The Ashtadikpalas, Rulers of Eight Directions

In Hinduism, the Ashtadikpalas are the rulers of the eight directions of the universe, and there are 8 of them. (Ashta means 8, dik means directions, and palas means rulers). Each direction or quarter is presided over by a particular divinity, who is its chief guardian spirit. They also ensure order in the universe and protect its occupants.

The concept of Ashtadikpalas emerged in the post-Vedic period. During the Vedic era, the Adityas ruled the skies and watched over the entire world. They were aware of all the things that happened, as they had eyes and spies everywhere. The mother of the Adityas was Aditi, the mother of all Gods. The earth was ruled by Pusan, a handsome god with a shaft who knew all the directions and who knows the paths that lead one to green pastures and safe places. The Rigvedic hymns contain no reference to the dikpalas. But each of them had a supreme status and had his own following.

In the post-Vedic era, the Vedic religion saw many fundamental changes. There was a new order in the Vedic pantheon. Some gods vanished while others lost their ranks. Perhaps, the priests who performed their worship moved elsewhere or switched to new gods. With the emergence of bhakti cults like Vaishnavism and Saivism, the rituals that were once very elaborate gave way to simple devotion to a personal god. The Vedic gods lost their importance at this time and reappeared as the dikpalas.

One can see images of these gods in many temples on a central panel in the Mahamandapa’s (central pavilion) ceiling. The Mahamandapa faces the main deity. If the temple represents God’s abode, its ceiling represents the sky. Thus, the Ashtadikpalas are the guardians of the sky, who watch over us and our activities from eight different directions.

The Ashtadikpala concept seems to hint that God is omnipresent. So, in whatever direction we proceed or offer worship, we can find Him. In ancient days, when people had to traverse harsh terrain and forests where wild animals and dacoits lurked, this belief must have been comforting to many. Many of us are not aware of the fact that when we make an Atma-Pradakshina (revolving around oneself) before God, we are saluting the self within, the God in front of us, and also the divinities that are present around us in all directions.

It was from the concept of Ashtadikpalas that Vastu shastra, the traditional Hindu science of design and construction, evolved. Vasthu-shastra denotes ‘knowledge of things’. This science deals with the manner in which we should organize things in a location to ensure a better flow of energies and blessings of divinities. In ancient India, it heavily influenced the following aspects.

  1. The layout, construction, and design of buildings, monuments, and temples.
  2. The building’s location and its different components in relation to its direction, other buildings, and presence of auspicious and inauspicious structures like burial and cremation grounds, battlefields, groves, rivers, ponds, wells, and other water bodies near its location.
  3. The general layout of a house, rooms, windows, doors, steps, entrance, front and backyards, cattle shed, location of the water tank, kitchen, bedrooms, storeroom, Pooja room, etc.
  4. The placement of household items like furniture, clothes, utensils, and idols.
  5. The location of farms, fields, water tanks, canals, wells, groves, etc., within a village, city, palace grounds, etc.
  6. Rules regarding the construction of sacrificial altars with reference to the size, number, location, and the nature of the bricks to be used in the construction
  7. General rules on how to position a dead body before and during cremation, in which direction one should sleep, eat, have sex, or pray to the gods, how to organize a puja, a marriage ceremony, a sacrificial ceremony, etc.

Vasthu Shastra probably sourced its contents from Vedic texts containing descriptions of the various gods and goddesses, ancient mathematics, knowledge on water divining, the human anatomy, construction of sacred places for worship and rituals, designing of yantras, and the occult knowledge of how energy flows, prevailing customs and practices, knowledge of geography, etc. In Vastu, the Dikpalas and the roles and functions each had in the divine order of creation were very important. Dharma ensures the order and stability of all the 3 worlds while Vastu plays a key role in structural and functional harmony. Its importance is visible even in the town planning of the ancient Indus Valley civilization.

For instance, traditional Hindus believe that the northeast corner of a room must be empty because this direction belongs to God or Iswara. They also do business facing the North, because Kubera, the lord of wealth, rules the North. They avoid facing the South as Yama, the lord of death, rules it. People in general also don’t construct their houses, where the main facade faces the South, since that can create physical and mental problems and disabilities for those who occupy the building and the owners as well.

When buying a property or performing a ritual/ ceremony, there are some important things to remember -in what direction we should sit, in what direction we should perform the rituals, in what direction the house or gate should face, etc. These things matter because Vastu Shastra declares that following the right direction can bring peace, success, prosperity, happiness, and good health to the family. It is the custom to offer salutations to the Ashtadikpalas or the guardians of the Eight Directions and invoke them before any rituals.

Who are the 8 Ashtadikpalas?

Indra, the king of the devas, is the lord of the Eastern direction. He is also the God of rain and thunder and is portrayed as sitting on his white elephant, Airavat. He holds the Vajra, his weapon, and the thunderbolt, which strikes thunder and brings rain.

Varuna is the Water God, and he rules the West direction. He rides a crocodile and is also the king of the seas. His weapon is the Paasa (noose) and punishes those who do not repent their sins.

Kubera, the God of wealth, rules the North direction. He gives wealth and riches. He is depicted as a plump, dwarfish, and pot-bellied figure carried by a man, signifying that man is always burdened by the unwanted weight of materialistic wealth.

Yama, the God of death, is the ruler of the Southern direction. He represents fire, and all rituals associated with him are performed in the Southern direction. Hence, we should never position our head facing the South when sleeping. He rides a buffalo with a noose in his hand.

Agni, the Fire God, rules the Southeastern direction. Agni is the messenger through whom all our rituals reach God through the Homam or sacrificial fire. He rides a Ram and has a pot-shaped stomach.

Goddess Nritti is the ruler of the Southwestern direction. She is the goddess of poverty and is black in complexion. Hence we should not wear black clothes during auspicious occasions. She should be kept at a distance. Any ritual which is not performed with hygiene and proper care will attract her presence.

Vayu, the Wind God, rules the Northwest direction. His vehicle is a stag. He holds a waving flag which represents breath and life.

The Northeast direction is ruled by Ishana, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. This direction is the most auspicious as it represents knowledge and prosperity. Shiva rides the bull, Nandi, and holds a trishul in his hand.

The other two additional directions are the upward and the downward directions. The upward direction is ruled by Lord Brahma, symbolizing the creation of life. The downward direction is ruled by Lord Vishnu, who maintains balance and preserves the universe.

Doing Ashtadikpala Homam can protect your land or construction from 8 directions. It appeases the dikpalas, and they ensure that no malefic influences or enemies will attack you from any direction. It also brings wealth, peace, and prosperity.