By Jayaram V
on This Subject
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unknown in the early Vedic period, but as time went, by he superceded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
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
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 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
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.
Suggested Further Reading