This is how Shiva became Asia’s most popular god – innovation, assimilation, conquest (2023)

Alongside the god Vishnu, whose variousavatarsare perhaps modern India’s most popular gods, Shiva is one of the great forces of South Asian religion. But there was a time—a shockingly long time, stretching from about 600 to 1200 CE—where Shiva was possibly the single most popular divinity in Asia, more popular even than the Buddha and Allah. His worship extended from Afghanistan to Java and Cambodia, and colossal temples were dedicated to him from Cambodia to Tamil Nadu, Bengal to Kashmir. The story of Shiva is also the story of our cosmopolitan, thriving, and sometimes dark medieval world. This is an ever-so-brief introduction to him.

Shaivites: From renunciants to kings

Two thousand years ago, the dominance of Shiva could have been little more than a vague dream. It was not the case that the god was entirely unknown—various forms of his were mentioned in texts and appearedin murals and coinage, particularly in the dominions of theKushanrulersof the northwest. But there is little evidence that Shaivites commanded the sort ofinstitutional apparatusthat Buddhism, then the subcontinent’s most powerful religion, had. This was, however, soon to change.

By the2ndcentury CE, an ascetic religious order known as thePashupatahad emerged, and soon spread rapidly. Pashupatas were rather curious torchbearers for a religion: going about covered in ash, they engaged in “various forms of antisocial behaviour”, writes theologist Gavin Flood in the Blackwell Companion to Hinduism(2004). These included “making lewd gestures to young women”, especially upper-caste women, which would usually guarantee abuse and thrashings in retaliation. This was believed to magically transfer the ascetic’s sins to the abusers, and transfer to the former whatever religious merit the latter had accrued.

Pashupatas could also be found around cremation grounds, smearing their bodies with ash, signifying the “death of the body and of sexual desires”. On the other hand, Pashupatas also developed complex ritual systems and a strong lineage of teachers, preachers and bases throughoutthe subcontinent. This strange package convinced observers that the Pashupatas indeed had access to secret, efficacious knowledge.

With all this said, the rise of Shaivism was still not guaranteed. In the4thcentury CE, when the Gupta dynasty consolidated a new Gangetic empire for the first time since the fall of theMauryas, it was not Shiva but Vishnu who was chosen as the pre-eminent royal god. But the dominoes had begun to fall. In the late 6th century, northwest India was invaded by the Huns. Battling the Guptas and their successors, the Huns attempted to establish a brief kingdom. Both they and their rivals claimed the support of Shaiva rituals, writes Indologist Hans Bakker inMonuments of Hope, Gloom and Glory in the Age of the Hunnic Wars(2016).Though the Huns were eventually defeated, they had impacted the religious landscape profoundly. Bolstered by the patronage of new, warlike kingdoms, Shaivite religious orders now spread through the subcontinent andacross the Bay of Bengal.

InThe Śaiva Age(2009), Shaivism scholar Alexis Sanderson outlines the growing dominance of Shaivism. By the 7th–8thcenturies, ascetics had been pushed to the margins, their practices labelled asatimargaor“theoutsidepath”. Mainstream Shaivism was instead dominated by rich monastic institutions led by charismatic teachers—often Brahmins—with close ties to royalty. They pioneered a new set of rituals centred around temples, known asmantramarga, theway of themantra, or the Shaiva Siddhanta, literally “thecompletedmagics of Shiva”. Shaiva Siddhantins developed a rich, complex canon of scriptures arguing that Shiva was the supreme god from whom all others emanated, and developed the theology and rituals required to propitiate him.

Simultaneously, kings who undertook Shaiva Siddhanta religious initiation were offered many useful services. Writes Richard H. Davis, professor of religion, inRitual in an Oscillating Universe, these included the ability to become a being like Shiva upon death and liberation, as well as rituals to guarantee victory in battle.Mantramargateachers were rewarded extremely well for their work: they resembled kings more than ascetics, with a lion-throne, parasol, diadem, horses, and even elephants (Sanderson 2009,page260).

Also read: Medieval Indian engineers in the 7th century built robots. Powered by water and clockwork

Assimilation and conquest of rivals

In a diverse religious environment, the Shaiva recipe for success was rather crafty. As Sanderson puts it: they claimed that Shaiva ritual experts were “empowered to officiate in the construction and consecration of non-Śaiva deities such as Viṣṇu” (Sanderson 2009, page 274). There was no need for kings to patronise any other religious order, argued the Shaivites: their ritual practice was more than qualified to propitiate all other deities, for they ranked below Shiva, supreme god of the cosmos, anyway.

Of course,other religions did not take this challenge lying down. For example, the Srivaishnava theologian Vedanta Desika tore this claim apart, retorting that “if a Viṣṇu [image] has been installed with the system of the Śaivas,it must be re-installed following thesystem of the Pañcarātraand purified by bathing with a thousand vases” (Sanderson 2009,page275, footnote 654).

However, not all were able to face down this challenge: the Saura religion, worshipping Surya,thesungod, once possessed its own canon of 85 scriptures. But itcould not“maintain its separate identity as Śaivism became more influential and encroached upon its territory” (Sanderson 2009, page 55). The only known traces of Saura ritual practice survive in Shaiva texts. The decline of the enormous Sun Temple at Martand, built by thepowerful Kashmiri king Lalitaditya, can at least partially be linked to the rise of assertive Shaiva traditions in the Kashmir valley. The sun god there is mentioned in passing, as no more than a minor god, in later Shaiva texts (Sanderson 2009, page57).

Similarly, Shaivites also assimilated traditions of worship of theMotherGoddessand a host of minor local goddesses, who came to beveneratedas Shiva’sconsorts.

In other cases, however, debates poured out of the palm-leaf manuscripts to real-life acrimony. From the 6thcentury onwards, charismatic Shaiva poet-preachers, later known as thenayanmaror “leaders”, dominated the religious landscape of the deep South of India. Shaivites built deep alliances with local Brahmin and peasant communities, and temples to the god dotted the landscape; this challenged the hegemony of Buddhists and Jains, who thenayanmarcondemned in the strongest possible terms.

For example, the great saint Appar, formerly a Jain, attacked his co-religionists as “arrogant and fat…stinking and debased…lacking in both virtue and clothing”, and sang of how Shiva drove them away, “bearing as weapons fire and a white axe.” (Verses translated by Karen Pechilis Prentiss,The Embodiment of Bhakti(2002), page 72).

Appar’s younger colleague Sambandar dedicated nearly one in every10of his verses to attacking Buddhists and Jains. In one particularly gruesome incident—seen with some ambiguity by subsequent chroniclers—Sambandar is believed to have defeated Jains inadebate in the city of Madurai, after which8,000of them were impaled on stakes. While it is possiblethatthis is an exaggeration or evenamyth, Jainism scholar Paul Dundas notes inThe Jains(2002) that a large monastery near Madurai actually shows signs of having been abandoned around the time that Sambandar was alive (page 128).

But, of course, history is not black and white. There is much more to be said on Shaivism and its contemporary religions beyond confrontation, especially the rich, fertile exchange of ideas they participated in. We willexplorethis dynamic in future editions ofThinking Medieval.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rueben Jacobs

Last Updated: 05/06/2023

Views: 6339

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (57 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rueben Jacobs

Birthday: 1999-03-14

Address: 951 Caterina Walk, Schambergerside, CA 67667-0896

Phone: +6881806848632

Job: Internal Education Planner

Hobby: Candle making, Cabaret, Poi, Gambling, Rock climbing, Wood carving, Computer programming

Introduction: My name is Rueben Jacobs, I am a cooperative, beautiful, kind, comfortable, glamorous, open, magnificent person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.