Saivism or Shaivism - Basic Concepts

Seated Shiva

by Jayaram V

Listen to the Audio

Saivism (Shaivism) is a major sect of Hinduism. Saivism means the tradition which upholds the belief that Lord Siva is the Lord of Universe and the Creator of all. In fact, like Vaishnavism, which regards Lord Vishnu as the Creator, Saivism is a religion in itself. Until medieval times, Saivism was also the most popular sect of Hinduism, with the widest following.

The Sect regards Lord Siva as Brahman Himself and all other divinities as aspects of Him. The origins of this sect are probably rooted in the prehistoric fertility traditions of ancient India who worshipped Father God and Mother Goddess. The worship of Siva probably began in the mountainous regions of the Indian subcontinent and spread into other parts of India gradually during the eastward migration of Vedic communities that inhabited the Sindhu Saraswathi region, which is presently a desert. In this presentation, we cover some of the most basic concepts of Saivism.

Pati: Means the husband, the lord of creation, who casts the net of maya upon the beings and subjects them to delusion, bondage and rebirth. He is popularly known as Siva, the pure and auspicious. As the Lord of creation, He performs five basic roles as the creator, upholder, concealer, revealer and destroyer. He also has modes ranging from pleasant (saumya) to the angry and destructive (ugra).

Pasu: Means the animal. It refers to all living beings, including humans, who are subject to the three impurities, namely egoism, delusion and attachments. He is also known as jiva, the living being, the embodied Self (dehatma), the living self (jivatma) or the elemental Self (bhutatma). Beings are caught in samsara, subject to delusion and become bound to the world due to attachments and desires.

Pasa: Means the bond or the attachment. It refers to the attachments formed by the living being to the sense-objects out of desires and repeated contact with them. This results in their performing desire-ridden actions, which leads to their bondage and suffering. Until the beings are liberated, they are regarded in Saivism as animals only. Saivism therefore do not place much emphasis upon caste distinctions.

Prakriti: Means that which is found in its natural state in creation. Prakriti is considered both an aspect of Siva and an independent entity. She is also worshipped as Devi, Parvathi or Mother Goddess. Some traditions of Saivism recognize Her as the material cause of creation. She is responsible for manifesting forms with the help of tattvas or principles of creation and subjecting them to modifications and delusion.

Sects of Saivism: The important sects of Saivism are Saiva Siddhanta, Kashimiri Saivism, Vira Saivism, Pasupatha Saivism, and Nath Saivism. Each have a wide following of their own. Of these Saiva Siddhanta and Kashimiri Saivism enjoy wider popularity. Vira Saivism, enjoys a traditional following in the Karnataka region. Nath Saivism or Gorakhnath Saivism is predominantly ascetic with its emphasis upon hatha yoga, kundalini yoga and other practices. Pasupatha Saivism is the most ancient among these. The sect follows very esoteric methods of yoga about which little is known outside the circle of its followers.

Associate deities: Lord Siva resides in Kailas, the immortal heaven, surrounded by innumerable followers, warriors, devotees, celestial beings and adepts who are collectively called ganas or Siva ganas, also known as Prathamaganas or Bhutaganas. In times of conflict and aggression, they become unruly, virulent and violent; but they never disobey the commands of Lord Siva. Higher in the hierarchy of Saiva Pantheon are His consort, Parvathi, or Mother Goddess, His two sons, Ganesha and Kuamara and His Vehicle Nandi. Each of these deities are worshipped independently and also collectively on occasions. They play particular roles in the creation of Siva. Other important deities of Saivism include, Bhringi, Virabhadra, and Candesvara. Followers of an ancient sect called Ganapatya sect, which is said to be still continuing in some parts of India, worship Ganapathi or Lord Ganesha as Brahman himself.

Sayujya: Means liberation from the restrictive and deluding phenomenal world. Beings have to attain liberation through personal effort by purifying their minds and bodies and overcoming their ignorance and delusion. Both personal effort and grace of Siva are essential to achieve liberation. Different schools of Saivism prescribe different methods of liberation. Kashmiri Saivism proposes three methods, namely liberation with the help of Siva, liberation with the help of Shakti and liberation with personal effort. Saiva Siddhanta school recommends physical service (charya), devotional actions (kriya), practice of yoga, and pursuit of knowledge (jnana). Vira Saivism prescribes a strict code of conduct and observances for the initiates. Some sects of Saivism follow more secretive tantric practices to gain control over the mind and body and attain union with Siva.

Differences within the Sects: There are five sub-sects within Saivism, namely, Saiva Siddhanta, popular in the south, Kashimiri Saivism also known as Siddha Saivism, believed to have originated in Kashmir, Vira Saivism, popular in Karnataka among the Lingayatas, Nath Saivism or Gorakhnath Saivism, an ascetic sect who practice hathayoga and other secret techniques to achieve liberation, and Pasupatha Saivism, the oldest and the almost extinct sect about which little is known outside the community of followers. These sects differ in their interpretation of Siva as the Universal Self, the relationships between the individual souls and the Supreme Self, and their methods of liberation. All sects consider the grace of Siva and the help of a guru vital to the attainment of liberation.

Literature: The main literature of Saivism consists of the Agamas and the Tantra literature. There are also several Saiva Puranas, Sutras and other works by the devotees of Lord Siva. These provide a great insight into the philosophy, practices and beliefs of Saivism. There are also many Upanishads, such as Svetasvatara Upanishad, Kaivalya Upanishad and Jabala Upanishad, associated with Saivism. Several sects of Saivism regard the Agamas rather than the Vedas as their standard texts. Sata Rudriyam, a devotional prayer to Lord Siva from the Yajurveda, containing the names and epithets of Lord Siva is considered the most auspicious.

Forms of Siva: Saivism does not believe in the incarnation of God. Followers of Siva believe that God being omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, He would not have to incarnate especially to restore order and regularity of His creation. He does it through His manifestations, emanations and special appearances. Hence, in the course of creation He assumes many forms, names and identities. Worshippers of Siva, worship Him in various forms, as Sivalinga, Nataraja, Dakshinamurthy, Arthanariswara, Haryadhamurthi, Yogeswara, Bhairava. In Shakta worship, Siva is worshipped as a consort of Devi and He has as many forms as the Devi, ranging from the most fierce to the most benign.

Popular festivals: Siva Rathri, Ganesh Chaturthi and Nava Rathri are the most important Saiva festivals. Swami Ayyappa is believed to be an aspect of Kumara Swamy who is also known in the south as Lord Murugan. This deity is worshipped by millions of followers in the Sabarimala Temple located in the Western Ghats of India. Every year, from the middle of November to the last week of December, devotees perform purification penances for 41 days and undertake a long and arduous pilgrimage through the forest region to the temple to participate in the Mandalapooja.

You will find more information on Saivism and Saiva Sects on our other Websites on Saivism, namely Saivism.net & AllSaivism.com (Links will open in a new window).

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page

Search Hinduwebsite

Follow Us