Kalamukhas - The Saivaite mystics of medieval Karnataka.

SrImatrailOkyavaMdasya lakuLISasya SAsanaM jayatyanugatAtmEShTa dRShTAdRShTa phalapradaM yO dharMALinaTIM SAsti vEdadaMDadharO naTaH tachchhAsanaM jayatyEtatriLOkI maMgaLapradaM ||

Victory to the inscription of lakuliSa that bears deserving fruits to those dear to it. Victory to him - he who holds the staff that is the vEda and who directs the steps of the danseuse that is dharma.

A fascinating case for the Lagrangian mechanics of social-religous orders in medieval India is that of the kALamukhas - a Saivaite order that was known to be influential particularly in the Karnataka region for almost 6 centuries, peaking particularly around the 11th century. That their influence was far-reaching is evident by their inscriptions, consideration by rival orders, iconography surviving till date in what used to be their centres, and through important historical personalities associated with their cult. Yet, so little is known about them, their origin. beliefs, organization, liturgy, rise to fame or even the reasons for their decline and consequent disappearance from history that is causing us to talk about them now.

The worship of Siva has a long history in Indian tradition - and this is best covered elsewhere[1]. The worshippers of Siva in his bhairava form, often synonymous with the kApAlikas have long been the subject of urban legends and hoary tales. They have been often associated and identified with the recluse graveyard dwelling mantravadin, an occult penchant for cannibalism, alcohol and sexual rite. Prominent examples arise from Sanskrit literature such as the mahEndravarma’s mattavilAsaprahasana , bhavabhUti’s mAlati mAdhava, kRShNamiSra’s prabOdhachandrOdaya, sOmadEva’s yaSastilaka and yashapAla’s mOharAjaparAyja - among others. It must be admitted that despite the figurative exaggerations, this depiction isn’t entirely false, given their categorization as vAmamArgins and consequent propensity for the paMchamakAras. Anthropologically speaking, it is plausible that these practices arise from the purANic conception of Siva - who himself is depicted to have a lived the life of a recluse, dwelling in the graveyard and using the skull of brahma (who he is supposed to have decapitated), carrying a khaTvAnga club - to absolve himself of the sin of killing the four-headed creator. The kApAlika practices seem to be a case of consubstitution of the self with Shiva - an alternative pathway to salvation.

We mention kApAlikas now because of ambivalent identity of the kALAmukhas in the Saivaite spectrum. rAmanuja - the viShiShTAdvaita philosopher, either deliberately or out of apathy makes an equivalence of the kALAmukhas to the kApAlikas. This is blatantly false given what we can deduce from their epigraphy and iconography. The very name kALAmukha - literally implying black face probably refers to their prominent sectarian identity mark - perhaps a black dot or a line (identified with Siva’s third eye) on the forehead along with bhasma typical of shiva worshippers.

The kALAmukhAs’ primary association with Saivism seems to have been with he lakuliSa-pAsupata facet of it. pAsupata seems to be one of the siddhAntas mentioned as far back as the mAhAbhArata, along with the well known episode of arjuna receiving the pAsupatAstra from Siva - the paSupati himself after a rigorous penance. Hieun Tsang seems to mention pAsupatas prominently from his travels and records Siva worshipping sannyAsins - smeared in ash and engaged in penance all across India. Now - lakuLISa is regarded as an incarnation of Siva - who is said to have taken birth in a village called kayarOhaN or karVAN near present day vaDOdara, conservative dates placing him close towards the early gupta age. The deity at at this place at present seems to bear the name naklESwar. This temple is consistent with the characteristic iconography of lakuliSa found extensively in India - typically holding a staff (lakula in Sanskrit), a citron fruit and in an ithyphallic pose.

Whatever the historicity of lakuLISa may be - the flavor of shaivism espoused by him spread far & wide into all parts of India and particularly into Karnataka. Epigraphy suggests that ancient Karnataka might have had a great affinity for Jainism & Saivism before the advent of vaiShNavism in southern Karnataka starting from the days of rAmAnuja. Even so far as Adi Sankara’s times - there are indications that Karnataka might have been a Saiva stronghold in that Sankara detours from vidarbha - on the king’s advice & heads towards northern Karnataka to debate with ugrabhairava & krakacha - both kApAlikas; But we digress.

Notwithstanding the ambiguity, atleast in the context of Karnataka, kALamukha and lakuliSa pAsupata are synonymous and interchangable (though there are references that could wrinkle this argument). The oldest inscription suggesting their presence in Karnataka is an inscription from kigga from AD 700 and the last is probably one from AD 1410 - more than 700 years apart. Going sheerly by epigraphical statistics of Karnataka & the surrounding regions - it seems that though their early association seems to have been with Sriparvata / Srisaila region & mahAkUTa near bAdAmi - an early centre in the bAdAmi chAlukya times. Their zenith of influence is reached in the times & regions of the kalyANi chAlukyas in the 11th century during when more than a hundred of their inscriptions have been traced. There are icons of lakuLISa, lajjA gauri & the characteristic ithyphallic UrdhwarEtEshwara associated with them in all of these sites. Outside of Karnataka kingdoms - they also seem to have enjoyed patronage by the pallava noLambas, hoysalas, chOLas & Eastern chAlukyas.

The kALAmukhas unlike the wandering kApAlikas appear to have been an organized monastic order. baLLigAve in shivamogga district appears to have been a gravity center for their activities in the 11th century[2]. The names of the cult’s gurus are usually reminiscent of Siva / SAkta / pAsupata terminologies - j~nAnarAshi, vidyArAShi, lakuLiSwara, lAkuLidEva, vimalashakti, kriyAshakti, kEdArashakti, Sivasakti, SrikaMthapaMdita, and so on. In inscriptions - they are frequently referred to as goravas[3][4]- a word which bears pejorative connotation in present day Kannada (though perhaps for unrelated reasons). The order was organized similar to the Jainas of ancient Karnataka - in groups variously described as parSe (tadbhava of parishad), Amnaya (a level in the former) etc. Famous among these are the Sakti parSe & the simha parSe. Subgroups of the Sakti parSe - are the parvatAmnaya (parvata == Srisaila) & the bhujaMgAmnaya. A celebrated lineage known as the mUvara kONeya saMtati belonged to the bhujaMgAmnaya. This lineage seems to find references in places as far as Tamizh Nadu & deep inside Maharashtra.

Quite understandbly, kALamukhas seem to have been heavily focussed on ritualistic aspects of their order - practices canonized in the lakuLAgamas. These apart - there are the pAsupata sUtras & ratnatIka - a commentary. sAyaNa - mAdhava critique lakuLISa pAsupata in their commentaries, which can be summarized as follows: mOkSa is begot by attaining kriyASakti - the ability to manifest action in various forms & j~nAnaSakti - absolute sensory perception. Yogic unity can be attained through control over the senses & performance of penance. Some of the practices prescribed are - bhasmasnAna or bathing ritual ash thrice a day, loudly exclaiming ahA ahA, chanting the god’s name, dancing, exclaiming the huDukkAra (some form of vocalization), prostrating - all these in solitude[2]. They are also advised to deliberately behave eccentric, astray & excessively libidinous.

Although some of these acts described above sound a little occult - they appear to have a higher purpose in that they induce self-loathing & humiliation - considered key to killing the ego within. Despite these - we know that the kALAmukhas seem to have been revered in the inscriptions for their learning in all the shaDdarshanas or six-schools of thought - by inclination favoring nyAya and vocally distanced from mImAmsa. Their order seems to have had both monks as well as house-holders. Their organization with temples & maThas seems to imply a marked deviation from preceding Saiva orders. They seem to have been prolific in inter mata debates & such duels that were the common order of the day in those times to settle philosophical differences.

The kALAmukha relationship with the brahminical order is very interesting - given that we find references to many kALamukha panditas being well versed in the trayas. Given that lakuLISa was himself a brAhmaNa, pAsupata by itself wasn’t outwardly hostile to brAhminism. Like how Jainism captured the imagination of a significant class of brAhaManas in Karnataka - it is likely that the kALAmukha order also had a significant stratum of their followers, whether tacit or explicit from among the brAhaManas. We do not have any references to speculate animosity between these sects (unlike brAhManas and Jainas) - it’d be fair to assume that they coexisted with equal royal patronage.

We contend this specifically in the context of vIrasaivism - the sect of Saivas that rose into prominence in 12th century kaLachUri country under the leadership of basavEshwara - himself a saivAgama kamme brAhmaNa & a minister to the king bijjaLa. vIraSaivism created a tectonic shift in the dynamics of it’s times, decentralizing the focus of worship from the sthAvara linga (ie, the temples) unto the iShTa linga (a ritual linga worn on the body); That it created a socio-spiritual movement that in theory atleast, rejected the constructs of varNa, jAti & ritual alike - destabilized the country and resulted in a civil war of kind, culminating in the assasination of bijjaLa. It is possible to speculate that vIraSaivism had it’s inspiration in the kALamukha order and gradually rose to distinguish itself & in times ahead - even competed with kALAmukhas.

Nevertheless, it seems that the kALAmukhas dominated in the spiritual political order of Karnataka prominently till atleast the 14th century; kASIvilAsa kriyASakti - a kALamukha figure is known to have been the spiritual preceptor of the saMgama brothers of hampi - harihara & bukka, a fact evident by the numerous grants that he was the beneficiary of. There has been significant confusion between who the sthApanAcArya of the Vijayanagara empire was - between mAdhava vidyAraNya - who’d later go on to be a jagadguru of the SringEri sArada pITha and kriyASakti - the kALamukha guru. It is to be noted that there is a wrinkle in the SringEri parampara for the dating of vidyatIrtha (1229 - 1333) - an improbable number of years as jagadguru, who was followed by bhArati tIrtha (1333 - 1380) & mAdhava vidyAraNya (1380 - 1386) - all this considered within the fact frontier that the Vijayanagara empire seems to have taken birth around AD 1336 and attained prominence by 1346. Conspiracy theories allege that the SringEri maTha has overstated it’s role in the formation of the Vijayanagara empire[5].

Towards the end of the 14th century - the kALamukhas seem to have been out of favor with royal or popular patronage, inferring by the paucity of their records. As mentioned earlier - they also had to compete with the enterprising Saivaite order of the day that was vIraSaivism and we hear of debates between the sects, sometimes marked with animosity. Given their abrupt disappearance in the early 1400s and the patronage that vIraSaivism had already come to enjoy in Vijayanagara by then - it is reasonable to hypothesize that kALAmukhas either voluntarily assimilated or were absorbed into the vIraSaiva fold.