Kalashtami: The Ferocious Manifestation

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a monthly Hindu festival that honours the deity Bhairava, a manifestation of Shiva
  • 2019 Date: 24th July, 23rd August, 22nd September, 21st October, 19th November (this is Bhairava Ashtami), 19th December
  • Celebrated by: Hindus of the Shaivite tradition
  • Linked Holidays: Bhairava Ashtami

Background and Theological Significance

Kalashtami is a Hindu festival that is celebrated each month in honour of the god Bhairava (also called Kala Bhairava). Bhairava is a deity who is widely revered across the many different branches of Hinduism as well as in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism. Within the predominant Shaivist tradition of Hinduism (which regards Shiva as the supreme being), Bhairava is considered to be a fearsome manifestation of Shiva. His name comes from the Sanskrit ‘bhīru’ (भैरव) meaning ‘frightful’, which is appropriate because he is believed to be a wrathful defender of his devotees against fear, anger, and other qualities that obstruct the inward journey to God. He is seen as a god of protection who is believed to guard the eight directions of the universe. There are several stories concerning his origins as a manifestation of Shiva. In one account, the three Trimurti gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, are arguing over who is the greatest. In his anger, Shiva sends forth his presence as Bhairava who cuts off one of Brahma’s five heads. With his ego destroyed, Brahma gains enlightenment and was ever after grateful to Shiva in the form of Bhairava for assisting him on his journey. In another account, Bhairava had to wander the Earth in penance for beheading Brahma, using his skull as a begging bowl, before finally being forgiven at the holy city of Varanasi. The monthly festival of Kalashtami honours the manifestation of the deity and asks for his protection and guidance in overcoming evil and suffering.

The celebration of Kalashtami is held on the ‘ashtami tithi’ of ‘krishna paksha’ according to the Hindu calendar, which means the eighth day following the full moon in any given month. There are twelve Kalashtami observances in each year, of which the most significant is the one known as Bhairava Ashtami or Bhairava Jayanti, which celebrates the actual birthday or manifestation of Bhairava. Bhairava Ashtami is held during the Hindu month of Kartik (according to the Amanta calculation) or Margashirsha (according to the Purnimanta calculation) in roughly November or December each year according to the Gregorian calendar. Both the monthly Kalashtami and the annual Bhairava Ashtami are important festivals for followers of the deity, as they are propitious days to seek forgiveness for their sins and to be blessed with wealth and good fortune.

History

Kala Bhairava’s statue in Kathmandu, captured by Alex Taylor

Bhairava is a widely venerated god within the many expressions of Hinduism, although it is likely that his cult has evolved from an even older tribal deity. Although he is popularly believed within the Shaivite tradition to be a wrathful manifestation of Shiva, there are various beliefs concerning him within other traditions. His full name of Kala Bhairava infers that he is a god who oversees the march of time. Bhairava is also honoured within the Vajrayana and Tibetan streams of Buddhism, who consider him to be a ferocious emanation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.

Images of Bhairava in Shiva temples are normally depicted as standing figures with four hands bearing weapons. His sharp teeth, writhing serpents and apron of human bones all combine to give Bhairava a deliberately frightening appearance.

Kalashtami is celebrated every month according to the Hindu calendar, which is a lunisolar calendar composed of twelve lunar months and an intercalary period to align it with a full solar cycle. Each lunar month is divided into two ‘pakshas’ or fortnights; ‘shukla paksha’ when the moon is waxing, and ‘krishna paksha’ when the moon is waning. Kalashtami is celebrated on the eighth day (‘ashtami tithi’) of the krishna paksha. Depending on which tradition is followed, the Hindu month will start either with shukla paksha or with krishna paksha. For instance, the Amanta tradition starts the month with the shukla paksha and thus begins with the new moon, whereas the Purnimanta tradition starts the month with the krishna paksha and thus begins with the full moon. The Amanta calculation is typically followed in southern India while the Purnimanta calculation is followed in northern India. Despite the difference in months, both traditions will still celebrate the monthly Kalashtami on the same day. The annual festival of Bhairava Ashtami falls within the eighth month of Kartik or the ninth month of Margashirsha (or Agrahayana) depending on the calculation of the pakshas.

What Happens?

Each monthly Kalashtami is a time for Shaivite Hindus to venerate the Lord Shiva in his fierce form as Bhairava and to ask for his blessing and protection. The day is especially holy if it falls on a Sunday or a Tuesday, which are considered days dedicated to Bhairava. On a Kalashtami, worshippers will typically rise before dawn and perform special ‘puja’ (a prayer ritual) to the Lord Bhairava in order to ask for his favour and to seek forgiveness of sins. Followers will also visit the god’s temple in the evening to perform more puja. It is typical to fast during the course of the day in honour of Bhairava. The most important Kalashtami is Bhairava Ashtami, the particular celebration of the deity’s manifestation from Shiva. On this day the ritual and offerings are intensified; an all-night vigil is usually kept with worshippers offering puja and ‘aarti’ (offerings of light) and telling stories from Bhairava’s life. It is also common on this day to make offerings to dead ancestors. Images of Bhairava are bedecked with flowers and sweets to seek his favour, and it is traditional to feed dogs with curds and sweets as well, due to a black dog being Bhairava’s ‘vahana’ (animal vehicle). Offerings of food to Brahmins is also believed to be highly auspicious during this festival. Shaivite Hindus believe that Kalashtami and especially Bhairava Ashtami are occasions when the Lord Bhairava should be venerated and asked for his protection. If the god is properly honoured then the spiritual and material benefits that flow from this will be highly abundant.

Kaal bhairab‘ by Klajama is licensed under CC by S.A 4.0

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