In Vajrayana Buddhism, Vajrabhairava, also known as Yamantaka, is (1) a wrathful, buffalo-headed meditational deity (Tib: yi-dam) of the Highest Yoga Tantra class and/or (2) a dharma protector. Vajrabhairava is one of the principal three meditational deities of the Gelug school (Tib: gsang bde 'jigs gsum; the others are Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja). He is also one of the main yidams in the Sakya school where he comes in a variety of appearances (with different mandalas). In both schools Vajrabhairava is seen as the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom. In the other schools of Tibetan Buddhsim Yamantaka seems to be mostly revered as a protector. The (mostly secret and arcane) practices there involve different activities for various purposes. There are also some Yamantaka terma revelations in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools. From amongst the many lineages of practice to enter Tibet the main transmissions of Vajrabhairava were those of the two translators Ra Lotsawa and Mal Lotsawa. Although practiced early on in Tibet by the Sakya and Kagyu Traditions, it was Tsongkapa, founder of the Gelug Tradition, who instituted Vajrabhairava as the principal Gelugpa meditation practice.
In Sanskrit "Vajrabhairava" stands for 'Adamantine Terrifier'. Regardless which manifestation of Vajrabhairava you are looking at it he is always depicted as fear-inducing, scary, and intimidating. Not only is he terrifying to look at but - according to the Vajrabhairava Tantra - he also has conquered all evil spirits, including the Lord of Death, Yama. That's why he is also called "Yamantaka", the Slayer of Death. Depending on which manifestation of Yamantaka the Tibetans call him either gSin-rje-gsed or in the buffalo-faced aspect of Vajrabhairava rdo-rje 'jigs-byed. It seems that the term "Yamantaka" (and "Yamari") is used in a more general way than "Vajrabhairava" which is restricted to the buffalo-headed yidam of the Gelug and Sakya schools (see Lokesh Chandra). Sometimes the protector Kalarupa is called "Yamaraja" and comes as Outer, Inner, and Secret Yama- or Dharmaraja. In the Gelug school Yama- or Dharmaraja is part of the Vajrabhairava practice.
The Ngor Mandala collection of the Sakya tradition alone lists eight different forms/lineages of the blue/black buffalo-faced Vajrabhairava (which include the two Gelug ones) and four of red Rakta- or blue Krishna-Yamari (all without the buffalo head). All the former are yidams (=meditational deities) whereas Yamaraja (sometimes also called Dharamaraja) is a Dharma protector. Inner and Outer Yamaraja are blue/black, the Secret Yamaraja is red in color; Outer and Secret have buffalo heads, the Secret Yamaraja does not. There is also an emanation of Yamantaka (called Yamantaka orYamantakrt) in the Ten Wrathful Ones / Uncommon Protection Wheel in the Vajrabhairava and Guhyasamaja practices. Other emanations of Yamantaka appear as residents in the various mandalas (13-, 17-, 21-, and 49-Deity). They all embody the wrathful aspect of peaceful Manjushri; Yamnataka's consort, Vajravetali the wrathful nature of Saraswati.
According to the Ngor Mandalas which correspond to the 139 mandalas of the rgyud sde kun btus (= Collection of initiation texts, sadhanas, and explanations for those deities) the following individual variations can be distinguished:
In the context of this website we are focusing on the two main forms practiced as meditational deities in the Gelug school.
Yamantaka comes in two forms: (1) as Solitary Hero (Skt: Ekavira; Tib: ‘jigs-byed dPa’-bo gcig-pa), and (2) in union with his consort Vajravetali, called the "13-Deity Yamantaka" (because of the twelve more deities in his mandala; Tib: ‘jigs-byed Lha-bcu-gsum). The attributes of the main deity are the same in both forms.
The basic two-armed (=sahaja) form of Vajrabhairava is blue-black in color, with the face of an extremely enraged buffalo; two sharp horns, with the flames coming from their tips. He has three red, blood-shot eyes; his breath swirls from the anger-creased nose in black clouds; his jaws wide agape with the four sharp fangs bared; the tongue flickering like lightning; the orange hair, eyebrows, and moustache bristling upward like the fire. The feet and palms of the hands are red, and the nails are like iron hooks. The two hands hold a curved knife above and a skull-cup below at the heart.
The full form of Vajrabhairava has nine heads, the central one being that of a buffalo, and the top-most being that yellow Manjushri with a slightly wrathful expression. The three right faces are yellow, blue and red and the three left are black, white and smoky. Each face has three large round eyes, bared fangs and frightful expressions; brown hair flows upward like flames. He has thirty-four hands and sixteen legs. The first pair of hands hold a curved knife and skull cup to the heart. The remaining hands hold a multitude of weapons with the second and last set holding in addition the fresh outstretched hide of an elephant. He is adorned with bracelets, necklaces and a girdle all formed of interlaced bone ornaments, a necklace of snakes and a long necklace of fifty human heads. The right legs are bent pressing down on a man, animals and various gods. The left legs are extended straight and press upon eight birds and various gods; standing above a sun disc and multi-colored lotus completely surrounded by the orange flames of pristine awareness.
When in union with his consort Vajra-vetali (Skt: for 'Adamantine Ghoul'; Tib: rDor-rje ro-lang-ma) she has one face and two hands, is blue in color with orange hair pressed against the back, and holds a skull cup in her left hand.Her physique is robust, matching the Yamantaka. Vajravetali is the emanation of White Saraswati (dbyans can ma dkar mo).
Anuttara Yoga Tantra is divided into father- (Tib: pha-rgyud) and mother-tantra (Tib: ma-rgyud). The former emphasizes practices involving the energy-winds for arising in subtle forms known as illusory bodies (Tib: sgyu-lus), which are the immediate causes for achieving a Buddha's body of forms (Tib: gzugs-sku, Skt: rupakaya). The latter gives more detail about practices to access clear light mental activity (T: 'od-gsal) and focus it with blissful awareness on voidness, as the immediate cause for achieving a Buddha's omniscient awareness or dharmakaya (Tib: chos-sku). The Vajrabhairava Tantra belongs to the father tantra using negative emotions such as anger and hatred as the path. Vajrabhairava is powerful enough to overcome and subdue even the most powerful negative emotions. Visualizing oneself in this highly energetic form of the yidam is said to help conquer and transform such negative emotions: "Like other wrathful deities, Yamantaka gives the forces of the Shadow [in the Jungian sense] a symbol that hooks their energy and provides a channel and direction for their expression and transformation" (Preece, p. 187).
All Buddhist textual sources refer to Lalitavajra as the revealer of the Vajrabhairava and Yamari tantras to an originally Indian tantric audience. Lalitavajra, a 10th-century scholar from the Nalanda monstary in Bihar whose main yidam was Manjushri, one day had a vision of the deity telling him to go to the land of Oddiyana and retrieve the tantras of Yamantaka. He went there and encountered the Wisdom-dakini (in the forma of Vajra-vetali) and other dakinis who eventually revealed the various Yamantaka tantras to him. They refuse to let him take the texts with him; he was only allowed to memorize as much as he could in a short time and then write it down upon his return.
Siklos (pp.5-10) gives a fascinating analytical account of the origins of the Vajrabhairava Tantra pointing towards the non-Buddhist Shaivite tradition in Western India (Kashmir & Afghanistan). The name "Bhairava" indicating one of Shiva's main forms and the various attributes/implements like the trident, tiger-skin, ashes, drum (Skt: damaru), etc. suggest the same.
Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school, emphasized and promoted the practice of Vajrabhairava. Consequently the practice became one of the three principal tantras taught at the tantric colleges and monastic universities. To this very day it is considered one of the most important yidam practices - for monastic and lay practitioners alike. The principal practice texts come from Tsongkhapa (13-Deity) and Pabongka (Solitary Hero). Both practice texts are available in English translation on this website. Important historical commentaries were written by Tri Gyaltsen Senghe (for the Solitary Hero) and Lhundup Pandita (for the 13-Deity) practice; both have been translated. Most of today's commentary teachings are based on the former. Commentary teachings and retreats are held in regular intervals around the world.
For people who took the Yamantaka initiation and register with us, we have an extensive collection of practice materials. The materials include: Practice texts (Sadhanas) for the Single and Thirteen-Deity Yamantaka deities; commentaries and pratice instructions; deity images; protector practices and other support materials.