Categories: Hindu God and Goddess

Bhairava:The Fearsome Deity of Hinduism and Buddhism

Bhairava, also known as Kala Bhairava, is a deity revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. This formidable deity holds a significant place in the pantheon of divine beings, associated with annihilation, protection, and the ultimate reality. In this article, we will explore the multifaceted aspects of Bhairava, his origin, significance in various traditions, depictions, and worship practices.

The Etymology and Meaning of Bhairava

The very name “Bhairava” carries a weighty meaning. Derived from the word “bhiru,” which translates to “fearsome,” Bhairava is often referred to as the “terribly fearsome form.” However, this fear is not directed towards his devotees but towards their inner enemies – greed, lust, and anger. Bhairava is believed to protect his followers from these destructive forces, enabling them to seek the divine within themselves.

An alternative interpretation of his name delves deeper into his role in the cosmic order. “Bha” symbolizes creation, “ra” stands for sustenance, and “va” signifies destruction. Thus, Bhairava embodies the entire cycle of existence, from creation to sustenance to dissolution, making him the ultimate and supreme force.

Legend of Bhairava’s Origin

Bhairava’s origin is steeped in Hindu mythology and has two distinct narratives. One story traces his creation back to a clash of ego between Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu. When Lord Brahma claimed to be the supreme creator of the universe, Lord Shiva decided to humble him. Shiva threw a small hair from his head, which transformed into Kala Bhairava. Bhairava swiftly cut off one of Brahma’s heads, symbolizing the destruction of ego. This act led Brahma to enlightenment, and Bhairava became the guardian of Shakti temples.

Another version suggests that Bhairava was created by Shiva to aid in the battle against demons. After the asura Dahurasura could only be killed by a woman, Goddess Parvati took the form of Kali and annihilated him. Kali’s wrath then transformed into a child, merging with Shiva to give rise to Bhairava in his eight forms.

Depiction and Iconography


In Hindu temples, Bhairava is typically found in the north, facing the west. He is portrayed standing with four hands, holding a drum, a noose (pasa), a trident, and a skull. Some forms of Bhairava exhibit more than four hands, each holding various attributes. His depiction often includes a dog, symbolizing his protective nature. With protruding teeth, a fearsome visage, and a garland of red flowers, Bhairava’s appearance is formidable.

Worshipers offer various items to Bhairava, including ghee baths, red flowers, ghee lamps, coconuts, honey, and boiled food. The most auspicious time for worship is said to be midnight, particularly on Fridays. Specific flowers and leaves are used in archana (ritual offerings) to Bhairava.

Bhairava in Different Forms

Bhairava assumes multiple forms, and some are guardians of the eight cardinal points. There are a total of 64 Bhairavas, divided into eight categories, each headed by a major Bhairava. These major Bhairavas represent the five elements (akas, air, fire, water, earth) along with the sun, moon, and atman. Devotees believe that continuous worship of Bhairava leads to spiritual growth and guidance by a true Guru.

Bhairava as Protector

Bhairava is not only a guardian of the eight directions but also a protector of women and the timid. His worship is believed to bring prosperity, success, and protection from various adversities, including premature death and debts. Bhairava’s diverse forms and roles reflect his significance in the lives of his devotees.

Bhairava in Trika System and Kashmiri Shaivism

In the Trika System and Kashmiri Shaivism, Bhairava represents the Absolute Reality (Para Brahman). The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, a key text of this tradition, presents 112 Tantric meditation methods. These techniques offer seekers a path to realizing the highest reality and are highly regarded in the philosophical schools of Kashmir Shaivism.

Bhairava in Buddhism

Buddhism also embraces Bhairava, albeit with variations in name and interpretation. In Tibetan Buddhism, Bhairava takes on forms like Herukas, Vajrabhairava, Mahakala, and Yamantaka. These fierce deities serve as tantric meditation objects and are associated with Buddhist tantras. The transformation of anger and hatred into understanding is a central theme in the tantric practices associated with Bhairava in Buddhism.

Worship and Observances

Bhairava temples can be found throughout India, especially near Jyotirlinga temples. Special observances like Bhairava Ashtami are celebrated to commemorate his earthly appearance. This day involves unique prayers and rituals to honor Bhairava.

Iconography and Regional Worship

Bhairava’s iconography varies across regions, with some areas presenting him as a Grama devata, a village guardian. The Newar community in Nepal maintains numerous Bhairava temples, reflecting his importance in their culture. In South Karnataka, Lord Sri Kalabhairaveshwara is revered as Kshetra Palaka in Sri Adichunchanagiri Hills.


Krishna Das is an experienced article writer. He writes about Hinduism in his spare time.

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