Bhairava, the terrifying form of Shiva, inspires fear as he strikes at the root of all fear, the ego.
Because Kala (Time) fears him, he is known as Kalabhairava.
Bhairava is one of the most terrifying forms of Siva. Fear-inspiring, terrible and dreaded, except for those who are his ardent devotees. Some interpret the etymology to have been derived from the three syllables, namely “bha” indicating creation, “ra” indicating sustenance and “va” indicating destruction. From lore and Puranas we get slightly different versions of the story of Bhairava’s origin, but essential it is a theme that revolves around Siva’s decapitation of Brahma’s head. Once when Brahma became egotistical about his creation and declared that he is as powerful as Siva, he has five heads exactly like Siva does, and started interfering/challenging Siva, the supreme destroyer created Bhairava from himself, who then cut off Brahma’s head using the nail from his little finger in the left hand. Another version of the story says that Brahma became attached to a woman named Satarupa (in some versions like in Siva Purana, Saraswati is Brahma’s daughter and the object of undue attention) and kept growing heads so that he could keep an eye on her. This unholy behavior angered Siva and thus Bhairava was created. Whichever version of the story we take, the essential idea is that when the mind – which creates the subjective world we live in – gets hooked onto the external and develops intense attachment, that is when Bhairava strikes at the root of that ego and finishes it. No doubt he is fearful, because yogically speaking, all fear is rooted in the destruction of ego. And death, as we define it, is the most fearful of all human experiences because at that instance the ego-sense which binds the mind to the physical is torn asunder and causes a tremendous shock of the organism. This too is Bhairava’s domain.
But the story does not end with the mere decapitation of Brahma’s head. The creator was, after all, a Brahmin, and a powerful one at that. This one act of Bhairava made him into the first being in the universe to commit Brahmahatya – a grave karmic sin. To expatriate himself of the karmic stain from his Brahmicide, Bhairava vows to roam around as a beggar with the skull of Brahma as his begging bowl. He has an encounter with a group of sages in a Deodar forest, who could not recognize him and only saw a disheveled haired, skull carrying madman, moving around, howling in joy. What caused even greater consternation to the sages was that in spite of his unattractive external appearance, this apparition-like figure attracted all the women in that area. Angered, they uttered a curse and his lingam fell on the ground and changed into a pillar of light. Most likely this story was given to legitimize the tantric version of Siva worship where the Siva linga is not merely an aniconic symbol but the very organ of generation of the Supreme. This further lead to alchemical experimentation using mantras where Siddhas and Tantriks were keen to use Mercury for various processes which required that the substance remains solid in normal temperature – an extraordinary feat if possible. This beggar form of Siva is known as the Bhikṣāṭana murti – nude, four-armed, surrounded by spirits and jackals, followed by love-sick women.
Everything in Pouranika Hinduism is also anchored in spiritual ideas. Bhairava as the beggar is the supreme purusa, perfectly unattached to anything external, in a state of self-generated bliss roaming around unmoved by the concerns, stress and formalization of societal norms while Shakti is the dynamic aspect of the Supreme which always removes around a center of stillness. To know Shakti one must know Purusa, and to apply the spiritual calmness of Purusa into the world around, one must necessarily do it through the agency of Shakti. This forms the spiritual heart of the Tantrika and Shakta philosophy. Bhairava as the supreme purusa attracts ALL kinds of Shaktis towards himself.
Bhairava holds within Himself the entire universe by reducing all the shaktis to sameness with Himself and inasmuch as He completely devours within Himself the entire mass of ideation which is responsible for sense of difference – Shiva Sutras.
It must be understood that in the spiritual context purusa is whoever has his consciousness stationed in the purusa tattwa, and whoever does not, is a Shakti. This is more than a mere male-female concept, which means a greatly spiritual woman will have more purusa tattwa inside her than most ordinary men or women. This same concept comes to us from Vaishnavaism when Krshna is considered as the only purusa and everyone else is but a Shakti surrounding him.
Back to the story, Siva then roamed around the three worlds as a beggar, visiting different realms and various gods. When he reaches Vishnu’s abode he was stopped by a gatekeeper named Vishvaksena. This angered Bhairava and he slew Vishvaksena and impaled him on his Trisula, and carrying the corpse over his left shoulder entered into Vishnu’s domain. This act of slaying the gatekeeper added to the previous sin of brahmicide and made his appearance like a skeleton. A new form of Bhairava emerged – Kankala murti! In some puranas, it is stated that Vishnu cuts an artery from his own head and lets that blood accumulate inside the skull-bowl, and advised him to visit Kashi where he will be freed from this karma. Bhairava self-intoxicated, surrounded by ghouls and spirits and dogs and jackals, carrying a corpse impaled on his trishula over his left shoulder, and a skull-bowl filled with the blood of the preserver enter into the city of Kashi. The place where his skull drops from his hand is known as Kapalamochana. From then on Kashi becomes the only place, outside of cremation grounds, where Bhairava resides as the guardian of the domain granting liberation to all who die there. Again, we must not forget that India is not merely a country but a spiritual geography where different holy places occupy both physical space and an internal, psychic space. Varanasi is the city that lies between the Varuna and the Asi rivers, while Kashi is the mystical city of Infinite spiritual light whose doorkeeper is Bhairava himself. A train can take one to Varanasi, but the journey to Kashi is an inner experience!
Right from the time when Kapalikas lived in sufficient number, this great penance of Bhairava was imitated by sadhakas so that they could attain communion with him. This was known as Mahavrata – the great vow. Some scholars like Somadeva in his Kathasaritsagara, and Ksiraswamin (11thcentury) in his commentary on the Amarakosa lists together Mahavratin, Kapalikin, Somasiddhantin, and Tantrika as adherents of the same ritual. There is even a 7th century Chalukya grant from Nasik which notes a donation to the Mahavratin priests of a certain Kapaleshwara temple and an 11th-century grant from Baroda district mentioning a Kapalin. Of course other mainstream sects looked at this practice with horror and ridicule and eventually as the Bhairava sadhanas became normalized and integrated, their character changed and Kapalikas became an obscure sect, almost dead. But traces of these transgressive practices became ingrained in the Tantra marga, especially in the dissemination known as Sabara Tantra.
In the practice of Bhairava sadhanas, prevalent more in North India, he is considered as the form that Siva assumed when he enters the drastic settings of a cremation ground. His typical offering is alcohol, and even meat, his vahana is a dog. A simple sign of Bhairava siddhi is that dogs, especially the most aggressive ones, become unusually tame and pliant to the seeker. In due course, from Kalabhairava emerged eight other Bhairavas known as Asitanga, Ruru, Chanda, Krodhana, Unmatta, Kapala, Bheesana, and Samhara. These corresponded to the asta-matrikas of Tantra and found themselves placed in the mandala of the Devi as guardians of various realms. Another form which developed organically and probably has the maximum devotees today is a child Bhairava known as Vatuka. He is specially invoked for protection both in ritual settings as well as in secular environments. The original Nath Yogis were famous for their devotion to Kalabhairava.
Bhairava sadhana, especially of the forms of Kalabhairava, when performed over long periods of time will inevitably lead one into zones which are outside of society. Probably, the reason why the Kapalika path vanished is not only because of its exclusivity and stringent requirements but also because the energy so invoked by these sadhanas make an individual progressively unfit to stay within the normal bounds of society. Bhairava is essentially a deity who stands outside of social dharma. He leads to liberation but only for those who can have given up all engagement with normal life. Psychologically he represents those clear, free, frank, and frontal movements of consciousness. The inside and the outside are in sync at all times. There is no gap, even so slight between what lies deep within, what works in the verbal flow of the mind and what comes out finally as the spoken word or performed action. His state of boundless internal freedom is represented pictorially as Shiva (stillness) residing in a smashan (where attachments have ended), holding a skull know as brahmanda-khappar (skull of the Universe), drinking wine in copious amounts (a state of permanent Divine Intoxication), cohabiting with women (bringing all Shaktis to sameness) who come to Him willful drawn, and other spirits, ghouls, jackals and all who are cast out of public life.
Banner Image: Kalabhairava (Kathmandu, Nepal) by Brandon (used under creative commons license)