Buddhism Dharma Protectors, Violence, and Warfare
Cameron Bailey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0287


The protector cults of Buddhism in their narrative, ritual, and iconographic elements are characterized largely, if not entirely, by sublimated violence. From their mythic origins to their (usually) fearsome appearance in art and literature, to the way they are liturgically utilized and invoked in ritual practice, these Buddhist deities are most well-known for their violent and warlike nature. In the traditional emic understanding of Dharma protectors, especially in the context of Indo-Tibetan tantric Buddhism, they function essentially as spiritual warriors, a parallel demonic sangha, who are called on to combat enemies in both the outer and inner worlds, capable of subduing evil forces on both the psychological and physical battlefields. As the psychology of Buddhism grew more sophisticated within the framework of tantric hermeneutics and ritual over the course of the first millennium in India, and further developed in Tibet beginning in the seventh and eighth centuries, soteriological focus shifted from the mere avoidance and suppression of negative emotions to a concerted effort to control their energy and turn them on themselves. Within the tantric or esoteric Buddhism that flourished most successfully in Tibet and Japan, the wrathful and sexualized worldly deities of local pantheons that were originally seen as embodiments of spiritual obscurations were powerfully reframed in terms of enlightened transformation. Tantric control of wrathful energy and dangerous spiritual and magical power paralleled and combined with the Mahāyāna doctrinal acceptance of compassionate violence, where violence became interpreted as not only permissible, but an essential way of stopping evil actions and eliminating evil beings when no other option was tenable. In tantric hermeneutics, “killing” became euphemistically known as “liberation,” and is traditionally understood as a virtue as long it is based in genuine compassion. Dharma protectors are one important subset of these krodha-vighnāntaka (“wrathful destroyers of obstacles”) particularly prevalent in Tantric Buddhism and are almost inevitably steeped in violence, at least on the virtual level of narrative and ritual. This includes both the violence that is often said to have been done against them, necessarily to tame them, and the violence they then carry out on other demons and human enemies of Buddhism once their fearsome nature has been harnessed and redirected. The following scholarly sources discuss the various facets of protector deity beliefs and cults and their wrathful and violent aspects.


While no comprehensive study on Buddhist protectors and violence and warfare per se exists, there are several works that give excellent overviews of protector deity cults in general. Given that the iconography, mythology, and ritual programs of these figures are in most cases inherently violent, or at the very least overflowing with combative and martial imagery, any worthwhile general introduction to protectors necessarily deals with the topic of violence to some degree. Beer 1999, Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1998, and Linrothe and Watt 2004 primarily focus on the iconography of wrathful deities, the latter two on protector deities specifically, and the former on wrathful tantric Buddhist iconography more generally. Nebesky-Wojkowitz also discusses some of the more popular ritual uses of protector deities in Tibetan culture, from war magic to oracle practices. Kalsang 1996 gives a collection of protector deity myths, and Bell 2020 is a comprehensive examination of multiple facets of Tibetan spirit beliefs and protector cults.

  • Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.

    A general overview of Tibetan Buddhist artistic conventions. Chapter 10, “The Wheel of Sharp Weapons,” deals specifically with wrathful imagery and includes discussions of the multiple types of weapons that can be wielded by different protectors, from bows and arrows to swords, axes, chains, etc.

  • Bell, Christopher. Tibetan Demonology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108670715

    Not specifically about protectors, but Tibetan spirit and demon beliefs in general. This, however, overlaps significantly with various ideas about and ritual uses of Dharma protectors. Chapter 4, “Spirits and Doctrine,” is the most significant in this regard, and deals with the mythology of subjugation and the institutionalization of various protectors. Very informative and easy to approach for those new to the topic.

  • Kalsang, Ladrang. The Guardian Deities of Tibet. Translated by Pema Thinley. Dharamsala, India: Little Lhasa, 1996.

    A distillation of myths, most of them combat myths, about various protectors, with a bias toward the Dge lugs pa protector pantheon. The English translation is not very good, and the stories are completely decontextualized. Not particularly useful even for specialists. However, this is really the only attempt to date to provide a comprehensive collection of Tibetan protector deity mythology available in English.

  • Linrothe, Robert N., and Jeff Watt. Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2004.

    Very useful study of protector deity iconography from an art history approach, with a particular emphasis on wrathful appearance. It contains many excellent image reproductions.

  • Nebesky-Wojkowitz, René de. Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities. New Delhi: Paljor, 1998.

    This is a reprint of a famous and highly influential work originally published in 1956. Now nearly seventy years old, it remains the cornerstone of the still-nascent field of Tibetan protector deity studies. Any student of the topic should be at least somewhat familiar with it. That said, it is indeed dated, containing certain errors, is historically decontextualized, and makes for almost impenetrable reading for anyone except Tibetan studies specialists.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.