Sources differ in regard to where and how Mahakala became a Tantric Tibetan deity. The worship of Dharmapalas in Tibet is said to have began in the eighth century when Padmasambhava defeated the malevolent Tibetan deities and forced them to take an oath promising to protect the Buddhist faith. (Britannica) Mahakala’s name is associated with gods from many related traditions, however most consistently he is associate with the Indian deity, Siva, converted to Buddhism. Siva is the Indian god of destruction, however like Mahakala is a compassionate, beneficient deity who annihilates Avida (ignorance). (Musée) Bhairava is the form of Siva that inspires dread and terror. It is in this form that he overcomes time (kala) and becomes the one transcending time (mahakala). (Mishra)
It is believed by many that Tantric Buddhism arose from Tantric Hinduism. This occurred when the bodhisttva Gautama stood on the bodies of Siva and his wife as a sign of his conversion to Buddhism. The conversion of many deities followed. Kali, known as Bhadamramo in the Tibetan Tantra, is Mahakala’s sister. She was delivered to Tibet from the Indian patriarch Naropa to the Tibetan patriarch Marpa when Marpa chose Kali as his protector diety. The worship of Mahakala in Tibet followed that of his sister. He had been an important protector of Tantric Hinduism but after Gautama’s enlightenment he vowed to protect the Dharma.
Mahakala comes in different forms, each having originated from a different person and having different meanings. The two armed Mahakala shown in the tanka here (Dharmavajra.) was transformend from the first Buddha, Ardhalma or Adi-Buddha, and is worshiped for his spiritual wisdom. The four armed Mahakala was transformed from the Sambhogakaya Buddha. The six armed Mahkala comes in two forms, one white and one black. His white form, shown here (Dharmavajra) helps one attain riches and a long life. His black form was transformed from Avalokitesvara and helps people conquer any obstacles on their path to enlightenment. (Chen)
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Although Mahakala in one of the most popular Tibetan deities, the practices associated with him are known only by those monks who have been ritually empowered and initiated in order to perform them. As a protector deity, Mahakala’s ritual is a medicinal, curing ritual; one that is used to protect against harm or illness. The Mahakalatantra, the ritual of Mahakala, puts emphasis “on gaining the powers of health, wealth, and wisdom, through the utilization of medicinal substances.” (Stablein. 18) His wrath and power give him the ability to enter a person’s body and neutralize evil and disease, similar to an antidote. His power also allows him to be an agent of psychological transformation. In the early tantra, psychopharmacological agents are mentioned but not in later Tibetan ritual texts. In later texts only a minimal amount of substances are called for.
In the many texts concerning this right, emphasis is placed on different aspects of Mahakala. Some texts emphasize his role as protector in order to give a sense of security, while others put more emphasis on his ability to destroy. For example, one text gives a mantra for blessing drinking water. If the water is blessed one hundred times with this mantra it protects a pregnant woman, ensuring her an easy birth. In contrast, a different text provides for a ritual known as the “dagger ritual” in which a triangular iron box containing an effigy made of roasted barley is dramatically cut with a dagger. The effigy may represent an enemy or general parts of life such as stress and disease that impair a person on his path to enlightenment. Clearly in the first example Mahakala’s “guard dog” persona is accentuated, while in the second, his destructive abilities are utilized. (Stablein)