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Vajra

Updated: Jan 16



Vajra


A vajra is a weapon used as a ritual object to symbolize both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force); the Sanskrit word having both meanings.

The vajra is essentially a type of club with a ribbed spherical head. The ribs may meet in a ball-shaped top, or they may be separate and end in sharp points with which to stab. The vajra is the weapon of the Indian Vedic rain and thunder-deity Indra, and is used symbolically by the dharma traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, often to represent firmness of spirit and spiritual power. According to the Indian mythology, vajra is considered as one of the most powerful weapons in the universe. The use of the vajra as a symbolic and ritual tool spread from the Hindu religion to other religions in India and other parts of Asia.


Etymology


According to Asko Parpola, the Sanskrit vajra- and Avestan vazra- both refer to a weapon of the Godhead, and are possibly from the Proto-Indo-European root *weg'- which means "to be(come) powerful." It is related to Proto-Finno-Uralic *vaśara, "hammer, axe", but both the Sanskrit and Finno-Ugric derivatives are likely Proto-Aryan or Proto-Indo-Aryan but not Proto-Iranian, state Parpola and Carpelan, because of its palatalized sibilant.


Early descriptions


Rigveda


The earliest mention of the vajra is in the Rigveda, part of the four Vedas. It is described as the weapon of Indra, the chief among Gods. Indra is described as using the vajra to kill sinners and ignorant persons. The Rigveda states that the weapon was made for Indra by Tvastar, the maker of divine instruments. The associated story describes Indra using the vajra, which he held in his hand, to slay the asura Vritra, who took the form of a serpent.

On account of his skill in wielding the vajra, some epithets used for Indra in the Rigveda were Vajrabhrit (bearing the vajra), Vajrivat or Vajrin (armed with the vajra), Vajradaksina (holding the vajra in his right hand), and Vajrabahu or Vajrahasta (holding the vajra in his hand). The association of the Vajra with Indra was continued with some modifications in the later Puranic literature, and in Buddhist works. Buddhaghoṣa, a major figure of Theravada Buddhism in the 5th century, identified the Bodhisattva Vajrapani with Indra.


Puranas


Many later puranas describe the vajra, with the story modified from the Rigvedic original. One major addition involves the role of the Sage Dadhichi. According to one account, Indra, the king of the deva was once driven out of devaloka by an asura named Vritra. The asura was the recipient of a boon whereby he could not be killed by any weapon that was known till the date of his receiving the boon and additionally that no weapon made of wood or metal could harm him. Indra, who had lost all hope of recovering his kingdom was said to have approached Shiva who could not help him. Indra along with Shiva and Brahma went to seek the aid of Vishnu. Vishnu revealed to Indra that only the weapon made from the bones of Dadhichi would defeat Vritra. Indra and the other deva therefore approached the sage, whom Indra had once beheaded, and asked him for his aid in defeating Vritra. Dadhichi acceded to the deva's request but said that he wished that he had time to go on a pilgrimage to all the holy rivers before he gave up his life for them. Indra then brought together all the waters of the holy rivers to Naimisha Forest, thereby allowing the sage to have his wish fulfilled without a further loss of time. Dadhichi is then said to have given up his life by the art of yoga after which the gods fashioned the vajrayudha from his spine. This weapon was then used to defeat the asura, allowing Indra to reclaim his place as the king of devaloka.

Another version of the story exists where Dadhichi was asked to safeguard the weapons of the gods as they were unable to match the arcane arts being employed by the asura to obtain them. Dadhichi is said to have kept at the task for a very long time and finally tiring of the job, he is said to have dissolved the weapons in sacred water which he drank. The deva returned a long time later and asked him to return their weapons so that they might defeat the asura, headed by Vritra, once and for all. Dadhichi however told them of what he had done and informed them that their weapons were now a part of his bones. However, Dadhichi, realizing that his bones were the only way by which the deva could defeat the asura willingly gave his life in a pit of mystical flames he summoned with the power of his austerities. Brahma is then said to have fashioned a large number of weapons from Dadhichi's bones, including the vajrayudha, which was fashioned from his spine. The deva are then said to have defeated the asura using the weapons thus created.

There have also been instances where the war god Skanda (Kartikeya) is described as holding a vajra. Skanda is also the name of a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism who wields a vajra.


Vajrayana Buddhism


In Buddhism, the vajra is the symbol of Vajrayana, one of the three major branches of Buddhism. Vajrayana is translated as "Thunderbolt Way" or "Diamond Way" and can imply the thunderbolt experience of Buddhist enlightenment or bodhi. It also implies indestructibility, just as diamonds are harder than other gemstones.

In Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) the vajra and tribu (bell) are used in many rites by a lama or any Vajrayana practitioner of sadhana. The vajra is a male polysemic symbol that represents many things for the tantrika. The vajra is representative of upaya (skillful means) whereas its companion tool, the bell which is a female symbol, denotes prajna (wisdom). Some deities are shown holding each the vajra and bell in separate hands, symbolizing the union of the forces of compassion and wisdom, respectively.

In the tantric traditions of Buddhism, the vajra is a symbol for the nature of reality, or sunyata, indicating endless creativity, potency, and skillful activity. The term is employed extensively in tantric literature: the term for the spiritual teacher is the vajracharya; one of the five dhyani Buddhas is vajrasattva, and so on. The practice of prefixing terms, names, places, and so on by vajra represents the conscious attempt to recognize the transcendental aspect of all phenomena; it became part of the process of "sacramentalizing" the activities of the spiritual practitioner and encouraged him to engage all his psychophysical energies in the spiritual life.

An instrument symbolizing vajra is also extensively used in the rituals of the tantra. It consists of a spherical central section, with two symmetrical sets of five prongs, which arc out from lotus blooms on either side of the sphere and come to a point at two points equidistant from the centre, thus giving it the appearance of a "diamond scepter", which is how the term is sometimes translated.

Various figures in Tantric iconography are represented holding or wielding the vajra. Three of the most famous of these are Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasattva (lit. vajra-being) holds the vajra, in his right hand, to his heart. The figure of the Wrathful Vajrapani (lit. vajra in the hand) brandishes the vajra, in his right hand, above his head. Padmasambhava holds the vajra above his right knee in his right hand.


Accompanying bell


The vajra is almost always paired with a ritual bell. Tibetan term for a ritual bell used in Buddhist religious practices is tribu. Priests and devotees ring bells during the rituals. Together these ritual implements represent the inseparability of wisdom and compassion in the enlightened mindstream.


Usage of bell


The bell is the most commonly used of all musical instruments in tantric Buddhist ritual. The sound made by the bells is regarded as very auspicious and is believed to drive out evil spirits from where the ritual is being performed. When the bell is being used with the dorje its use is varied depending on the ritual or the mantras being chanted. During meditation ringing the bell represents the sound of Buddha teaching the dharma and symbolizes the attainment of wisdom and the understanding of emptiness. During the chanting of the mantras the Bell and Dorje are used together in a variety of different ritualistic ways to represent the union of the male and female principles.




Symbolism


Vajra


The vajra is made up of several parts. In the center is a sphere which represents Sunyata, the primordial nature of the universe, the underlying unity of all things. Emerging from the sphere are two eight petaled lotus flowers. One represents the phenomenal world (or in Buddhist terms Samsara), the other represents the noumenal world (Nirvana). This is one of the fundamental dichotomies which are perceived by the unenlightened. The physical manifestation of the vajra, also called dorje in this context, is the male organ.

Arranged equally around the mouth of the lotus are two, four, or eight creatures which are called makara. These are mythological half-fish, half-crocodile creatures made up of two or more animals, often representing the union of opposites, (or a harmonisation of qualities that transcend our usual experience). From the mouths of the makara come tongues which come together in a point.

The five-pronged vajra (with four makara, plus a central prong) is the most commonly seen vajra. There is an elaborate system of correspondences between the five elements of the noumenal side of the vajra, and the phenomenal side. One important correspondence is between the five "poisons" with the five wisdoms. The five poisons are the mental states that obscure the original purity of a being's mind, while the five wisdoms are the five most important aspects of the enlightened mind. Each of the five wisdoms is also associated with a Buddha figure.


Bell


The hollow of the bell represents the void from which all phenomena arise, including the sound of the bell, and the clapper represents form. Together they symbolize wisdom (emptiness) and compassion (form or appearance). The sound, like all phenomena, arises, radiates forth and then dissolves back into emptiness.


In popular culture


Param Vir Chakra, India's highest war time military decoration has a motif of Vajra, the mythic weapon of Indra created by the bones donated by sage Dadhichi, as tribute to his sacrifice.




Alternative Title: rdo-rje

Vajra, Tibetan rdo-rje, is a five-pronged ritual object extensively employed in Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies. It is the symbol of the Vajrayāna school of Buddhism.


Vajra, in Sanskrit, has both the meanings of “thunderbolt” and “diamond.” Like the thunderbolt, the vajra cleaves through ignorance. The thunderbolt was originally the symbol of the Hindu rain god Indra (who became the Buddhist Śakra) and was employed by the 8th-century Tantric (esoteric) master Padmasambhava to conquer the non-Buddhist deities of Tibet. Like the diamond, the vajra destroys but is itself indestructible and is thus likened to śūnya (the all-inclusive void).


The vajra is fashioned out of brass or bronze, the four prongs at each end curving around the central fifth to form a lotus-bud shape. A nine-pronged vajra is less commonly used.


In ritual use the vajra is frequently employed in conjunction with the bell (Sanskrit ghaṇṭā; Tibetan dril bu), the various gestures (mudrās), when correctly executed, having considerable metaphysical power. The vajra (symbolizing the male principle, fitness of action) is held in the right hand and the bell (symbolizing the female principle, intelligence) in the left hand, the interaction of the two ultimately leading to enlightenment. In art the vajra is an attribute of many divinities, such as the celestial Buddha Akṣobhya and his manifestation as a bodhisattva (“Buddha-to-be”), Vajrapāṇi (In Whose Hand Is the Vajra). The viśva-vajra is a double vajra in the shape of a cross with four equal arms.

Vajra (Sanskrit: meaning thunderbolt and diamond) refers to an important sacred tool and ritual implement in Vajrayana Buddhism, Hinduism and Tantra where it symbolizes the male principle of creation and represents both method and "Upaya" (skillful means) in religious practice. When made to be worn as a pendant, it reminds the wearer, and the viewer, of the supreme indestructibility of knowledge. In the tantric traditions of Buddhism, the vajra also symbolizes for the nature of reality, or sunyata.

Vajrayana (meaning "Thunderbolt Way") is one of the three major branches of Buddhism that derives its name from the Vajra.

The Tibetan word for vajra is dorje, which is also a common male name in Tibet and Bhutan. Dorje can also refer to a small scepter held in the right hand by Tibetan lamas during religious ceremonies.


Historical Context


Both the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism utilize the vajra in their religious mythology, symbolism, and philosophy. The vajra is a particularly important ritual implement in Tibetan Buddhism, which is also called Vajrayna (meaning "Thunderbolt Raft" or "Diamond Vehicle").

Vajrayana Buddhism derives from several sources including the practice of tantric Hinduism, which flourished in India between the eighth to tenth centuries. During this time, Mahayana and tantric ideas were imported into Tibet and assimilated with local religious practices to develop a distinct form of Buddhism that became known as Vajrayana. This branch of Buddhism elevated the Vajra the supreme symbol of Enlightenment.

The term is employed extensively in tantric literature: the term for the spiritual teacher is the vajracarya; instead of bodhisattva, we have vajrasattva, and so on. The practice of prefixing terms, names, places, and so on by vajra represents the conscious attempt to recognize the transcendental aspect of all phenomena; it became part of the process of "sacramentalizing" the activities of the spiritual practitioner and encouraged him to engage all his psychophysical energies in the spiritual life.


Symbolism


In Hinduism


In Hindu mythology, Vajra is the weapon of Indra, the Vedic god of war and king of the Devas. In Hindu mythology, the vajra is a powerful weapon having the combined features of sword, mace, and spear. It was created out of hard thigh bones of sage Dadhichi who gave up his life willingly for a noble cause so that his spine could be used to build the weapon. This was the weapon that Lord Indra used to kill Vritrasura who had conquered heaven and terrorized the gods. Due to this supreme sacrifice, sage Dadhichi became a legend. Vritra, the serpent of drought had swallowed the cosmic waters. Indra split the serpent's stomach using the vajra, releasing the waters. The Vajra is believed to be made of sage Dadhichi's bones.


In Tantric Buddhism


The vajra is also extensively used in the rituals of the tantra where it symbolizes the male principle that represents method, while the Bell symbolizes the female principle representing compassion. Their interaction leads to enlightenment. In addition, the Vajra represents "Upaya" (skillful means). When made to be worn as a pendant, it reminds the wearer, and the viewer, of the supreme indestructibility of knowledge. In the tantric traditions of both Buddhism and Hinduism, the vajra is a symbol for the nature of reality, or sunyata, indicating endless creativity, potency, and skillful activity.

According to Buddhist mythology, the vajra destroys all kinds of ignorance, and itself is indestructible. Various figures in Tantric iconography are depicted holding or wielding the vajra. Three of the most famous of these are Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasattva (lit. vajra-being) holds the vajra, in his right hand, close to his heart. The figure of the Wrathful Vajrapani (lit. vajra in the hand) brandishes the vajra, in his right hand, above his head. Padmasambhava holds the vajra above his right knee in his right hand.



Design


It consists of a spherical central section, with two symmetrical sets of five prongs, which arc out from lotus blooms on either side of the sphere and come to a point at two points equidistant from the centre, thus giving it the appearance of a "diamond scepter," which is how the term is sometimes translated. The vajra is made up of several parts:

In the center is a sphere that represents Sunyata, the primordial nature of the universe, the underlying unity of all things. Emerging from the sphere are two eight petaled lotus flowers. One represents the phenomenal world (or in Buddhist terms Samsara), the other represents the noumenal world (or Nirvana). This is one of the fundamental dichotomies perceived by the unenlightened.

Arranged equally around the mouth of the lotus are two, four, or eight mythical creatures, which are called makaras. These are mythological half-fish, half-crocodile creatures made up of two or more animals, often representing the union of opposites (or a harmonization of qualities that transcend our usual experience). From the mouths of the makaras come tongues that come together in a point.

The five pronged vajra (with four makaras, plus a central prong) is the most commonly seen vajra. There is an elaborate system of correspondences between the five elements of the noumenal side of the vajra, and the phenomenal side. One important correspondence is between the five "poisons" with the five wisdoms. The five poisons are the mental states that obscure the original purity of a being's mind, while the five wisdoms are the five most important aspects of the enlightened mind. Each of the five wisdoms is also associated with a Buddha figure.










Vajra is a symbolic ritual tool that is used in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism to represent the unyielding power of spirit. It is a Sanskrit word that means ‘thunderbolt’. Vajra is a classic symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the 3 main branches of the religion. Its Tibetan equivalent is Dorje. Dorje symbolizes the striking and irresistible force that leads to an abrupt transformation in human consciousness resulting in the attainment of enlightenment. Thus, the Vajra is essentially representative of the powerful, indestructible, indomitable, impenetrable, immutable, enduring and eternal state of enlightenment.

In Buddhist iconography, the Vajra or Dorje wielded by a deity or teacher symbolizes the resolve to apply the ultimate solution, which is Dharma. The chief deities that are associated with this scepter are Vajrapani, Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Vajrakali, Vajravidarana, and Hevajra.

The Vajra has a sphere in the center that signifies ‘shunyata’ or the actual reality, the unity underlying everything in the universe. Two 8-petaled lotuses are placed at either side of the sphere, representing the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. Arranged on top of the lotus flowers are the heads of sea monsters and coming out of them are tongues that meet at a point where a central prong also culminates. In totality, the two faces of Vajra scepter are symbolic of the unity of the relative and the absolute truth.


There are several variations of Vajra, depending on the number of spokes or prongs that may be three, five or nine. The spokes may join at the tip or be slightly splayed. The closed Vajra is considered a peaceful and benign tool, an embodiment of compassion; whereas the open Vajra is considered wrathful and wielded by deities to express righteous anger.


Vajra is a ritual scepter symbolizing compassion and skillful means, and also a symbol of indestructibility. In tantric rituals the vajra is the necessary counterpart of the bell, which symbolizes the wisdom of emptiness.

Vajra and bell are a set where both have the same number of spokes. There number varies from one to one thousand, yet the most commonly known are the five spoked ones called "samaya vajra and bell" and the nine spoked called "wisdom vajra and bells". The size of the vajra can vary from 4 inches to twenty, and the bell should be in proportion. Since the details of each part are very precise, the omniscient Jikmé Lingpa advised against making one to suit one's own tastes and preferences, but rather to follow the instructions given in the tantras.

Sogyal Rinpoche writes:

Vajra is compared to the diamond, the strongest and most precious of stones. Just as a diamond can cut through anything but is itself completely indestructible, so the unchanging, non-dual wisdom of the buddhas can never be harmed or destroyed by ignorance, and can cut through all delusion and obscurations. The qualities and activities of the body, speech, and wisdom mind of the Buddhas are able to benefit beings with the piercing, unhindered power of the diamond. And like a diamond, the vajra is free of defects; its brilliant strength comes from the realization of the dharmakaya nature of reality, the nature of the Buddha Amitabha.




Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning both thunderbolt and diamond. It is also a weapon which is used as a ritual object to symbolize both the power of indestructible diamond and irresistible force of thunderbolt


It is the symbol of the esoteric doctrine of the Buddha and represents Tantrism. It is called “Dorje” in Tibetan, It also represents a firmness of spirit and spiritual power, being one of the important sacred tools and ritual implement in Vajrayana Buddhism, Hinduism and Tantra where it symbolizes the male principle of creation and represents both method and “Upaya” (means “skillful” ) in religious practice. When made to be worn as a pendant, it reminds the wearer, and the viewer, of the supreme indestructibility of knowledge. In the Tantric traditions of Buddhism, the Vajra also symbolizes for the nature of reality, or sunyata.




The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as "diamond" or "thunderbolt." It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.

A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means "unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal". As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, "emptiness."

Buddhism integrates the word vajra into many of its legends and practices. Vajrasana is the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The vajra asana body posture is the lotus position. The highest concentrated mental state is vajra samadhi.




Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism


The vajra also is a literal ritual object associated with Tibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name, Dorje. It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, which is the tantric branch that contains rituals said to allow a follower to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.

The vajra objects usually are made of bronze, vary in size, and have three, five or nine spokes that usually close at each end in a lotus shape. The number of spokes and the way they meet at the ends have numerous symbolic meanings.

In Tibetan ritual, the vajra often is used together with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle—upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle—prajna, or wisdom.

A double Dorje, or vishvavajra, are two Dorjes connected to form a cross. A double Dorje represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain tantric deities.


Tantric Buddhist Iconography


The vajra as symbol predates Buddhism and was found in ancient Hinduism. The Hindu rain god Indra, who later evolved into Buddhist Sakra figure, had the thunderbolt as his symbol. And the 8th-century tantric master, Padmasambhava, used the vajra to conquer the non-Buddhist gods of Tibet.

In tantric iconography, several figures often hold the vajra, including Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasttva is seen in a peaceful pose with the vajra held to his heart. Wrathful Vajrapani wields it as a weapon above his head. When used as a weapon, it is thrown to stun the opponent, and then bind him with a vajra lasso.





Symbolic Meaning of the Vajra Ritual Object


At the center of the vajra is a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllable hum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere, there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature. The next symbol found on the vajra as we progress outward are two lotus flowers, representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, sea monsters.

The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five wisdoms. The tip of the central prong is often shaped like a tapering pyramid.




The vajra is an ornamental symbol that appears again and again in Indian, Buddhist, and Jainism mythology. The origin of the vajra comes from the Vedas, where the king of the gods, Indra, uses it as a weapon to kill asuras (demons).

The Sanskrit meaning of vajra means both diamond and lightening, a terrifying marriage of indestructibility and force.

Basically, this weapon is a club-like weapon made with two ribbed balls on either end, with sharp spokes.







The Symbolism


The use of the vajra can be seen in several eastern cultures that surround India, each with a different interpretation of its meaning.

Hinduism- While the vajra originated in the Hindu mythos, it has perhaps the most simplistic symbology.

Buddhism- In tantric Buddhism, the vajra and ghanta (a bell often used in rituals) are used in ceremonies by lamas. It represents the nature of reality and its endless creativity. In the center of the ornamental vajra, there is a sphere which represents sunyata (the emptiness of true reality). Emerging from this sphere are two lotuses that symbolize the physical world, and the other which represents the enlightened state of reality.

Jainism- The vajra represents one of the Jain’s bodhisattvas, an enlightened being that continues to reincarnate on earth for the advancement of humanity.


It’s Use Today


Today, the vajra is used in many different ceremonies and spiritual practices; but its primary meaning is still strength.

Often times, it’s used to ward off evil spirits and to symbolize hope amidst difficult times.

The vajra is used nor only as an ornamental prop, but in art, mandalas, and jewelry.



Vajras may have nine, five or three spokes. The spokes of a peaceful vajra meet at the tip whereas those of a wrathful vajra are slightly splayed at the end. When paired with a bell their length can vary from four finger-widths to twenty-eight finger widths.



The upper sets of spokes of a five spoked vajra symbolize the five wisdoms, which are:

The mirror like wisdom - that which reflects all sense perceptions is purified when one attains enlightenment and becomes the mirror like wisdom.

The wisdom of equality - arises after all the feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness and indifference have been purified.

The wisdom of individual analysis - arises when the factor of discrimination, which distinguishes one object from another is purified. It enables one to benefit each sentient being according to his or her needs and disposition.

The wisdom of accomplishing activity - arises when the basic ability to perform acts according to particular circumstances is purified.

The wisdom of the sphere of reality - arises when consciousness is purified and becomes the mind that is the seed of the wisdom truth body of a Buddha. The five lower spokes symbolize the five mothers.

In the case of a nine spoked vajra, the upper spokes symbolize the Buddhas of the five families and the four mothers, one between each of the Buddhas. The lower spokes represent the five wisdoms and the four immeasurable wishes of love, compassion, equanimity and joy.

The sea-monster's mouth from which each spoke emerges represents freedom from cyclic existence. Of the two lotuses at the hub of the vajra, the upper one symbolizes the eight Bodhisattvas, and the lower one, the eight goddesses. Paired with a bell the vajra represents method or compassion.

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