Making Sense of Shiva; Understanding the Complexity of Hindu Gods

To a certain extent it is fair to say Siva has one of the most important roles in the Tri Murti, and is definitely the most important to the Saivite tradition.  Siva also functions as a prominent deity and arguably one of the most influential and vital to Hinduism.  However, it is not entirely accurate to say Siva has the most important role in the Tri Murti, due the prominence of Visnu and subsequent Vaishnava traditions.  Within this essay I will be looking at the aspects of the divine in Siva, and what this means in Saivite traditions and permeation into wider Hindu society, as well as alternative and contradicting points of view that disagree with the question proposed.

If we keep our focus on those gods within the Tri Murti, we can see through the Saivite lens that Siva is the most important aspect of the Tri Murti.  Commonly he is seen by the wider Hindu community as the destroyer, but in Saivite circles he is also the creator, and encompasses the roles of the other two deities in the Tri Murti; Visnu and Brahma.   Saivism is one of the largest sects within Hinduism and is the organised worship of Siva.[1] Modern Saivism consists of a whole spectrum of schools, such as the distinctive Lingayat community unique to Siva, ascetic traditions like the dashnami sannyasins, and other folk variants.[2]

The Vedas spoke of the origins of a God called Rudra, who later developed as Siva, known as ‘the auspicious one’.  The Shvetashvatara upanisad treats Siva as the paramount deity and is an important God in the two main epics: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.[3]  However, it was not until a time between the second century BCE and second century CE that the rise of the Pashupata sect made it possible to have sectarian worship.  The Pashupata are one of the earliest sects that worship Siva as the most supreme deity and created numerous other schools that spread throughout Gujarat and Rajasthan, and as far as Cambodia.  The Pashupatas see themselves as the heard of Siva, who rules over them like sacred animals fit for sacrifice.[4]  After this, temples and festivals dedicated to Siva, religious institutions and temples developed for Siva renunciants, and places of pilgrimage for Siva developed throughout India.

Sharada Sugirtharajah, when writing on the Tri Murti, says Siva holds together all opposites, tensions and contradictions.  Seen as the destroyer of evil foremost, but also encompasses all three forms of the Tri Murti.  Within the Saivite school, Siva bares greater power than Visnu, and absorbs him into his aspects.[5]  However, it is important to consider of course that this is part of the cultural and religious standing that pieces together the Saivite perspective.  Within Vaisnava thinking, Visnu does the same, only to Siva.  The way Siva draws in all three aspects of the Tri Murti towards him balance the creator and destroyer elements, making him the most supreme aspect of the divine.

One of most important forms of Siva is when he appears as Nataraja, the lord of the dance.  Symbolises the cosmic energy that flows through him as sustains the universe.  The dance is the destruction of evil, which makes room for creation.  In this form he performs all three functions of creation, preservation and destruction.[6]  Ascetic Siva conserves energy, whereas dancing Siva releases it for the good of humanity.  These are the two opposites that bind Siva together, and creates his important position of both householder and ascetic[7].    The importance of the role of Siva as a great yogi and grhastha, or householder symbolises the renunciation and affirmation of life.  As a yogi he is pictured with his third eye, cross legged, holding his trident, which represents his three aspects as creator, preserver and destroyer[8], showing him as being all the Tri Murti.  This distinction also shows Siva as capable of all things, because the household and renunciant traditions are often seen as very separate, but in this case, Siva bares the power to draw them together.

Siva’s power and arguably further dominance of the Tri Murti can be seen where he is depicted ichnographically as Ardhanari, half male half female.  It is said Siva performed this himself to aid Brahma in creation, as Siva can play the role of both men and women, appearing as androgynous, or Ardhanarisvara.[9]  This is another example in which Siva has superseded Brahma’s role as creator and become the creator himself; taking on the divine attributes of another God as the more supreme deity.  Siva’s relationship with the sexes and sexuality also makes him prominent within the Tri Murti.  Within the realms of the divine feminine principle, knows as sakti, Siva’s energy manifests as Durga, the most powerful female goddess.  In this form, she is seen as the divine and universal mother: embodying courage, pure love, compassion, divine light and blessings.[10]  Durga is a supreme being that presents moral order and righteousness, battling forces of evil in the world.  Mythologically, Durga has eight arms, each holding a weapon she used to slay the buffalo demon who threatened the world.  Many Hindus see goddesses as independent from male gods of the Tri Murti, and worship them within their own right[11], so it is not entirely accurate to compare Durga to Siva in the same sense.  Although they are connected, they are separate deities.

Siva temples worship him in the form of the linga, a phallic symbol, and in association with the yoni, or womb, it symbolises the union of male and female.  It represents creation in the biological, as well as spiritual and cosmic.  The Linga is the main object of Siva worship.[12] Seen in the Siva Puranas, part of the 18 major mahapuranas within Hindu scripture that puts Lord Siva as supreme deity, chapters 34-35 from the Vayaviya-samhita focusses on the linga worship of Siva.  In verse 6, Krsna questions the linga, and how Siva is worshipped in his form. 

The reply in verse 7 is that it is the ‘source of all attributes’, it has ‘no beginning or end,’ and is the ‘cause of the universe’.[13]  This places Siva as the ultimate manifestation of the divine but does not necessarily discount other Gods from being.  From the linga is meant to come Siva, and all his forms, including Visnu and Brahma.  In addition to this, chapter 6 of the Vidyesvara-samhita depicts a fight between Brahma and Visnu, who both believe they are the lord.  Verses 20-22 state that the ‘three-pointed-trident-bearing deity,’ who we know is Siva, is said the be the ‘cause of creation, maintenance, annihilation, concealment and blessing’.[14]  This of course portrays Siva as the ultimate, and everything, and places Siva above that of Brahma and Visnu.

It is important to bear in mind however that Hindus have many names of the divine, and worship affirms the Supreme through various names and forms.  This stems from the Rg-Veda[15], which gives the one reality many names as a form of expression.  Each god and goddess will have more than one name to exemplify the different aspects of that godhead.  For example, Visnu is known through other names like Narayana, Hari and Padmanabha; and Krsna, an avatar of Visnu is known by Madhusudana, Gopala and Janardana[16].  There are also notions of the supreme self, or Paramatman, as well as village deities.  With the divine being worshiped in many different forms, it will be subject to the worshipping individual or community as to who the most supreme is.  Siva’s sons, Skanda and Ganesh are worshipped outside of Saivite communities, and have whole separate grouping of traditions, and are worshipped by separate followers to Siva.[17]  Geaves’ study on Saivism and the diaspora found that Skanda worship has spread through the Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the UK, making it comparable geographically to Saivite worship[18].  This doesn’t take away from Siva’s role within the Tri-Murti, but just means that outside of that context, Siva isn’t directly worshipped as Siva, but as other forms respectfully.  Ganesh is a god worshipped within his own right, and by some is seen as more powerful and influential than Siva.

After the later upanisads, Visnu and Siva became popular deities, creating the schools of Vaisnavas and Saivites.  They each have thier own individual set of cultural practises and traditions, yet to each of their followers respectively, Siva and Visnu are the same; a transcendent supreme Lord, but also immanent within each person.[19]  This causes issues when considering which deity takes ultimate position, as they both bare the same weight to thier devotees, and can at times subsume each other’s roles and become all three parts of the Tri Murti in a singular form[20].

To conclude, we look at this from a wider perspective, the Hindu religious experience is made up of a variety of regions and perspectives and talking about these religious experiences within Hinduism is problematic.  Hinduism is a term created and re-appropriated by colonialists as an umbrella term to cover a wide variety of systems and practises within India.[21]  It’s almost unfair to view Saivism as anything over and above other deities and is a difficult concept to try and state that Siva has any more power and authority over any other God or tradition.  Even if we try to see each tradition as separate, they do permeate into each other[22].  Although different sects of Hinduism will follow thier own deity; they all feed into same idea of the divine, with each God emulating different aspects of the supreme.  So, although Siva holds a magnitude of authoritative positions within the sphere of Hindu theology, it is not entirely accurate to portray him as the literal be all and end all divine authority throughout all Hindu traditional beliefs.  The Saivite school of belief is nothing but equal to the Vaisnava school from the perspective of an outsider.  Saivites place Siva in the position of the ultimate Godhead, just as Hare Krishna’s place Krishna as the ultimate Godhead of Visnu.  Therefore, the extent of Siva’s role in the Tri Murti is that of great power, just as the other roles also.  It is too simplistic to see one as holding any more objective power over the others, as the Tri Murti has three individual deities, that perform together in order to create the Tri Murti.  Even if we say Siva has the most important role, that is within its own perspective.  We can completely say Siva is important, but only with the due consideration of the context of the views of others.

This Essay was submitted for grading on the 1st December 2019 for an assessment at the University of Gloucestershire. Turnitin ID: 114799339


[1] Stefon, Matt and Wendy Doniger: ‘Shaivism’ (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015) <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Shaivism> [accessed 28 October 2019]

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Stefon, Matt and Wendy Doniger: ‘Pashupata, Hindu Sect’ (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015) <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pashupata> [accessed 10 November 2019]

[5] Paul Bowen, Themes and Issues in Hinduism (London: Cassell, 1998) p.179

[6] Paul Bowen, Themes and Issues in Hinduism p.180

[7] Ibid

[8] Paul Bowen, Themes and Issues in Hinduism p.181

[9] Paul Bowen, Themes and Issues in Hinduism p.182

[10]Gavin Flood, The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p.191

[11]Klaus k. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism Third Edition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007) p.116

[12] Paul Bowen, Themes and Issues in Hinduism p.183

[13] J.L Shastri, The Shiva Purana (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1970) in Wisdom Library

<https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/shiva-purana-english> [accessed 18 November 2019] Chapters 34-35

[14] Ibid, chapter 6

[15] J. Gonda, Visnuism and Sivaism, A Comparison (London: The Athlone Press, 1970) p.2

[16] Ibid

[17] Kim Knott, Hinduism, A Very Short Introduction, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) p.48

[18] Chappel, C.K., ‘Saivism in the Diaspora: Contemporary Forms of Skanda Worship by Ron Geaves’

Digital Commons@Loyola Marymount University: Theological Studies Faculty Works (2011) pp.1-3

[19] Kim Knott, Hinduism, A Very Short Introduction p.51

[20] Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism Third Edition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007) pp 108-117

[21]McDaniel, J., “Introduction to “religious Experience in the Hindu Tradition”, Religions, 10 (2019), pp 1-3 doi:10.3390/rel10050329 pp.1-2

[22] Gavin Flood, The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p.25-29

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