Across many religions is the belief in demons, or malevolent spirits that may do harm or inhabit a person, resulting in the need for exorcism. Some believe that they may be the spirits of the recently deceased, returned to earth to take care of the unfinished business of their lives. So, when one sees the statues or images of the wrathful deities of Buddhism, one might automatically assume they are demons.
Demons and Idols
A demon is a malevolent, disembodied spirit. These may be the spirit of a deceased person, of a fallen angel, or a spirit which possesses a person, resulting in the need for exorcism. In Judaism and Christianity, a demon is an unclean spirit. They may be summoned and possibly controlled.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus healed the demon-possessed. One example is in Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus drove out a legion of demons from a man who had been cruelly plagued with them for years.
This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
The demons, called Legion, begged to be sent into a herd of pigs. The pigs then raced down into a lake and were drowned.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis [the Ten Cities] how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
The Apostle Paul warned against sacrificing to idols or worshiping them, and against having anything to do with demons.
Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
And he admonished that,
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.
The Apostle John wrote that during the End Times,
The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk.
In Tibetan Buddhism, wrathful deities are “enlightened beings” that are ferocious in appearance. These personifications of evil are meant to protect and to assist sentient beings into enlightenment, as well as symbolize the effort it takes to overcome evil. They are considered:
. . . benevolent gods who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil, the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos and the human mind and protect the faithful by instilling terror in evil spirits.
The worship of wrathful deities began in the 8th century. The magician-saint Padmasambhava is believed to have conquered them and forced them to act as protectors of Buddhists and the Buddhist faith. Hinduism is the source of some of the deities.
Images or statues of the wrathful deities, which are ferocious and hideous in appearance, are used to protect Buddhists from evil influences, and as a reminder to eliminate passion and evil in their lives. They are meant to frighten evil spirits, and to be “roosting places” or temporary dwellings for evil energies to reside in. The evil energy is sent into them through the use of mantras.
These icons can be in the form of masks, scrolls (paintings), or sculptures, generally depicting the deity with short, thick limbs, a great number of hands and feet, and several heads, with a third eye and disheveled hair. Atop their heads they wear crowns made from skulls or severed heads. They may be treading on animals. Their wrathful expression may be an angry smile, which includes long fangs. From their noses may be a “mist of illnesses” like a terrific storm blowing.
Some of the wrathful deities fall into three categories, the Herukas (promoting detachment from the world of ignorance), the Wisdom Kings (protectors of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, a feature of Japanese rather than Tibetan Buddhism), and the Protectors (protectors of one of the three: the World, a Region or the Law).
Initiation or empowerment ceremonies are conducted to confer the blessings of a particular deity and to authorize a follower into the various stages of meditation specific to or associated with a particular deity. A highly respected lama conducts the elaborate ceremony. The empowerments are directed at three specific areas, the body, speech and mind, and involve taking extensive vows. These are not to be undertaken lightly, as Bruce Newman warns in his book, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: Notes from a Practitioner’s Journey. He calls it the “point of no ‘return.'”
Two types of offerings may be made to the deities. “External” offerings are made in the form of
. . . a cemetary [sic] flower, incense of singed flesh, lamp burning human fat (or a substitute), scent of bile, blood (usually symbolized by red water) and human flesh (usually symbolized by parched barley flour and butter realistically colored and modeled).
“Internal” offerings are made in the form of
. . . a skull cup containing a heart, tongue, nose, pair of eyes, and pair of ears. In Tibetan texts, these are human organs, but in actual ceremonies barley-flour-and-butter replicas are used instead.
Demons or Protectors?
For the Buddhist, wrathful deities can be likened to big, scary bodyguards standing watch over their path to enlightenment, and the statues or representations are repositories for evil, but from the Judeo/Christian point of view, these deities embody the earmarks of a demon, not to be sacrificed to, worshiped or followed.
 Mark 5:3:5 (NIV).
 Mark 5:18-20 (NIV).
 1 Corinthians 10:19-21 (NIV).
 1 Timothy 4:1 (NIV).
 Revelation 9:20 (NIV).
 Bruce Newman. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: Notes from a Practitioner’s Journey. (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 31, 35, 38.