Defenders of Dharma: Discovering the Four Heavenly Kings' Sacred Role
The depiction of the Four Heavenly Kings has persisted from early Buddhist art in India to contemporary times in East Asia. Two discernible forms of iconography exist for these deities: a regal portrayal in India and Southeast Asia and a martial presentation in Central and East Asia. In Korea, interpreting these deities' roles, as conveyed through visual representations, has hitherto focused solely on the literal meaning of their Sanskrit title, "Lokapala", signifying 'guardians of the world.'
The presence of the Four Heavenly Kings resonates across various Buddhist Sutras, including The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva. Within this specific scripture, Shakyamuni Buddha (The Historical Buddha) directly invokes the aid of the Four Heavenly Kings to disseminate the teachings of the particular sutra. Additionally, these deities hold significant prominence in the esteemed Golden Light Sutra.
According to belief, individuals who engage in the recitation of the Golden Light Sutra and Lotus Sutra are safeguarded by the direct protection of the Four Heavenly Kings.
The Four Heavenly Kings are divine figures in Buddhism, entrusted with the guardianship of specific cardinal directions of the world: East, West, North, and South. In their original Chinese designation, they are referred to as "Fēng Tiáo Yǔ Shùn" (風調雨順), signifying "Good Climate." However, in the translated versions of Chinese sutras, they are denoted as "Sì Dà Tiānwáng" (四大天王), which translates to "Four Great Heavenly Kings." These celestial sentinels command the realms of earth, water, fire, and wind.
The Four Great Kings are:
- Dhritarashtra (Tib. Yulkhor Sung), 'Defender of the Area' in the East;
- Virudhaka (Tib. Pak Kyepo), 'Noble Birth' in the South;
- Virupaksha (Tib. Chen Mi Zang), 'Ugly Eyes' in the west; and
- Vaishravana (Tib. Namtösé), 'Son of He who has Heard Many Things' in the north.
The North King: Vaishravana (Tib. Namtösé)
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Vaiśravaṇa, also known as the 'one who hears everything,' takes the foremost role among the Four Heavenly Kings and is the primary guardian of the North cardinal direction. In Chinese, the North King is referred to as Duo Wen (多聞天王), while in Sanskrit, he is known as Vaiśravaṇa.
This celestial figure is occasionally paralleled with Bodhisattva Kuan Yin. He is identifiable by a variety of names such as Kubera, Namtose (Namthose), Vessavana, Thao Kuwen, Wetsawan, Wetsuwan, and Wéthawún Nat Min. He holds control over water and rain – elements representing both wealth and influence.
Vaiśravaṇa is often linked to the colors yellow and green. His emblematic symbols include the umbrella, stupa, pagoda, and mongoose. The umbrella symbolizes safeguarding the mind from contamination, ensuring its purity and clarity. He imparts the value of careful handling and generosity as the protector of material wealth and spiritual prosperity. Practitioners cultivate a balanced response to worldly issues while being rooted in spiritual principles by calling upon Vaisravana's attributes.
The South King: Virudhaka (Tib. Pak Kyepo)
In Chinese, the South King is identified as Zeng Zhang (增長天王), while in Sanskrit, he is known as Virūḍhaka. His name carries the essence of "progress," symbolizing his role as the catalyst for growth.
Virūḍhaka, also referred to as Virūḷhaka, Thao Wirunhok, Virúlaka Nat Min, and Zēng Zhǎng Tiānwáng, reigns as the king of the South and commands control over the realm of wind. His symbolic weapon is the sword, held in his right hand. This sword serves a dual purpose – safeguarding the Dharma and signifying authority over ignorance. It embodies wisdom, capable of slicing through ignorance and fragmented thoughts.
Virūḍhaka is also associated with the color blue. He also rules over Kumbhanda, a collective of diminutive spirits, establishing his position among the lesser deities within Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, the South is an emblem of warmth and growth, echoing Virudhaka's responsibility for fostering virtues and warding off harmful influences. People can be motivated by this kind of guardian as they work to develop their moral character and empathy.
The East King: Dhritarashtra (Tib. Yulkhor Sung)
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The East King's name is Chi Guo (持國天王) in Chinese and Dhṛtarāṣṭra in Sanskrit. The meaning of his name is "supporting the country." Dhrtarastra, who upholds the realm, is the king who rules over the East and is also considered the God of Music.
It is said that Dhrtarastra uses music to convert all sentient beings to Buddhism. Dhrtarastra is considered a deity that helps promote harmony and compassion. He is also known as Dhrutharashṭa, Thao Thatarot, Daddáratá Nat Min, Chí Guó Tiānwáng, Jikoku-ten, Jiguk-cheonwang, Yülkhorsung. Dhrtarastra rule over the Gandharvas, which are male nature spirits with superb heavenly and celestial musical skills. They are part animals, usually birds or horses, and act as a messenger between gods and humans. Dhrtarastra is often associated with the color white.
He represents the arrival of light, driving out ignorance and darkness with his vigilant watchfulness. During meditation, practitioners are reminded of Dhritarashtra's constant dedication to fostering wisdom and insight as they gaze toward the East.
The West King: Virupaksha (Tib. Chen Mi Zang)
The West King's name is Guang Mu (廣目天王) in Chinese and Virūpākṣa in Sanskrit. The meaning of his name is "wide seeing." He is the king who rules over the West and is considered the one who sees everything that happens in the Dharma world. His symbolic weapons are a snake or a red cord representing a dragon. The snake symbolizes constant change, just as a snake can shed its skin. Therefore, the lesson is to pay more attention to the people around us when interacting with them to maintain harmony.
It is said the Virupaksa watches over us in the sky and that when we solemnly call on him in times of danger, he will guard and protect us. Virupaksa is also known as Virūpakkha, Virūpaksha, Thao Wirupak, Virúpekka Nat Min, Guăng Mù Tiānwáng, Kōmoku-ten, Gwangmok-cheonwang. He rules over the Nagas, a deity that has taken the form of a great snake.
With his keen eye, he encourages practitioners to reflect and learn more about the nature of reality. The West, connected to ends and transitions, complements Virupaksha's function as a mentor for people on their transforming journeys of self-discovery.
Mantras of Four Heavenly Kings
- For Wealth and Prosperity, recite the Mantra of King Vaisravana:
OM VAISRAVANA YE SOHA
- For Success and Progress in Life, recite the Mantra of King Virudhaka:
OM VIRUDHAKA KUMBHANDADHIPATA YE SOHA
- For Peace and Harmony, recite the Mantra of King Dhrtarastra:
OM DHRTARASTRA RALAPRAVADHAHA SOHA
- For Good Health and Protection recite the Mantra of King Virupaksa:
OM VIRUPAKSA NAGA DHIPATA YE SOHA
The Four Heavenly Kings reflect solid moral principles and their attentive demeanor. The calm morning that comes before the day's hardships is mirrored by Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the Guardian of the East, who personifies the virtue of patience in the face of difficulty. The Lord of the South, Virudhaka, represents compassion as a flaming warmth that nurtures all life, similar to the midday sun.
As the head of the West, Virupaksa represents balance and directs sentient creatures away from the dangerous undercurrents of delusion. Last, Vaisravana, the Northern Protector, symbolizes generosity compared to the refreshing breeze that ushers in compassion and dispels stagnation.
Residing within the cosmic realm of Mount Sumeru, the Four Heavenly Kings occupy a celestial abode where the heavens find their dwelling. These divine beings also shoulder the role of world protectors, engaging in battles against malevolence.
Each of the Four Heavenly Kings possesses the authority to command an assembly of supernatural entities, marshaling them to safeguard the Dharma or those who ardently follow its path. These celestial guardians serve under Sakra, the devas (gods) ruler in the Trayastrimsha Heaven. Within Buddhism, many heavens exist; among them, the Trayastrimsha Heaven stands as the closest to our world. This realm, identified as Jambvudpiva in Buddhist sutras, finds a place of significance.