Mahakala is relied upon in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and is depicted in a number of variations, each with distinctly different qualities and aspects. He is also regarded as the emanation of different beings in different cases, though he is best known as a wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. He is a Dharmapala (Dharma Protector) and one of the eight main Dharmapalas, alongside Yama, Yamantaka, Hayagriva, Vaisravana, Palden Lhamo, Tshangspa Dkarpo, and Begtse.

Mahakala is typically black in color. Just as all colors are absorbed and dissolved into black, all names and forms are said to melt into those of Mahakala, symbolizing his all-embracing, comprehensive nature. Black can also represent the total absence of color, and again in this case it signifies the nature of Mahakala as ultimate or absolute reality.

Mahakala is almost always depicted with a crown of five skulls, which represent the Five Wisdoms.

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