There are several versions of the legend explaining his eleven heads, butthey all resolve themselves into the following:
Avalokiteshvara, the all pitying one, descended into hell, converted thewicked, liberated them, and conducted them to Sukhavati, the paradise of hisspiritual father, Amitabha.
He discovered, however, to his dismay, that for every culprit converted andliberated, another instantly took his place. Legend claims that his headsplit into ten pieces from grief and despair on discovering the extent ofwickedness in the world, and the utter hopelessness of saving all mankind.Amitabha caused each piece to become a head, and placed the heads on thebody of his spiritual son, Avalokitesvara. Nine of the heads have benignfaces and are depicted in three rows; the tenth has an angry face, while thehead at the top is that of Amitabha.
All the heads, except that of Amitabha, is crowned. In contrast to thefloral crowns of the three rows of heads, the top wrathful head is adornedwith a crown of skulls.
At a symbolic level, eight of the heads represent the cardinal directionsand their intermediate points, and the other three signify the zenith, thecenter, and the nadir.
Fascinating as this myth is, it probably disguises an earlier myth of cosmiccreation in which a primal being created the universe by disintegrating hisown person.
Amitabha further said to Avalokiteshvara that there was still another way toaccomplish his goal. Mahakala, the wrathful aspect of Avalokiteshvara, wasthen created to fight against negative forces with compassion and to destroyobstacles in the path towards righteousness, thereby helping all sentientbeings reach enlightenment. The tenth wrathful head is thus that ofMahakala.
In addition Avalokiteshvara is given a thousand arms, which form a mandalaaround his body and symbolize his pervasiveness. The palm of each hand ismarked with an eye, the 'eye of mercy', to see the sufferings of all beings,and to help sentient beings overcome them.
The two central arms hold a wish-fulfilling gem; one main right arm isholding the wheel of combined spiritual teaching and benevolent governance;another upraised right hand holds the rosary. a left hand holds a bow andarrow, their pairing symbolizes the coincidence of wisdom and method, or theunion of wisdom and concentration. Another upraised left hand holds a lotusin full bloom. This is a symbol of purity, renunciation, and divinity.
Of Related Interest:
Eleven Headed Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan Thangka Painting)
Eleven Headed Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara (Brass Statue)
Eleven Headed Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara (Antiquated Sterling Silver Pendant)