Hinduism Bhairava
Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0019


Bhairava, literally “the terrifying,” hence the god of terror, has intrigued students of South Asian religion because of the challenges he poses to any totalizing conceptual framework for approaching his underlying system of values and worldview. As the lowly impure guardian of the local territory subordinated to a central pure divinity, the public worship of Bhairava confirms the hierarchical nature of the caste society opening out above to renunciation (of sexuality, violence, earthly attachments, etc.) as the ultimate goal of life. His identity overlaps with countless regional deities, some of whom can be traced back anthropologically to “pre-Aryan” tribal origins. At the same time, as the privileged embodiment of the all-encompassing metaphysical principle (anuttara) taught by mainstream exemplars of classical brahmanical culture (above all Abhinavagupta) this tantric deity par excellence seems to violate this socioreligious order by turning it completely upside down. Relegating his antinomian proclivities to esoteric cults, folk practices, and sectarian identities intruding from the fringes has not sufficed to explain his ambivalent status, because the central deed that defines his very birth is publicly celebrated in the mythology of the Purāṇas: the violent decapitation of the god Brahmā, the embodiment of the Vedic sacrifice. He is typically represented in religious sculpture and art bearing this decapitated head dripping with blood—lapped up by his faithful dog—or using the skull as a begging bowl. Yet he remains the policeman-magistrate of Banaras, the Hindu sacred city, to whom all pilgrims must pay obeisance and where he confers salvation at the moment of death. Royal festivals, particularly well preserved in the Katmandu Valley, identify this trance-inducing ancestral, even aboriginal, clan-deity with the transsectarian Hindu king, who is otherwise the pivot of the socioreligious order. Deeper scrutiny reveals this criminal god to be, in many ways, the divinized projection of the consecrated (dīkṣita) Vedic sacrificer, thereby conserving and extrapolating the antinomian values of the latter into classical Hinduism. Bhairava’s relevance to the human predicament overflows the confines of the Hindu caste-order because he has also been worshipped by Buddhists, Jains, and Muslims, thus becoming a privileged locus for the study of syncretism and acculturation. He offers striking parallels with the Greek Dionysus vis-à-vis the Apollonian ethico-rational order of the polis. Attempting to make nonreductive sense of all these contradictory aspects of Bhairava—against the backdrop of similar anomalous figures within the Hindu tradition—has resulted in the formulation of a theory of transgressive sacrality as the basis for comparative religion. Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam with the collaboration of Sunthar Visuvalingam.

General Overviews

Though the Origin-Myth of Bhairava is the indispensable starting point for any attempt to understand his pan-Hindu significance and for comparative religion, contradictions embodied by this “god of terror” typify a far more widespread theological paradigm surviving to this day. The collection of essays brought together in Hiltebeitel 1989 comprises extensive fieldwork in far-flung regions of the subcontinent. A recurring religious pattern under multiple guises is that of the demon devotee, committed to transgressive deeds, who subsequently undergoes (especially capital) punishment before repenting to become the foremost worshipper and official guardian of the supremely beneficent deity (see the Pantheon). Erndl 1989, for example, is an account of the pilgrimage circuit to the chaste vegetarian Vaiṣṇo Devī (also see Vaiṣṇavism) that shows how the left-handed tantric adept Bhairava-nātha attempts to rape the virgin Goddess, but is decapitated as he emerges from her womb-cave (see Embryogony) before receiving her gracious pardon. Deified into a “criminal” god of sorts, his exemplary conversion is revealed to be that of the ordinary participants in the cult, of the devout pilgrims. Several of the regional gods, such as Khaṇḍobā, are covered by Sontheimer 1989 and Stanley 1989 (the latter cited under Bhakti). These gods are explicitly or implicitly identified with Bhairava, or as Śiva’s errant untouchable “son” who weds a tabooed brahmin virgin at the sacrificial stake, as discussed in Masilamani-Meyer 1989 and Shulman 1989. Even when the discussion is not of a (demi-)god but of transgressive saints, as in Hudson 1989 (cited under Bhakti), the theological problem posed remains that exemplified by this criminal god par excellence. This anthology was originally intended to resituate divergent theoretical approaches to this conversion scenario against the totalizing framework for Hindu civilization elaborated over a lifetime by Biardeau 2004: the socioreligious order derived from the brahmanical sacrifice, subsequently challenged by (especially Buddhist) renunciation, would have been universalized, subsumed, and surpassed by the pan-Indian religion of Bhakti (devotion). While sympathetically developing this perspective, Chalier-Visuvalingam 1989 demonstrates how the brahmanicide god, by conserving the antinomian dimension of the preclassical dīkṣita, has facilitated the acculturation of pre-Āryan and tribal communities into the Hindu fold through assimilating their savage deities (see the Tribal Substratum). Lorenzen 1989 provides inscriptional evidence for “outcaste” Kāpālika (see Brahmanicide) ascetics having been brahmins engaged in Vedic (soma) sacrifices. In its concluding essay, Visuvalingam 1989 reviews all the contributions, especially those relating to Bhairava, within the framework of transgressive sacrality—derived from the Great Brahmin clown of the Sanskrit theater—that he generalizes into a full-fledged theory of comparative religion.

  • Biardeau, Madeleine. Histoires des poteaux: Variations védiques autour de la Déesse hindoue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    More than Biardeau’s modest essay in Hiltebeitel 1989, this magnum opus brings Sanskrit epics, Great Goddess, Vedic ritualism, (South Indian) village ethnography, royal iconography, and buffalo sacrifices into a coherent unified understanding of Hinduism around this demon devotee thematic, whose multiforms including Bhairava are often (mis-)represented as “tribal” posts and stones.

  • Chalier-Visuvalingam, Elizabeth. “Bhairava’s Royal Brahmanicide: The Problem of the Mahābrāhmaṇa.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 157–229. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Beginning with an overview, this long essay addresses origin myth, Kāpālika doctrine and practice, the relation to Viṣṇu compared to Dionysos-Apollo, Brahmā’s fifth head, antecedents in Vedic dīkṣita and royal Indra, scapegoat role in Benares, underlying sacrificial ideology, radical tantricism, outsider status, implications for Vedic-Hindu pantheon, and contemporary developments.

  • Erndl, Kathleen M. “Rapist or Bodyguard, Demon or Devotee: Images of Bhairo in the Mythology and Cult of Vaiṣṇo Devī.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 239–250. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Erndl shows how this mythic cycle juxtaposes the conflicting images of the goddess: apparently chaste and benign in the public Vaiṣṇava pilgrimage cult and bloodthirsty in the left-handed tantricism exemplified by her would-be rapist Bhairava-nātha.

  • Hiltebeitel, Alf, ed. Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Individual monographs adapted to the particularities of the worship of Bhairava (-like divinities) in specific regions, texts, festivals, and contexts hardly do justice to his many-sidedness. This collection has the merit of posing the theological problem of evil within the empirical (as opposed to simply speculative) framework of anthropological fieldwork.

  • Lorenzen, David. “New Data on the Kāpālikas.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 231–238. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Lorenzen, who pioneered the historical study of the Kāpālika sect of Bhairava-worshippers by discerning their distinctive identity, had worked on the received assumption that they were nonbrahmanical in constitution. This update provides evidence to the contrary that Chalier-Visuvalingam reinterprets as conserving the transgressive sacrality invested in the Vedic dīkṣita.

  • Masilamani-Meyer, Eveline. “The Changing Face of Kāttavarāyan.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 69–103. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Though the Tamil Kāttavarāyan is not explicitly identified with Bhairava, he is likewise a guardian deity, Śiva’s son with symbolic links to Banaras, and is committed to transgressive acts. She recounts his story based on the versions found in two different Tamil manuscripts juxtaposed to his village cult.

  • Shulman, David Dean. “Outcaste, Guardian, and Trickster: Notes on the Myth of Kāttavarāyan.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 35–67. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Unlike the pan-Indian Bhairava—typically defined by his Brahmanicide, being decapitated himself, slaying demons, or esoteric worship by radical tantric currents—Kāttavarāyan is a specifically Tamil folk-deity who willfully undergoes sacrificial death at the stake. His antinomian affinities with Bhairava derive from both being projections of dīkṣita (see also Chalier-Visuvalingam 1989.

  • Sontheimer, Gunther Dietz. “Between Ghost and God: A Folk Deity of the Deccan.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 299–337. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Based on fieldwork on the various forms of the popular deity identified with the solar Mārtaṇḍa Bhairava in Maharashtra (Khaṇḍobā, Malhārī, Mailār), Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka (Malanna). The gods described here have striking parallels to other Deccan folk deities: Jyoyibā, Mhaskobā, Bhairobā, Aiyappan, etc.

  • Visuvalingam, Sunthar. “The Transgressive Sacrality of the Dīkṣita: Sacrifice, Criminality, and Bhakti in the Hindu Tradition.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 427–462. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    Visuvalingam builds on the dialectical approach to the sacred: an approach formulated by Western theorists such as Laura Makarius, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and René Girard. But this author adapts these Western theories to the specifically Indian context by drawing on the Śaiva metaphysics and soteriology of Abhinavagupta centered on Bhairava. He provides the basis for Chalier-Visuvalingam’s grand synthesis.

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