Hugh B Urban. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Shaivism is a complex body of South Asian traditions centered on the worship of the Hindu male deity Shiva, or Śiva (Sanskrit: “Auspicious One”). Together with Vaishnavism (those sects devoted to the god Vishnu) and Shaktism (those devoted to the goddess Shakti [“Creative Power”], who is also known as Devi), Shaivism forms one of the most important currents of classical and modern Hinduism.
The origins of Shaivism can be traced to at least the second century B.C.E. and to such semihistorical figures as the sage Lakulisha, though its roots probably lie much earlier in the history of Indian religions. In classical Hindu mythology Shiva is portrayed both as the destroyer, who annihilates the universe at the end of each cosmic cycle, and as the lord of yoga and asceticism. As such, he is a deeply paradoxical deity—called by some the erotic ascetic—associated with the forces of both creation and destruction.
Shiva lives high in the Himalayas. His body is smeared with ashes, and his hair is in long, matted locks. He carries a trident and wears a cobra as a garland and a crescent moon as his hair ornament. He is often accompanied by his wife Parvati and his two sons, Skanda and the elephant-headed Ganesha.
The worship of Shiva assumes a wide range of forms and sectarian expressions, ranging from popular devotional worship (bhakti) to the more extreme and esoteric groups, such as the Kapalikas (Skull Bearers) and Tantrics, who use deliberately transgressive elements such as wine, meat, and sexual intercourse in their rituals. By the eleventh or twelfth century, Shaivism had spread throughout most of South Asia in a wide array of different sects, philosophical systems, and devotional forms. In modern times it has spread throughout the globe in a variety of new popular media, attracting not only an Indian audience but also a powerful European and American following through the work of international gurus such as Swami Muktananda and Sathya Sai Baba.
The historical origins of Shaivism are not entirely clear and have been the subject of debate among modern scholars. Many have identified a kind of proto-Shiva as early as the Indus Valley civilization, which flourished from roughly 2500 to 2000 B.C.E. in what became modern Pakistan and northwestern India. A small seal found in the Indus Valley area depicts what appears to be a figure seated in a yogic posture with an erect penis surrounded by animals, which many have taken to be an early form of Shiva in his role as Pashupati, Lord of Creatures. A more likely predecessor is found in the earliest Sanskrit texts, the Vedas (1500-400 B.C.E.), which describe a frightening and violent figure called Rudra (“The Howler”). A minor deity in the Vedas, Rudra is a fierce and terrible figure associated with disease and uncontrolled aspects of nature, such as storms. In the last portion of the Vedas, called the Upanishads (700-400 B.C.E.), Rudra-Shiva is described as the Lord (Ishvara), who is at once the cause of the universe, the magician who sustains all things through his power, and the divinity who transcends the cosmos and yet dwells within the heart of all beings.
By the time of the early classical period of Hindu literature (c. 500 B.C.E.-1000 C.E.), Rudra-Shiva had emerged as a powerful deity with a rich mythology, as seen in the Sanskrit epic poem the Mahabharata (500 B.C.E.-500 C.E.) and the body of mythological compendia known as the Puranas (300-1200 C.E.). Together with Brahma and Vishnu, Shiva is typically imagined as part of the classical Trimurti, or three forms of god. In later texts Shiva is usually identified as the “Destroyer,” Brahma as the “Creator,” and Vishnu as the “Preserver,” even though all three activities can be attributed to each deity, especially in the sectarian texts. Next to his popular image as the long-haired, ash-covered Lord of Yoga, Shiva also appears as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, whose multiarmed whirling dance creates, sustains, and finally engulfs the entire universe.
The earliest known Shaivite sect, the Pashupata tradition, which emerged around the second century C.E., is dedicated to Shiva as the Lord of Creatures. From at least the sixth or seventh century, a new movement, known as Tantra, emerged within both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The Shaivite Tantric texts claim both to incorporate and to transcend the authority of the Vedas. As such, these texts provided the inspiration for a proliferation of Shaivite Tantric groups, such as the highly developed Trika and Krama schools of Kashmir. By the thirteenth century a wide variety of Shaivite groups appeared, ranging from highly ascetic groups like the Lakulishas and Kalamukhas, to yogi sects like the Natha Siddhas, to devotional movements like the Lingayats of South India. In the modern era Shaivism has proliferated into a wide array of sect schools and popular forms, not only throughout South Asia but throughout the world, in new transnational Shaivite movements like Siddha Yoga and in the following of global gurus like Sathya Sai Baba.
The basic doctrines of most Shaivite sects do not differ tremendously from those of other Hindu traditions; like other Hindus, Shaivites assume the laws of karma and reincarnation, and they have as their ultimate goal liberation from this material world, which is seen as illusory and filled with suffering. The primary difference in Shaivism lies in making Shiva the central deity as the origin, cause, and end of existence. According to one of the more developed and influential Shaivite schools, the Shaiva Siddhanta, reality consists of three basic tenets: the pati (the Lord), the pashu (the beast, or created beings), and the pasha (the bond). In this context the Lord is Shiva, the cause and master of all things; the beast is the soul or self; and the bond is the illusory phenomenal universe in which the living soul is enmeshed. The goal of Shaiva Siddhanta practice is, therefore, to free the living soul from its entanglement in the universe and to realize its own inherent divinity.
Various Shaivite traditions do differ somewhat in their core doctrines. The Shaiva Siddhantas, for example, are generally dualist—that is, they maintain a clear distinction between the Lord and the soul. Other schools, such as the Kashmir Shaivites, tend to be strongly monistic, asserting the ultimate unity of God and the soul.
Moral Code of Conduct
Like the paradoxical ascetic-erotic deity Shiva himself, the moral code of the various Shaivite sects differs widely and may appear contradictory. While some sects are highly ascetic and austere, others are explicitly antinomian and involve deliberate violations of conventional moral boundaries. Thus, the earliest Shaivites, the Pashupatas, were strict renunciants—traditionally Brahman (priestly class) males who maintained celibacy and abandoned house-holder life and family. The Pashupata initiate was required to take a vow and engage in spiritual practice that involved three main stages. First, the disciple, smeared in ashes, would live in a Shiva temple, worshiping the deity through meditation, mantras, singing, and dancing. During the second stage he would then leave the temple, go out in public, and behave in various bizarre antisocial ways—such as acting insane and making lewd gestures toward women—deliberately inviting the abuse and reproach of passersby. In the third stage he would with-draw to some remote place, such as a cave or empty house, in order to immerse himself in meditation; ultimately, he would retreat to a cremation ground where he would await his final union with Lord Rudra at death.
More extreme Shaivites, like the Kapalikas and Tantrics, however, sought a more radical means to union with Shiva. The Kapalikas took as their role model Shiva in his most terrible form—Bhairava, the fearsome Lord who wanders the earth carrying the skull of the god Brahma, whom he had beheaded. Like Bhairava, the Kapalika is in a sense beyond good and evil, beyond the moral limitations that confine ordinary human beings. Indeed, a Kapalika sought to transcend the very distinction between pure and impure, clean and unclean by deliberately violating normal social and ethical boundaries; by consuming impure substances such as meat, alcohol, and sexual fluids; or by engaging in sexual intercourse in violation of class restrictions. By systematically overstepping conventional social taboos, the Kapalika hoped to achieve siddhi, a divine power beyond conventional human social limits, like that of the awe-some Shiva himself.
In addition to early Upanishads, such as the Shvetashvatara, other classical Shaivite texts include the Shaivite Puranas,or cosmological and mythological works, such as the Shiva Purana and Linga Purana. Individual Shaivite groups also generated their own texts; for example, the Pashupata Sutra is sacred to the Pashupatas, Lakulishas, and other sects. Finally, with the rise of Hindu Tantra beginning in the fourth or fifth century C.E., a wide range of Shaivite Tantric material was composed, including the various Tantras, Agamas, and Nigamas, said to be revealed by Shiva or Parvati themselves, as well as the sophisticated philosophical works of the Kashmir Shaivite schools. Among the more important of the vast body of Kashmir Shaivite texts are the works of Abhinavagupta (950-1025 C.E.), who composed a monumental synthesis of Shaivite traditions in his Tantraloka and Tantrasara.
The primary symbol of Shiva is the linga, a stylized representation of the male sexual organ. This image is typically an abstract, upright phallus that may vary in size from a few inches to several feet in height and is seated on top of the yoni, or female sexual organ. In addition, a variety of other sacred objects are associated with Shiva, including the mala (rosary) made of dried Rudraksha seeds, used for recitation of mantras; the trident, signifying Shiva’s power to destroy ignorance and evil; the begging bowl, symbolizing the renunciation of worldly society; the vibhuti (ashes), with which Shaivite ascetics smear their bodies in imitation of Shiva as the Lord of Destruction, who also creates new life from the ashes of destruction; the cobra worn around Shiva’s neck, representing Shiva’s power to sub-due danger and transform venom into nectar; and Nandi, the bull who symbolizes the perfect devotee.
Early and Modern Leaders
Other than Lord Shiva himself, Shaivism has no known founder, though there have been a wide range of historical figures associated with the spread of Shiva’s worship. One of the earliest recorded Shaivite teachers is Lakulisha, said to have been the incarnate form of Rudra-Shiva, who appeared by entering and reanimating the corpse of a Brahman in the cremation ground. Over the last 1,800 years India has seen the rise of numerous Shaivite leaders, ranging from ecstatic devotees to erudite philosophers. The semimythical yogi Gorakhnath, who is believed to have lived sometime between the ninth and twelfth centuries, was considered by many to be an incarnation of Shiva and to have helped spread devotion to Shiva as Lord of Yoga. In South India one of the most inspiring Shaivite leaders was Basava (died in 1167), a social and religious reformer in the Lingayat movement who was known both for his deeply moving devotional poetry and his radically egalitarian social doctrines.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, several new movements emerged that brought ancient Shaivite teachings to a new international audience. One of the most influential of these movements is the Siddha Yoga Dham of America (SYDA), which was founded in 1974 by Swami Muktananda (died in 1982). Claiming to be rooted in the traditional teachings of Kashmir Shaivism, the SYDA movement has had a tremendous appeal to a new generation of students in the United States. It has spread to Europe and other parts of the world, as well.
Perhaps the best-known and most influential figure in modern times is Sathya Sai Baba. Born in 1926 in Andhra Pradesh, Sathya Sai Baba claims to be the avatar (human incarnation) of Shiva and that he has manifested himself for this most violent and chaotic age. Sathya Sai has been both tremendously popular and increasingly controversial because of his alleged ability to materialize various small objects, coins, trinkets, and sacred ash from his hands. Significantly, Sathya Sai has also emerged as a powerful international guru who has attracted a variety of high-profile Western devotees.
Major Theologians and Authors
Shaivism has had a tremendous and lasting impact on Indian philosophy from at least the time of the Upanishads to the modern era. Shankara (700?-750? C.E.), the greatest figure in the development of Advaita Vedanta, or absolute nondualism, was himself a devotee of Shiva. Historically, however, the most influential Shaivite theologians came from the Shaiva Siddhanta and Kashmir Shaivite schools. Such Shaiva Siddhanta philosophers as Sadyogoti (eighth century C.E.) and Bhojadeva (eleventh century C.E.) argued for a dualist system in which the self is ultimately equal to, but fundamentally distinct from, God. Conversely, the Pratyabhijna, or “recognition,” school, which adhered to a more radically monist view of God and the self, emerged among the Kashmir Tantric Shaivites. For Kashmiris like Abhinavagupta and Utpala (925-975), the self is characterized by pure consciousness. Once it recognizes its own inherent nature, the self is one with Lord Shiva, who is himself supreme being, consciousness, and bliss. In the twentieth century, the Kashmir Shaivite philosophy was revived and newly propagated by several influential figures, such as the Bengali-born scholar and philosopher Kopinath Kaviraj (1887-1976), who developed a new system of Akhanda-Mahayoda (Great Integral Yoga), and the Kashmiri teacher Swami Laksman Joo (1907-91), who claimed to have tapped into and newly transmitted the traditional oral teachings of the Kashmir schools.
The basic organizational structure common to virtually all Shaivite sects is the master-disciple (guru-sishya) relationship, which typically involves initiation at the hands of the guru, who then imparts the teachings orally to his disciples. Most Shaivites can trace a lineage of masters and disciples extending back hundreds of years to an original founder, such as Lakulisha, Gorakhnath, or to Shiva himself. Beyond this the organization of the various Shaivite groups differs widely, from withdrawn solitary ascetics like the Pashupatas to more coherent intellectual and philosophical circles like the Trika school that emerged in Kashmir.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Shaivite temples and holy places range dramatically, from tiny household altars or village shrines to vast temple complexes. Shaivite temples and shrines can be found in every corner of India and Nepal; they may be as small as roadside lingas or as large as great temple complexes, such as the vast Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar or the Cidambaram Temple in Tamil Nadu, which is dedicated to Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. Traditionally there are said to be 12 sacred places in India where Shiva’s linga shone forth in a fiery column of light, as well as 68 sites where lingas are said to have emerged self-born from the earth itself.
The most sacred holy place of the Shaivite tradition—and, indeed, for all of India—is the city of Varanasi, which is itself called the city of Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi is Kapalamocana, the site where the skull was released. According to classical mythology, Brahma had desired to commit incest with his daughter and was beheaded by Shiva (in his wrathful Bhairava form). Because he had killed a Brahman, Bhairava was condemned to wander the earth with Brahma’s skull in his hand until it was released at this holy site. Hundreds of linga shrines of varying sizes are found in Varanasi, and the city also contains some of the most important Shiva temples, such the Vishvanatha. Outside of India one of the largest Shaivite centers is the Pashupatinath Temple near Kathmandu, Nepal.
What is Sacred?
For the Shaivite the sacred can manifest itself in anything from the lowliest stone carved into a linga to a vast temple complex consecrated as the body of Lord Shiva himself. Specific geographic regions, such as the Himalaya Mountains, and specific individuals, such as sadhus and gurus, can also be physical embodiments of the sacred. Ultimately for most Shaivite traditions, the goal is to see all things as sacred, for all things are in effect created by, and reflections of, Lord Shiva.
Holidays and Festivals
The central holy day in the Shaivite calendar is Maha Shivaratri, the “Great Night of Shiva,” held on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of Phalgun, the month in the Hindu calendar that overlaps February and March. The festival is said to mark the manifestation of Shiva’s vast jyotirlinga, or linga of light. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu and Brahma had been quarreling over who was the more powerful deity. Shiva then manifested himself as a great shining linga so vast that Brahma could not find its top, and Vishnu could not find its bottom, thus asserting Shiva’s preeminence among the gods. During Maha Shivratri, the linga is bathed with the five sacred offerings of a cow—milk, sour milk, urine, butter, and dung. Then the five foods of immortality—milk, clarified butter, curd, honey, and sugar—are placed before the linga. Devotees fast during the day and then pray and make offerings to the Lord throughout the night.
In addition to Maha Shivaratri, individual regions and temples have specific festivals that are celebrated with special fanfare. For example, at the Kapalishvara Temple in Madras there is a unique festival held in March or April known as Brahmotsavam, the Festival of Brahma, believed to have been founded by Brahma himself. During the 10-day celebration, a bronze image of Shiva is seated on a gigantic image of the bull Nandi and then pulled in procession throughout the city until he is returned to his home in the temple.
Mode of Dress
Most modern Shaivite priests and devotees would not stand out from other Hindus in their particular mode of dress. Shaivite sadhus (holy men) and sannyasis (renunciants), however, are typically known for their imitation of Lord Shiva in their dress, markings, and hairstyle. Shaivite sadhus and sannyasis will typically smear their bodies in ash, wear their hair in long, snakelike locks, carry the trident and begging bowl, and mark their foreheads with ash in three horizontal lines, symbolic of Shiva’s trident.
Most Shaivite sects do not differ significantly from other Hindus in their dietary practices. As in other Hindu traditions, diet varies somewhat according to one’s class status, so that Brahmans tend to be more strictly vegetarian, while lower classes may consume poultry, fish, and mutton, with various regional differences. Exceptions to this general rule include the more extreme Shaivite sects, such as the Kapalikas, Aghoris, and left-hand Tantrics, who often deliberately ingest substances that are considered impure by orthodox standards—such as beef, wine, and sexual fluids—in order to prove their transcendence of all conventional dualities. Some Aghoris, literally “those without fear,” are known to consume human flesh as a sign that they have fully overcome the distinction between purity and impurity that confines ordinary human beings.
Shaivite worship follows the general model of puja (honor) that is common in most other Hindu traditions. Lord Shiva is believed to be literally, not just symbolically, present in his various physical representations, whether it be an abstract linga or an anthropomorphic sculpture of the deity. He is to be revered with offerings that involve all the senses—taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. Thus, at most Shaivite shrines the linga is bathed, dressed, and adorned with flowers and incense; various substances (such as sandalwood paste, milk, honey, and mashed fruit) may be poured over it as offerings. Prayer to Lord Shiva also follows the model of other Hindu traditions, centering on the repetition of mantras (sacred sounds holy to Shiva) such as “Om Nama Shivay.”
Devotees make long journeys to various Shaivite temples throughout India. In addition to the holy city of Varanasi, major pilgrimage sites include the Mahakaleshwar Temple, said to be the place where Shiva manifested his jyotirlingain Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, as well as several sacred sites in Shiva’s mountain realm in the Himalaya foothills of Uttar Pradesh, such as Kedarnath, Badrinath, Nilkanth, and Gangotri, the source of the Ganges River.
In a few areas, particularly in Nepal, Shiva is also worshiped with animal sacrifice. The Kala (black) Bhairava and Seto (white) Bhairava images in Kathmandu, for example, are still regularly honored with the severed heads and blood of goats and buffaloes.
Rites of Passage
As in other Hindu traditions, most Shaivite householders accept the basic life cycle rites, or samskaras, that mark major stages of life, such as baptism, first haircutting, marriage, and first impregnation. Most of the Shaivite sects also require some form of initiation (diksha) at the hands of a qualified guru. According to the Shaiva Siddhanta tradition, the practitioner (sadhaka) undergoes two initiations to remove impurities from the soul. The first of these is the lesser initiation (samaya-diksha), which ushers the practitioner into the rituals and scriptures of the cult, and the second is the liberating initiation (nirvana-diksha), which ensures the soul’s final liberation.
Early Shaivite sects tended to be quite exclusive in their membership. The Pashupatas required that initiates be of a certain social caste; Kapalikas and Tantrics required initiates to engage in highly esoteric rituals. Later devotional movements, such as the Lingayats, however, made an explicit attempt to break down class barriers and to appeal to men and women of all social strata, from Brahmans to untouchables. Since the late twentieth century neo-Shaivite gurus like Sathya Sai Baba have made free use of a wide variety of modern media and technologies.
Prior to the twentieth century most Shaivite sects showed little interest in ecumenical activity; indeed, they were long considered by other sects as non-Vedic, heterodox, or outside the fold of Brahminical ritual. Some later Shaivite theologians, such as Abhinavagupta, attempted to synthesize and categorize all the known religious systems, creating an elaborate hierarchy of teachings with his own Trika system at the pinnacle. In modern times many neo-Hindu leaders have tended to promote a kind of universal spirituality in which all the world’s religions are regarded as so many paths leading to the same divine summit. Sathya Sai Baba, the self-proclaimed avatar of Lord Shiva, represents this globalized Hindu spirit, which at once declares the unity of all religions and also asserts the superiority of Hinduism as the most inclusive and universal of all faiths.
Most Shaivite sects tend to accept the social order established by the Vedas and the system of class and the four stages of life (varnashrama dharma). There are, however, some influential Shaivite traditions, such as those practiced by the Lingayats of South India. The Lingayat twelfth-century poet and spiritual leader Basava was himself a Shaivite Brahman at the court of King Bijjala of Kalyana (reigned 1156-67). Basava preached vehemently against the class system and advocated an egalitarian, classless vision of society in which Brahmans and untouchables might live together equally. Most modern Shaivite teachers have also taught either a serious reform or complete abolition of the class system and new rights for women; an important exception, however, is Sathya Sai Baba, who has argued for the importance of traditional class and gender roles as a crucial foundation for a strong culture and social order.
Shaivite attitudes toward marriage and family generally do not depart significantly from other Hindu traditions. There are both married householder Shaivites and renunciants, like the Pashupatas, who abandon women and family. While a few more radical groups, such as the Lingayats, oppose the class system and traditional marital laws, most of the more orthodox schools accept the varna (class) system, the authority of Brahmans, and the sacrament of marriage.
Since at least the nineteenth century and the encounter with British colonialism and European scholarship, one of the more controversial aspects of Shaivism is the worship of the linga, or phallus. Indeed, after two centuries of attack and criticism by Western authors for their alleged “primitive phallicism” and even “erotomania,” some Hindus deny that the linga has anything to do with the male genitalia.
A more recent political controversy, however, surrounds some of the extreme fundamentalist Pan-Hindu movements that have emerged since the latter half of the twentieth century—particularly the Shiva Sena, or “Army of Shiva.” The Shiva Sena movement has become increasingly controversial because of its often xenophobic and anti-Muslim stance. Members of Shiva Sena were a major force in the destruction of the Babri Masjid (Mosque) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, in 1992, which in turn ignited horrific violence and bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims throughout South Asia.
Shaivism has had a deep and lasting impact on virtually every aspect of Indian and, increasingly, Western culture, from dance and music to literature and painting. As Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, Shiva is often identified as the spiritual inspiration for classical Indian dance, and his image has given birth to a 2000-year-old tradition of sculpture, temple architecture, and painting. There is, moreover, a vast body of literature dedicated to Shiva, ranging from the classical Sanskrit of the epics and Puranas to the vernacular poetry of authors like Basava and the South Indian Lingayat tradition. Finally, arguably the greatest aesthetic theorist in Indian history was Abhinavagupta, the same Kashmiri theologian who synthesized the major Shaivite and Tantric schools of his day. Abhinavagupta developed a sophisticated aesthetic system based on the various rasas, or “flavors,” of aesthetic experience, which has had a lasting impact on Indian poetry, drama, and religious literature through modern times. Indeed, for Abhinavagupta the ultimate aesthetic experience was santa-rasa (peace), which is the same experience of tranquillity that is experienced in the nondual union of the self and absolute reality.