By Swami Harshananda
Kapāla literally means ‘that which protects the head’.
Kapāla is skull. Some deities like Kaṅkāla Bhairava, Bhikṣāṭanamurti and Kālī are shown carrying skull-cups or skull-pots. They carry it either for receiving alms or for drinking the blood of their victims.
The story connected with the Bhikṣāṭanamurti aspect of Śiva narrates how Śiva nipped the fifth head of the arrogant Brahmā and how the skull stuck to his finger. Because of this sin, he had to roam about the earth as a mendicant for expiating that sin. He finally got rid of that skull (head) at Kāśi or Vārāṇasi.
Vampires and cemetery spirits (Vetālas) are believed to carry the skulls of their victims and drink their blood in them.
The sect of the Kāpālikas has made the kapāla as a part of its paraphernalia. Burnt pot-sherds used for baking puroḍāśas are also called ‘kapālas’.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore