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The Heads of the Godhead The Number of Heads/Faces of Yoginīs and Bhairavas in Early Śaiva Tantras

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image of Indo-Iranian Journal

This paper examines the prescriptions for multi-headed representations of śaiva deities, in particular of yoginīs and Bhairavas, in early tantric or āgamic literature. Multi-headed deities appear mostly in the prescriptions of mantra images, usually without any discussion of their material representation. The paper shows that the four-faced mantric representation of Śiva, Bhairava and other divine creatures precedes the five-headed one, as is observable in epic literature and in art history. The fifth head is associated with tantric or āgamic śaivism, whose supreme deity is the five-headed Sadāśiva. As the five-headed mantra image becomes the standard, texts are rewritten to conform to this norm. Moreover, female deities are also often assimilated to this god and can be assigned four or five heads depending on the context. It is suggested as a hypothesis that the four-faced Śiva, or rather Īśvara, was perhaps adopted from the proto-tantric currents of the Atimārga (or from one particular current), from a representation whose Eastern or frontal face represented Śiva as half man, half woman (ardhanārīśvara).

Affiliations: 1: Université Charles-de-Gaulle, Lille III


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