Meditational Deities (yi dam) and Wisdom Deities (ye she pa'i lha) are synonymous in Buddhist Tantra. A 'wisdom deity' means a deity form that represents or is an emanation of perfect and complete enlightenment. However, there is a second meaning for the phrase 'wisdom deity' although spelled differently in the Tibetan language - sherab kyi lha. In the English language the two similar but different words 'ye she' and 'she rab' are often simply translated as 'wisdom.'
There is a sub-category of Meditational Deities called Wisdom Deities, or to be more precise Wisdom 'producing' Deities. These forms have the specific function of increasing intelligence, memory, eloquence, writing skills, poetry, song, education, knowledge and most importantly wisdom (shes rab) leading to pristine awareness (ye she) and enlightenment - as defined in Buddhist philosophy. This category of deity is commonly referred to as Wisdom Deities despite having the same name used for the larger category of Buddhist Tantric Deities. It can however be said that all Wisdom 'producing' Deities are Wisdom Deities (ye shes pa'i lha) but not all Wisdom Deities have the same specific function of Wisdom 'producing' Deities (she rab kyi lha).
The total number of deities in the Wisdom Deity category that have a unique identity , or are there own entity (rather than existing as an emanation) is quite small compared to most other sub-categories of Meditational Deities. However, the number of possible variations in bodily form, colour and mood are many. The two most commonly known Meditational Deities that belong to this sub-category of Wisdom Deity are Manjushri and Sarasvati. Both Manjushri and Sarasvati have dozens of different forms, colours, body configurations and mood. Manjushri is often referred to as a bodhisattva which is true when he is representing a dialogue, narrative, or Sutra from the Buddhist Mahayana system, or visually depicted in the group of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas accompanying Amitabha or Shakyamuni Buddha.
While Sarasvati is almost always classified in the category of Wisdom Deity, Manjushri - who has far more forms and source literature than Sarasvati - can belong to different function catagories of Tantric Buddhist iconography. An example would be Black Manjushri whose function is to remove obstacles and also used for purification. Another example is Guhyasamaja in the form of Manjuvajra - an emanation of Manjushri and functioning as an Anuttarayoga level meditational deity. (See the outline page on Forms of Manjushri).
In this Wisdom Deity category Manjushri is understood to be an enlightened deity with the function, or activity, to increase all of the intellectual powers of the practitioner. Likewise, Sarasvati in this Tantric Buddhist logic system is not the Indian cultural goddess - wife of Brahma. As a Wisdom Deity in Buddhist Tantra Sarasvati is a completely enlightened deity often paired with Manjushri as male and female consorts.
Other deities included in the Wisdom Deity category are Maitreya the future Buddha as a Meditational Wisdom Deity, Prajnaparamita the female personification of the Mahayana Prajnaparamita literature, the female deity White Vajravarahi and the male deity White Achala.
Most of these deities are peaceful except for Red Sarasvati and White Vajravarahi who are semi-peaceful/semi-wrathful in appearance. The white male figure of Achala is wrathful in appearance and positioned in an unusual kneeling posture. All of these Wisdom Deities except for two, Vajravarahi and Achala, have a numbered of different forms and variations in appearance - far too many to list them all here.
List of Wisdom Deities (sherab kyi lha):
- Manjushri - Sarasvati
- Achala, Sita (white)
- Vajravarahi, Sita (white)
Jeff Watt 5-2012