The Kapalika Tradition

The Kapalika tradition

There is a group of tantric saivites that are called the skull-men or kapalikas. They are called this because they carry a cranium begging bowl and a staff with “a banner made of a skull”. The kapalikas are one of the more radical sects to have existed. They slept in the woods, corrupted those in contact with them, and were known to cover themselves in cremation ashes and perform rituals using sexual fluids, alcohol, and blood; completely disregarding vedic purity rules and caste restrictions. The kapalikas strive to imitate their god Siva to gain his power instead of more traditional methods of worship. Their history is in many ways lost and open to conjecture. The kapalikas are often associated with the mahavrata or “great observance” (Lorenzen 73). There is a mahavrata referenced in various earlier works that contains elements of the tradition. However it is unlikely that it would be brought back for use centuries after it was abandoned and dead with no context to give reason for its resurrection (Lorenzen 73). There is a penance that is referred to in most law books that fits the general behaviour of the kapalikas. It is specifically called the mahavrata in the Visnusmrti (Jolly 157).

This penance indicates what is required of those who have [unintentionally] killed a brahmana or other high caste person. While versions across law books differ by specifics the generalities remain fairly consistent. The bhrunahan, or one who kills a learned “must make a hut of leaves in a forest and dwell in it” (Jolly 157). Some versions go so far as to specify that it must be built on burial grounds. He must “bathe and perform his prayers three times a day … collect alms, going from one village to another, and proclaiming his own deed; And let him sleep upon grass” (Jolly 157). The only food the bhrunahan is allowed is that which he receives from begging. Some versions allow entering villages only to beg and proclaim, and for nothing else. Others go further and limit the number of houses visited to seven per day (Olivelle 117). The bhrunahan is to cloth himself in the skin of a dog or ass, hair turned out or a plain linen loin cloth reaching from the navel to knees. Some also require the carrying of a human skull as a drinking vessel and a khatvanga staff mounted with a skull. Versions including a khatvanga as part of the penance require the skull to be that of the brahmana that was killed. This is required of the bhrunahan for at least 12 years (Jolly 157).

Chief penances described in the Dharmasutras are also very reminiscent of kapalika history. They require the building of a fire, and the offering of eight oblations cut from the bhrunahan’s own body: hair, skin, blood, flesh, sinews, fat, bones, and marrow (Olivelle 119). This is to be offered with sayings of the form “I offer my hair to Death, I feed Death with my hair” (Lorenzen 76). This is reminiscent of kapalikas selling of fresh flesh cut from their own bodies. It can be suggested that these traditions were chosen by the kapalikas because they were the payment for the worst of all crimes, the killing of a brahmana or a king. If one is guiltless and paying penance for the worst of all crimes, the payoff in religious karma must be fantastic. The hope is that this unprecedented gain in religious karma might result in magical powers; specifically powers attributed to Siva. This creates a contrast between the kapalika mimicking the lowliest of criminals in order to be ascetics of the highest order (Lorenzen 77).

The explanation of the kapalikas only using the mahavrata is lacking the obvious element saivism that is present. The origin of saivism in the tradition can be found initially in the story of the beheading of one of Brahma’s heads by Siva. Siva, filled with anger, severs Brahma’s fifth head. The head magically attaches itself to Siva and he is made to travel to earth’s tirthas to remove it. He first travels to Narayana, a form of Visnu, and asks for alms. Narayana slits his own side and lets the blood flow in to a great stream for a thousand divine years, but it can not fill the skull. Siva then tells Narayana the story of the beheading and is told to travel to all other tirthas. Siva tries visiting many famous tirthas with no luck until he tries the great resting place Avimukta and the skull establishes itself there (Lorenzen 77). This story allows the kapalikas to attach their practices to Siva, who is paying a similar penance for killing. It is unknown whether this story is the origin of the kapalikas’ traditions or if it was adopted at a later date to provide divine background to the practices.

Buddhism and tantric buddhism in particular have deep ties with the kapalikas and their tradition. Both tantric practices and the use of khatvanga were adopted into tantric buddhism (Davidson 178). Evidence suggests that the interaction between the two runs much deeper than simple imitation. It is possible that a model of mutual sharing where interaction flourished in certain areas and hostility in others. This would account for influence being constant over stretches of time (Davidson 218). While it is true that kapalika tradition played a large role, it is true that other saivism and vaishnavism played a large role in tantric buddhism as well. Kapalika sites by and large were fairly rare.



Lorenzen, David N. (1972) The Kapalikas and Kalamukhas: two lost Śaivite sects. Berkely: University of California Press.

Davidson, Ronald M. (2002) Indian Esoteric Buddhism: a Social History of the Tantric Movement. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Jolly, Julius (1965) The Institutes of Vishnu. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Meiland, Justin (2006) Mahabharata: English & Sanskrit. New York: New York University Press.

Sharma, P.R.P (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Olivelle, Patrick (1999) The Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Kalamukha tradition



Tantric Buddhism



Rama Ravana





Bhairav Tantra





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Brian Robertson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.