In the South Indian text Periya Purāṇam by Cekkilar (c. 1100), a Śaiva ascetic visits the home of a seventh-century householder-saint, one of the sixty-three Nāyaṉārs, and demands to be fed with the flesh of the saint's only son. With limitless devotional zeal, the saint promptly beheads his young son, helps his wife prepare a curry of their son's flesh, and finally agrees even to join the ascetic in the gruesome feast. At the last moment the cruel guest disappears and the sacrificed son returns to life. The ascetic reveals himself to be none other than the god Śiva come to test his devotee. This legend is typical of those associated with the Kāpālikas, or Bearers of the Skull (kapāla ), a heterodox Śaiva sect often accused of both necrophilic and orgiastic practices.
The true character of the Kāpālika sect is difficult to determine since it is known almost exclusively from the text of its opponents, especially from dramatic works such as the Prabodhacandrodaya of Kṛṣṇamiśra (c. 1050–1100) and the Mattavilāsa of Mahendravarman (c. 600–630), and from the hagiographies of the great theologian Śaṅkarācārya written by Mādhavācārya (c. 1700?), Anantānandagiri (c. 1400?), and others. It is even possible to suppose that the Kāpālika sect has been created by these authors to personify the varied groups of unorthodox and Tantric ascetics who worshiped the god Śiva. There does, however, exist sufficient evidence to indicate the probable historical reality of a specific Kāpālika sect between about the fifth and fifteenth centuries ce.
First, the Kāpālikas, sometimes also called Kapālins or Mahāvratins, are frequently mentioned as one of the four principal religious sects dedicated to the god Śiva. The historical existence and importance of the others—the Pāśupatas, Kālāmukhas, and Śaiva Siddhāntins—is beyond doubt. Second, two inscriptions from western India, dating from the seventh and eleventh centuries, record donations to what must have been Kāpālika ascetics. In the first inscription the recipients of the gifts are described as Mahāvratins who reside in the temple of Kāpāleśvara, Lord of the Kāpālas; in the second the recipient is described as a Mahāvratin ascetic who is "like the Kapālin Śaṅkara in bodily form." This Kapālin is none other than Śiva in the form of a Kāpālika ascetic. The myth of Śiva-Kapālin is the third and most important basis for supposing the existence of a specific Kāpālika sect, since this myth evidently serves as the archetypal model for the religious practices of the ascetic members of the sect. The myth is not clearly referred to in texts earlier than the Purāṇas (c. 200–1300), but it is indirectly linked to the early Vedic myth of the conflict between the gods Prajāpati and Rudra and to the Mahābhārata myth of Rāma Rāghava and the sage Mahodara.
The Puranic myth of Śiva-Kapālin begins with an argument between Śiva and the creator god, Brahmā. The upshot of the dispute is that Śiva removes one of the five heads of Brahmā and thereby is afflicted with the sin of brahmahatyā, the killing of a brahman. To free himself from this sin, symbolically represented by the skull of Brahmā sticking to his left hand, Śiva must undertake a twelve-year penance, wandering about in the guise of a Kāpālika ascetic who uses the skull as a begging bowl. This penance is known as the Great Vow (mahāvrata ), and Śiva consequently becomes a Mahāvratin (Follower of the Great Vow). The penance is eventually completed in Banaras, the holy city of Śiva, at the sacred bathing place (tīrtha ) on the Ganges called Kapālamocana, where the skull finally falls from his hand.
The descriptions of human Kāpālika ascetics likewise conform to those of the Kapālin form of Śiva. They wander about with a skull begging-bowl, their bodies smeared with ashes, wearing bone or skull ornaments and loincloths of animal skin, with their hair in matted locks. They sometimes carry a special club called a khaṭvāṅga, consisting of a skull mounted on a stick.
In none of this is there any suggestion of orgiastic behavior. Nonetheless, the more heterodox Śaiva sects generally are associated with the religious current known as Tantrism, which does feature rites that break, either symbolically or in fact, orthodox socioreligious injunctions concerning both food and sex. The best known of such rites is that of the five ma sounds (pañcamakāra ) in which the devotee partakes of liquor (madya ), meat (māṃsa ), fish (matsya ), parched grain (mudrā ), and coition (maithuna ). Kāpālika ascetics are frequently regarded as libidinous hypocrites who practice the Tantric reversals of conventional morality on a daily basis.
In Tantric cults, salvation (mukti ) is often imagined as a state of bliss homologous to the bliss of the sexual union of Śiva and Pārvatī. The doctrine of the Kāpālikas is usually called Soma Siddhanta, a term that is traditionally explained as the doctrine (siddhānta ) of Śiva united with his wife Uma (sa-umā ).
My study The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Saivite Śects (Berkeley, Calif., 1972) attempts a full reconstruction of Kāpālika history, practice, and doctrine. An excellent treatment of the myth of Śiva-Kapālin is found in Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1976).
David N. Lorenzen (1987)