Article: Deities

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


Bhairava guarding a temple in Gujarat. The term bhairava means ‘frightening, terrible’ and bhairavas are protective gods often portrayed as aggressive warriors. They frequently have weapons and frightening expressions on their red faces.

Image by Anirudh Bhatti © CC BY-SA 2.0

The bhairavas are male deities who protect temple precincts. They are depicted as aggressive warriors, reflecting the name bhairava, which means ‘frightening, terrible’. They are originally local deities, very common in Rajasthan for instance. They are associated with the Hindu god Śiva, especially as Bhairava is also the proper name of one of Śiva’s terrifying forms. Some of the bhairavas, such as Nākoḍa Bhairava, have been thoroughly integrated into the Jain fold.

Images of a bhairava riding a dog are fairly common on the sides of the doors of Jain temples as both the god and the animal are regarded as guardian figures.


Another category of guardian deities are the vīras – ‘heroes, warriors’. Traditionally there are 52 of them but only two have assumed prominent roles.

Ghaṇṭākarṇa Mahāvīra

Ghaṇṭākarṇa Mahāvīra in a temple in Jaipur. Above the protective deity is his Sanskrit mantra, with the squares of numbers at the sides indicating how many times it should be recited. On each side of his head are two bells, as his name means 'Bell-ears'

Ghaṇṭākarṇa Mahāvīra
Image by Romana Klee © CC BY-SA 2.0

A deity who has gained growing importance in Śvetāmbara Jainism since the early 20th century is Ghaṇṭākarṇa Mahāvīra. Images of this solid mustachioed male figure, ready to shoot an arrow fixed on the bow he carries, are increasingly seen in Jain temples.

Ācārya Buddhi-sāgara-sūri (1874–1925) established the cult, with its main centre at Mahudi, near Vijapur in Gujarat, and made it a largely public phenomenon (Cort 2000, 2001). Thousands of devotees visit this place, which has become extremely popular, especially on the day before Dīvālī. They offer a special sweet dish known as sukhaḍī to Ghaṇṭākarṇa, both to thank him and to ‘insure that any possible malevolent influences from the previous year are negated’ (Cort 2000: 419). His cult implies making offerings to fire, a normal procedure in Hindu worship.

Ghaṇṭākarṇa’s mantra is:

Oṃ Ghaṇṭākarṇa Mahāvīra! Destroyer of all ailments! Protect protect those in mighty fear of boils, Greatly Strong!
Wherever you stand, O deity, diseases and gout are destroyed by the written lines of letters.
Instantly from the recitation in the ear there is no fear of kings. Witches, ghosts, vampires, and demons do not arise.
There is no untimely death, nor are snakes seen, nor is there fear of fire or thieves, hrīṃ Ghaṇṭākarṇa! Homage to you ṭhaḥ ṭhaḥ ṭhaḥ svāhā

Translation by Cort 2001, page 166

The mantra, however, ends with the phrase ‘Show the path to liberation by the gift of pure knowledge’. This discreetly underlines that worldly benefits are not the only ones requested. For details and translations, see pages 420 to 433 of Cort 2000.

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