Category Archives: b. Saivism

The Kapalika Tradition

The Kapalika tradition

There is a group of tantric saivites that are called the skull-men or kapalikas. They are called this because they carry a cranium begging bowl and a staff with “a banner made of a skull”. The kapalikas are one of the more radical sects to have existed. They slept in the woods, corrupted those in contact with them, and were known to cover themselves in cremation ashes and perform rituals using sexual fluids, alcohol, and blood; completely disregarding vedic purity rules and caste restrictions. The kapalikas strive to imitate their god Siva to gain his power instead of more traditional methods of worship. Their history is in many ways lost and open to conjecture. The kapalikas are often associated with the mahavrata or “great observance” (Lorenzen 73). There is a mahavrata referenced in various earlier works that contains elements of the tradition. However it is unlikely that it would be brought back for use centuries after it was abandoned and dead with no context to give reason for its resurrection (Lorenzen 73). There is a penance that is referred to in most law books that fits the general behaviour of the kapalikas. It is specifically called the mahavrata in the Visnusmrti (Jolly 157).

This penance indicates what is required of those who have [unintentionally] killed a brahmana or other high caste person. While versions across law books differ by specifics the generalities remain fairly consistent. The bhrunahan, or one who kills a learned “must make a hut of leaves in a forest and dwell in it” (Jolly 157). Some versions go so far as to specify that it must be built on burial grounds. He must “bathe and perform his prayers three times a day … collect alms, going from one village to another, and proclaiming his own deed; And let him sleep upon grass” (Jolly 157). The only food the bhrunahan is allowed is that which he receives from begging. Some versions allow entering villages only to beg and proclaim, and for nothing else. Others go further and limit the number of houses visited to seven per day (Olivelle 117). The bhrunahan is to cloth himself in the skin of a dog or ass, hair turned out or a plain linen loin cloth reaching from the navel to knees. Some also require the carrying of a human skull as a drinking vessel and a khatvanga staff mounted with a skull. Versions including a khatvanga as part of the penance require the skull to be that of the brahmana that was killed. This is required of the bhrunahan for at least 12 years (Jolly 157).

Chief penances described in the Dharmasutras are also very reminiscent of kapalika history. They require the building of a fire, and the offering of eight oblations cut from the bhrunahan’s own body: hair, skin, blood, flesh, sinews, fat, bones, and marrow (Olivelle 119). This is to be offered with sayings of the form “I offer my hair to Death, I feed Death with my hair” (Lorenzen 76). This is reminiscent of kapalikas selling of fresh flesh cut from their own bodies. It can be suggested that these traditions were chosen by the kapalikas because they were the payment for the worst of all crimes, the killing of a brahmana or a king. If one is guiltless and paying penance for the worst of all crimes, the payoff in religious karma must be fantastic. The hope is that this unprecedented gain in religious karma might result in magical powers; specifically powers attributed to Siva. This creates a contrast between the kapalika mimicking the lowliest of criminals in order to be ascetics of the highest order (Lorenzen 77).

The explanation of the kapalikas only using the mahavrata is lacking the obvious element saivism that is present. The origin of saivism in the tradition can be found initially in the story of the beheading of one of Brahma’s heads by Siva. Siva, filled with anger, severs Brahma’s fifth head. The head magically attaches itself to Siva and he is made to travel to earth’s tirthas to remove it. He first travels to Narayana, a form of Visnu, and asks for alms. Narayana slits his own side and lets the blood flow in to a great stream for a thousand divine years, but it can not fill the skull. Siva then tells Narayana the story of the beheading and is told to travel to all other tirthas. Siva tries visiting many famous tirthas with no luck until he tries the great resting place Avimukta and the skull establishes itself there (Lorenzen 77). This story allows the kapalikas to attach their practices to Siva, who is paying a similar penance for killing. It is unknown whether this story is the origin of the kapalikas’ traditions or if it was adopted at a later date to provide divine background to the practices.

Buddhism and tantric buddhism in particular have deep ties with the kapalikas and their tradition. Both tantric practices and the use of khatvanga were adopted into tantric buddhism (Davidson 178). Evidence suggests that the interaction between the two runs much deeper than simple imitation. It is possible that a model of mutual sharing where interaction flourished in certain areas and hostility in others. This would account for influence being constant over stretches of time (Davidson 218). While it is true that kapalika tradition played a large role, it is true that other saivism and vaishnavism played a large role in tantric buddhism as well. Kapalika sites by and large were fairly rare.



Lorenzen, David N. (1972) The Kapalikas and Kalamukhas: two lost Śaivite sects. Berkely: University of California Press.

Davidson, Ronald M. (2002) Indian Esoteric Buddhism: a Social History of the Tantric Movement. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Jolly, Julius (1965) The Institutes of Vishnu. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Meiland, Justin (2006) Mahabharata: English & Sanskrit. New York: New York University Press.

Sharma, P.R.P (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Olivelle, Patrick (1999) The Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Kalamukha tradition



Tantric Buddhism



Rama Ravana





Bhairav Tantra





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Article written by Brian Robertson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.


Mahadevyakka was a twelfth century female mystic/saint within the Virasaivism movement.  Mahadevyakka renounced her life and devoted herself to the worship of Siva.  From her experiences she composed poetry in which she conveyed her stories and her love for Siva, whom she believed to be her husband (Blake-Michael 363).  Mahadevyakka is also known for her rebellions against social norms of the time.

Mahadevyakka was born in Udutadi, a village in Sivamogga (Ramanujan 111).  Mahadevyakka’s religious devotion began as a young girl.  At a young age she became a Siva-worshipper and continued to grow up as a devout worshipper of the Lord.  The form of Siva that she worshipped in his ascetic form as Cennamallikarjuna, translated as “the Lord White as Jasmine” (Ramanujan 111).  It is said that Mahadevyakka’s beauty caught the attention of King Kausika who wanted to marry her.  It is debated by scholars as to whether she did marry him or if she rejected his proposals.  One story claims that she married the King against her will.  Mahadevyakka was very upset about the marriage because the King was a follower of Jainism (Blake-Michael 362).  She asked him to convert but he refused.  One evening, after rejecting his sexual advances, Mahadevyakka left the palace naked, covered only by her braids (Ramanujan 111).  This began her spiritual journey in pursuit of spiritual union with Siva.  She would wander to different towns and areas in search of union.  Mahadevyakka believed that she was already the wife of Siva and would not marry any other man.  In her journey Mahadevyakka found herself in Kalyana, which was a central city for Virasaivism at the time.  She was, at this point, accepted into the group of saints after being questioned by the other saints (Blake-Michael 363).  The dialogue between Mahadevyakka and Allama, a guru of the school, has become a famous legend.  In this legend Mahadevyakka won over Allama and joined the group as a result of her powerful and convincing words.  She was able to prove to Allama that she has complete devotion to Siva as a good wife to her husband (Blake-Michael 363).  After many years in Kalyana, Mahadevyakka decided to continue on her spiritual journey and left Kalyana.  Her journey ended in her late twenties when she reached Sri Saila, a holy mountain.  It is recounted that it was here that she found union with Siva (Ramanujan 113).  A union of this variety cannot be expressed and only experienced, although Mahadevyakka used her poetry as an attempt to express her love for Siva and her pains of separation from his union.  Her poetry and her opposition to social norms made her a revered saint of her time.

Mahadevyakka was a member of a Saiva sectarian movement called Virasaivism, which was founded in the twelfth century in South India by a man named Basava (Basavanna).  Virasaivism translates as “heroic Saivas.”  They still flourish today and are known as Lingayats, “wearers of the Linga” (Olson 409).  This group, which has been referred toas a protest movement, rejects many of the social constructs of the time period.  This group rejects the caste system and the marriage of children.  They also allow widows to remarry and the dead are buried rather than cremated.  Finally, they declare the sexes equal and that temple worship, sacrifices and pilgrimages are unnecessary.  Virasaivis devotees believe in the equal access of salvation for everyone (Blake-Michael 361).  With these protests to the social constructs of society of her time, Mahadevyakka became known as a rebellious woman but at the same timean important figure in the anti-Brahminical and anti-caste movement.  Unlike the other female saints within Virasaivism, Mahadevyakka was viewed as even more rebellious than other devotees.  This was because she chose to wander naked and was unmarried.  One half of the other female saints within Virasaivism at the time were married (Ramaswamy 43).  The marriage status of these women was important in the explanation of their spirituality.  Mahadevyakka remained independent from male domination.  Her spiritual quest was different than that of the married housewives of Virasaivism because she did not rely on guidance from any male figures; she only trusted in her devotion to Siva.  According to traditional Virasaivism, one was to work and be self reliant, and Mahadevyakka represented a paragon of self reliance (Ramaswamy 52).  Typically, both presently and in the past, Virasaivism female saints who were married, were thought to collaborate with their husbands in their spiritual quests (Ramaswamy 22).  Studies indicate that Mahadevyakka was criticized by other female saints for not wearing clothing.  Her nakedness was seen as an ultimate defiance and thus Mahadevyakka is not paid homage to in any of the other female saints’ writings (Ramaswamy 43).  As a result of the anti-Brahminical and anti-caste beliefs of Virasaivism, Mahadevyakka became symbolic of rebel and female saint.

Mahadevyakka chose to reject the traditionally prescribed roles of a Hindu woman.  Traditionally, it was believed that only high caste men were able to become renouncers.  Hindu society identified women with family and sexual pleasures, and thus were not seen to possess the ability to become ascetics.  Mahadevyakka disagreed with the power of the Brahmins.  As a rejection of the traditional roles of men and women, Mahadevyakka strove to transcend her gender through her spiritual practices.  As she described in her poetry, she is female in form, but is the male principle (Ramaswamy 14).  Through this sentiment Mahadevyakka was able to dissolve the notions of women as untrustworthy and temptresses.  Sexual transcendence was seen as a higher stage of spirituality. The gender boundaries were erased and the saint becomes asexual.  As Mahadevyakka expresses:

Transcending the company of both,

I have attained to peace.

After forgetting this cluster of words,

What if one lives

An integral life?

Once I am joined

To Lord Cennamallikarjuna,

I do not recognize myself

As anything. (Olson 498)

It is at this point that the saint becomes naked.  For male saints this does not represent any social disturbance, yet for female saints this was seen as even more freeing due to the prohibitions placed on females within society (Ramaswamy 40).  Mahadevyakka renounced her family and her clothing and freed herself from any social conventions.  She had but her braids to cover her private body parts to decrease the temptation of others (Ramaswamy 41).  For Mahadevyakka and many other saints, she viewed her body as an aide to her self realization and spirituality.

A further act of rebellion by Mahadevyakka was that she remained unmarried physically to a man.  This resulted in society viewing her as ‘deviant’ (Ramaswamy 27).  Within Hindu society, unmarried women are largely viewed as temptations to men yet Mahadevyakka believed that she was married to Siva and that he was her groom (pati) (Ramaswamy 34).  She also journeyed with no male escort.  In conventional society, this would be viewed as a very dangerous act for a woman.  Mahadevyakka believed she had transcended gender and caste and thereby believed that she could take part in living as any of the other male ascetics and saints.  Through Mahadevyakka’s poetry it is clear that her spiritual quest is for union with Siva.  Her poetry exemplifies her beliefs and quest for union with Siva, while she opposed society’s views and presented the independent strength of the female saint.

The poetry of Virasaivism was passed on orally for centuries prior to being collected into what is called Sunyasampadane.  The type of poetry that Mahadevyakka composed was medieval bhakti (devotion) poetry called vacanas or sayings of their saints.  Mahadevyakka’s poetry consists of what can be interpreted as the three forms of love: love forbidden, love during separation, and love in union (Ramanujan 113).  Her poetry expresses her quest to find love and union with Siva, while wandering:

O swarm of bees

O mango tree

O moonlight

O koilbird

I beg of you all



If you should see my lord anywhere

my lord white as jasmine

call out

and show him to me. (Ramanujan 122)

In her poetry Mahadevyakka refers to Siva as “…my lord white as jasmine,” or, as in the previous poem, “Lord Cennamallikarjuna”.  Through her poetry, Mahadevyakka also expresses her emotions of being torn between being female and at the same time as being human.  Her yearning is expressed by her desire to transcend the boundaries placed on her as female and human to achieve true union with Siva.  As she states with reference to gender limitations:

As long as woman is woman, then

A man defiles her;

As long as man is man,

A woman defiles him.

When the mind’s taint is gone, is there room for the body’s taint?…

(Ramaswamy 15)

Further study of Mahadevyakka’s poetry reveals her life story.  One can follow Mahadevyakka’s life through her poetry with respect to her marriage to Siva.  Her poetry begins with King Kausika, her rejection of the world and ends with her final union with Siva through whom she escapes the human world.  Her final union with Siva is described in her vacana:

Hear me, O Father Linga:

This feeling has become my life…

Mark you, Cennamallikarjuna:

Worshipping Thee with all my heart,

My wheel of births has ceased! (Olson 495)

Mahadevyakka’s metaphors of human love are expressions of her mystic journey. She is revered as the most poetic saint among the Virasaiva saints (Ramanujan 113).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Blake Michael, R. (1983) “Woman of the Śūnyasampādane: Housewives and Saints in Virasaivism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 103, No. 2.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Oxtoby, Willard G. (2002) World Religions: Eastern Traditions.  Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

Ramanujan, A.K. (1973) Speaking of Śiva.  Hollingsworth : Penguin Publishing.

Ramaswamy, Vijaya ( 1996) Divinity and Deviance: Women in Virasaivism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Female mystic






Basava (Basavanna)

Female Pollution



Saiva Devotionalism

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Article written by: Virginia Williams (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

Trika Saivism

Trika Saivism is a sect that developed in Kashmir around 8th-9th century, but it is not certain that it had its origins there. Prior to the 8th century, Kashmir has been an important Buddhist cultural center. In this region, many Asian religions intersected and impacted each other over the years. Political expansion and cultural consolidation made Kashmir fertile for Saivism in the 8th and 9th century. Saivism in the area was reconsolidated and took two main directions: one led by Vasagupta, focusing on the “vibration” of Siva and his consciousness; and the other, led by Somananta dealing with the idea of “recognition”. These two traditions taken together are referred to as Trika. In the 10th and 11th centuries, right before Kashmir came under the influence of Muslims, Trika Saivism reached its peak under Abhinavagupta. (see Larson* 372-3)

As its name indicates, the god that is worshiped in this religious philosophy is Siva. Although Kashmir Saivism is often equated with the Trika School, there are actually several Siva schools that developed in Kashmir. (see Benard 372). Trika is a school of monistic idealism, which refers to Consciousness being the one and only reality. It teaches that one can find Siva’s omnipresence at the intersection between any two states of awareness, no matter how opposite they appear to be. The concept of Siva as Consciousness is a critique of Advaita Vedanta and other Vedic traditions. It draws from teachings from srutis such as the Bhairava Tantra [tantras on meditation], the Siva Sutras [also known as Mahesvara Sutras, revealed to Panini by Siva in his sleep; probably one of the most important texts of Kashmir Saivism] and Gitartha Samgraha [this translation of Bhagavat Gita helps explain its external meaning and the effects it has on the individual’s inner well-being]. The primary god in Trika Saivism is Paramasiva, which means “Supreme Auspiciousness”, which also has an active and creative

side, named Sakti. Siva, through his many functions, liberates polluted souls by making them pure and able to achieve moksa. (see Good 281).

Eastern sages focus on certain crucial functions of consciousness: sustenance, reabsorption, creation, concealment and revelation.Absolute Consciousness or Siva is interpreted as active and dynamic, rather than a passive and non-interfering entity, such as found in Buddhism or other philosophical systems. For instance, the positive outcome that Siva has on our consciousness and livelihood , contrasts with the concepts of “emptiness” and “illusion” found in Buddhist metaphysics. Kashmir Saivism expands on the two concepts of “vibration” and “recognition”. Siva resonates through all of our activities and we must eventually “recognize that our nature and the whole world is nothing else than the Absolute Consciousness or Siva(see Larson 259). Abhinavagupta taught that Absolute Consciousness or Siva is reflected in our every action and leads to a fuller and more concrete understanding of the meaning of our life. In context, the Advaita school uses language to move one towards a more abstract understanding of consciousness (see Larson* 383)

Vasagupta wrote out the Kashmiri philosophies a few centuries after Sankara formed his Advaita Vedanta school. Although both are non-dualist and similar at a first glance, after a closer examination we can find several key distinctions. Trika Saivism focuses on the Absolute as all encompassing beings (i.e, Siva), rather than on Brahman which is uncharacterizable. They also perceive everyday experiences as real, not as maya or illusion, as according to Advaita Vedanta. The textual authorities in Trika Saivism are the Saiva Agamas, not the triad of the Vedanta Sutras, the Upanisads and the Bhagavagita, like in the case of Sankara’s school. Because Kashmir Saivism is a non-dualist school, they focus more on internalized contemplation and not as much on external dsplays of devotion (see Davis 425).

The founder of Trika Saivism was Vasugupta and the most influential teacher was Abhinavagupta whose writings include the Tantraloka. These were only some of the sages who developed the “Philosophy of Recognition”, also known as the Pratyabhijna Darsana. They perceive Siva not as the destroyer god, as he is known by most people, but as a presence that is within all of us and in everything we do. According to Abhinavagupta, the main reason for human suffering is our own ignorance, which is not an “illusion” as it is understood in Buddhism and Vedanta teachings. Trika Saivas refer to ignorance as incomplete knowledge. We need to expand our consciousness to understand the cause for our ignorance in order to surpass it. Once a person gains insight and is one with Siva, only then can he or she achieve moksa, or ultimate liberation. This is liberation not only from the world, but also from one’s own limited nature, freeing one to reflect the intentions of Siva through their own actions. In order to gain universal knowledge and leave behind one’s selfish nature, Abhinavagupta offers four paths together with certain tantric rituals that accompany these(see Wulff 675-6).

The Tantraloka expands on all three branches of non-dual Kashmir Saivism: Agama, Spanda and Pratyabhijna, but in a synthesized form. Although Vasagupta played the key role in developing the basic tenents of Trika, his follower, Abhinavagupta is generally recognized as the more influential figure in Kashmir Saivism. Though centuries of development, the non-dualist Kashmir Saivism increasingly focused on Siva, rather than all the other deities in the Hindu pantheon. Research does not uncover a linear progression of Siva groups, making it difficult to trace their historical development.

There have been no rituals or traditions found in any form of text left behind from these Saiviste groups. The only inscriptions left behind have been the ones on temples or the Siva symbol itself, seen as a influential and frightful figure.

Although it rejected the world view of other influential traditions at the time, such as Buddhism, for example, Trika still incorporated some aspects into its rituals or beliefs. Many of the texts that they drew their concepts from were dualistic, so Trika reinterpreted them in a non-dualistic manner and then incorporated them into Saivism.

In Kashmir, there was more than one form of Saivism. Among these were: Trika, Kula and Krama. Trika and Kaula are Siva-oriented, whereas Krama is Sakti oriented. Kula and Krama are both tantric systems giving them a mystical aspect and making Saivism be understood as monistic. To them the subject of reality relative, hence taking a dualistic or non-dualistic stance is irrelevant. Kula and Trika seek immediate self-realization which make it harder to achieve, according to Krama supporters.

Trika Saivism originally was a cremation cult, with monistic basis which appealed to the Brahmans and they reinterpreted it in a non-dualistic way according to Hindu main traditions.


Davis, Richard (1990) The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices of Kashmir Shaivism”. History of Religion

Good, Anthony (2002) “Congealing Divinity: Time, Worship and Kinship in Souoth Indian Hinduism”. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Larson, Gerald James (1976) “The Aesthetic (Rasasvada) and the Religious ( Brahmasvada) in Abhinavagupta’s Kashmir Saivism”. Philosophy East and West

Larson, Gerald James(1997) “Kashmir Saivism: The Central Philosophy of Tantrism”. Philosophy East and West.

Wulff, Donna M. (1986) “Religion in a New Mode: The Convergence of the Aesthetic and the Religious in Medieval India”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Advaita school


Bhairava Tantras



Websites related to topic

Written by Ana Mosoi (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content