Bhairava Worship Today in North India and Nepal

Bhairava is no longer such a focus of transgressive practices as he was in the past, for his cult in India has been ‘Brahmanized,’ in the sense of purified, to such an extent that it nowadays differs little from the temple cult of any other orthodox Hindu divinity. This may be attributed to various socio-cultural transformations, especially the political domination of proselytizing and puritanizing Islam after the 12th century, followed by the socio-economic domination of the modern rationalizing mentality that has interrupted even the process of syncretic assimilation at the folk level reflected in the cult of Ghāzī Miyć (see note 100) and the Pāńcõ Pīr in the North and such transgressive figures as Muttāl Rāvuttan alias Mohammed Khān in the southern Draupadī cult, with Mallū Khān's sacrilegious ‘pilgrimage’ to Mecca in the Central Indian cult Mallanna.136

Though the Brahman priests offer meat, fish and wine on behalf of their devotees to the divinity during ‘special’ (vishesha) as opposed to ‘ordinary’ (sāmānya) worship in the major ‘nuclear’ temples, as in the Kālabhairava temples of Ujjain and Vārānasī, and connive at animal sacrifices performed by devotees sometimes in the compound, they do not offer blood sacrifices themselves (at least publicly) at these temples. Nevertheless, the dynamic head (mahant) of the Kamacchā Batuka-Bhairava temple (relatively recent it is not included in the ‘eight Bhairavas’ ashta-bhairavas of Kāshī), next in popularity only to the Kāla-Bhairava temple, regularly offers goat sacrifices to the renowned goddess Vindhyāvāsinī who ‘resides at the Vindhyācal’ hills. She is guarded by Ānanda, Ruru, Siddhanātha and Kapāla Bhairavas to the east, north, west and south respectively of the town, while Lāl Bhairava stands before the police station on the main road leading to her shrine. In all these temples, offerings of limes are presented as substitutes for human sacrifice. Within the compound of the goddess herself are images of Pańcagangā, Kapāla, and Kāla-Bhairavas, and in April 86 I accompanied an all male party led by the Mahant from Banaras in order to celebrate his restoration of the temple of Bhūta-Bhairava in the monkey-infested jungle behind the Kālī temple frequented by Ojhas (spirit mediums) on the other side of Vindhyācal. The popular and influential Mahant has himself composed a ‘Hymn to Batuka-Bhairava’ (stotram in Sanskrit), and is actively involved in the celebration of Bhairavāshtamī and ‘Lāt kā Vivāh’ (‘marriage of the Lāt’) and other festivals at the Kālabhairava and Lāt-Bhairõ temples. Indeed, such is his activity that it is now rather Batuka Bhairava who plays the role of the traditional Krodhana Bhairava rather neglected in the nearby temple of the goddess Kāmākhya, whose own Mahant from the Nirvānī Akhādā is quite ailing. Batuka is in fact the ‘pure’ (sāttvika) double of the less imposing but ‘original’ Ādi (Krodhana‑) Bhairava in a separate room of his temple, who still receives essentially tāmasika pūjā every evening on the model of the ‘Five M’s’ (pańca-makāra) performed by one of the most fervent, blissfully intoxicated (unmatta), disciples with fish, wine, meat, puris (mudrā) and vadas symbolizing mithuna. Though the Mahant himself performed the goat sacrifice for Bhūtanātha Bhairava in the forest, the party of revelers was subsequently offered two different modes of feasting (bhoj): vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Sometimes accompanied by a devotee seeking the fulfillment of particular desires (kāmya-pūjā), he still performs solitary worship in the cremation-ground of the Harishcandra ghāt on the Gangā by pouring wine on the shiva-linga, etc.

The founding story, retold by him, tells of an ascetic Guru named something like Batuk or Shiva-Rām Puri who, having quarreled with his disciple at Allahabad, decided to settle here at Kamacchā with his image of Krodha Bhairava in order to continue his sādhanā. There his renown grew to the point of attracting the attention of the childless Balvant Singh. The royal embryogonic dimension is thus retained in the king of Banaras receiving a blessed fruit from the Sādhu to beget his successor Rājā Chet Singh, and rewarding his new-found preceptor with land and properties. When the envious disciple came to rejoin his Guru, the latter shed his mortal coils in a fit of anger and his samādhi is supposed to be beneath the shrine of the present "Original-Angry-Bhairava." The disciple, having assumed ownership of the properties, later rediscovered through a dream the image of Batuka Bhairava, which was excavated with the help of king Balavant Singh in the compound of the present temple built by the king in 1733 to commemorate the birth of his son. The present lineage of Mahants, descended from that rebellious disciple, found peace only after having observed a rigorous sādhanā for seven generations before Krodhana Bhairava, who is still worshipped as (the union of?) Ananda Bhairava and Bhairavī. The mythical version of the goddess Candī having discovered Batuka-Bhairava as a child (batu) at the bottom of a lake during the universal dissolution (pralaya) and adopting him with compassion, which the Mahant attributes to the Mārkandeya Purāna, probably reflects the initiatory scenario of the baby Krishna swallowing the eternal youth Mārkandeya during the pralaya.137 Batuka is indeed considered the child of Sahasracandī, whose image is found within his sanctum.

The resilience of the cult, even quite independently of fixed institutionalized frameworks of transmission, may be judged from the example of an adept of Vikrānta-Bhairava at Ujjain. Living in a modern city environment and employed in the Vikram University, he 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. Though 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 Vikrānta-Bhairava. On the banks of backward flowing Kshiprā, he kept nightlong vigils in the cremation-ground beside the ruined and derelict temple of Vikrānta-Bhairava on the ancient city-pilgrimage route (pańcakroshī) around the outskirts of the city, whose sacred geography is modeled on that of Kāshī. Thereby he has acquired spiritual powers (siddhi) which permit him to exercise his clairvoyance gratis every morning for the general public that flocks to him. A regular weekly cult has now spontaneously revived at this temple, not far from the major temple of Kāla Bhairava once patronized by the Mahārājas, and his devotees gather there, despite its great distance, in the late evening for worship 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, and has instructed himself into the appropriate ritual utterances (mantra), gestures (nyāsa), mystic diagrams (yantra), procedures (paddhati), etc., only after having received his vocation through visions. However, though it is his assiduous psycho-physical discipline (sādhanā) that has reanimated the cult, the transgressive element is, as far as I can tell, completely effaced.

But the original character of Bhairava worship may be appreciated much better by balancing this picture with his various roles in Nepal, where he has always enjoyed Hindu royal patronage, first under the Licchavis like the famous Amshuvarman, then under the Newar Mallas, and now under the Gorkha Shahs, patrons of the syncretizing Nāth cult. During the Bhairavī Rath Jātrā festival,138 the dhāmī of Nuwakot is possessed by, or rather becomes, Bhairava, and his wife likewise incarnates Bhairavī who has an important temple there and is said to have conferred the Nepal Valley upon her devotee, the Gorkha conqueror Prithvī Nārāyan Shah, creator of modern Nepal. The entire Newar community, with tribals from distant parts and the onlooking Gorkha people, participates in this Hindu festival, officiated especially by Brahman Buddhist priests who now come all the way from Katmandu. It climaxes in the sacrifice, especially when the "Sindūr Procession" reaches Devī-Ghāt on the confluence of the Tadhi and the Trisūlī-Gangā, of numerous goats and buffaloes, from whose gushing throats the dhāmī as Bhairava gulps down the fresh blood, just like the Bhairava dancer during the "Nine Goddess" (Navadurgā) dances of Bhaktapur. Then, before the shrine of Jālpa Devī at the confluence and in secret before the representative of the king of Nepal, he proclaims oracles for the entire kingdom which are then communicated to the king. Once in twelve years the dhāmī visits the king at Katmandu in order to receive a new set of ritual attire and insignia. Pacali Bhairab himself is often represented in myth as a king with impure traits, sometimes from Vārānasī or Lhasa, who had the habit of frequenting the cremation-ground beside the Bāgmatī (-Gangā) before becoming petrified there after wrapping himself in a funeral mat (see note 95). At Bhaktapur it is the used funeral mat of the highest Brahman, the rājapurohita, that serves as the canvas for painting the ritual mask of Akash Bhairab that is affixed on the outer wall of his temple to receive public worship (see note 134).

The Buddhist Mahākāla used to fly, it is said, between Kāshī and Lhasa, but was immobilized in mid-air by a powerful Tibetan Lama and forced to settle down at the edge of the Tundikhel royal parade ground. "In his role as defender and guardian, Mahākāla is one of the chief protectors of all the other Valley gods, a task he shares with Sankata Bhairava of Te-bahal, Katmandu. In the Katmandu Valley, representations of Mahākāla rarely conform to his textual description, and often incorporate aspects that are rightly those of other divinities: Samvara, Hevajra, and Heruka, emanations of Akshobhya. Conceptually related to Bhairava, from whom he probably derives, the Buddhist deity is teamed with Bhairava in practice, shares some aspects of his iconography, and the name Mahākāla, one of Bhairava's epithets. Like Bhairava, too, Nepalis conceive of Mahākāla as a pītha devatā, the temple of the Tundikhel Mahākāla, Katmandu, for example, representing his pītha, which is paired with a companion deochem inside the town. Thus it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the two deities. Iconographically, even the famous Kāla Bhairava of the Katmandu Darbar Square conforms as much to Samvara as to Bhairava."139 The spontaneity with which Tibetan pilgrims make it a point to venerate this Kāla Bhairab at Hanumān Dhoka is no doubt due to this identification. It is significant that the Newar Vajrācāryas, for whom Bhairava is to all appearance not the kuladevatā, are nevertheless custodians of his secrets and sometimes even central officiants at his public cult for the Hindu community.140 Particularly venerated within the Gelugpa sect, the Vajra-Bhairava mentioned in an inscription of Shivadeva II is another name of the fierce Yamāntaka, and the history of his lineage worship, is found in the Tibetan text entitled "Jam-Doyangs Bzhao-Pai Rdorje," where the revelation is attributed to Mahāsiddha Lalitavajra of Uddyāna. The Kāshī-Lhasa axis so constant in the Newar ethnography of Bhairava is probably to be explained by Tibetan Buddhism having played, after his original adoption from Hindu India, a preponderant role in the spread of his cult in Nepal.

Also known as Adālata (Court) Bhairava, the towering black solitary image of Kāla Bhairab before the palace gate at Hanumān Dhoka was the chief witness before whom government servants were annually sworn into office, a function that corresponds perfectly to his now practically defunct role of policeman-magistrate of Kāshī. Litigants and accused criminals also swore while touching Bhairava's foot, and he who bore false witness vomited and died on the spot. As late as the nineteenth century he was the occasional recipient of human sacrifices, as was (Mitra-) Varuna already in order to paradoxically maintain the awesome Rta hidden firmly within the heart of the Vedic socio-cosmic order.141 Though much of the symbolism surrounding Bhairava is no longer understood even by his most ardent devotees and the cult itself is being rapidly effaced, one has only to replace these symbols in their original context to recognize the transgressive mode of sacrality that inspires them. And though this symbolic constellation, an integral part of the galaxy of criminal gods and demon devotees, is typically and in many of its elements exclusively Indian, it is the vehicle of a dialectic of transgression that flourishes under different modalities in archaic and primitive religions and is not wholly absent in the other world religions. Increasingly claimed to be both historically and principially the original sacred, this ideology assumes in India the form of the terrifying Bhairava to pose awkward questions that we modernists, as ethical and rational humanists, would have no doubt preferred to leave unanswered, had not the secular counter-sciences of anthropology, psychoanalysis and linguistics converged in the ever widening and deepening archaeology of contemporary scientia to insistently proclaim with Michel Foucault the inevitable and imminent dissolution of an already shrunken Man.142