Pashupata Shaivism Philosophy and Practice

Pashupata Shiva

Pashupata Shiva

by Jayaram V

Summary: Pashupata Shaivism is one of the oldest ascetic sects of Hinduism. This is a comprehensive essay on the principles, philosophy and practice of the Saiva sect.

Pasupata (also spelled as Pashupatha) Shaivism is not only one of the most ancient sects of Shaivism but also one of the most ancient ascetic sects of the Indian subcontinent. Some consider it a system of philosophy, Pasupata Darsana. However, it was an ancient Saiva sectarian tradition, with over 2000 years of history.

Pasupata Saivism is well qualified to be considered a religion, with a long history, although our knowledge of it is limited due to fewer literary sources and the secrecy associated with the sect. However, based upon the available information and references in other texts we can still construct a satisfactory account of its history and philosophy.

Pasupata (pasu + pata) derives its name from Pasupati, which is an epithet of Lord Shiva or the Vedic Rudra. It has multiple meanings, which are listed below.

  • The path (pata) that leads to Pasupati
  • The way or path (pata) revealed and preached by Pasupati
  • The path (pata) by which the bound souls (pasus) achieve liberation
  • The path (pata) that destroys the fetters or bonds (pasa)
  • The path (pata) that delivers the beings from the snare (pasa) of Maya
  • The noose (pasa) that destroys (patana) delusion and ignorance

Pasupata philosophy is a practical system, with greater emphasis on the procedural and transformative wisdom, which aims to liberate the bound souls from the cycle of births and deaths and helps them achieve an eternal association (sayujya) with Shiva in the intellect or the higher mind (buddhi). In the following discussion, we review the history, principles, philosophy and practice of Pasupata Shaivism in great detail.

Literary sources

Information regarding the sect is preserved in a few texts. The earliest references to the sect are found in the Mahabharata, a few passages in the Brahmasutra commentaries and in the "Pasupata Vow" of the Atharvasira Upanishad. Gopinath Kaviraj states that according to Siva Purana (V. (a) 28. 15·16) the original doctrines of the sect seems to have been contained in the four Samhitas of the Atharvaveda compiled by Ruru, Dadhici, Agastya and Upamanyu respectively

The Atharvasira Upanishad contains references to the Pasupatha Vrata as a ritual which involved the besmearing of the body with ashes. Ashes are compared to the materiality of creation, with the declaration that ash is fire, water, earth, space, the mind, the eyes, the senses and everything. By performing the vrata the bound ones (pasus) are freed from the noose (pasa), which leads to their freedom from bondage (pasupasa vimochana) and attainment of the supreme powers (siddhis) of the Supreme Self.

Madhavacharya, Kesava, Kasmiri and Ramananda mention an ancient text called, Pasupata-sastra-panchartha darsana, whose authorship is attributed to Mahesvara. It had five chapters. Presently, the main source of the doctrine is the Pasupata Sutra, which was discovered in 1940, but is probably much older since its language is archaic and difficult to translate. It is presented to us as a revelation of Rudra, who became Lakulisa by entering the body of a dead Brahmana for the purpose. According to Gavin D. Flood it is the only ancient Pasupata scripture which we have.

Rasikara, said to be the 28th and last manifestation of Siva, wrote a commentary on it called the Pancharthabhasya, which is considered a valuable source. It deals with the five aspects (arthas) of existence. He probably lived during the Gupta period (300-500 AD) and was known to the tradition by his last name (or gotra name) also as Kaundinya. Tradition considers him to be the 17th in the line of teachers after Lakulisa.

The Tantraloka of Abhinavagupta (10th Century AD) is another important source, which contain important information about the sect and in which he refers to the source of the doctrine as the Bhairava tradition of Kashmir. The Ganakarika (commentary on Ganas) is a brief work of eight verses (10th Century AD or earlier), which forms part of Bhāsarvajña's Ratnaṭīkā. It contains a summary of the entire Lakulisa Pasupata system.

Madhavacharya (14th century) reviewed its doctrine under the title Lakulisa Pasupata Darsana in his Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, which is a very valuable resource for the students of Indian philosophy and religions. The name of Rasikara is clearly mentioned in the work. The Yoga Chintamani of Sivananda speaks of a work named Nakulisa Yoga Parayana. However, we do not know its contents. Udayana (11th century) mentioned it in his Nyaya Kusumanjali. Uddyotakara, described himself as a Pasupatacharya in his work Nyayavarttika. The Brahmasutras of Badarayana devoted an entire section in the second chapter to refute the doctrine of the sect.


References to Shiva and Shaiva sects are found in several ancient Upanishads, which suggest that some ascetic sects of Shaivism thrived since Vedic or pre-Vedic times. The Atharvaveda mentions Vratyas, a group of mendicants who seems to have had some similarities with the Pasupatas. As the name suggests, like the Pasupatas they performed some form of a Vrata (austerity), did not bathe with water, wandered in groups begging for food, worshipped Rudra and lived on the fringes of society.

Panini (fifth century BC) vaguely mentions the existence of devotees of Shiva (shivadibhyo) in his time. The Greek historians of Alexander’s period mention worshippers of Shiva as Sibae or Siboi. The Mahabhashya of Patanjali refers to Shiva Bhagavatas, who were worshippers of Shiva and carried iron lances. Patanjali did not appreciate their extreme and unconventional practices.

The Vamana Purana mentions four classes of the worshippers Shiva Linga namely the Saiva, the Pasupata or Mahapasupata, the Kaladamana and the Kapalika and suggests that all the four originated from Brahma. It further states that the Pasupata sect was led by Maharshi Bharadvaja and his disciple, Raja Somakesvara.

We learn from the Siva Purana that Vasudeva Krishna was taught the Pasupata system by Upamanyu, the elder brother of Dhaumya. According to some historians the Pasupata system existed even during the period of the Buddha and Mahavira and the Ajivakas, an ancient sect led by Gosala, followed many practices which were similar to those of the Pasupatas.

Ramanuja (12th century) mentioned four sects which followed "the doctrine of Pasupati" namely the Kapala, the Kalamukha, the Pasupata and the Sarva. Of them the Pasupata sect was the oldest. Of the four subsects the Pasupatas and the Kalamukhas shared many identical beliefs and practices. The Pasupata preceded the Kalamukha and therefore considered by some as its “spiritual parent.” According to R.G. Bhandarkar the Siva Bhagavatas, who were mentioned by Patanjali, might be pre-Lakulisa Pasupatas.

The history of the Pasupata Shaivism is rather vague, with many gaps and limited historical sources to ascertain its true origin and gradual development. The problem is further compounded by the fact that much of the doctrine and practices of the sect remained secret or oral and were confined to the followers and teachers of the sect. The Mahabharata lists the Pasupata as one of the seven sciences (Tantra) that were gifted to the gods and humans by Lord Shiva.

Some scholars suggest that the sect was founded by Srikantha, who is mentioned in several texts such as the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata, the Tantraloka, the Shivadristi, the Brhadyamala and the Shiva Purana. Tradition reveres him as a god in the Saiva pantheon. The Tantraloka states that he imparted the knowledge through five streams, which is a reference to his five heads or may be to his disciples or lineage. Many agree that Srikantha seem to be part of the Puranic lore and not a historic person. Even if he was, we have no evidence that he founded the sect.

Some believe that he might be the teacher of Lakulisa, who is considered by most scholars, based upon corroborative information, to be either the founder of the sect or the one who codified and systematized its existing doctrine. Historians have no unanimity about the time in which he lived and roughly place him between 200 BC and 200 AD. According Vayu Puranas, during the time when Vasudeva Krishna incarnated upon earth, Shiva manifested as Lakulisa. However, this is not substantiated by any other evidence.

Lakulisa means the lord (isa) who beas a club (lakula). He is also known by other names such as Nakulisa, Lakulesa, Lakulin, Lagudisa and Lakulisvara). In the iconography, he is depicted as an ascetic, sitting in a lotus position, with an erect penis, holding a Shivalinga in his right hand and a club in his left. The tradition reveres him as a manifestation of Shiva.

References to Lakulisa are found in Vayu Purana, Linga Purana and Karavana Mahatmya, in addition to three medieval inscriptions. The Kurma Purana states that Lakulisa was the last incarnation (avatara) of Shiva in human form. The Karavana Mahatmya provides a more detailed account, stating that he was born to Brahmana parents at Kayavarohana (Karwana) in the Bharuch region of present-day Gujarat (Brgukaccha), but died as an infant when he was only seven months old. He came back to life due to Shiva’s grace and performed many supernatural miracles before taking up priestly duties.

Linga and Vayu Puranas suggest that Lakulisa was none other than Shiva only. He manifested as Lakulisa by entering the body of a dead Brahmana and reviving it to impart of the knowledge of Pasupata to his devotees. It was also probably during this period Shaivism underwent many reforms, and some of its controversial practices were discontinued in preference to devotional and ritual worship to overcome the public resistance to such practices and in response to the growing popularity of nonviolent traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism.

Lakulisa had four disciples, Kusika, Gargya, Kaurusa and Maitreya. Haripada Chakraborti (Pasupata Sutram with Panchartha Bhashya of Kaundinya) states that according to an Indonesian tradition, the four disciples of Lakulisa and Patanjali (the author of Mahabhashya) form the Pasupatha Pentad. A tenth century inscription bearing an image of Shiva holding a club with the names of the four disciples was found in a temple at Nath near Udaipur in Rajasthan, which lends credence to the historicity of Nakulisa.

According to Chintraprasasti (1274-96), the four disciples established four teacher traditions of the sect. Subsequently they branched out into several subsects and teacher traditions. Some of them continued until the late medieval period. Two medieval scholars, Gunaratna and Rajasekhara mention 18 great teachers (thirthesas) of the sect, starting with Nakulisa and ending with Vidyaguru.

Extent of influence

Thus, we have sufficient references to conclude that Lakulisa played a significant role in the popularity of the sect. Undoubtedly, Pasupata school had a long line of teachers who preserved and promoted it from the 4th century for about a millennium and half. The sect thrived in different parts of India until the late medieval period before it declined and disappeared altogether. It gained prominence in the seventh century, “as evidenced by Hiuen Tsiang, Bana and Bhavabhuti.”

In its heydays (7th to 14th centuriy), it was popular in the South, especially in the Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra region. In the north, it thrived in the Odisha, Central India, UP, Gujarat and Nepal. David N. Lorenzen states, "By the time of Harshavardhana (606-647 AD) and probably as early as Gupta times, there were Pasupata temples in most parts of India.”

The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang heard reports about “ash-smered followers of the outer way, i.e., Pasupata heretics at Jalandhara in East Punjab, Achicchatra in U.P., Malakuta in South India, Khota, Kapisa (Nuristan) in East Afghanistan, Gandhara, Varanasi and elsewhere. Two early seventh century inscriptions registering grants to Pasupata ascetics have been bound as far afield as South-East Asia."

Hiuen Tsiang also noted 10,000 Pasupatas at Varanais alone and saw many large Shiva temples in the South. Pasupatas are also mentioned directly or indirectly in the South Indian play, Mattavilas and in the Brahat Samhita of Varahamihira. In the preface to his work, Pasupata Sutras with Pancharthabhashya of Kaundinya, R. Anantakrishna Sastri writes, "The influence and popularity of this Pasupata system is well seen from the fact that the whole of Hindustan believed in one supreme God, Pasupati, till the end of the 9th century, although there were instances where the worship of Vedic deities like Vishnu, Skanda, Uma, etc., was carried on in some parts."

The three famous exponents of the major philosophical systems of Hinduism namely Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya were conversant with the doctrine and practices of the Pasupata sect. Madhvacharya mentioned in the Shankaradigvijaya a discussion between Shankaracharya and some Kapalikas (a derivative sect of Pasupata). Anandagiri also mentions another debate between them at Ujjain.

In the 15th century, Gujarat and Nepal were the strongholds of the sect. Although it is currently extinct in its original form, rudimentary aspects of the sect and variations of its beliefs and practices are still practiced in some form in different sects of Shaivism, which follow the left-hand practices or the so called extreme path (atimarga).

Although the sect disappeared by the end of 15th or 16th century, it still lives on through other sects such as Vira Shaivism and Goraknath Shaivism, which have aspects of Pasupata Shaivism. Just as the Pasupatas, in some sects of Shaivism each practitioner is obliged to wear a garland of human bones and carry a skull capped staff and a skull-begging bowl during his wanderings for food and alms.

The tradition of wearing a Sivalinga on the body which is still practiced in Vira Shaivism (12th Century AD) probably came from Pasupata tradition. In some descriptions, Vira Saivas are known as Pasupatas and their sect as Pasupata matha. According to Shivapurana, those who observe Pasupata Vrata are obliged to wear a linga on their bodies for the duration of it. The main difference seems to be the early Pasupatas strictly followed caste rules and admitted only Brahmanas whereas Virasaivas objected to the prevailing caste system.

Philosophy and practice

David N. Lorenzen, Schultz and Ingall suggest that the "theology and ritual regimen of the cult of the Pasupatas" are "basically separate. Since the Pasupata Sutra is entirely devoted to the ritual, it is likely that the philosophy was a secondary." However, this assertion may not be true, because although the Pasupata Sutra is the only available text, it was not the only text of the sect. There must have been others which were lost.

Secondly, it is difficult to justify any ritual which involves extreme, personal sacrifices and self-negation without proper explanation. Thirdly, the gurus or teachers played a significant role in guiding the aspirants on the path. They might have provided them with whatever knowledge that was necessary to keep them on the path, without broadcasting it. The debates in which the Pasupatas often engaged with others such as Shankara or the Buddhists also suggest that they could not have done so without proper philosophical and intellectual reasoning.

Further, Shaivism has a rich and diverse theology. You will find in it a great emphasis upon both knowledge and practice. It recognizes the importance of both the mantra and tantra traditions in the spiritual progress of people, striking at the same time a fine balance between devotional theism and spiritual practice. The Pasupata sect which is an essential part of it and a product of it could not have been different. Different subsects of the Pasupata sect may have followed different methods, following the same original teachings of Lakulisa.

Pasupata Shaivism is monotheistic. It is an extremely ascetic path (atimarga), in contrast to the mantra traditions (mantra marg) of the Vedic religion. Theistic devotion to Lord Shiva as the source, teacher and the lord of all is its predominant approach. Philosophically it is categorized as part of the bheda-abheda (different but not different) school, according to which the individual souls are the same as the Supreme Self but have a notional distinction in the projected reality. Technically, it leans more towards the Dvaita philosophy rather than the Advaita since it believes in the individual and independent existence of souls after their liberation sharing the same intelligence as that of Shiva.

The sect has many similarities with the Samkhya philosophy especially with regard to the duality of Purusha and Prakriti. However, unlike Samkhya it is predominantly theistic and recognizes Lord Shiva as the Supreme Being and creator of all. It recognizes only three realities, Pati (God), Pasu (beings) and Pasa (fetters or bonds), and three pramanas or means of ascertaining truth namely perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana) and verbal testimony (sabda) of reliable sources such as teachers, adepts, God or scriptures.

Followers of the sect followed the path of Shiva in word and deed, thereby justifying the name, Pasupata or the way of Pasupathi. The sect demanded unconditional commitment to the path and rigorous discipline, with clear guidelines for each stage of development. After their initiation, the Pasupatas spent their lives in the contemplation of Shiva, fully identifying themselves with him to overcome all traces of duality and difference. They were subjected to incremental rigor so that in the final stages they would not cower or dither from facing the ultimate challenges on the path to shed any vestiges of past attachments and latent desires, or longing for life.

They took their imitation of Rudra to the extreme in their actions and appearance. They covered their bodies with ashes, wore garlands of human bones and carried skull capped staffs and skull begging bowls in public as part of their daily penance. For them the rigorous self-discipline and self-denial were part of a continuing austerity (mahavrata), similar to the ones which the Hindu law books prescribed for those who incurred the mortal sin of killing a Brahmana. Shiva himself said to have practiced similar penance for a long time after he cut off one of the five heads of Brahma in anger.

The Pancharthas

Central to the Pasupata philosophy is the Panchartha or the five ultimate, universal principles or divisions, which sum up the entire existence from the highest to the lowest. They provide the broader philosophical and spiritual framework for the sect to justify its beliefs and practices. Because of its importance, the Pasupata philosophy is also known as the Panchartha. Kaundinya identifies them in his commentary (Bhashya) and provides a detailed explanation. Shankaracharya too mentioned them. They are described below.

1. Karana

It refers to the ultimate cause or the source of all, which is God or Shiva. In the Pasupata system, Shiva is the cause of all, and everything else, including the souls and Nature, arises from him. In Shiva, cause alone exists, whereas in others both cause and effect exist. Hence, they are subject to modifications. Shiva represents the eternal supreme reality as the ultimate cause of all creation.

As the supreme, unchanging reality, he goes by different names such as Rudra, Deva, Jyestha, Pasupati, Mahesvara, Kala, etc. He is eternal, indestructible, independent and naturally powerful (sadya), who possesses infinite powers and creates whatever he likes. He is not bound by any duty, responsibility, law or compulsion.

Everything happens according to his will and grace (karuna or anugraha). He is responsible for creation, preservation, delusion, liberation and destruction. He is the ordainer (anugrahaka) of both creation and destruction and the primal being (adya) who is endowed with infinite power, knowledge, and all types of abundance. He is fully independent since he is bound to neither karma nor any other aspect. He also has the powers to neutralize anyone’s karma. Hence, in the Pasupata system there is a greater emphasis upon cultivating allegiance to Shiva and earn his grace.

2. Karya

This refers to the sum of all the effects, actions and movements that arise from the ultimate cause (karana) as the projected, dependent, alternate reality. The karya (the effect) cannot exist without its karana (cause). It is said to be threefold, Vidya, Kala and Pasu and consists of all the sentient and insentient aspects of existence including the elements, gunas and tattvas of Prakriti and embodied souls (pasus).

All the things and beings that are part of Karya are bound to causes and effects. Hence, they are subject to modifications. In God, both cause and effect or boundless and eternal, but in the beings, they are bound to time (kala). Hence, effects always take time to manifest. The beings (Pasus) are of two types, those with bodies and those without them.

However, the Pasupata sect did not believe in the cyclical nature of creation. Since Shiva is independent and not bound to any duty, routine or regularity, his actions are unpredictable. He does whatever he likes. Therefore, there is no regularity to his creation or destruction. The sect also does not seem to believe that creation (effect) is an illusion. It is real and different from the ultimate reality of Shiva.

Beings or the bound souls are subject to karma, since they are bound by both cause and effect and exist in time (Kala), the enforcer of karma. However, as an independent reality Shiva is bound to neither to karma nor any other cause. Hence, he is entirely free to act according to his will and even annul the karma of any devotee he likes. The Pasupatas aim to accumulate good karma and transfer their bad karma to attain purity. At the same time, their effort is mainly to attain required degree of purity and obtain the grace of Shiva since he can change the destiny of anyone.

3. Yoga

Yoga means union. It refers to the state or condition by which the embodied Selves achieve union with the Supreme Self and partake his essential nature. Union does mean that they merge in Shiva. The individual souls do not merge into Shiva or lose their individuality. They may forget the distinction between the self and the not-self but become “eternally associated” with Shiva through uninterrupted connection. However, the association does not mean that the liberated souls (siddheswaras) are in anyway subservient to Shiva or bound to him. They remain independent just as Shiva and free from his control or any limitation.

The Yoga of the Pasupatas is more elaborate in scope and purpose than that of Patanjali. Unlike in Samkhya Yoga, the focus is not upon the Self but upon Shiva, and the aim is not just freedom of the Self but nearness (samipya) and spiritual association (sayujya) with him. Further, the emphasis is upon earning the grace of Shiva rather than engaging in self-effort to cultivate purity. In Samkhya Yoga, the soul has no means to overcome karma except through the eightfold practice of Yoga. In Pasupata yoga, that effort can be cut short by earning the grace of Shiva.

Esoteric rituals, physical and mental worship, service to the teacher, study of the scriptures, meditation and contemplation upon Shiva, austerities and self-purification practices are some of the prescribed means to achieve oneness with him. The techniques of yoga are classified into two, the active (kriyatmaka) which involve effort and the passive (kriyaparama) in which all actions must cease and one must surrender to chance or divine will. The result of Yoga is not aloneness (kaivalya) but oneness with Shiva (paramesvaravarya) and the end of suffering (dukhanta).

4. Vidhi

It refers to observances and prescribed procedures or methods by which one can earn the grace of Shiva through worship and transformative practices. The Pasupata system has elaborate procedures and techniques to overcome the impurities of the mind and body and attain purity. Their purpose is to get rid of sinful karma and obstructions and accumulate good karma through effort as well as transference.

Vidhi is of two types, primary and secondary. The Primary Vidhi includes rituals (charyas). They are again of two types, vrata and dvaras. The vratas are vows in which the aspirants remain committed to certain goals, actions, procedures, virtues and observances for a specific duration to obtain desired results. The standard vratas are ash-bath, ash-bed, the practice or the observance (niyama) of laughter (hasita), song (gita), dancing (nrtya), the utterance of huduk (huddakara), obeisance (namaskara), muttering (japya), chanting (japa) and circumambulation (pradakshina). Technically, these practices form part of the Pasupata Vrata or the Mahavrata (the great vow).

The dvaras are the doors, or the openings, through which one gets rid of negative karma and allows the positive karma to flow through. It is based on the belief that if you can make others criticize or despise you, their good karma will flow to you, and your bad karma will flow to them.

Hence, the dvaras cover a broad range of activities which the followers are advised to perform in public as part of their penance to attract public disapproval and condemnation such as sleep walking (krathana), convulsive behavior (spandana), limping like an injured person (mandana), leuwd behavior (sringarana), senseless talk (avitad bhasana) and so on.

5. Dukhanta

The purpose of Pasupata Vrata is liberation or the end of suffering (dukkha + anta). Dukhanta does not mean the end of suffering only. It includes the realization of the Supreme abundance of Shiva (Paramaisvarya) as one’s own essential nature. The fruit of liberation is not aloneness (Kaivalya) as in some schools, but togetherness or association with the supreme State of Shiva, maintaining one’s own independence and freedom.

Dukhanta is of two types, Anatmaka (physical or material and Satmaka (spiritual). Anatmaka refers to the absolute ending of all pain and suffering (both physical and mental). The Satmaka refers to the realization of certain powers (siddhis), which are both mental (Drksakti) and physical (Kriyasakti), and which are characteristic of supreme lordship.

The Drksaktis are five discerning powers of perfect knowledge of both the gross and the subtle through extra-sensory perception namely drk (seeing) sravana (listening), manana (thinking), vijnana (reasoning) and sarvajnatva (omniscience). The Kriyasakti is threefold, the power to undertake any work instantly with mere thought (manojavita), the power to control any form at will (kamarupitva), and the power to do or know anything without any organ (vikarna dharmitva).

When a practitioner attains these two types of powers, the ten marks of siddhi (supernatural power) manifest in him. The ten siddhis are, avasyatva (indomitableness), anavesyatva (invulnerability), avadhyatva (inviolability), abhayatva (fearlessness), aksayatva (indestructibility), ajaratva (nonaging), amaratva (immortality), apratighata (irresistible or unimpeded), mahattva (greatness) and patitva (lordship). Those who gain these powers (siddhesvaras) remain eternally associated with Shiva, partaking his excellence and greatness, but remaining entirely free from his control and authority. He possesses all the powers of Shiva except that of creation and exists eternally, enjoying his identity and association with him.

The Pasupata Vrata

One of the popular rituals or penances of the sect was the Pasupata Vrata or the Pasupata Vow, which was preparatory as well as reformatory in its effect and importance. It is a lifelong vow, perhaps the longest of all, which remains effective until the aspirant achieves liberation and discards the body. Hence, it is also known as the Great Vow (Mahavrata).

First stage

The vrata had to be observed in different stages. Its ultimate purpose was to cleanse oneself and achieve union with Rudra (Rudra sayujyam). In the first stage, which was called the marked (vyakta), the aspirant had to live at a Siva temple and observe certain vows, wearing the marks of the sect, covering his body with ashes from a funeral pyre, lying in them, wearing the flowers collected from an image of Shiva and bathing with sand rather than water. He should worship Shiva with single-minded devotion with “six Acts of Worship (upahara): laughing, dancing, singing, uttering the auspicious sound huduk (or dumdum), offering homage (namaskara) and the pious incantation (japaya). All this was to be done in the company of other Pasupatas.”

Second stage

In the second stage called the unmarked stage (avyakta) the aspirant had to leave the temple, abandon the distinguishing marks of his sect as well as the company of other Pasupatas and do his best to earn the displeasure of the public to attract their censure through six questionable means called Dvaras or doors. They are, “krathana (snoring or acting as if asleep when one is not), spandana (shaking one's limbs as if afflicted by a wind disease), mandana (walking as if crippled), sringarana (making amorous gestures in the presence of women), avitatkarana (acting as if devoid of judgment) and avitadbhasana (uttering senseless or contradictory words).” As stated before, they constitute the means to attract the good merit of those who were negatively disturbed by him in exchange for his bad karma.

Third stage

The third stage was known as the stage of victory (jaya) in which he had to achieve victory over his mind and senses. For that, he had to withdraw into a cave or a desolate place and practice meditation on the Panchakshari and Pranava (Aum) until his mind was completely stabilized and absorbed in Shiva and his ego, attachments and delusion were burnt away in the fire of the austerity. The practices here are similar to the ones practiced in several sects including classical yoga namely withdrawal of senses (pratyahara), breath control (pranayama), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), controlled meditation (samyama) and self-absorption (samadhi).

Foruth and Final stages

In the fourth stage, known as the Cutting Stage (cheda), he had to cut asunder all the remaining bonds and attachments through extreme detachment and become a true renunciant. When his renunciation became perfect and his meditation became effortless and natural, he entered the final stage, known as the Cessation Stage (nishta).

In that stage, he had to retire to the cremation grounds and live there reflecting upon Shiva, life and death to cultivate further distaste for mortal life. He must remain solely at the mercy of chance of fate and the grace of Shiva and shun all forms of exertion until he died and achieved union with Rudra Shiva (rudra sayujyam). In the final stage he must take refuge only in Shiva and remain focused on him until the end.

Thus, in Pasupata system, Dukhanta is twofold, the end of suffering and the attainment of the supreme state of Shiva without extinguishing the Self. The Self remains even after liberation as an independent, omniscient entity, partaking the same intelligence and power of Shiva and connected to him in the intellect. Hence, the Pasupata system is known as bheda-abheda, meaning different but not different.

The Ganas and the Pentads

The different stages of liberation in the Pasupata Vrata are organized into eight groups of fivefold practices (vidhi) which makes the Vrata more systematic, organized, measurable and effective. The eight pentads (groups of five) are mentioned in the Ganakarika of Haradattacharya. A teacher of the sect had to be an adept in all of them so that he could effortlessly guide his followers on the path.

The Ganakarika describes the system in the following manner. “But there are eight pentads to be known and a group, one with three factors. He that knows this nine-fold aggregate is a self-purifier, a spiritual guide. The eight pentads are: the attainments, the impurities, the expedients, the localities, the perseverance, the purifications, the initiations, and the powers are the eight pentads. Then there are three functions.”

The localities are important because of the remaining seven pentads have to be practiced at the five locations specified in the system in different stages of the Vrata. In his work, the Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Madhava Acharya, describes the eight groups and their respective pentads in the following manner.

1. The five attainments (labha): An attainment is the fruit of the third pentad (expediencies) while realizing them. The five attainments which are acquired as a result of the third pentad are knowledge, penance, body strength (bala), constancy and purity. Knowledge according to Pasupata system is the knowledge of the Nyaya-sutras.

2. The five impurities: Impurity is an evil condition pertaining to the soul. They are obstructers which need to be removed for the union of the soul with Rudra. The five impurities are false conception, demerit, attachment, interestedness, and falling. The triple impurities are egoism, attachments and delusion.

3. The five expedients: These are the means to purify and prepare the aspirant for liberation. The five expedients are, the use of habitation, pious muttering, meditation, constant recollection of Rudra, and apprehension. Through their practice, he acquires the five attainments specified in the first pentad.

4. The five locations: A location is the place where an aspirant has an opportunity to increase his knowledge and perfect his practice after knowing the eight pentads. The Mahavrata is location specific. The five locations which are prescribed in the system to observe it are spiritual teachers, a cavern, a special place, the funeral ground and Rudra only.

5. The five means of perseverance or constancy: Perseverance refers to the endurance in practising the pentads until expected perfection or set goals are achieved. The five means of perseverance are, (meditation on) the differentiated, (meditation on) the undifferentiated, muttering (prayers or mantras), acceptance (or surrender) and devotion.

6. The five purifications: Purification refers to the purification of the state of bondage by removing once for all of all false conceptions and impurities that bind the soul to the cycle of births and deaths. The fivefold purification refers to the removal of ignorance, demerit, attachment, interestedness and falling.

7. The five initiations: They refer to the five ways to initiate the penance or continue the spiritual journey to achieve perfection in all the eight fivefold practices. The five initiations have to be observed with regard to the material (for the practice), proper time, the rite, the image and the spiritual guide.

8. The five powers: The powers (siddhis) refer to the ability of the aspirant to control his mind and body and achieve perfection on the path. The five powers are, devotion to the teacher, clear discernment, conquest of pleasure and pain, good karma and carefulness or attentiveness. They eventually lead to the acquisition of supernatural powers which we have described beore.

The association of between the five stages of liberation and the eight pentads are shown below in the following table (source: The Kapalikas and the Kalamukhas, two lost Saivite sects by David N. Lorenzen)

AttainmentsKnowledgePenancePermanence of the bodyConstancyPurity
ImpuritiesFalse conceptionDemeritAttachmentInterestednessFalling
ExpedientsUse of habitationPious mutteringMeditationConstant recollection of RudraApprehension
LocalionsSpiritual teachersA cavernA special placeThe burning groundRudra
PerseverancesThe differencedThe undifferencedMutteringAcceptanceDevotion
PurificationsLoss of ignoranceLoss of demeritLoss of attachmentLoss of interestednessLoss of falling
InitiationsThe materialProper timeThe riteThe imageThe spiritual guide
PowersDevotion to the spiritual guideClearness of intellectConquest of pleasure and painMeritCarefulness

Food rules

The group of three functions refers to the way one should obtain daily food consistent with the aims of the austerity to overcome the five impurities. They are, "mendicancy, living upon alms, and living upon what chance supplies." Although, the Pasupatas are expected to practice nonviolence as in Buddhism and Jainism they are not bound by the same food rules. They have the permission to eat the meat of buffaloes and boars, if it is given as alms without causing injury to anyone.

In Pasupata doctrine, the emphasis is not only on the nature of food but also on how it is obtained and whether any injury or harm is involved in procuring it. The same principle applies to the quantity of food that is collected as alms. For the aspirants, the means are as important as the end. Hence, the vow (vrata) was inviolable.

Kaundinya states that even if a small quality of food is obtained inappropriately, it does not count as lightness of food (ahara laghava). On the contrary, a large amount of food becomes light if it is obtained through appropriate means. If one cannot obtain food through rightful means, one should subsist on water and remain hungry as part of the penance.

Yamas and Niyamas

Mention need to be made of the practice of Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) in the Pasupata system, which in many respects are the same as those in the classical yoga and the Kalamukha Shaivism. Kaundinya lists both yamas and niyamas for the sect. The five yamas which he identified are, nonviolence (ahimsa), celibacy (brahmacharya), truthfulness (satya), non-trade (asamvyavahara) and non-stealing (asteya).

The niyamas were non-anger (akrodha), service to the teacher (guru-sushrusha), cleanliness or purity (sauch), lightness of food (ahara laghava), and non-negligence (apramada). The Yamas and Niyamas are adjuncts to the practice of the eight pentads and lead to purification, perfection and constancy in practice and self-absorption.

Pasupata ascetics focused upon cultivating good qualities as part of their effort to destroy the impurities and demerits rather than simply focusing upon the negative aspects of the personality. Thus, its approach to the ending of suffering is positive. The school recognizes strength (bala) as the most important attainment (labha) since it is vital to acquire other attainments and destroy the demerits that bind the beings to cause and effect (karma).

Relationship with God

Although Pasupata is a theistic sect with emphasis upon surrender and devotion, it fundamentally differs from other theistic traditions, especially those of Vaishnavism. The sect does not believe in subservience to God or in master-servant type of relationship with him since it views all beings as Shiva only. Their mere existence in a state of bondage and ignorance does not diminish their essential divinity or consider them servants (dasas). It therefore advocates for an attitude of independence rather than dependence on the path of liberation, arguing that true liberation is not possible if one depends upon anything other than oneself.

Another important distinction is that the Pasupata system aims to achieve liberation through perfection in practice and union with Shiva rather than achieving isolation or aloneness (kaivalya). Its emphasis is not only upon earning good merit through individual effort to overcome sinful karma but also upon cultivating devotion and nearness to Shiva to earn his grace so that the chances of success are doubled.

The sect also differs from others in that its focus is not upon attaining a place in heaven. Pasupatas do not believe that upon leaving the mortal world the souls will travel to a heaven or hell or an ancestral world, nor they believe that it will do any good to the souls. The emphasis is upon attaining nearness to Shiva by earning his grace because souls stay in the world of Shiva according to his will and pleasure rather than their karma.

Those who achieve liberation remain in his presence forever since they become eternally connected to him through their intellect and remain free. Despite such association, they are not bound to even Shiva since they are fully independent like him, endowed with omniscience and supreme powers. Thus, in the Pasupata system, neither knowledge nor karma is responsible for the birth or the rebirth of the sentient beings. It is always the will of Shiva which determines one’s fate (Vidhi). His will is inviolable, and nothing happens without it.

Treatment of women

Like many other sects of ancient India, including those of Buddhism and Jainism, the Pasupata school did not initially admit women into their fold. Initiates into the sect were barred from talking to women. This was contrast to the latter-day Tantra traditions of Shaivism in which women, especially Yogins played an important role and participated in many esoteric rituals. Besides, the sect placed a great emphasis upon celibacy and rigorous self-discipline. Women were considered a major distraction.

The Pasupata Sutra does not recognize their eligibility for admission into the sect. In this, it was not alone. Most ascetic sects of ancient India were predominantly male oriented. Indian society itself did not initially consider the liberation of women as important as that of men. The Vedic Varnashrama Dharma did not apply to them. Hence, there was no provision for them to seek liberation through ascetic means. Instead, the law books suggested that women had a moral and spiritual obligation to serve dutifully their husbands, elders in the family and growing children, and their honor and status depended upon it. Abandoning the family and children for the selfish purpose of renunciation was considered a sin.

Further, the methods practiced by the sect were such that they automatically precluded women from joining it. The sect demanded rigorous austerities and complete isolation from worldly life, which were difficult for women to practice. It would have been extremely difficult for them to observe the Pasupata Vrata without any break due to the problems caused by mensuration and the general restrictions imposed upon them by tradition with regard to their entry into funeral grounds or participation in the funeral rituals. It would have also been difficult for them to wander alone seeking alms, live in secluded places not take water baths or visit the funeral grounds.

Pasupatas and the caste system

The attitude of the sect towards the Hindu caste system seems to be conflicting and evolved, or it was not uniform. The sect seemed to have initially originated as a sect for Brahman householders as a part or extension of their Sanyasa Ashrama. According to Gavin Flood, “The Pasupata ascetic had to be a Brahmana and had to be celibate (Brahmacharya), though he was nevertheless disapproved of and rebuked by some Vedic, Smarta texts such as Kurma-Purana. The Pasupatas seem to have been very much on the edge of orthodox householder’s society, going beyond the four stages (asrama) to the fifth, "perfected stage" (siddha ashrama) and spurning Vedic householder injunctions on purity and family life. Yet, unlike many other Saiva groups, the Pasupata never completely abandoned or explicitly rejected Vedic values, wishing to see his tradition as in some sense the culmination and fulfillment of vedic life rather than its rejection. “

It is possible that the sect was initially a Vedic response to the non-Vedic sects of Shaivism or those which opposed the orthodox caste system which granted special privileges to the upper castes at the expense of others. The position might have changed over time due to the changes in the Indian social and political milieu. In this regard, Prof. B.S. Chandrababu states, "Pasupatas were the first to throw all their caste barriers and consider equal status to all and also they were the first Indian sect to touch a crusade against caste groups and the anomalies which it produced." The same author suggests that religious rivalry prevailed in the Pallava country among Buddhists, Jains, Kapalikas and Pasupatas. "Further even among the saiva sects, the Kapalikas and Pasupatas were not friendly."

In all fairness, we may state that at some point the Pasupatas relaxed their caste restrictions to increase their numbers or to be in conformity with the practices of other ascetic sects, which admitted people of all backgrounds as long as they were deemed fit for initiation in other respects. The changing attitude is also reflected in the words of Acharya Haribhadra (960 A.D.) and Rajasekhara Suri (1348), who stated in their works that anyone irrespective of their caste or gender could attain salvation if he or she was initiated into the path and continued the practice for 12 years. The principle was subsequently carried forward by the Vira Saiva sect to its extreme, which castigated the caste system and admitted people of all backgrounds.


The Pasupata system was one of the most practical, down-to-earth philosophies of ancient India, in which the emphasis was upon neither blind belief nor rigid dogma but upon personal practice to directly validate its essential tenets through direct experience (pratyaksanubhava). From the time is the aspirant was initiated and until he achieved liberation, he was obliged to remain firmly engaged in practice.

The sect pursued clear, measurable goals. They followed a very elaborate, systematic procedure (vidhi) to observe the Pasupata Vrata, using the Eight fivefold practices to achieve the goal of liberation. The knowledge provided the teachers to ascertain the progress of their disciples in different stages of the penance and give them appropriate guidance and advice.

There was less scope for the practitioners to rely upon pure faith or suffer from ambiguity since the system clearly specified in relatable terms the powers one gained, the nature of consciousness that manifested and the relationship with Shiva when they achieved liberation. They served as recognizable milestones in the system for the teachers as well aspirants on the path to gauze their progress.

For the Pasupata sect, Shiva was neither a concept nor image nor idea. He was an eternal, verifiable reality, who could be personally attained and directly experienced through self-transformation and austere effort. The system might have prescribed extreme methods which were distasteful to the civilized world, but they were meant to break the conditioning and habitual thoughts and behavior of the aspirants so that they could be set free from the hold of authority, society and conformity.

True liberation begins with liberation from all external influences, limitations, causes and controls. To achieve that austere and sacred end, one needed a comprehensive approach to destabilize the whole personality and shake off entrenched illusions and false beliefs so that it could be rebuilt or restructured for much higher wisdom, knowledge and consciousness.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Geetika Kaw Kher. Dynamics between the philosophy and practice in the Lakulisa Pasupata Cult

2. Haripada Chakraborti. Pasupata Sutram, Academic Publishers, Calcutta, India, 1970.

3. Maopadbyaya Gopinath Kaviraj. Aspects of Indian Thought, The University of Burdwan, 1966.

4. D.R. Bhandarkar. Annual Report of the ASI (1906-7)

5. T. B. Basavarajayya. Hindu Philosophy, 1980

6. Mahamahopadhyaya Gopinath Kaviraj. Aspects Of Indian Thought, University of Burdwan, 1966

7. Editors S. Ganeshram and C.Bhavani. History of People and Their Environs: Essays in Honour of Prof. B.S. Chandrababu, Bharathi Puthakalayam, 2011.

8. T. N. Mallappa. Kriyasakti Vidyaranya, Department of Publications & Extension Lectures, Bangalore University, 1974 - Hampī (India).

9. Gavin D. Flood. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

10. David N. Lorenzen. The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects, By

11. Madhava Acharya. Transl. E.B.Cowell and A.E.Cough. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, 1978.

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