The Divine Name: Bhairava (Tantraaloka 1.95-100)

This is part of a series of posts translating Chapter One of the 1000-year-old masterpiece called 'Light on Tantra' (Tantrāloka). This post continues from the previous one, called God is the Self. In the five verses below, Abhinavagupta seeks to explain why Bhairava is the appropriate name for the nondual Deity of Śaiva Tantra. Of course, Bhairava is a divine name inherited from an earlier, dualistic tradition, so here Abhinava is reinterpreting it in light of the nondual philosophy of his lineage. In India and (especially) Nepāl, Bhairava is worshipped as one deity among many, but Abhinava Gupta uses the name to denote the Absolute Consciousness that is the ground of being, as we will see below. 

This is the first of two sections on the Divine Names. (The next will explain the names deva and pati, 'God' and 'the Lord'.) All words in bold are Abhinavagupta's; bracketed terms are directly implied by the structure of the Sanskrit. Readers should be aware that these verses are examples of the exegetical/hermeneutical science called nirukta, or 'interpretive etymology'. The finest study on nirukta is the book Indian Semantic Analysis, by Eivind Kahrs, which I have cited several times below. 

The Deity is fully indicated with names that are given in scriptures and that conform to [His] reality: He who is Supreme Śiva is [called] 1) Great Bhairava, 2) God (deva), and 3) the Lord (pati). || 95 ||

[He is called Bhairava because] he bears (bhṛ) or holds the universe through nourishing and supporting it — and is borne & held by it; and because his form is the ‘Roar’ (rava), which means he is Self-awareness (vimarśa, = the roar of AHAM). He is also [called Bhairava] because he is the benefactor of those who are terrified (bhīru) by the cycle of suffering. || 96 ||

     Abhinava's commentator Jayaratha (12th cen.) comments as follows: "‘He bears’, that is, he supports and nourishes [the universe], because he manifests it as fused with the ‘screen’ or ‘canvas’ which is his very own Self. 'He is borne', that is, he is [also] sustained and nourished by the universe; because he is manifest in everything, inasmuch as it is he that is embodied as the universe." (translated by Eivind Kahrs, minor amendments by me)  
     That is to say, the universe supports and nourishes him because he is not himself unless embodied. Thus he is equally transcendent and immanent. NOTE: the English word ‘bear’ is actually cognate with Sanskrit bhṛ — both go back to the same ancient Indo-European root. 

E. Kahrs cogently writes in his Indian Semantic Analysis: “Bhairava is aware of himself in this inner language which is the instinct of consciousness, the instinct of the light of reality. So his nature is a constant roaring of the great mantra of ‘I’, AHAM. Thus the term ‘Bhairava’ refers to unconditioned subjectivity as the essence of all phenomena.” 

In the Vijñāna-bhairava, we find this parallel passage (v. 130), which gives a specific practice:  "One will become Śiva by constantly contemplating in mental utterance (uccāra) the term ‘Bhairava’, understanding that it means: “he who sustains everything, he who produces it, who bestows all and pervades everywhere”. (trans. Kahrs, with minor amendments)

Back now to the Tantrāloka:

He is born in the Heart from the 'Roar' (rava)—or intensified awareness—arising from the dread (bhīti) of the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra). He is the one by whom awareness of the [beneficial] fear of mundane existence is manifested through the Descent of [his] Power (śaktipāt). || 97 ||

Jayaratha comments: "The roar which is produced by that [fear] means a crying out to the Lord, or rather, awareness [of Him]. Being born from that [cry or awareness], he is Bhairava. So this means that He is manifest within the Heart – that is, on the level of ultimate reality [within] – of those who call out in terror or those who direct their awareness [to the Lord]. . . . [Furthermore] He is the cause – through śaktipāta – of that roar, that discernment, that awareness of one’s [natural] fear of mundane existence (bhava); hence he is called Bhairava." (translated by Eivind Kahrs, minor amendments by me)

[Bhairava] is He who is manifest in those [yogins] whose minds savor the meditative state which ‘devours time’—that is, those who [through centering their attention in meditation] wither the Principle of Time (kāla-tattva) which impels the celestial bodies (nakṣatras). || 98 || 

The derivation goes like this: [bha (= nakṣatra) + īra (= preraka)] = Time (bhera), + va from vāyanti (= śoṣaṃ kurvanti) = bheravāḥ, meaning the yogins who wither Time and whose lord is Bhairava; they who directly experience Bhairava (prakaṭa = sphurita) — thus Jayaratha explains. In other words, since successful yogis transcend time in meditation, they are bheravas, and thus Bhairava denotes the Reality they experience in that state of pure consciousness. 

The face of Bhairava as worshipped in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepāl.

The face of Bhairava as worshipped in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepāl.

The Master of the goddesses of one’s own faculties whose ‘roar’ (rava) serves to strike fear (bhī) into the hearts of contracted bound souls — and also of the four inner and outer collective Powers beginning with Khecarī — He is called Bhairava, [for] He is truly awesome (bhīma) in his capacity to break the cycle of saṃsāra. || 99-100b ||

This verse alludes to esoteric Krama teachings, for which see chapter 12 of my forthcoming book The Recognition SūtrasJayaratha comments: ‘roar’ = awareness of the phonemic powers arising from the mass of sounds (śabda-rāśi); fear = the fear that gives rise to happiness, misery, etc. Of the four Krama goddesses, Khecarī is the Knower, Gocarī is the mind, Dikcarī the 10 faculties, and Bhūcarī is the field of knowable objects. Each of the four is a 'collective' Power because She presides over subsidiary śaktis (i.e., each is a devatā-cakra).

Thus, with these verbal codes, [the Divine] is celebrated as ‘Bhairava’ in scripture by our teachers. | 100cd |

We see Abhinavagupta's successor Kṣemarāja reiterate some of the niruktas (interpretive etymologies) we saw above, plus adding a couple of special twists, in his introductory verse to his commentary on the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra:

"[Shiva is also called Bhairava] because he is the cause of crying out from fear of remaining in the cycle of suffering (bhava-bhaya), and from that [longing cry] he becomes manifest in the radiant domain of the heart, bestowing absence of fear (abhaya) for those who are terrified; and because he is the Lord of those who delight in his awesome roar (bhīrava), signifying the death of Death! Being the Master of that flock of excellent Yogins who tire of fear [and seek release], he is Bhairava—the Supreme, whose form is Consciousness (vijñāna). As the author of nourishment, he extends his Power throughout the universe!"

A modern painting of the deity Bhairava, by Tejomaya.

A modern painting of the deity Bhairava, by Tejomaya.