The Wrathful Deities
I am drawn to the Hindu-Buddhist deities who express wrath, rage, horror, and anger—as tools for enlightenment. That is the essence of Tantra: the harnessing of the powerful, negative, corrosive emotions as fuel for liberation and release. The wrathful deities are fearsome and frightening, yet their purpose is to guide you towards enlightenment. Perhaps it is because as a young boy I was raised in southern India, surrounded by Hindu temples, gods, and minor deities. Perhaps it's because I perceive a truth and reality in Tibetan Buddhist (Tantric) psychology that is insightful and logical; the logic of the collective unconscious mind, even the soul, which carries forward from the basement floors of our selves into everyday life.
The wrathful deities are aspects of the peaceful deities—you could think of them as the "tough love" deities of enlightenment, who shock you awake if the meditative quiet of the peaceful deities hasn't done so. What does it take to wake you: a quiet tap on the shoulder, or a head slap? I admit I'm prone to needing a head slap. Life can distract me all too easily, and I lose focus.
The wrathful deities are also protectors. In Japanese Buddhist lore, there are wrathful-seeming temple guardians at the gates of every major temple. These are the fudo, protectors, whose angry and violent ways were won over by the Buddha's teachings. Now they turn their scary visages outwards, ensuring the peace and sanctity of what lies within. They keep the demons out. In Balinese Hindu-Buddhism, there is a belief that demons can only travel in straight lines; so the entrance to the temple always has a blocking wall, or a maze, which humans can dance around, but which prevents demons entry. And the demons who have been converted to the side of the light stand on either side of the deflecting walls, further keeping the sacred precincts safe and whole.
All of this innately makes sense to me. Perhaps it's my childhood in India that makes it so. Perhaps it's the logic of Jungian psychology, which affirms the reality and power of those shadow forces within us that have such deific power, and who, via the work of integration and self-knowledge, become allies rather than adversaries. If you are afraid of those aspects of your self that seem wrathful and filled with violence, if you try to deny them, they will come to own you, you will become the puppet of your own suppressed inner forces. We are all both angels and demons: the truth of human life lies in finding a balance.
"Buddha" means The Awakened One, and the underlying message of Buddhism has always been, no matter what form it takes: "Wake up!" There are avenues of peace, that involve meditation, prayer, and quieting the mind. There are avenues of action, non-violent at their core yet seemingly frightening and wrathful. The realization of Tantric Buddhism is that all these avenues work: they are all effective means. If one means does not seem to work for you, as an individual, there remain other means.
One of the Hindu deities that I feel closest to, whose attributes and story speak directly to me, is Ganesha. Ganesh is the Lord of the Crossroads, of travelers. He is Lord of Obstacles, who both removes spiritual and material obstacles from out path, and also places them there, if there is something to be learned from being blocked. He is the elephant-headed god, the scribe of lore and learning, the keeper of the gods' diaries. He is often seen as a cheerful figure, a laughing and humorous god with a playful sense of humor. It is easy to like Ganesh. For regular travelers, keeping a talisman or icon of Ganesh in your vehicle or travel bags is soothing.
The Hindu-Buddhist aspect of my personal, idiosyncratic spirituality tends to come forward when I'm dealing with my own personal psychological and spiritual crises. I have my own temple guardians, and keepers of hearth and home. Even the Hindus know that all the gods are emanations of some deeper Mystery. They are masks of god—for me, they are particularly easy masks of god to relate to. The peaceful deities are as much masks as the wrathful deities. Sometimes it's easier to relate to the wrathful deities when you feel wrathful yourself. You realize that rage is just another fuel for liberation, that there is nothing inherently bad about it. The effectiveness of wrath lies in where you apply it, where you direct it: you can turn it inward self-destructively, or you can direct it at the inner predators who need to be slain, so that the whole person may be freed and brought into the light. The peaceful and wrathful deities are emanations of each other, as well as of the silent and hidden divine godhead from which everything arises. The self can move back and forth between perceiving the necessity for compassionate action as something that soothes and something that is a yoke to be borne. Avalokiteshvara becomes Mahakala, who dissolves back into Kwan Yin. Each are mutual aspects of each other, once you realize that all are One.
For me, the wrathful deities serve as guardians of my own inner temple, as slayers of the inner predators that would lead me into unrelieved and terminal darkness, as teachers and reminders that I must be fierce and strong myself, whenever I am faced with those darker forces within the self. Perhaps eventually I will be able to face down the inner predators with the calm smile of a peaceful deity; yet for now, I am more often required to be the Warrior than the Buddha. Yet everything is change, and even the most stubborn among us may evolve. Those doors are always left open, guarded on either side by the converted aspects of our own wrath. The interior castle lies within.