Khatvanga

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Khatvanga (Skt. khaṭvāṅga; Tib. ཁ་ཊྭཱཾ་ག་, Wyl. kha TwAM ga) — a trident with symbolic elements.

This word is often pronounced khatamka by Tibetans, as this is how the syllables of the Tibetan transliteration would be pronounced if they made up an ordinary Tibetan word.

A Wanderer's Attitude

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says:

The khaṭvāṅga is quite a beautiful object, which looks kind of like a walking stick with three upward pointing prongs. An explanation of the khaṭvāṅga is very difficult. Suffice to say, the kapāla (skull-cup) and the khaṭvāṅga (trident) are considered to be two of the greatest substances in the vajrayana, especially if you are one of the highest vajrayana practitioners.
In a metaphorical sense, the khaṭvāṅga is also an attribute of a wanderer. It symbolises the practice of a wanderer: a tantric practice whereby the world is always looked on as a strange world, as though it were a place never before encountered. It is as if it is your very first time to visit this earth. In short, having the attitude of a wanderer is also similar to being someone with no food, no mat, no Lonely Planet book in your bag; let alone credit-cards, or a mobile phone to call home with. And as tantric practitioners, it is quite important that you always try to develop the attitude of a wanderer in looking at the world.[1]

The Iconography of the Khaṭvāṅga

The khaṭvāṅga is the divine body;
Prajna is the sound of the damaru.
The lord who holds the vajra is day;
The yogini is night.
Charya song of the Mahasiddha Luipa
Firmly holding the central channel as the khaṭvāṅga;
The unstruck sound of the damaru resounds with the ultimate sound of emptiness.
Having adopted the conduct of a Kapalika-yogin, Kanhapa roams about in the city of the body,
Being of one disposition towards all beings.
Charya song of the Mahasiddha Kanhapa[2]

Outer Symbolism

The crossed vajra represents the earth that forms the base of the mandala of Mount Meru. The vase with its four leaf shaped pendants represents Mt Meru and its four faces. The freshly severed head above it (red in colour) represents the six heavens of the desire realm (kamaloka) gods. The decaying severed head above that (blue or green in colour) represents the eighteen heavens of the form realm (rupaloka). The decaying head indicates the death of desire in the gods that abide in these heavens. The fleshless skull above that (white in colour) represents the four heavens of the formless realm (arupaloka). The absence of flesh indicates the death of both desire and hatred in these gods. The trident represents the Three Jewels, and the Buddhas of past, present, and future. The hanging damaru and bell represent the union of skilful means and wisdom. The triple-valance pendant symbolises the victory banner placed at the peak of Mount Sumeru. The hanging white scarf tied around the vase represents the mountain and great salt ocean that surround Mount Sumeru.

Inner Symbolism

The crossed vajra symbolises: the purified four elements of earth, water, fire, and air; the four activities (karmas); and the four doors of liberation (emptiness, signlessness, wishlessness, and lack of composition). The vase represents the non-conceptual awareness of mind as the perfection of wisdom's "nectar of attainment". The freshly severed head symbolises the nirmanakaya, and the emptiness of cause. The decaying head symbolises the sambhogakaya, and the emptiness of effect. The completely exposed skull symbolises the dharmakaya, and the emptiness of phenomena. The trident represents the three channels, with the flames around the central tine symbolising the ascent of the inner fire of tummo (gtum mo). The meaning of the hanging damaru and bell remain unchanged, while the tri-coloured valance indicates the three vehicles of Hinayana (yellow), Mahayana (red), and Vajrayana (blue). The hanging white scarf symbolises the teachings of all the nine yanas.

Notes

  1. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Longchen Nyingtik Manual, Khyentse Foundation, 2004, page 97.
  2. Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, Shambhala, 1999, page 252.