The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

by M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy | 1958 | 410,072 words

This page describes “brahma-shirascheda-murti (cutting off brahma’s head)” from the part dealing with Nampi Arurar (Sundarar) and Mythology, viz. Puranic stories and philosophy. The 7th-century Thevaram (or Tevaram) contains devotional poems sung in praise of Shiva. These hymns form an important part of the Tamil tradition of Shaivism

Chapter 3.8 - Brahma-shirascheda-murti (cutting off Brahma’s head)



Brahman originally had five heads and one of them was cut off by Shiva as a punishment for insulting the latter. This account is given in many different ways. The Kurina Purana version is as follows: Once the Rsis inquired the Creator of the basic source of this universe and Brahman proudly declared himself to be that source and origin. Shiva came on the scene disputing this claim. The Vedas and the Pranava walked in to assert Shiva’s greatness, but to no purpose. A great pillar of light flashed forth in which was found Shiva. The haughty head of unrelenting Brahman was ordered by Shiva to be cut off by Bhairava. The Creator’s intoxication of Power was thus cured.


The Varaha Purana gives a different version. Brahman created Rudra and called upon him to protect the world, but addressed him as Kapali—an insulting term which so enraged Rudra that he plucked the fifth head of the Creator with his thumb nail. This head stuck to Rudra’s hand. At the latter’s request Brahman prescribed the Kapalika penance for twelve years, wearing a sacred thread of hair, garland of bones and a culamani (cudamani) of the skull and carrying a skull filled with blood.


Brahmanda Purana gives a variant story of the falling away of the skull. To put down the pride of the Devas, Indra, Visnu and Brahma, God went about begging for the blood of self-sacrifice, to fill up his bowl of skull. It never became full. Shiva went to Visnu’s place where the men at the gate especially Visvaksena, a partial form of Visnu, obstructed Shiva, only to be pierced through the chest and carried about. Visnu with his nail of the finger tore his forehead to offer his blood for filling the bowl of a skull. Tens of thousands of years elapsed but the skull was not filled up, but Visnu collapsed because of this haemorrhage. The form carrying the kankala or skeleton of Viqvaksena, a form of Vinnu, is Kankalamurti.

According to Kurma Purana, when Bhaivara followed by an army of Bhutas, went about begging, all the women of the houses he visited fell in love with him. This is the Bhikshatana form.


The Linga Purana gives a different version, which is the one finding favour in Tamil tradition. The Rsis of Darukavana, even women and chilaren, relied on the sacrificial fire for taking them to Heaven, even without the necessity for any God. They thus forgot the pravrtti marga or worldly ways of life. Their atheistic pride had to be curbed. Shiva went about their houses, begging naked, whilst Visnn in the form of a captivating woman or ‘Mohini' went to the place of sacrifice of the Rsis. The Rsis fell in love with Mohini and their wives with Shiva. It is only with great difficulty the women following Shiva could be brought home. Brahman advised them to worship Shiva’s Linga form. But there is another version given in Tamil Kantapuranam which is also found in Suprabhedagama. The enraged Rsis, realizing the truth, performed a sacrifice to kill Shiva; a tiger, an elephant, a lion, a black buck, an axe, a skull, the moon, a bull, snakes and an apasmara came from the fire; the Rsis sent them one after another to kill Shiva. Shiva took the axe, the black buck and snakes as his playthings; apasmara was trampled down under his feet; lion, tiger and elephant were flayed and their skins were worn by Shiva; the skull and the moon became his culamani,


With reference to the ‘kankala’ also, there is a different version. When probably the conflict between Shaivism and Vainnavism became intense, the Shaivites for every one of the incarnations of Vinnu, had a feat of Shiva putting down Vinnu’s intoxication of power. When Vinnu took the Trivikrama form and sent down Mahabali to the nether-worlds, his intoxication of power was so fatal to the universe, that Shiva had to knock him down on his chest with a Vajra daryda; Shiva flayed him and put on Vinnu’s skin as a robe and carried the backbone as a club. Similarly the tusk of the bear in Varahavatara, the shell of the tortoise in Kurmavatara, the skin of the lion in Narasimhavatara and the eyes of the ffsh m the Matsyavatara were taken out and worn as marks of victory. These give rise to Varahari, Simhaghna, Matsyari forms. It will be seen that flaying of the lion, etc., said to have been performed as against the Rsis of Darukavana, are said to have been effected at the time of some of the incarnations of Vinnu. In other avataras of Rama and Krishna, Visnu is conceived as worshipping Shiva.


The story of the cutting away of the head of Brahman shows the superiority of Shiva amidst the Trinity of Gods. The Tamil tradition is preserved in a verse:

Punan dram Kanti; Antakan Koval; Puram Atikai;
Mdman Pariyal; Calantaran Virkuti; Ma Valuvur;
Kaman Kurukkai; Yaman Katavur; Intak kaciniyil
Temannum konraiyum tinkalum cutitan cevakame

“These are in this world the heroic feats of Him, who adorns Himself with honeyed konrai and the moon (destroying the following): The head of the Lord of the flower at Kantiyur; Andhaka at Kovalur; Tripura at Atikai; the father-in-law (Daksa) at Pariyal; Jalandhara at Virkuti; the elephant at Valuvur; Kama at Kurukkai and Yama at Katavur.

According to this verse this feat took place at Kantiyur in the Tanjore District.


Arurar refers to this story. He says that it took once upon a time in that far off day—Anru’. Brahma is referred to as ‘Piraman, the Great’, or ‘Ayan’ a variant form in Tamil of the Sanskrit word ‘Aja’ (the unborn). He is described in relation to his seat as “Arumalaron”—‘the Lord of the rare flower or the precious Lord of the flower’. In the absence of any epithet, the flower means the lotus: Pu enappatuvatu port val puve; and Arurar makes this clear by specially mentioning the lotus and speaking of Brahma elsewhere as ‘Tamaraiyon’, ‘the Lord of the lotus’. He is also described in relation to his function in the universe as Creator. Arurar refers to him as “Par pataittan”, ‘the Creator of this world’. Brahman is a Brahmin—‘Antanan’.

The reason for inflicting this punishment of cutting away the head is suggested by the epithet ‘Enra’ attached to the word ‘Antanan’ above mentioned. ‘Enra’ is ‘one who has taken up’—here, ‘one who has assumed the offensive or the disputation’. “Enra antanan” is a contradiction in terms, the hot offensive attitude being inappropriate to the beautiful and cool loving attitude of a Saint. God was magnanimous in that, only one head was cut off. For, Brahman had five heads—“Talai aintu’; “Ciram ancu”—it is thus seen the poet uses both the words the Tamil ‘talai’, and the Sanskrit ‘shiras’ in its Tamil form ‘ciram’. One of these heads was cut away—‘arutta’. It was done indeed so quickly—in the twinkling of an eye—“Katuka....aruttay”. The skull according to the story became attached to Shiva’s hand. Arurar states that the Lord, of His own accord, had the skull attached to His hand: ‘Certtavar’. There is another reading ‘Cettavar’ which means ‘One who has put down’ but in this reading there is no assonance.


The description of this form known as the Brahma Shirascheda murti is given in the Sritattva nidhi. Shiva is white and has three eyes, four arms and a jatamakuta, patrakundala in the right ear and nakrakundala in the left ear, carrying vajra and the axe in the two right hands and the skull of Brahma and sula in the left. Various forms of Bhairavas are also given.

Rea gives a description in page 31 of a panel in the Kailasanatha temple in which he identifies this form. “Cell No. 14 shows Shiva cutting off one of the heads of Brahma and holding it in one of his left hands. Brahma sits in a dejected attitude on the left. A devotee with arms crossed in amazement, sits under Shiva, on Brahma’s right. In Shiva’s right hands are sword, trident, snake and noose; in his left, are Brahma’s head and broken symbols. There is not much plaster on the panel and the deep and bold cutting is seen to advantage, giving fine effects of light and shade”.

In this representation, the head is held by the tuft; it does not stick on to the palm with the skull downwards. This reminds us of the representation found in Tanjore of Virabhadra holding the head of Daksa over the fire. The similarity may suggest that what Rea describes also is a representation of the cutting away of the head of Daksa. The number of hands also are more than what is ascribed to this Brahma shirascheda murti. But the statements of the Agamas are never followed especially with reference to the hands; and that is one reason why we have been holding that these statements are not prescriptions but illustrative descriptions. As for the holding of the head by the tuft, it is very doubtful whether Arurar is thinking of the cutting away of Brahma’s head with nail or the thumb. Arurar does not make mention of the thumb in connection with Brahma, even as he makes mention of the toe in connection with Ravana. The root of the verb used is ‘aru’, to cut—a word used for cutting away the paddy with a sickle held in one hand whilst holding up the top portion, with the other hand. Some such thing is intended here as well: holding the head’s tuft with one hand and cutting it away with ‘khadga or sword as represented here.


(1) Kapalika Penance:

In this story, it has already been stated that the head of Brahman stuck to the hand of Bhairava and for getting rid of the mark of Brahmahatya, Kapalika penance for twelve years was prescribed. It will be seen that the penance prescribed is as pointed already by Mr. Gopinatha Rao, almost the same as the one prescribed by the Apastamba Sutra for the murder of a bhruna or a Brahman of great learning and good conduct by another Brahman.

Atha, bhrunahasvajinam kharajinam va bahirloma
paridhaya purusasirah pratipanartham udaya ||
Khatvangam dandarthe karmanamadheyam prabruvanas
camkramyeta ko bhrunaghne bhiksamiti ||
Aranye kuttm krtva vaggatah savasira
dhvajo ardhasanlpaksam adhonabhi uparijanva

“The murderer of a learned and good brahmin, wears as an upper cloth an animal’s skin—ass’s or horse’s (dog’s?)—with its hairy side appearing outside; he carries the skull as a cup to drink with (and as a bowl to eat with) and the bones as a stick. He begs (only in seven houses a day) saying: ‘Who will offer alms to the murderer?’ He himself constructs a hut in the forest with a skull flag and wears hemp cloth not going below the knees”.

As already stated, Varahapurana describes the Kapalika penance as wearing yajnopavita of hair, garland of bones, siromani of a skull and carrying in hand the cup of a skull.

(2) The Skull:

[Symbology of the the skull in the Mahavrata]

(3) Bones:

[Symbology of bones in the Mahavrata]

(4) Burning Ghat:

(5) Khatvanga:

[Symbology of the khatvanga in the Mahavrata]

(6) Pancavati (Pancavata):

In the Kapalika vrata, it is said that the clothes of the penitent should be made of the skin and the hairs should be worn as yajnopavita. Mahavratas wear this kind of sacred thread. This has become well known in Tamil land, where Cekkilar has given a pen picture of the Mahavratin in his story of Manakkancara Nayanar, the Saint who cuts and gives away the flowing tresses of hair of his own daughter, on the day of her marriage itself to a Mahavratin who has come in there to beg for the same—it is verily Shiva who comes to test the firm resolve of the Nayanar. “The forehead was full of the three lines of the sacred ashes. The crown was shaved except for the tuft. At the top of the tuft was the garland of beads of bones. In olden time. He bore the burden of the bones of the body of one, like the white pearl carved out of it; the kundala was swinging up above in His ears. He was wearing a long necklace or garland of shining beads of bones. Leaving aside the hard-hearted big serpent of hood. He had the shoulder strap for the yogic postures. He wore as yajnopavita the rope of hairs of the collyrium colour. He had the sack of sacred ashes removing the birth of His devotees of upright mind. The sutra or string was there on one of His wrists with one single bead alone. On the waistcord of strict privacy and loin cloth (or the loin cloth of the Vedas) fluttered His cloth. The beautiful feet, beyond the painter’s art, were on this great earth. The five mudras or marks of greatness were shining on His feet. The surface of His body was besmeared with the world famous sacred ashes and He appeared like the live ember covered with ashes. Thus came the “Mahavrata Muni”.

[Symbology of the sacred thread]

(7) Skins:

[Symbology of skins in Shaivism]

V (1) Pasupatas etc.;

[The various sects of Shaivism]

VI Pantaranka Dance:

[The Pantaranka dance]

VII Pey, putam & paritam:

[The Pey, Putam and Paritam]

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