[Author’s note: this piece was penned on the night of the 10th-11th of November 2017 in the course of an all-night devotional vigil]
Tonight marks the Hindu observance of KalaBhairava Jayanti – the Creation, but also the Victory [same word – जयन्ति ] of Kala Bhairava, a Fearsome Destroyer emanation of Lord Shiva Whose name would translate rather approximately to the Terrifying Blackness of Time-Death [this rather unwieldy rendering being the result of the Sanskrit word ‘Kala’ simultaneously meaning ‘Black’, ‘Death’, and ‘Time’ – as can also be seen in the rather famous lines quoted by Oppenheimer at the Nuclear Test at Trinity Sands, wherein it’s more properly *Time* that is the Destroyer of Worlds … for Time, after all, erodes and kills *all*, in the end]. [An additional, somewhat more ‘figurative’ rendering has Kala Bhairava as ‘Who Even Death Is Terrified Of’ – which further connotates the protective role of Lord Bhairava for the pious Devotee and the Temple [in particular, the Shakti Peetha sites]; and, in particular, the City of Varanasi, where the Pious go to die.]
To be sure, there are many Aspects and Emanations of Mahadeva that are rather strongly associated with the notion of ‘Terror’. Sri Rudra, for instance, is described in the Vedas as ‘Dreaded’ and as the horrifying Howling of the Storm Wind [with the adjective ‘Aghora’ of Lord Shiva, made up of the components ‘A-‘ as a negation, and ‘Ghora’ meaning ‘frightening’, being straight-up used to specifically invoke Mahadeva’s *non-terrifying* ‘side’]; whilst Veerabhadra, as the carryer out of the brutal massacre at the Sacrifice of Daksha in reaction to the death of Lord Shiva’s Wife – Lady Sati – is also frequently depicted in a manner which conveys a sense of the fear surely felt by the impious and disrespectful in His presence … prior to the decapitations, anyway.
Yet Kala Bhairav stands out amongst these – not least because the reason and purpose for His emanation, as cited in the Shiva Mahapuranam, is the Slaying of a God. And not just any God, either. One of the mighty Trimurti – Lord Brahma.
According to the Legend, a dispute had arisen between Lords Brahma and Vishnu over whom among them was truly the supreme. This lead to the appearance of Lord Shiva to mediate between Them – pointing out that by the encoded ‘blueprints of the universe’ [the Vedas – simply referring to Them here as ‘scriptural authority’ does not adequately convey the appropriate connotation] He was, in fact, the Absolute [this incident is also related in a number of sources, often with some form of ‘test’ being promulgated wherein the other members of the Trimurti attempt to best each other and exceed Lord Shiva – for instance, the story of Mahadev transforming into a Linga pillar of infinite height and challenging Vishnu and Brahma to race to find the ends, with Vishnu eventually concluding that such a thing cannot be done while Brahma instead attempts to cheat and lie about succeeding].
An arrogant Deity in the extreme [this characteristic *also* attested in a number of other sources – and on occasion leading to overt sinful conduct], Lord Brahma refused to accept this fact, and instead scornfully attempted to countermand it; arguing both that Lord Shiva, due to His lifestyle and characteristics could not possibly be the sanctic Absolute – and that, in any case, as Lord Brahma was evidently ‘capable’ of assuming some of Lord Shiva’s duties and divine portfolio [which Brahma then started doing – causing quite some problems for the Universe at large in His ignorance], if Lord Shiva was the Absolute then so too was Brahma by equivalency. Brahma concluded His blasphemy by mockingly offering Lord Shiva ‘protection’ in exchange for His submission.
Needless to say, Lord Shiva was *not* amused – particularly in light of the aspersions cast by Brahma upon the nature and virtue of His Wife. And in a blaze of blinding light, created the Bhairava to bring the swift execution of justice to the situation.
Now here, accounts differ somewhat – some say that Lord Kala Bhairava was emanated as a result of Mahadeva ripping off a fingernail, which thus turned into the resultant Destroyer; others that the role of the fingernail in this tale is as the implement of Kala Bhairava by which Lord Brahma was decapitated [as in, Kala Bhairava’s fingernail].
Whichever version is gone with, the plain import is clear – that Lord Shiva and His Instrument possess more power in the nail of one finger than the self-professed charlatan “Absolute” of Lord Brahma in this story.
[Another version, found in the Skanda Purana, has the censure meted out to Lord Brahma occurring as a punishment for His attempting to commit incest; with Lord Shiva acting to protect Brahma’s Daughter from Her Father’s abhorrent advances.].
And Lord Brahma was Decapitated as a result, and as a lesson. [Although this was not fatal, given that prior to this, Brahma was in possession of five heads rather than the now-current four] [The symbolic importance of this being that Sri Rudra is often depicted with five heads, with Lord Brahma being reduced in number of heads from this number to a lesser one helping to underscore the difference in Their potency and the immanent superiority of Lord Shiva] [An additional layer of symbolism in this incident concerns the traditional meaning of ‘decapitation’ within Hindu iconography as the severing of the ego, thus allowing for progression towards Enlightenment – as can be seen, for instance, with some readings of the depiction of Ma Chhinnamasta, for instance; Phrased this way, the destruction of Lord Brahma’s arrogance and egotism is a necessary and positive act *for* Lord Brahma and one which He ought be thankful for, as it clears the way for further progression and development].
However, this is not where the story ends.
Lord Brahma, as one would probably expect, had the status of a Brahmin; and by decapitating Him, even as a necessary action of Divine ordination, Kala Bhairava had committed the Sin of Brahmanicide [Brahmahatya – which winds up being personified as a frightening female figure that directly pursues Bhairava until the Sin is expiated at the City of Varanasi, where a Temple to Lord Kala Bhairava stands today].
The remedy for this was a period of wandering as a mendicant [‘Bhikshatana’] beggar, using the Skull of Brahma – which had become stuck to His hand as a visual sign of His crime – as a begging-bowl [‘Kapala’] to ask for alms [a practice replicated in some measure by the ‘Kapalika’ [‘Skull-Men’] sect of Shaivites ; many of whom, at least originally, were actually carryiing out a criminal sentence of spending twelve years as such for inadvertently killing a Brahmin, before its subsequent evolution into a devotional path of sorts] and eventual absolution upon reaching the City of Kashi, which the Brahmahatya pursuer was unable to enter. [For this reason, also, Lord Bhairava is often prayed to as a patron-protector of travellers – particularly at night.]
During this period of wandering, Lord Kala Bhairava also slays Vishvaksena, the seneschal [or General] of Lord Vishnu’s realm and armies for attempting to obstruct His quest, before engaging in dialogue with Lord Vishnu about the nature of His Sin and reality.
Accounts differ as to the precise nature of the attempted assistance rendered by Lord Vishnu to Bhairava at this point; with some suggesting that Lord Vishnu offers His Own blood to attempt to fill the skull-cup with, and others instead having Lord Vishnu split open one of Bhairava’s veins to do likewise. Wherever the blood flew from, however, it is insufficient to fill the cup regardless of how much is poured in or for how long – thus representing the difficulty of applying ‘quick fixes’ or self-sought (ab)solutions of improper nature in cases where wrongdoing must be amended for.
The dialogue continues, with Lord Kala Bhairava making the astute observation [according to at least one source, anyway] that the alms given to the truly pious beneficiary/beggar do not lead him to corrupt habits, intoxication, and worldly-ensnarement – but rather, aid and facilitate the pursuit of Truth.
This culminates in Lord Vishnu realizing that even despite the seemingly ‘degenerate’ outward appearance and habits of Bhairava [as an extension, somewhat, of same of Lord Shiva], and His [self-imposed, effectively] status as an egregious Sinner – that nevertheless, Lord Shiva is the Supreme, with these outer elements not impeding, contaminating or ‘weighing down’ the actual truth and essence of Mahadeva. [For His part, Lord Vishnu is acknowledged as the foremost disciple of Lord Shiva – something which turns up in a number of, perhaps peculiarly, Vaishnava texts as well]
Vishnu then directs Kala Bhairava to head to Varanasi, the present-day Hindu City of the Dead [which is also an actual city, located on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, in case you were wondering] – also known as ‘Kashi’, the ‘City of Light’ – in order to perform the appropriate penitential ritual there and at last be free from His Kapalika burden-of-obligation.
This, Bhairava does; with the Brahmahatya fading into the ground after following Him to the gates of the city, and the Skull of Brahma also falling from His hand at the place now known as ‘Kapalamochana’ – ‘Liberation from the Skull’].
The Kala Bhairava is said to remain in Varanasi to this day as an especial protector of the City, and also its continual population of pilgrims and death-seekers [it is considered the best and appropriate place to die by many Hindus, with funeral pyres lighting the banks of the Ganges nightly]. On this particular night, annually, the Kala Bhairava Murti in the Temple to Him in Varanasi is fully-uncovered [It is usually veiled apart from the Head for most of the year], and adorned with a Mundamala [‘Skull-Necklace’] of silver.
Elsewhere in the world, Kala Bhairava Jayanti is observed by Hindus with all-night vigils, the chanting of particular devotional liturgies, and [perhaps rather interestingly] performing acts of kindness to dogs – as a dog is the Vahana [‘mount’ or ‘vehicle’] of Bhairava.
It is thought that, in-line with Kala Bhairava’s example, that proper penance performed [and properly meant] in Kashi, and within His sight, is capable of providing absolution for even the more egregious of sins commitable by mortal man.
And while the necessity of following infringement and violation of propriety with appropriate conduct to ‘set things right’ is an obvious moral for the story of Bhairava, that is only the most ‘obvious’ insight to be gained here. The Supremacy of Lord Shiva, and His occasionally somewhat ‘indirect’ or seemingly-arduous methods for bestowing (eventual) Enlightenment upon all, is another one.
But looking closer, and particularly at specific parts of the Myth, we also see that the Truth can be found in seemingly unexpected places – as Vishnu notes upon realizing that despite appearing as a sinner, this is precisely what Lord Shiva is … and, for that matter, what Lord Brahma is forced to acknowledge & realize even after directly scoffing at the notion of the Supreme being engaged in the lifestyle and outer habits of Mahadev. Alongside this, the idea of the Truth being Terrifying in some instances [particularly if we continually refuse to face (up to) it – whereupon this denial can have potentially deadly results of escalating severity], is plainly demonstrated.
We also see that no being – whether God or man – can outrun the consequences of His actions; we can instead only choose how to respond to them. This may seem a peculiar maxim to draw out from the Myth, given Kala Bhairava literally spends the latter part of the Legend outpacing His pursuer, the Brahmahatya – and yet, the reality of the situation is that not only did Bhairava have to *run from* this [i.e. the pursuit and resultant wandering was a ‘consequence’ that could not be simply eschewed and easily gotten out of], but that only the proper ritual penitence in the proper place [i.e. righteous action to ‘set things right’ and ‘equalize’ the aforementioned sin and ‘consequence’] was capable of abjuring the much-feared ‘consequence’ in question. And thus, the necessity of so doing – was a consequence, itself.
Finally, it is worth noting the subtle Eschatological and nomenclaturial symbolism in the Myth and Entity of Kala Bhairava.
For it cannot have been unintentional that the God of Creation [so to speak] – Lord Brahma – would find Himself lain low by Time. This echos both the notion of that which is created [including our material universe] eventually eroding and being destroyed through the progress of ‘Time’; as well as recalling the role of Maha Kali at the ‘End of Time’, wherein She plays a key role in unmaking the Great Work which Lord Brahma has [in some tellings of the Hindu cosmological / cosmogonical [more properly speaking] understanding]] set into motion. Which also, itself, recalls the Role of Lord Shiva as the Destroyer – responsible for unmaking and bringing to an end Creation in order to ‘clear the space’ for the next Cycle to Begin. [‘Everything That Has A Beginning Has An End’ – and one which comes with, appropriately enough, ‘Time’ 😛 ] [This also suggests , dependent upon one’s Metaphysical inclination, another illustration of Lord Shiva’s superiority over Lord Brahma – in that this tacitly connects with the eschewing of the mortal-material world for that which is greater, supreme, eternal. As after the Dissolution of the World, all that is left is the Absolute .! ]
And as applies the Name – well, what is it that we humans tend to fear. “Death” is certainly an obvious one [the transcension of which is often considered an important part of the ‘improving’ of a soul – as revealed through Lord Brahma becoming more enlightened following His decapitation [i.e. ‘moving past’ losing His head and ‘ego’ [at least somewhat]]. But so too is ‘Blackness’ – whether in the sense of the ‘unknown’, or the dark night which might effectively shroud same [see also, for instance, the NavaDurga KalaRatri for a similar embodiment of concept here]; yet as we can see from both Kala Bhairava, as well as other associated Aspects and Divinities, Truth and Wisdom can quite frequently be found out there in same. Even if we might initially resile from its prospect thence.
We also tend, inevitably [appropriate word there], to fear Time and more especially Its Passsage; as this is the keenest revealer of the impermance of our decidedly mortal existences – as well as, on a more macroscopic level, the ‘Unmaker Of All Things’. [It is, after all, ‘The Fire In Which We Burn’ – KaalAgniRudraya.]. The notion of ‘Wasted Time’, or ‘Squandered Years’ [although in a bit of an inversion, on occasion, not so much “Misspent Youth” as the gulf between said youth and the present-day self, eroded *by* Time] also tends to scare, although as a perhaps necessary impeller towards proper action and better use of this most precious of resources [thus, once again, showing the necessary and indeed, even noble role of Terror].
All of this, then, even without getting into some of the more .. ‘creative’ etymologies and meanings that some sages have put forward for Name of Kala Bhairava , helps to show why we meditate upon Lord Shiva As Bhairava on this particular night.
ॐ कालाकालाय विधमहे,
तन्नो काल भैरवा प्रचोदयात ll
ॐ कालभैरवाय नमः
ॐ नमः शिवाय