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This is a very large and in depth look at Shiva and his manifestations,such as

Bhairava and Virabhadra and more.

Like Dionysos for Greek civilization, the savage outsider god, Bhairavathe
terrible aspect of Shivais perhaps of central significance for Hinduism. The
classical iconography of this tantric divinity par excellence is explicable only
through the Purnic origin-myth that portrays him as a Brahman-slayer.
Paradoxically, his public image all over India is above all that of the stereotyped
Kshetrapla, the divine protector of the human settlement. Relegating his
policing function to eight manifestationsstationed in the eight spatial directions
Bhairava is still worshipped as the divinized magistrate of Banaras, the holy city
of the Hindus. Their further subdivision into a circle of sixty-four forms, each
paired with a female consort, especially characterizes the cult of the solar
Mrtanda-Bhairava, who is worshipped at their center. Born also of Shivas anger,
Vrabhadra often takes the place of Bhairava in other contexts. His syncretizing
worship has penetrated into all the South Asian religions: Buddhism, Jainism, and
even iconoclastic Islam. Despite its decline before the onslaughts of modernity,
we sometimes witness the revival of his worship in unexpected and curious
forms. In Nepal, Bhairavaa late, even tribal, divinity who is eager to possess
his devoteescontinues to play a pivotal role in royal festivals that are
nevertheless modeled on Vedic cosmogony. His living manifestation in human
perhaps his highestform is mediated by the (dance-) mask. The iconography of
Bhairava is best understood in the light of the philosophical system of Kashmir
Shaivism: the multiplicity of limited forms is the creative self-embodiment and
voluntary self-revelation of the formless divine.

The Hindu gods have different manifestations that can be classified as
benevolent or terrible. The images of the god Shiva are generally of five classes
namely Samhramrti (destructive), Anugrahamrti (boon-conferring), Nrttamrti
(dancing), Dakshinmrti (the yogic, musical and philosophical), and other minor
aspects. Sometimes Shiva is represented with the goddess.
Some Purnas describe Shiva with three, four or five faces. The five-faced form of
Shiva found in the Linga Purna, is identified as Vishvarpa or the universal form
of the god. These five faces, which also correspond to the five-syllabled mantra
Om Nama Shivya, are depicted as follows: 1) Sadyojta (Mahdeva), eastern
face (western in the linga), white; 2) Tatpurusha (Nandivaktra), western face
(eastern in the linga), yellow; 3) Aghora (Bhairava), southern face, blue like
collyrium; 4) Sadshiva, top face, crystal-clear, 5) Vmadeva, north, very fierce
and terrible with curved fangs and red moustache.
I shall be concerned here only with the Samhramrti (destructive aspects) of
Shiva as Bhairava. According to the Shiva Purna, Bhairava is the complete form
(prna-rpa) of Shiva because this fearsome image is indicative of
transcendence. Bhairava is etymologically so called because he protects the
universe (bharana), and because he is terrifying (bhaa). He is also known as Kla
Bhairava, for even Kla (Time, or the god of Death) trembles before him; as

mardaka because he kills evil-doers; and as Ppa-bhakshana because he

consumes the sins of his bhaktas or devotees.

Cultural Significance of Bhairava in Hinduism

Some scholars affirm that Bhairava is a tribal god. They are right, if they mean
that Bhairava played a primordial role in the Hinduization of tribal divinities. But
this process was so successful in India that the early stages are almost beyond
recognition, at least in the social organization, even where the tradition affirms
explicitly that the godlike the pan-Hindu Jagannthahas a tribal origin.
Because of his transgressive essence and his wild wandering character, Bhairava
has been instrumental, through his heretic, outcast, even criminal adepts, in the
Hinduization of local pastoral and tribal divinities, who gradually came to be
identified with one or the other of his varied forms. The late Prof. Sontheimer has
clearly demonstrated this for the Deccan region (Maharashtra, Karnataka, and
Andhra) in the exemplary case of Khandob / Mrtanda-Bhairava. As a result,
Bhairava has often two wives, the legal one coming from the settled agricultural
or merchant upper-caste culture, and the mistress, also the favorite, coming from
the hunting or gathering tribal community and retaining all her savage
The essentially black (Kla-) Bhairava is often split into two opposing yet
complementary forms, black and white (Shveta Bhairava), in Rajasthan, Madhya
Pradesh, and especially Nepal. There is often little iconographic difference
between the two forms, both of which may be represented by mere aniconic
stones. The contrast is primarily ritual in nature: the (relatively) vegetarian
character of the white Bhairava being opposed to the carnivorous black
Bhairava. In Katmandu, however, imposing images of both are situated before
the royal palace in their respective colors. This ritual contrast, also revealed in
the masked dancers who are their living embodiments in the Navadurg-dance of
Bhaktapur (Nepal), also reflects the purification or whitening of Bhairava as he
climbs up the ladder of caste-society. The terrible Rudra, Bhairavas Vedic
predecessor, had similarly been rendered auspicious in the form of Shiva. Where
other divinities like Vishnu, or especially the goddess, have been able to play a
similar Hinduizing role, it is only by assuming terrifying forms, like the man-lion
Narasimha, resembling Bhairava. The goddess takes a form approaching that of
Bhairav, consort of Bhairava, and the couple, being often confused in their sex,
facilitates the transition even from an aboriginal goddess, like the wooden post
Khambevar or Stambhevar, to the purified male Shaiva cult. Bhairava represents
all that terrifies the caste Hindu by violating the fundamental socio-religious
norms that govern his life, and thereby functioned as the natural focus and
melting pot for the assimilation of countless local and regional tribal divinities
outside these norms, but none of whomnot even Potu Rju who has played a
similar role in South Indiacan claim the pan-Indian, even pan-South Asian, and
indeed Brahmanical credentials of Bhairava.

Brahms decapitation: the origin myth of Bhairava

The thematic sequence of the Hindu iconography of Bhairava derives above all
from his origin myth that I have analyzed elsewhere. In this myth, Brahm and
Vishnu, the other two members of the Hindu trinity, were disputing with each
other for the status of supreme God. They appealed to the testimony of the four
Vedas, which unanimously proclaimed Rudra-Shiva as the Ultimate Truth of the
universe. But the disputants were unable to accept that Rudra, endowed with so
many revolting symbols of impurity and degradation, could be identical with the
Absolute Reality of Brahman, the formless metaphysical Reality behind all
phenomena. It was at this juncture that Shiva appeared as a fiery pillar of light
(jyotir linga) uniting the netherworlds and the heavens. The fifth head of Brahm
taunted Shiva who, overflowing with anger, created a blazing Bhairava in human
form. Addressing this Kla Bhairava as "Lord of Time-Death" (Kla), for he shone
like the god of Death, Shiva ordered him to chastise Brahm, promising him in
return eternal suzerainty over his sacred city of Ksh (Benares). Seeing Bhairava
rip off Brahm's guilty head, the terrified Vishnu eulogized Shiva and devotedly
recited his sacred hymns, followed in this by the now repentant Brahm. They
thus acknowledged the supreme reality of Shiva. The severed head immediately
stuck to Bhairavas hand, where it remained as the skull destined to serve as his
insatiable begging bowl. Enjoining him to honor Vishnu and Brahm, Shiva then
directed Bhairava to roam the world in this beggarly condition to atone for the sin
of Brahmanicide. "Show to the world the rite of expiation for removing the sin of
Brahmanicide. Beg for alms by resorting to the penitential rite of the skull
(kapla-vrata)." Creating a maiden renowned as Brahmanicide (brahma-haty),
Shiva instructed her to relentlessly follow Bhairava everywhere until he reached
the holy city of Ksh to which she would have no access. Finally absolved, the
criminal god was immediately promoted to policeman-magistrate (Kotwal)
entrusted with barring the entry of other evil-doers into this city of death and
final liberation.





There are three basic iconographic representations of Bhairava which derive from
this myth. As Brahma-shiras-chedaka, he grasps by its hair the severed head
whose dripping blood is greedily lapped up by his dog, and thus becomes a
Kaplin or skull-bearer. As Kankla-mrti, he is shown spearing a man or already
bearing the latters corpse (or skeleton) on his shoulder. This illustrates that
episode in Bhairavas wanderings when he slays Vivaksena, the Brahman
guardian who tries to bar his access to Vishnus abode. In both cases, he is either
naked or wearing a tiger or elephant skin, a garland of human skulls, snakes
around his neck and arms, and is grotesque with dark-skin and monstrous fangs.
Third, as the milder Bhikshtana-mrti, he roams begging for alms from the wives
of the Seven (Vedic) Sages in the Daru forest. In this episode, the women are so
seduced by his naked beauty that they abandon all shame. But why this
celebration in stone of a criminal divinity?

Although the punishment of Bhairava corresponds perfectly to that prescribed for

the most heinous crime of Brahmanicide by the Hindu law-books, his
simultaneous exaltation reflects rather the doctrines and practices of the
Kplika ascetics, who took this classical representation of Bhairava for their
divine archetype. These radical Shaiva ascetics did indeed practice human
sacrifice, the ideal victim being a Brahman. Even when themselves not originally
Brahmanicides, these Kplikas still performed the Mahvrata or Great Penance
bearing the skull-bowl and skull-staff (khatvnga) of a Brahmanicide in order to
attain the blissful state of spiritual liberation and lordship that confers magical
power. The ascetic was often accompanied by a female partner in the image of
Brahmahaty, for sexual union was considered the most potent means to such a
condition. The classical iconography of Bhairava thus portrays the god in the
human guise of a transgressive Kplika.
Kramrisch rightly says, "No contradictions were adequate and no single
iconographic likeness sufficed to render the total, tremendous mystery of
Bhairava. The furthest outreach of contradictory qualities was gathered in the
intensity of myth, and split in the variety of images in bronze and stone."
OFlaherty, remarks that "the fusion of beauty and horror in Shaiva religion is
indeed related to the reconciliation of life and death." It was this fusion of
contradictory values that seems to have facilitated the convergence of two
complementary movements within Hindu society: radical Brahmans who sought
the Ultimate Truth by transgressing the very foundations of Brahmanical
orthodoxy, and untouchable (even tribal) adherents who nevertheless conformed
in their own peculiar wayto models prescribed by the brahmanical law-books.

Bhairava Kshetrapla: the divine protector

The normal position of Kshetrapla in a Hindu temple is the northeast. The Agni
Purna (51, 17) gives an interesting description of Shiva as a Kshetrapla. He
bears a trident and a skull. The Kshetrapla can have two, four (indicating his
pure [sttvika] form), six (active [rjasa] form) or eight (obscure or terrible
[tmasa] form) arms. Bhairava is the typical Kshetrapla for the more sociocentrally located pure divinities like Vishvantha in Ksh and also functions as
the doorkeeper (dvra-pala) at the temples of such divinities. Bhairava preserves
the socially central divinity, like Vishvantha from any direct contact with impure
elements which are nevertheless vital for the proper functioning of the social
whole. The terrifying divinity of transgression can never become the object of
public cult as such, and the only means for him to receive communal worship is
by transforming himself into the equally terrifying protector-god for a more
central, pacific, and benign divinity. Thus Kla Bhairavas promised suzerainty
over Ksh has been translated in reality into his being the policeman magistrate
(kotwal) of Lord Vishvantha, the patron-deity of Vrnas (Ksh), the holy city of
the Hindus.

Bhairavshtam and the eight forms of Bhairava

In his eightfold manifestation Bhairava presides, either alone or paired as consort
with the eight mother goddesses (Mtrks), over the spatio-ritual organization of

sacred cities like Vrnas. In this center of Hindu culture, Bhairava reigns as the
policeman-magistrate (kotwl), to whom pilgrims swarming in from the furthest
reaches of the subcontinent must necessarily pay obeisance. In Katmandu, a
similar role is played by the towering black figure of Kla Bhairavawho in some
ways resembles the Buddhist Mahklain the royal square at the center of this
capital city of Nepal. Government officials and litigants are regularly sworn in
before this terrible image, which received occasional human sacrifices well into
the nineteenth century.
The eight aspects of Bhairava, further subdivided into eight (8 x 8 = 64), are
named as follows: 1) Asitnga Bhairava: golden complexion, with well-formed
limbs, and carries the trishla (trident), damaru (hour-glass-shaped drum), psha
(noose) and khadga (sword). 2) Ruru Bhairava: pure white, adorned with
ornaments set with rubies, and should carry an akshaml (rosary), the ankusha
(elephant-goad), a pustaka (book) and a vn (lute). 3) Canda Bhairava: blue
color and good-looking, carry in their hands agni (fire), shakti (spear), gad
(mace) and kunda (water-pot). 4) Krodha Bhairava: smoke color and should carry
khetaka (shield), a long khadga (sword), and parashu (axe). 5) Unmatta Bhairava:
white color, good-looking and carry in their hands the kunda, the khetak, the
parigha (iron bludgeon, or club studded with iron) and bhindipla (javelin). 6)
Kapla Bhairava: yellow color, carry the same weapons as in the previous group.
7) Bhshana Bhairava: carry the same weapons as in the above group, and are of
red color. Cool Samhra Bhairava: color resembling the lightning, carries the
same weapons as in the previous group.
It is interesting to note that in Buddhism, the Defenders of the law (Dharmapla)
are also grouped in eight (The Eight Terrible Ones). Like the eight Bhairavas they
are related to this other group of gods called the Dikplas, the guardians of
directions, known already in the Veda. These deities are 1) Indra, lord of east, 2)
Agni, lord of the south-east, 3) Yama, of the south, 4) Nirti, of the south-west, 5)
Varuna, of the west, 6) Vyu, of the north-west, 7) Kubera, of the north, Cool
shna, of the north-east.
In India today the worship of Bhairava is very similar to the worship of other
divinities. There are Bhairava temples everywhere in India from North to South
and from West to East. But Benares is the city where (Kla) Bhairava presides as
policeman-magistrate (Kotwal). Though Kla-Bhairava is the most important and
central Bhairava, he is not counted among the eight traditional Bhairavas in the
(roughly speaking) eight different directions of the holy city. These eight
Bhairavas, to whom he has relegated his function of Kotwal, are as follows: Ruru
Bhairava (the Dog) protecting the south-east; Canda Bhairava (the Fierce) in
the South; Asitnga Bhairava (the Black-Limbed) now located in a niche in a
temple in the east; Kapli Bhairava (the Skull-bearer) now at Lt Bhairava in the
north-west; Krodhana Bhairava (the Wrathful) within the sanctum of a Goddess
temple protecting the south-west; Unmatta Bhairava (the Mad) in a small shrine
at a village on the Pacakroi roadalong which pilgrims circumambulate the
whole cityprotecting the west; Samhra Bhairava (the Destroyer) in his small

temple in the north-east; and Bhshana Bhairava (the Terrible) in his small
temple protecting the north.
It is not so much the particular identity of any specific Bhairava that is important
but rather that they form a traditional group of eight, spatially distributed in
different quarters. From this perspective, it does not matter much if some of the
shrines, like those of Kapli Bhairava or Ruru Bhairava or even Kla Bhairava,
have been displaced in the course of history, or that all of them are dated from
the eighteenth century (their worship being definitely older). Though borrowed
from Indiaand often explicitly modeled on Benaresthe geometrical patterns
(mandala) have been far better preserved in Newar settlements, like the Hindu
city of Bhaktapur in Nepal. That the arbitrary growth of the numerous Bhairava
temples is nevertheless governed and shaped by a preconceived theological
system based on the number eight (or sixty-four in other contexts), is revealed by
the fact that the most important pilgrimage sequence during the month of
Mrgashrsha (November-December) is during its first eight days. Each of the
eight Bhairavas is visited in turn, and in the order of enumeration above: each
Bhairava being visited on a different day. The celebration of Kla Bhairava, the
citys guardian magistrate, as the climax of this sequence on Bhairavshtam,
Bhairavas Eighth further emphasizes their being only the eightfold
manifestation of the formers central authority.
Besides this classical set of eight Bhairavas, there are images of the god
scattered all about the city: either open-air, housed in small temples, or in a
subsidiary position in the temple of some other divinity. His temples often also
shelter images of Ganesha, Kl, Hanumn or a Shivalinga. Very often he is
merely an amorphous stone heavily bedecked with vermilion. In the south-west
corner of the great Vishvantha temple is a beautiful image of Bhairava. The
public image of Bhairava is that of the policeman-magistrate of the pure benign
king Vishvantha, the lord of the Universe. Yet in Nepal, the Deccan, and
elsewhere, the two deities are constantly confused: in Banaras itself,
Vishvantha is secretly worshipped as the destructive (Samhra) Bhairava on the
occasion of the latters birthday on Bhairavshtam (eighth of the waning
fortnight of the month of Mrgashrsha). The terrible guardian is ultimately the
esoteric transgressive identity of the brahmanical Vishvantha.

Surrounded by the circle of the Yogins: Mrtanda Bhairava

Bhairavas eight different aspects are divided further into eight subordinate
forms, making sixty-four in all. Taken as a whole, this group constitutes the
cosmos. Following the Agni Purna (52), Mallmann indicates that the Bhairava
who is in the center of the circle of Yogins should have arms equal in number to
the suns, that is to say to the dityas presiding over the twelve months; he can
also have five faces, one of them looking up. The circle of the Yogins is at the
same time the Earth and the Year; Bhairava is their master and from the center

where he presides, he commissions his fertilizing powers to his double

Vrabhadra. His solar dimension is very well illustrated by Mrtanda Bhairava,
who is described in the Agni Purna (301), as red in color: his right-half is shna /
Shiva and the left-half is Ravi / Srya. He has four faces (connected with cardinal
points), eight arms, a dozen eyes (the number of dityas and months), every face
has three eyes. Mrtanda Bhairava holds in his different hands the disk and the
pink lotus (indicating the relation with the sun), the fang, the rope, the rosary, the
skull, the khatvnga, and the spear.
As Sontheimer has shown, Mrtanda Bhairava is identified with the folk-deities
Mhasob, Birob and especially Khandob in the Deccan, where he often resides
as a snake within the termite mound, which is itself identified as his mother
Gang-Sryavant, the womb of the hidden sun. The anthill is believed to contain
treasure in the form of golden turmeric powder: the resonances with the Vedic
Agni and Soma are unmistakable. The very name and conception of the dead
egg (or fetus) (Mrtanda) derives from a Rigvedic myth. It is not difficult to
recognize how these conceptions are retained in his classical Hindu depiction as a
solar image surrounded by the circle of the Yogins.

Iconography of Bhairava and Mahkla

According to the Vishnudharmottara, the image of Bhairava-Mahkla should be
depicted as "pot-bellied, and as having round tawny eyes. His face is fierce with
fangs and inflated nostrils. He wears a garland of skulls. He is fearful and
possesses snake-ornaments throughout his body. He is shown as frightening the
divine daughter of the mountain (i.e., Prvat) with a snake. He has the
complexion of the water-laden clouds, and the elephant-hide as the rear cover.
Endowed with many weapons in his numerous arms, resembling large Sla trees,
and having white and sharp nails, he pervades all directions. This form in profile
is known to be of Bhairava, its frontal representation is of Mahkla. In his hand
should be shown a snake frightening the goddess. Also, in his front should be
shown the divine daughter of the mountain (i.e., Prvat). She (Prvat) should be
shown as neither white nor red (in color). Close by should be shown the leader of
the mothers (i.e., Shiva). Also should be shown the others of his (Shiva's) retinue
in the form of ganas with various appearances." In keeping with the Indian
aesthetics of humor, it was always possible to offset the terrifying with an
endearing touch of the erotic.
In the Katmandu Valley, representations of Mahkla incorporate traits of other
divinities such as Samvara, Hevraja, Heruka. Bhairava and Yamntaka are very
often identified. According to the Mahvajrabhairava tantra, Yamntaka must
have sixteen feet, thirty-four arms, and nine heads. He is naked and black. "He
steps to the right, and his aspect is more than terrible. The first head is that of a
bull. Next to the right horn, he must have three heads: blue, grey, and black.
Between the horns must be painted a head, red and terrible, above which must
be the head of Majushr with a slightly irritated expression. The right feet tread
on animals, and the left on birds. In the bronzes Yamntaka may be treading on
demons, under which are animals and birds, or the reverse, or the demons may

be supporting the throne as in the accompanying illustration. Yamntaka has a

skull diadem, a belt of heads, a third eye, and steps to the right. He may have
five heads, and hold the skin of a human being over his shoulders, he is usually
figured with his Shakti."

Vrabhadra: alter ego of Bhairava

Like Bhairava, Vrabhadra is a terrifying deity born from Shiva's anger provoked
by the performance of a sacrifice to which he was not invited and, as the
consequence of this outrage, the self-immolation of his beloved wife Sat. In other
versions, we are told that "the cluster of matted hair split into two halves.
Vrabhadra arose from one half of that cluster of hair. From the other half there
arose the dreadful Mahkl. This awful goddess was the female counterpart of
Vrabhadra. Elsewhere, however, it is said that Vrabhadra was created from
Shivas brow." Shiva created Vrabhadra with a thousand heads, eyes and arms,
"having side-tusks, carrying the conch (shankha), the discus (cakra) and a bow,
and besmeared with ashes." The theme of Dakshas sacrifice is also illustrated by
a beheading: Vrabhadra cuts off the head of Daksha, the father of Sat. The head
of the sacrificer Daksha-Prajpati, who is comparable to Brahm, is replaced by
that of a goat, which is a typical sacrificial animal. A central idea underlying both
the human sacrifices of the Kplikas and the purified Vedic sacrifice is the
symbolic identification of the sacrificer and of the victim substituted in his place.
The iconography of Vrabhadra serves to bring out all the more clearly the Vedic
sacrificial ideas that have been translated, via the brahmanicide myth, into the
tantric currents centered around the worship of such folk-deities.
According to the Shrtattvanidhi, Vrabhadra should be represented with "four
arms, three eyes, and a terrible face with fierce side-tusks. In the left hands
should be held a bow and a mace (gad), and in the right ones a sword (khadga)
and an arrow (bna). It should be wearing a garland of skulls, and should be
standing on a pair of sandals. By the side of the figure of Vrabhadra there should
be the figure of Bhadrakl also. On the right side of Vrabhadra there should be
the figure of Daksha with a goats head, two eyes and two horns, and with hands
cupped together in the posture of offering (ajali)." But according to the
Kirangama, the figure of Vrabhadra should have "four arms, three eyes, head
covered with matted hair which emits fire, side-tusks, and wearing garlands
composed of bells and skulls and those made of scorpions, a snake as sacred
thread, and adorned with beautiful anklets; it should be standing upon a pair of
sandals and should have short drawers as his underwear. The color of Vrabhadra
should be red; he should have a face indicating great anger, and should look
terrifying. He should carry the sword, the khetak, the bow and arrow." The AgniPurna gives a different description: Vrabhadras vehicle is a bull, he leads the
Mtrks (mothers) or is their lover. He has four faces and four arms. His color is

Among the Jainas and Buddhists: Bhairava worship today

In Jain temples of Vrnas (Uttar Pradesh), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), and
Rajasthan, Bhairava is sometimes simply called guardian of territorial limits or

given a new name, Mnabhadra / Manibhadra. Most popular in Rajasthan is the

Jaina Nakoda Bhairava who, by drawing Hindu and Jaina pilgrims from all over the
state, overshadows even the principal shrine of Prshvantha. Devotees routinely
fall into a trance before this otherwise Jaina image. The Newar Buddhists worship
their own counterparts of Bhairava like Mahkla, Samvara and Heruka. However,
their tantric priests are still officiants for the secret rituals of Bhairava even for
the Hindus. In the Hindu royal festivals of Katmandu, he chooses to manifest
himself in the body of a Buddhist gardener. It is among the Newars that the
savagery of Bhairava has been best conserved.
In Madhya Pradesh, in Ujjain which also claims to be the sacred city where
Bhairava was absolved of his brahmanicide, I met a devotee of Vikrnta Bhairava
who has succeeded in attracting devotees from all walks of life, including
university lecturers, government officials, journalists who make it their duty to
report on its evolution, etc. Although originally an exclusive goddess-worshipper
before establishing himself with his family at Ujjain, he had then visions of
Bhairava and was directed by the goddess to meditate on Vikrnta Bhairava. This
is a derelict temple on the bank of the river Kshipr, on the former
circumambulation route (pacakrosh) around the city. Through his worship he
has acquired spiritual powers (siddhi) which permit him to exercise his
clairvoyance every morning for the general public that flocks to him. A regular
weekly cult had spontaneously revived at this temple in a rather neo-Vedic
mode with havan, etc. What is most interesting is that he has received no regular
initiation into the worship of Bhairava, but has instructed himself into the
appropriate ritual utterances (mantra), gestures (nysa), mystic diagrams
(yantra), procedures (paddhati), after having received his vocation through
visions. This testifies to the resilience of Bhairava-worship.

The pole and the pot: Bhairava in the primordial cosmogony

Just as Indian policemen are traditionally armed with staves, Bhairava too is
regularly depicted with a club or cudgel. The non-conformist anti-social
Pshupata Shaiva ascetics in fact carried clubs in ritual imitation of their divinized
legendary founder, Lakula. The term lt is itself probably a corruption of laguda
(club), and even criminal Kplikas carry clubs called khatvnga in ritual imitation
of their divinity Bhairava, who roams with a human skull in one hand and the club
in the other. A pillar, now only a ten-foot tall stump encased in copper sheeting
and smeared in vermilion, on the northern fringe of Vrnas is identified with
Bhairavas lt. Though completely unknown to the Purnas, Lt Bhairava is
nowadays identified with the Purnic Kaplin Bhairava which was originally
located elsewhere in the city. It was here, in the large tank called Kaplamocana
beside the pillar, that Bhairava was absolved of his brahmanicide and promoted
to Kotwal. The Lt is of central significance to Hinduism, because it is here that
Bhairava metes out his punishment to all those who are fortunate enough to die
in Benares, thereby absolving them of their sins and granting them instant

Bhairava not only wields the lt, he is himself the lt, especially when it assumes
the form of a cosmic pillar (stambha). The lt, the pillar, and Bhairava are equally
identified with the axis mundi. It is here in Ksh that Rudra-Shiva appeared as
the linga of light (jyotirliga): what Mircea Eliade has called the axis mundi, the
pillar at the center of the world, originating deep in the netherworld, cracking the
surface of the earth and splitting the roof of the sky. The annual celebration of the
pillars marriage to an adjoining maternal well (kpa-janan) still continues in
vestigial form. Though nowadays officiated by a Brahman priest, this folk
festival was formerly celebrated especially by the lower-castes. There even used
to be a mock combat between two opposing tribes of Kols and Bhils. The
cosmogonic setting becomes evident in the erection of the wooden pole, always
called linga, during the New-Year (Bisket) festival of Bhaktapur in Nepal. This was
accompanied by ritualized conflict between the lower and upper halves of the
city for possession of the chariot of Bhairava. Such dualist opposition, so
characteristic of Newar festivals, is only one of many features that betray the
tribal substratum of such Hinduized societies. The linga there is not only of
Bhairava, but also is Bhairava, and the greenery attached to its summit is
assimilated to semen, so much so that there is a mad scramble, when the pole is
felled the next (New Year's) day, to secure some of this greenery which has the
power to bestow children on barren couples. The founding myths for this
marriage with the mound of mother-earth that receives and bears the linga
explicitly affirm that Kla Bhairava came from Benares.
The Vedic pole erected to represent the axis mundi during the ancient New Year
festivals was rather identified with Indras flag-pole (dhvaja) or Indra himself. The
date prescribed by the Hindu texts for this now obsolete festival of the Vedic king
of the gods is the very date, the twelfth of the waxing fortnight of the month of
Bhdra, when the marriage of Lt Bhairava is celebrated. In Katmandu, where
this royal festival has still survived, the flag-pole is called not only linga, but also
by the Newar term meaning sacrificial pole (ypa). I have argued elsewhere that
the marriage of Lt Bhairava is ultimately the vestige of a pre-Islamic royal
cosmogony: Bhairava represents the Hindu king who offers himself at the
(transposition of the Vedic sacrificial) stake in what is simultaneously conceived
to be a sexual union. Hence the choice of this dateso inauspicious for any Hindu
weddingwhich marks the beginning of the fortnight reserved for the
performance of funerary rituals for the manes. This death-in-union is, however,
only the prelude to the rebirth of the royal sacrificer and, with it, the rejuvenation
of the whole kingdom. Hence, the promise of fertility that accompanies the
marriage of Lt Bhairava. As the embodiment of Rudras anger, Bhairava,
emerging from the cosmic pillar represents the consecrated Vedic sacrificer
(dkshita) who is identifiedlike the victimwith the stake. It is this violent,
transgressive dimension of the otherwise purified brahmanical sacrifice,
exteriorized into the independent Kplika current, that has permitted the
assimilation of tribal cultswhether agricultural, pastoral or hunting based
centered on possession and blood (including human) sacrifices.
The incestuous notations of the cosmogonic marriage derive from the idea that
the sexual union is simultaneously a regression of the consecrated Vedic

sacrificer, charged with evil and impurity, into a prenatal condition within the
maternal womb. Among the Newars, this embryogonic dimension of Bhairava is
represented especially by an earthen or metal pot with the likeness of his image,
face, or just his eyes, painted or engraved upon it. Pachali Bhairava, for example,
is represented by a bronze pot filled with a mixture of alcohol, meat, and other
offerings and kept sealed for an entire year in the house of a Newar farmer. The
annual festival primarily celebrates the replenishing of the ambrosia in the pot,
while it is being transferred from one family to the next from a clan of twelve
families. This pot is symbolically assimilated to another larger copper pot in which
a deformed man, the substitute victim, used to be placed with flowers sacred to
the sun god. Among the pastoral tribes of the Deccan, the same role is played not
so much by any human artifact but by the natural form of the termite-mound,
wherein the solar Mrtanda-Bhairava resides in the form of a snake. The mound
itself is identified with the goddess Gang-Sryavant, and is believed to contain
gold (in the form of turmeric powder). Blood sacrifices are made to the mound
itself. Despite the tribal setting, much of this symbolismespecially the idea of
Mrtanda and the term itself can be traced back to Vedic sources. Sontheimer
generally dealt with these striking continuities by reducing much of Vedic
mythology and ritual to folk religion as opposed to classical Hinduism. Yet, the
same paradigms underlie the brahmanical sacrifice itself.
Sontheimer also repeatedly underlined the popular non-sectarian character of
Bhairava worship, which encompasses tribal populations, Jainas, and even
Muslims in the Deccan. Among the Newars, various Buddhist castes play crucial
roles in the festivals especially at the royal level. Indeed, the chief specialists,
even for the regular worship of Bhairava by the Hindu community, are often
Brahman Vajrcryas, who are Buddhist tantric priests. It is they who initiate
low-caste Buddhist gardeners of Katmandu into the techniques of dance and
possession by Bhairava. The present Hindu king of Nepal continues to renew his
power and his kingdom, every twelve years, by exchanging swords with such a
Buddhist gardener, the living embodiment of the untouchable Bhairava. The
Newar evidence suggests thatmany prejudices to the contraryBuddhism
played a crucial role in gradually assimilating tribal and other pre-ryan societies
to the Hindu socio-religious model. Lt Bhairava itself has been identified as an
Ashokan, and more recently by John Irwin as a pre-Ashokan, pillar. It once stood
beside a stpaitself charged with funerary notationsand Buddhist
architectural remains still decorate the Muslim monuments at the site.
Authoritative Hindu texts affirm that Banaras was once a non-brahmanical center
from which Shiva himself was excluded, and that it was only through the ruse of
preaching protestant Buddhism that the city was divested of its original preryan religion. Bhairava was absolved of his crime of Brahmanicide when he
bathed in the Kaplamocana tank during the extremely auspicious conjunction
when the whole city was transformed into a primordial hill by the flood-waters of
the maternal Gang. The Svayambh stpa, which plays the same role in the
Newar cosmogonic myth based on the pre-historic draining of the Kathmandu
Valley, still remains the focus of a pilgrimage circuit that connects it to a Kotwal
Bhairava located at the point where the Bgmat (-Gang) river emerges from the
Valley. Even the original Buddhist resistance towards anthropomorphic forms of

the divine seems to have later succumbedespecially with the rise of tantricism
to the combined pressures of tribal cults on the one hand and a re-assertive
Hinduism on the other.
The low-caste Muslim weavers, who used to celebrate the marriage of Lt
Bhairava with their Hindu neighbors, are in all probability (Hinduized) Buddhist
artisans who were converted after the Islamic conquest of the 12th century. The
Hindu-Buddhist monuments were demolished and transformed into an imposing
mosque during the reign of the emperor Aurangzeb, but the aniconic pillar was
left standing before the niche (mihrab) of the Muslim idgah. The syncretic folkcult was thus firmly inscribed in the direction of the unhewn black stone of the
Meccan Kaaba. The lower caste Hindus reciprocated by joining the Muslims in
celebrating the annual marriage of their saint Ghzi Miyan, likewise represented
by a pole bearing his head. The center of this Muslim cult is in north-eastern Uttar
Pradesh at Bahraich around the tomb of this proselytizing saint, the nephew of
Mahmud of Ghazni, who was martyred in the 12th century while attempting to
eradicate the pagan sun-cult of the Bhar tribes. A systematic analysis of the cult
of Ghazi Miyan however reveals it to be an Islamic adaptation of a pre-existing
Hindu folk-cult similar to that of Mrtanda Bhairava studied by Sontheimer in
the Deccan. It could however be argued that this assimilation was so successful
because these symbolsespecially the pillar and the pole (qutb)already had
deep resonances (not only within the brahmanical but also) within the high
Islamic tradition.

The mask of Bhairava: dance and possession

Aesthetically, the most appealing icon of Shiva is probably his manifestation as
the King of Dance Natarja engagedas in the Tamil temple of Cidambaramin
the wild dance of creation and destruction. With matted hair, hour-glass shaped
drum, and smeared with ashes, the furious Rudra has been cast in the image of
the Pshupata ascetic who sought fusion with his lord through techniques of
possession induced by ritual dance. Though the Pshupata began his spiritual
discipline with extreme concern for the rules of purityjust as the brahmanical
Shiva is shielded from all defilement within his nuclear templeshe ultimately
sought union with the terrible god by transgressing these norms in the cremationgrounds. It is this impure dimension that comes to the fore in the Newar
appropriation of the god of dance as Nasadyah, whose image is left buried in a
rubbish heap except for a single occasion each year. Nasadyah is the patron deity
for the dance and music associations whose ritual performance is indispensable
for the celebration of the colorful variety of festivals that fill the Newar calendar.
Representative of the low-caste gardeners who incarnate the gods are the
Navadurg dancers of Katmandu and especially Bhaktapur. Possessed by the
divinitiesand often quivering in a trance-like statethese masked dancers drink
the blood of still palpitating animals. It is the details of the masks which
distinguish their divine identities: that of Kla Bhairava, who is the principal actor,
must be dark blue, practically black. With mud from the basin of a sacred stream,
the masks are fabricated for the Dasain celebrations by a specific caste of

painters and through a very secret procedure. They are cremated at the
beginning of the rainy season, and from the ashes new masks are created the
following year. The masks are considered so potenteven independently of their
otherwise human bearersthat the Newars worship them as manifestations of
the deities within the Navadurg temple. By facilitating the effacement of the
limited human persona, the mask has acquiredthrough that metonymy so
characteristic of the sacredthe otherwise inscrutable face of the supreme
divinity hidden within the heart of the human actor himself.

Bhairava in Kashmir Saivism is a designation for the undifferentiated universal
consciousness. The Vijna-Bhairava Tantra raises the question: "What is the real
form of Bhairava, the terrible?" Bhairava himself replies to the goddess: "Know
that there is only one form which is ultimately real: the spotless [reality] which
fills everything, the state of Bhairava [called] Bhairav [because it is] absolutely
replete, being beyond determination by direction or time, unlocated, impossible
to indicate, ultimately indescribable, blissful with the selfs innermost experience
of its own identity, free of all thought. Within such an Absolute how can one
distinguish a recipient of worship or gratification?" "worship likewise is not what
is accomplished by [offering] flowers and the rest. It is awareness made firm,
dissolution into that final void [within consciousness] which is free of all thought,
through intense conviction [that this is the goal]."
Philosopher-mystics, like the great Abhinavagupta (10th to 11th century) who has
left us such a remarkable synthesis of Hindu culture, thus identified themselves
with the supreme Bhairava through a tantric gnosis that often involved the
transgression of brahmanical norms. However, the term used for such a
realizationwhich was often mediated by the worship of, and meditation upon,
images of the terrible god was still possession (vesha). In tribal and folk
religionin India as elsewherethe supreme manifestation of the divinity is his
living embodiment in human form. Between these two poles, one perpetually
rediscovers the inexhaustible wealth of sculpted images that together constitute
the Hindu pantheon. Paradoxically, the forms (mrti) that best express the
ultimate nature of the ineffable Reality are perhaps these amorphous stones
found everywhere in India, including Banarasthat are simply called Bir Babas,
before they are gradually promoted into images that are clearly identifiable as
one form or another of the Hindu Bhairava.