A bronze figure of Mahakala
Tibet, 17th century
Bronze with polychrome
6 in. (15 cm.) high
Toronto Collection, with Spink and Son, circa 1995.
Acquired by the current owner from a public sale, Toronto, 10 June 2013.
Christie’s, New York, 14 March 2017, Lot 209.
HAR No. 35867
“In Sanskrit Maha translates to great and Kala to time/death. Mahakala is the primary Buddhist Dharmapala and is respected in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. All names and colors are said to melt into Mahakala, symbolizing his all-encompassing nature, and lustrous black skin. He is seen as the absolute reality. Shadbhuja, the six-armed Mahakala, is a favorite amongst the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Shadbhuja is recognized as the fierce, powerful, and wrathful embodiment of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara. Mahakala has many highly symbolic attributes, amongst them: The five-skull crown: This can be seen in every manifestation of Mahakala and symbolizes the transmutation of the five negative afflictions, known as kleshas, into the five wisdoms. The first klesha, ignorance (moha) becomes the wisdom of reality. The second klesha, pride (mana) transforms into the wisdom of sameness. The third klesha, attachment (raga) becomes the wisdom of discernment. The fourth klesha, jealousy (irshya) becomes the wisdom of accomplishment. Lastly, the fifth and final klesha, anger (dvesha) turns into mirror like wisdom. Six arms: The Shadbhuja form’s most unique and identifying feature is its six arms, which are representations of the six perfections (shad-paramita). The first perfection is generosity (dana-paramita), the second morality (shila- paramita), the third peace (shanti-paramita), the fourth vigor (virya-paramita), the fifth meditation (dhyana-paramita), and lastly the sixth, insightful wisdom (prajna- paramita). These perfections are practiced extensively throughout the course of a Bodhisattvas training, and their completion is an enormous accomplishment. In each of the Mahakala’s six arms is a unique and symbolic accoutrement. In the primary left hand of Mahakala is a skull cap (kapala) filled with minced remains of enemies to Dharma. This is referred to as the “heart-blood” of his enemies, and represents the five sense offerings. In the primary right hand of Mahakala is a crescent shaped chopper (katrika) or curved knife, which corresponds to the shape of the skull cap so it can be utilized for making the “mincemeat”. The chopper is a representation of detachment from samsaric existence. Within the secondary right hand lies a damaru, an hourglass-shaped drum which arouses the mentally-clouded from their ignorant state, putting them back onto the path of Dharma. The sound which emanates from the damaru is supposed to be the same as that which manifested all of existence. A rosary of dried skulls adorns the uppermost right hand; this symbolizes the perpetual activity of Mahakala on a cosmic scale, as rings are inherently continuous. The secondary left hand holds a noose, whose function is to lasso those straying from the divine path of Dharma. The skin of an elephant is held tight across the back of Mahakala in his upper left hand, symbolizing the ability to overcome delusion. Leg Posture: Aside from variations in the number of hands and skin color, Mahakala also has distinguishing variations in leg posture. The left leg being outstretched while the right is bent at the knee symbolizes accomplishments for others, and for himself, respectively. Underneath Mahakala lies a crushed elephant headed man holding a kapala offering in his right hand. The deity being crushed under Mahakala symbolized the overcoming of our primal, instinctive, and brute animal urges. Although these urges are violent and wild, they contain vast and productive energy, that when mastered and contained is integral for self-development and realization. The symbolism of elephants representing animal instinct stems from Tibetan folklore, which explains that dreaming of a herd of elephants is a sign that instinctive and irrepressible forces have been kept at bay for too long, and will soon be released. Another interpretation of the deity being crushed beneath Mahakala is that the elephant headed man is in fact Ganesh, with a flower offering in his left hand, and skull cap in his right. This crushing of a Ganesh is an aggressive and commonly used technique employed in Tibetan bronze sculpture in order to promote Buddhism while belittling Hinduism. The sun disc Shadbhuja Mahakala is seen standing on represents his illumination of knowing, in the darkness of ignorance. The lotus base on which the disc rests is a signifier of undefiled purity. Blazing fire is common theme with Mahakala, often shown in his eyebrows and flaming hair. The raw and primal energy fire represents his ability to consume and destroy all neurotic mental states. The three eyes of Mahakala signify his ability to see the past, present, and future. The fact that they are wide eyed show that he is involved deeply with current affairs. Mahakala’s powerful body is adorned with ornaments, fresh severed heads of those opposed to the way of enlightenment, sacred Brahmanical threads, and a snake. The writhing serpent is a metaphor, as not unlike the elephant, snakes represent primordial energy. Mahakala wearing the snake tame around his neck shows that he has tamed and harnessed these powerful emotions, using its energy for spiritual achievement rather than being impeded by it. Across the top of Mahakala’s back is a flayed elephant skin, and around his waist draped between his legs the flayed skin of a tiger.