The Growth-Enhancing Heavenly King

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on April 3, 2017.)

A red-faced Zeng Shang with his sword at
Longxing Temple, Zhengding, Shijiazhuang, Hebei

Today we come to the fourth and last of the "Heavenly Kings." His Sanskrit name is Virudhaka, but he is known in Chinese as Zeng Zhang, literally "increasing length," but widely interpreted to mean that he "enhances virtue." So in folk tradition, he is Mo-Li Heng, the last character meaning "a lot" or "vast."

By the way, the word Mo-Li in the names of all the kings is a phonetic representation of "Mara," the Sanskrit name for a demon who tempts the Buddha-to-Be when he was on the verge of enlightenment.

As "demons," the kings are powerful protectors at the temples' gates. But we mustn't think of them as somehow "evil"; in many areas of Buddhist tradition, demons are multifaceted characters who have the power to do good or ill. Thus, we may pause when we see Virudhaka gripping a sword. But a weapon may be used for good or for ill.

Like the other Heavenly Kings, Virudhaka is derived from a Hindu god, in this case Yama, the God of Death and Lord of the Underworld. Like Virudhaka, Yama is associated with the south, and is usually depicted as blue (though in some temples, and especially those in Japan, Virudhaka's face may be red).

That brings us to the end of our look at the Four Heavenly Kings, who are reflected in this passage from the Hindu epic The Ramayana:
May He whose hands the thunder wield [=Indra; Dhrtarastra]
Be in the east thy guard and shield;
May Yama's [Virudhaka] care the south befriend,
And Varun's[Virupaksha] arm the west defend;
And let Kubera [Vaishravana], Lord of Gold,
The north with firm protection hold.

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