UKZN: In regard to Tantric Deities, there is a Deity named Unmatta Bhairava, who is regarded as the mad or crazy form of Bhairava. So I wondered why would a deity be regarded as insane. Is it insane from the perspective of an outsider or someone who is a non-Tantric?
Zeena: There are many reasons why wrathful deities appear the way that they do. First of all they could be local or regional wild pagan deities or demons who were later transformed to become Dharma protector deities but they still retain the frightful appearance they had when they were untamed pagan deities. Even when they've become enlightened and transformed into protector deities, they don’t change their original characteristics. That’s exactly what we have to understand about ourselves when practicing tantra…we have certain characteristics, a personality, we have a particular constitution or temperament, unique ways of being and when we embark on these practices, the point isn’t to turn ourselves into uniformly “nice” appearing people, smiling all the time (unless that happens to be your basic character to begin with). That idea, that to become enlightened you have to develop a totally different character or temperament,...that’s not the way it works actually.
Understanding wrathful deities of this kind are another way of understanding of Samsara and Nirvana as one. Because the wrathful deities - those who have been transformed from previously malignant deities - their character hasn’t changed. They have simply taken that fierce, powerful or forceful quality, that part of their character, and transformed themselves to apply those same qualities, through pure motivation (rather than tainted motivations) toward compassionate ends. So, you see some wrathful deities appear as they do because they've been transformed from formerly malicious deities or demons, yet their character hasn’t changed. They're still fearsome, they're still strong, they're still forceful but they are benevolent at the core.
To give an entirely different example of deities who appear in a wrathful form: It could be that there's one appearance of the deity [yidam], a peaceful appearing version, and then, that same deity is known to have another more wrathful appearance which the practitioner sees and understands in conjunction with his or her own level of spiritual development. The wrathful form of a normally benevolent appearing deity is a form of nakedness, no boundaries, nothing concealed, no fetters or fears. It can also be a way for the yidam to approach similar-appearing but malignant beings to gain their trust enough to show them the benefits of adopting virtuous motives and actions. Or, it could also be that a benevolent bodhisattva or Buddha takes a wrathful form to apply counterforce techniques to disarm a demon's non-virtuous actions while encouraging the demon's strengths and constructive qualities, showing him how to transform his strengths into positive goals. In this way, experiencing both peaceful and wrathful forms (or even multiple forms) of a yidam, bodhisattva or Buddha helps facilitate the practitioner's understanding and experience of non-dualism, impermanence and personal transformation for the purposes of ultimate enlightenment, to help others also reach enlightenment.
So, depending on the experiences and development of the practitioner, he or she might gravitate to more of the wrathful yidams.
On the other hand, there are times, for example, when a practitioner gets a glimpse of a normally benevolent-appearing deity in its wrathful form - or similarly - one's own teacher (who is the embodiment of a particular yidam or Buddha) in a wrathful form. This can be a test of sorts to the student - when a yidam, or a teacher, uncharacteristically appears wrathful. Often, that first glimpse of the wrathful side of a deity, that first experience of an “unpleasant aspect” of a deity or teacher, can be so disconcerting that it's enough to frighten off the weak-willed or uncommitted. This is an example of how the tantric path is the fastest route to realization. Because in order to make rapid progress, a student must overcome fears, judgments and prejudices very quickly. So viewing a wrathful manifestation of a diety, like Bhairava, as “insane” would be an indicator of one's understanding._____________
Photo: Guru Dorje Drolö — one of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche [Padmasambhava]. Guru Dorje Drolö is the wrathful form of [Padmasambhava] riding upon a pregnant tigress. The first Emperor of Tibet [Trisong Detsen] invited Padmasambhava from the Swat region of Pakistan to subdue malignant demonic forces which caused plagues, epidemics and obstacles to the development of Buddhist teachings in Tibet. The demons were not destroyed, instead Padmasambhava taught them the Dharma which enabled their transformation into generous protectors. This corresponds with the tantric principle of not eliminating negative forces but redirecting them to fuel the journey toward spiritual awakening. Padmasambhava brought Indian tantric pratices to Tibetan Buddhism, which are now practiced as Buddhist tantra [Vajrayāna].
[Note: To dispel popular misconceptions — these practices have nothing to do with black magic, satanism, or malicious sorcery.]