Here's a crude summary: when you're dead, initially you may encounter things that may seem to be deities but which are really just products of the mind/imagination.
According to the Book (p 387), the deities are symbols that emerge from:
the meditator's own awareness ... and sensory and mental processes.
The 42 symbols of peacefulness:
represent the quiescent natural purity of these fundamental components of our being.
In contrast the 58 symbols of wrathfulness are:
transformative aspects... which bring about the natural transformation of the most enduring and deep-seated expressions of our mundane perceptual states.The wrathful deities represent aspects of transformation, and in that sense are dynamic compared to the "quiescent" peaceful deities, which seem to me to be about abiding timelessly and statically in bliss. (I was going to put quotation marks around "abiding", "timelessly", "statically" and "bliss" but realised that you'd get the point without my having to do that).
The wrathful deity Mahottara Heruka, for example, symbolises the:
natural transformation of fundamental ignorance into pure awareness.Mahottara Heruka is the wrathful aspect of the peaceful Buddha, Samantabhadra.
But what is the appropriate label: "deities" or "aspects" or Jungian archetypes from the collective unconscious, something else entirely, or none of the above?
The question highlights the unreliability of language, which often conceals more than reveals. Whatever the label, the Book itself says that the "deities" are products of the mind. What's harder to accept is that those minds belong to people whose physical body has died, "people" whose consciousness continues to continue after death.
If there is an afterlife, does the experience vary according to the cultural context of the dead person? Are the names of the beings you might meet there expressed in your language, eg Tibetan? Do those beings keep the same name irrespective of the cultural/linguistic background of the dead person? Is there always the same number of beings of each type, "peaceful" and "wrathful", and do they always represent the same thing/aspect of being?
I do wonder, though, that if the deities are symbols emerging from a person's awareness, why call them deities? Why not call them symbols? Or is that just a second-order, translating/linguistic issue? And, why "wrathful" not, eg, "transformative" or even "catalytic"?
Isn't the artwork great though?
How eating dogshit can avert death is another post about the Book, in this blog.