SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Dr Robert Mayer - How did the Heruka get his wings, and why did the Guru have a feather in his cap? Avian symbolism in rNying ma iconography.

Dr Robert Mayer (Oriental Institute, Wolfson College, Oxford)

Date: 16 February 2016Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 16 February 2016Time: 6:30 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B102

Type of Event: Seminar


Within Tantric or Vajrayāna Buddhism, probably the most important and prestigious objects of meditation and worship are a class of wrathful deities known in Sanskrit as heruka, or in Tibetan as khrag 'thung (literally, 'Blood Drinker'). In the influential 'Ancient' or rNying ma school of Tibetan Buddhism (well-known to the contemporary West through such texts as the misnamed 'Tibetan Book of the Dead'), heruka deities ubiquitously and prominently display an avian symbolism:  the herukas themselves frequently have two huge wings, and a divine bird or garuḍa often circles overhead. Yet despite its widespread occurrence in Tibet, such avian iconography seems to have been vanishingly rare in Indian Vajrayāna, so that we must probably consider it a predominantly Himalayan and Tibetan development. In this lecture, I explore intriguing clues from the 10th century Dunhuang texts and elsewhere, that might help explain why, how, when, and from whom, the Tibetan herukas acquired their wings.


Robert Mayer gained his PhD from the University of Leiden, and had his first academic post at SOAS, working on the late Anthony Aris's well-known publication, Tibetan Medical Paintings. Subsequently he was Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wales, and Professor of Tibetology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He joined the Oriental Studies Faculty of Oxford University in 2002, where he remains as University Research Lecturer. He and his wife Dr Cathy Cantwell (who is President of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies) have led a number of research projects at Oxford, investigating the formation of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. More recently, Rob and Cathy have also developed a connection with the Käte Hamburger Kolleg at the Ruhr University, now one of the most dynamic centres in contemporary Europe for the study of religion.

Organiser: Peter Flügel

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