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I've always found the imagery of Vajrapani (a wrathful Bodhisattva) very evocative. I'm reading a little bit about him and how his form is to do with energy and power in service of the Dharma so he is of course a positive figure.

Vajrapani

But I'm just wondering if anyone knows about the history of this figure and wrathful deities like him. Is he from the Tibetan culture and does he predate Buddhism coming into that country. Also is he a deity that perhaps had negative connotations (a demon perhaps) that Buddhism has co-opted?

  • Possible duplicate of What is a wrathful Buddha? – ChrisW Aug 29 '15 at 22:55
  • The Wikipedia article (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajrapani) contains quite a bit of detail, including this -- "Vajrapāni is one of the earliest Dharmapalas and the only Buddhist deity to be mentioned in the Pāli Canon". I can't vouch for the scholarly accuracy of this article, of course. – David Lewis Aug 29 '15 at 23:17
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    @chrisw I did review this question and I think it is related but not a dupe. Robin was asking about the religious significance of wrathful forms but I am asking about their historical development – Crab Bucket Aug 30 '15 at 6:31
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Longchen Rabjam's Precious Treasury of Philosophical Systems (tr. Richard Barron) says:

Traditionally, Manjushri is renowned for having compiled the tantras of enlightened form, Avalokiteshvara the tantras of enlightened speech, and Vajrapani the tantras of enlightened mind, qualities, and activity.

A footnote fills this out:

In the sutra teachings, ''the lords of the three families" -- Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani -- are among the eight great bodhisattvas in the retinue of every nirmanakaya buddha such as Shakyamuni. In the ... context ... of the Vajrayana teachings, they are emanations who are not separate from the expounder of the tantras, whether Buddha Shakyamuni or the primordial buddha (usually referred to as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara, who expounded tantras considered to predate the historical Buddha). In the tantras, these emanations are part of the naturally manifest retinue that appears in the sambhogakaya realm of Akanishtha. In the sutras, these bodhisattvas are peaceful manifestations; in the Vajrayana, the emanations may appear in either peaceful or wrathful forms.

So, no negative connotations I'd say! I know Vajrapani appeared in Sanskrit first because he's mentioned in Ch. 10 of 'Way of the Bodhisattvas,' by the 8th century Indian buddhist monk Shantideva. Wiki mentions the earlier sutra that may have been Shantideva's reference (see link in comment).

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One source in which the history of Vajrapāṇi is discussed is the book Indo-Tibetan Buddhism by Snellgrove. He traces him to the Pāḷi figure Vajirapāṇi, and tries to show how we developed. Another useful source for Vajrapāni and wrathful deities generally, is the book Ruthless Compassion by Rob Linrothe, which focusses on changes in Indian art over time.

There's a long gap in the story from Pāḷi to Tantra. It took many centuries for the worship of bodhisatvas to develop (ca. 4-5th centuries CE) and more centuries again for images of them to start appearing.

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David Lewis is correct that Vajrapani is mentioned in the Pali Canon. It's hard to tell though, because his name is just translated rather than being left alone. He is mentioned in DN 3, the Ambaṭṭha Sutta. The relavent passage is:

Now at that time the spirit who bears the thunderbolt stood over above Ambaṭṭha in the sky with a mighty mass of iron, all fiery, dazzling, and aglow, with the intention, if he did not answer, there and then to split his head in pieces. And the Blessed One perceived the spirit bearing the thunderbolt, and so did Ambaṭṭha the Brahman. And Ambaṭṭha on becoming aware of it, terrified, startled, and agitated, seeking safety and protection and help from the Blessed One, crouched down beside him in awe, and said: ‘What was it the Blessed One said? Say it once again!’

https://suttacentral.net/en/dn3

If we look in the Pali this paragraph goes:

Tena kho pana samayena vajirapāṇī yakkho mahantaṃ ayokūṭaṃ ādāya ādittaṃ sampajjalitaṃ sajotibhūtaṃ ambaṭṭhassa māṇavassa upari vehāsaṃ ṭhito hoti: “sacāyaṃ ambaṭṭho māṇavo bhagavatā yāvatatiyakaṃ sahadhammikaṃ pañhaṃ puṭṭho na byākarissati, etthevassa sattadhā muddhaṃ phālessāmī”ti. Taṃ kho pana vajirapāṇiṃ yakkhaṃ bhagavā ceva passati ambaṭṭho ca māṇavo.

https://suttacentral.net/pi/dn3

It is spelled vajirapāṇī just because in Pali you aren't allowed to have an r immediately after a j at the end of a syllable, so an I is added to make it easier to pronounce. The meaning is the same, and it means one who bears the Vajra (thunderbolt)

  • The comments about the spelling here are misleading, including the rationale for the change from Sanskrit, which was part of a sweeping change in how the vernacular was pronounced in the central Ganges Valley.. Though the reference to Ambaṭṭa Sutta is accurate. – Jayarava Aug 30 '15 at 12:16
  • Yes but one of the most significant vernacular changes in the case of Pali are the change in the Sandhi rules, which become a lot more complex, primarily involving assimilations, deletions, and the addition of vowels, and it is through this type of change that the Sanskrit Vajra became Vajira in Pali. Although in this case it is also rather likely that it is based on the original Vedic Sanskrit Vajira in the sense of thunderbolt and in Hybrid Sanskrit it was backtranslated as Vajra, in both cases the cause of the discrepancy is a difference in Sandhi rules. – Bakmoon Aug 30 '15 at 16:14
  • Sorry, but vajira/vajra is nothing to do with sandhi. It's a more fundamental change in way in which Prakrits treat conjunct consonants - rendering them as geminates or as here inserting a vowel to separate the sounds. Pāḷi sandhi rules are not "a lot more complex", they are much simpler if anything, though they are less regular and less rigorously applied. "original Vedic Sanskrit Vajira" - got a reference for this? Rgveda spells it vajra! – Jayarava Aug 30 '15 at 16:45
  • I've consulted Mayrhofer's "Concise Etymological Sanskrit Dictionary" and vajra is definitely the Vedic spelling. It's cognate with Avesta vazra. – Jayarava Aug 30 '15 at 17:04
  • What I mean by Pali Sandhi being more complex than that of Sanskrit is that more consonant clusters are not permitted, and as a result, a lot more words end up being affected by Sandhi in much messier ways. – Bakmoon Aug 31 '15 at 0:46

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