Seated on a throne or a red lotus, the most striking feature of Bhairavi is her radiance. Like the sun, Her effulgence is blinding. Smeared with blood and wrapped in red, She bears a weapon in one of Her four arms and a rosary in the second while the other two form mudras that allay fear and offer protection. Like Kali and Tara, She wears a garland of human heads or skulls.
In the process of creation, the first movement is that of desire, represented by Tripurasundari, or iccha shakti. Perception of this desire resulting in the space for creation to occur is symbolized by Bhuvaneshwari, or jnana shakti. The actualization of infinite divinity taking up finite forms by the process of energizing Itself in specific ways is depicted by Tripura Bhairavi, or kriya shakti. This process is one of tapas, which is immense concentration or self-awareness of the Absolute resulting in transmutation of that force into energized action. In the Vedas, this self-awareness is equated with the light of consciousness that is aflame in every being, known as the “chid-agni”. On an individual level, this agni is the seat of power, aspiration, energy and intelligence in every being, directing all outward actions and inward thoughts, the working of the mind as well as of the organs, the tissues, and the cells. The functioning of this agni determines the life course, health, prosperity and overall functioning of the body/mind. On a cosmic level, agni is the driving force of all gods and enables the workings of nature in the form of rain, lightning, seasons and calamities.. In the Vedic ritual of a fire sacrifice or “homam”, agni is the intermediary between man and deity, carrying the desires and offerings of men to the gods and carrying back the rewards/fruit of such a ritual from the gods back to men. As this supreme vehicle, agni is known as Jatavedase. Tripura Bhairavi is the shakti of Jatavedase. In Tantra, She is also known as Durga, the one who assists in “crossing” between planes. As this Shakti, Bhairavi represents the force of tapas.
What is tapas? The classic definition of tapas is austerity. However, the drive behind this austerity is focus or concentration. Tapas is common in daily life when we become absorbed in a task to the exclusion of everything else. In these instances, there is absorption into that action or thought without diffusion of attention into other areas, resulting in temporary forgetfulness or ignorance of everything else but that. This concentration or tapas of the infinite Divine is what brings forth limited forms into existence. Necessarily, this results in such self-absorption and self-identification as the various forms that there is ignorance of the whole. It is not that the light of total knowledge is not available; it is that it is forgotten in the primordial ignorance of this forgetfulness. This force of the divine representing tapas is that of Bhairavi. She is fierce in Her form for She also symbolizes fear. Fear is the by-product of separation; identification as the limited form results in a sense of separation arising from the veiling of everything else. Fear is the root cause of all wrong-doing and evil. If all of creation were to be seen as an indivisible whole, One, there would be no “other” to fear. Thus, Bhairavi is fearful to those who revel in this separateness. To those engaged in the tapas of self-knowledge, She destroys all fear and propels the sadhana.
Another name for Bhairavi is Kundalini. Lying dormant in the muladhara chakra at the root of the spine, She represents the potential for the limited to realize its unlimitedness by the undoing of tapas. When She remains self-absorbed in tapas, She is known as Tripura Bhairavi. When She releases her energy and the heat of tapas and reaches upward, She becomes Tripura Sundari. Thus, Bhairavi and Sundari represent two sides of the same coin – the terrible and the beautiful, separated and united by the power of tapas. For, on the spiritual journey, it is the tapas of practice, the longing of bhakti and the single-pointedness of the path to the exclusion of everything else that coaxes Kundalini to wake up. While She lies at one end of the spine at the base, Sundari resides at the other end in the Sahasrara chakra at the crown. Bhairavi represents the fire and heat of self-effort and Sundari symbolizes the nectar of Grace. The heat of Bhairavi’s force is tempered by the descent of Sundari’s grace, the ascent and descent of self-effort and Grace being a dance of immense proportions in the sadhana of the Mahavidyas.
The characteristic of fire that makes it the perfect agent for purification is that it turns everything it touches into uniform ashes. And so it is with Bhairavi – every blemish and imperfection encountered in Her upward march is burnt mercilessly, progressively purifying the being for Sundari’s nectar. The bliss of the nectar cannot be borne by one not baked by the tapas of Bhairavi’s flames. This nectar, the soma of the gods, is the nourisher of the being and energizes the flames of tapas that consumes it. As Bhairavi leaps upward, She transforms the triads of gunas (tamas, rajas, sattva), body (physical, subtle, causal), states (waking, dreaming, deep sleep), and all experience (experience, experiencer and that which is experienced), the three worlds above and below, and all perceptions arising from actions and senses. This dance of Bhairavi and Sundari is directed by Bhuvaneshwari from Her seat in the heart space and facilitated by Kali’s tranformative power. And it is in this dance that results in unveiling of Maya’s limitations that a jnani becomes a karma yogi.
On the path of sadhana, the real movement of Bhairavi can be noticed with continued Self-abidance. In the shift of identity, tapas takes on a new meaning. All previous practices are seen to have been preliminary in that they were preparation for this shift. With this shift, the older practices may be continued or they may drop off on their own. The rigor of tapas becomes one-pointed and life is lived for this practice of Self-abidance alone. Bhairavi, pleased and uninhibited by the lack of any other objective, takes up the task of directing the sadhana Herself. Thus, this abidance becomes increasingly effortless, with progressive opening to the grace of Sundari. In this abidance, old and ingrained habits and patterns lose the fuel of identification and are quickly burnt to ashes. Slowly but surely, ordinary actions are transformed by the dance of the Devis as they, along with thoughts, perceptions and sensations are sacrificed into this fire of abidance (Bhagavad Gita, 4:25-33).
While Bhairavi wields the weapon of destruction of impurities in one hand, She holds a rosary in another, which is symbolic for the unmanifest Word or para-vak. While Tara represents the manifest word or pasyanti vak, the para-vak of Bhairavi is pure potentiality, prior to name and form. The sadhana of Bhairavi results in transformation of the raw potentiality of sexual energy into the ojas and tejas of divinely inspired action and the sheer power of para-vak. She thus represents the power of brahmacharya, the cornerstone of tapas in sadhana.
Propelled and graced thus by Bhairavi and Sundari, the sadhaka arrives next at the feet of Chinnamasta, arguably the most ferocious of the Mahavidyas.
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