One of the most important goddess in the Mahavidyā pantheon is Bhairavi, a term that has wide application and meaning in the Tantric tradition. Sometimes she appears as the 5th and sometimes as the 6th in the list of Mahavidyā-s. Bhairavi, the goddess, is not to be confused with the eponymous raga of the Indian classical music though there may be some vague correlation between the time of the day connected to the raga and this Mahavidyā.
Bhairavi means one who inspires terror or awe, she is oftentimes referred to with a more formal name, Tripura- Bhairavi – the Goddess of the three places, towns, pura, which some Yogis identify with the three states of jāgrat (waking), swapna (dreaming) and sushupti (sleeping). In another way of interpretation, it may also represent the three worlds of the material, subtle and causal, beyond which lie the fourth and powerful realm of authentic spirituality. Bhairavi, in the Mahavidyā pantheon, is that terrifying force, which destroys all that blocks a seeker, or makes him persist in these three lower and more mundane states of reality, allowing an unhindered ascension or access to the condition of Turiya or true adhaytma. Destruction, of course, is fundamental to the path of Tantra, as can be seen from the eulogy offered to the Universal Divine Mother in the Chandipath with the sloka:
“Srishti Sthiti Vinashanam, Shaktibhute, Sanatani”
In the traditional Shakta Tantric texts Bhairavi is represented as a Goddess with the splendor of a thousand suns. She has three eyes, wears a diadem of rare and precious gems, shaped to represent a crescent moon. Her face is as beautiful as a full blown lotus flower, with kind eyes and a smiling disposition. Red is her color of dress, her breasts are blood-smeared, wearing a garland of human skulls, a rosary and book in one hand, and a jnana mudrā and varada mudrā in the other two. She sits on a lotus asana, sometimes on a corpse, radiating a beauty so stunning that all who see her Divine countenance are struck with awe and wonder.
In another description of Tripura-Bhairavi from the Kalika Purana we find her with bows, arrows, rosary and a book, while standing in samapada on the back of a preta, who lies on the back of four other pretas. A variation of this iconography represents her standing or sitting on one preta, who is later identified as sadāśiva.
She is thus described as siting in a half-lotus posture on the heart of sadāśiva, who is shown laughing. Around her neck is a garland of human heads, freshly cut with blood dripping, mixed with a garland of red flowers reaching up to her feet; she has uplifted breasts, four arms, naked, with a rosary in her upper right arm, boon granting mudrā in her lower right arm, abhaya mudrā in her upper left and a book in her lower left arm. Three eyes, a smiling face and a love for streaming blood is also mentioned in the text in connection to Bhairavi.
In the later Tantric texts like Bhairavayamala and the eventual authoritative compendium called Tantrasarā (16th century), Bhairavi spawns derivative goddesses like the ten-armed Rudra- Bhairavi, who is Śivasimhasanasthitam – residing on a throne made of Śiva’s body. By this time we find a universal modification of the iconographic seat of Bhairavi forms, from lotus to corpse whose identity oscillates between Śiva and mahāpreta, sometimes both together, othertimes unique. Texts such as Sakta Pramoda describe her as being fond of meat, alcohol and the cremation grounds, where she hunts for consuming the flesh of all who once had prana flowing in their system making them animated but have now died.
One possible reason as to why the seat of Tripura- Bhairavi underwent a change from the lotus to a mahāpreta, could be that the practices related to Bhairavi increasing, especially in the sampradayas of Eastern India, became associated with the Left hand path, or vāmācāra, that necessarily involves ritual setting of a cremation ground and other heterodox paraphernalia.
In esoteric parlance, Bhairavi is the goddess of constant destruction, unlike say Chinnamasta, whose effect is stunning and sudden destruction, when needed. Every process that leads one to death, physical or emotional, is by the power of this form. So, Yogi-s considered all movement of the apāna vayu – infact anything that leads to death and decay – which governs natural bodily functions like defecation, urination, loss of sexual fluids, aging, and eventually death are all under the exclusive power of Bhairavi.
She is also supposed to be existent in the mulādhāra chakra from where she starts her play as the awakened kuṇḍalinī Shakti, thus destroying and transcending – both are essentially the same – each of the lower tattwa-s one at a time. In this sense, in the inner Yoga, which is so often referred to in Tantric texts and passed down traditionally from Guru to Sishya, Tripura Bhairavi’s power can help a sadhaka to go beyond and understand the essential nature and application of the prithiwi, jala and agni tattwa in the body and all around in the world. In fact, She is also known as the tapas, or inner spiritual heat generated by the force of sadhana. While it is the nature and peculiar power of an awakened kuṇḍalinī to be able to self-identify with anything, from a deity to a speck of dust, whatever the sadhaka chooses to self-identify with, no other form of Mahavidyā is so strongly equated to the force of an awakenend kuṇḍalinī as Tripura Bhairavi is. In other words, Bhairavi is the personification of kuṇḍalinī’s terrific power of destroying and altering all the old perceptions, mechanical thinking, customary habits, and un-examined routine ideas, which can and must happen, before this all-powerful Shakti can go into subtler realms and higher chakra-s and change a paśu into a nara. And this power of endless destruction is what bestows the name Bhairavi, meaning “terrifying”, on Her.
Advaita scholars interpreting the Mahavidyā s have considered Tripura Bhairavi to be equivalent to paravak, or the primordial unmanifest speech. However, this may not be consistent with the ideas about Bhairavi expressed in Tantras, or with the experience of those who have performed upāsanā of this form. It is rather likely that this equivalence was drawn up using a pseudo-similarity between para, which by some accounts starts from Mulādhāra, and the association of Bhairavi with the said chakra. This author is of the firm opinion that true Para Vak is a function of the mahākāraṇa, greater causal body, and as such, practically, inaccessible for 99% of the sadhaks. Probably more than 99%.
Technically however Tripura Bhairavi is closely related to the other Mahavidyā goddess with the Tripura epithet, Tripurasundarī or ṣodaśī. This falls under the hadi krama, more popularly known as Sri Kula. A verse from the mahākāla samhita settles the matter of distribution between vidyas.
कादिः काली महाशक्तिः हादिस्त्रिपुरसुन्दरी |
कादित्वाद् ब्रह्मरूपत्वं हादित्वाच्छिवरूपता ||
[It is generally accepted that while the Kali-Kula relates to the kAdi krama, and the Sri Kula uses the hAdi-krama, Mahavidyā Tara, according to some traditions, forms a link between the kadi and hadi vidya-s]
Owing to Bhairavi’s irresistible power of causing decay and destruction many early writers have used terms like Ghora, Kalaratri, and mahāpralaya to describe her devastating power.
The upāsanā of Tripura-Bhairavi is entirely Tantric, and must be undertaken only under the guidance of a Guru who is well versed in this, and who belongs to a parampara where this form of Mahashakti has been worshiped. Tripura-Bhairavi has many different forms as well. The Tantrasarā describes 12 such forms: Sampatprada Bhairavi, Sakalasiddhi Bhairavi, Bhayavinashini Bhairavi, Chaitanya Bhairavi, Bhuvaneshwari Bhairavi, Kameshwari Bhairavi, Annapurneshwari Bhairavi, Nitya Bhairavi, Rudra Bhairavi, Bhadra Bhairavi, Subhamkari Bhairavi, and Smashana Bhairavi. Each of them have their specialized domains which are evident from the names. While chaitanya- Bhairavi awakens the divine consciousness, Kameshwari- Bhairavi grants desires and Annapurneshwari provides sustenance.
In the Mahavidyā tradition, Tripura- Bhairavi’s consort is considered to be Kalabhairava and her upāsanā is said to remove all blockages, obstructions and break down every shackle that can tie an individual, physically or psychologically. Further, in jyotisha, Bhairavi is invoked for lagna-shuddhi, or protecting the native in case the lagna is afflicted severely. References to this goddess can be found even in the Devi Mahatyam along with a description of her forms. In some sampradayas, it is believed that the specific form of the Mahashakti who consumes alcohol before destroying Mahisāsura was none other than Tripura-Bhairavi. Another story related to the Mahavidyā tradition mentions that Tripura-Bhairavi is the only form of Shakti, which speaks to Śiva directly.
From this goddess, we have a more ubiquitous usage of the term Bhairavi in the Eastern and Northern Tantric sampradayas where Bhairavi is an accomplished women sadhika, who has been given appropriate diksha and who is well versed in Shakti sadhana. Oftentimes, expert Bhairavi-s have acted as Gurus to neophyte sadhaks. In colloquial knowledge a Bhairavi is also known to freely use her sexual energies for the purpose of sadhana, and remains unconstrained by societal dos and don’ts. At the same time, this is not a license for promiscuous behavior. In fact, without a Bhairavi diksha, no one can enter this path, leave alone achieve any true benefits of Shakti sadhana. Among Bhairavis too there are a further classification known as Maha- Bhairavis, whose process of diksha and methods of sadhana are kept hidden from public. The krama of a Bhairavi sadhana starts with an expertise in the methods of Yoni Puja. Yoni is considered in Tantra as symbolic of the Divine womb from which creation occurs. As such everything in practical Tantric worship is designed by keeping in mind not only the rituals, but also the symbolism of various worldly things and their relation to the spiritual or supernatural realm. Thus women, during the course of the ritual, are to be looked at as the insignia of Shakti, while men become the insignia of ādhāra – the vehicle that carries, or rather moderates and shapes a particular shakti. Śiva is therefore considered the greatest of all ādhāra-s. There is however one form of Shakti which is considered nirādhāra, which needs no support, which is almost transcendental, and who is, in this theology, the originator of everything, from gods to āsura-s to men to animals, plants and insects.
The second schematic aspect of any Tantric upāsanā is related to the five tattwas – prithwi, apas, agni, vayu and akasha. It is in purifying these tattwas that take up a major chunk of the practice, and then reading them accurately at any given time and performing ritual actions that are supposed to give best results in a particular combination prevalent among the tattwas. In that sense it is believed that certain kinds of women can take to Bhairavi upāsanā better than others, as the tattwas in their mind-body are better aligned. Ganikā, Nati, cāndālī are mentioned in texts as women who have the five prana-s and five tattwas perfectly aligned in their mind-body, who when initiated into the path, can become excellent Bhairavi-s.
A large part of the Bhairavi sadhana includes a nyāsa like ritual, kept hidden from the merely curious, where different mantras and devata-s are invoked onto every limb of the Bhairavi. This, when perfected, makes the sadhikas’s very presence Divine and spiritually potent. The male consort of such a Bhairavi is referred to as Bhairava, reminiscent of the unorthodox form of Śiva who is known to break all boundaries. The Bhairavi sadhanas used to be performed in a circle of initiated sadhakas, known as the Bhairavi Chakra, where each Bhairava – male initiate – would sit such that his partner or Bhairavi would be sitting towards the left, while the proceedings of the ritual would be conducted under the joint guidance of the chakreshwar and his Bhairavi known as chakreshwari. The influence of Chakra and Bhairavi sadhana spread quickly across medieval India, such that cults of various other devatas too incorporated newer Tantric iconographies in their midst that have a direct link to these practices. For example, in the form of Ucchista Ganapati we find a nude consort sitting on the left lap of Ganesha, and the ithyphallic devata caressing the genitalia of the naked goddess. This form is very typically reminiscent of the Bhairavi sadhanas of Tantra marga, for this posture is replicated by the Bhairava and Bhairavi while performing practices involving sexual intercourse, of a sublimated and ritualized variety. Again, this should not be viewed from the confused blinkers of Abrahamic morality; for these Bhairavi sadhanas were anything but normal carnal indulgence. After the puja is completed, the Bhairava and the Bhairavi would then perform the shovini mudrā while unifying themselves and at the same time keeping their concentration fixed on the heart or the Agya, as needed for their mutual development. A telltale sign of an authentic Bhairavi-s would be her ability to look physically much younger than their chronological age, a power that comes from the Goddess Bhairavi’s exceptional governance of and control over all kind of aging process.
These days of course such practices have almost vanished, except maybe when performed in secrecy in places like Kamakhya.
There is no one single famous temple dedicated to this form, however, there are many temples of Patala Bhairavi in different cities like Ujjain, Bhopal, certain towns in Odisha, etc. There is also a Siddha Bhairavi temple in Ganjam, Brahmapur. A cave dedicated to the Goddess Bhairavi in the Nilachal parvat of Kamrupa is an active place of Bhairavi worship, with a long standing tradition of chakra puja extending from the time when a Bhairavi Siddha Tantric used to live there at least a century ago.
Tripura Bhairavi, thus, in the Mahavidyā tradition, is easily the closest representation of the kuṇḍalinī’s first outburst; that aspect of the Universal Mahashakti, Jagadamba, which has transcended the ordinary material life and opened up other invisible occult worlds and experiences, and in doing so destroyed and regenerated, when allowed to play in her full capacity, all the old psychological mores of the practitioner. Nothing destroys as powerfully and completely everything in the lower triple world – bhūr, bhuvaḥ, svaḥ – which we inhabit as the grace of Bhairavi does. And in so doing She saves us from ourselves and leads the sadhaka on the road to a greater peace and fulfillment.