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The Kapalikas were linked to the Pasupatas and are considered by some scholars to be the forerunners of the Aghoris. They went naked, used a human skull as a food-bowl, bathed in the ashes from cremations, and were believed to commit human sacrifice. Naturally, they inspired fear and distaste in the orthodox. The Sanskrit Kapalika can be translated as “bearer of the Skull-Bowl,” and these sadhus worshipped Bhairava, as the Supreme Beggar and emulated his kapala vow. Perhaps, like other Indian Sects, the Kapalikas believed that great magical power could be transferred by taking on the penances of Bhairava. Through this identification with the god, the Kapalikas took on his powers. Like other sects who focus upon one deity (or aspect thereof), the Kapalikas held Bhairava to be the creator-preserver-destroyer of the Universe, and chief of all the gods.

R.N. Saltore recounts a legend that Bhairava once took up residence in the mouth of Goraknath (co-founder of the Natha Sect of Tantrikas and credited with laying the foundations of Hatha & Kundalini Yoga) and performed ‘religious austerities’ there. Goraknath was almost choked, and only managed to expel Bhairava by extolling his glory. Saletore takes this legend as an indication of a possible connection between the Nathas and Kapalikas, which is also noted in passing by M. Magee (author of Tantra Magick, Tantric Astrology, and numerous translations of tantric texts) in his Natha FAQ.

It seems that yogis of the Kapalika sect were somewhat feared, having a reputation for possessing awesome magical powers, but reputed to carry off women and ensnare victims for human sacrifice.

In the Prabodha Chandrodaya, the following words are attributed to a wizard of the Kapalikas:

“My necklace and ornaments are of human bones; I dwell among the ashes of the dead and eat my food in human skulls. I look with eyes brightened with the antinomy of Yoga, and believe that the parts of this world are reciprocally different, but that the whole is not different from God. …After fasting we drink liquor out of the skulls of Brahmans; our sacred fires are fed with the brains and lungs of men mixed up with their flesh, and human beings covered with the fresh blood gushing from the dreadful wound in their throats, are the offerings by which we appease the terrible god (Maha Bhairava).”

In classical literature, Kapalikas are occasionally mocked, appearing as drunkards or evil sorcerors. This view of the Kapalikas as drunkards is, at least on the surface, reinforced by the following quote from the Kulanarva Tantra:

“The adept should drink, drink and drink again until he falls to the ground. If he gets up and drinks again, he will be freed from rebirth. His happiness enchants the goddess, Lord Bhairava delights in his swooning, his vomiting pleases all the gods.”

The skull carried by the Kapalika devotee was identified with that of Brahma, and used for eating and drinking from. David Lorenzen, in The Kapalikas and Kalamukhas (1972), feels that it was unlikely that the Kapalika devotee would resort first to brahminicide in order to obtain the ‘right sort’ of skull, although he does say that the skull carried had to be that of a man of noble caste. However, bearing in mind the Kapalikas’ reputation for conducting human sacrifice, and their occasional martial ardour, we might draw our own conclusions as to the possible role of ritual murder in the cult’s rituals.

The basis of Kapalika devotion appears to have been bhakti in the form of personal devotion to Bhairava. If the critics of the cult are to be believed, then the foremost method of ritual propitiation of Bhairava was through animal or human sacrifice. It was (and probably remains) widely believed that a human sacrifice, being extremely gratifying to primordial deities such as Bhairava or Candika, removes all transgressions from him who makes the offering. Self-sacrifice through austerities, practice of mental and physical disciplines and occasional self-mutilations, also appear to have been practised within the Kapalika cult. Since Bhairava, in the legends, appears to be very much of an ecstatic figure, one might conclude that his worship also included dionysiac revelry. There are also numerous allusions made to the effect that puja employing corpses was part of the cult’s practice. Whilst many of these reports are doubtless biased, such practices are well within the corpus of legends relating to Shiva-Bhairava’s love of corpse-grounds, and the legions of ghouls, spirits, ghosts and demons who attend him therein. In addition, it is clear that Kapalins practiced Sex-magical rites and sought the siddhis (achievements – i.e. magical powers) through the practices of Hatha yoga, and, as already noted, were known as sorcerors of much (though often ill-) repute.