Shiva and Shaivism

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SHIVA AND SHAIVISM Hinduism in the classical, medieval, and modern periods displays two powerful male deities, Shiva and Vishnu, in addition to multiple forms of Devī, the goddess. All have numerous manifestations with various names, mythologies, and rituals. For example, the Sanskrit names of Shiva include, among others, Ardhanārīshvara, Bhava, Bhīma, Hara, Īshāna, Kapardin, Mahādeva, Maheshvara, Naṭarāja, Parameshvara, Shambhu, Shaṇkara, Sharva, and Sthāṇu. Some roots of Shiva and Vishnu may be traced to the Rig Veda. Although neither is dominant in that seminal text of the mid-second millennium b.c., both emerge to prominence in the post-Vedic period of the Sanskrit epics. Their roles in myths, rituals, and symbols have many intriguing parallels. They evolve, however, in essentially different directions, and their followers, known respectively as Shaivas and Vaishnavas, represent two options for Hindu life and practice. It could be said that all Hindus respect Shiva, Vishnu, and the great goddesses; some worship both Shiva and Vishnu as well as one or more goddesses; while many prefer to concentrate devotion and faithful allegiance to one as supreme deity.

Prehistory and Rudra-Shiva in the Vedas

Recent archaeological and linguistic studies have led historians of religion to new insights into possible prehistoric origins of Shiva. Two areas have drawn attention: the non-Aryan Indus Valley Civilization, centering on Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro around 2600–1800 b.c.; and Indo-Aryan migrations around 2100–1700 b.c. across the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex in present-day Turkmenistan and Afghanistan prior to the early Vedic period. A number of steatite seals from the Indus period depict a powerful male figure with erect phallus and horned animal mask, seated in what the Yoga tradition later calls padmāsana, or "lotus posture." Other seals represent various bulls and trifoliate bilva leaves. An Indo-Aryan legacy may lie behind myths of an archer deity known as Sharva in the Rig Veda, with a similar name in the Avesta of ancient Iran.

The Rig Veda provides better focus, as hymns addressed to particular deities and references to key rituals supplant speculation about artifacts and language from the deeper prehistory. In a few hymns a mysterious, ferocious, highly dangerous god appears under the name Rudra, perhaps indicating a "Howler" (from rud, "to howl, cry, roar") among animals in the mountains and wilderness. Rudra's companion and alter ego is a wild bull (vrishabha) that may have replaced an earlier wild water buffalo (mahisha). Rudra's weapons are the vajra (thunderbolt), a bow, and burning arrows that kill with terror (ugra). Here, however, his essentially ambivalent character is revealed. The same missiles that slay can also cool and heal, and strangely enough, "cooling" ( jalāsha) is a special epithet of this dreaded god. Clearly the poet of Rig Veda 2.33.11 hopes that his verses praising mighty (bhīma) Rudra will win his grace. Like a wise physician, Rudra has a thousand remedies (bheshaja). Equally fearsome are Rudra's sons and warring companions, the Maruts, also known collectively as the Rudras, born from the cow Prishni. The Maruts, like their father and the great god Indra (whom they also serve), are associated not only with bulls, war, and chariot driving but also with winds and storms that bring fertilizing rain.

Rudra is at times identified with Agni, the Vedic deity of the fire sacrifice ( yajña). But it is precisely that complex ritual tradition at the core of Rig Vedic religion that separates Rudra from others. At first Rudra is excluded from the soma cult and offerings to dominant deities such as Indra and Varuṇa. Offerings to Rudra (for example, the collected blood and entrails of animal victims) are left to the north, his direction. Over time he is gradually accepted into the pantheon, although his "outsider" status, both as frequenter of untamed space remote from human habitation and as a god of unpredictable behavior, remains integral to his legacy and certainly contributes to his unique appeal.

Somewhat later than the Rig Veda, recensions of the Yajur Veda (Taittirīya Saṃhitā 4.5.1–11 and Shukla Yajur Veda or Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.1–66) contain a litany of a hundred names and forms of Rudra, known as the Shatarudrīya stotra. This liturgy accompanied 425 offerings into the sacrificial fire and secured Rudra's place among major deities. The names, which appear as lasting definitions, include: Dweller on Mount Mūjavat; Pashupati, Lord of Animals; Best Physician; Kapardin, Wearer of Braided Hair; Bhava, Existence; Nīlagrīva, Blue-neck; Lord of Thieves; Sharva, the Archer; and many others. In the late Vedic Shvetāshvatara Upanishad 3.4–5, a poet carefully addressed the fearsome, quick-to-anger, death-dealing Rudra as sole sovereign deity, a protector who is "benign, not terrifying, and auspicious (shiva)." Shiva is the name by which the god is best known today.

Shiva in Epics and Purāṇas

The post-Vedic Sanskrit literature of the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyana and Purāṇas expanded the many-sided and ambiguous roles of Rudra and generated new myths for the god known more often as Shiva. There also his unruly horde of sons and companions, the Maruts or Rudras, augmented his ferocious appearance. In this period the performance of worship (pūjā) to gods, either in homes or temples with permanent resident deities, gradually replaced the centrality of Vedic sacrifice and its temporary altars. In temples housing Shiva, the Shatarudrīya stotra became a standard liturgy; worshipers routinely heard his hundred names, and priestly discourses recounted his famous episodes. For personal devotions many ardent Shaivas committed the stotra to memory, a practice still prominent today.

Among the many enduring myths of Shiva in epics and Purāṇas, several feature his destructive nature. In myth and iconography a balanced triad of deities known as trimūrti appeared: Brahmā as creator, flanked by Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. In the repetitive eschatology known as pralaya (dissolution), it is Shiva who incinerates the cosmos and all its beings, divine, demonic, or human, prior to a long rest and yet another remanifestation of the world in an endless cycle of yugas, or ages. Kāla, the personification of time, is in fact an appellation of this overwhelming god. One myth with roots in the Vedas recounts the demolition of three cosmic cities built by Māyā for the demons. So powerful was the fiery anger of the god that he pierced all three fortresses with a single arrow. In another set of myths he destroyed the Vedic sacrifice of Daksha after Shiva, alone of all the gods, had been excluded. Shiva's wrath is sometimes righteous display, as in the myth of his killing the great god Brahmā (Prajāpati) for attempted incest. In a variant, Shiva in the form of Bhairava cut off Brahmā's fifth head. In retribution for this sin of killing a Brahman, the severed head would not leave the hand of Bhairava. The trident (trishūla) is a weapon Shiva employs to dispatch demons, often in his terrible tāṇḍava dance of death. Naṭarāja, King of the Dance, another epithet of Shiva, was often rendered in sculpture and painting based on a conception of the sinewy four-armed god poised in elegant mid-dance within a ring of cosmic fire, two hands holding the drum and flame of destruction, another in the "fear not" gesture, one foot planted on the demon of ignorance, as the fourth hand points to the raised foot free of bondage.

The destructive power of Shiva is curiously balanced by his creative nature in many ways. His most visible icon is an erect phallus, the liṅga, a ubiquitous symbol in Shaivite temples and homes either as bare pillar or anthropomorphic organ, often with carved faces. Myths describe the liṅga as a cosmic center, an endless axis mundi penetrating the nether worlds and rising to the highest heaven. It echoes the sacrificial pole of Vedic ritual. With this inexhaustible member, Shiva and his wife Pārvatī famously made love for 36,000 years. But Shiva's unruly sexuality is often chaotic, and his semen, like his celebrated third eye with a capacity to burn someone to ashes, is dangerously fiery. He seduced the wives of the Rishis, the Pine Forest sages, sons of Brahmā, a crime for which he was deprived of his wayward member. The Skanda Purāṇa reports that Kāshī, holiest of cities with its temple of Shiva as Vishvanātha, assembled in acolyte temples vast numbers of liṅgas from all over India.

Contradicting his powerful sexuality is Shiva's role as lord of ascetics (yogins), those who renounce marriage, family, and society to meditate, perform austerities (tapas) in the wilderness and, scorning tonsure, allow their hair to grow into Shiva's jaṭā, or matted locks. The Maitreyi Upanishad stresses the renouncer's identification with the one eternal Shiva. When Pārvatī attempts to distract him from meditation in order to make love, Shiva burns a third eye in his forehead to continue creative insight. The same eye also burns to ashes Kāma, god of love, Shiva's erotic impulse. He is motionless in meditation, earning him the name Sthāṇu, an immovable "post," although his liṇga, also postlike, sends a contrary message. The ashes that were Kāma identify a many-layered symbol and paradox: they are the result of Shiva's power to incinerate a being or the entire world, the reduction of every body through cremation, and the remnant of the sacrifice abandoned by a renunciant, whose first act is to internalize his ritual fires. Yet they are also Shiva's semen and therefore regenerative power. As Shiva, Lord of the cremation ground, covered his body with ashes, so do ascetics, and householder devotees touch fire and apply vibhūti ash to themselves in his worship.

In the wilderness or high on Mount Kailasa, Shiva, like ancient Rudra, is Lord of animals, often portrayed on or wrapped in a tiger skin, enclosed by nāgas (cobras). But his role as Pashupati is sovereign of domestic animals as well, and Shiva's vāhana (mount) is the bull Nandin, who lies in placid power as guardian god outside temple doors or serves as decorated processional vehicle in festivals. It would appear that the prehistoric cult of wild buffalo or bull, known in the days of Rudra as "Howler" in the wilderness, was tamed into the docile figure of the Purāṇas as mount or even multiform of Shiva.

Shiva's frequent consort is Pārvatī, also known as Umā or Gaurī, but Satī, Gaṇgā and other goddesses are his spouses in various myths. The marriage of Shiva and Pārvatī, considered a role model in South India, is an elaborate festival in Madurai and other temples. In one striking sense Shiva requires no consort: he has an androgynous form, Ardhanārīshvara, the Lord who is Half Female. Given the number of reconciled polarities in the nature of Shiva, it is not surprising to see him in sculptures and paintings in vertical nonsymmetry, his right side in male attire, left side—properly subordinate in Hindu physiology—with prominent breast and female ornaments. This two-in-one body recalls the Shiva-Shakti pairing that can be either a demonstration of coincidentia oppositorum, the transcendence of polarities, or as in Tantra and other Shaiva perspectives, the dominance of female energy (shakti). In sexual union with Shakti Shiva is even portrayed as a bloodless corpse, passive and inert under the dynamic female power.

Gaṇesha, also known as Gaṇapati or Vināyaka, became popular as the son of Shiva and Pārvatī, although myths of his origins, perhaps in ancient elephant worship, are varied. One account in the Purāṇas is of his decapitation by his own angry father, his human head then replaced by that of an elephant. Another ancient multifaceted deity drawn into the orbit of Shiva is Skanda, known in various regions and periods as Kārttikeya, Kumāra or Subrahmaṇya, and identified with the Tamil god Murukan̄. Born from Shiva's fiery semen, this war god is also lord of grahas (seizers) who, like numerous ferocious goddesses, attack with diseases. One enduring myth presents him as a six-headed foundling, suckled simultaneously by the Krittikās, six stars in the constellation Pleiades, therefore called Shaṇmukha (six-faced). Other myths celebrate him as the son of Shiva and Pārvatī.

In the Mahā-Nārāyaṇa Upanishad, Shiva is said to have five faces or manifestations (pañcavaktra) and in the Mahābhārata eight forms (ashtamūrti). Although the avatāra doctrine, with bhakti (devotion) to, and prasāda (grace) from, the several incarnations of Vishnu is perhaps more pronounced, it is in these multiple expressions that Shiva also extends his presence. As cosmic totality, he is simultaneously fivefold and eightfold. One name, Īshāna, declaring him supreme being, is expressed as both manifestation, along with Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, and Tatpurusha, and as form, beside Bhava, Sharva, Pashupati, Vāyu, Ugra, Mahādeva, and Rudra. Variant names occur in some texts, and eventually five mantras came to accompany the five faces. In his elevated role as supreme, Shiva is also frequently called Maheshvara, great Lord, and Parameshvara, Highest Lord.

Shaivas in Faith and Practice

The god with so many contrarities woven into vivid mythologies generated numerous theological perspectives and accompanying means of worship. Just as the god of dreadful habitat and custom was perceived to be an outsider early on, so also were many of his devotees shunned, in particular those Shaivas adopting yogic techniques or Shakta-Tantric worship. Vaishnavas had their clean, comfortable, more respectable god Vishnu and faith in the sufficiency of the householder's path rather than a renunciant's ascetic habits. Traditional expressions of devotion (bhakti), however, emerged as similar in both of these major Hindu divisions.

Among the first of many schools or sects devoted to Shiva were the Pāshupatas who recognized him as Pati (Lord) of pashus (creatures). Their faith was in a god who could extend his prasāda (grace) in the form of release from bondage (bandhatva) to worldly existence and ignorance, just as a cow can be freed from a tether. This spiritual image of the self as pashu, the problem as fetter (pāsha), and the solution as freedom through divine grace and human effort became the hallmark of Shaiva theology through the centuries. The traditional founder of the Pāshupatas was Lakulīsha in the second century.

Both Shiva and Vishnu emerged as principals in the epics and Purāṇas, but in the Guptan period two new and quite different genres appeared, Āgamas and Tantras. Ā gamas of the Shaivas and Vaishnavas (those for the latter, usually known as Saṃhitās) were essential liturgical manuals that became known in the fifth and sixth centuries. The ritual texts of the Shaiva tradition eventually reached a collection of 28, with another 108 counted as Upāgamas of secondary authority.

Although the textual and iconographic history of Tantrism does not begin until about the fifth century, some historians of religion have considered deeper, even pre-Vedic roots for Shakta Tantrism in the goddess cults of ancient Mesopotamia. In any case, Tantrism as deciphered from its esoteric texts concerns extreme human quests for transcendence of polarities. No better deity could be found as model than Shiva, master of paradox who overcomes oppositions of the wild and the tamed, male and female, eroticism and asceticism, dynamic energy and silent passivity, creation and destruction. The vāmācāra (left-hand) division of Tantrism distinguished itself as a path for heroes (vīras) and transgressive rites and behavior, perhaps a legacy of such communities as the Vrātyas of antiquity. Essential identification with Shiva in unison with Shakti became a liberating ritual technique. Such explorers of the dangerous path considered themselves beyond routine practitioners of yoga in the right-hand division, and certainly above the unknowing herds of pashus.

Among the most horrific and uncontrollable manifestations of Shiva are Bhairava, also known as Vīrabhadra, and Sharabha, an eight-legged, flesh-eating monster. Kāpālikas (Skull-bearers), or Bhairavas, were named for the human skull carried in one hand as begging bowl (remembering Bhairava who could not release the head of Brahmā from his hand for twelve years), with a club in the other. Kālāmukhas were identified by black facial markings. Both were large communities of ascetics from the ninth century until their dissipation in the thirteenth century. Nātha ("protector, lord," a name for Shiva) Siddha was another name for movements eclectically combining Shaiva, yoga, alchemical, and other perspectives in their quest for supernatural powers.

Since a devotee could become one with Shiva, it is not unexpected that great leaders and saints were considered to be incarnations. Such was the case with India's most revered philosopher, Shaṇkara, an eighth-century Kerala Brahman author of commentaries on the Upanishads and Sūtras of Bādarāyaṇa that structured intellectually the nondualist Advaita Vedānta school. Reputed founder of monasteries at the four compass points of India for the ten branches of the Dashanāmi order of ascetics, he was awarded authorship of scores of works, including the beautiful Sanskrit devotional poem, Shivānandalaharī.

In the far north of India there developed from the early ninth century the Kashmir Shaiva or Trika theology, named for its triad of approaches and principles, all recognizing Shiva as universal sovereign, Shakti as cosmic energy, and a finite human self in the bondage of ignorance yet capable of liberation by mystical unison with Shiva. Utpaladeva, a tenth-century Kashmiri poet, composed Sanskrit songs collected in the Shivastotrāvalī and frequently recited today. He shared with others his own pilgrim's spiritual progress, a journey through a stage of personal effort with rituals, recitations, and meditation leading to an acquisition of knowledge, followed by recognition of pure consciousness, then finally by the bliss of becoming one with the cosmic body of Shiva. Such means, said Utpaladeva, who was considered to have become a siddha, "perfected being," are available to all without restrictions of age, gender, class, or caste.

At the other extreme of the subcontinent in South India, two important Shaiva sects crystallized in the twelfth century. Tamil Shaivas, known also as Shaiva Siddhāntas, claimed roots in first-century Tamil teachings and included in their heritage such famed poets as Māṇikkavācakar of the ninth century. They stressed the transcendent otherness of God and his boundless love for humans under his protection. Siddhānta texts in Tamil supplanted the Sanskrit texts upon which they were based and brought themes from Tamil devotional poetry into play. Hymns of the 63 Nāyan̄ārs, sixth-to tenth-century Shaiva saints (whose legends were collected in the Periyapurāṇm in the eleventh century), were the heart of Tamil Shaivism.

The other quite different and more aggessively independent sect was that of the Vīrashaivas or Liṇgāyats, with texts in the vernacular Kannada and Telugu languages. The iconoclastic founder, Basava, rejected the authority of the Vedas, traditional class and caste hierarchy, the doctrine of transmigration, and standard Brahmanical rites, including cremation. Also abandoned was image worship except for the liṅga, worn by devotees as an amulet and focus of devotion.

The names and forms of Shiva gleaned here from epics, Purāṇas, and communities by no means exhaust his presence. Many regional deities and cults that do not bear his name are nevertheless marginally Shaiva. For example, spread across large areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra is the worship of a set of powerful gods known variously as Khaṇḍobā or Mallanna, Mallikārjuna, Mailāra, Mallāri, Malhāri, and Mairāḷ. Here, as in other instances, particular folk deities of indistinct prehistory endure under the umbrella of Purāṇic Shiva.

The worship of Shiva as described in the Āgamas or observed all across the Hindu world today generally centers upon his liṅga as altarpiece. Before entering a temple the worshiper greets and touches the nose of the guardian bull Nandin, rings a brass bell to alert the god of a devotee's presence, and proceeds to the liṅga positioned in the yoni (female genitals) or pīṭha (seat) with a northern channel to carry off liquid offerings. Basic offering materials in a temple, home, or roadside shrine are leaves of the bilva tree special to Shiva, water, milk, honey, and other items. A Vedic five-syllable mantra, namaḥ shivāya, praises him along with the litany of his sacred names, and the worshiper may also transfer powers from the five faces of Shiva to various bodily parts in a rite known as nyāsa. Cooked food (naivedya) may also be presented in a more elaborate homa fire offering.

Meditation upon Shiva as fire, light, and regenerative seed occurs not only in private devotions but also on his special nights when divine favors may be forthcoming. New Moon eve (amāvāsyā), the fourteenth of each dark fortnight, is designated Shivarātri, the night of Shiva. Once each solar year, in Māgha (January–February) or Phālguna (February–March), there is Mahāshivarātri, his Great Night. Many Hindus, Vaishnavas as well as Shaivas, fast and remain awake in jāgara (vigil) all night in meditation. Monday (Moonday) is the weekday most auspicious for the worship of Shiva, as it has long been connected to soma, the sacred plant of immortality and worship of the dead. The ancient Vedic god Rudra, once considered unfit to attend the sacrifice, sits comfortably today as Shiva, one of the two foremost male deities, the object of devotion and worship from hundreds of millions throughout the Hindu world.

David M. Knipe

See alsoDevī ; Gaṇesha ; Hinduism (Dharma) ; Shankara ; Upanishadic Philosophy ; Vishnu and Avatāras ; Yoga


Bailly, Constantina Rhodes. Shaiva Devotional Songs of Kashmir: A Translation and Study of Utpaladeva's Shivastotrāvalī. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Includes romanized text and introduction to this key tenth-century Shaivite hymnal.

Biardeau, Madeleine. Hinduism: The Anthropology of a Civilization, translated by Richard Nice. Delhi: Oxford University, 1989. Convincing synthesis explains the transformation of Vedic religion into "a universe of bhakti" able to sustain Shaivism along with other options.

Clothey, Fred W., and J. Bruce Long, eds. Experiencing Siva: Encounters with a Hindu Deity. New Delhi: Manohar, 1983. Scholars from a variety of disciplines examine Shiva and Shaivas in literature, philosophy, ritual, art, and architecture.

Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. 5: The Southern Schools of Śaivism. 1922. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975. Survey of Shaiva Āgamas and Purāṇas as well as schools of Pāshupatas, Shaiva Siddhāntas, Vīrashaivas, and others.

Davis, Richard H. Worshiping Siva in Medieval India: Ritual in an Oscillating Universe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. A penetrating study of philosophy and ritual, both temple and domestic, in the Shaiva Siddhānta tradition, with excellent illustrations of ritual gestures.

Goldberg, Ellen. The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. A nuanced feminist analysis of Shiva in his androgynous manifestation; 18 plates of sculptures and paintings.

Gonda, Jan. Visnuism and Sivaism. A Comparison. London: Athlone, 1970. A concise, coherent depiction of myth, ritual, theology, and folklore; copious endnotes include further details.

Hiltebeitel, Alf, ed. Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Deities and cults explored in essays from field studies illustrate several regions of the subcontinent.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of Siva. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Thirty-two plates of Shaiva sculptures add dimension to this comprehensive study of mythology by an art historian.

Lorenzen, David. The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects. Berkeley: University of California, 1972. Sources, doctrines, cults, priesthoods, and regional centers of two distinctive ascetic movements that were absorbed into others by the fourteenth century.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Structural analysis of some 45 motifs in the mythology of Shiva with particular attention to the erotic-ascetic polarity.

Peterson, Indira Viswanathan. Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Translations from Tamil and introduction to the Tēvāram, a collection of 270 hymns of the three primary Nāyaṉārs; 15 supportive plates.

Ramanujan, A. K. Speaking of Siva. Baltimore: Penguin, 1973. Translations of vacanas (religious "sayings" in free verse) composed in Kannada by Vīrashaiva saints of the tenth to twelfth centuries.

Shulman, David Dean. Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Ś aiva Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Detailed analysis of the classical Tamil as well as the Vedic and Sanskrit backgrounds of myths important to specific temple traditions.