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History of Shaivism, Lord Shiva in Vedic Literature and Recorded History



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By Jayaram V

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Shiva ( Siva) as we know him today was unknown to the Vedic people. They knew a form of Shiva who was different from the Shiva who was worshipped elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent. They worshipped a deity who personified their fears and anxieties in an unfamiliar territory surrounded by hostile tribes and an unfavorable nature.

We know Shiva as part of the Trinity, as indweller of the world of Kailash, as the yogi seated on the top of a snowy mountain somewhere in the Himalayas watching the worlds above and below with his inner eye. We know him to be the source of all knowledge, arts and crafts and the life force that flows down from the heavens in the form of an eternal river by coming into contact with which all our karmas are neutralized. We know him as the father of Lord Ganesha and Kumara, the husband of both Parvathi and Ganga, who rides the bull Nandi. We worship him both in his image form and symbolically as a Shivalinga. We worship him ritually, extolling his virtues and invoking him by his thousand names.

But the Vedic people had a different concept of Shiva. They were not very familiar with his peaceful or adorable forms. They perceived him mostly as a god of anger, death and destruction and feared him most. Uttering his very name on some occasions was considered inauspicious and necessitated the performance of certain rituals. He was relatively unknown in the early Vedic period, but as time went, by he superceded most of the vedic gods and was recognized not only as Brahman or the highest of all gods but also as part of the Hindu Trinity as the destroyer along with Brahma the Creator god and Vishnu the preserver.

Prior to his integration into Vedic religion, Lord Shiva was worshipped mainly outside the Vedic society by people with whom they were not very familiar. Even today we find Lord Shiva being exceptionally popular among many ancient tribes of India such as the Chenchus and the Malavans who live in the remote areas of South India and consider Shiva not only as a hunter and a forest deity but also as the ancestor of their tribes.

The integration of Shiva into Vedic religion took place over a long period of time probably as a result of the coming together of diverse groups of people speaking different languages and practicing different religious traditions. Crucial to this integration was probably the role played by the kings who usually preferred to worship many deities and followed a policy of religious tolerance. From the many tribes whom the Vedic people either feared or hated, they picked up certain beliefs and practices that appealed to them. They picked many practices and traditions from Saivism also such as image worship, puja or the act of ritual worship of God with flowers, incense, water, smoke, food and self, and some temple rituals aimed to express one's love, awe, surrender, reverence and devotion to God. The vedic people originally frowned upon the practice of the worship of Shiva lingas but subsequently integrated the practice into a Vedic religion.

Shiva In The Vedic Texts

Shiva is mentioned in the Rigveda in three hymns as the fearful and vengeful Rudra. He is described as the god of sickness, disease, death, destruction and calamity. For the Vedic people his very name invoked fear . They believed that the best way to avoid trouble was by seeking protection from himself through appeasement because only Rudra would save them from the wrath of Rudra. So they implored him not to harm anyone, not to hurt pregnancies, not to vilify the dead and not to slay their heroes in the war.

The Satarudriya invocation in the Yajurveda is perhaps the most discussed and analyzed hymn. It is part of an invocation offered to the god Agni to avert his wrath and pacify him after he transforms himself into Rudra. The hymn depicts him both as terrifying and pleasing. The prayer is offered to Rudra to bring health and prosperity to the people as a divine physician and also to save them from his own wrath. He is eulogized as lord of all beings and also called cheat and lord of the thieves. He is described as a dwarf as well as as a giant. According to some scholars, the Satarudriya hymn was probably part of several invocations adapted from the prevailing Saiva literature into the Vedas or probably part of a much longer hymn most of which was lost to us.

We find in the Atharvaveda more references to this God than in the Rigveda, suggestive of his growing popularity. Rudra is implored not to harm the cattle and the people. In the Atharvaveda as well as the Yajurveda, Shiva is addressed variously as Sarva, Bhava, Nilakantha, Pasupathi, Nilagriva, Sitkantha and Sobhya. While these names are presumed to be his epithets, in some hymns we find the names Rudra, Sarva and Bhava, being used to refer different divinities. Some hymns are also addressed to not one Rudra but several Rudras who were storm deities associated with violent winds.

The Satapatha Brahmana mentions eight names of Rudra. In one place he is mentioned as Rudra- Shiva. In some cases he is also identified with Agni. Here we come to know how Shiva got his name as Rudra. It was because he, as Manyu or wrath, clung to the Prajapathi, when the later was disjointed, while all other divinities fled. He remained inside and cried and from the tears that flowed out of him originated Rudras in thousands. When the gods saw Rudra as a god of hunger and wrath, with innumerable heads, a strong bow and arrow fitted to it, the gods were afraid of him. The same Brahmana also alludes to his connection with animal sacrifices and snakes.

In the Svetasvatara Upanishad Lord Shiva was elevated to the status of Brahman, by the sage who composed it, after he had a vision of Lord Shiva as the Absolute and Supreme Brahman. He is described as the god who wields the power of maya or delusion by which he controls the world. He is also the indweller (antaratman) of all. Some basic concepts of Saivism are clearly mentioned in the upanishad. Another important upanishad, though belonging to a much later date than the Svetasvatara Upanishad is the Atharvasira Upanishad which mentions the many names of Shiva and recommends the performances of certain rituals such as smearing of the ashes to obtain the grace of Shiva and achieve liberation from earthly life. Brhajjabala Upanishad and Bhasmajabala Upanishad are other minor Saiva Upanishads dealing with some important concepts and aspects of worship of Shiva.

The integration of Yoga and Samkhya Schools of philosophy, the rise of bhakti movement and the growing popularity of ascetic traditions as a reaction against caste prejudices and empty ritualism, coupled with the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism as contemplative and reflective religions with their emphasis on physical and mental practices to achieve self-control contributed to the growing popularity of Shiva and the emergence of Saivism as a important part of mainstream Hinduism.

Shiva in the Epics and the Puranas

Shiva is mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Ramayana he is described as Sitikantha, Mahadeva, Rudra, Trayambaka, Pasupathi and Shankara. We find in the epic references to the sacrifice of Daksha, the marriage between Shiva and Parvathi, the account of Shiva saving the worlds by drinking the poison that emerged during the churning of the oceans, the slaying of the demon Andhaka and the destruction of the three cities (Tripura) with the help of Lord Vishnu. The demon king Ravana is described as a great devotee of Lord Shiva and the Ramayana itself as a narration by Shiva to Parvathi. Anjaneya, who was instrumental in finding Sita and destroying many demons, is the son or an aspect of Shiva only, born under strange circumstances as a part of the plan associated with the incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Sri Rama.

In the Mahabharata we find more detailed references to Lord Shiva in several chapters. In the Anusasana Parva, we are told how Lord Krishna was initiated by Lord Shiva into Shiva bhakti or devotion to Shiva. In the Santhi Parvan the narration goes on to show that both Hari and Hara are the same. In the same chapter we also find some epithets of Shiva included in the list of the thousand names of Vishnu. According to a narrative account in the epic, after a brief but intense encounter with Arjuna in a forest, Lord Shiva gifted him a powerful weapon for use in the epic war that followed.

In the Puranas we find very detailed treatment of many concepts of Saivim in a language and imagery familiar to the masses. Some of the Puranas deal exclusively with Shiva and Saivism. They are categorized as Shiva Puranas in contrast to the Vishnu Puranas, Devi Puranas and Brahma Puranas. The Shiva Puranas describe Shiva as the highest and Supreme Being and other gods and divinities subordinate to him as a part of his vast creation. Vayu Purana is considered to be one of the oldest of the Shiva Puranas, composed probably around 2nd Century BC. Other important Shiva Puranas are the Matsya Purana, the Brahmanda Purana, Skanda Purana, Linga Purana, Vamana Purana and of course the Shiva Purana. While the Vishnu Puranas depict Brahma as originating from the navel of Vishnu, the Shiva Puranas inform us that Brahma became a creator and Vishnu became a preserver by virtue of their devotion to Shiva and meritorious deeds in their previous lives.

Three Different World Views

Contrary to the popular belief, Saivism is much older than Brahmanism and Jainism with its antecedents dating back to prehistoric times. The three shared some common beliefs such as reincarnation, karma, maya or delusion and existence of heavenly worlds. The concepts of karma, maya and reincarnation were originally alien to Vedic religion and later integrated into it through Saivism.

The cult of the Father God and the Mother Goddess, which was the basis of Saivism, was practiced by many prehistoric cultures with some variations, including the practice of worshipping stone images and fertility symbols.

Seals found in the Indus valley suggest that the Indus people probably worshipped a deity who shared some similarities with the earliest forms of Lord Shiva, including his affinity with animals and his propensity for meditation and yoga.

The Core Philosophy of Saivism

Saivism depicts an absolute God who is both pure consciousness and soul consciousness and both actively passive and unconditionally dynamic. It projects a vision in which there is a place for both the individual will and divine will. However, it does not view fate as a critical factor in human lives. Fate or destiny is man's own making through his desires and binding actions. Karma is the relentless law that makes the exercise of free will both a blessing and a curse. According to its tenets, divine will is the inviolable law which usually manifests as the grace of Shiva. It has the power to neutralize individual karmas and grant the souls freedom from birth and rebirth. But this would happen only under exceptional circumstances usually through the intervention of an enlightened master of guru who has become one with consciousness of Shiva.

In God's wondrous creation, individuals have the freedom to disobey the divine will and suffer from the consequences. It does not matter to Shiva whether the beings obey or disobey His laws. Being an absolute entity, He created universal laws to deal with the conflict between divine will and free will. Because He is free and disinterested, with no particular attachment to anything, He would not interfere with our lives minutely or punish us instantly for our daily transgressions. He would also not consider it necessary to incarnate Himself upon earth to set things right because as the knower of all and lord of the universe he would not let things go out of control without His prior knowledge. Yet we cannot say that He is permissive or indifferent or unresponsive. He listens and responds to our prayers. He willingly take upon Himself the task of destroying the evil and the delusion that exists in the manifest creation and our own consciousness.

Having manifested the worlds through His dynamic energy, He remains in the back ground, as a knower of the past, the present and the future, watching the events unfold themselves and letting things go by. For the mortals, He is there, yet He is not there. He is with us and yet He is not with us. He is the same and yet He is different. He hides Himself behind a thick veil of ignorance, beyond the senses, the mind and the objective world. He willfully lets Prakriti or Shakti do her work. He is the master of the worlds and yet He obeys His own laws for the sake of good order.

This conception of God centric cosmic drama in which the destiny of individual beings stretched beyond time and space made Saivism particularly popular among inquisitive minds in the ancient world. This knowledge was not however available to the public freely. It was kept behind a facade of weird practices and rituals to keep the weak and the unprepared from entering into it and being overwhelmed by it. In the same vein, with its emphasis on an Universal and supreme God as the absolute reality and the cause of all creation, with Prakriti or Nature as his dynamic energy, Saivism offered a world view that was contrary to the atheistic and agnostic standpoints of Jainism and Buddhism and the henotheistic position of Brahmanism, which relied upon rituals to appease a multitude of atmospheric and elemental gods and obtain favors from them. However the integration between Brahmanism and Saivism did not happen instantly.

Saivism In The Vedic Times

During the pre vedic period some ancient cults of Saivism were in vogue in the Indian subcontinent. We have references to believe that Shiva or his aspects were worshipped by some ancient communities outside India in far away places such as the Mediterranean, Africa, Central Asia and Europe. According to some the name Shiva is of Dravidian origin, derived from the word Chivan or Shivan meaning red color. Sambhu, another name of Lord Shiva, also said to have been of Dravidian origin, derived from the word Chembu, or Chempu or Sembu, meaning copper or red metal. According to some the phallic symbol of Shiva is of Austric origin and so is the name linga.

When we study the ancient Celtic gods like Norse Odin and the Celtic Cernunnos we cannot miss some similarities between them and Shiva. Some scholars also find parallels between the Tantric practices of Saivism and the magical-religious practices of Shamanism of the Mexican, American Indian, Inuit, and Australian Aboriginal peoples. It is possible that the similarities might be due to the fact that the religious beliefs of ancient cultures emerged mainly from the fertility rites and the father god and mother god traditions of prehistoric times.

According to some scholars, Shaktism, Samkhya, Yoga and Tantrism were not new concepts that developed in the post Vedic India, but very ancient traditions which were subsequently revived and integrated into the religious life of the subcontinent. Some of these beliefs and practices of Saivism gradually found their way into Brahmanism and Buddhism. Many magical rituals, fertility rites and left-hand techniques and practices of Shaktism and Tantricism aimed to cultivate detachment and gain control over the senses and the mind, were incorporated with some variations into Brahmanism and subsequently into Vajrayana Buddhism. The mentally unsettling and provocative imagery of Tantricism found it way into Vajrayaana Buddhism.

During the Vedic period Shiva was worshipped mostly by non Vedic tribes, such as the Sibis who lived on the fringes of the Vedic society and were hardly understood by vedic people. The Mahabharata mentions the name of Pasupathas, one of the most ancient and secretive sects of Saivism. Kapalikas, Kalamukhas were other prominent sects of Saivism in ancient India. Followers of the Ajivika sect were also probably worshippers of Lord Shiva.

Saivism In The Recorded History

Megasthanese noted the worship of Shiva in his book Indika. He thought that the deity whom Indians worshipped was Dionysus, a Greek god who had some affinity with Shiva. From Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, we understand that images of Shiva were in use probably for religious worship. In the Ashtadhyayi of Panini we have references to Shiva Bhagats, an ancient Saiva cult. Gautama, the author of Nyaya sutras, and Kanada, the founder of the Vaisheshika school of philosophy which proposed atomic theory, were, according to Haribhadra, followers of Lord Shiva.

A great devotee of Shiva named Lakulisa lived some time during the early or pre Christian era. He played an important role in the revival of Saivism under the name of Pasupatha (the way of the animal). Not much is known about the details of his life and works. He probably belonged to the Kalamukha sect before he established the Pasupatha Saivism. He opposed Jainism, Buddhism and the Ajivaka sect for their conflicting stand points. Believed by his followers to be a manifestation of Shiva himself, Lakulisa revived the ancient practices of Hathayoga and Tantrism and probably reintroduced the practice of human and animal sacrifices. The revival of Saivism that began during his period was subsequently continued by the Bharashivas and the Vakatakas.

The Satavahanas ruled a vast territory in the south for over 400 years in the post Mauryan era. They patronized vedic religion and worshipped many gods including Shiva and Skanda. They worshipped Shiva under such popular names as Shiva, Mahadeva, Bhava and Bhutapala. They also worshipped his vehicle Nandi and his son Skanda both as individual deities and in association with Shiva. Some of the foreign dynasities who established their rule in the Indian subcontinent such as the Sakas, the Pahlavas and the Kushanas often turned to Saivism. The Kushanas worshipped many native and foreign deities including Shiva and Skanda. Kadhaphises II of the was a follower of Shiva. His successor Kanishka was a worshipper of Shiva and Skanda. In the later part of his life, he converted to Buddhism.

The Barashivas ruled parts of central and northern India from about 2nd Century AD. They were also known in history as the Nagas. The Bharashiva reestablished Hindu traditions. They were great devotees of Lord Shiva, a tradition that was continued later by Vakatakas and the Guptas. They played a very significant role in the revival of Hinduism at at time when the Indian subcontinent was facing a series of foreign invasions and Buddhism was on the raise. According to scholars, Hinduism would not have been what it is today but for the patronage of Barashivas in the north and the Satavahanas in the south during a critical period when it was facing challenges from several directions. It is said that the Huna king Mihirakula was also a follower of Shiva.

Saivism rose to prominence during the Gupta period. The Guptas were mainly followers of Vishnu, but inscriptions belonging to their period show that they also worshipped Lord Shiva, Skanda and Parvathi. They erected temples in their honor. Ganesha was popular deity, but probably not as popular as Skanda. The inscriptions of the Gupta period bear many epithets of Shiva and Parvathi and suggests to the extent of their popularity. The Gupta rule also witnessed the composition of many Hindu sacred texts and new developments in Hindu art and architecture. Ujjain rose to prominence as an important Saivite center. Many sacred texts of Saivism were composed during this period, which included Agamas, Tantras and Puranas connected with Lord Shiva and the Mother Goddess. Famous Sanskrit scholars Kalidasa, Vishnusharma and Bharavi, astronomers Aryabhata, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta and the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu lived during this period. They contributed to the development of astronomy, medicine and Sanskrit literature. Kalidasa was a worshipper of Kali, the mother goddess. He excelled in Sanskrit drama.

Saivism continued to flourish during the post Gupta period despite the fact that many rulers like Harshavardhana continued to patronize Buddhism. There were however some pockets of Hindu influence such as as the Chandelas of Bundelkhand (9th century AD) who built 30 or so temples of Shiva and other deities at Khajuraho. During the same period else where also Rajput rulers built many temples in honor of Shiva and Shakti.

In the south the Chalukyas, the Pallavas and the Cholas built many temples in honor of Shiva. Worth mentioning are the cave temple of Shiva at Badami, the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi and the Briahdiswara temple at Tanjore. All the three dynasties were great patrons of Hinduism. The Pallva kings witnessed the development of Saiva literature of the Tamils. It was also the period during which the bhakti movement became popular in the south. Sundaramurthy lived during this period and worked for the reformation of many Saiva traditions. Kanchi became a prominent center of religious education to which royal families sent their children. The Cholas were also great devotees of Shiva. They built many temples in his honor. They were instrumental in the creation of greater Hindu civilization that extended beyond the Indian subcontinent to Cambodia and adjoining territories.

The Nayanars

The Nayanars of south lived between 6th and 8th Century AD. They were poet saints who spread the awareness of Shiva and Saivism expressing their intense love and devotion by visiting various parts of the country and singing devotional songs in public at holy places, temples and pilgrim centers. They also countered the growing influence of Buddhism, Jainism and Vaishnavisim through their discourses and compositions, rendered not in Sanskrit but in Tamil the language of the common people. Saiva literature records the names of 63 Nayanars, a few of whom were women. They came from different backgrounds, from the highest to the lowest strata of society, including the caste of untouchables. The most prominent Nayanaras are considered to be Appar, Sambanthar and Sundarar. In 11th century Nambi Andar Nambi composed Tirumurai, in which he recorded the lives of all the 63 saints. It has immense historical and spiritual value and considered as an important text of Saiva canon.

The Growth of the Sectarian Movements

Between 9th and 13th centuries, a new movment now known as Kashmiri Saivism grew into prominence. It gained popularity in parts of northern India, especially Kashmir, because of the teachings and compositions of eminent personalities like Vasugupta, Somananda, Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta and Kshemaraja. Kashmiri Saivism follows Advaita or the philosophy of monism . It regards Shiva as the Supreme Lord and the only reality by realizing whom people are liberated for ever from their state of bondage to identity, delusion and karma. With its emphasis on master (guru) and disciple relationship, awakening of kundalini energy and the teaching of Pratyabhigna or realization of Shiva as one's hidden self, Kashmiri Saivism caught the attention of many including some Buddhists and Muslims during the medieval period.

Saiva Siddhanta was another school of Saivism that grew into prominence in southern India. It was inspired by the compositions of the Nayanars and others like Manikkavachakar, author of the famous Tiruvachakam (10th century) and Mekyandar the composer of Shivajnanabodhanam (13th century). Saiva Siddhanta school follows dvaita or dualism. It regards Shiva as the Supreme Lord of all but acknowledges a marked distinction between the Supreme Self and the individual selves. According to it, when individual selves are liberated from the bonds of karma, egoism and delusion they do not merge with Shiva. They attain the same consciousness as Shiva and continue to remain as free souls for ever.

In the 13th century another school of Saivism, known as Virasaiva movement rose to prominence in Karnataka. It was influenced by the bhakti movement that swept across the country during the medieval period. It was initiated by the legendary religious leader Basavanna, who was not just a religious leader but a social reformer also. He opposed the orthodox elements of society by castigating the prevailing caste and gender prejudices and the excessive emphasis on rituals. Some of the salient features of Virasaivism include the importance of guru, lingam, jangama (wandering teacher), grace of God, holy ash, ruraksha beads and the sacred mantra Om Namah Shivayah. For several centuries, followers of Vira Saivism continued the ideas and ideals of Basavanna against heavy odds. The movement still enjoys good following in the south.

Gorakshanatha school of Saivism is the most esoteric of all schools of Saivism. It lays heavy emphasis on magical religious rituals of tantric nature verging on the supernatural. They are kept mostly secret from the general public and revealed only to the chosen few.Also known as Natha yoga sect , it was said to have been founded originally by Matsyendranatha and brought to prominence by Gorakshanath who lived in 12the century. Followers of this sect believe he is still alive physically because of his supernatural yogic powers and makes himself visible occasionally to a chosen few. They also believe that it is possible to prolong human life and even achieve immortality in the physical body (kayasiddhi) through the practice hatha yoga and self-control. They also practice magic and use certain chemicals and substances to gain supernatural powers. These practices are usually kept secret from the public. Gorakshanatha Saivism is a variation of the ancient Kapalika and Kalamukha traditions. Conceptually it follows qualified monism, accepting Shiva as both the transcendental and immanent reality. Followers of this sect indulge in antisocial behavior purposefully to invite criticism and public ridicule.

Saivism In The Contemporary World

Although Saivism is probably the most ancient of all schools of Saivism and contributed greatly to the development of the body of Hindu rituals which are now practiced in most of the Hindu temples, presently it is not as popular as Vaishnavism. According to some estimates almost two thirds of the Hindus are followers of Vaishnavism and worshippers of Vishnu or his various incarnations and aspects. It is true many Hindus worship several gods and goddesses nonexclusively. But even while worshipping many deities, they will have faith in one family god (kula devata) or favorite god (ishta devata). For many it is Vishnu or his various incarnations.

Popularity wise, among the gods of Hindu trinity, Lord Vishnu enjoys considerable following among the Hindus, probably because of his role as the preserver and rescuer and his association with the goddess of wealth and his identification with several popular incarnations who in many ways are perhaps more popular than he himself. The popularity of Vishnu Puranas, the Bhagavadgita and the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, also play a significant role in keeping his appeal intact among the masses. The Ramayana and the Bhagavadgita are found in almost every household and there is hardly any Hindu who is familiar with these texts.

Lord Shiva has immense appeal among the masses. But in comparison, he comes next, with a devoted following that is probably less than one fourth of the devoted following of Lord Vishnu. One may find solace in the fact that his position is better than that of Brahma, who is not at all worshipped in the Hindu temples and who has but a few temple existing in his honor. Lord Shiva is still a popular deity. He has mass following throughout the length and the breadth of the Indian subcontinent. There are a large number of temples build in his name. His children, Lord Ganesha and Kumaraswami and his associate goddesses, have large following and are immensely popular among the masses.

It is also true that many popular pilgrim centers of Hinduism such as Benares and Amarnath and some most frequented temples of India such as the jyotrilingas and the temples of Tanjore and Ujjain are associated with Lord Shiva only. Many ancient temples of India are also Saiva temples only. However if people are asked to choose between the two, people would perhaps choose Vishnu rather than Shiva. His description as a destroyer, his fierce forms, his identification with the quality of tamas, his formal association with grave yards, death and destruction and his role in the practice of intense forms of tantric rituals and yogic practices and the rigors of discipline expected of the followers of various schools of Saivism discourage many people from entering into the various spiritual paths of Saivism. Today people worship Shiva in his most benign forms. They visit his temples and offer him prayers. They sing songs and bhajans extolling his virtues and qualities. But few are familiar with the various schools of Saivism or the philosophical truths, concepts and practices associated with them.

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