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Shiva Bhairava

The sculpture is made of chloritic schist, which remains soft enough—for a few days after it is quarried—for intricate carving. Elaborate ornaments and details, such as the snake crawling in and out of the deep orifices of the skull, complement the soft appearance of the god’s flesh.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Shiva Bhairava

Tantra, a system of theory and ritual that arose in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain arenas, had a significant impact on yoga. Tantra offered its initiated practitioners (tantrikas) enlightenment, immortality, and supernatural powers. Its elaborate rituals included mandala-based visualization, recitation of sacred verses (mantras), and practices, such as haunting cremation grounds, that transgressed socially acceptable norms of clean and polluted. To enjoy “the fruits of yoga,” Hindu tantrikas bravely summoned the fierce god Bhairava in secret rituals that did not require images made in permanent materials. Orthodox Hinduism gradually domesticated Tantric deities, goals, and its less extreme practices.

This Bhairava probably guarded the inner sanctum of a thirteenth-century Shiva temple in Karnataka. Its astonishing details—especially the snake slithering up the shaft and through the deep orifices of the skull—complement the plump volumes and sinuous stance of the god’s body. The smear of red ritual paste on Bhairava’s third eye and the stone’s whitish surface intensify the god’s uncannily human and horrifying affect.

Shiva Bhairava
India, Karnataka, Mysore
13th century
Chloritic schist
The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund 1964.369

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