the different explanations that appear in Japanese dictionaries, that this expression derived from the pillar upon which Daikoku-ten was venerated.

Why this god is black we do not know. It may be significant that Marco Polo, writing in the thirteenth century, remarked that in southern India black was revered and white despised.1 When the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent, they made a distinction between themselves, whom they thought of as white, and the aboriginal inhabitants, whom they considered black. The Hindi term vama, meaning “color,” is the common Indian term for the system of four castes that divides society, and so it may be thought that the caste system is the result of white supremacy. By the time Marco Polo arrived in southern India, however, it appears that the old way of thinking had been turned about, and black had come to be thought superior. The name of Krsna, the best known of Hindu deities, means “black,” as does that of the grim goddess Kali, “the black one.” Perhaps Mahakala shares the same tradition.


Protectors of Buddhism. There are a large number of demigods in Buddhism, which could be defined as either demons or gods, for they share characteristics of both. The demigods have traditionally been grouped into eight kinds of beings that protect Buddhism: devas, nagas, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, and mahoragas. Carvings of these can be seen, for example, at Kofuku-ji in Nara, Japan.

We have dealt already with devas; they are of course not demigods but gods.

The naga is a personified snake, in particular the cobra, the object of a widespread cult in India. Throughout the world the snake is linked with the bringing forth of water, perhaps because snakes are found near water or because their movements resemble a twisting river.

Yaksas tend to be wild, demonic beings; they were originally tree deities and spirits of the villages and woodlands. Though they are thought of as frightful in aspect, female yaksas are depicted in Indian sculpture as beautiful and erotic. In Japan they seem to have terribly cold hearts, lending meaning to the popular Japanese expression “the face of a bodhisattva and the heart of a yaksa. ” In China and Japan yaksas were almost always shown as terrifying beings.

Gandharvas are Indra’s retainers, and they are represented as celestial singers and musicians who feast on perfumes.

Asuras are the demonic enemies of the gods (devas'). Asura shares the same derivation as ahura (“lord”) of ancient Iran. Interestingly, Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Zoroastrianism, means “radiant lord,” whereas daevas in Persian means “violent and amoral destroyers.”

In Hinduism, the garuda is a mythical bird, the personification of the eagle and the steed of Visnu. Indian sculpture portrays the garuda as an eagle, but in Central Asia it is depicted as a human body with an eagle’s wings, talons, and beak. In China and Japan the image of the tengu (“heavenly fox”) accreted to that of the garuda, resulting in portrayals of a being with wings and a long nose, the latter perhaps a misrepresentation of a beak. It is also possible that the depiction of the garuda was influenced by the gigaku and gagaku masks of the Nara and Heian periods in Japan, which include representations of karura (garuda] and suikoo (“drunken barbarian kings”) with large noses.

Kimnaras are a type of bird. The Sanskrit word means “Is it human?” revealing the half-human, half-bird nature of this being. It does not exhibit the garuda?, fearsome aspect but is gentle in appearance. The deity of music, the kimnara derives from the same source as the Greek goddess of the moon, Selene. In Japan this type of being is called a kaiyobinga (kalavihka in Sanskrit).

The mahoraga (“boa”) is a personification of a large snake.

Raksasas. Other demonic demigods include the raksasas, demons and devils connected with the island of Sri Lanka. In the Rama-yana (Romance of Rama), one of India’s two great epics, they appear as inhabitants of that island. A modified form of that legend entered Buddhism, relating that there lived in Sri Lanka five hundred female raksasas, who captured and ate shipwrecked merchants.2 This perhaps hints at the existence somewhere in India of a tribe that ate human flesh. Herodotus mentions a tribe of Indians called the Callatiae (Kallatiai), who ate their parentsdead bodies, and another called the Padaei (Padaioi), who killed the sick in order to eat their meat before it was destroyed by illness.3 This is a good example of the way some people are viewed as demons because of their different customs and manners. Other demigods. Another monster is Kumbhanda, a demon with testicles as huge as a waterpot. So big are they, in fact, that he is able to use them as a seat, and he can only walk if he holds them up out of the way. I was inclined to think of this as pure fantasy until I saw some photographs of enlarged testicles caused by a parasite, a condition called elephantiasis. It is a disease prevalent in hot countries, including southern India. A colleague commented on the similarity of this aspect of Kumbhanda with the traditional ceramic depiction of the raccoon dog, the tanuki, as having enormous testicles. The Kumbhanda of India and the tanuki of Japan may both be fantastic representations of an actual condition.

Kumbhira is the personification of the crocodile and thus is associated with water. He came to be regarded as a water deity, the protector of shipping. He is enshrined in Japan as Kompira and is familiarly known as Kompira-sama. Kompira’s most famous shrine is found in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku. Since the Meiji period (1868-1912) this shrine has been formally called the more Shinto-sounding Kotohira Shrine, the result of government efforts to separate the closely entwined Buddhist and Shinto traditions.

Gods of the Esoteric Tradition

Esoteric Buddhism, the last stage in the religious development of Buddhism in India, appeared suddenly in India around the latter half of the seventh century C.E. One of its features is ultrasymbolism, in which minor differences in the position of the fingers symbolize one or another great truth. In the same way, single letters or syllables (bija, “seed”) symbolize particular deities. Another feature of esoteric Buddhism is affirmation of worldly desires. Early Buddhists endeavored to escape from the defiled world and the stained self. Esoteric Buddhism, however, declares that worldly desires are emancipation, perhaps because everything is a manifestation of the cosmic Buddha. Thus in this type of Buddhism appear deities who are possessed of anger, desire, passion, and other intense feelings. Furthermore, esoteric Buddhism grew under the enormous influence of Hinduism, with the result that virtually all the Hindu deities entered Buddhism at that time.

Acala. Acala is depicted surrounded by flames and has a fierce countenance. His mind is immovable (acala), and he consumes evil with his fire. Some paintings and statues of Acala show his body as red and others, yellow or blue. There thus arose a custom of referring to Acala in terms of color, such as the Red Acala or the Yellow Acala. Still other color designations are made in terms of the color of his eyes, such as the Black-eyed Acala or the White-eyed Acala.

Raga Vidyaraja. Raga means “red,” and symbolizes the blood running hotly through a body overwhelmed by desires, and so has the connotation of being stained by the passions. Pre-Mahayana Buddhism taught people to cast away the passions and defilements and to seek enlightenment. Mahayana brought changes in this doctrine, and by the time esoteric Buddhism held sway, the defilements were considered to be in themselves enlightenment, which meant that this life of ours, full to bursting with defilements and passions, is itself the enlightened state. This idea came from Hindu tantrism.

Pre-Mahayana Buddhism, however, taught that a life stained by the passions is a life steeped in delusion, and that it therefore must be purified. It is Raga Vidyaraja who performs that cleansing. He is generally portrayed with a red body, symbolizing both the defilements themselves and their purification. The epithet vidyaraja, shared also by Acala, belongs to those divinities who express enlightened wisdom through a passionate aspect.

Ganesa. Ganesa, with an elephant’s head and a human body, often appears in the form of embracing male and female figures, an expression of enlightenment through the unity of male and Mahayana Buddhism was influenced by the Hindu idea that the Absolute (Brahman, the universe or world essence) is identical with the Self (Atman). To an enlightened person the two are one, for with enlightenment comes the loss of all egotistic consciousness. We usually consider the world and the self to be in opposition, the self working as the subject of action. Such an attitude is, however, a delusion. Those who wish to arrive at this truth must undergo various kinds of religious training. Some practitioners of Tantric (esoteric) Buddhism taught that the realm of true enlightenment could be reached through the unity of male and female. By means of the sexual act the practitioner could enter a state of rapture, losing all sense of self and so penetrating the truth of the oneness of Brahman and Atman. Ganesa symbolizes this idea.