1. Vajrapāṇi

Vajrapāṇi ("Vajra in his hand") is one of the earliest-appearing Bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna Buddhism. He is the protector and guide of Gautama Buddha and rose to symbolize the Buddha's Power.

Vajrapāṇi is extensively represented in Buddhist iconography as one of the earliest 3 Protective Deities or Bodhisattvas surrounding the Buddha.

Each of them symbolizes one of the Buddha's virtues:

1) Mañjuśrī manifests all the Buddhas' wisdom,

2) Avalokiteśvara manifests all the Buddhas' immense compassion,

3) Vajrapāṇi protects Buddha and manifests all the Buddhas' power as well as the power of all 5 Tathāgatas.

Vajrapāṇi is one of the earliest Dharmapālas of Mahāyāna Buddhism and also appears as a deity in the Pāḷi Canon of the Theravāda school.

He is worshiped in the Shaolin Monastery, in Tibetan Buddhism and in Pure Land Buddhism (where he is known as Mahāsthāmaprāpta and forms a triad with Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara).

Manifestations of Vajrapāṇi can also be found in many Buddhist temples in China, Taiwan and Japan as Dharma Protectors guarding monastery and temple gates.

Vajrapāṇi is also associated with Acala, where he is serenaded as the Holder of the Vajra.

Vajrapāṇi is a compound word in Sanskrit in which 'Vajra' means Diamond or Thunderbolt and 'ṇi' means "in hand".

2. Forms

Vajra in hand

Vajra in hand

In Human form Vajrapāṇi is depicted holding the Vajra in his right hand. He is sometimes referred to as a Dhyāna-Bodhisattva, equivalent to Akṣobhya, the 2nd Dhyāna Buddha.

Āchārya-Vajrapāṇi is Vajrapāṇi's manifestation as Dharmapāla, often seen sporting a 3rd eye, ghanta (bell) and pāśa (lasso).

He is sometimes represented as a Yidam with 1 head and 4 hands in a form known as Nīlambara-Vajrapāṇi, carrying a Vajra, and treading on personage lying on snakes.

Mahāchakra-Vajrapāṇi, also a Yidam, is depicted with 3 heads and 6 arms, carrying a Vajra and snakes whilst treading on Brahma and Shiva.

He is often in union with his consort in yab-yum.

Acala-Vajrapāṇi is depicted with 4 heads, 4 arms and 4 legs carrying a sword, a lasso and Vajra, treading on demons.

Another depiction is in the form with the head, wings, and claws of Garuḍa.

Vajrapāṇi's expression is wrathful, and is often symbolized as a Yakṣa, to generate "fear in the individual to loosen up his dogmatism."

His outstretched right hand brandishes a Vajra, symbolizing analytical knowledge (jñāna-Vajra) that disintegrates the grasping of consciousness.

Although he sometimes wears a skull crown, in most depictions he wears a 5-pointed Bodhisattva crown to depict the power of the 5 Dhyāna Buddhas (the fully awakened state of the Buddha).


The mantra Oṁ Vajrapāṇi Hūṁ Phaṭ is associated with Vajrapāṇi.

His Seed Syllable is Hūṁ

3. Legends

Vajrapāṇi guarding Buddha Śākyamuni

Vajrapāṇi guarding Buddha Śākyamuni

In early Buddhist legends, Vajrapāṇi is a minor deity who accompanied Gautama Buddha during his career as a wandering mendicant.

In some texts he is said to be a manifestation of Śakra, King of the Trāyastriṁśa Heaven of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology and God of Rain as depicted in the icons of the Gandharva.

As Śakra, it is said that he was present during the birth of Tathāgata.

As Vajrapāṇi he was the god who helped Gautama escape from the palace at the time of his renunciation.

When Śākyamuni returned from Kapilavastu he is stated to have assumed 8 forms of devas who escorted him.

According to Xuanzang (602 – 664), the Chinese monk and traveller, Vajrapāṇi vanquished a large serpent at Udayana.

In another version it is stated that while the Nāgas came to worship the Buddha and hear his sermons, Vajrapāṇi assumed the form of a Bird to deceive them so that they were not attacked by their deadly enemies, the Garuḍas.

At the Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, Vajrapāṇi dropped his Vajra in despair and rolled himself in the dust.

Conversion of Ambaṭṭha

The Pāli Canon's Ambaṭṭha Sutta, which challenges the rigid nature of caste system, tells of one instance of him appearing as a sign of the Buddha's power:

At the behest of his teacher, a young Brahmin named Ambaṭṭha visited the Buddha.

Knowing the Buddha's family to be the Śākya clan, who are Kṣatriya caste, Ambaṭṭha failed to show him the respect he would a fellow Brahmin.

When the Buddha questioned his lack of respect, Ambaṭṭha replied it was because the Buddha belongs to a "menial" caste.

The Buddha then asked the Brahmin if his family was descended from a “Śākya slave girl”. Knowing this to be true, Ambaṭṭha refused to answer the question.

Upon refusing to answer the question for a 2nd time, the Buddha warned him that his head would be smashed to bits if he failed to do so a 3rd time.

Ambaṭṭha was frightened when he saw Vajrapāṇi manifest above the Buddha's head ready to strike the Brahmin down with his thunderbolt.

He quickly confirmed the truth and a lesson on caste ensues.

4. Meaning

Vajrapāṇi is seen as a manifestation of Vajradhara and the Dhyāna Bodhisattva of Akṣobhya.

On the popular level, Vajrapāṇi is the Bodhisattva who represents the power of all the Buddhas just as Avalokiteśvara represents their great compassion, and Mañjuśrī their wisdom.

He is called the Master of Unfathomable Mysteries who upholds truth even in adversities of darkness and ignorance.

According to the Pañca-Viṁśati-sāhasrikā- and Aṣṭa-sāhasrikā-prajñā-Pāramitās, any Bodhisattva on the path to Buddhahood is eligible for Vajrapāṇi's protection, making them invincible to any attacks "by either men or ghosts"

5. Appearances and identifications

In Cambodia

In Cambodia, 3 monasteries dated to 953 AD are dedicated to the worship of the triad of the Buddha - Prajñāpāramitā and Vajrapāṇi; image of Vajrapāṇi with 4 arms is venerated in one of these monasteries.

Also, in niches are standing images of Vajrapāṇi carved with 4 or 2 arms on each of the 4 faces of monoliths found in Western Cambodia.

In Gandhāra

As Buddhism expanded in Central Asia and fused with Hellenistic influences into Greco-Buddhism, the Greek hero Heracles was adopted to represent Vajrapāṇi.

In that era, he was typically depicted as a hairy, muscular athlete, wielding a short "diamond" club.

Buddhaghoṣa (5th century) associated Vajrapāṇi with the deva king Indra.

Some authors believe that the deity depicted is actually Zeus, whose Classical attribute is the thunderbolt.

In India

During the Kuṣāna Empire (1-3rd century) Gandhāra art depicted Vajrapāṇi's images in which he is shown primarily as a protector of Śākyamuni and not in the role of a Bodhisattva.

In the Indrasālaguhā (inscriptions in the Cave of the Indrasāla tree) scenes, mountains form a part of his environment where his presence during the conversion of the Nāga Apalala is shown. In these depictions he is shown wearing exclusive Western attire and always in the presence of other deities.

The reliefs in this art form depict Vajrapāṇi always present in the scenes where Buddha is converting people; his presence is shown when the Buddha confronts the opponents of the dharma like Mara before his enlightenment.

Scenes of Śākyamuni competing with the heretics are also part of this art tradition.

Scenes of Buddha using the Vajra of Vajrapāṇi as the "magic weapon" to perform miracles and propagate "superiority of his doctrine" are also common.

In the western groups of caves in Aurangabad, Vajrapāṇi is depicted as a Bodhisattva with his Vajra in a tableau, a votive panel of sculptural composition in which he is in a standing posture (the only extant figure) over a lotus to the left of a Buddha in a Dhyāna-āsana.

In this panel he is adorned with a tall crown, 2 necklaces, a snake armlet and holds the Vajra in his left hand, and resting on a scarf tied across his hips.

In the eastern group of caves in Aurangabad, Vajrapāṇi is carved as a commanding person in the form of a huge Dvārapāla along with Avalokiteśvara.

Vajrapāṇi image is flanked by a small attendant. He carries Vajra, his luminous weapon on the left hand, which rests on a scarf tied across his hip.

His right arm is bent forward -perhaps he held a lotus like his companion Avalokiteśvara.

Both the Bodhisattvas guarding the entrance to cave are carved wearing princely headdresses (crowns).

In Indonesia

In Indonesia, Vajrapāṇi is depicted as a part of triad with Vairocana and Padmapāṇi.

A famous 3 metres tall stone statues of Vairocana, Padmapāṇi, and Vajrapāṇi triad can be found in central chamber of Mendut temple, located around 3 km east from Borobudur, Central Java.

Both seated Padmapāṇi and Vajrapāṇi, regarded as the guardian of Buddha Vairocana, are depicted as handsome well-built men with serene expression adorned with exquisite crown and jewelleries.

The statues are the fine example of the 9th century Central Javanese Śailēndra art, which influenced the Buddhist art in Southeast Asia, including Śrīvijaya art of Sumatra and Malay Peninsula (Southern Thailand).

In China

Vajra warriors General Hēng & General Hā

Vajra warriors
General Hēng & General Hā

In China, Vajrapāṇi, known as the "Vajra-holding god", is widely venerated in his dual manifestation as the "Vajra warriors" or "Benevolent Kings", 2 muscular guardian deities that usually stand at each side of the Shānmen (Gate of 3 Liberations) in Buddhist temples and monasteries.

The statue on the left side is traditionally named "Guhyapāda", while the one on the left is traditionally named "Nārāyaṇa", both of them are Dharmapālas in the Chinese Buddhist Canon.

In Chinese folk religion, they are also known as "Generals Hēng and Hā", so named because the right statue usually has its mouth open to pronounce the sound "a", while the other usually has it closed to utter the sound "Hēng".

The 2 sounds are the start and end sounds in Sanskrit, symbolizing the basis of sounds and bearing the profound theory of Dharma.

Guhyapāda, in particular, is also considered one of the 20 Devas or 24 Devas in the Chinese Buddhist pantheon.

In the Shaolin tradition, Vajrapāṇi is venerated as an avatar of Avalokiteśvara who manifested to protect the monastery during the Yuan dynasty.

In Japan

In Japan, Vajrapāṇi is known as "the Vajra-wielding god", and has been the inspiration for the Niō (Benevolent Kings), the wrath-filled and muscular guardian gods of the Buddha, standing at the entrance of many Buddhist temples under the appearance of frightening, wrestler-like statues.

He is also associated with Acala (Fudō-Myōō); the mantra for Fudō-Myōō references him as the powerful wielder of the Vajra.

In Japan, though he is not a very popular form of statue worship, he is frequently depicted in diagrams (Maṇḍala).

In Nepal

In Nepal, Vajrapāṇi is depicted holding a Vajra supported on a lotus with its stem held in the right hand while the left hand is shown in a posture of "charity and argument".

His paintings are in white colour.

In Tibet

Vajrapāṇi with 8 hands Tibetan Buddhism

Vajrapāṇi with 8 hands
Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibet, Vajrapāṇi is represented in many fierce forms.

Some of the notable ones are:

Vajrapāṇi-Āchārya (Dharmapāla) in a human form with only one head with a 3rd eye with hair raised and crowned by a skull with fiery expression.

His neck is adorned with a necklace of snakes, and with waist band made of tiger skin covered with skulls.

Stepping to the right, his lifted hand holds a Vajra.

When painted in blue colour the image is encircled by flames with images of small Garuḍas;  Nīlambara-Vajrapāṇi with one head, with a 3rd eye, a crown made of skull with 4 or 6 arms and in some cases with untidy hair bedecked with Vajra and snake.

2 hands are crossed to the breast in mystic posture (mudra), the 2nd right hand is lifted up and carries a Vajra.

In Acala-Vajrapāṇi form he is shown with 4 heads, 4 arms and 4 legs adorned with symbols of Vajra, sword, lasso and skull cup (kapala) and trampling over demons;

Mahāchakra -Vajrapāṇi is a form with 3 heads and a 3rd eye, and with 6 arms and 2 legs.

In the Thunderbolt-Wielder form known as "snake charm form" to protect from snake bites, he is depicted sitting on a lotus throne carried by peacocks.

He is followed by 2 Bodhisattvas - Sarvanivāraṇaviṣkambhin, Effacer of Stains, and Samantabhadra, the Entirely Virtuous One.

His adornments consist of a tall crown and snakes coiling his arms and ankles.

In a painted form, usually in white colour "crossed-Vajra" is held to the left raised above the accompanying Bodhisattvas but when painted in blue colour the left hand holds a double Vajra;

his Garuḍa form is with wings and claws or with human head with a beak or head with wings fully spread (his painted form is in blue colour). He may be trampling over a demon or dead Nāga (snake).

In some images he is shown carrying a sword, a bottle in the shape of a gourd, a chopper or hands held in a prayer mode.

6. Vajrapāṇi and Maheśvara

A popular story tells how Vajrapāṇi kills Maheśvara, a manifestation of Śiva depicted as an evil being.

The story occurs in several scriptures, most notably the Sarva-Tathāgata-tattva-saṁgraha and the Vajrapāṇi-abhiṣeka Mahā-tantra.

The story begins with the transformation of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra into Vajrapāṇi by Vairocana, the cosmic Buddha, receiving a Vajra and the name "Vajrapāṇi".

Vairocana then requests Vajrapāṇi to generate his adamantine family in order to establish a maṇḍala.

Vajrapāṇi refuses because Maheśvara "is deluding beings with his deceitful religious doctrines and engaging in all kinds of violent criminal conduct".

Maheśvara and his entourage are dragged to Mount Meru, and all but Maheśvara submit.

Vajrapāṇi and Maheśvara engage in a magical combat, which is won by Vajrapāṇi.

Maheśvara retinue become part of Vairocana's maṇḍala, except for Maheśvara, who is killed, and his life transferred to another realm where he becomes a Buddha named Bhasmeśvaranirghoṣa, the "Soundless Lord of Ashes".

According to scholars, the story "echoes" the story of the conversion of Ambaṭṭha:

It is to be understood in the context of the competition between Buddhist institutions and Śaivism.