I’ve been re-reading bits of the Indian epics and the Puranas lately, and what struck me most forcibly is the excessive amount of decapitation going on. What’s up with that? To answer that burning question, here is a blog post dedicated to the decapitated. It will be long, but I will endeavor not to make it too gory.
No. 1: Top Pick
Barbarik, the grandson of Bhima, decapitated himself at the request of Krishna before he could fight in the Kurukshetra war. Krishna deduced that he was too powerful, and he was hampered by a vow that he would only fight for the weaker side. This would have meant both armies eventually getting decimated as he fought for first one side and then the other. Barbarik spent the Kurukshtra war as a disembodied head, watching the fighting from a nice vantage point. Note that this story is from later versions of the Mahabharata. There is no mention of Barbarik in the Ved Vyasa version.
I must add that while researching Barbarik, I came across the theory that he was actually an AI, ancient India having the kind of technology modern India can only dream of. The internets are a wild, wild place.
No. 2: Close Second
Vinayaka was decapitated by his own father Lord Shiva. Shiva had been away from Kailash for some years, meditating, as was his wont. In his absence, Parvati made a boy from the turmeric paste smeared on her arms (Ew). She bade him stand guard at the door of her abode and let no one enter while she bathed. Shortly after, Shiva arrived with his Ganas (attendants). Vinayaka refused him entry into his mother’s abode, even hitting him with his stick. Predictably, Shiva was incensed. His Ganas tried to fight Vinayaka but were badly beaten. Various gods also tried with the same sad result. Finally, Shiva took up his trident and chopped off his head. Parvati was furious. She created numerous Shaktis to destroy the universe. To assuage Parvati’s wrath, Shiva placed the head of an elephant on the boy’s neck and revived him. He appointed him the leader of all the Ganas, and also promised that he would be the first to be worshiped in any prayer or ritual. This is how Ganesha, the most beloved deity in the Hindu pantheon, was born.
No. 3: Most Scientifik
Would you like to know why eclipses really happen? I’ll have to take you back all the way to the Samudra Manthan when gods and asuras momentarily put aside their enmity to churn the ocean for amrita, the elixir of immortality. Vishnu in his enchanting Mohini avatar promised s/he would divide the amrita fairly among the gods and asuras. But s/he began with the gods. While s/he was serving the gods, the suspicious and impatient asura Rahu took the form of a god and joined their ranks. Surya and Chandra saw through his disguise and ratted him out to Vishnu, who was enraged at the deception. He took his divine form and beheaded Rahu with his Sudarshan Chakra. But Rahu had already consumed the potion by then and become immortal, even though he was in two pieces: head (Rahu) and body (Ketu). He was full of anger toward the sun and moon gods for spilling the beans. Rahu and Ketu swallow the sun and moon year after year in revenge, resulting in partial and total lunar and solar eclipses.
Rahu and Ketu are basically shadow entities that correspond to the lunar nodes, the two points where the Moon’s orbital path crosses the ecliptic. A lunar eclipse occurs when the full moon is near either lunar node, while a solar eclipse occurs when the new moon is near either lunar node.
No. 4: Rawest Deal
Brahma’s fifth head was chopped off by Shiva for basically being an egotistical liar. Right in the beginning, there was a terrible battle between Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva manifested as a huge column of fire between them – the origin of the famous phallic symbol, yes. Seeing this, Brahma and Vishnu were amazed and decided to find where the top and the bottom of the column were. Vishnu, in the form of a boar, went in search of the root and Brahma, in the form of a swan, went in search of the top. Vishnu went very far down, further than the netherworld, but couldn’t find the bottom of the pillar. Exhausted, he returned. Meanwhile, Brahma had come across the ketaki flower. He made the flower promise to lie to Vishnu and support his claim that he had reached the top of the column. The flower obliged. Vishnu believed the lie and began to worship Brahma. Then Shiva manifested himself. He praised Vishnu for his honesty and said that he would have an equal status to himself. As for Brahma, Shiva chopped off the head that had uttered the foolish lie.
As soon as he lost that egotistical head, Brahma repented, but his creations (basically all living things) will always die and he is never worshiped. Rum deal for the creator!
No. 5: Most Justified
Prajapati Daksha, the world king and son of Brahma, was beheaded by Shiva for driving his daughter Sati to immolate herself. It’s a long, tragic story. Daksha never wanted Sati to marry Shiva, even though he knew Sati was an incarnation of Adishakti herself, Shiva’s feminine half. He agreed to their marriage only with greatest reluctance, since he loathed Shiva. Once, he planned a very important yajna and invited everyone except Shiva and Sati. Overcome with misplaced filial love, Sati decided to attend the yajna without Shiva. When she arrived at her father’s palace, he insulted her and Shiva. Overcome with rage and humiliation, she cursed him and cast herself into the sacrificial flames. Daksha = Worst Parent Ever. When Shiva learned what happened, he was enraged. He cast two locks of hair on the ground which turned into his avatars Veerbhadra and Bhadrakali, and instructed them to kill Daksha.
They marched with an army of Ganas to Daksha’s palace, destroying whoever stood in their way. Veerbhadra held Daksha down and cut off his head, tossing it in the sacrificial fire. Later, Shiva’s anger cooled and he brought Daksha back to life with a goat’s head. Daksha became a much nicer person, which just goes to show even the worst villains can be redeemed if you give them a goat’s head.
No. 6: Also Justified
Jayadratha was beheaded by Arjun on the fourteenth day of the Kurukshetra war. Jayadratha was a nasty sort; he was married to Dushala, the only sister of the hundred Kauravas, but he had once tried to abduct Draupadi, the wife of the Pandava brothers. Arjuna and Bhima rescued Draupadi, shaved Jayadratha’s head, beat him and dragged him before Yudhishthira. But they let him go – an unwise choice, considering that he was consumed by the lust for vengeance. He did severe penance to Shiva, who was pleased with him and granted him a boon that he could, in any future war, for any one day, beat any warrior of the opposite side except for Arjuna. He took advantage of this boon on the thirteenth day of the Kurukshetra war when Dronacharya launched the battle formation chakravyuha. Only Arjuna knew how to penetrate it, but Arjuna was busy fighting elsewhere. His son Abhimanyu could enter the formation but did not know how to escape it. Once he had entered, Jayadratha used his boon to hold off the Pandava brothers and all their forces, preventing them from following Abhimanyu, who was brutally killed. Arjuna vowed revenge. He swore to kill Jayadratha before sunset the next day or immolate himself.
Happily, Arjuna succeeded, with some assistance from the wily Krishna. Arjuna used a divine arrow to deliver Jayadratha’s head to Jayadratha ’s father’s lap. Why? Because Jayadratha’s father had given him the boon that anyone responsible for his head falling to the ground would automatically explode. When the head landed on his lap, Jayadratha’s father leaped to his feet in horrified startlement. Guess what happened? Hint: It wasn’t pretty.
No. 7: Most Hauntingly Weird
Chhinnamasta the self-decapitated is one of the ten forms of the goddess and surely the strangest. The goddess decapitates herself to feed her followers! Three jets of blood spurt out of her neck, one feeding her own severed head, and the others being drunk by two attendants, Jaya and Vijaya. The legend goes that one day the goddess Parvati had gone to the river to bathe. Her attendants became very hungry and begged her for food. The generous and merciful goddess slashed her head off with her nails and fed them her own blood to satisfy their hunger. Later, she rejoined her head and they went home, so that’s all right then! As you can see, the iconography is full of contradictions.
The major theme is that of self-sacrifice for the good of the world. But there are paradoxes. She is both food and eater of food, devourer and devoured. She is a self-sacrificing mother, the maternal ideal. But see how her feet rest on a divine copulating couple (possibly Rati and Kamadeva)? She is also the subduer and life-taker.
No. 8: Cleverest
The sage Dadhichi was beheaded by a jealous and insecure Indra for teaching the art of Madhu-vidya (literally, honey-knowledge) to the Aśvins (twin gods of medicine). Actually, AFAIK, Indra was the one who taught this art to Rishi Dadhichi, warning him that he could not pass this knowledge to anyone else, because it could be used to gain immortality. But the Aśvins wished to learn this art, and they came up with a superb plan to protect Rishi Dadhichi. They learned Madhu-vidya from the sage, then removed his head and preserved it, replacing it with a horse’s head. The enraged Indra showed up and beheaded Rishi Dadhichi. But it was only a horse’s head, after all. When Indra had gone, the Aśvins replaced the sage’s real head and brought him back to life with the Madhu-vidya he had taught them.
I must add that Dadhichi is an important character in Indian mythology, and he is one of the greatest devotees of Shiva. The most famous legend about him tells of how he sacrificed his life so the gods could make a divine weapon of his bones to defeat the asuras. He had a boon from Lord Shiva that his bones would be diamond hard. When the gods requested his help, he meditated his life away. The divine cow Kamadhenu licked his body to remove the flesh from the bones (Ew) and the weapon “Vajrayudha” was fashioned from his spine.
No. 9: Most Puzzling
Trisiras, or Viśvarūpa, was the three-headed son of the artisan god Vishwakarma. He was very devout and served as temporary guru to the gods when their usual guru Brihaspati had abandoned them in anger. Apparently, one of his heads was responsible for drinking, the second for observation, and the third for reading the Vedas. Talk about multi-tasking! Anyway, he was partial to the asuras, and Indra saw that he was offering them the remains from yajnas (rituals) that were meant for the gods. Afraid that he would side with the asuras, an angry and fearful Indra cut off his three heads. The heads transformed into three kinds of birds: a francolin partridge, a sparrow, and a common partridge. Why? What does it all mean? I have no clue. Incidentally, when Vishwakarma heard what happened, he created a serpent demon called Vritrasura to kill Indra. It was to defeat Vritrasura that Indra requested Dadhichi to part with his bones.
No. 10: Most Unjustified
The last one on my list is the one that fills me with rage. Renuka was beheaded by her son Parashurama (an avatar of Vishnu) on the order of his father, the sage Jamadagni. This is what happened. One day, she’d gone to collect water in an unbaked pot. Apparently, she was so chaste that even an unbaked pot would hold water for her. On this day, she saw a gandharva (semi-divine being) flying over the water and was momentarily distracted by his beauty. The pot broke and the water was lost, because apparently she lost her chastity in that one moment of admiration, which is such a load of rubbish. Worse was to come. Her husband gleaned what had happened and was furious. He ordered his sons to kill her. Four sons refused and he turned them to stone. The fifth, Parashurama, obeyed. He chopped off his own mother’s head! His father was very pleased with him and granted him a boon. Parashurama asked for his mother and brothers to be brought back to life. All’s well that ends well? Tchah. Indian society is built on male hegemony, a foundation of patriarchal violence that has borne ugly fruit in modern times. These are the stories that repel me most. I’m certainly not adding an image to this one.
It’s evident that decapitation in many stories is symbolism for cutting off the ego, or a sacrifice of the self for the greater good. And sometimes it’s a literal punishment. Desiring other men, are you, wanton woman? Off with your head! Oh, and some people claim all this head transplantation business is basically proof that ancient India had the technology for brain transplants. Shiva as brain surgeon – yes, indeed, the internets are wilder than you and I can dream.
Dange, Sindhu S. “The Severed Head in Myth and Ritual.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 72/73, no. 1/4, 1991, pp. 487–496.