Updated: Jan 15, 2022
Khatvanga is of great significance in two major religions of the world, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a revered tool or weapon in Shaivism and Vaishnavism, two distinct forms of Hinduism. Khatvanga is a Sanskrit word. The compound has two terms: khaṭvā and aṅga. The term also has a meaning in the language Pali. Sanskrit is still widely used in Hindu rituals, especially the mantras. Pali is used in Buddhist rituals, but rarely for verbal or written communication.
What is Khatvanga?
Khatvanga has a literal meaning and there are variations in its form. The tool or weapon is a staff or club that has a skull at one end. It used to be carried by yogis and ascetics. It is also known as a tantric staff. Khatvanga was originally a weapon. It is a trident at one end and a thunderbolt at the other. Since its origin, the weapon has attained religious significance, notably among the worshippers of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. Khatvanga is also a tool used in rituals throughout Tibet. The staff is held by a tantric practitioner, in the crook of their left arm, during ritual ceremonies.
Khatvanga has different symbolisms in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism and mostly in the hand of Shiva, the khatvanga is a mighty weapon to be used in battle. In Buddhism, the staff represents or symbolizes the ultimate state of bliss combined with emptiness. The ritual tool used in Tibet is not identical to the khatvanga in Hinduism. It does not have both the trident and the thunderbolt. It has either a trident or a thunderbolt. When it has a thunderbolt, it is known as vajra. This tool represents the male element of compassion, which is a characteristic attribute of the Buddha. If the tool has the trident, it signifies the female element of wisdom.
Regardless of the thunderbolt or trident, khatvanga has three skulls or impaled heads. The uppermost skull is dry, the next is damp and the third is fresh cut. The dry skull stands for pure body. The damp skull stands for free speech. The fresh cut skull stands for pure mind. Below these skulls are four vajras and one vase of nectar. The four vajras or thunderbolts symbolize the four elements, earth, air, water and fire. The base represents awareness or consciousness. It symbolizes wisdom and in other words ‘nectar of attainment’.
Variations of Khatvanga
The khatvanga used in Tibetan rituals was derived from the staff used by Shiva. Those who follow the Indian Shaivite traditions worship Shiva and some carry this staff. These yogis and ascetics are known as skull bearers. Tantra or tantric practices originated in Shaivite practices. They were deemed to be an extreme form of Shaivism and hence it transformed into a distinct sect of its own.
The original khatvanga was perhaps made of bones and stones. The lore of Shiva predates the ages of metals and alloys. The Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama was born during the Iron Age. The khatvanga associated with Buddhism and subsequently tantric practices, rituals and ceremonies in Tibet was made of metal. Some forms had a wooden shaft. In Buddhism, the khatvanga is not really associated with the Buddha. It is of significance and an integral part of the iconography associated with Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava.
In Vajrayana, as per Buddhist lore, the three severed skulls or impaled heads in the khatvanga represent freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Moksha is freeing the soul from the three known worlds, collectively known as trilok or trailokya. In Buddhism, the Pali word tiloka is the three worlds or spheres of existence. These are kamaloka, rupaloka and arupaloka. These three spheres of existence are the worlds of desire (kama), form (rupa) and formlessness (arupa).
Trilok or the Sanskrit word trailokya in Hinduism has three realms. These are heaven, earth and underworld, respectively referred to as svarga or svarga loka, prithvi or bhu loka and patala or patala loka. Heaven or svarga represents the upper part of the human body, from the head to the belly. Bhu loka, prithvi or earth represents the groin. Patala or underworld is the subterranean part of the planet, literally what is underground. This symbolizes legs and what is beneath.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism have similar objectives. Buddhism propagates nirvana, a state of enlightenment. Hinduism propagates moksha or freedom from the cycle of birth; death, following the attainment of enlightenment.