So, first of all let’s talk about yidams. The term is usually translated in most Western languages as "deity". But I find that, although one of the Tibetan words and Sanskrit words for it does have the same word as "deity", this translation is a bit misleading for us.
Because they certainly have nothing to do with a creator god or with the Hindu gods or Greek gods.
In Buddhism we speak about the various gods and deities as one type of possible rebirth realm.
And these yidams are called "special deities" in the sense that they're not samsaric beings, by any means.
But to avoid confusion just from the word "deity", it's better to drop it and refer to these yidams as Buddha-figures.
So, we have a lot of these Buddha-figures in both sutra and tantra - the two basic divisions in Mahayana Buddhism.
So, let's take a look in both.
Now, when we talk about these as Buddha-figures, as yidams, it's really just the term that's used for them in tantra practice.
But, in fact, in the Mahayana sutras we have all these various Buddhas with the same names and a lot of them also appear as bodhisattvas.
Bodhisattvas often with the same names as well.
And these appear, for instance, in the audiences that - you know you have these incredible scenes of - Buddha teaches the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra on Vulture Peak and there's 100,000 bodhisattvas and 20,000,000 beings from all sorts of god realms and so on in the audience - so they're part of the audience.
Also in these Mahayana sutras it talks about all sorts of Buddha-realms - different realms besides our realm which are headed by different Buddhas which have these names, like Akshobhya, and Amitaba and so on - all these pure lands.
And in both these cases we have to realize that the purpose is to show the vastness of the teachings. In the Hinayana teachings the aim is much more modest; working for our own liberation.
And the concept of Buddha is also more limited. Buddha Shakyamuni achieved enlightenment in this lifetime and when he passed away with Parinirvana then the mindstream extinguishes - finished.
And although we speak about future Buddha and so on, they're not yet Buddhas.
Whereas in Mahayana we have this idea of the different bodies of a Buddha - sambhogakaya, nirmanakaya - all these incredible explanations of Buddhas. And Buddhas go on forever and work forever benefiting everybody.
And so to help people to expand their consciousness to enter the vast vehicle Mahayana, then we have these unbelievably vast audiences in the sutras and these vast pictures of millions and billions of universes and Buddha fields and things like this. It's all to expand the mind.
The other aspect where we find these figures in Mahayana is as bodhisattvas.
Now in the Hinayana texts we do have mention of bodhisattvas. They do accept that in order to become a Buddha you need to be a bodhisattva first.
However in the Mahayana sutras we make a much bigger thing out of bodhisattvas because we ourselves can become bodhisattvas.
In the Hinayana if we have let's say a thousand Buddhas of this current eon and they will all come from bodhisattvas, the presentation is that all the places have been taken already. There are no reservations left available. And so there is no point in working to become a bodhisattva because that's not available anymore. The best we can do is work for our own liberation.
So, this theme that's presented in the Hinayana teachings is expanded much more in Mahayana because from the Mahayana point of view we ourselves can become bodhisattvas. We can become Buddhas...through the path of bodhisattvas.
But the very interesting feature that we have in connection with this in the Mahayana sutras is a great emphasis on - well, not a great emphasis - but we have an aspect which is a devotional aspect toward these bodhisattvas.
So, if we look at it historically we can say, for instance, that this devotional aspect toward these various Buddha figures and bodhisattvas came in to Buddhism at the time when India had contact with Persian culture.
This is basically in the 2nd century A.D. Actually started a bit earlier than that, even the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C. but it reached its head in the 2nd century A.D.
And this is when you had one dynasty, one empire ruling both India and the Persian areas. Basically they were centered around the Kashmir area.
And so this actually had an enormous influence on India, this cultural contact with Persian civilization.
And one of the aspects that - according to Western academics analyzing it - that had a great influence was the Persian religions, specifically Zoroastrianism.
And Zoroastrianism has in it various figures, saints or whatever you want to call them, that we shouldn't of think in terms of Christian saints. That's a completely different idea with martyrdom and all that sort of stuff - nothing to do with that. But great figures which - a little bit like bodhisattvas perhaps is closer.
Saints also in the West are intermediaries through whom we can come into contact with God. That's not at all the idea either in Zoroastrianism or in Indian religions.
However, there was a devotional aspect associated with these figures in the Persian religions and that influence of that idea came into India and things which were there in not a very emphasized form in early Buddhism and Hinduism as well became very, very much expanded and important.
By the way Persian religions, Zoroastrianism, is really quite important because it exerts and influence not only on Indian religions but also on Biblical traditions. So we get a big influence of - and upsurgence - of devotion with the development of Christianity in Biblical cultures.
Like we were speaking last night of this Persian idea of light and dark, good and bad. That also influences the Biblical religions so that in Christianity we get a much more huge emphasis on heaven and hell than was ever in Judaism- in the Old Testament.
So, in Hinduism then we get the whole development of the devotional side with Krishna and Shiva and all this type of stuff - devotional things emerge very strongly in Hinduism at this time and also in Buddhism the so called devotional aspects towards bodhisattvas.