When the powerful King Kertanegara of Singosari ascended to the throne, his title was Bhattara Shivabuddha, which glorified his embrace of the syncretic Indonesian Shiva-Buddha religion.

Lesser known is that he was also an adept of the esoteric Kala Bhairava Tantra Hindu-Buddhist lineage. His deified statue is that of Bhairava, who is portrayed standing on a pedestal of skulls, wearing a chain of human heads around his naked body, a crown of skulls on his head and holding a skull drinking cup.

This esoteric lineage was based on the worship of Shiva Bhairava, a wrathful manifestation of Shiva. Bha means Creation, ra means Sustenance and va means Dissolution. Therefore, Bhairava is the One who creates, sustains and dissolves. He is  Para Shiva, or the Supreme God in that spiritual lineage.

Shiva Bhairava, or Kala Bhairava is depicted as ferocious because he protects his devotees from all sins such as greed, lust and anger and at the same time protects his devotees from his enemies. Worshiping him destroys enemies. He is also described as the protector of timid people.

Bhairawa Tantrayana in Java and Sumatra

Bhairawa Tantra is a secret lineage that emerged from the syncretism of Tantrayana Buddhism and Shaivism. This lineage first appeared in the 6th century AD in Bengal. From there it quickly spread across the land and maritime routes of Asia through Tibet, China, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Bhairawa Tantra lineage first appeared in Java in 674 AD in the Kalingga kingdom, led by Queen Shima. It also flourished under King Dharma Udayana Warmadewa and his empress Mahendradhatta around the 10th century.

Tantrayana was widespread in Indonesia for a thousand years, in Java, Sumatra, Bali and Kalimantan, in both its Buddhist and Shaivist form. Its most powerful and elitist aspect was the Kala Bhairava lineage. Followers of the Bhairava Tantra tried to achieve enlightenment (moksa) in the shortest possible way. In pure Shaivite tradition, meditations were conducted in the cremation grounds, to remind the practitioner of the impermanence of existence.

Bhairava Tantrayana was an elite lineage that merged the teachings of both Saivism and Buddhism and was at the core of Indonesian civilization for almost a thousand years.

The Age of the Indonesian priest-kings

Bhairava is also worshiped in Esoteric Buddhism, where various Bhairava forms are called Mahākāla, Vajrabhairava, or Heruka). Buddhist Bhairava Tantrayana has its own set of scriptures, the Vajrabhairava tantras. Bhairava is central to Newar Buddhism, where the spiritual practices associated with Bhairava focus on the transformation of anger and hatred into understanding.

King Kertanegara was a devout follower of the Indonesian Buddhist Tantra. In both the Pararaton and Negarakertagama, Kertanegara is referred to as an expert in the Kalachakra Bhairava Tantra.

The famous Joko Dolog statue of Buddha Akshobya in honor of King Kertanegara, Surabaya

There were three main Bhairava lineages in Indonesia:

  • Bhairava Kalacakra (mostly in West and Central Java)
  • Bhairava Heruka (mostly in Sumatra)
  • Bhairava Bima Sakti (mostly in East Java and Bali).

Kertanegara followed the Bhairava Kalachakra to balance the influence of Emperor Khu Bhi Lai Khan of China who adhered to Bhairava Heruka. Meanwhile, Singasari adhered to Bhairava Bhima and Adityawarman his successor followed Bhairava Kalachakra as well to balance the Pagaruyung kings in western Sumatra who embraced Bhairava Heruka.

Interestingly, the only three remaining Bhairava statues in Indonesia today are: Bhairava Heruka in Sumatra, Bhairava Kalacakra in East Java, and Adityawarman as Bhairava Bima in Bali.

Adityawarman in Sumatra

After Kertanegara, Adityawarman was another powerful priest-king, also initiated in this lineage. Adityawarman was the Majapahit ruler in Swarnadvipa. He was named the leader of Pagaruyung (Minangkabau) after successfully expanding Majapahit to Bali with Gajah Mada.

Adityawarman’s statue show him grasping a sacrificial knife and stand on skulls – the skulls represent the ineluctable advance of Time and Death. He also stands on a corpse with a throne made of skulls.

An inscription states that King Adityawarman was ordained while silently dwelling in a seat in the form of a pile of corpses under the name Wicesadharani, which means “a person of high concentration”. “Meanwhile, the large human casualties emit an unbearable foul odor, but for those who have been ordained as the fragrance of tens of thousands of flowers” – again, all symbolic statements, that have been taken literally by some people.

The corpse field according to the Kala Bhairava Tantra is considered a place where the bonds of Samsara were released. This is the place where worldly life ends. The corpse field, or cremation ground is therefore the most appropriate holy place to carry out on it important ceremonial acts, and especially meditations.

The mystical area of Tanah Toba, North Sumatra was a center of Adityawarman’s lineage. The ruins of the Padang Lawas temples show the image of Heruka dancing on a pile of corpses, symbol of the victory of the mystics over Death itself.

Kala Bhairava sasana in Java. 

Left: Bhairava Shiva in sampada (standing with feet together) with right hand showing the vitarkamudra signifying teaching and the left hand resting on a gada (cudgel). Right: Adityawarman as Bhairava in sampada on a pedestal of skulls with the right hand holding a kāpalā (skull bowl) and the left hand a kaḍitula (sacrificial knife).

Shiva Bhairava worship

According to Kala Bhairava Tantra, Shiva Bhairava is the supreme ruler of the Universe, as per the Shaiva scriptures (āgama). Bhairava is the ultimate form of manifestation or pure “I” consciousness.

Ritual worship of Bhairava is performed with ghee bath (abhiṣeka), red flowers, ghee lamp, unbroken coconut, honey, fruits etc. The right time to pray to Bhairava is midnight. At that time it is said that Bhairava and his consort Bhairavi will appear (give darśana) to their devotees. The most appropriate time is a Friday midnight.

In India, Bhairava shrines are present within or near all the 12 sacred Jyotirlinga temples.

Kalabhairava is also celebrated every year with the Kalabhairava Ashtami, celebrated with the chanting of Nirvana Shatakam – the famous chant written by Adi Shankaracharya over a thousand years ago.

Kalabhairava Ashtami, celebrated with the chanting of Nirvana Shatakam with Sadhguru at the Adiyogi

The Ashta Bhairava (8 forms of Kala Bhairava)

Bhairava is called upon as protector, as he guards the Eight Directions of the Universe, by splitting Himself into the Ashta Bhairava, who control of the eight cardinal points.

Each of the eight Bhairavas are different in appearance, have different weapons, different mantras and vāhanas (vehicles) and they bless their devotees with the Eight Types of Wealth (Ashta Lakshmis). All the different forms of Bhairava emanate from the Mahā Bhairava.

There are actually 64 Bhairavas in total, grouped under 8 categories and each category is headed by one major Bhairava. The eight major manifestations of Kala Bhairava are:

  • Asitanga Bhairava Grants creative skill, powers to generate new ideas and conceptions
  • Guru Bhairava – Gives divine education, success in all ventures, spiritual knowledge
  • Chanda Bhairava – Destroys evil and enemies and enhances confidence, removes fears, clears path to progress and provides incredible energy to attain success
  • Kroda Bhairava – Gives strength and courage to take massive action that ends in success, emerge victorious by overcoming hurdles and oppositions.
  • Unmatta Bhairava – Controls negative emotions like depression, mood swings, anxiety, mental disorders, ego etc.
  • Kapala Bhairava – Ends all profitless work and action. He helps overcome delays in major projects and assures matters are settled in a fulfilling manner.
  • Bhishana Bhairava – Eliminates evil spirits and negative energy. Installing this form in your space emits positive and energetic vibrations.
  • Samhara Bhairava – Though benevolent, this form of Kala Bhairava looks fierce and eliminates bad karma effects and bestows them with fresh vigor.

Kala: Death and Time

In Bhairava Tantrayana worship, the devotees seek to unite with higher and higher manifestations of Shiva. This is why the famous statue of Kertanegara depicted as Bhairava presents lots of similarities with depictions of the Goddess Kali, one of the manifestations of Parvati (called Bhairavi in Kala Bhairava Tantra).

Kali is the personification of Time and is usually portrayed as a black woman with a terrible face, covered in blood and wearing skulls and snakes. Skull-bearing in all representations of deities is a symbol of Death and Time. Her tongue sticks out as a symbol that everyone will be swallowed by Time.

Image source: George Redreev

Misunderstood rituals and fantastic rumors

Often, the highly symbolic representations of deities drinking blood and eating human flesh – symbols of overcoming the human condition through meditation – were taken literally by the outsiders. Yet the depictions of corpses are there to remind the devotees of the untemporality of everything and of the ineluctable presence of  Time, or Kala.

The Kala Bhairava rituals were secret, which led to the most fantastic and even ridiculous rumors. Among uninformed commoners, the Tantric symbolism often aroused the wrong interpretations. The simple-minded Moslems took all this literally instead of symbolically and interpreted this as ‘’cannibalism’’ and other absurdities.

This lead to legends and accusations of “human sacrifice”, “eating corpses”, “sacrificing virgins” and others, which are still propagated by Indonesian Moslem books until today, and even by certain uninformed Western authors.

In the same way, the Tantric sexual practices that were well-known all around Dvipantara at that time, were basely interpreted by the sex-shy Moslems as ‘orgies’.

Due to the secrecy surrounding them, the Bhairava rituals were usually totally misunderstood, such as the Pancamakara puja, or ‘five Ms’ ritual. The five Ma are said to be matsya (fish), mamsa (meat), madya (drink), madra (dance to ecstasy), and maithuna (sexual tantra), all actions and substances considered ritually or socially impure by the orthodox Hindu tradition.

The pancha-makara is actually a cleansing of the panca tattva – a worship of deities in order to eradicate five types of sins – quite the opposite of what it is made up to be. Each metaphorical substance relates in reality to one of the elemental principles: wine is Fire, Air is flesh, Water is fish, cereals represent Earth and sexual union, Ether. It is related to the bhuta shuddhi process.

Kala Bhairava Tantrayana in Bali

The development of Tantrayana in Bali began in the 10th century, around the time of the marriage of the king of Dharma Udayana Warmadewa with a daughter of the king of East Java named Mahendradhatta. It is around that time that the Sanghyang Kamahayanikan was compiled, which outlined the teachings of Indonesian Tantric Buddhism.

Empress Mahendradhatta worshiped Hyang Bhairawi (or Bhatari Durga). When she died, she was celebrated in Gianyar in the form of a large statue of Durga Mahisasuramardhini. This statue reminds us that Mahendradhatta was following a Shakta lineage.

Then around the 13th century in East Java King Kertanegara ruled as the last king of the Singasari kingdom. Then he occupied Bali in 1280 and the Kala Bhairawa lineage spread there.

In the courtyard of the Kebo Edan temple in Bali are other giant statues that are reminiscent of the Bhairawa statue found in Singasari temple, East Java. The attribute on the statue’s hand is a large knife, trident, drum and skull bowl.

Similar statues are also found in Biaro Bahal II Temple, Padang Lawas, Batak and Central Sumatra, which show an Indonesia-wide distribution of the Kala Bhairawa teachings.

The Shiva Bhairava statue in Pura Kebo Edan in Bali. The shape of the statue is similar to the Bhairava statue in Singasari. Around the 13th century the Shiva Bhairava Tantrayana started to develop widely in Bali from East Java.

The Kala Bhairawa’s resistance to islamization in Java

The spread of Islam in Indonesia is officially attributed to a group of nine semi-mythical ‘Wali Songo’ missionaries. One of these Moslem proselityzers was Sunan Bonang,  who reported having encountered the strongest resistance in Kediri from the followers of Kala Bhairawa.

Of all the Indonesian islands, the Javanese were already the most difficult to accept the foreign religion because of their powerful Shiva-Buddha tradition. Violent sporadic conflicts lasted for the next two centuries before the Moslems could take a hold in South and East Java.

Bonang gave up on East Java and emigrated to Demak, where he continued his preaching, becoming a mosque priest there. This time he focused more on slowly changing the Javanese culture to make it more porous to Moslem beliefs, instead of confronting the Javanese directly with his Semitic religion.

His student, Sunan Kalijaga, a former highway robber converted to Islam, continued his task by, instead of preaching directly, opting for a cultural approach. He chose to progressively strip Javanese culture – such as batik and wayang – of its most obvious Hindu meanings, opting for a more creeping approach to islamization.

Kalijaga also attempted to replace the popular Javanese literature of the time with his own poetic creations, such as the “Wijuk Wijil”, in which he had translated some Persian Sufi teachings to woo more followers.

Shiva Bhairava guides the devotees through the destruction of ignorance and ultimately, spiritual liberation.

After leaving his position as “imam” (priest) of the Demak Mosque, Bonang was told to go to Lasem and used there his experience in Islamic proselytism, using the lessons he learned from the difficult experiences he had received while preaching in Kediri.

There again, Bonang had difficulties with his preaching strategy, and sought, instead of convincing people to convert directly, to slowly infuse the Javanese customs with Moslem ideas.

Bonang started by copying Javanese rituals and practice a parallel, islamized version of the Javanese ritual with his followers, for example replacing mantra japa with the Mohammedan ‘’tahlil’’ and so on.

Then he got the idea to imitate the Hindu custom of forming a circle (cakra) and eating tumpeng with the local congregation, but with the ceremony being given an Islamic style instead. This is still known today as the selamatan.

Worship of the fierce form of Lord Ganesha is also part of Kala Bhairava rituals

After years of failure, Bonang finally stoke a chord in the population with his islamicized version of the selametan which then spread to almost all parts of Java. The famous Panca-makara-puja ritual was then Islamized into ‘five taboos’ for Javanese people. The “five M” made up by Bonang were: Thieving (stealing), Madhat (smoking opium), Drinking (drinking liquor), Gambling) and Madon (prostitution).

Bonang was later also known as Sunan Wahdat Cakrawati, derived from the word cakra (circle in Sanskrit) because he had taken over the Hindu circular ritual through the selamatan. This selamatan tradition is now itself under attack by the radical Moslems of today for being part of Islam Nusantara, because the selamatan’s tumpeng is a symbol of Mount Meru and of the Javanese Cosmic Mountain.

Eventually Islam slowly prevailed in Java due to a combination of proselytizing, economic conversions, opportunistic political rivalries and the financial influence of the Moslem merchants entrenched along the Northern coast of Java.

Yet important pockets of Hindu-Javanese subsisted in the interior – especially in East Java – well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Sang Dwija Naga Naraswara – the Javanese version of Shiva’s trishula, with Nāga on the sides. Image source: Aurela Arsyifa

The spiritual center of Bagelen (Purworejo)

The city of Bagelen in Central Java (2 hours from Yogyakarta, 15 minutes from Borobudur) had been a center of the development of the Shiva-Buddha religion since the Galuh-Tarumanagara kingdom.

Bagelen used to include parts of Wonosobo (a name derived from the Sanskrit Vanasabha, which means “gathering place in the forest”), and was known as a place of escape for the Majapahit elite. The Bagelen countryside is still dotted with Shivalingas from that era.

The regency is crossed by a river called Bagawanta, which comes from the word Begawan, because it is along this riverbank the monks settled.

The regency is rich in caves that were used for meditation retreats. In the Seplawan Cave, a gold statue of Shiva and Parvati was found.

In Bagelen were concentrated many powerful Kala Bhairava Tantrayana priests and mystics.  Bagelen had long been a famous place for Buddhist monks to live and meditate. Many were skilled in martial arts. The region was known to produce many tough soldiers as well.

During the islamization of Java, with such a background, there was no other choice for the Moslem proselytizers such as Sunan Kalijaga than to first accommodate the Kala Bhairava values in order to get a foothold in the place.

Even after they were islamized, the Bagelen resistance against the Dutch was stiff, and most of Prince Diponegoro’s followers came from this region. In order to break the identity of Bagelen as a strong region, this area was reduced by Dutch authorities to become only a district within the Kedu Residency. The Dutch built a new settlement in this area and built a highway dividing it to make it easier to monitor.

That is the origin of today’s Purworejo. Before 1830 the area covered Berangkal (now Purworejo), Semawung (Kutoarjo), Ngaran (Kebumen), and Karangduwur (southern Wonosobo), but after 1830 Bagelen remained only in an area of four districts east of Purworejo.

Today, the area is entirely islamized, but the inhabitants mostly follow Kejawen Islam, which keeps many of the ancient traditions alive. The peaceful energies of the place are still felt there today.