Skip to main content

Śaivism: An Overview


Śaivism and Vaiavism form the two principal religious currents of classical and modern Hinduism. Śaivism centers on the worship of the god Śiva and Vaiavism on that of Viu. In classical Hindu mythology Śiva is the god of destruction, generally portrayed as a yogin who lives on Mount Kailāsa in the Himalayas. His body is smeared with ashes, his hair piled up in matted locks. He wears an animal skin and carries a trident. A cobra often serves as his garland and the crescent moon as his hair ornament. He has a third eye, kept closed, in the middle of his forehead. He may be surrounded by his beautiful wife, Pārvatī, and their two sons, the six-faced Skanda and the elephant-headed Gaeśa.

The migration of bands of people called Aryans into the northwest of the Indian subcontinent initiates the Vedic period (c. 1200600 bce), known through the religious texts called Vedas, Brāhmaas, and Upaniads. In them the minor god Rudra serves as a prototype of the later Śiva. The two gods, each with his own varied forms and names, are identified with each other in the classical Hindu tradition represented by the Sanskrit texts known as the Mahābhārata (300 bce300 ce) and the Purāas (2001300 ce). Beginning in about the second century of the common era, a number of important Śaiva sects appear, each with its own texts and doctrines. Many worshipers of Śiva belong to such sects, but the majority simply count themselves as Hindus who believe in this god over all others.

Discussions of Śaivism traditionally begin with an examination of the so-called proto-Paśupati seals of the ancient pre-Aryan civilization centered in the Indus Valley of Pakistan. The most interesting of these seals depicts an anthropomorphic and apparently ithyphallic figure seated on a low dais in a yogalike position with his heels meeting in the perineal region, the hands of his extended and braceleted arms resting on his knees, and his headwhich may or may not be triple-faced and/or bovinebearing a horned headdress. Surrounding this figure are small representations of a rhinoceros, a buffalo, a tiger, and an elephant. Under the dais are two goats or deer. The seal also bears a seven-sign inscription.

Starting from the hypothesis of the archaeologist George Marshall, most scholars have accepted the identification of this figure as the precursor of the god Śiva in his Paśupati, or Lord of Animals, form. The most important dissent from this consensus was made by D. D. Kosambi, who pointed out that the horns of the figure were those of a buffalo and not of a bull (the latter being the animal most closely associated both with the Vedic Rudra and the later Śiva). Kosambi further proposed a historically improbable identification of the proto-Paśupati figure with the buffalo demon named Mahiāsura (which dates at least 1,500 years later) and through this demon back to Śiva. Until further evidence or an accepted reading of the Indus script becomes available, it seems best to suspend judgment on the whole problem.

Still, the discussion clearly bears directly not only on the question of the historical origins of Śiva, the god of Śaivism, but also on that of the transition from the minor Vedic god Rudra to the major post-Vedic Śiva. Among the varied hypotheses on these questions, several basic tendencies can be distinguished. A. B. Keith (1925) suggests that the attempt to distinguish Aryan and non-Aryan elements in Rudra-Śiva is basically fruitless. The character of the god develops through a constant process of accretion resulting from the identification of other minor gods, both Aryan and non-Aryan, with the Vedic Rudra. Jan Gonda (1970) prefers to see a fundamental continuity between the Vedic Rudra and post-Vedic Śiva, and between Vedic and post-Vedic religion in general. He regards the lack of reference to many aspects of the god in Vedic literature as due in large part to the class bias of the priestly authors, who ignored or excluded many of the god's more popular traits. Louis Renou (1953), on the other hand, suggests that there was a decisive break between Vedism and Hinduism. He notes the absence of any obvious connection between the Veda and the earlier Indus civilization and accepts the possibility of some connection between Indus religion and later Hinduism. With less caution, R. N. Dandekar (1967, 1971) speaks of the religion of the Vedas as an "interlude" between protohistorical and historical Hinduism. However this case may be, Dandekar also makes the important observation that Vedic mythology is an "evolutionary mythology," one that evolves in accordance with the ethos of a historical period and with the changing conditions of life.

It is now clear that there was a gap of five hundred years or more between the end of the mature phase of the Indus Valley civilization (c. 1800 bce) and the hymns of the gveda (c. 1200 bce). It is also evident that Hinduism, as opposed to Vedism, grew uptogether with Buddhism, Jainism, and other non-Vedic cultsin the Ganges River valley (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar). The rise of these new movements corresponds to the transition from an economy based on pastoralism mixed with shifting cultivation to one based on sedentary grain production, and to the political transition from migratory tribal oligarchies to kingships with clearly demarcated territories. These historical changes imply the existence of dramatic cultural and religious changes as well, changes that did not derive from the influence of the ancient and distant civilization of the Indus Valley. Elements of the new religions may ultimately be traced to that civilizationand to the little-known culture of the early non-Aryan inhabitants of the Ganges Valleybut the new religions as systems should be considered new creations arising in conjunction with the new and radically changed economic and political conditions.

The Vedic Rudra is a fierce and terror-inspiring god of storms, disease, and the untamed aspects of nature. He is exclusively invoked in only four of the 1,028 hymns of the gveda, although he is frequently mentioned in it as the father of the Maruts, gods of the winds, and as one of the viśvadeva s, or All-Gods. The hymns contain only brief allusions to the mythology of Rudra, but the epithets he receives and the attitude with which he is invoked give a clear picture of his basic character. The name Rudra itself is traditionally derived from the known root rud, meaning "cry" or "howl," and is evidently related to his association with storms. An alternative derivation from a postulated root *rud, meaning "be red" or "shine," can be connected with a proposed derivation for the name Śiva ("auspicious") from a Dravidian word meaning "red." In the hymns the poets implore Rudra to be "compassionate" and "easy to invoke," not to kill cows or men, and to keep men "prosperous and free from disease." He is frequently described as a "bull," as being "brown," and as "terrible." He possesses a "sharp weapon," a "thunderbolt," and "swift arrows." He wears "braided hair" (kapardin ) and brings a "cooling [?] medicine." Although in two hymns he is associated with Soma, god of the intoxicating sacrificial drink, his principal association in Vedic literature as a whole is with Agni, the god of fire, with whom he is already identified once in the gveda and several times in the Brāhmaas.

In the Yajurveda Rudra is invoked at length in the section called the Śatarudriya. Among the noteworthy epithets he receives in this text are "mountain dweller," "lord of cattle" (paśūnā pati ), "wearer of an animal hide," "blue-necked," "ruddy," and the names or seminames Kapardin, Śarva, Bhava, Śambhu, Śakara, and Śiva. His prowess as an archer is repeatedly mentioned, as is his association with the untamed aspects of nature and with hunters, thieves, and brigands.

An important passage in the Atharvaveda (15.5.17) closely associates seven apparently independent gods, all of whom early become identified as names or forms of Rudra-Śiva, with the enigmatic vratya s, a class or group of religious officiants who were only partly aryanized. These gods are Bhava, Śarva, Paśupati, Ugra, Rudra, Māhadeva, and Īśāna. Each is associated with a particular region. Quite similar lists appear in the Brāhmaas and other later Vedic texts, with the addition of an eighth name, Aśani or Bhīma (and in one text the names Hara, Mrda, Śiva, and Śakara as well). In post-Vedic Hindu texts the same eight names of Śiva are sometimes listed, but more important are the five forms or faces of the god: Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, Tatpurua, and Īśāna.

A key theme that first appears in later Vedic literature is the god's rather ambiguous relation to the sacrificial oblations and offerings. Originally Rudra seems to have been at least partly excluded from orthodox Vedic sacrifices and thus has to demand his share of the offerings, sometimes described as the share that is "left over" (ucchia ). In the classical mythology of Hinduism, this theme is incorporated into Śiva's conflict with his father-in-law, the brahman named Daka, whose sacrifice Śiva destroys because he was not invited to it. Śiva beheads Daka and then replaces the head with that of a goat, the sacrificial animal. This myth again suggests popular, nonhieratic origins for the god.

The god Rudra-Śiva appears for the first time as the object of monotheistic devotion rather suddenly in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniad, a text often described as a Śaiva Bhagavadgītā. The Śvetāśvatara is one of the later of the early Upaniads, possibly dating from about the sixth century bce, and clearly illustrates how these texts mark the historical transition from Vedism to Hinduism. It refers explicitly to important aspects of Sākhya metaphysics and Yoga practice. Its own metaphysical position is not entirely consistent, but it bears some resemblance to the later system of "qualified monism" (viśiādvaita ) propounded by Rāmānuja (twelfth century). In the Upaniad, Rudra is described as the "one God" (eka deva ), the ruler and cause of all, the brahman itself, and he is addressed as Hara, Īśa, Mahāpurua, Īśāna, Bhagavat, Śiva, and Maheśvara.

Between the Upaniads and the Mahābhārata epic, chronologically the next major source for knowledge of Śiva, there appears to be a gap of several hundred years in the course of which Vedism is replaced by an already mature Hinduism. In recent years the classical mythology of Śiva in the Mahābhārata and in the later Purāas has been extensively analyzed by Wendy O'Flaherty, Stella Kramrisch, J. Bruce Long, and others, using methodologies influenced by the theories of Mircea Eliade and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The resulting emphasis on symbolic archetypes and on thematic structures and motifs has provided a clearer idea of the mental structures and contents of the myths, but it has also tended to exaggerate their consistency and to isolate them from their sociohistorical contexts.

In classical Hindu mythology Brahmā, Viu, and Śiva are linked together as the gods of creation, preservation, and destruction, respectively. In the varied Śaiva versions of the myths, however, Śiva is generally portrayed as the one God over all, who is ultimately responsible for creation and preservation as well as destruction. Vaiava versions do the same for Viu. This informal monotheism takes more systematic forms in the theological works of the Śaiva and Vaiava sects.

Many of the main episodes in the Śaiva myth cycle revolve around the dynamic tension between Śiva as the god equally of asceticism and eroticism, a master of both yogic restraint and sexual prowess. This tension is frequently expressed in terms of the image of castration: the real castration of the god himself and symbolic castrations (loss of eyes or teeth, beheading) of his opponents.

Śiva destroys Kāma, the god of erotic love, with the fire from his third eye when Kāma attempts to disturb his ascetic trance. Subsequently Pārvatī, daughter of the Himalaya, wins Śiva's love through her own ascetic penance and persuades him to revive Kāma in disembodied form. For his visit to the pine forest Śiva wears the guise of a naked, ash-smeared ascetic, but he uses the occasion to seduce, or to attempt to seduce, the wives of the forest sages. As a result either of the sages' curse or of his own action, Śiva is castrated and his phallus, or liga, becomes fixed in the earth. The stylized stone liga, mounted on an equally stylized vulva, or yoni, has become the central image of Śaiva worship and serves as the dual symbol of the god's creative and ascetic power.

By chopping off the fifth head of the god Brahmā, Śiva is charged with the major sin of the murder of a brahman and must undertake the penance, or Great Vow (māhavrata ), of the Skull-Bearer (kapālin ), an ascetic who wanders about with a skull as a begging bowl. This Great Vow becomes the archetypal basis of the ascetic sect of the Kāpālikas or Mahāvratins, who are equally noted for their indulgence in orgiastic rites of Tantric character.

The complicated myth of the birth of the six-faced Skanda, a son of Śiva, exists in a number of very different versions. In part, Skanda is the son of Śiva and Pārvatī, but he is at the same time the son of Agni and of the six Kttikas. His role is to destroy the terrible demon Tāraka. In South India, the Dravidian god Muruka was early identified with Skanda and contributed to the historical development of his mythology.

The three sons of Tāraka later establish the mighty triple city of the demons, which Śiva eventually destroys with a single arrow from his bow, Pināka. Another demon, named Andhaka, the blind son of Śiva and/or of the demon Hirayāka, lusts after Pārvatī but is defeated and reformed by Śiva. Śiva beheads his son Gaeśa, whom he has never met, when Gaeśa tries to prevent the apparent stranger from entering the room of Pārvatī, Śiva's wife and Gaeśa's mother. Śiva then replaces his son's head with that of an elephant with one broken tusk, just as he once replaced Daka's head with that of a goat. Historically, Gaeśa was perhaps originally an independent elephant god. As part of Śiva's family he serves as the god of obstacles and hence of luck, to be invoked at the beginning of any undertaking.

The existence of an extensive mythology of Śiva in the Mahābhārata suggests the existence of an important cult dedicated to the god by about the beginning of the common era. Unfortunately, direct historical evidence for the cult before that date is not plentiful. Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to the court of Candragupta Maurya (c. 324300 bce), mentions the presence in India of worshipers of Herakles and Dionysos. These two gods are usually identified as Ka and Śiva, respectively. The early grammarian Patañjali (c. 150 bce) mentions Śiva Bhāgavatas who carry iron lances. These must be Śaiva ascetics. The earliest example of a Śiva liga seems to be the large, realistic stone liga from Guimallam in southeastern India, estimated by some to date from the first or second century bce.

Coins and inscriptions that give evidence of Śaiva worship are plentiful from the period of the Kushans (first and second centuries ce) and, more important, that of the Guptas (300550 ce). Although the Gupta emperors mostly preferred Vaiavism, they also sponsored temples of Śiva. The kings of the contemporary Vākāaka dynasty were mostly followers of Śiva, as were those of the slightly later Maukhari dynasty. From about the seventh century, Śaivism became the dominant religious current in the south, largely replacing the Jains and Buddhists and competing successfully with the Vaiavas. The southern dynasties of the Pallavas, Cōas, and Cālukyas were all patrons of Śaivism.

The age of the Guptas seems to mark the beginning of distinct Śaiva sects. Except for the Pāśupatas these sects do not appear in the Mahābhārata, but they become prominent in the Purāas. The sects are made up chiefly of ascetics but also have some sort of lay following. The Pāśupata sect was founded by Lakulīśa, who was born near Broach in western India about the beginning of the second century. Lakulīśa is already regarded as an incarnation of Śiva in several Purāas, and the Pāśupata sect became important, particularly in southern India, from about the seventh to the fourteenth century. The Kālamukhas, a closely related sect, were influential in the Karnataka region of the south during much the same period. Another early Śaiva sect, of considerable symbolic interest but uncertain historical importance, was that of the Kāpālikas.

A fourth early sect is that of the Śaiva Siddhāntins, often simply called Śaivas. This sect grew out of a devotional movement centered in the Cauvery River basin of the southeast and led by the Śaiva Nāyaārs (Nāyamār), poet-saints of the seventh to tenth centuries whose devotional hymns composed in Tamil even today occupy a central place in Śiva worship in this region. The sect is still active and has produced, or appropriated to itself, an extensive literature in both Sanskrit (the twenty-eight Śaivāgamas) and Tamil (the twelve Tirumuai and the fourteen Meykaaśāstras).

The Pāśupatas, Kālāmukhas, and Śaiva Siddhāntins all maintain monotheistic theological systems in which the grace (prasāda ) of God and devotion (bhakti ) to him play essential roles in attaining personal salvation. All accept an ontological distinction between God (pati ), the individual person (paśu ), and mundane existence (pāśa ).

The Pāśupata and Kālāmukha sects are now extinct. In the Karnataka region they gave way to another Śaiva sectarian movement known as the Vīraśaivas or Ligāyats. This sect, especially in its initial stages, has been noted for its advocacy of social reforms, including attacks against casteism and the subjugation of women. Its metaphysics is less dualistic than that of the other southern sects, though it also stresses the importance of devotion and God's grace. The most important literature of the sect consists of devotional hymns composed in Kannada by various inspired devotees beginning with Basava (c. 1150), often considered the founder of the sect. Many of the hymns are collected in the Śunyasapādane.

In the north, the Śaiva sect known as the Trika or Kashmiri school became important from about the ninth century. It incorporated Tantric and Buddhist influences and adopted a monistic metaphysical position similar to that of nondualist (advaita ) Vedānta. The extensive literature of the sect is divided into the categories of gama Śāstra, Spanda Śāstra, and Pratyabhijña Śāstra. Its greatest thinker was Abhinavagupta (c. 1000).

Tantric influences have been strong in Śaivism since about the end of the Gupta period, when this religious current first became important. Tantrism blended with yoga, particularly hahayoga, forms the doctrinal basis of the medieval Śaiva sect of the Nāths, also called Siddhas and Kānphaa Yogis. This group emphasizes yogic control over mind and body, including the winning of magical powers (siddhi s), and aims at spiritual enlightenment through the domination of the inner "serpent power" (kualini), which lies trapped within the veins or nerves (nāī s) and centers, or ganglia (cakra s), of a supraphysical yogic anatomy. A few Nath Yogis still exist, although the influence of the sect continues mainly through the diffusion of hahayoga into the mainstream of Hinduism and beyond.

During the past few centuries the worship of Viu and his avatāra s has proved to be more adaptable to the emotional devotionalism of modern Hinduism than has the worship of Śiva. Śaivism, however, still claims many millions of devotees. Most of them are not followers of specific sects, nor even necessarily exclusively devoted to Śiva. They patronize Śiva temples and make offerings of flowers, sweets, coconuts, and money to the god and his priests. The holy city of the Hindus, Banaras, is the city of Śiva, and the temple of Śiva Viśveśvara there is one of the chief pilgrimage sites of all India. Similarly, in Hindu mythology the holy river Ganges is portrayed as a goddess who descends to earth through Śiva's matted hair.

The priests of Śiva temples often belong to the nonsectarian, orthodox tradition of the Smārtas, who practice the worship of five shrines (pañcāyatana-pūjā ) dedicated to the gods Viu, Śiva, Sūrya, Gaeśa, and Dūrgā. This Smārta tradition is compatible with a variety of metaphysical positions, but is often linked with the nondualist (advaita ) theology derived principally from Śakarācārya (c. 700750).

According to tradition, Śakarācārya was a devotee of Śiva and composed a number of devotional hymns dedicated to this god. Although his authorship of these hymns has often been disputed, the orthodox monastic sect of the Daśanāmīs, which he is said to have founded, retains this Śaiva influence. Today the monks (samnyasin s) and abbots of the Daśanāmī monasteries are the dominant arbiters of theological orthodoxy and socioreligious tradition (varāśrama-dharma ). Through them Śiva has come full circle from his role as the heretical outsider of Daka's sacrifice to that as the patron deity of Hindu orthodoxy.


The most useful general survey of Śaivism is still R. G. Bhandarkar's Vaiavism, Śaivism and Minor Religious Systems (1913; reprint, Varanasi, 1965). It has been partly superseded by Jan Gonda's Viuism and Śivaism (London, 1970). A well-documented summary of the "proto-Paśupati" controversy, expressing a view similar to Kosambi's, is Alf Hiltebeitel's "The Indus Valley 'Proto-Śiva,'" Anthropos 73 (1978): 767797. For Śaiva mythology, the best work is Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic (London, 1981), a reprint of Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva (1973); but most should find the treatment in her Hindu Myths (Baltimore, Md., 1975) entertaining and sufficient. A very personal interpretation, packed with information, is Stella Kramrisch's The Presence of Śiva (Princeton, N.J., 1981). My own study The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas (Berkeley, 1972) can be consulted on these sects and on the Pāśupatas. Mariasusai Dhavamony's Love of God According to "Śaiva Siddhānta" (Oxford, 1971) is essential for that sect. No really satisfactory work exists on the Viraśaivas or on Kashmir Śaivism, but some Viraśaiva hymns have been beautifully translated by A. K. Ramanujan in Speaking of Śiva (Harmondsworth, 1973). For Tantrism, Yoga, and the Naths, the best source is the classic of Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1969). Discussions of the evolution of Rudraśiva can be found in Arthur Berriedale Keith's The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, 2 vols. (1925; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1971), in Louis Renou's Religions of Ancient India (London, 1953), in R. N. Dandekar's Some Aspects of the History of Hinduism (Poona, 1967), and in Dandekar's "Hinduism," in Historia Religionum, edited by C. Jouco Bleeker and Geo Widengren, vol. 2, Religions of the Present (Leiden, 1971), pp. 237345.

New Sources

Chitgopekar, Nilima. Encountering Sivaism: The Deity, the Milieu, the Entourage. New Delhi, 1998.

Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo. Saivism, Some Glimpses. New Delhi, 1996.

David N. Lorenzen (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Śaivism: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 19 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Śaivism: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 19, 2018).

"Śaivism: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.