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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Siva and Saivism

Śaivism (Śaiva in Sanskrit) is the sect of Hinduism which holds that Śiva is the supreme deity. The worship of a proto-®iva may go back to pre-Aryan times with the Indus Valley civilization, though this is uncertain. Recent scholarly research has called into question that claim made by earlier anthropologists. In any event, Śiva had his beginning in the Vedic god Rudra whose name is said to mean either “roaring” or “howling” or to be derived from the root rudh (“red” or “shining”) or from the verb rudrāvayati (“he drives away evil”). Rudra is first called śivam or “auspicious” in the Yajur Veda and it is this title which eventually became his name. He is also known as Mahādeva (“great god”), Mahevara (“great creator”), Mahea (“greatly desired”), and Śankara (“beneficent” or “causing prosperity,” a name taken by one of India’s greatest philosophers as well as by his successors in the religious establishments or maths he founded).

In some early writings (c. 600 BCE-200 CE), Śiva was said to be “The Destroyer,” but such destruction is considered to be the prelude to re-creation and therefore the actions of Śiva are thought to be ultimately benign. While the best known Purānas, especially the Bhågavata Purāna, are dedicated to Visnu and his several incarnations, there are six Purānas devoted to Śiva. The consort or śakti of Śiva is Ambikā or Ambā, the Mother, who is known by various other names including Durgā, Pārvatī, Umā, Annapūrnā, Kanyā, Devī, and Kālī, some of which have sects of their own. The latter is especially dominant in Bengal, as suggested by the name of its principal city, Calcutta (i.e., Kālī-ghata). Śiva and his consort have two sons named Ganapati (“leader of the multitude”) or Ganea (“beloved by the multitude”) — anglicized in its Hindi form as Ganesh — and Kārttikeya (“one who acts”) or Skanda (“attacker”). The latter is now a war god in the Hindu pantheon; the former is now the god of wisdom and of overcoming obstacles, patron of letters, etc. According to mythology, the former was born directly from sloughed-off skin of Pārvatī; the latter was born directly from Śiva when he cast his seed into the fire (hence is known as Agnibhū or “Fire-born”) according to one story or directly from the sweat of Śiva (hence is known as Gharmaja or “sweat-born”) according to another.

Śiva is usually depicted as austere and rather fearful. In popular literature, when his anger is aroused, he opens his third eye and reduces the object of his wrath to ashes, for example in the story of Manmata, the god of love. His characteristic icon is a stone pillar, rounded at the top, termed a linga (literally “mark” or “sign”), usually interpreted (sometimes even graphically depicted) as a phallic symbol. His vahana or vehicle is Nandi the bull. All temples devoted to Śiva have a linga as the focal point of the shrine and an image of Nandi, usually outside the main shrine. Worship often consists of the priest pouring various sacred substances, such as clarified butter (ghee), milk, or curds, over the linga while chanting appropriate hymns. This linga is placed in a receptacle, called a yoni, usually thought of as a stylized female sexual organ, which catches the offering and drains it off.

In iconography tiva is depicted with multiple arms (often four, but sometimes many more), a kind of small two-headed drum (amaru), a crescent moon, a serpent, and a trident. In paintings, he is depicted sitting cross-legged on a tiger skin; in bronze images he is sometimes portrayed as Lord of the Dance (Natarāja), poised on his left foot with his right foot raised and crooked, standing on a dwarfish human figure, surrounded by a flaming aura. All these elements have a symbolic significance to Hindus. Multiple arms symbolize omnipotence. The drum, which is sounded by flipping it back and forth rapidly so that a small ball tied to a thong around its middle strikes the two heads alternately, indicates the rhythm of time and also creation by sound or vibration (an idea predominant in Kashmiri Śaivism). The crescent moon, reminding us of the phases which measure our months (or “moonths”), symbolizes the cyclic nature of manifestation. The serpent, which either coils around his neck or is held in one of his hands, symbolizes the occult force called kundalinī (literally “circular” or “serpentine”), which one can handle safely only when one attains to one’s inherent divinity. The prongs of the trident symbolize the three parts of time — past, present, and future — which to the god unite in a single timelessness (indicated by the handle of the trident). The tiger skin reminds one of his consort, Durgā, whose vehicle is a tiger. The Natarāja symbolizes the triumph of our inherent divinity over our human nature and also suggests that creation is, for the gods, līla (“sport” or “play”) rather than desire-motivated activity. ®iva’s vehicle, an Indian (sometimes called brahmin) bull, involves a Sanskrit pun, since the word for “bull” (va) also means “virtue” or “righteousness” and connotes creative activity (derived from the root v, “pour forth”). His name, Nandi, means “joy” or “the happy one,” reminiscent of creation as līla.

There are four main schools of Śaiva philosophy, ranging from absolute monism (Kashmiri Śaivism and Śvādvaita) to various forms of pluralism (Vīraaivism, also called Lingāyata, and Śaivasiddhānta). The former tend to emphasize jñāna or knowledge as the path to liberation (moka); the latter tend to emphasize bhakti or devotion. In Śaivasiddhānta, predominant in south India, there are three basic principles: pati or Lord (i.e. Śiva), pau or individual soul (literally “domestic animal”), and pāa or fetter (literally “rope”). The latter is composed of three strands, ānava or “humanness” (akin to egoity or ahamkāra in other philosophic systems), karma or “action” (implying the action-reaction cycle), and māyā or “illusion.” The goal set for the soul is to get rid of these bonds and gain mystical union with or understanding of the nature of Śiva.

In theosophical literature, a deeper interpretation of Śiva can be found. As Helena P. Blavatsky points out, “It is from the exoteric religions that we have to dig out the root-idea before we turn to esoteric truths, lest the latter should be rejected. Furthermore, every symbol — in every national religion — may be read esoterically . . .” (SD I:443). I. K. Taimni suggests that Śiva, Mahea, and Rudra represent different functions of the same reality, the first representing the underlying Reality of the universe, the second the Logos of a solar system, and the third the destructive function of the first two (An Introduction to Hindu Symbolism, p. 13). Blavatsky, however, explicitly rejects the idea that ®iva is the ultimate Reality and suggests that Rudra represents Śiva in his pre-manifested, latent form (SD II:282) and his consort “Devi-Durga . . . also called Annapurna, and Kanya, the Virgin” represents Root Matter or “the Astral Light” (SD I:91-92; cf. p. 460 on Amb€ as representing the “Great Deep” or “Celestial Virgin-Mother of the visible universe”). In other words, Śiva represents the “male” creative power which manifests a universe, a galaxy, a solar system, or a world by utilizing the “female” receptive matter.

Taimni, in fact, develops this idea further in his explanation of the symbolism of the li‰ga. He points out that the shape of the linga is very close to an ellipsoid. He states that, whereas a sphere represents a static Reality (since every point on its surface is equidistant from the center, therefore it is incapable of change), an ellipsoid, with two foci, represents a dynamic, creative principle, which he calls Śiva-Śakti tattva or the basic principle of Śiva and his consort-power. But, just as in a solar system, only one of the foci (i.e., the sun) is visible, so also in the Śiva linga only half — the upper portion of it is represented, the lower half being implicit (cf. ibid., pp. 26-28). That would make the yoni, which intersects the axis between the two foci, representative of Root Matter. And that further suggests that even though the li‰ga and yoni symbols have been degraded into sexual organs in popular imagination, that degradation is not altogether inappropriate, since sex is a creative function involving both masculine and feminine principles.

Blavatsky points out that Śiva represents a number of other things as well. As the great ascetic and patron of Hindu yogis, he is associated with attainment of paranormal powers as well as “the highest spiritual knowledge . . .” (SD II:613). This is symbolized in his third eye. As Śiva-Rudra, he is the “destroyer of human passions and physical senses, which are ever in the way of the development of the higher spiritual perceptions and the growth of the inner eternal man . . .” (SD I:459). As ®iva-Kum€ra he “represents . . . allegorically the human races during the genesis of man” (SD I:324; cf. II:249-50, 282). And in the interlaced triangles (which one finds in early Hinduism, antedating the Jewish Seal of Solomon or Star of David), he represents the upward pointed triangle and fire, as Vismu represents the downward pointed triangle and water (SD II:591). She also has an extended discussion of the relation between the ®aivasidd€nta concept of pāa, the Śiva linga, and the Egyptian “ankh-tie” or “cruciform noose” (SD II:548-9).

Astrologically, she equates Śiva with Saturn (SD I:459) and his son Kārttikeya with Mars (SD II:43, 124). Hindu mythology associates the first of the Pleiades with Ambā and identifies seven of them, rather than the six known to astronomy; since each of the seven females is married to one of the seven males, known as Kttikās (the actual name of the Pleiades in Hindu astronomy), this may be a metaphor for the seven planes of manifestation (the term ktti, derived from the root k, means “action”), the “masculine” powers, again, working through the “feminine” matter of differing density. If this is correct, Ambā would correspond to the Root Matter or Mūlaprakti, as suggested in discussing the yoni above.

Interestingly, the names of each of ®iva’s consorts are also of symbolic significance. Ambā means “mother” and has already been discussed. Annapūrnā means “filled with or possessing food” a suggestive name for matter. Kanyā means “virgin,” (i.e., “young girl”), again suggestive of primal matter. Durgā means “difficult to attain,” which certainly is true of Root Matter, since we perceive only its manifested forms, never its primal reality. And Kālī is the feminine form of “black,” again suggestive of an unmanifested, primal matter. Parvatī and Umā, however, have quite a different significance. The former means “rugged” or “mountainous” and alludes to Parvatī’s efforts to woo Śiva by ascending the mountain where he was meditating; symbolically it could refer to the high state of consciousness necessary to attain to Śiva’s realm. The latter is said to derive from the Sanskrit words umā (“O no!”) said by Parvatī’s mother in an attempt to dissuade her from practicing austerities in order to win the affection of ®iva. In other words, Umā’s mother could refer to our ever-prudent lower mind which initially resists all attempts to attain spiritual awareness — but which, nonetheless, eventually gives birth to the effort at self-realization.


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