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What is the Vajra?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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In Hinduism, the Vajra is the powerful weapon of the king of the gods, Indra. The Vajra is also a very potent symbol in Buddhism, especially in Tantric Buddhism. It also appears in Jainism, as the representation of the Thirthankar Dharmanatha.

In Hinduism, the Vajra plays a prominent role in many of Indra’s myths. The fullest creation story of the Vajra comes from later Hindu texts, after the introduction of the Trimurti and subsequent lessening of Indra’s power. It is said that Indra and the other gods were chased out of heaven by the demon Vritra, who took the form of a dragon and devoured all of the waters of the world.

Unable to defeat Vritra on his own, Indra approached Brahma and asked him for help. Brahma told Indra that no weapon the gods had could defeat Vritra, and that to do so he would have to craft a spear from the spine of the great Rishi Dadhichi. Indra approached Dadhichi and explained to him that he needed his spine to liberate the world. Dadhichi gladly accepted, noting that he would some day die anyway, and it would be better to die in the service of mankind. He entered meditation and his spirit abandoned his body, which was devoured by forest creatures, leaving only his spine. Indra took up the spine and crafted it into the Vajra, with which he defeated Vritra.

In Tibetan Buddhism the vajra is referred to as the dorje. It represents the male principle, and a symbolic vajra is held in the right hand during many rituals. The vajra is said to be absolutely indestructible, representing pure knowledge which can destroy all ignorance. The symbolic vajra is constructed to demonstrate a number of various principles.

In the center is a flattened sphere, representing the true reality of the universe. The sphere is surrounded by three rings, representing effortlessness, signlessness, and emptiness, the three blisses of Buddhahood. From the rings spring two lotuses, with eight petals each. Eight of these petals represent the eight historic bodhisattvas, and eight represent their historic consorts. Each lotus also holds three more rings. Three of these rings represent wisdom, meditation, and effort, while three represent generosity, discipline, and patience, together representing the six perfections.

From each of these lotuses also spring five prongs. Five represent the five historic Buddhas, Amitabha, Amogasiddhi, Ratnasambhava, Akshobhya, and Vairochana, while five represent their five consorts, Pandara, Tara, Vajradhatvishvari, Mamaki, and Lochana. Together these prongs are said to represent the entire ten perfections, encompassing the six already discussed, as well as aspiration, inner strength, skill, and purity of awareness. The outermost prongs also come from small seamonster heads, for a total of four. These heads are said to represent many different things, including the four elements, the four joys, the four karmas, and the four doors towards liberation. The symmetry between the two sides of the vajra is said to represent the symmetry between the two truths: absolute truth and the relative truth of experience.

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