Vijñānabhairava-tantra (Shloka 34)

Verse 34, Vijñānabhairava-tantra             focusing on the centre of the skull

Summary of discussion on Vijnana-bhairava-tantra made by Guru Yogi Matsyendranath and Rev. John Dupuche

“After closing the eyes, one should focus the mind within the skull.
Gradually, with unwavering mind, one discerns  the eminently discernible.”

कपालान्तर् मनो न्यस्य तिष्ठन् मीलितलोचनः।
क्रमेण मनसो दार्ढ्यात्लक्षयेत्लष्यम् उत्तमम्॥ ३४॥

kapālāntar mano nyasya tiṣṭhan mīlitalocanaḥ |
krameṇa manaso dārḍhyātlakṣayetlakṣyam uttamam || 34 ||

The word used in this śloka is ‘skull’ (kapāla), not head (siras) though this might seem to do as well. It is not karoṭi although this means ‘skull’, ‘cup’, ‘basin’. It is not mūrdhan, which can also mean ‘skull’. This is because kapāla has many resonances, some of which are listed here.

1. The tantric tradition is closely associated with the Kapālika tradition where the skull was an important ritual instrument. Legend holds that Bhairava, after being falsely accused of killing a Brahmin, had to spend many years in penance. He carried the skull of the Brahmin, drank from it and frequented the cremations rounds. This austerity and its association with death only served to increase his powers. The custom then arose to use the skull in ceremonies, placing in it all manner of repulsive items, such as flesh and wine and bodily fluids. The skull became the source of horror and power, liberation and mystery.

2. The skull is also the place from which the nectar of immorality (amṛta) flows down and is absorbed into the body.

3. It can be compared to a lotus flower. The following śloka 35 speaks of the central channel (suṣumnā) being like the stalk, which leads up the spine to the head, which is like the lotus flower.  In fact a thousand petalled lotus (sahasrara) covers the head and signfieis the fullness of consciousness.

4. It can be compared to the void. The previous śloka 33 speaks of the ‘empty space’, the ‘wall’ or the ‘vessel’ as the object of contemplation.

5. Between these two ślokas, mention is made of the interior (antar) of the skull as the focus of meditation. This is the locus of the pineal gland, which has an important function in regulating aspects of the body.

6. There are yogic techniques which consist of drawing the breath (prāṇa) in through the eye-brow centre (bhrūmadhya), which is the place of authority (ājña), to the interior of the skull and from there breathing out again through the same spot. This is stimulating.

7. There is also the idea that the Śakti, which lies dormant at the base of the spine  (mūladhāra), is aroused and rises up the suṣumnā to join Śiva in intercourse at the crown of the head.

 8 . Kālī wears a garland of skulls round her neck and a belt adorned with the forearms of her victims. Thus she disempowers all her enemies, both in their mental as well as their physical strength. The skull is the place of powr.

9. The two parts of the word kapālaka and pāla – have been interpreted to mean Śakti (ka) and Śiva (pāla, literally ‘protector’). Thus the skull is the place of the union of the god and the goddess, who are the source of all the worlds and the resting place of their reabsorption.

10. It is customary, when consecrating a building, to place five skulls in the foundations, one of which is human. Such skulls are readily available in village cremation grounds, such as one near Puri where they lie scattered among the ashes and the encroaching vegetation.

11. The custom is for the eldest son, at the time of cremation, to break open his father’s skull so as to release the prāṇa, which resides there most notably. 

12. The idea of head as the place of authority is known in many languages – chief, captain, head, capital, etc. etc. – such that the image of head and the idea of ruler coincide.

The skull or head has acquired all these associations because, irrespective of legends and practices, it is instinctively sensed to be of prime importance. Indeed the stories and rituals coalesce around the skull because it is a natural symbol of the infinite. It is the sort of ‘bulls-eye’, the centre of all, from which all comes and to which all returns. The practitioner should fix (nyasya) his mind (mano) within the skull (kapālāntar). It is the focus.

The text goes on to state that the practitioner should ‘close the eyes’ (mīlitalocanaḥ). This closing signifies the reabsorption of all things, whilst the opening of the eyes (unmīlina) signifies the emanation of the universe. This śloka therefore involves the act of dissolving the universe in order to return it to its source, namely the union of Śiva and Śakti.

The phrase lakṣyam uttamam can be taken in two ways.

 1. The mind (manaso) is focused (lakṣayet) unwaveringly (dārḍhyāt) at this place, which is the target (lakṣyam).  By its inherent significance, one is taken gradually (krameṇa) to the Ultimate (uttamam).

2. The Infinite, the Ultimate is the most discernible (lakṣyam uttamam). For those who are still on the way the supreme seems to be elusive. But once it is perceived it is perfectly obvious. The uttamam is the most discernable.

The Christian dimension is quite simple.

Christ is acknowledged as the head of the Church, indeed of all creation, with many of the meanings given above to the term ‘skull’.  Therefore by focusing on ones own head, one also focuses on him as the head, and we are lead into the infinite. 

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