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History of Shaivism

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History of Shaivism

The Development of the Saiva Traditions

Shaivism (also spelled "Saivism"), refers to the religious traditions of Hinduism that focus on the deity Shiva.[1]

The worship of Shiva is a pan-Hindu tradition, practiced widely across all of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.[2][3] Shaivism has many different schools showing both regional variations and differences in philosophy.[4] Shaivism has a vast literature that includes texts representing multiple philosophical schools, including non-dualist (abheda), dualist (bheda), and non-dual-with-dualism (bhedābheda) perspectives.[5]

It is very difficult to determine the early history of Shaivism.[6] Axel Michaels explains the composite nature of Shaivism as follows:

Like Vişņu, Śiva is also a high god, who gives his name to a collection of theistic trends and sects: Śaivism. Like Vaişņavism, the term also implies a unity which cannot be clearly found either in religious practice or in philosophical and esoteric doctrine. Furthermore, practice and doctrine must be kept separate.[7]



Some people believe that artifacts from Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and other archaeological sites of northwestern India and Pakistan indicate that some early form of Shiva worship was practiced in the Indus Valley. These artifacts include lingams and the "Pashupati seal" that has been the subject of much study. The Indus Valley civilization reached its peak around 2500–2000 BCE, when trade links with Mesopotamia are known to have existed, was in decline by 1800 BCE, and faded away by 1500 BCE.[8]

1008 Lingas carved on a rock surface. Photograph is taken at the shore of the river Tungabhadra, Hampi, India

A seal discovered during excavation of the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site in the Indus Valley has drawn attention as a possible representation of a "proto-Shiva" figure.[9] This "Pashupati" (Lord of Animals, Sanskrit paśupati)[10] seal shows a large central figure that is surrounded by animals. The central figure is often described as a seated figure, possibly ithyphallic, surrounded by animals.[11] Sir John Marshall and others have claimed that this figure is a prototype of Shiva, and have described the figure as having three faces, seated in a "yoga posture" with the knees out and feet joined. Semi-circular shapes on the head are often interpreted as two horns. Gavin Flood characterizes these views as "speculative", saying that while it is not clear from the seal that the figure has three faces, is seated in a yoga posture, or even that the shape is intended to represent a human figure, it is nevertheless possible that there are echoes of Shaiva iconographic themes, such as half-moon shapes resembling the horns of a bull.[9][12]

Vedic Rudra

For information on the history of the deity, see the articles for Rudra and Shiva

Shaivism is devoted to worship of the god Shiva.[13] The Sanskrit word śiva (Devanagari शिव) is an adjective meaning kind, friendly, gracious, or auspicious.[14][15] As a proper name, it means "The Auspicious One", used as a euphemistic name for Rudra.[15] In simple English transliteration, it may be written either as Shiva or Siva.

Over the course of time, many regional approaches to the worship and understanding of Shiva would be reconciled.[16]

Emergence of Shaivism

The documentation of formal religious history, as opposed to archaeological evidence or scriptural mentions, is marked by Gavin Flood's remark that:

The formation of Śaiva traditions as we understand them begins to occur during the period from 200 BC to 100 AD.[17]

The two great epics of India, the Mahabharata[18] and the Ramayana, deal extensively with stories of both Shiva and Vishnu,[19] and there are references to early Shiva ascetics in the Mahabharata.[20]

The Śvetāśvatara Upanishad (400 – 200 BCE)[21] is the earliest textual exposition of a systematic philosophy of Shaivism.[22] As explained by Gavin Flood, the text proposes:

... a theology which elevates Rudra to the status of supreme being, the Lord (Sanskrit: Īśa) who is transcendent yet also has cosmological functions, as does Śiva in later traditions.[23]

In the grammarian Patanjali's "Great Commentary" (Sanskrit: Mahābhasya) on Pāṇini's Sanskrit grammar (2nd century BCE), he describes a devotee of Shiva as clad in animal skins and carrying an iron lance as the symbol of his god, perhaps a precursor of Shiva's trident.[24][25]

Puranic Shaivism

It is with the Puranas that Shaivism spread rapidly, eventually throughout the subcontinent, through the singers and composers of the Puranic narratives.[26] The Puranic literature has its origins in the later Gupta period (6th century) and develops during c. the 8th to 11th centuries.[27] along with Smarta Brahmin forms of worship.[17] The convergence of various Shaiva and Vaishnava trends, as well as their growing popularity, may have been partly the outcome of dominant dynasties like the Guptas assimilating the resources and cultural elements of their conquered territories.[28]

The bulk of the material contained in the Puranas was established during the reign of the Guptas, with incremental additions taking place to the texts up to later medieval times.[29] There are eighteen major Puranas, and these are traditionally classified into three groups of six each, with Shiva considered to be the central deity in the Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Matsya Purana, Kurma purana, Skanda Purana, and Agni Purana.[29] However this traditional grouping is inexact, for while the Shiva Purana is strongly sectarian in its focus on Shiva, others are not so clearly sectarian and include material about other deities as well, particularly Vishnu.[30]

The Puranic corpus is a complex body of materials that advance the views of various competing cults, as Gavin Flood explains:

Although these texts are related to each other, and material in one is found in another, they nevertheless each present a view of ordering of the world from a particular perspective. They must not be seen as random collections of old tales, but as highly selective and crafted expositions and presentations of worldviews and soteriologies, compiled by particular groups of Brahmins to propagate a particular vision, whether it be focused on Viṣṇu, Śiva, or Devī, or, indeed, any number of deities.[31]

For example, the Vishnu Purana (4th century) presents a Vaisnava viewpoint in which Vishnu awakens, becomes the creator god Brahma to create the universe, sustains it, and then destroys it as Rudra (Shiva).[32]

Shaiva theism was expounded in the Agamas, which number two hundred including the Upagamas (the "Lesser" Agamas), which were composed before the 7th century.[6] In the 7th century, Banabhatta included the worship of Shiva in his account of the prominent religious sects of that time.[6]

In the 7th century the great Chinese traveller Xuanzang (Huen Tsang) toured India and wrote in Chinese about the prevalence of Shiva worship at that time, describing Shiva temples at Kanoj, Karachi, Malwa, Gandhar (Kandahar), and especially at Varanasi (Benares) where he saw twenty large temples dedicated to Shiva.[33]

Non-Puranic Shaivism


Smartism is a denomination of Hinduism that places emphasis on a group of five deities rather than just a single deity.[34] The "worship of the five forms" pañcāyatana pūjā system, which was popularized by the philosopher Adi Shankara (also known as Śaṅkarācārya) (between 650 and 800, traditionally 788–820),[35] invokes the five deities Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu, Devī, and Sūrya.[36][37] This system was instituted by Śaṅkarācārya primarily to unite the principal deities of the five major sects on an equal status.[38] The monistic philosophy preached by Śaṅkarācārya made it possible to choose one of these as a preferred principal deity and at the same time worship the other four deities as different forms of the same all-pervading Brahman.

Saiva Siddhanta

The tradition may have originated in Kashmir where it developed a sophisticated theology propagted by theologians Sadyojoti, Bhatta Nārāyanakantha and his son Bhatta Rāmakantha (c. 950–1000).[39] Considered normative tantric Saivism, Shaiva Siddhanta provides the normative rites, cosmology and theological categories of tantric Saivism.[40] Being a dualistic philosophy, the goal of Shaiva Siddhanta is to become an ontologically distinct Shiva (through Shiva's grace).[41] This tradition was once practiced all over India. However the Muslim subjugation of north India restricted Shaiva Siddhanta to the south,[42] where it merged with the Tamil Saiva cult expressed in the bhakti poetry of the Nayanmars.[43] It is in this historical context that Shaiva Siddhanta is commonly considered a "southern" tradition, one that is still very much alive.[43]


By the 7th century, the Nayanmars, a tradition of poet-saints in the bhakti tradition developed in South India with a focus on Shiva by the comparable to that of the Vaisnava Alvars.[44] The devotional poems of the Nayanmars are divided into eleven collections together with a Tamil Purana called the Periya Puranam. The first seven collections are known as the Thevaram and are regarded by Tamils as equivalent to the Vedas.[45] They were composed in the 7th century by Sambandar, Appar, and Sundarar.[46]

Tirumular, also spelled (Tirumūlār or Tirumūlar) the author of the Tirumantiram (also spelled Tirumandiram) is considered by Tattwananda to be the earliest exponent of Shaivism in Tamil areas.[47] Tirumular is dated as 7th or 8th century by Maurice Winternitz.[48] The Tirumantiram is a primary source for the system of Shaiva Siddhanta, being the tenth book of its canon.[49] The Tiruvacakam by Manikkavacagar is an important collection of hymns of which Sir Charles Eliot wrote, "In no literature with which I am acquainted, has the individual religious life, its struggles and dejections, its hopes and fears, its confidence and its triumph received a delineation more frank and more profound."[50] The Tiruvacakam praises Siva as belonging to the southern country, India, yet worshipped by people of all countries.[51]

Tamil areas

There are numerous Siva temples in Tamil Nadu, most located in the Thanjavur region which was a major part of the Chola empire between 800 and 1200. A particular branch of Shaivism, the philosophy of Shaiva Siddhanta, is particularly popular in southern India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and every other country where Tamils are living.[52]

See also


  1. ^ Flood (1996), p. 149.
  2. ^ Flood (1996), p. 17
  3. ^ Keay, p.xxvii.
  4. ^ For an overview of the Shaiva Traditions, see Flood, Gavin, "The Śaiva Traditions", in: Flood (2003), pp. 200–228.
  5. ^ Tattwananda, p. 54.
  6. ^ a b c Tattwananda, p. 45.
  7. ^ Michaels, p. 215.
  8. ^ For dating as fl. 2300–2000 BCE, decline by 1800 BCE, and extinction by 1500 BCE see: Flood (1996), p. 24.
  9. ^ a b Flood (1996), pp. 28–29.
  10. ^ For translation of paśupati as "Lord of Animals" see: Michaels, p. 312.
  11. ^ For a drawing of the seal see Figure 1 in: Flood (1996), p. 29.
  12. ^ Flood (2003), pp. 204–205.
  13. ^ Tattwananda, pp. 43–44.
  14. ^ Apte, p. 919.
  15. ^ a b Macdonell, p. 314.
  16. ^ Keay, p. xxvii.
  17. ^ a b Flood (2003), p. 205.
  18. ^ For analysis of references to Shiva in the Mahabharata, see: Sharma (1988), pp. 20–21.
  19. ^ Tattwananda, p. 46.
  20. ^ For references to Shiva ascetics in the Mahabharata see: Flood (1996), p. 154.
  21. ^ For dating to 400–200 BCE see: Flood (1996), p. 86.
  22. ^ For Śvetāśvatara Upanishad as a systematic philosophy of Shaivism see: Chakravarti, p. 9.
  23. ^ Flood (1996), p. 153.
  24. ^ For Patanjali's description of the Shiva bhakta see: Flood (1996), p. 154.
  25. ^ For mention of a Shaiva sect by Patanjali see: Bhandarkar (1913), p. 165.
  26. ^ For the Puranic period as important to the spread across the subcontinent, see: Flood (1996), p. 154.
  27. ^ For dating of Gupta Period as c. 300–500, see: Keay, pp. 129–154; For dating of Gupta dynasty as 320–500 AD see: Flood (1996), p. 110.
  28. ^ For the geopolitical analysis that Shaiva and Vaisnava consolidation may have been due to Gupta empirical consolidation see: Keay, p. 147.
  29. ^ a b Flood (1996), p. 110.
  30. ^ For the inexact nature of the traditional group of six, see: Flood (1996), p. 110.
  31. ^ Flood (1996), p. 111.
  32. ^ For dating of 4th century and synopsis of Vishnu Purana see: Flood (1996), p. 111.
  33. ^ For Huen Tsang's account see: Tattwananda, p. 46.
  34. ^ Flood (1996), p. 17.
  35. ^ For traditional dating of 788-820, see: Keay, pp. 62, 194; and for broad dating of 650-800, see: Keay, p. 62.
  36. ^ Dating for the pañcāyatana pūjā and its connection with Smārta Brahmins is from Courtright, p. 163.
  37. ^ For worship of the five forms as central to Smarta practice see: Flood (1996), p. 113.
  38. ^ Grimes, p. 162.
  39. ^ Flood, Gavin. 2003. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden: Blackwell. pg. 210.
  40. ^ Flood, Gavin. D. 2006. The Tantric Body. P.120
  41. ^ Flood, Gavin. D. 2006. The Tantric Body. P.122
  42. ^ Flood, Gavin. D. 2006. The Tantric Body. P.34
  43. ^ a b Flood, Gavin. D. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. P.168
  44. ^ For emergency of the Nayanmars by 7th century and comparison with Vaisnava Alvars see: Flood (1996), 131.
  45. ^ For eleven collections, with the first seven (the Thevaram) regarded as Vedic, see: Tattwananda, p. 55.
  46. ^ For dating of Sambandar, Appar, and Sundarar as 7th century see: Tattwananda, p. 55.
  47. ^ Tattwananda, p. 55.
  48. ^ Winternitz, p. 588, note 1.
  49. ^ For the Tirumantiram as the tenth book of the Shaiva Siddhanta canon see Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. "Auspicious Fragments and Uncertain Wisdom", in: Harper and Brown, p. 63.
  50. ^ Quotation from Sir Charles Eliot's Hinduism and Buddhism, volume II, p. 127, is provided in: Tattwananda, p. 56.
  51. ^ Thiruvachakam 4 (Potri Thiruvakaval); lines 164, 165.
  52. ^ S. Arulsamy, Saivism – A Perspective of Grace, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi, 1987, pp.1


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