Kalabhairava, the ughra form of Lord Shiva

Puja brings peace to the mind, and as one observes the Lord in the lamp light, there is certain brilliance to his being as he appears to reside at his seat, within a humble puja room, enhancing this throne, this space to a higher spiritual level with his presence. 

Fire has divine light, and as it glows, it brings alive the invisible presence of the Lord to us. This silent conversation brings deep thought as the Lord plays with the thoughts in the mind. Here is one such conversation.

Be it the chilling presence of the Lord on the river side in the cold wintry morning or be it the warmth of the Lord in the darkness of the Garbha griha, his form rings with enigma as one wonders about the various avatars he has taken in different mythologies. We are very accepting when it comes to his soumya forms, where he is depicted with Parvati as a gentle husband, as the divine Lord, but we can scarcely accept his presence as Kalabhairava, the fierce self. 

As the conversation proceeds, the mind dwells on the fact that it’s not just material detachment that one is expected to do away with for higher spiritual satisfaction. That is probably the beginning of it. Detachment from the material world brings additional concentration and more time and mind space that can be spent on the Lord. It brings peace of mind and creates the ambience for higher thoughts to take shape. And then the subtle universe awakens in the mind. 

Kala Bhairava rules the land of Ujjain and also the Ghats of Varanasi. And the bhaktas follow the rule when they life and experience the presence of the Lord here. Be it the aghoris of today’s world or be it the ancient world of Karraikkal Ammaiyar, the gore of the cremation ground and the fearful aspect of death is what echoes in these places. Kalabhairava creates fear, with well documented spells that state that blood and flesh needs to be sacrificed to win the trust and blessings of this form of Lord Shiva. This is enough to make us take a step back, us as in the so called civilized world.

Mahakala, Kalabhairava, Rudra are all fierce expressions of Lord Shiva, dressed in a garland of skulls, smeared with red kumkum on the forehead, free flowing matted hair and shown in a posture that spells destruction. Rudra on the other hand is red eyed and signifies tears with a fiery halo that makes him appear even more dynamic. These forms of the Lord do not look half as scary but the reality of these forms bring fear when the normal aghoris try to ape them, for they have not reached that level of divinity that calls for the warmth that is felt even in these wild forms when the Lord takes them.

This is the subtle world, a world of no bias towards preconceived ideas. This is the second level of renunciation that is expected of us. The first was material, the second is attitude. Did Lord Shiva take on these forms to teach us that there is no room for fear even if he appears fearsome? This appearance can make us squirm or this appearance can intrigue us that there is warmth and protection even when he appears to hold the kabala of a human in his hand and demands blood in his bowl!

Multi handed, the all powerful form of Mahakala is seated on his throne at Ujjain, in front of whom Bali is offered, it has been a blood bath of animals or people. This blood of sacrifice was religiously offered to the deity by pouring it into the cup he held in his left hand. In all his forms, with the variations in the number of hands he is depicted with, he is depicted holding a bowl in his left hand in which is offered blood or grain depending on where he is and the form he takes. Bhikshatana, or Nataraja, Kalabhairava or Mahakala, he walks with matted hair and little cloth roaming the forests or the cremation grounds. This is also Shiva. 

In the holy city of Ujjain, Mahalaka here is offered liquor, liquor that is visibly consumed. This liquor represents the blood that used to be offered in ancient days. Mahakala’s association with liquor, may appear to be for the wrong reasons, be it an offering into his cup in the ancient temple at Ujjain or be it into the funeral pyre by the aghoris at Varanasi. This liquor is a lot more than an alcoholic offering for consumption by the deity. What could possibly be the association of liquor to blood that is considered so sacred, be it any form…

In this awry image of the Lord I am forced to make a distinct parallel. In the Bible, Jesus Christ held up his wine glass during the Last Supper and said “This is my blood” and then he held up a piece of bread and said “This is my flesh”. The Last Supper was recorded as a turning point in the life of Christ where he headed towards sacrificing his life for the rest of mankind, to be crucified at the cross. His last words "forgive them Lord for they know not what they are doing". 

Disconnected though it may seem, I am unable to ignore this rare co-incidence of commonality between two very different faiths. What then is the significance of blood to wine/liquor? As one of the interpretations in the bible says, blood that flows as an offering to the Lord is the river of everlasting life, liquor or wine is the world of illusion, and the bread was the body of Christ in this case. And the forgiveness is towards mass ignorance, not towards crucifying him.

This description brings alive the presence of Mahakala Shiva, to whom human and animal sacrifices were once made, the flesh or the body of the deceased represented the corpse, the end of time, the end of life similar to that on which Ma Kali walks. This is the obvious description that hits the eye and that which has been documented. What is missing is the subtle thought of renunciation, where the blood flowing is the life that is within me, where the liquor is this illusion, this bias or attitude to differentiate that I wish to give up as I present it in the bowl that the Lord holds towards me. I give up my fear, I give up my colored thoughts, I give up the self that is so disillusioned. I am pure and I have lost every sense of attachment, to the world and to my thoughts, to my bias and to my attitude. And then I can join Karraikkal Ammaiyar in her unending bhakti towards Lord Shiva, who dances the tandava among the flames of the cremation ground, and all I see is pure love, pure bhakti, and pure thought.


Dr.Anil Joshi said...

If we trace the origin of this form ,that is Kalbhairava...it was meant to kill the ego of Brahmajee!A person who appears Ugra externally may also be kind hearted & having a good intention in his heart!
About liquor...it removes one's inhibitions...the first step forward in the whole process of salvation I suppose!
Blood in medical parlence is a type of connective tissue...it connects the various body systems...offering it to the god may signify a total surrender of all body systems!

Kavitha said...

I am not sure whether lowering of inhibitions is a good idea, either in the order of society or in the order of spiritualism.

I do realize there should be a rule to it like the kaula marga, where its an important part of Panchamakara, where liquor plays an important role.

As I read more into the various interpretations, i am forced to believe that there seems to be really no single reason for these depictions. At various times of life with various levels of maturity we read the same description in various ways.

What then is the truth except, surrender, love, belief and deep rooted faith that is not fanatic?

What intrigues me most is that the rules of this faith are marked and strict, if adhered to they have such phenomenal results that leaves anyone in a daze to realize this way of life is entirely different.

Its a vast ocean of miracle if we are no the right side of the coin else its a vast ocean of psychological trauma if we are on the wrong side. And strangely there is hardly a line to make the difference between the two - blind faith and logical enlightenment.

Aswin Kini said...

It was nice to know about Kalabhairava, the Ugra form of lord Shiva. Well, I would like to know more about deities like Agoraveerbhadrar and other forms of lord Shiva. Are the deities forms of lord Shiva or are they different?

I still do not understand the significance of offering wine or blood. But knowing our ancestors' habit of having a hidden meaning behind every religious ritual, this one may too have a hidden meaning.

Our religion requires people who can explain the true significance of its rituals without any semblance of a doubt.

YOSEE said...

Kavitha,anthropology indicates that imbibing blood and organs of another being was sanctioned in societies based on animistic belief as a means of absorbing the vitality (or prana) of that being,to strenghthen oneself. more so if its sanctified as "bali". (Sexual intercourse or mingling of the "sap of life" was viewed as empowering for the same reason.) These traditions were spread across the world from South America to Polynesia to Mongolia.In our land, it was practised by certain vamachara or atimargika cultures,like the pashupatas,kapalikas, kalamukhas etc. which were not strictly the shaivism as we know it today( this fact can be found in the writings of the Mahaperiyava of Kanchi). Hinduism is organic and ever pulsating, absorbing and assimilating traditions of other creeds and periodically getting refined by savants.( for example Adi Shankara streamlined the unwieldly hold-all into Shanmatha and the bewildering array of rituals into a compact panchayatana .) Many animistic sprites and grama-devatas have been/are being absorbed into the main pantheon. Hence the many facets of Shiva. The stories of Valli( murugan's) and Chenchulakshmi ( in srisailam)are metaphors for acts of absorbing tribal creeds into the mainstream religion. The use of intoxicants ( soma of rkveda)was more to stimulate certain rarely used parts of the brain for better perception than for lowering inhibitions. The peyote mushrooms of mexican shamans worked similarly.
If we travel in some interior villages, we can come across unknown gods which are nevertheless called "shiva"/his avatar by the locals. Hinduism being a highly democratic and personal religion, we are free to choose the personality we want for our ishtadeivam, truly a designer deity. And find our own concepts to fit it justifiably.
" He that has no name,has a thousand names, he that has no forms, has a thousand forms."If he can be Yin, he can be Yang too !

Kavitha said...


Contrary to what you think, nothing is hidden. Its all in the open, and there are no secrets.

Its the bias and the upbringing that makes us not realize this. The meaning is subtle, not secretive.

Our ancients were far more open than us, we need to unlearn plenty to start accepting these truths and once we accept we will understand and then realize.

Please dont even remotely assume they are hiding things, some things are beyond you to accept and hence they are best left where they are and in what ever form.

You do not understand blood sacrifice. But do you accept blood sacrifice? Ask that question first.

Completely agree with you but with just one point. Shaivism today is the most diluted form we can get. Blood sacrifices were given primarily to mother goddess cult and associated male gods. This was practiced by non brahmins, hence the stark difference.


Rwitoja said...

Yosee, I loved your comment ,epecially the term 'designer deity'.We are truly blessed to be Hindus.Our minds have been left free to enquire ,question and delve into mysteries and find our own answers.We can choose our Ishta devta according to the one most suited to our temperament.Each person in a family can have his own personal deity and no questions asked.We Hindus take this freedom for granted, and sometimes some of us are embarassed when people from other faiths comment on our having"multiple gods".I have lived for years in a monotheistic country where other places of worship were not allowed.There was an incident when pages were torn out of my child's textbook,on government orders, as there was a reference to another religion.Questioning their own faith was also blasphemy.I know how stifling and claustrophobic it gets.
Kavita,Our ancestors may not have hidden anything but it is also true that our myths,legends ,epics,rituals all have an esoteric meaning apart from the obvious one.I think ,we are meant to discover these as we progress on our spiritual journey.It really makes the journey exciting as we discover these new meanings in what we thought was already well known.

Kavitha said...

Its fascinating indeed. once you have your ishta devata in place, have some idea of ritualistic communication, and have enough time to spare to contemplate and have a mindful talk with them, the ancient literature sure unravels a lot more than what is merely visible to us obviously.

Here again... your last para... it couldnt have been more well defined. It echoed every thought in my head.

The question now is how obvious is obvious? And how far deep into the rabbit hole do we want to travel to figure it out and at the cost of what?

JC said...

Hi Kavitha, 'I' would say in very brief that Kalbhairava coould be better understood as the form of Shiva as earth evolved from a fire-ball to the evolved form as 'we' apparently see it in the 'present' - just as wild-life such as a wolf evolved into the form of domesticated dog...

JC said...

Shiva as 'Mahakal', literally 'Supreme Time', indicates the Formless - although itself related with zero time and space - as the controller of Apparent Time that gets generated with the help of relative motions of certain heavenly bodies, such as earth and sun...which result in appearance of all apparent physical forms, which however appear and disappear at certain durations of Apparent Time associated with different animal forms...and were expressed to be result of 'maya' or illusion due to imperfect physical senses...a phenomenon believed similar to projection on 'silver screen' by humans...

JC said...

Regarding internal and different external appearances, perhaps the knowledge that earth has a core of molten magma that is molten rocks (fire in its heart) whereas its exterior might appear widely varied and beautiful as a whole...

Intoxicants were generally called 'somrus' that was believably meant for use of 'devtas' or 'selfless humans'. And somrus basically means 'moonlight' that believably is the life-giving energy...Moon's essence is believed to be housed in the heads of each animal form, and it is believed to be responsible for higher thoughts in man, who believably is an image of the formless god...exhibiting through its behaviour the various aspects of the creator from zero to infinity...

Kavitha said...

That was an insightful piece on the Moon being an integral part of the spiritual growth curve of a bhakta.

They talk about the ida and the pingala, which represent the sun and moon nodes.

There is poetry in making reference to the moonlight as equal to an intoxication of the mind, where the peace and beauty is so deep, it has been equated to the gentle eyes of shakti, that look like fully bloomed water lilies in the moon light.

How beautiful it would look.

Aswin Kini said...

Hi Kavitha, our ancestors always performed their rituals for a definite purpose and reason. But as the years passed, people failed to comprehend the real meaning behind the rituals and pratices and started performing them blindly. The real truth is that since we do not have much knowledgeable people today to educate our masses, they blindly start believing practices and then complaining that our religion is a fake.
Perhaps we need someone who can really educate our so-called civilians on the true purpose of our rituals.

Let me put forth a common example.

The garbagraha of a temple should be dark, apart from the light of an oil lamp. The purpose of this is that the Murthy contains powerfull vibrations that should not be dissipated for any reason.
BUt now, look at what our modern people do? They put airconditioners inside the sanctorum and light up the whole place. A very pathetic thing to do considering the consequences.

How many of us really have an idea of why practice certain rituals?

Aswin Kini said...

Hey Anilji, although your explanation sounds reasonable, I would disagree. I am not sure whether offering of liquor and animal sacrifices had any definite meanings.
As YOSEE said, our religion is democratic. Devotees are allowed to worship god via different forms and rituals. Perhaps this type of offering is just another instance.

JC said...

Hi all, Perhaps with the background knowledge of the wise ancients in mind, one needs to ever remain conscious of real time as well as space as zero. Thus what one appears to see is the history of the Formless Supreme Being as He attained balance between original purely 'spiritual' and temporary 'material' that is believably being reviewed in 'apparent time', which helps Him to leisurely see what He created/ destroyed instantaneously (and therefore the projection being realised as 'maya' that is illusion...In the apparent drama related with humans, there believably is a definite trend that helps one interpolate or extrapolate to arrive at the anticipated happenings, which the astrologers apparently attempted to predetermine with the help of horoscopes (which actually represent the position of 'grahas' in the 360 degrees of sky/ space at the apparent birth time of concerned indivudals)...The variety in human behaviours apparently reflected the variety in "nature' that helped generated the apparent heirarchy...Each individual apparently has a different 'thought plane' or mental trend that help reflect characteristic property of apparent time during different eras. Thus perhaps it isn't correct to expect all humans to behave in the same way...Thus one was expected to surrender in to the creator, as each individual's behaviour is different by design - serving some purpose known only to the Formless Being...

P.N. Subramanian said...

It was a rewarding experience to go througfh the article as well as the comments by schoilarly people.If you can spare some time, please visit my blog and give your learned opinion on the "Rudra Shiva" found at Talagaon (Bilaspur).

JC said...

Shri Subramanian, 'I' had a cursory glance of the recommended post and found it quite interesting...

In brief, with the background belief of 'Hindus' related with soul and its passage through 8.4 million animal forms to reach the most evolved human form, 'I' would say that communication of this concept has been attempted by some ancients in the 'past' to depict the various body components related with various animal forms...Krishna in Gita says that He is present within each evolved animal form, viz. crocodile, etc. Also Tortoise is believed as the second avatara of Vishnu, Peacock is devtas' army's powerful commander Kartikeya's vehiclde, and so on...Essence of Sun is believed located at the solar plexus...

ss said...




any comments abt dis..

Anonymous said...

Dear All

Kalbhairava is the incarnation of lord Shiva, who when worshipped with a pure heart gives all material comforts, destroys poverty, illusions, anger in life. He’s all called as the liberator-after life. Worshipping him in any form or way doesn't matter, untill it's done with a pure heart. As said by Dr.Anil"A person who appears Ugra externally may also be kind hearted & having a good intention in his heart!”I have myself benefitted a lot by the lord’s grace & overcame obstacles, I thought would be impossible...JAI KALABHAIRAVA.ps...Kalbhairav ashtakam is must listen in the morning