This study investigates the iconographies and functions of Mahākāla, a Buddhist deity featured in paintings, sculptures and other types of images throughout Asia. Artifacts representing the deity and his offerings are collected from China, Japan, India, Nepal and the Tibetan cultural sphere, both in published books and in slides from the Huntington archive at The Ohio State University. Firstly, this study categorizes Mahākāla images according to physical differences and textual descriptions. It also reexamines existing identifications of the Tibetan figures, since previously published catalogues often contain generic or misidentified descriptions.
Secondly, the study locates the textual descriptions on which the iconography is based. These texts include the Buddhist canon as well as iconographic compendia. Finally, it analyzes the functions and practices of worship associated with Mahākāla.
The diversity of Mahākāla's iconographies and functions can be understood through two broad themes: (1) localization and continuity, and (2) the multiple levels of worship from lay devotion to yogic practitioners.
In addition, the study analyzes how the deity has been localized in different cultural settings, rendering the images unique to particular regions. It shows that worshippers have categorized the deity in relation to their expectations, and frequently combined the images with their local beliefs. On the other hand, certain iconographic elements have remained consistent, epitomizing a persistent cultural continuity throughout Asia.
Mahākāla's diverse functions may be similarly understood by worshippers across time and regions.
While Mahākāla figures as a dharmapālaand benefactor in many contexts, interpretations of his function are closely related to the level of worshippers. While he serves as a benefactor to lay devotees, in another level, he has more esoteric functions for initiated practitioners.