Shiva and Tibetan Buddhism

Shiva as Nataraja

On Friday night, a thought came to me: “What if the iconography and depiction of Shiva and that of Tibetan Buddhist deities are linked?” I thought about the imagery, iconography, and depiction of the Buddhist deities in Tibet, Nepal, and the Himalayas, is inspired by Shiva.

If you want to know why, take a look at this Himalayan artwork.

Amaravajra Devi

As you notice, this deity is surrounded by a ring of fire, sports a third eye, wears animal skins, and tramples upon diminutive figures representing ignorance in his divine, ecstatic dance, just as Shiva, in his fiery cosmic dance, tramples the dwarf of ignorance, sports a third eye, wears animal skins, and dances in fire. The deities also wield tridents, like Shiva does, though they often have more arms and weapons. The garland of heads also takes a cue from Kali, the goddess who is often seen as Shiva’s wife.

You can also see this spirit of the Nataraja in fiercer deities.

An assembly of wrathful deities, featuring Mahakala at the centre. Fittingly enough, Mahakala is a Tantric Buddhist form of Shiva.

Heruka, also known as Chakrasamvara, is a good example of some symbolism of Shiva. Chakrasamvara’s name translates to “Supreme Bliss of the Wheel”. Shamvara, or Shambara, means ecstasy, the bliss that is the result of Buddhist Tantric practice, and it is related to an epithet of the Hindu god Shiva, who is addressed as Shambo, usually translated to mean Auspicious One. And Shiva’s moon adornment is said to appear on Heruka’s topknot, and in his activity form he wields a trident.

Heruka (a.k.a. Chakrasamvara)

You can argue that, since the deities and their dance is inspired by Shiva, that there is Tantric influence here, especially Tantric influence that comes from Hinduism. One can understand as Buddhism was taught in India and places like Tibet and Nepal, and Buddhist gurus and saints often travelled to Tibet and brought their ideas with them, which would probably have included some Hindu traditions and concepts. And Buddhism tended to incorporate various cultural and regional concepts, traditions, and ideas as it spread far and wide across Asia.

I think it is very fitting that Shiva resonates in Tibetan Buddhism, and makes sense, given the idea of spiritual power and the destruction of ignorance resonates in the deities.

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