The Profound Iconography of Khatvanga in Vajrayana Buddhism

Khatvanga, The Ritual Staff

Mostly used in the Tantric context, Khatvanga is a staff with a skull top. And in the Indic sphere, it is shown in the hands of the earliest known Tantric images. It consists of a short staff, surmounted by a single skull from the top of which a vajra emerges.
The khatvanga had a very profound meaning in the Tantric Buddhist context. At the most fundamental level, it signifies the opposite gender counterpart of the nondual deity who carries it.
Vajravarahi holds the khatvanga in the crook of her left arm or balances it across her shoulders. It represents her nondual nature with her male, compassion, method (upaya) aspect.
Similarly, Chakrasamvara, bears a khatvanga. It symbolizes the union with his Prajna aspect. Such that the single deity holding khatvanga is understood and visualized as nondual.
In the modern Tantric Buddhist context, there are two kinds of khatvanga:
  • A "male" one tipped by a vajra, manifesting the male or compassion/skillful means of nonduality.
  • A "female" one tipped by a trident, representing the female, or wisdom aspect of nonduality.
Yeshe Tshogyal (the spiritual consort of Guru Padmasambhava) is represented by the trident-topped khatvanga. It symbolizes the yogic system of the subtle body. With the three blades symbolizing the three primary channels of the practitioner's body.
Padmasambhava Khatvanga
At the lower end is a half-vajra. With a central Shunyata bead, it supports a gracefully tapered octagonal staff. The staff culminates in a very carefully articulated "1000-petaled" lotus. On the lotus rests a crossed-vajra (Vishva-vajra). It in turn supports the Vase-of-abundance with overflowing water represented as foliage.
Above that are three heads, usually described as blue, red, and white.
  • freshly severed head
  • A dehydrated decaying head
  • A skull.
Above that is the other end of the vajra. In essence, the entire device is understood as the Vajra and, thus to be adamantine.
The khatvanga exists in many forms and varieties. They are held by both male and female deities. And is often adorned with extra elements, such as the fluttering silk scarves, Damaru, and Bell. For each type, there is a specific iconographic explanation.
The Rossi khatvanga is specific to the Vajrayogini methodologies in the Chakrasamvara cycle. As such, it reiterates the phenomenal created world of the male aspect of Chakrasamvara. It is one of the most complex, multi-layered symbolism of any attribute.
At an exoteric level, according to Robert Beer, 'this type of khatvanga presents the Mount Meru mandala, with the eight-sided shaft symbolizing the axis mundi of the sacred mountain, and the supporting components signify the five elements.'
The Vishva Vajra symbolizes the earth base of Mount Meru, four continents and eight islands, which encircle the central mountain. The white silk ribbon, which would have been tied to such a khatvanga, represents the Great Salt Ocean. The vase represents Mount Meru, with its top as Trayastrimsha Heaven of Indra. The three heads represent the three types of realms of Mount Meru:
  • The freshly severed, red head : the six heaven- worlds of the Realms of Desire (Kamadhatu)
  • The decaying blue head: the eighteen heaven-worlds of the Realms of Form (Rupadhatu)
  • The white skull, the four pervasive heaven-worlds of the Form-less Realm (Arupadhatu).
The vajra at the top signifies Akanishta. The highest heaven-world of the Form Realm and the abode of Vairochana, and thereby of all Buddhas. The half-vajra at the bottom of the shaft embodies the five transcendent insights through the kulas of the five Jina Buddhas.
In its secret or inner symbolism, the khatvanga represents both the fundamental Buddhist methodologies (Shravakayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) and the totality of the three Buddha Bodies (Tri-kaya).
The vase contains the "nectar of immortality" (amrita) of attainment and purification. The three heads, symbolize the Transformation Body (Nirmana-kaya), Bliss Body (Sambhoga-kaya), and Dharma Body (Dharma-kaya), represented by the skull.
The color of the heads in the descending order of White, Red, and Blue, signifies the aspects of the purified Body, Speech, and Mind.Vajrayogini KhatangaThese are to be visualized with their respective bijas: white OM at the crown, red AH at the throat, and blue HUM at the heart/mind. In the meditations of Vajrayogini/Vajravarahi, the khatvanga in the crook of her left arm on her shoulders, represents her nondual nature. The khatvanga is Chakrasamvara himself, and the specific components symbolize the sixty-two deities of the phenomenal mandala of ChakrasamvaraThe octagonal shaft symbolizes the rings of the eight charnel fields. While the half-vajra at the end signifies the ring of vajra-protection (vajravali) that surrounds the mandala. The vase-of-abundance represents the mandala palace. The nectar of immortality contained within, is the nondual Chakrasamvara/Vajravarahi, the essence of Great Bliss (Mahasukha).

Below the vase is a Vishva vajra, which represents the eight deities in the outer Samaya Chakras. While the three heads symbolize the circles (chakra) of Body, Speech, and Mind.

  • The blue head symbolizes the eight, blue, nondual deities of the Mind circle
  • The red head symbolizes the eight, red, nondual deities of the Speech circle
  • The white head symbolizes the white, nondual deities of the Body circle.
The crowning five-pronged vajra signifies the inner Yoginis of the Mahasukha Chakra. The reification of the khatvanga as Chakrasamvara is emphasized in the visualization of the inner offerings.
The substance contained within the skull cup represents the noumenal. While the khatvanga represents the phenomenal. The noumenal substances in the skull cup are visioned as boiling into a liquid. And at the culminating point of the visualization, an inverted white khatvanga, which is the nature of Chakrasamvara's mind, appears above the skull cup.
The khatvanga melts into the mix, transforming the substances into the elixir of immortality (Amrita).

khatanga

Source: The Circle of Bliss

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