Shiva versus Vishnu: A Left Hand Path narrative

In the process of researching for an essay I plan to write for this blog about how to conceive the Left Hand Path in a Pagan way, which I assure you is forthcoming, I felt it necessary to just double-check on Hindu Tantra, particularly its Vamachara side. In that process I looked into one of the sects often associated with the Vamachara family, the Kapalikas. Very little is known about them, and with no first-person Kapalika texts available we only have various third party texts (probably biased against them) to go off of, but the information available about them tells us that the Kapalikas were an order (some say sect) of Tantric Hindu ascetics who mainly venerated Shiva, particularly in the form of the wrathful deity Bhairava, who was believed to have revealed their teaching, and believed in attaining spiritual unity with Shiva Bhairava through various transgressive practices. These transgressive practices purportedly included ritualistic sex, occultism, eating and drinking from human skulls, wandering naked or wearing bones and covered with ashes, ceremonial rituals involving corpses, supposed sacrifices of brahmins (to re-enact Shiva’s beheading of Brahma), severe physical and mental austerities, and, of course, drinking heavily for both ritual and pleasure. Although they stressed self-sufficiency and transgression of social norms, they would not fit the narrow, modern definition of the Left Hand Path as defined by the solitary edification of individual ego and self-interest, and they sought unity with a Godhead much like the rest of Hinduism did, but they are nonetheless to be considered Left Hand Path by all historical metrics, and possibly in a somewhat extreme manner at that.

The rammifications of that are something to discussed more in the post I have planned, which I mentioned earlier, but for now, what interests me more, and which I am presently more interested in writing about here, is a mythological narrative attributed to the Kapalikas which depicts a violent and brutal conflict between the avatars of Shiva and Vishnu.

In David Lorenzen’s The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects (1972), we find a recounting of a narrative from a text known as the Goraksa-siddhanta-samgraha, which is attributed to the Kanphata Yogis, the followers of the medieval Hindu yogi Gorakhnath. The book features stories of the deity Bhairava, appearing as Ugra-Bhairava, dressed as a Kapalika, challenging the beliefs of other sects such as Advaita Vedanta as represented by Samkara. But the narrative we’re focusing on is the myth that serves as the origin story of the Kapalikas. In this myth, the twenty-four avatars of Vishnu at some point become arrogant, intoxicated with mada (“pride”, clearly in the sense that resembles hubris), and as a result they begin wreaking havoc and wicked destruction across the world. Varaha and Narasimha, along with other avatars, split the earth in two, frighten wild animals, oppress towns and villages, and make mischeif wherever they go, Krishna becomes lustful and given to adultery, and Parashurama kills off the kshatriya caste in droves in order to punish just one of them. All of this angers Natha (Shiva) and causes him to assume the form of twenty-four Kapalikas, skull-bearers. These Kapalikas fight the avatars of Vishnu, cut their heads off, and carry their skulls in their hands, thus earning their namesake. Being decapitated caused the avatars of Vishnu to lose their mada, and Natha thus replaced their skulls and heads and restored their life.

The myth is interesting in that Vishnu, within what is still a Hindu context, is through entailment the major antagonist, his avatars becoming hubristic and bringing destruction, oppression, cruelty, and wickedness to the world and causing people and animals to suffer. Lorenzen posits that the battle between the Kapalikas of Shiva/Natha and the avatars of Vishnu reflects an extension of the conflict between Jains and Kapalikas, the former having been supplanted by Vaishnavas in terms of popularity, who in turn shared Jain hostility towards what it perceived as the “excesses” of Tantric Shaivism. It’s worth noting that the Vaishnavas and Shaivas have been in conflict with each other within the scope of Indian history. Vaishnavas described Shavias as heretics, denouncing them for hating Vishnu, refusing to perform Vedic rituals, rejecting the caste system and covering their bodies with ash. Shaivas, in turn, also considered the Vaishnavas to be heretics. There are also some Puranas which state that Shiva killed Varaha, at Vishnu’s request of course, which apparently illustrates conflict between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas. The Kapalika narrative is certainly more blasphemous, at least in relation to Hindu orthodoxy and certainly Vaishnavism, than many narratives of the conflict. Usually we find nothing but reverence reserved for Vishnu and his avatars, especially Krishna, within the broad movement of Hinduism, but in this apparent Kapalika narrative, they’re shown as either monsters or wicked beings who cause destruction through their hubris and need to be killed and then revived in order to be redeemed.

What we see here is a remarkable example of Left Hand Path mythology in an ancient setting. Shiva, as Natha, as the patron god of an order of Vamachara Tantric Hindus, manifests as skull-bearing rebels against Vishnu and his avatars, who oppress the world with their hubris and misdeeds, thus the Vaishnavas (incidentally the largest group within Hinduism) are confronted and Hindu orthodoxy is blasphemed on behalf of the left hand path of Tantra. Because the transgressive orders and sects within Tantric Hinduism venerated Shiva and his consort, it is no coincidence that Shiva and Kali frequently recur within modern Left Hand Path circles. They do, after all, represent the “dark side” of the Sacred in their various guises, and even as they fulfill the function of the myths set out in orthodox Hindu myths they represent transgressive or antinomian pathways to enlightenment, and their followers within Tantra rejected society in order to become one with God. The Kapalika is also probably also one of the rare places where Krishna is punished for his hypocrisies instead of worshipped as the supreme being, so that alone makes it worthwhile. Feel free to also take this as a burn on those foolish esoteric Nazis who may try to operate in the Left Hand Path while taking Vishnu as their patron god.

Shiva as Bhairava with a dog (19th century, unknown artist)