The Origin-myth of the Brahmanicide Bhairava18

Brahmā and Vishnu  were disputing with each other for the status of supreme God and 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. Brahmā laughed scornfully: "How could the Brahman, free of all attachment, lustily sport with his wife in the company of his troop of deformed churn-goblins (pramatha)?" However, Rudra's supremacy was finally reconfirmed by the esoteric sound-syllable, Omkāra, quintessence of the Veda and most condensed symbol of Brahman, who pointed out that Shiva's wife is not adventitious to her husband but on the contrary embodies his own blissful essence.19 Just then an immense pillar of flame manifested itself in their midst, within which was recognized the towering figure of the three-eyed Rudra bearing his trident, serpents and crescent moon. But the fifth head of Brahmā taunted him: "I know who you are, Rudra, whom I created from my forehead. Take refuge with me and I will protect you, my son!"

Overflowing with anger, Shiva created a blazing Bhairava in human form, addressing this Kālabhairava as "Lord of Time-Death" (kāla) for he shone like the god of Death: "You are called Bhairava because you are of terrifying features and are capable of supporting the universe. You are called Kāla-Bhairava, for even Time-Death is terrified of you."20 He ordered him to chastise Brahmā, promising him in return eternal suzerainty over his city of Kāshī (Vārānasī), the cremation-ground of the Hindu universe, where final emancipation is assured. In a trice, Bhairava ripped off Brahmā's guilty head with the nail of his left thumb. Seeing this, the terrified Vishnu eulogized Shiva and devotedly recited his sacred hymns, followed in this by the repentant Brahmā. Thereby they gained his protection by realizing and acknowledging the supreme reality of Shiva. The severed head immediately stuck to Bhairava's hand, where it remained in the form of the skull, destined to serve as his insatiable begging-bowl.21 Enjoining him to honor Vishnu  and Brahmā, 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 (kapālavrata)." Creating a maiden renowned as ‘Brahmanicide’ (brahmahatyā), Shiva instructed her to relentlessly follow Bhairava everywhere until he reached the holy city of Kāshī to which she would have no access.

Observing the Kāpālika rite with skull in hand and pursued by the terrible Brahmahatyā, Bhairava sported freely, laughing, singing and dancing with his goblin horde (pramathas). Stealing more than the hearts of all women, even the chaste wives of the Seven Vedic Sages (sapta-rshi) as he passed through the Daru forest, the erotic ascetic arrived at Vishnu's door to seek redemption only to find his entry barred by the guard, Vishvaksena. Spearing the latter and heaving the corpse of this Brahman on his shoulder, he pressed before Vishnu with outstretched begging-bowl. Vishnu  split his forehead-vein but the out-flowing blood, the only suitable offering, could not fill the skull though it flowed for eons. When Vishnu then tried to dissuade Brahmahatyā from tormenting Bhairava, the criminal observed that "beggars are not intoxicated by the alms they receive as (are others) by drinking the wine of worldly honor." Vishnu venerated him as the Supreme Being, untainted by sins like Brahmanicide, and acknowledged that his dependence and degradation were a mere fancy. Before leaving joyously to beg elsewhere, Bhairava reciprocated by recognizing Vishnu as his foremost disciple and acknowledged the latter's status as "grantor of boons to all the gods." On arriving at Kāshī, Brahmahatyā sank into the nether-world, and the holy ground on which the skull fell, freeing Bhairava from his Brahmanicide, came to be known as Kapālamocana. It was on the eighth day (ashtamī) in the dark (waning moon) half of the month of Mārgashīrsha that Lord Shiva manifested himself as Bhairava. Ever since, by performing ablution at Kapālamocana one is rid of even the worst sin of brahmanicide (brahmahatyā); and whosoever fasts on this day (Bhairavāshtamī) in front of Kālabhairava (temple at Kāshī) and stays awake at night is freed from great sins.

In the Tamil transposition of the sacred geography of Shaiva mythology, the fiery linga appeared in the temple-city of Tiruvannāmalai to become the sacred red mountain of Arunācala, which ritually reverts to its original form during the Kārttika festival when a blazing fire is lit on its summit. The Lingodbhava-mūrti is generally depicted on the western face of the external face of the sanctum of Tamil Shaiva temples, with the boar-Vishnu  attempting to fathom its depths and the swan-Brahmā aspiring likewise in vain after its summit. In the Kāńci-Māhātmya, Bhairava spears the demon Antaka (‘Death’), who was besieging Kailāsa (the abode of Lord Shiva), and fixes his lance on the ground on arriving at Kānci in order to remove Antaka. It formed a pit filled with water, Shūla-tīrtha, where the ceremonies for ancestors are performed on new or full moon days. Bhairava lets Antaka perform ablutions at the Shiva-Gangā tank before granting him salvation and Antaka disappears into the Antakesha linga he had erected and adored. Bhairava likewise removes Vishvaksena from his lance and returns him to Vishnu, before being appointed by Shiva as the guardian of Kānci, distributing the blood of the skull to all his ganas.22 The Tamil Bhairava is released from his skull at Tirukantiyūr, ‘holy site of the (head-) cutting,’ where the temple of ‘the Lord of Brahmā's decapitation’ (Brahma-shira-khandīsvara), in which Brahmā and Sarasvatī are worshipped beside Shiva, refers to Shiva-Lingodbhava-mūrti in this context as 'Annāmalaiyār' (he who resides in Tiruvannāmalai). The apparently later temple of ‘Vishnu as liberator of Shiva(-Kapālin) from his curse’ (Hara-shāpa-vimocana-perumāl), with its own Vaishnava version of the Brahmanicide myth, claims that, having released Brahmā's greedy skull at Kapāla-Pushkarinī (lotus-pond) behind the temple by enticing it with ‘blood’ (i.e., turmeric mixed with lime) rice, Vishnu  directed the kapāla to Kāshī where its insatiable hunger would be satisfied by offerings of Nārāyana-bali (oblations performed especially for those who die at an inauspicious moment, pańcaka).

The original Kāla Bhairava temple was located on the banks of the Kapālamocana Tīrtha itself, in the Omkāreshvara area north of Maidāgin in Vāranasī, where Bhairava remained as the ‘Sin-Eater’ (Pāpa-Bhakshana) par excellence to devour the accumulated sins of devotees and pilgrims. If the pilgrims to Kāshī do not fear death there, this would be because their pilgrimage to the Mahāshmashāna is conceived on the ritual model of Bhairava's own arrival at Kāshī for absolution from his terrible sin and his subsequent establishment there. The paradox of Bhairava's scapegoat function even after his ‘purification’ can be explained as a ‘lawful irregularity’ resulting from the two opposing valorizations, diachronically disjoined in the myth, of his transgressive essence; it matches the complementary paradox of the pure Kāshī-Vishvanātha himself being identified esoterically with the impure criminal Bhairava.