The Dikpalas (also called Lokapalas) are known in Hinduism as the guardians of the directions. Each god or goddess represents a specific cardinal direction and are used in ritual for various purposes. It is generally agreed upon that there are four main deities, which correspond to north, south, west, and east. However, it is common that those 4 deities are expanded to include deities for the southwest, southeast, northwest and northeast. For this article, I will include Yama, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, Indra, Nirrti, Kubera, Isana, Brahma, and Visnu (Morgan 65). The last two deities symbolize the two additional directions, the nadir and zenith. The kshetrapala was known as the guardian of the farmland, but has now become a deity who resides over a particular piece of land (Werner 65).
The dikpala that is associated with the Eastern direction is Indra. Indra is the god of rain and thunder (Perry 121). He is often depicted riding a white elephant, while holding a lightning bolt called a vajra. As the leader of the devas, or gods, he is believed to be constantly waging war on the asuras, or demons (Morgan 73). Indra is represented in the eastern direction of Hindu temples.
Agni is most commonly associated with the southeastern direction and is depicted with two heads. He is known as the god of fire and is responsible for leading man to the gods. He is thought to be represented by sacrificial fire, from which he takes offerings into the godly realm. In the Rg Veda, he is second in power to Indra. It can be interpreted that he represents both fire and water because he is said to be fire born from water (Werner 17). His bearded, pot bellied form is commonly seen riding a ram as a mount (Morgan 73).
Yama is the god of death or the underworld and represents the southern direction. In the Rg Veda, he is said to be the first mortal who died and became ruler over the underworld (Werner 119). He is thought to represent the element of fire and is positioned over the southern area of the temple. He is often depicted riding a buffalo with a mace in his hand (Morgan 73).
Nirrti is the goddess of the southwestern direction, and is thought to represent poverty and corruptions. She is commonly depicted having dark skin, hair, and clothes (Kinsley 13). She is thought to be the embodiment of pain, and is often depicted riding a man as her mount with a sword in her hands (Morgan 73).
Varuna is the god who represents the western direction. He is known to be the god of water and the sea and is represented by the serpent snare (Acri and Jordaan 293). He is often seen together with Mitra and the two of them make up the gods of the oath or societal affairs. Alone, he is often depicted on an alligator-like mount holding a noose (Morgan 73).
Vayu is the god of the northwest and is known as lord of the winds. In the Rg Veda hymns, he is described as having exceptional beauty, but is not as prominent as others gods such as Indra or Agni. He is often depicted riding a stag, while holding a flag in his hand (Morgan 73).
Kubera is the god associated with the northern direction and is the lord of wealth. He is often depicted wearing many jewels, being overweight and having a winged conch shell. His vehicle is sometimes a man or horse. He is the treasurer of Laksmi, who is the goddess of good fortune and prosperity (Morgan 73).
Isana is associated with the god Siva and represents the northeast direction. Isana is a form of the god Siva, and represents knowledge and prosperity. This god is known as the one from whom the universe originates. He is often depicted riding a bull and holding a trident (Morgan 73).
It is worth mentioning that sometimes there are two other gods included in the dikpalas. Brahma is a god that is associated with the zenith, the upward direction. He is commonly understood as having a significant impact in the Hindu creation story. He can be seen riding a goose as his mount and has four faces and arms (Buhnemann 65). The zenith is represented between the northeast and east. Visnu is the god that is associated with the nadir, or downward direction. He is highly significant in Hinduism and his incarnations include Rama and Krsna. As the god of preservation, he is known for preserving the universe during its endless cycles of rebirth. He can be depicted as a pale blue being which has four arms. It is common for objects such as a lotus, conch, discus, prayer beads or a manuscript to be visible in his hands. The nadir is represented between the southwest and south direction (Buhnemann 65).
The Dikpalas are used in Hinduism as guardians of the cardinal directions and guardians of the sacred worship space. The first six gods mentioned above are older gods that appeared in the Vedas, while Kubera and Isana are from folk cults predating the Vedas (Morgan 72-73). In temples, each corresponding god is represented in each corresponding cardinal direction. For example, Yama would be portrayed in the southern area of the temple and Indra in the East.
A Hindu practitioner would salute the guardians during the beginning of the ritual. This is commonly done in parts, depending on how elaborate the ritual is. First, each guardian is invoked into his or her specific cardinal point starting with Indra in the east. Next, the attributes of the directional guardians can be invoked (Buhnemann 65). They correspond as follows: East – the thunderbolt (vajra), southeast – the spear (sakti), south – the staff (danda), southwest – the sword (khadga), west – the noose (pasa), northwest – the goad (ankusa), north – the mace (gada), northeast – the trident (trisula), zenith – the lotus (padma), and nadir – the wheel (cakra) (Buhnemann 65).
Each of the eight directional diety’s consort, vehicle, and directional elephant can be named as well. Respectively, they are named: Indra – Saci/Airavata (his mount is already a directional elephant), Agni – Svaha/the ram/Pundarika, Yama – Varahi/the buffalo/Vamana, Nirrti – Khadgini/the corpse/Kumuda, Varuna – Varuni/the sea monster/Anjana, Vayu – Vayavi/the deer/Puspadanta, Kubera – Kauberi/the man/Sarvabhauma, Isana – Isani/the bull/Supratika. Depending on the practitioner or the type of ritual being conducted, some or all of the above may be used (Buhnemann 65-66).
Werner, Karel (1997) A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism. Surrey: Curzon
Perry, Edward (1885) “Indra In The Rig-Veda”. Journal of The American Oriental Society 11: 117-208
Morgan, Kenneth (1987) The Religion of The Hindus. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of The Divine Feminine in The Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: University of California Press
Jordaan, Acri, and Andrea (2012) “The Dikpalas of Ancient Java Revisited: A New Identification for the 24 directional deities on the Siva temple of the Loro Jonggrang complex”. Brill 168: 274-313.
Buhnemann, Gudrun (2003) Mandalas and Yantras in The Hindu Traditions. Leiden: Brill
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Article written by: Meghan Gausman (March 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.