The name Bhairavi means “frightful,” “terrible,” “horrible,” or “formidable.” The basic idea here is fear. Ordinarily we associate fear with darkness. It is not uncommon to be afraid of the dark, or rather of the dangers that lurk there unseen, but that is not the sort of fear that Bhairavi provokes, for she is said to shine with the effulgence of ten thousand rising suns.
Bhairavi may be terrifying, but she is anything but dark. If this is puzzling at first, we need to find another example where brilliant light and terror meet face to face. That example is found in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita. Arjuna had been urging Sri Krishna to reveal himself in his supreme, universal form, but when Krishna complied and Arjuna beheld it, the experience was too much for him. The Gita describes the divine glory as the splendor of a thousand suns rising at once in the sky. In that blazing radiance Arjuna beheld the boundless form of the Divine with arms, eyes, mouths, and bellies without end. Arjuna saw gods and celestial beings and whole worlds looking on with dread and wonder, some praising, some trembling in fear. On every side he saw worlds disappearing into fiery mouths, like moths hurtling into the flames of their destruction. In this overwhelming experience of the Divine, Arjuna came face to face with the birthless, deathless, infinite reality in which universes are born, subsist, and die. He was so struck with terror that he begged to see his beloved Krishna once again his familiar, gentle human form.
This experience of Lord Visnu’s universal form, his visvarupa, closely parallels the experience of the Divine Mother as Bhairavi. Just as Visnu’s forms range from the cosmic to the personal, so do Bhairavi’s. Reality is One, but it appears to us as many. We can think of Bhairavi in cosmic terms or in an individualistic sense. As a cosmic goddess Bhairavi is closely identified with Durga in her fierce form, known as Candika. Because Durga presides over the birth, sustenance, and death of the universe, she projects three primary facets, called Mahakali, Mahalakshmi, and Mahasarasvati. These extremely subtle and immeasurably powerful aspects of consciousness manifest on the material level as the three gunas, the basic building blocks and driving energies of the universe.
In her individualized aspect, Bhairavi is the power of consciousness dwelling in every human being. Then she is known as Kundalini. Basic to both the cosmic and individual aspects is identification of Bhairavi with tremendous power. In other words, in either aspect she can appear as overwhelming.
The innate capacity to know—to experience—the Divine lies latent within every human being, and spiritual life unfolds through various stages of discovery. When we set out on the spiritual path, we start our seeking by making a conscious effort of some sort, but then what we find isn’t necessarily what we expected. If we have not sufficiently prepared ourselves to receive it, the light of spiritual knowledge may blaze so strongly that we may have all of our familiar and comfortable assumptions about the world and ourselves suddenly shattered. We may have our world stood on its head, and for a while we may lose our bearings. But the extraordinary nature of spiritual discovery is that it causes us to see the world in a new light and to have a different relationship with it.
Though Bhairavi can be disconcerting or even downright frightening, she is in the end beneficent. Again, we are reminded that she is the color of fire, and what does fire do? At the physical level it burns. Its blaze of heat and light consumes whatever has form, and in this awesome manifestation of destructive power it is both magnificent and terrifying. Yet when controlled, fire can be beneficial, warming us when we are cold, cooking our food, and so on. Fire as the light of consciousness likewise can be frightening or reassuring. This light of consciousness is sometimes called tejas, which means “resplendence.” It is through the light of awareness that we have knowledge of the world, that we experience our own existence, for better or for worse.
Another word frequently encountered in connection with fire is tapas. This is often translated as “austerity,” “mortification,” or “penance,” but all those words carry negative connotations. A more accurate translation would be ardor. Ardor is also the Latin word for flame, and along with the idea of heat and light it conveys the idea of enthusiasm, passion, and joy. In order to practice tapas, that self-purifying discipline that leads us Godward, we need that encouragement. According to one account, Bhairavi incites every form of passion, and she also grants the power to control it. That power is called yoga.
In the Mahabharata (12.250.4) Vyasa defines the highest tapas precisely as “fixing the mind and perceptive faculties one-pointedly on a single object, the indwelling Self. Vyasa’s definition of tapas is not all that different from Patanjali’s definition of yoga as“the restraint of activity within one’s own awareness” (cittavrittinirodha). It is easy to understand how tapas can be conceived of as “self-restraint,” “concentration,” or “meditation.” As we practice tapas, this metaphorical fire burns away all the impurities, limitations, and illusions of our small, ego-based self and prepares us for enlightenment. Even so, most of us harbor the fear of losing our cherished individuality; we cling to our small and imperfect selfhood out of fear. But little by little we progress. Because Bhairavi is so powerful, we must proceed with due caution. She dwells in each of as Kundalini, but we must not force her to rise, lest we harm ourselves. The best tapas is not any esoteric practice but simply the repeated attempts to rein in the mind and direct it toward the Divine. The rest will take care of itself.
Each of the Mahavidyas has more than one form. Most have a variety of representations and a proliferation of names, but none can claim as many as Bhairavi. Accordingly her images are widely divergent, and there is no single iconography to define her. Sometimes she is in the cremation ground, seated on a headless corpse. Like Kali, she has four arms. With two of her hands she holds the sword of knowledge and the demon’s head that represents the destruction of the ego. Her other two hands may display the abhayamudra,urging us to have no fear, and the varadamudra, the gesture of granting boons. More often they hold a mala, signifying devotion, and a book, signifying knowledge. The trident represents the pervasively threefold nature of her manifestation and can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
It is often said that Bhairavi represents divine wrath, but it is only an impulse of her fierce, maternal protectiveness, aimed at the destruction of ignorance and everything negative that keeps us in bondage. In that aspect she is called Sakalasiddhibhairavi, the granter of every perfection.
It is the Mother’s light that shines on every facet of our existence, making it knowable. That light sustains the created order, even though we find shadows here and there in this realm of duality. When the light grows stronger it roots out darkness from every corner. It eventually grows so bright that the created forms dissolve into pure radiance, and what remains is the state of spiritual illumination in which we have no more individuality, no more limitation—only our identification with the Infinite.
Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.