Bhairava (The Wrathful) is one of the more terrifying aspects of Shiva.

What does Bhairava Look Like?

BhairavaHe is often depicted with frowning, angry eyes and sharp, tiger’s teeth and flaming hair; stark naked except for garlands of skulls and a coiled snake about his neck. In his four hands he carries a noose, trident, drum, and skull. He is often shown accompanied by a dog.

Bhairava is Shiva at his most terrifying, at his most fearful. He may be understood as a particular manifestation, or emanation of Shiva, or as Shiva displaying himself at a very high level. In some myths, Shiva created Bhairava as an extension of himself, in order to chastise Brahma. Bhairava is the embodiment of fear, and it is said that those who meet him must confront the source of their own fears. His name describes the effect he has upon those who behold him, as it derives from the word bhiru, which means to become fearful – of feeling great fear. In some sources, Bhairava himself is said to have eight manifestations, including Kala (black), Asitanga (with black limbs), Sanhara (destruction), Ruru (hound), Krodha (anger), Kapala (Skull), Rudra (storm) and Unmatta (raging). Dogs (particularly black dogs) were often considered the most appropriate form of sacrifice to Bhairava, and he is sometimes shown as holding a severed human head, with a dog waiting at one side, in order to catch the blood from the head.

The Primal Forest Myth

The cycle of legends which particularly relate to this primordial god tells of the encounter between Bhairava and a group of forest-dwelling sages. The events which lead up to it can be briefly summarised as follows: Brahma, the Creator, lusted after his mind-borne daughter, and grew four heads in order that he might continually see her. In creating these four heads, Brahma divided the world into the four directions, due to his desire for that which no longer was within himself. It is said by some that Brahma’s desire for his daughter was caused by Kama (desire) who was born to madden and delude people, a task for which Brahma gave him magical arrows, which he immediately tested upon the Creator himself. Embarrassed by the attentions of Brahma, his daughter, who is known by many different names, ascended heavenwards. This provoked Brahma to manifest a fifth head, the quintessence of the other four, and reached out to ‘cohabit’ with his daughter. Upon seeing this, Shiva cut off the fifth head of Brahma with his sword (in some versions of the myth Bhairava merely uses the nail of his left thumb).

In this act of murder, Shiva-Bhairava became ‘Kapalin’ or skull-carrier, a name which also refers to a particular tantric sect which I will turn to shortly. The skull of Brahma’s fifth head became stuck to his hand and although himself a god, Shiva-Bhairava had to somehow expiate his sin and, in order to do so, Bhairava became the Supreme Beggar, the archetype of the Kapalika, who is divine, yet degraded. Bhairava took upon himself the Kapalika vow, which was to wander the world, begging alms, until the skull fell from his hand. It was whilst he was wandering through a great forest that Bhairava encountered a group of ascetic sages.

The sages practiced austerities and tended a sacred fire, and they did not recognise Shiva-Bhairava, who appeared as a naked mendicant, carrying only the skull-bowl. He howled and danced, appearing as a madman with a black face. Not only did this startling apparition disturb the rites of the sages, he also attracted their women to him. The sages cursed the lingam of this supreme beggar, and it fell, transformed into a pillar of fire. Some variants of the legend say that another linga appeared to replace that which had fallen, and when the sages saw it, it too was cursed, and fell to earth in a blaze of fire, only to be replaced instantaenously by another linga, which in turn too was cursed, and so on. In another, after the linga fell, Bhairava vanished. In a third version, Bhairava leaves the forest, accompanied by the frenzied women of the sages. He appears at the house of Vishnu, whereupon his passage is barred by Visvaksena, Vishnu’s doorkeeper, who does not recognise Bhairava. The unfortunate doorkeeper is slain by Bhairava, using a trident (the weapon commonly associated with Shiva). Vishnu then caused blood to spurt from his forehead, in an attempt to fill the skull-bowl which Bhairava carried. Bhairava dances on, carrying the corpse of Visvaksena and a skull full of the blood of the preserver, until he reaches the holy city of Varanasi (Banaras), after which he is liberated from the skull vow.

This legend, complex as it is, is woven around the crime of brahminicide – the killing of a Brahmin. A study of the vedic law books will show that the prescribed penance for the killing of a Brahmin involves the criminal living alone in the forest, living on alms, confessing his deed as he begs, and carrying always a staff and a skull – occasionally it is specified that such an individual should use as an alms bowl the skull of the brahmin he has killed. Such a penance could last for twelve years. Such penances sound very similar to the vows of ascetic, forest-dwelling sadhus.

Bhairava is one of those paradoxical figures of Indian myth – he has broken all fetters. He has severed one of the heads of the Creator, killed the doorkeeper of Vishnu, the preserver; he dances naked, accompanied by women (and in some versions of the myth, Vishnu), and he appears as a figure of horror and ecstasy.

The forest myth- cycle also clearly displays the wild aspects of Siva. He humiliates the ascetic sages in the forest, who are practising austerities; he seduces their wives and, by the falling of his lingam, causes holy places to manifest on the earth.

“On the mountain there is a wonderful forest called the forest of Dâru, where many sages live … Shiva himself, assuming a strange form, came there to put their faith to the test. He was magnificent, completely naked, his only ornament the ash with which his whole body was smeared. Walking about, holding his penis in his hand, he showed off with the most depraved tricks.”

“…. Sometimes he danced lasciviously; sometimes he uttered cries. He wandered around the hermitages like a beggar. … Despite his strange appearance and his tanned colour, the most chaste women were attracted to him. … They let their hair fall loose. Some rolled on the ground. They clung to each other and, barring [Rudra’s] path, they made wanton gestures at him, even in the presence of their husbands.

The sages cried, this Shiva who carries a trident has a body of ill omen. He has no modesty. … He is naked and ill-made. He lives in the company of evil spirits and wicked goblins.”- (Shiva Purana, quoted in Daniélou p55-56).

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