Look here, look there, you will find them everywhere : Dikpala guarding us all the way
Directions hold great symbolic and spiritual significance in Hindu cosmology and are integral to various religious practices, rituals, houses, temple constructions, and daily routines. Directions determine the flow of energy and are divine and holy. Energy is an essential aspect of spiritual and physical sciences. The sacredness of direction was further intensified by appointing direction guards for each direction.
The Vedic and post-Vedic periods had been constantly associated with a ruling deity who would guard and guide. Probably the gods of the directions were responsible primarily for safeguarding or assisting the cosmic order or rit (रित्), which maintained the physical and moral order of the universe. During the Vedic period, Adityas born out of Aditi were the rulers of the sky, responsible for guarding end to end.
The term, Dikpala (दिक्पाल) or Lokpala ( लोकपाल) is generally understood in Hinduism as the lord of directions. The shifting to eight directions from the basic four cardinal directions was seen during the post-Vedic period. In the post-Vedic period emerged a demarcated concept of ashtadikpal (अष्टदिकपाल). Ashta meaning eight, and Dikpala, were the lord of directions. Many prime Vedic gods were identified as Ashtadikpālas in the post-Vedic period.
It's understood that in one of the Purana (पुराण), the idea of Guardians of the directions or dikpal being eight in number originated, a shift from the earlier belief of guardian gods of four cardinal directions only. It led to the concept of ashtadikpala, who ruled the eight quarters or the eight directions of the universe. '"Ashta" ( अष्ट) means eight, "dik" (दिक्) means quarters or directions and "pālas" ( पाल ) means ruler or one who sustains us. There developed more addition and variations of astadikpala in the form of dasa dikpala (दस दिक्पाल) -guardians of ten directions or navadikpala (नव दिक्पाल) - the guardian of nine directions.
Right from the Vedic period to modern times, the belief in the sacredness of direction continued. During the Vedic period, for the various Yajnas (यज्ञ) and sacrificial rituals related to samskaras (संस्कार), directions and orientation of the sacrifice altar had a vital role to play. Even in astrology, architecture and daily rituals like atmapradakshina ( आत्म प्रदक्षिणा- revolving around one self in front of deities or in a temple )concept of the sacredness of direction prevails. During Atma pradakshina or pradakshina along with respecting the self we also pay respect to the our guardian deities around us in all directions. Even today, modern architecture takes into consideration the Vastu of the design. Vasthushāstra elaborately deals with the directions while designing different kinds of structures. With the significance and sacredness of directions came along the demerits of not following the law of directions. Dishashul ( दिशाशूल ) and Vastu dosha ( वास्तुदोष ) are two doshas ( दोष- faults or defect) associated with rules of directions which people want to avoid in the current time as well.
Dishashul is the direction to avoid travelling on particular days, especially if someone is undertaking their journey for some significant/auspicious work. In such cases to date, people refer to panchang (पंचांग) or a Purohit (पुरोहित - astrologer /priest ) is consulted. However, if it's unavoidable to travel, astrological priests can provide a solution. Similarly, to avoid vastu dosh or demerits arising from noncompliance with direction and orientation rules while constructing a house, office, temple, or any building, even modern architects keep Vastu principles in mind.
As mentioned earlier, the sacredness of directions and belief in Guardians or Gods of directions are crucial in almost all ancient religions. Ancient Javanese and Bali Hinduism recognize Nava Dikpala, meaning guardians of nine directions, consisting of eight directions with one addition in the centre. Hinduism, Buddhism (especially Vajrayana Buddhism) and Jainism believe in Dikpala. The Chinese have a similar belief in four spirits/guards guarding the four directions - the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the white Tiger of the West, and the Black tortoise/Black Warrior of the North.
In Udyoga Parva (उद्योग पर्व) of Mahabharata and Ramayana as well we find references to the direction guardians. Mahabharata mentions four heavenly quarters guarded/ supported by the guardian cow goddesses Kamadhenu (कामधेनु) and her four daughters. The four daughters of Kamadhenu are Dhenu for the north, Harhsika/ Hansika for the south, saurabhi / Surupa for the east and Subhadra for the west. Ramayana mentions four elephants who guard the four corners: Viru-paksha for the east, Maha-Padma for the south, Saumanas for the west and Bhadra for the north. This description resembles the story of Eight elephants which guard the eight directions.
It is understood that four main deities were associated with four cardinal directions north, south, west and east. Later, four more Gods were added to include guardians for the southwest, southeast, northwest and northeast, leading to Ashta Dikpala and Ashta Diggaja.
The commonly accepted Astradikpala since post-Vedic times is Indra (इंद्र), the God of rain and thunder, guarding the eastern quarter. Kubera (कुबेर), the treasurer of Lakshmi, is the guardian of the north. Varuna (वरुण), the God of water and the sea guards the western quarters. Yama (यम) is the God of death and guards the southern direction. Agni (अग्नि), God of fire, guards the southeastern direction and is next to Indra in importance in Rigveda. Nirrti (निर्रति) represents poverty and corruption and guards the southwestern direction. Vayu (वायु), the lord of winds, guards the northwestern quarters and is also mentioned in Rigveda. Isana (ईशान), the form of Lord Siva, represents knowledge and prosperity and guards the northeast direction. All the Gods mentioned above, except Kubera and Isana, appear in Rigveda.
There were two more additions in some descriptions- Lord Brahma, the creator representing the Zenith or the upward direction (between northeast and east) and Lord Vishnu, the sustainer representing the nadir (between southwest and south direction) or the downward direction.
The belief in Dikpala, or guardian of directions, is a beautiful way to express the omniscience of God. The element of rituals, personal Gods and cosmic rules are beautifully embedded here. The belief in guardian deities protecting the world in all directions and maintaining the order of the universe has been comforting for a peaceful and prosperous existence. It gives us hope of someone guarding us against unseen situations and happenings.
Whatever advancements we might achieve in science and technology, the fear of the unseen always looms over our minds, and the belief in Dikpala has provided solace since ancient times. The post-Vedic period became more ritualistic, and the number and importance of personal gods increased. This belief has a comforting and calming influence on people's minds, leading to many achievements and successes. The faith in being protected by someone changes the mindset and attitude, ultimately deciding the altitude of one's life.