Our need to “fit in” makes evolutionary sense.
Our ancestors needed to stick together in extended families, then in tribes to survive a tough life in a dangerous world.
Today, we are a predominantly urbanised species that has divided itself into very much larger nation states – and yet our ancestral tribal mentality persists. Even those who think they are expressing their “individuality” very often end up just conforming to the standard uniform and behaviour of yet another “tribe” (think biker, mod, punk, hippie, raver, Hoxton hipster, etc.).
All pretty harmless, of course – until the people who don’t belong to your “tribe” begin to be considered of lesser value than those who look/talk/dress/think/love/believe/pray like you: a pernicious process of dehumanisation of the “other”, used to justify wars, colonialisation, slavery, genocides and terrorism throughout our history.
The problem with any form of “pack mentality” is that individual reasoning, personal responsibility and even morality are surrendered in preference for what is called “group-think”. Fact is, we are so programmed to “fit in” that we will follow whatever the rest of our “tribe” are thinking, saying and doing, until our worldview becomes increasingly narrow, self-regarding, distorted and intolerant.
As a result, rules, cultural habits, political rhetoric and even dead men’s “scriptures” are followed without question. To do otherwise is to risk rejection by our “tribe” – a thought too frightening to consider, for without them who or what are we?
The Shaiva Tantra tradition of the Eastern Himalayas encourages us to confront this self-limiting tribal trait in ourselves, to help us see similarity and connection – our shared humanity – rather than difference and division.
One way the Tradition does this is through the imagery and mythology of the ‘fierce’ form of Shiva: Bhairava, the Dispeller of Anxiety & Fear.
Bhairava is normally shown with his teeth bared. The term for this is vivrta, a word that also means “unhurt”, “without wounds”, “unfolded”, “unbounded”. This is to remind us to let go of old pain, resentment and partisan thinking. Life is kinder, richer and more rewarding when we remain open to others’ experience and points of view.
Vivrta also means “open-eyed”. Sure enough, Bhairava is usually shown with his eyes wide. This is to remind us to look beyond the limitations of petty-minded “tribalism” and to see the more inclusive “bigger picture”.
For this reason, Bhairava is normally shown decorated with skulls, a detail in Himalayan iconography that reminds us to see beyond the microscope of our self-interest. The principal benefit of all this is represented by the serpent that winds around him: Wisdom.
When it comes to Bhairava’s symbolic ‘fierceness’, his imagery and myths remind us to
- challenge mindless conformity
- reject dominant cultural and religious orthodoxies
- dismiss patriarchal hierarchies.
As I have been taught,
“To look into Bhairava’s face is to expose the absurdity of our judgmental attitudes and worldly attachments, the futility of our obsessions with social conformity and habit.”
This aspect of Bhairava is expressed through an ancient myth that describes how Brahma (the priest caste’s Creator deity) decided to give Man the four Vedas (orthodox priestly scripture, represented by Brahma’s multiple heads). However, these oral texts he would bestow on none but his Brahmin priests, to ensure they would forever hold dominion over the people.
Brahma also had a fifth head, a fifth Veda (lit. ‘knowledge’). But this he decided to withhold, as he knew that the wisdom it contained would render humankind independent of his priests, their hierarchies, rituals, laws, prohibitions, cruel misogyny and divisive caste system.
Shiva – ever the defiantly unorthodox outsider – had to intervene. For the sake of all humankind, he released his “fierce” form from his forehead, whereupon Bhairava smote off Brahma’s fifth head with the tip of his left thumbnail. So it was that, as the old myth goes, “Shiva bestowed wisdom on Brahma”.
As a reminder of this mythological event and its deeper meanings, Bhairava is often depicted holding the severed fifth head of Brahma. It is even still possible to come across wandering sadhus in India and Nepal called Aghori Babas, who carry a bowl made from the skull-cap of a Brahmin priest to represent their dedication to tantric non-conformity and their rejection of patriarchal hierarchies.
The myth concludes with Brahma’s severed head tumbling through the sky until it lands amongst the jungled foothills of the Eastern Himalayas.
This was the ancient story tellers’ way of figuratively explaining how this region became the heartland of what is today known as the Shaiva Tantra tradition, as described in Limitless Sky – its purpose, to encourage us to live more openly and fully by putting aside our prejudices, our “tribal” thinking and behaviour, our attachment to hierarchies and unthinking habit, to instead engage with life and each other more freely, meaningfully and joyfully.