Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Student Generated Content > Background Topical Research Essays > Kapila


From the Blue Annals: He requested to be given initiation and the ācārya replied: “You are a paṇḍita! Why do you make your request to an ignorant man?" But he again and again begged to be given precepts, and finally the ācārya said: "Well now, the initiation must be given! Fetch here provisions!" ma he bha ro and Devākaracandra obtained initiations at the same time. At the time (of the initia¬tion), the teacher blessed a skull-cup full of wine and though they partook of the wine, the cup remained full. tsha¬ bo sangs rgyas byin also blessed (the skull-cup full of wine) and the same thing happened. The teacher then imparted the Doctrine to them and bestowed on them secret precepts.

Skull Cup (Kapala-Sanskrit, thod-pa-Tibetan) A skull cup is a ritual vessel often used to make offerings to Tantric deities by Tibetan Buddhists and Indian Hindus. The vessel is placed on the alter during ritual. The name if the vessel is changed according to the contents (see chart below). The kapala is formed from the inverted upper section of a human skull. They are usually carved and embellished in the image of wrathful deities. The selection of the cranium used for the vessel is particular to the type of ritual to be performed. For example, it is believed that there is more tantric power in the skull of an execution or murder victim, or a child who dies pre-puberty and conceived out of a non-traditional union or incest. A medium possession of power is derived from the skull of a person who has died from strong illness, an accidental or violent death. In contrast, a person who has died a peaceful death in progressed age will have no power. It is believed that the vital force of the person who possessed the skull is integrated in the material as spirit and gives the vessel its virulence in Tantric rituals. In Tantric imagery, wrathful protective deities hold that kapala at the level of the heart and are sometimes accompanied by a curved knife, indicating severing of the vital organs and life systems of the demonic adversary. The kapala’s ritual parallel is the tray that carries the flowers, jewels, and fruit that is offered to peaceful deities. In their iconic depiction these other peaceful deities may hold other attributes within their skull cups, for example, Padmasbhava’s vessel contains as ocean of nectar floating upon a longevity vase. It is also believed to serve as a reminder of the impermanence of life in the Buddhist doctrine. The skull cup may be a derivative of the kumbha, a clay pot used in Vedic ritual.

Terms for skull cups

kapala filled with human fleshmamsa kapalathod-pa sha-chen
kapala filled with flesh of (bTsan) demons thod-pa bTsan-sha
kapala filled with bloodasrik kapalaraktakarotaka rakta'i thod-pa
kapala filled with menstrual blood (of a prostitute) khrag-zor
kapala made from a child's skull nal-thod
kapala made from a Rakshasa skull srin-po'i thod-pa