To understand the concept behind the Swarna Bhairava, one must first understand the significance of some of Lord Shiva’s forms known as ‘Bhairavas’. Translated literally, the expression means ‘frightful’ or terrible. Shiva is known to have appeared in the form of a Bhairav for the first time in order to punish Lord Brahma who had falsely claimed to Lord Vishnu that he was the supreme creator of the universe, commanding Lord Vishnu to pay obeisance to him. Shiva, in his rage has punished Brahma by decapitating one of Brahma’s five heads. As a result he incurred the sin of ‘Brahmhattya’ or the killing of a Brahmin, (which according to Hinduism is one of the worst possible crimes) and had to roam about in penance for twelve long years with the severed head of Brahma which slowly turned into a skull. Invoked at particular times of extreme rage, the Bhairava form of Shiva is known to bring about absolute destruction. Nevertheless, even this terrible form of Shiva plays the role of preserver. The most widely known example of protective Bhairava is attached to the legend of Sati. When Sati had immolated herself and Shiva resorted to dancing the Tandav Nritya Lord Vishnu had to break Lord Shiva’s trance. He did so by using his Sudarshan Chakra to dismember the burnt body of Sati, which fell down to earth in fifty two different places. Lord Shiva, upon regaining his composure posted a Bhairava at each of these site where shrines of Sati were erected. Shiva had decreed the Bhairava would protect the sites and the cities around it for all times to come.
The Swarna Bhairava is one such Bhairava that plays the role of a preserver even though it is unrelated to the legend of Sati. The Thantondreeswarar Temple in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu houses the deity Swarna Bhairava. In this form, Shiva, in the form of a Bhairava is seen sitting with Parvati who appears as a Bhairavi. He has two dogs as his divine vehicles or ‘Vahana’. Unlike the other Bhairavas, here Shiva carries in his hand the ‘Akshay Patra’ or the bowl of plenty that never runs out of food or riches. Devi Lakshmi- Goddess of plenty and Kuber- God of wealth attend on the couple. Special yajnas are performed every Asthami or the 8th day of the new moon with 16 ‘Kalasas’ or pots filled with water, which is used for the ‘Abhishekha’ of the deity followed by the worship of the holy cow.
In the Swarna Bhairava form Lord Shiva actively plays the role of the preserver, not in a metaphysical sense as he is usually wont to do, but in pure material terms instead.
The legend of Thantondreeswarar revolves around a yogi named Konganar from a place called Mathur, who had used herbs and alchemy to convert iron into gold. Konganar sought the help of Lord Shiva to improve his skills and was advised by the latter to worship Lord Bhairava in the Illupai jungle. Praying earnestly, he succeeded in his endeavour and the gold he produced was brighter than all gold. When however he tried to take the gold away, it sank into the earth and took the shape of a Shiva Linga that glowed with a brightness of its own. It indicates the deep philosophy that knowledge gained from Shiva cannot be used only for personal gain and that Lord Shiva can and does look after the material prosperity of all his devotees.
The appearance of the self luminous Linga prompted the devotees to worship it as ‘Swayam Prakaseswarar’- once again highlighting the fact that Lord Shankar did not have any beginning or end and operated as the ultimate master of His own will, serving the purpose of destruction or as in this case, creation and preservation, as he saw fit. Devotees pray in this shrine seeking material prosperity and good health. Those bitten by dogs also come here praying to be cured of the poison that afflicts them.
The fierce Bhairava form of Shiva, personifies the darker aspect of the lord, connected with the engendering and removal of fear in the hearts of mortals and immortals alike.
Noteworthy, in the imagery, that depicts him, is that his vehicle is a dog. In some socio-cultural Hindu contexts, the dog is considered inauspicious. The traits most commonly related to the animal are its loyalty to the master; when fed a bone it is pleased and wags its tail to express satisfaction but when ignored it whines to exhibit resentment. This behavior closely represents the Human ego or Ahamkara which thrives & revels in attachment & acknowledgement & consequently lives in a state of fear of loss of that which is “me” & “mine”.
So the dog is reminiscent of our animal instincts which thrive on our clinging to that which we believe belongs to us & gives us our identity & purpose of existence. This attachment can take on various deadly forms which we unconsciously guard with all our thoughts & actions. Just as dogs mark their territory, human beings act to defend their property & image including their wealth, assets, status & kin. Inherent in the idea of “defense” is the idea of ownership or a perceived notion of protecting oneself against something or someone that is undesirable. This gives wings to fear & anxiety over perceived loss of that which is desirable. Bhairava, by sitting on the dog, encourages us, to free our selves of the dog-like, ego & break the bonds of attachment to ephemeral worldly pleasures & experience true freedom & joy bereft of fear.
Thus, he urges the devotee, to free him/herself of the shackles of the mind which creates thoughts of separateness from the universe & embrace that which is abominable & distasteful to transgress the fear that limits the individual from widening his range of acceptance & tolerance & growing into a liberated soul.
In some imagery, he is depicted carrying the fifth head of Brahma, which he decapitated in a legend where Shiva, incarnated as Kaal Bhairava, to cut of Brahma’s head for his arrogant claim of being the supreme Lord. The fifth head here, represents the three worlds of “I” (mind & body), “that which I own” & “that which others own”. This is what Shiva, in the guise of Bhairava, destroys, to expand human awareness beyond the material to higher dimensions of self realisation.
In a lighter context, the fierce Bhairava form of Shiva is worshipped as Datta, with three heads of the holy Indian trinity, of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) & Mahesh (Destroyer). In this portrayal, he is followed by a cow, who walks behind him, representing faith. He is also surrounded by four dogs, who walk ahead of him and keep turning back to see if he is there, They represent the faithless nature of man, fraught with its fears which needs support & reassurance. Datta, himself walks at leisure, self assured and one with nature that surrounds him. Devoid of any attachment or limiting desire, he epitomizes that self realised soul who is liberated and has conquered fear which binds the soul to the body-mind cage & the veil of Samsara or the material world.