The Kāpālika tradition and its offshoots in Shaivism

The Kāpālika tradition was a Tantric, non-Puranic form of Shaivism which originated in Medieval India between the 4th and 8th century CE.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] The word is derived from the Sanskrit term kapāla, meaning "skull", and kāpālika can be translated as the "skull-men" or "skull-bearers".[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]


Main article: Shaivism

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the symbol of the skull-topped trident (khaṭvāṅga) is said to be inspired by its association with the Kāpālikas.[8] Pictured here is an ivory khaṭvāṅga, 15th century Chinese art, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Kāpālikas were an extinct sect of Shaivite ascetics devoted to the Hindu god Shiva dating back to the 4th century CE, which traditionally carried a skull-topped trident (khaṭvāṅga) and an empty human skull as a begging bowl.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] Other attributes associated with Kāpālikas were that they revered the fierce Bhairava form of Shiva by emulating his behavior and characteristics,[1][2][3][4][5][6] smeared their body with ashes from the cremation grounds,[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] wore their hair long and matted,[2][3][4][5][6][7] and engaged in transgressive rituals such as sexual intercourse with lower-class women, human sacrifices, consumption of meat and alcoholic beverages, and offerings involving orgiastic sexuality and sexual fluids.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

According to David Lorenzen, there is a paucity of primary sources on the Kāpālikas, and historical information about them is available from fictional works and other traditions who disparage them.[2][3][5] Various Indian texts claim that the Kāpālikas drank liquor freely, both for ritual and as a matter of habit.[2] The Chinese pilgrim to India in the 7th century CE, Hsuan Tsang, in his memoir on what is now Northwestern Pakistan, wrote about Buddhists living with naked ascetics who covered themselves with ashes and wore bone wreathes on their heads, but Hsuan Tsang does not call them Kāpālikas or any particular name. Historians of Indian religions and scholars of Hindu studies have interpreted these ascetics variously as Kāpālikas, Jain Digambara monks, and Pashupatas.[2]

In his masterpiece Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (1958), the Romanian historian of religion and professor Mircea Eliade remarks that the "Aghorīs are only the successors to a much older and widespread ascetic order, the Kāpālikas, or "wearers of skulls"."[5] The Kāpālikas were more of a monastic order, states Lorenzen, and not a sect with a textual doctrine.[2] The Kāpālika tradition gave rise to the Kulamārga, a subsect of Tantric Shaivism which preserves some of the distinctive features of the Kāpālika tradition.[9] Some of the Kāpālika Shaiva practices are found in Vajrayana Buddhism,[5] and scholars disagree on who influenced whom.[10] Today, the Kāpālika tradition survives within its Shaivite offshoots: the Aghori order, Kaula, and Trika traditions.[3][5]


Mark S. G. Dyczkowski holds the Gaha Sattasai, a Prakrit poem written by Hāla (3rd to 4th century CE), to be one of the first extant literary references to an early Indian Kāpālika ascetic:

One of the earliest references to a Kāpālika is found in Hāla's Prakrit poem, the Gāthāsaptaśati (third to fifth century A.D.) in a verse in which the poet describes a young female Kāpālikā who besmears herself with ashes from the funeral pyre of her lover. Varāhamihira (c. 500-575) refers more than once to the Kāpālikas thus clearly establishing their existence in the sixth century. Indeed, from this time onwards references to Kāpālika ascetics become fairly commonplace in Sanskrit ...[11]

The Act III of Prabodha Chandrodaya, a Sanskrit and Maharashtri Prakrit play written by Kirttivarman's contemporary Shri Krishna Mishra (11th to 12th century), introduces a male Kāpālika ascetic and his consort,[5] a female Kāpālini,[5] disrupting a dispute on the "true religion" between a mendicant Buddhist wanderer and a Jain Digambara monk.[5][12] The latter ones, convinced by the Kāpālika couple to give up their vows to celibacy and renunciation by drinking red wine and indulging in sensual pleasure with women, end up rejecting their former religions and convert to Shaivism after having embraced the Kāpālika's faith in Shiva Bhairava as the Supreme God and his wife Parvati.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Törzsök, Judit (2020). "Why Are the Skull-Bearers (Kāpālikas) Called Soma?". In Goodall, Dominic; Hatley, Shaman; Isaacson, Harunaga; Raman, Srilata (eds.). Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions: Essays in Honour of Alexis G.J.S. Sanderson. Gonda Indological Studies. Vol. 22. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 33–46. doi:10.1163/9789004432802_004. ISBN 978-90-04-43280-2. ISSN 1382-3442.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lorenzen, David N. (2020) [1972]. "Chapter I: Four Śaivite Sects". The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects. Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies (1st ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. XI–XIII, 1–16. doi:10.1525/9780520324947-003. ISBN 9780520324947. OCLC 1224279234.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Barrett, Ronald L. (2008). "Introduction". Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India (1st ed.). Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. pp. 1–28. ISBN 9780520941014. LCCN 2007007627.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Urban, Hugh B. (2007) [2003]. "India's Darkest Heart: Tantra in the Literary Imagination". Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (1st ed.). Berkeley and Delhi: University of California Press/Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 106–133. doi:10.1525/california/9780520230620.003.0004. ISBN 9780520236561. JSTOR 10.1525/j.ctt1pp4mm.9.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Eliade, Mircea (1969) [1958]. "Chapter VIII: Yoga and Aboriginal India — Aghorīs, Kāpālikas". Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Mythos: The Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology. Vol. LVI. Bucharest, Chicago, and Princeton: Princeton University Press/University of Bucharest/University of Chicago Press. pp. 296–298. ISBN 9780691142036.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g James G. Lochtefeld (2001). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Volume 1. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 349. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Gavin Flood (2008). The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 212–213. ISBN 978-0-470-99868-7.
  8. ^ Beer, Robert (2003). The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Serindia Publications. p. 102. ISBN 1-932476-03-2. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  9. ^ Sanderson, Alexis. "The Śaiva Literature." Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine Journal of Indological Studies (Kyoto), Nos. 24 & 25 (2012–2013), 2014, pp.4-5, 11, 57.
  10. ^ Ronald Davidson (2002), Indian Esoteric Buddhism, Columbia University Press. pages 202-218
  11. ^ Dyczkowski, Mark S. G. (1988). The Canon of the Śaivāgama and the Kubjikā: Tantras of the Western Kaula Tradition. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-88706-494-4.
  12. ^ a b Taylor, J. (2023) [1872]. "Act III". Prabodha Chandrodaya, or Rise of the Moon of Intellect (Reprint ed.). Frankfurt: Outlook Verlag. pp. 47–57. ISBN 9783368149635.

Further reading