art, yoga

The skull in Bhairava’s hands


A magnificent shot of Bhairava, taken by Chris Rimmer at the V&A in London

Bhairava mudra is, like other mudras, a pose formed with the hands. I often use it when sitting quietly, sometimes when I meditate. For me, the gesture is graceful, and is symbolic of bounty, openness, and love. I learned the mudra from part of a yoga DVD: “…Rest one palm on top of the other, palms-up, and hold them in your lap. Visualize that in those hands you are holding a delicate baby bird…” I think I’ve even used those words in my teaching, at least once. I figured bhairava had to mean something like “tiny chickadee,” “here’s a morsel of bread for your troubles,” or something along those lines.

Once or twice in the last few years, I did an internet search, seeking a translation for Bhairava, and didn’t find anything helpful, at least when searching for Bhairava mudra. I figured this may be an item I’d need to learn about from a book, or perhaps from a teacher, and I set it aside for later investigation or discovery.

It came up a little sooner than I expected: I’ve been taking a course on yoga philosophy at River Garden Yoga, in Saint Paul. In this reading and discussion group, which is spread out over eight Saturday afternoons this fall, we’re going over the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, Tantra, and the Pradipika: several original texts that make up the foundation of yoga as we know it, today. The reading load has altered my weeknights in a favorable way, and it’s spiced up dinner conversations with my husband, but it has also put my mind in a sort of limbo that’s a little uncomfortable. All three are likely good for me.

The course is kind of like a book club, but with hot tea, a few aums, and a hard floor. It’s been like my freshman-year philosophy & religion seminar, with its voluminous, difficult reading and exciting conversations about logic, reality and faith. And lastly, it’s defying a sort of habit I’ve developed, of trying to create a summary or elevator pitch-type box for each book, movie, album or artwork that I experience. It’s sort of a cataloguing method I have, that gives me closure and can inform what I next reach for. Frustratingly, I can’t put my finger on my “nugget” for these books. They are different kinds of books, and they are difficult, sometimes needing multiple re-readings or the complement of a separate excerpt, sometimes from a different text. Perhaps I’ve just become a lazy reader; the detective novels and various biographies I’ve been drawn to in the past several years aren’t challenging. My comprehension, especially of the Upanishads we covered, is uncertain. Maybe it’ll gel later; perhaps it’s starting to. The fact that I’ve used a small morsel of it in my yoga teaching recently is surely a sign that I’m getting more comfortable with it.

bhairava illustration

A spread from The Little Book on Hindu Deities

Back to the mystery mudra: Up through the Gita, Bhairava has not come up in the reading or discussion. However, a dizzying array of other unfamiliar names has come up. I looked to Wikipedia for help, thinking it could offer a guide to well-known Hindu characters? No go: apparently there are hundreds of them, and an index of them is even more dizzying than the smaller number of names that surface in the Upanishads.

Mr. Prottengeier opened the seminar with a statement that was a little bewildering, and went something like this: “Hinduism is not a religion, in the same way that Buddhism, Islam or Judaism is.” This rocked my world, and I’m still not sure I agree with him. However, if I consider my education in Greek mythology, then I can start to understand the comparison. I’ve never considered that collection of stories to be “a religion,” so perhaps looking at the stories in Indian history in a similar way will help it all make sense. I just need to get my hands on a story book, and start to learn the characters. An illustrated one would be ideal, as it’s hard to keep straight all the extra limbs, talismans and accompanying menagerie that often appear in imagery of Hindu characters.

Enter Sanjay Patel, and a few of his books, which my aforementioned Google searches did yield. I am sure that finding something older and thus closer to an original source is likely a more reliable way to learn the stories, if not the tradition. Similarly, there is plenty of fascinating imagery available (see the pic of Bhairava art, above!) to help me visualize these characters. I’m sure I’ll see a fair amount of it when we go to visit Angkor Wat next year. There is so much of it, it’s dizzying – and it’s not particularly consistent, either.

However! Mr. Patel seems to have made these books for people like me. I’m short on time, a little impatient, and, above all, I am a designer, so am very susceptible to colorful, skillful illustrations of complicated characters. I ordered a copy each of his The Little Book of Hindu Deities, and Ramayana: Divine Loophole from the Red Balloon Bookshop, and they arrived within a week. I thumbed through the deity book, and was truly surprised to find Bhairava, and to learn that he is one of the many incarnations of Shiva. I was even more surprised to find that as punishment for doing something gruesome, he had to roam the earth as a beggar for twelve years, using a skull (it was related to the gruesome deed) as his begging bowl. Hence the cupped-hands mudra.

I don’t think I’ll stop using this mudra, though my initial reaction the story above was revulsion. I was repelled by the supposed evocation of what appear to be angry, arrogant, violent, and above all, moody gods. That feeling passed; now I think I’m even more drawn to it, which surprises me.

A few days later, I read Patel’s Ramayana. How clever, skillful and helpful of Mr. Patel, to reduce the Hindu epic to 186 delightful, well-composed pages! My “nugget” from this reading, assisted by my recent reading of the Gita? Empathy, and compassion. Delight. Drama, pain, joy … these are the many things that seem exclusive to this mortal life we live. And yet this cast of colorful, strange (blue, many-limbed, with three eyes, riding mice or dogs, taking human form now and then, for example…) immortals is familiar with our reality. It’s … understood. We have these struggles in common.

Oddly, it’s calming, to think of Bhairava.

I’m planning a costume for a Halloween event, this year. It can’t be too hard to find scorpion earrings, can it? I may have to settle for temporary tattoos, on that one.

What have you read recently, that gave you new insights into something previously cloudy? Please share in the comments below! Happy reading.