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The Untold Mystery of Lord Shiva and Shaivism in Vedic Texts

We associate Lord Shiva with various things: the protector of mankind, the most powerful among the Trinity, the one who drank the most lethal poison to save the world, the indweller of the world of Kailash, the yogi seated on the top of snowy mountain who watches the world above with his inner eye, the source of all knowledge, arts, crafts, and life force that flows down from heavens in the form of an eternal river coming into contact with which all our karmas are neutralized, and many others.

Lingodbhava is a Shaiva sectarian icon where Shiva is depicted rising from the Lingam that narrates how Shiva is the foremost of the Trimurti; Brahma and Vishnu are depicted bowing to Lingodbhava Shiva in the center. source – wikimedia.org

But the Vedic people in the ancient days were not much associated with Shiva as we are today.They certainly knew a form of Shiva that existed elsewhere. What they did was worship a deity who personified their fears, anxieties in an unfamiliar territory surrounded by hostile tribes and unfavorable nature. They thought of him as the god of anger, death, destruction at first, and even uttering his name was thought to be inauspicious and necessitated for rituals back in the days.

However, with time, he superseded other Vedic gods, and was considered to be the most powerful god, and stood as the destroyer. Before that, however, Vedic people did not worship Shiva like people from other society, especially amongst Chenchus and the Malavans who live in the remote areas of South India.

The integration might have happened because of cultural integration, the crucial to which might have been the kings who used to worship multiple deities and followed a policy of religious tolerance. Saivism became a culture in between them too, as they picked up many practices and traditions from Saivism, such as image worship, puja, worship with incense, water, smoke, food, and many others.

While they did frown up worshipping the Shiva linga initially, that culture got integrated with time too, and is considered to be the most auspicious one.

Shiva in the Vedic texts

In three hymns of the Rigveda, Shiva is portrayed as the fearful and vengeful Rudra and is also labeled as the god of sickness, disease, death, destruction, and calamity. This invoked fear amongst the Vedic people, and they thought that the best way to avoid trouble from such fearful candidate was to appease him as only Rudra can save them from the wrath of Rudra. In order to avoid pregnancy problems, harms, death, the death of heroes in their wars, they implored him.

Art by Molee

The most analyzed hymn is the Satarudriya invocation of the Yajurveda. It depicts him as both terrifying and pleasing: to save them from his own wrath and to bring health and prosperity to people at the same time. He was also said to be the Lord of all beings, while also being called cheat and Lord of all thieves. He was considered to be a giant. But then again, he was also considered to be a dwarf. Some scholars believe that these adaptations might have come after Saiva literature merged with the Vedas, or maybe perhaps because the longer hymns that included Shiva and Saivism were lost to us.

We do find more of his references in Atharvaveda than in Rigveda, which shows the growing popularity of Shiva in time. He is addressed as Sarva, Bhava, Nilakantha, Pasupathi, Nilagriva, Sitkantha, Sobhya. Some hymns state that the names Rudra, Sarva, and Bhava are referred to different deities.

In Satapatha Brahmana, it talks about eight names of Rudra. At one place, he is considered to be Rudra-Shiva, in other, he is considered to be Agni. He got the name Rudra as he clung to the Prajapathi as Manyú, as Prajapathi was disjointed when other divinities fled, but he remained inside and cried, from which thousands of Rudras originated. The gods were afraid of him when they saw him as the god of hunger and wrath with innumerable heads, with a strong bow and arrow fitted to it, and with his connection with animal sacrifices and snakes.

According to Svetasvatara Upanishad, Lord Shiva was elevated to the status of Brahman by the sage who composed it when he saw the vision of Shiva as the Absolute and Supreme. In the texts, he is even thought of as the god who wields the power of Maya, the delusion by which the world is under his control. A bit of basic concepts of Shiva and Shaivism are stated in the Upanishad too. In the Atharvasira Upanishad, another important Upanishad that dates much later than the Svetasvatara Upanishad, there are many names of Shiva too and recommends the performances of certain rituals such as smearing of ashes, attaining moksha. Other Upanishads like Brhajjabala and Bhasmajabala talk about important concepts of worshipping Shiva too.

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The growing popularity of Shiva is because of the integration between Yoga and Samkhya school of philosophy, the rise of bhakti movement and the rise of ascetic traditions that slams caste prejudices and empty ritualism, the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, and other emphases on physical and mental practices to reach the self.

Lord Shiva in the Epics and Puranas

In both Ramayana and Mahabharata, Shiva has been mentioned. In Ramayana, he has been mentioned as Sitikantha, Mahadeva, Rudra, Trayambaka, Pasupathi, and Shankara. We also find his references during the sacrifice of Daksha, his marriage with Parvathi, the story of how he drank the most lethal poison during Samudra Manthan, the story of the death of demon Andhaka, the destruction of three cities with the help of Vishnu.

In Ramayana, it talks about how Ravana was a great devotee of Shiva, and moreover, the Ramayana itself is a narration by Shiva to Parvati.

We also find a deeper connection with Shiva in Mahabharata, with seven chapters referring to Shiva. First, the story talks about how Krishna was initiated into Shiva bhakti by Shiva. Then in Santhi Parvan, Hari and Hara are proven to be the same. In the same chapter, it talks about how some epithets of Shiva is included in the list of thousand names of Vishnu. Then, when Arjuna met Shiva in the forest, Shiva gave him a powerful weapon to use in the epic war that followed.

Shiva gives Pashupatastra to Arjuna. Image source – wikimedia.org

Apart from these two grand epics, there are some Puranas that talk exclusively about Shiva and Saivism, where Shiva is regarded as the highest and Supreme being, while other gods are said to be a part of his vast creation.

Three different World Views

Saivism is actually much older than Brahmanism and Jainism. It dates back to pre-historic times. There are three common beliefs between Saivism, Brahmanism, and Jainism though: reincarnation, karma, and Maya. These concepts were actually foreign to the Vedic culture and were only integrated later through Shaivism.

According to the scholars, the seal found in Indus valley suggest that Indus people worshiped a deity which was probably similar to that of Lord Shiva, in regard with his affinity with animals and his inclination towards meditation and yoga.

The Core Philosophy of Shaivism

The core philosophy of Shaivism is that it believes there is an absolute God who is pure conscious and soul conscious, and at the same time, passive and unconditionally dynamic. There is a place for both the individual will and divine will. But, it neglects fate. It believes that man makes what he is through his desires and actions. But karma is always prevalent. It is how the person’s free will can be both blessing and curse. The divine will, according to its tenets, is an inviolable law which builds as the grace of Shiva. The power is strong: it can neutralize individual karmas and can grant souls freedom from birth and rebirth.

At the same time, the individual can disobey the divine will but has to suffer the consequences. However, it doesn’t matter to Shiva because he has created the world in such a way that even when there is a conflict between divine will and individual will, it can resolve itself. As he is not attached to particular things, he does not interfere with our lives immediately and punish us. As a knower of all, he never lets things go out of control without his prior knowledge. Yet, he would not come down on earth to make things right, unless necessary. But it is not to say that he does not listen to our prayers. He responds to them as required. He has taken the will to work as the destroyer of the evil too.

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Also, he knows the past, the present, and the future. He is the same, but yet different. He is there, but yet not there. He lets Prakriti do her work. He has his own laws and follows his own laws. And if he has to disobey the law, he is willing to do so too.

Thus, this cosmic world, according to Saivism, goes beyond time and space.

Shaivism in Vedic Period

There are reasons to believe that back in the ancient Vedic times, Lord Shiva or his aspects were worshiped by communities mostly outside of India, such as Mediterranean, Africa, Central Asia, and Europe. The scholars think that the name Shiva might have a Dravidian origin, as it could have been derived from the word, Chivan or Shivan, which means red color, and even Shambhu, which might have come from word Chembu or Chempu or Sembu, which means copper or red metal. Likewise, the phallic symbol has Austric origin.

If we study Celtic gods like Norse Odin and Celtic Cernunnos, we cannot ignore the similarities between them and Shiva. There are many similarities between Saivism and other magical-religious practices of Shamanism in Mexico, American Indian, Inuit and Australian Aboriginal people.

Also, Shaktism, Samkhya, Yoga, and Tantrism are considered to be concepts that were developed in the ancient traditions, and only later, did they find their way into the post-Vedic Indian culture.

With all that said, Shiva was not worshiped by core Vedic tribes back in the days. But instead, it was the Sibis and other fringes of Vedic society that worshiped Shiva, and the tribe was still not understandable to Vedic people. Pasupathas are considered to be the most ancient and secretive sects of Saivism, according to Mahabharata. And then Kapalikas and Ajivika were prominent Shiva followers.

Shaivism in History

In Megasthanese’s book Indika, he talks about the worship of Shiva, which he believes was Dionysus, a Greek god who had some affinity with Shiva. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find that Shiva’s images were used for religious purposes. In Ashtadhyayi of Panini, there are references of Shiva Bhagats, an ancient Saiva cult.

According to Haribhadra, Gautama (the author of Nyaya-sutra) and Kanada (the founder of Viasheshika school of philosophy which proposed atomic theory) were followers of Lord Shiva.

During the pre-Christian area, there used to live a great devotee by the name of Lakulisa who played a great role in reviving Shaivism in the name of Pasupatha, the way of an animal. There aren’t many details of his works and accounts, but it is said that he might have belonged to Kalamukha sect before he established Pasupatha Shaivism. He, however, opposed Jainism, Buddhism, and Ajivaka for the conflicting views. It was during his time that the revival began.

Lakulisha Statue in Sangameshvara Temple at Mahakuta, Karnataka, Early Chalukya dynasty, 7th century CE. Source – Wikipedia

During the Mauryan era, Satavahanas ruled a vast territory in the south for 400 years. They used to patronize Vedic religion and worship many Gods, which included Shiva under the name Shiva, Mahadeva, Bhava, Bhutapala. They also worshiped his vehicle Nandi and his son Skanda. Sakas, Pahlavas, Kushanas, and some other foreign dynasties that ruled Indian subcontinent turned themselves towards Shaivism. Kushanas, Kadhaphises were also followers of Shiva.

Known as the Nagas in history, Barashivas re-established Hindu traditions in the 2nd century and were mostly the followers of Shiva, which was then followed by Vakatakas and Guptas. Scholars believe that Satavahanas in the south and Barashivas in the north played a great role to revive Hindu Dharma.

It was during the Gupta period when Saivism rose to prominence, even though they are known as the followers of Vishnu. They built many temples for Shiva and Parvathi. Ujjain also rose to an important Saivite center. It was during this period when many sacred texts of Saivism, such as Agamas, Tantras, Puranas connected with Shiva, were created.

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After the post-Gupta period, Saivism continued to flourish. Then, in the south, the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Cholas started building many Shiva temples. Sudnaramurthy worked to reform the Saiva tradition, where Kanchi became a prominent center of religious education to which royal families sent their children.

The Nayanars

The “Nalvar” source – wikipedia

Between the 6th and 8th century AD, the Nayanars of South played a great role in spreading awareness of Shiva and Saivism, by expressing their intense love and devotion by visiting and singing devotional songs at holy places as poet-saints. They also, in a way, limited the growth of Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism through their musical art. Some Saiva literature record names of 63 Nayanars, a few of which were women too.

Another Sectarian Movement and Growth

A new movement known as Kashmiri Shaivism grew in between 9th and 13th centuries. Because of teaching with personalities like Vasugupta, Somananda, Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta, Kshemaraja, Kashmiri Shaivism started growing rapidly. They follow the philosophy of monism. It regards Shiva as the Supreme Lord and the only reality, which can be liberated through moksha. During the medieval period, Kashmri Shaivism caught attention of many as it emphasized on master-disciple relationship, an awakening of kundalini energy, and teaching of Pratyabhigna or realization of Shiva as one’s hidden self.

Inspired by the composition of Nayanars and others like Manikkavachakar, Saiva Shiddhanta became another school of Shaivism in the southern India. It followed dvaita or dualism and regards Shiva as the Supreme Lord, while still allowing distinction between the Supreme Self and the individual self. They believe that after attaining moksha, the soul doesn’t merge with Shiva, but instead attain same consciousness as Shiva and continue to remain as free souls till eternity.

Another school of Shaivism, known as Virasaiva movement, gained popularity in Karnataka, and it was influenced by the Bhakti movement that swept across the country during the medieval period. During the 13th century, legendary religious leader Basavanna initiated the movement. The Virasaivism include features like the importance of guru, lingam, jangama, the grace of God, holy ash, Rudraksha, the sacred mantra Om Namah Shivaya. Even today in the south, the Virasaivism gains a good following.

The most esoteric of all schools of Shaivism is Gorakshanatha school. It emphasizes on magical religious rituals of tantric nature. They are only provided to chosen few and are kept hidden from the general public. It was brought to prominence by Gorakshanath during the 12th century. His followers believe that he might still be alive because he holds supernatural yogic powers, and is only visible to chosen few. They even believe that they can attain immortality in this physical body with the practice of hatha yoga and self-control. They even use some products to gain supernatural powers. As a concept, it follows monism: accepts Shiva as both transcendental and immanent reality.

Shaivism in the Modern world

Shaivism has contributed significantly to the modern day rituals that are practiced today. It might not be as popular as Vaishnavism, as some estimate that two-thirds of Hindus are followers of Vaishnavism than Saivism. But the devotion of Shiva followers is strong. While many Hindus worship different Gods, but they do believe in kula devata, the family God, and the favorite god, the ishta devata. So, for many, it seems to be Vaishnavism, probably because of his role as preserver and rescuer, and also with his association with the goddess of wealth and his many popular incarnations.

Yet, Lord Shiva is still popular amongst the Hindus. There are a large number of temples built in his name throughout the subcontinent. His children Lord Ganesha and Kumaraswami also have a great following.

Worshiping of Lord ganesha before the commencement of any good work

With that, Shaivism is still a popular -ism amongst the Hindu in the present context. However, only a few are associated with various schools of Shaivism, especially the philosophical truths, concepts, and practices associated with them.

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