Recognizing the “Guardians of the directions”: the lokapalas – Part 2

- through Fabrice Groult

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Second part of our file devoted to the symbolic sovereigns of the cardinal spaces, with a zoom on the iconography of the guardians in the sphere of Tibetan Buddhism.

Faced with the diversity mentioned, the current representations within the temples of the Himalayan sphere (1), seem to be the subject of a relative homogeneity. The sources are those of tradition: Gagyab in his Tibetan Religious Art (2) observes that he did not find works detailing the attributes of the four guardians and, indeed, our descriptions are the result of the observation of paintings and statues of temples, of interviews with monks and painters , and a few articles in exhibition catalogues.

First of all, the representations of Vaisravana and lokapalas, represented as early as the 3nd century BCE in Bharhut, do not seem to appear in the sphere of Tibetan culture until the 1290th or 1364th centuries. Indeed, in the latter case, and as observed by Gilles Béguin (XNUMX), the lokapalas and in particular Vaisravana are absent from the ancient paintings and sculptures of Tabo (Spiti, late XNUMXth-XNUMXth century), Alchi (valley of the 'Indus, XNUMXth century), from Sumda (Zanskar, XNUMXth-XNUMXth century). At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, Bu-ston (XNUMX-XNUMX) wrote an important treatise on Vaisravana, and the Tibetan princes of Phyong-rgyas (late XNUMXth – mid-XNUMXth century) won a battle over Chinese troops, “helped” by Vaisravana and his entourage of eight horsemen; following this victory, the princes had a painting executed which, according to Tucci, would serve as a model for later representations.

Nowadays, the first contact we have with the guardians of the directions, represented in frescoes or in sculptures, is when we enter the verandas of the temples; they impress with their colors, their imposing size, their martial and often menacing appearance. They are usually accompanied by a wheel of life (bhava-cakra) and, less frequently, by a whole series of paintings which include the four brothers in harmony (the four friends), the eight auspicious signs, the six of long life, sacred diagrams, the ancient cosmology of the Abhidharmas, etc.

Their presence in the verandas corresponds to their mission of protecting the teachings of the Buddha and the faithful against any external danger. They are also found framing the statues of the sixteen (or eighteen) arhats, inside chapels or temples of monasteries. Finally, represented on tangkhas or on flags, they are placed at the four corners of the places where retreats and meditations are organized.

Virudhaka possesses poisonous skin, which is why he is ready to draw his sword to ward off anyone who tries to approach him.

Another tradition is that they travel around the world to monitor the progress made by the disciples: “On the eighth, fourteenth and fifteenth days of each month, they travel the four cardinal directions. They verify that monks and followers of the Buddha's teachings are making progress; they control compliance with the rules of the Vinayas; they give benevolent attention to all who respect, preserve and propagate the teaching of the Buddha”. (4)

They are connected to a sense organ. Dhrtarastra's ears distil poison from the sources of sounds reaching his ears; also, to avoid this poisoning, his ears are covered by drooping ruffles of his helmet. Virudhaka possesses poisonous skin, which is why he is ready to draw his sword to ward off anyone who tries to approach him. Virupaksa's gaze is poisoned; so he must gaze fixedly at the stupa he holds in his left hand without averting his eyes. Finally Vaisravana has a poisoned breath according to the following legend: in charge of defending the devas against the attacks of the jealous gods, the asuras, he metamorphoses into a naga with poisoned breath, which allows him to defeat the asuras; since then, and having regained his royal condition, he keeps his mouth shut so as not to destroy the creatures.

They are also related to an element: Dhrtarastra is in charge of earth, Viradhaka of water, Virupaksa of fire, and Vaisravana of air; they are also responsible for a season, Dhrtarastra, spring; Virudhaka, summer; Virupaksa, winter; and Vaisravana, autumn.

Extension of their function as protectors of teachings for the well-being of populations and their kings: the Suvarnabhassottamasutra

Several texts from the first half of the XNUMXst millennium cite the guardians of the directions and their functions. One of them, the Suvarnabhassottamasutra (or Suvarnabhasasutra), assigns to the four great kings the mission of protecting kings, their countries and their people through the practice of Buddhism.

This sutra "of the excellent golden light", originating in India, was probably written from the 703th century; it was translated into Chinese by Dharmaksema in the XNUMXth century, by Yijing in XNUMX, then into Tibetan at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, as well as into many other languages ​​such as Korean, Japanese, Khotanese, Mongolian...

Le Suvarnabhasasutra devotes an entire chapter (6) to the action of the four great kings, Vaisravana, Dhrtarastra, Virudhaka, and Virupaksa. They rule the devas, nagas, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras and mahoragas. They are assisted by twenty-eight great generals with their hundreds of thousands of yaksas. By means of magical emanations and blessings, they will incite monks, kings, lay people to listen to and teach the sutra "of the excellent golden light".

In this chapter, Gautama Buddha announces to the four guardians of the directions all the benefits that can be derived from the reading and veneration of this sutra.

The lokapalas will protect the right way of practicing the Dharma, they will be victorious in the battle between the gods and the titans, they will bring peace and happiness to monks, nuns, men and women who have taken lay vows, and, on a personal level, they will “will obtain enthusiasm, strength, great power, acquiring even more splendour, glory and excellence”.

The countries of the leaders who want to go to war against the kings who listen to and venerate this sutra will be victims of internal conflicts, troubles, epidemics, disturbances.

The list of benefits brought by the lokapalas to the kings who will govern the eighty-four thousand cities of our continent of Jambudvipa (7) according to the precepts of this sutra is impressive.

“You will protect their palaces, their subjects, their cities, their provinces, their countries; you will help them, support them, defend them; you will remove obstacles and bring them peace and happiness. You will dispel fears, oppressions and troubles… The years will be fertile, joy will reign and the earth populated by men will be a pleasant place. Seasons, months, moon changes and years will proceed normally. Day and night, planets, constellations, moon and sun will follow their course without disruption. The rains will pour down on the earth at the proper time. Sentient beings will become rich in goods and harvests, their happiness will increase, and jealousy will disappear from their hearts.” The profits of the inhabitants of Jambudvipa will exceed their present existence since "most of them will be reborn in the fortunate states of the superior worlds".

In partnership with the Institute of Buddhist Studies (

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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