Perceptions of Shiva
n ancient India

Ancient Indian literature and iconography can guide us to an understanding of the malevolent and benevolent representations of god Shiva, writes ROHITHA EASWER 

What is India News Service
March 8, 2005

The aim of this paper is to throw light on the historicity of some perceptions of Shiva in ancient India, and in turn to help dancers as well as connoisseurs to understand and appreciate Indian classical dance.

Shiva is a celebrated character in Indian classical dancers. Dancers come across perceptions of Shiva as Bhasmadhari, Parameshvara Khatvangadhari, etc. However, it is essential to know the connotations of lyrics and also how the deity was viewed by human thought over different periods in time. Ancient Indian literature and iconography can guide us to an understanding of past perceptions.

Shaivism has a long history, going back to hoary antiquity. Sir John Marshall excavated the Harappan civilization which dates back to 2200 BC. He observes that the engraved seals contain images of the Yogic Shiva. Another seal, which is more elaborate, has the figure of a yogi sitting on an elevated seat. On either side of him are a tiger, a rhino, a bison and an elephant. In front of him are two deer. Scholars have identified the figure as Shiva, represented as Pashupathi, the lord of animals.

The Vedas: The most interesting chapters in Hindu mythology relate to the history of Shiva. In the Rigveda, dated to 1600 BC, the Vajasaneya and in the Atharvaveda, the word Shiva, meaning the auspicious, occurs as the epithet of Rudra. There are three hymns in Rig veda dedicated to him. It is derived from the root Rud, which means, to cry loudly, ie., The Howler. Rudra is said to carry in his hand a bow and an arrow, thus he is called Nishanjan. He is described as wielding the thunder bolt. He is a malevolent deity, causing death and disease, among men and cattle, and specially prayed to by the hymnists to be spared his wrath. 

The Yajurveda dates back to 1200 BC. It contains a small section called the Shatarudriya, the hundred prayer of offerings. One of them describes Rudra as the loud shouts that cause the skies to shiver in the battle field, as the god ,who causes warriors to weep. He is also regarded as the deity of thieves, cheats and burglars. In Atharvaveda, Rudra figures as a furious angry character. He is angry, thus, associated with lightning, therefore, he has the competence to burn and destroy. This is how the Vedic people explained to themselves the two common facts of death and destruction in the world.

The conception represents Rudra in his ghora or the violent form. However, there is another side to him, which was parallely well known to them and that was his aghora or serene aspect. He is frequently applauded as the giver and restorer of health. Sham meant curing of diseases, so, they called him Shamkara, the great curer. The vedic lyricist addresses him as the great divine doctor. The lyricist expresses his hope to live for a hundred winters with the help of the medicines obtained from Rudra. In the same manner, he is represented as, Oshadhipati, Vaidyanatha and Bhavarogavaidya. The sages extol him as a person in white all over the body, excepting for the blue patch on the throat, from which he derives his name Neelakantha. In augmentation to this, the Shatarudriya calls him Girishanta, one who dwells in the mountains and Giritra, the protector of the mountains. Shiva is also revered as Soma (from Sa Uma) and the term is interpreted to mean one who is adjoined to his associate Uma, there by showing in the articulate possible terms, that the sages knew the concept of Ardhanari Shiva. 

The Brahmanas: The birth of Rudra is given in the Shatapata
Brahmana. Prajapathi gave him the name Rudra as he wept (arodit, from rud, to weep). Thus, from Prajapati, he has acquired, the name, Rudra, Sharvan, Pashupati, Ugra, Ashani, Bhava, Mahadeva and Eshana, the eight names, associated respectively with the principles of agni, jala, vayu, vidual, parjanya, chandaramas, and aditya. Shiva is now parallel to Agni.

The Upanishads: The Upanishads, explores for the supreme truth, attaining , its fulfillment , with the discovery of the Atman as the ultimate power,
that has brought this creation into being. The Upanishads makes an attempt to fuse the Upanishadic ideas, about the Atman, with those already
conventional about Shiva. For instance, it links Shiva to a fisherman with a net which is none other than Maya, his all swaying will, with
which he rules over the entire world. The Upanishads calls him the supreme diviner, he is the lord of the universe, Vishvadhipa. 

The Grabhopanishad says that the infant in the womb, contemplates in his eighth month the imperishable syllable Aum, and that when he is born he continues to be haunted by the memories of the same. The Iteriya Upanishad expounds Shiva as the Jyeshtan (the eldest), Sreshtan (the highest), Rudra (the fierce), Kala (time), Balavikarana (the manipulator of strength), Balapramathan (the destroyer of the demon Bala), Sarvabhootadamana (the destroyer of all living beings), Kalavikarana (the evolver of the 16 phases of life) and Manonmanan (one in the state of samadhi). The verification is compete, with the Mahanarayaniya Upanishad calling him Ishana, the lord of all the learnings, and the master of all living beings. The Upanishad ends by saying that Shiva is the Brahman, who is the lord of all Vedas, and that, he indeed is the Brahman. Thus, from the Rig vedic times to the Upanishadic times, one can see a gradual evolution of aspects of Shiva, from the malevolent to the benevolent.

The Linga aspect: The earliest references to the Linga worship is seen in the Rig Veda, dated 1600 B.C. The phallus is called Shishnadeva. However, later in the Puranic period, the references are more explicit. The puranas are spread over a period of ten centuries, ie., from 3rd centry A.D.,to 13th century.D. In Markandeya Purana, Rudra and Vishnu are the creators of the universe and they form the “Ardhanarishiva” aspect of the former deity. Here the allusion is to the “Haryardaha” form of Shiva, in which the female generative principle, is identified with Vishnu. Thus, the male and the female principles, in cosmic evolution, is, the real import of the Arddhanarishwara, or Haryardha form of Shiva. The Linga purana states that, “Pradhana” (nature), is called the Linga and Parameshwara is called the Lingin (the sustained of the Linga) and the pedestal of the Linga, is Mahadevi (Uma) and the Linga, is the visible “Masheshwara”. Iconographically the earliest known Linga is from Bhita, and is now at the Lucknow museum. The deity, holds a vase in the left hand, parallel to some extent, the ointment vessel, found in the figures of the Bhodhisatva of at the Gandharaschool, where chronologically, the worship of the Linga had started from 1st century B.C., onwards. From the description given by Banerjee R.D., to the Anul of the Director General Of Archaeology, 1909-1910, this Linga is said to be a Mukha Linga having five faces corresponding to the Ishana Tatpurusha, Aghora, Vamadeva and Sadyojata aspects of Shiva.

The second most ancient Linga is the one discovered at Guddimallam. The icon predates 2nd century B.c. These archeological evidences lead to the pre-Christian era. However, the final acceptance of the Linga worship, is between 1st century A.D., and 5th century A.D., through the decodification of the Puranas. Shiva is accepted as a creator of life with Linga worship. There is another important change which comes into light. The Linga is considered as a Yogi, as the symbol Yogic Shiva. The erotic form is transformed into the aesthetic form.; Shiva is seen as Urdhva Linga before puranas ,however, during the Puranic times, he was recognized as the Tapaswin.

The Cults: During the 2nd century BC., one can see the concept of cults emerging with the outflow of bhakti. The first to emerge is the Pashupata cult. Around 1st century A.d., the Lakulisha cult was established with Shiva appearing with a stick. Two hundred years later, Lakulisha was accepted as an avatara of Shiva. Jeeva and Atma are the essence of life in bhakti. These cults believed in the merging with god, which they called Shiva Tatva. Creation and destruction are the works of Shivatatva. All these occur due to Iccha Shakti. Now, the path to become one with Eshwara, was Bhakti, Gnana, Yoga, Tapas and Lingpasana. Later emerged the Kapalikas, who are also called as Soma Siddhis. It was a great turn, to the concept of Shiva, as well as his Upasakas. They were involved in a mixture of magic and sorcery. There was no aesthetic approach. They smeared ash, used the human skull for begging, lived in burial grounds and had knotted hair. They used a Khatvanga to meditate. From 7th century A.D., it was the age of Panchamakaratantrasadhana. Mantra, Matsya, Mamsa, Madhya and Mithuna, were the pathway to merge with Shiva. It was during this cult period, the mythology reflects the aspects of Shiva as Smashanavasin, Narakapaladharin, Apalabhikshu, Chitabhasmadhari and so on. After the dawn of 4th century A.D., Shiva is represented in sculptures, either as a terrific destructive deity, or as a boon conferrer.

Shiva sculptures are basically divided into Samhara murties, Anugraha murties, Dakshina murties and Nrutta murties. The samhara murties consists of Kamantaka murti, Gajasurasamhara murti, tripurantaka murti etc,. The Anugraha murties which consists of Kiratarjunaya murti, Ravananugraha murti, are all based on puranic evidence and the Shivagamas. Later shva was accepted as a great divine teacher. Thus, we have Shiva as the Yoga Dakshina murti, Vinadhara Dakshina murti, etc,. Finally, another aspect of Shiva is as the great dancer. The conception of Shiva as a great dancer goes back to remote antiquity. In the Shivasahasranama, he is refered to as the Nitya Nartha (ever dancer), Nritya Priya (lover of dance), Nartakah (the dancer), etc,. The names highlight his proficiency in playing various musical instruments. He is described as Mahagita (the singer), Venavi (the flutist), Panavi (the drummer) and Tali (the cymbalist). He is also described as Sarvatodyaparigrahaha as one who is well versed in playing all types of musical instruments. The Natyashastra of Bharata, dated between 2nd century BC. and 2nd century AD, mentions 108 kinds of dances and in the Shivagamasit is stated that Shiva danced in 108 modes.

Shiva is not only seen as a mere dancer but, as a person who gives salvation. Shiva’s dance was further accepted and explained in a threefold system. First, it is the image of his rhythmic activity as the source of all movements, within the cosmos. Secondly, the purpose of his dance, is to release the countless souls of men, from the snare of illusion. Thirdly, the place of dance, the center of the universe is within the heart. Thus, the aspects of Shiva, has a long history going back to the hoary antiquity. The recognition of the aspects of Shiva, flags off from the Harappan seal dated to 2200B.C.

Later, in Vedic times from 1600 B.C, the period of Rigveda, one can see Shiva as a malevolent being, called the Rudra. As time progress, during the times of the Upanishads Shiva is transformed into a benevolent God. However, during, 1st century B.C., up to the 4th century A.D., the phallic worship of Shiva, identified with him, as a progenator and a biological creator. The dawn of 5th century A.D., saw a Yogi and thus arrived the Yogic Shiva. As one goes through the chronology, the emergence of the cults, like the Pashupata cult, and the Lakulisha cult, one can see the flow of the concept of Bhakti, giving prominence to Jeeva and Atma. The sense of realization of Shiva, was through Gnana, Bhakti, Yoga, Tapas, etc,. However, contrary to this, during 7th century A.D, the emergence of Panchamakaratantrasadhana, believing in Mithuna, Mantra, Mamsa, Madhya etc., led to the aesthetic down fall of the concepts and aspects of Shiva. However, the temple construction in India complimented the revival of the concepts and aspects of Shiva. The classification of the Murties into Samhara murti, Anugraha murti, Dakshina murti, Nritta murti turned the attention and threw a flood of light on the contents of Purana and modes of its representation.

Thus, it is essential to know the aspects of Shiva, in a chronological sequence, so as to facilitate a clear understanding of concepts. For instance, Indian classical dance drama, with a mythological basis, requires proper knowledge of not only the myth, but also the formative period. The aspects of Shiva as said above, has a great history of its own. Lack of historic sense and lack of understanding the chronological event, of the aspects of Shiva, leads to a clash of periods and emerges out with a chaotic misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the subject, which means if a dance number, consists of an aspect of Shiva pertaining to 6th century A.D. and if the related elements including Aharya (the costumes) reflect Shiva of the highly developed form of the 10th century A.D., it leads to the misinterpretation of the aspects of Shiva, this in turn reflects an ignorance of ancient Indian literature. 

Such investigation is not only necessary to an understanding of all aspects of Shiva, but also to the process of doing full justice to any portrayal.


Board of Scholars 1970, Ancient Indian Tradition And Mythology, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi. 

Chmu S.V. 1982, The Divine Dancer, Ashta Yoga Vignana andira, Mysore. 

Elizabeth Sharpe, 1930, Shiva or The Past of India, Luzac & Co, London. 

Macfie 1993, Myths And Legends Of India, Rupa publications, Noida.

Manson J.L. and Patwardhan N.V. 1970 Aesthetic Rapture Vol-1 Poona, Deccan College. 

Rao Gopinath 1916, Elements Of Hindu Iconography, Madras.

Shastry Seetaram 1972,Sahasranamavali, Vishwanath book depot. Mysore.