The Untold Mystery of Lord Shiva and Shaivism in Vedic Texts


We associate Lord Shiva with various things: the protector of all creatures, the most powerful among the Hindu Trinity, Maha yogi seated on the top of the Mount Kailash, Mahakala – beyond time and space, Bholenath, 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 –

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. They worship a deity who personified their fears and anxieties in an unfamiliar territory surrounded by hostile tribes and unfavorable nature. They thought of him as the God of anger, death, and destruction at first, and even uttering his name was thought to be inauspicious and necessitated for rituals back in the day.

However, with time, he superseded other Vedic gods, was considered the most powerful God, and stood as the destroyer.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

The integration might have happened because of cultural integration, which might have been the kings who used to worship multiple deities and followed a policy of religious tolerance. Saivism became a culture 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 initially frown upon worshipping the Shiva linga, that culture got integrated with time and is considered the most auspicious one.

Shiva in Vedas

In the 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 a fearful candidate was to appease him as only Rudra could save them from the wrath of Rudra. To avoid pregnancy problems, harm, death, and the death of heroes in their wars, they implored him.

Lord Rudra
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 wrath and bring health and prosperity to people simultaneously. 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, or Sobhya. Some hymns state that Rudra, Sarva, and Bhava are referred to as different deities.

Satapatha Brahmana talks about the eight names of Rudra. In one place, he is considered Rudra-Shiva; in the other, he is considered Agni. He got the name Rudra as he clung to the Prajapathi as Manyú, as Prajapathi was disjointed when other divinities fled. Still, 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.

Lord Shiva with Trishul

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.

Few 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, and attaining moksha. Other Upanishads like Brhajjabala and Bhasmajabala talk about important concepts of Shiva worship.

Lord Shiva Art

The growing popularity of Shiva is because of the integration between Yoga and Samkhya school of philosophy, the rise of the Bhakti movement and the rise of ascetic traditions that slams caste prejudices and empty ritualism, the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, and other emphasis 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 Parvati, the story of how he drank the most lethal poison during Samudra Manthan, and the story of the death of Andhaka, the destruction of three cities with the help of Lord 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.

Ravana Meditating on Shiva

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 Shanti Parva, Hari and Hara are proven to be the same. The same chapter talks about how some epithets of Shiva are 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.

Arjuna gets Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva
Shiva gives Pashupatastra to Arjuna. Image source –

Apart from these two grand epics, some Puranas 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 much older than Brahmanism and Jainism. It dates back to pre-historic times. There are three common beliefs between Saivism, Brahmanism, and Jainism: reincarnation, karma, and Maya. These concepts were foreign to the Vedic culture and were only integrated later through Shaivism.

According to the scholars, the seal found in the Indus valley suggests that the Indus people worshiped a deity similar to Lord Shiva; regarding 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.

Shaivism 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 a curse. According to its tenets, the divine will is an inviolable law that builds as the grace of Shiva. The power is strong: it can neutralize individual karmas and grant souls freedom from birth and rebirth.

Karma in Hinduism

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 so 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 immediately interferes with our lives and punishes 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.

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 laws and follows his laws. And if he has to disobey the law, he is willing to do so too.

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

Shaivism in the 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 the 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 the word Chembu or Chempu or Sembu, which means copper or red metal. Likewise, the phallic symbol has an Austric origin.

If we study Celtic gods like Norse Odin and Celtic Cernunnos, we cannot ignore their similarities 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 concepts developed in the ancient traditions. Only later, 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 day. 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, Shiva Bhagats references an ancient Saiva cult.

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

During the pre-Christian area, there lived a great devotee named 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 the 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.

akulisha Statue in Sangameshvara Temple at Mahakuta, Karnataka, Early Chalukya dynasty, 7th century CE.
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 the Vedic religion and worship many gods, including Shiva under the name Shiva, Mahadeva, Bhava, and Bhutapala. They also worshiped Nandi and his son Skanda, also known as Lord Kartikeya. Sakas, Pahlavas, Kushanas, and other foreign dynasties that ruled the Indian subcontinent turned themselves towards Shaivism. Kushanas and 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 Vakatakas and Guptas then followed. Scholars believe that Satavahanas in the south and Barashivas in the north played a great role in reviving Hindu Dharma.

During the Gupta period, 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. During this period, many sacred texts of Saivism, such as Agamas, Tantras, and Puranas connected with Shiva, were created.

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

The Nayanars

The “Nalvar”
The “Nalvar” source – wikipedia

Between the 6th and 8th century AD, the Nayanars of the 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, and Vaishnavism through their musical art. Some Saiva literature records the names of 63 Nayanars, a few of which were women.

Another Sectarian Movement and Growth

A new movement known as Kashmiri Shaivism grew between the 9th and 13th centuries. Because of teaching with personalities like Vasugupta, Somananda, Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta, and 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, Kashmiri Shaivism caught the attention of many as it emphasized a 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 Siddhanta became another school of Shaivism in 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 attains the same consciousness as Shiva and continues to remain as a free soul till eternity.

Another school of Shaivism, known as the 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. Virasaivism includes features like the importance of a guru, lingam, jangama, the grace of God, holy ash, Rudraksha, and the sacred mantra Om Namah Shivaya. Even today, in the south, Virasaivism gains a good following.

The most esoteric of all schools of Shaivism is the Gorakshanatha school. It emphasizes magical religious rituals of tantric nature. They are only provided to the 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, 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 many 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 popularism amongst the Hindus 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.