Category Archives: b. Saivism

The Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition

The Lingayat tradition, also known as Virasaiva, is a Hindu sect with a vast following in Karnataka, a southern state of India. They are known as Virasaivas because of their relentless and deeply passionate devotion to Siva, a deity who is worshipped by both upper and lower caste Hindus, as well as other marginal groups in Hindu society (Basu 475). The origin of the sect is traced to the eleventh and twelfth century as a small-scale socio religious movement and founded by Basavanna, a government minister. In order to maintain their purpose within the broad framework of the Lingayat tradition, Basavanna adapted and reconstructed the principles of the influential Saivite (Siva-worshiping) religious traditions superior during his time in Kashmir, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu (Basu 475). The Lingayat tradition highlights the shared dependence between Siva and individual human beings. TheParama Sakti (ultimate spiritual force) is believed to have been established by Siva; that is, Siva and the cosmic force are considered to be equal or alike (Basu 475). The Lingayat tradition believes that before the cosmos was created, Siva was the “The Supreme Self” in terms of purity, beyond space and place, beyond design, nameless, shapeless, and deedless (Basu 475). Basavanna preached that work, in all its forms, was to be worshipped. Therefore, Lingayats are washermen, barbers, weavers, carpenters, teachers, farmers, and members of practically every occupational group (Ishwaran 148). Work was to be worshipped as a continuation of the design of the Creator, the deity Siva.

            Lingayat tradition was a reaction to specific features of Hinduism and can barely be assumed or understood aside from orthodox Hinduism. Its practices and beliefs are either taken over from Hinduism, or they illustrate a deliberate contradiction of Hindu principles or rites. Lingayatism preaches that all men and women, whatever their birth or position in society, are all equal. In noticeable opposition to Hinduism, there is no ritual interpretation of female inferiority. For the Lingayats, there is no heaven, no hell, no life after death. They believe that reward for virtue and punishment come in this life and one makes this world a heaven or a hell (Ishwaran 148).  In Sanskrit, Linga signifies a mark or a symbol; hence, the Siva Lingam is a symbol of the supreme being, Siva. The practice requires that followers, both men and women, carry the Siva Linga/Lingam around their necks or across their chests. Basavanna and other Lingayat preachers tried to fight the polytheistic notions of Brahmanic Hinduism through the Lingayat tradition (Basu 475). Basavanna’s monotheism not only ousted the Vedic deities (cherished by Vedic Hindu followers), but to Lingayats, also disclosed the dishonesty of the Brahmanic interpretations of the Hindu scriptures. Therefore, the Lingayat tradition preferred a social order free of the caste system and social slavery and as a result, it originally accepted men and women from all Hindu castes, as well as the lowest (Basu 475).

             There are three sacred areas in every Lingayat home. Their homes are very meaningful for them,  because the home is not only a place for living, but is the means of close connections between family and members. The first sacred area of every Lingayat home is a raised platform (gaddige) which serves as the family altar. On this altar are the images of the personal gods of each family member. At this altar, daily worship by the family as a whole, represented by a male member, forms the regular feature of domestic festivals. The kitchen is also a sacred place. On festive days, the first element of all food prepared is given to the priest, and a second part sacrificed to the gods. Food is treated with the utmost respect, as is the stove where it is prepared. The native stove (vali) itself is worshipped, and all food is eaten, after which the plate is washed clean by the priest, and the water used in ablution is itself drunk, that none of the holy food be dishonoured. The doorway is also sacred in the home of all Lingayats. It is very crucial that a bride steps across the doorway with her right foot at marriage. Each bullock is stopped at the door of each Lingayat house and made to step across the doorway with his right foot during the procession of bullocks. On a daily basis, the doorway is washed and worshipped by the women of the household, and special rites of worship are done on festival days.

          Sororate marriages are accepted among the Lingayats, but more commonly practiced is the marriage of a girl to her mother’s brother (Ishwaran 153). Cross-cousin marriages are ordinary and chosen. It also frequently happens that two families may perform an exchange marriage. Usually, marriages ensue right after puberty and they are comprehensively organized. The marriage of a girl is commonly arranged at, or considerably before, the beginning of puberty. A marriage which is formed by love is considered to have a poor possibility of success. Love is considered to come in the normal course of events after marriage; should it exist before, the marriage is likely to be damaged by struggle both between the partners and between each of the partners and the in-laws (Ishwaran 154). If an arranged marriage leads to separation, the elders accountable for the marriage are susceptible to harsh criticism and sometimes to open animosity. By all means the bride must be younger than the bridegroom. Men must marry women who are younger in age so that wives stay submissive to their husbands, and care for them in their old age. Culture commands that girls are born to be given away and they must be married as soon as they reach puberty (Ishwaran 155). The current system of arranged marriage has allowed them to endure. Partners in one’s own kindred circle are regarded as committed, admired, and trustworthy on whom spouses can rely throughout life (Ishwaran 155).

        In the early nineteenth century, a scholar named Jean Antoine Abbe Dubois who had spent thirty years collecting materials and articles connected to Hindu behaviour, customs and ceremonies, distinguished what he heard, read, and studied about the Lingayat tradition (Chekki 108). He observed that the sect of Siva is dominant in several states. They refrain from eating animal products, and rather than burning the dead, like most Hindus, they choose to bury them. They also do not acknowledge the laws pertaining to degradation, which in most cases are recognized by other castes. Dubois mentions a proverb that says “There is no river for a  Lingayat”, which means that the followers of this sect do not value ablutions (Chekki 108). In addition, he specifies that the Lingayat tradition rejects many principles of the Hindu religion, particularly the cycle of birth and rebirth. The Lingayats, therefore, have no anniversary festivals to celebrate or honor the dead (Chekki 108).

         Prominently, there are at least three extensive stages or aspects of the Lingayat research traditions which discloses the preceding analysis. The first phase commenced in the early nineteenth century and progressed until the first decade of the twentieth century, which consists of  a large majority of Western scholars (Chekki 125). These observers from the West, based on very narrow or no knowledge of the earliest sources, seized only an incomplete view of the Lingayat tradition and culture. These scholars, with a few special cases, presented inadequate, definitive, distorted, and deceptive accounts of the Lingayat tradition and society. The second phase of the Lingayat studies, which surfaced in the 1920s, incorporates two streams of domestic scholars. Based upon an extensive exploration and analysis of Virasaiva classics in Kannada and Sanskrit, they contributed a great deal to the understanding of Lingayatism as a significant religious sect (Chekki 125). Their knowledge of the initial sources, modern outlook, and experience as members of the community aided them to produce trustworthy analyses of the Lingayat tradition and philosophy (Chekki 125). Nevertheless, some of these studies needed impartial scientific examination. The third phase of the Lingayat research, set in motion since the 1960s, has taken place broadly in institutional settings such as universities and research institutes (Chekki 125).

       The present day Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition research has become more multidisciplinary by nature and today, diversified disciplines in the humanities and social sciences examine Lingayat/Virasaiva history, literature, religion, philosophy, society and culture (Chekki 126). An abundant portion of the publications in the Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition, especially in the Kannada language, still seem to be laudatory and repetitious (Chekki 126). They are for the most part explanatory and based on inner experience rather than fact, lacking critical analysis. An extensive number of studies are on Basavanna and his reform movement. A majority of the authors are men. Women authors, and writings on women saints and their contributions, are minimal (Chekki 126). The question, “are Lingayats a caste or a religion?”, has both sociological interpretation and realistic significance. The Government of India categorizes the Lingayats as Hindus. Lingayat leaders, nevertheless, urge their followers, when asked their religion, not to answer Hindu, but Lingayat (Ishwaran 149). Whether the rank and file Lingayat considers himself as a Hindu caste or a separate religion is a matter of practical concern. Moreover, the demand to train a new generation of researchers cannot be disregarded on purpose. Numerous aspects and features of the Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition are still in need of examination by researchers.


Basu, Rajshekhar (2002) “Lingayat.” In Karen Christensen and David Levinson, eds. Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, p. 475. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Boratti, Vijayakumar (2017) “War, Words, and Communities: Lingayats and World War I.” Economic and Political Weekly. Accessed February 3, 2020. doi:10.1017/9781108594646.008.

Copeman, Jacob, and Ikegame Aya (2012) The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Chekki, Danesh A. (1997) Religion and Social System of the Vīraśaiva Community. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Chekki, Danesh A. (2012). “The Spiritual Path of Devotion: The Vīraśaiva Perspective.” Anthropos 107(2):555-560. Accessed January 30, 2020. doi:10.5771/0257-9774-2012-2-555.

Desai, Prakash (2019). “Quest for Egalitarian Socio-Spiritual Order: Lingayats and Their Practices.” Journal of Human Values 25(2):87-100. Accessed January 30, 2020. doi:10.1177/0971685819826729.

Gutridge, Bryan (2006) The Religion of Revolution: A Historical Study of the Virasaiva Movement. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Ishwaran, Karigondar (1966). “Lingayat Kinship.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 1(2):147-160. Accessed February 1, 2020. doi:10.1177/002190966600100206.

Related Topics for Further Investigation








Tamil Nadu



Parama Sakti


Siva Lingam





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Article written by: Jonalyn Saballa (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Basava and the Lingayat tradition

Basava, also referred to as Basavanna, was a south Indian philosopher who is widely regarded as the founder of the Lingayattradition of Hinduism (Das 161). He is viewed as an early advocate for socio-religious reform, promulgating his teachings in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka (Ishwaran 2).

Although little is known about Basava’s early life, there are a few texts that provide details about his childhood. In addition to scarce historical records, the Basava Purana, written by Palkuriki Somanatha, provides a hagiographical account of his life. In addition, the Basavaraja Devara Ragale, a poem written in the 13th-century by Harihara, also provides important information about his life (Leslie 239). His poems, typically referred to as vacanas, have also provided extensive descriptions about his life and his beliefs (see Schouten 50-61).

Basava was born in a small village called Bagevadi to a Brahmin family (Ishwaran 1). His father was appointed by a local king to be the chief of his village. Though Basava was not born in a particularly wealthy family, he nonetheless enjoyed social privileges by virtue of his class and his father’s role in the village as the chief (Leslie 239). Over the course of his childhood, Basava engaged in activities that were traditionally prescribed for Brahmin males. Therefore, he was exposed to various religious rituals and also received formal religious education (Leslie 240).

However, despite the formalities that he had undergone, Basava grew increasingly disillusioned with the Brahmanical tradition in which he was raised (Schouten 2). In Harihara’s Basavaraja Devara Ragale, Basava was forced to participate in his sacred- thread ceremony – a crucially important initiation ceremony for twice-born males – at the age of eight. In contrast, according to the Basava Purana, he did not participate in his sacred-thread ceremony (Leslie 240). His father construed Basava’s reluctance to participate as egregiously disrespectful to tradition, creating friction in the relationship between Basava and his father (Rao and Roghair 58). Both accounts of his life relay a similar motif, namely his criticisms of the Brahmanical tradition at a very young age.

At the age of sixteen, Basava left his home village of Bagevadi and went to Kudalasangama, a popular pilgrimage site for Siva worshippers. The impetus for his decision to leave was marked by “a desire to escape… the religious ritualism and social prejudice of his environment” (Leslie 240). It was also at this time that Basava had become particularly fond of the Hindu god, Siva. Although several Saivite sects were prominent during this time, it is likely that Basava was exposed to the Lakulisa- Pasupata sect of Saivism in Kudalasangama (Das 162). He subsequently spent the next twelve years of his life in Kudalasangama where he extensively engaged in the service and worship of Siva. In addition, Basava continued to expand his education and also composed works of poetry (Das 162).

The socio-religious context in Karnataka during the 12th– century played an instrumental role in shaping Basava’s conceptions about the Brahmanical system of which he was particularly critical. A central facet of the Brahmanical system – the varna system – was construed by Basava to be an inherently oppressive system (Sahasrabudhe 225). In the Rg Veda, the Purusa – Sukta hymn situates the Brahmin class to be at the top of the social hierarchy, followed by the ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra classes. The class system was highly influential in Karnataka during this time, and the stratification of society closely followed the hierarchy implicit in the Purusa Sukta (Ishwaran 8). Devotion to god – bhakti – was a very popular mode of religious practice in Karnataka. This led to the creation of many temples that were primarily run by Brahmin priests. Due to the emphasis placed by the Brahmins on the importance of devotional practice, sudras felt that they were religiously obligated to donate their time and money to the priests (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, this led to the emergence of significant socio-economic and socio-religious disparities that were particularly conspicuous in Karnataka during this time. Basava was profoundly impacted by the segregation of worship that was commonplace in Siva temples. Devout sudras were unable to engage in the worship and service of Siva “in the company of the higher castes” (Ishwaran 7).  Basava viewed this unfair treatment by the Brahmins as prejudice masked under the pretext of notions about ritual pollution (Das 163). In his vacanas, Basava extensively articulates his concerns about the oppressive and exploitative Brahmanical system in place; moreover, he assigned culpability to the Brahmin priestly class for reinforcing this system (Schouten 55). Ultimately, the socio-religious context of the time served as the major impetus behind shaping many of the reformist attitudes that Basava later came to hold.

The next significant transition in Basava’s life is marked by his move away from Kudalasangama to a small town named Mangalavada (Leslie 242). Legendary accounts suggest that the Hindu god Siva had appeared in one of his dreams and instructed Basava to move to Mangalavada (Leslie 241). However, Basava was frightened by the notion of having to leave Kudalasangama given the profound impact the village had on his religious and spiritual development. Siva reappeared in a subsequent dream where he presented Basava with his own personal Siva linga, a symbol that represents Siva in Saivite tradition (Das 162). This reassured Basava that regardless of where he was, Siva would always be there for him, manifest in the form of a linga. Therefore, it is said that these dreams spurred his transition to Mangalavada because Basava viewed it as incumbent upon himself to “articulate his emotional commitment to [Siva]” (Leslie 242). In a place like Mangalavada, his message could reach a larger audience which would allow him to fulfill his goal.

            Mangalavada was a small town that was under the control of the Calukya empire in the 12th– century and was primarily inhabited by low class sudras (Leslie 242). Basava viewed this as an opportunity to promulgate some of his notions regarding religion and the importance of social reform. Over the course of the next several years, Basava regularly engaged with the people in his community through conversation and dialogue (Das 163). In addition, Basava regularly wrote works of poetry – vacanas – to disseminate his teachings to a broader audience (Leslie 242). In contrast to the Brahmanical system which valorized the use of Sanskrit as the principal way to communicate religious and spiritual topics, Basava instead decided to write in Kannada (Sahasrabudhe 223). He was a strong proponent of communicating religious and spiritual matters in the vernacular language in order to ensure that those teachings could be accessible to the greatest number of people. Sanskrit, however, was a language that was only accessible to relatively few people in society (i.e. primarily Brahmins), and therefore its use alienated the majority of people who had no knowledge of the language (Schouten 11). Thus, the preservation of the Kannada language and culture is heavily attributed to Basava due to his resistance to Sanskritic influences (Ishwaran 1).

In many vacanas, Basava presents arguments that undermine the intrinsically hierarchical nature of the class system (Schouten 51-52). Prejudicial attitudes towards lower class members of society (e.g. sudras) by the upper classes were commonplace (Ishwaran 8), and Basava argued that citing ritual pollution as a justification for such attitudes by the Brahmins was flawed. Central to Basava’s argument was his belief in the polluting origin of life (Schouten 59). The womb was traditionally regarded as a source of pollution, and because humans are born of the womb, one’s existence is plagued with pollution the moment they are born. Therefore, Basava concluded that “any pretension to high birth is meaningless” (Schouten 60) because regardless of one’s class, no one could escape the impurities associated with birth. In other words, the hierarchical nature of the class system, according to Basava, made no sense because of the common impure origin of human beings.

For many people, Basava’s ideals of social reform and equality were particularly impactful because he did not exclude anyone from his teachings on the basis of class or caste (Schouten 39). In addition, he espoused progressive views towards women, namely his recognition of women as individuals with rights (Sahasrabudhe 224). At the time, his acceptance for all people was construed as a radical departure from the traditional Brahmanical system because the egalitarian principles that Basava championed were, in many ways, contradictory to the views of the Brahmanical system (Das 163). This, in turn, was particularly attractive to lower class Hindus who had been traditionally alienated by the Brahmanical system.

In addition to his teachings about equality and social reform, Basava disseminated teachings about the nature of God and offered prescriptive approaches for the realization of God (Leslie 242). Because Basava was a devotee of Siva, many other Siva devotees, particularly from lower classes, found refuge in his teachings. Therefore, Basava was able to cultivate a large following which primarily consisted of Siva devotees – saranas – that distanced themselves from the Brahmin orthodoxy and instead embraced the inclusive model of Hinduism that Basava championed (Schouten 10). These saranas, according to Basava, no longer retained their class identity. This, too, was viewed unfavorably by the Brahmin orthodoxy, which, in contrast, stressed the immutability of one’s class (Das 163).

Due to a lack of royal patronage, Basava initially found it difficult to disseminate his teachings to a greater audience. The city of Kalyana – capital of the Calukya empire – had not yet divorced itself from the rigid Brahmanical orthodoxy; moreover, the Calukya leadership was generally apprehensive about Basava’s radical ideas because his ideas were met with strong contempt by the orthodoxy (Das 163). However, Bijjala, a powerful feudatory of the Calukya empire and a Saivite, was especially fond of Basava’s teachings (Leslie 242). The sustained decline of the Calukya empire coupled with poor leadership under Taila III led Bijjala to overthrow Taila III in 1162. Thus, he installed himself as the new emperor of the Calukya empire, paving the way for Basava to spread his teachings in Kalyana (Leslie 242). In addition to his religious endeavors, however, Basava was also a prominent political figure in the empire. He was appointed by Bijjala to serve as the chief minister of the empire, a position he held for thirty-six years (Ishwaran 6).

Basava continued to rally support from the people of Kalyana, with a particular focus on uniting Siva devotees and sudras. He later established the anubhava mandala, an institution that was central to accomplishing this goal. It served as a platform that enabled people from all walks of life to freely discuss spiritual, religious, and philosophical topics (Schouten 4). As time went on, a profound distrust of the Brahmanical system coupled with a growing sense of fraternity among Basava’s followers led Basava to formally establish the Saivite Lingayat sect (Ishwaran 2).

The monopolization of temples by the Brahmins was particularly disconcerting for Basava because it prevented many low-class Hindus from engaging in the worship of Siva (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, Basava reconceptualized the way people approached the worship and service of God – bhakti – to accommodate for the alienated peoples of society and to undermine the already waning influence of the priesthood. Basava explicitly declared that it was not necessary to visit a temple in order to worship God (Leslie 242). According to Basava, the linga is a manifestation of Siva; thus, it could serve as an object of worship. For many people, God was no longer a distant entity confined to the inner depths of temples. One could now freely worship Siva without concerning themselves about the mandates of orthodox tradition. In recognition of the all-encompassing presence of God, Basava believed that one could transform any object into a linga that could be worshipped if their devotion was strong enough (Rao and Roghair 33). The significance of the linga for practitioners of the Lingayat tradition continues to persist in contemporary practice, as well. Children will often undergo an initiation ritual (diksa) where a guru will present the child with a linga; moreover, one is expected to wear the linga around the neck for the rest of their life and worship it five times a day (Rao and Roghair 8).

There are two cornerstone principles of Lingayatism – kayaka and dasoha – that Basava argued were valid forms of worship and service to God. From God’s perspective, one’s profession did not dictate his or her worth in the eyes of God. Manual labor – kayaka –  was looked down upon by the orthodoxy, but Basava emphasized that the precise nature of one’s work did not matter, insofar as one did his or her work with effort and honesty (Leslie 243). The principle of kayaka was wildly popular because it gave people the reassurance that doing their work dutifully was a viable path toward God (Das 164). Dasoha refers to a concern for the wellbeing of others in one’s community (Ishwaran 10). A portion of one’s earnings, according to Basava, should be used to improve the lives of other people, regardless of their class affiliation. The principle of dasoha was therefore adopted by many people in Kalyana who no longer donated their earnings to the priesthood (Leslie 243).

Basava’s rising influence in Kalyana was inevitably met with protest by the orthodoxy who accused Basava of exploiting his political power and his position as chief minister of the Calukya empire (Das 163). In order to dismantle Basava’s influence in Kalyana, the orthodoxy believed that altering Bijjala’s perception of Basava could create a significant rift between both individuals. Consequently, Basava was accused of inappropriately using empire funds to support saranas who needed financial support. In addition, he was also accused of “polluting the royal court” (Leslie 244) through his interactions with sudras and untouchables. Accusations against Basava continued to climb, further exacerbating social tensions between the Brahmins and the saranas. Though these social tensions were not initially manifest in the form of violence, this dramatically changed after a sarana man was said to have married a Brahmin woman. The orthodoxy was fiercely critical of this wedding because the man was an untouchable (Schouten 49). Thus, the wedding was construed as an affront to the established orthodoxy, and the married couple was subsequently put to death by the Brahmins (Das 164). The saranas felt betrayed by Bijjala because he ordered the death of the couple, and violence soon flooded Kalyana (Schouten 50). Meanwhile, Basava was accused of organizing an insurgency against Bijjala’s empire, further heightening tensions (Leslie 244).

As conflict continued to escalate in Kalyana, Bijjala’s army intervened and killed many of Basava’s followers. Distraught by these events, Basava decided that he could no longer witness the terror that had unfolded in Kalyana (Ishwaran 85). He moved back to Kudalasangama where he died a few years later in 1167 (Das 164). Meanwhile, the growing resentment the saranas had towards Bijjala ultimately led to Bijjala’s assassination (Rao and Roghair 13).

The future of the Lingayat sect was uncertain following Basava’s death. His leadership was crucially important in maintaining cohesion within the sect and a sense of fraternity. However, his absence left the Lingayat tradition susceptible to Brahmanical influences (Schouten 15). The so-called Brahmanization of the Lingayat sect was manifest in a number of ways. For instance, temples dedicated to Siva had been built and the Brahmanical practice of donating money to priests had also surfaced in the tradition (Ishwaran 4-5). Over the next few centuries following his death, steps were taken by influential adherents of the Lingayat tradition to ensure that the distinctive identity of the sect was not eroded upon by Brahmanical influences. Many of Basava’s vacanas and other writings had been consolidated; moreover, these texts were given canonical status in Lingayatism (Ishwaran 4). Another significant development in the tradition was the establishment of the Virakta monastic system (Schouten 15). Moreover, this system was  important in preserving a sense of community in the sect by facilitating religious discussion amongst its followers in addition to providing Lingayat education (Ishwaran 4). Collectively, these developments were able to resist Brahmanical influences and thus enabled the tradition to retain its unique identity.


Das, Sisir K. (2005) A History of Indian Literature, 500-1399: From Courtly to the Popular. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Ishwaran, K (2019) Speaking of Basava: Lingayat Religion and Culture in South Asia. London: Routledge.

Leslie, Julia (1998) “Understanding Basava: History, Hagiography and a Modern Kannada Drama.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61:228-61. Accessed February 3, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00013793.

Michael, Blake R. (1983) “Foundation Myths of the Two Denominations of Virasaivism: Viraktas and Gurusthalins.” The Journal of Asian Studies 42:309-22. Accessed February 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/2055116.

Rao, Velcheru N., and Gene Roghair (2014) Siva’s Warriors: The Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sahasrabudhe, M (1979) “Mahatma Basavesvara – A Social Reformer.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40:221-26. Accessed February 3, 2020.

Schouten, Jan P. (1995) Revolution of The Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Virasaivism. Delhi:  Motilal Banarsidass

Srinivas, Mysore N. (1976) The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Basava Purana

Basavaraja Devara Ragale

Palkuriki Somanatha



Dodda Basavanna Gudi

Calukya Dynasty

Basava Jayanthi

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Article written by: Bhadra Pandya (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Basava: Founder of the Lingayat Sect

Basava (Basavanna) was an Indian twelfth-century philosopher, poet, statesman and the founder of the Lingayat sect which originated as a reactionary and oppositional force against Hinduism in the twelfth century (Leslie 1). Basava is regarded as a Lingayat saint in the Siva-focused Bhakti movement as well as a social reformer during the reign of the Kalyani Chalukya and Kalachuri dynasty (Leslie 2). Basava was born in 1106 CE named in honor of Nandi (carrier of Siva) and was devoted to the Hindu deity Siva (Samanta 1). Basava spent his early life growing up in the Hindu temple of Kudalasangama, where he spent twelve years undergoing studies. Basava would go on to marry a cousin from his maternal side of the family (Somanatha 57). Basava’s father in law was the provincial prime minister of the Kalachuri king. Due to familial connections, Basava would find work in the court of the king as an accountant for a time before he would eventually replace his father in law as chief minister (Somanatha 64). Now that Basava was chief minister of the kingdom he sought to use the treasury to initiate social reforms and a religious movement focused on reviving the worship of Siva, thus giving birth to the Lingayat sect of today.

Basava’s life and ministry were detailed by numerous hagiographies and various writers before and after his death, such as Hirihara who wrote Basavarajadevara Ragale, Shadakshari who wrote Basavaraja Vijayam, and Bhima Kavi who wrote the Basava Purana (Samartha 3). All these works were written centuries apart from one another which has illustrated some unique similarities and contradictions among the literature, some of which pervade the typical hagiographic tradition. Many poets recorded a theme of viewing Basava as a divine incarnation from heaven itself; however, there are a few discrepancies that result in conflicting contradictions as is expected with religious texts (Samartha 3). Since the authors had been committed to the affirmation of Basava’s divinity and incarnation they found it difficult to portray the humanity of Basava and thus focused on a simplistic and pious account of Basava’s history which limited it to mainly ideological differences during his upanayana (rites of passage) (Samartha 4).

Detailed in the Basava Purana, is Basava’s early life and most prominently, the refusal of the thread ceremony during his upanayana and an argument with his father. In this excerpt, Basava questions his father’s worship of Siva, declaring him to be a fool. Basava argues that, once a person has been purified in a previous, birth it is degrading to become twice born in the current life (Somanatha 56). Basava believes that his father is trying to drown him in an ocean of karma and argues that once someone has gone beyond caste and lineage why should you once again become dependent on caste clan by undergoing a thread ceremony (Somanatha 56). Basava’s father is outraged by the disobedience of his son. He exclaims that the Agamas (religious texts) prescribe sixteen rituals for purification, and if missing even one of these rituals a man will have no place among the first rank of the highest caste (Somanatha 57). Basava’s father ultimately mentions that Basava’s failure to complete his thread ceremony would result in the destruction of the family. Furthermore, Basava’s father mentions that if he does not complete the ritual, they will be forced to disown him from the family in fear of being viewed as immoral savages (Somanatha 57).  Basava is outraged and says that his father has failed to recognize the differences between devotion and Brahminism, exclaiming that they are different teachings with different gods, mantras, and preceptors (Somanatha 58). Basava exclaims that a brahmin must worship all the gods and if he fails to, he is no longer a brahmin and if one does worship all the gods then devotion is dead (Somanatha 58). Basava states that devotion is like the stability of married women while Brahminism is the path of harlots (Somanatha 58). In closing, Basava states that if his father continues with his Brahminism he will be meaningless to him and declares Siva to be the true path to devotion (Somanatha 58).

Detailed in the Basava Purana, are the recollections of Basava’s adulthood and most prominently, Basava’s rise to power as the commander in chief of King Bijjala. Following the arguments with his father, Basava and his sister Nagamamba decided that it would not be wise to stay home any longer and went to seek shelter at the house of his friend, Phanihari (Somanatha 59). It was during this time that Basava met Baladeva, who was King Bijjala’s treasurer and commander of the army (Somanatha 59). It was said that Baladeva had promised that he would marry his daughter Gangamba to a devotee of Siva and not give her to a bhavi (one who sits below the throne) (Somanatha 59). It is not entirely clear how Basava ended up meeting Baladeva; however, he was eventually married to Baladeva’s daughter Gangamba. After marriage and completing all the necessary rituals, Basava would travel to Kappadisangamesvara, where he received high praise from the occupants for his devotion (Somanatha 61).

 Upon Baladeva’s death, King Bijjala gathered a council of Baladeva’s friends and family seeking a replacement for the position of commander in chief (Somanatha 64). During this council, Basava was suggested as a replacement due to his humble speech, purity, and mastery of arts (Somanatha 64). King Bijjala was ecstatic about Basava as a replacement for Baladeva and immediately sent ministers and advisors to meet Basava and offer him the title of commander in chief (Somanatha 64). Basava would receive high praise from the advisors sent to meet him regarding him as a lord above all, far above even the king (Somanatha 65). Basava would accept their offer thinking about the welfare of devotees (Somanatha 65). Basava would eventually reach the city of Kalyana in southern Kalachuri, where he received immense praise from all, declaring him to be on the pure path of Siva (Somanatha 66). Basava was viewed as an incarnation of heroism, a destroyer of evildoers, a destroyer of sin, and one that had transcended the darkness of ignorance (Somanatha 66). It is described that King Bijjala then joyfully gave Basava authority over his entire realm including an immense army and treasury (Somanatha 66). Basava was then tasked with the welfare of the entire empire and lord of King Bijala’s life and wealth (Somanatha 67). As Basava garnered great renown he also garnered growing popularity among the masses. Basava made an immense amount of vows to regard every devotee of Siva as Siva himself (Somanatha 68). These vows were then reciprocated by many devotees (Somanatha 68). Eventually, due to his spreading renown, many devotees sought to see Basava in person to verify his devotion and garner devotion themselves from his presence. During this time, Basava further showed his devotion to Siva and character that was renowned among the masses.

The poetic hagiographies and Basava’s own vachanas (sayings) are the majority of sources that reconstruct the life of Basava all with different methods such as orally or in manuscripts and inscriptions (Samartha 2). In these hagiographies such as the Basava Purana, they consistently regard Basava in a semi divine way and reflect how Basava’s life and actions were interpreted by the masses during their respective times (Samartha 2). Despite their obvious exaggerations, these hagiographies provide vital geographical and biographical information which is especially useful when exploring the Lingayat sect of today which Basava is credited for founding (Samartha 2). From the information in Basava’s hagiographies, his philosophy and values can be interpreted as teachings for the Lingayat sect (Samartha 13). By portraying Basava in a semi divine incarnation, the hagiographic poets set out to solve the problems of society with the support of the masses (Samartha 13). They did this because it was difficult for people to follow the teachings of someone who was merely a human (Samartha 13). As a side effect of this, many aspects of Basava’s life that showcased his humanity were lost (Samartha 13). Regardless of the contradictory and confusing hagiographies, Basava eventually went on to champion the tradition of Lingayat Hindus through his values of equality and social reform which serve as his legacy.

            The Lingayat sect refers to the worshippers of the Hindu deity Siva. The Lingayats are a large sect of Hinduism that can still be found today that reside in the Kannada speaking region of southern India (McCormack 1). Two prominent features of Lingayats are the wearing of lingas which are a symbol of Siva and the strict practice of vegetarianism (McCormack 1). Lingayats recognize the religious leading of Basava who they credit for leading the Lingayat movement in the twelfth century that focused on overcoming caste exclusiveness and focusing on social reform (McCormack 1). This ideology of social reform is the direct rejection of the caste system used in India which separates people into different classes. Basava had previously spread his ideas through his poetry and the introduction of new institutions that ignored the caste system such as the Anubhava Mantapa which was a place that welcomed all men and women from varying castes to discuss spirituality (Schouten 2). All was going well until the new king, King Bijjala II began to disagree with the ideals of Basava, particularly regarding Basava’s belief of dissolving the caste system (Schouten 3). Under King Bijjala II’s rule, Lingayats became increasingly repressed causing some to relocate (Schouten 3). This Lingayat repression eventually came to a head when King Bijala II was assassinated by Lingayats (Schouten 5). The assassination of the king created animosity between Jains (King Bijala II) and Lingayats which resulted in the majority of Lingayats relocating into different regions of India and taking the teachings of Basava with them (Schouten 6). After the death of Basava, the old ideals began to fade and Basava’s nephew Channabasava began organizing some of the scattered Lingayat population and moving them towards the mainstream Hindu culture (Schouten 14). Eventually, in the fifteenth century, a Lingayat revival would occur in northern Karnataka in the Vijayanagara Empire. It is theorized that the Lingayats were likely a reason for how the Vijayanagara succeeded in territorial conquest against the Deccan Sultanates (Schouten 15). Due to their success, a Virasaiva family and eventual dynasty were appointed governance over the coastal Karnataka Kanara region where they built major shrines and seminaries of Lingayatism (Schouten 15). It is through this rebirth that the Lingayat sect once again grew to prominence and the teachings and legacy of Basava were reinvigorated.

There exist numerous interpretations that explain the life of Basava, these varying interpretations have resulted in a mixture of contrasting and similar literature. The legacy of Basava survives to this day due to his poetry and teachings that live on today in the form of the Lingayat sect. The Lingayat credits Basava as their founder and as such takes a great deal of inspiration from his teachings.


Leslie, Julie (1998) “Understanding Basava: History, Hagiography and a Modern Kannada Drama.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 61(2), 228-261. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:

McCormack, William (1963) “Lingayats as a Sect.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 93(1), 59-71. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:10.2307/2844333.

Samanta, Priya (2006) “Basava: A Social Reformer.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. 67, 1066-1066. Accessed February 2, 2020. Retrieved from

Samartha, M. (1977) “Basava’s Spiritual Struggle.” Religious Studies. 13(3), 335-347. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:

Schouten, Jan (1995) Revolution of the Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Vīraśaivism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Somanatha, Palakuriki (1990) Siva’s Warriors: The Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. Translated by Velcheru Rao and Gene Roghair. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Kalyani Chalukya

Bhakti movement

Basavaraja Vijayam


Basavarajadevara Ragale




Bijjala II





Anubhava Mantapa


Kayakave Kailasa

Shat sthala vachana

Kala jnana vachana

Mantra gopya

Ghatachakra vachana

Raja yoga vachana


Vedanta Sutra

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Article written by: Corey Hironaka (Feburary 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.


The myth cycle of Siva in the pine forest is a dynamic and complex narrative, often viewed from a Western lens as paradoxical. Not only the narrative, but also Siva himself, is commonly viewed as inconsistent, as much of what he represents can be seen as opposites; such as his role as both creator and destroyer (O’Flaherty 1969a: 303). Whether this view derives as an aftereffect from the translation of the text from Sanskrit to English, or from an overly simplistic interpretation of Siva mythology, Siva should not be understood to reside consistently on the either end of a spectrum, but should rather be considered more appropriately as existing in his “dual nature” (O’Flaherty 1969a: 306). Siva must be thought of not in terms of concrete opposites, as either black or white, but as a fluid development. Handel and Shulman (211) state that “the god who breathes in is the same god who breathes out… he is never not in process”. Siva should be regarded in this sense; he should not be observed as static.

Hindu mythology is a reflection of the Hindu worldview, offering readers a look into the complex history, social norms, rituals and belief systems of Hinduism (O’Flaherty 1981:1). It is diverse; there are often many variations and many meanings in each myth cycle. Meaning in Hindu mythology should not be understood from a singular viewpoint, but should be understood on multiple levels and within multiple contexts, understanding that there is not one singular meaning in each myth cycle (O’Flaherty 1981:2). Understanding this, along with the dual nature that O’Flaherty references, is crucial to understanding the pine forest myth cycle, specifically in regards to Siva’s seemingly conflicting traits of asceticism and eroticism, which are heavily presented in the narrative.    

The pine forest myth cycle has many variations, however, there is a fairly consistent storyline that most variations follow. The most common understanding is that the deity Siva enters the forest of pines begging for alms. The wives of the sages who live in the forest see him walking around, naked and ithyphallic, and are very attracted to him. In much the same way, the sages are attracted to Visnu, who had transformed into a beautiful woman. When the sages realize that their wives are full of lust for this beggar, whom they did not know was Siva at the time, they become upset. They proceed to attack him, both in the physical sense, as well as curse him, which causes his phallus to fall off. However, after realizing that the man is Siva, they begin to worship the fallen linga, and Siva teaches them how to obtain moksa. This overview is very simplistic, and does not do justice to the complexities and controversies existing within the different variations of the text.

In her book, SIVA The Erotic Ascestic, O’Flaherty outlines three broad groupings under which differing variations of mythology can be categorized. Firstly, the idea of Siva as a “false ascetic” (1981:173), whose purpose for being in the forest is to seduce the sages’ wives for his own pleasure. He is depicted in these versions of the narrative as very aroused and erotic, and in some tellings, Siva even forced himself upon the sages’ wives (or daughters, in certain narratives). This lust that Siva has for the women is sometimes explained by him being unsatisfied with his sexual relationship with his wife (O’Flaherty 1981:173-175). This presentation of Siva as a false ascetic focuses primarily on one extreme of his seemingly contradictory traits, as both erotic and ascetic. Secondly, O’Flaherty presents Siva as the “passive ascetic” (1981:173). This title encompasses narratives that portray Siva not as the seducer, but as the one being seduced. In these variations, the wives fall in love with him soon after seeing him in the forest. However, despite the wives often blatant desire for him, he disregards their advances. In one account of the narrative, he does not notice them because he is busy meditating, and in another account, he avoids their advances by physically running away from them (O’Flaherty 1981:175-176). The narratives under this category clearly portray Siva as opposite to the seemingly unashamed erotic persona previously examined, and highlights instead the other end of the spectrum, showing him as completely ascetic and without desire for the sages’ wives. Thirdly, O’Flaherty offers a categorization that she titles “The apparent lust of the ascetic Siva” (1981:178). Presenting a balance between the two extremes, Siva is observed within this category as pretending to be lustful, while really remaining ascetic. Interpretations of his purpose in this manipulation often correlate back to the sages. It is commonly seen as Siva attempting to present the sages with a crucial message about their wives’ impurity, and he masquerades as lustful in order to seduce them, and illustrate how unfaithful they are to their husbands. In other versions of the myth, the sages’ power is held within the chastity of their wives, and by seducing them, Siva is able to take power from the sages in order to use it against his enemies (O’Flaherty 1981:178-179). Ultimately, Siva is using an erotic means to seduce the wives that does not reflect his true intentions or desires, leaving him as both erotic and ascetic.

Cola bronze depicting Siva as the naked mendicant who attracts the wives of the Pine Forest sages.

The pine forest myth cycle presents many sexual symbols which can be observed both directly and indirectly, regardless of which variation of the narrative is being examined. In this myth collection, Siva is consistently presented wandering the forest completely nude, with an erect phallus, which in many variations of the narrative falls off as a result of being cursed by the sages. In many shrines dedicated to Siva today, it is not uncommon to see a linga statue, which is a common symbol used to represent Siva. The sages worshipping the fallen linga after realizing the true identity of the beggar is often thought of to be the origination of linga worship (Handelman and Shulman 33). Further sexual symbolism can be seen when Siva uses sexual mannerisms as a way to teach the sages a lesson about chastity and lead them to enlightenment (O’Flahery 1981: 204). Again, there is a sense of balance between the opposing ideas of eroticism and asceticism, as Siva’s methods of teaching appear to contradict the message he is trying to present. Another meaning that can be interpreted from certain variations of the text offers that Siva was intending the show the sages that they must give up their tapas, which are obtained through strict purity,and instead focus more on their wives (O’Flaherty 1981:200). Again, this interpretation centers around balancing purity and sexuality, as it presumes that while the sages are attempting to be liberated through purity, they are too extreme, and by doing so they are neglecting other important areas of their life. The sages, who focus intently on purity, are somewhat ironically liberated through linga worship at the end of the narrative (O’Flaherty 1981:201), which points further to the importance of balance.

The sexual nature of the myth cycle is not just seen in obvious, overt symbolism. In fact, the entire narrative is based around erotic conversations and connotations. Early on in many variations of the narrative, it is stated in some form that Siva is very handsome and that the sages’ wives are very physically attracted to him. In the same way, Visnu helps Siva by transforming into a beautiful woman in order to seduce the sages (Handelman and Shulman 5). With both the sages and their wives being seduced by the gods, Siva and Visnu reunite, and when the sages recognize that their wives are being unfaithful to them, they become angry. In this version of the narrative, when they attempt to fight Siva, they lose their tapas, which they had dedicated much time and effort into gaining through purity. Eventually, they become wiser and apologize to Siva, and he directs them to return to their tapas, as they had learned the lesson he went to teach them (Handelman and Shulman 10-14). This blending of eroticism and ascetism shows the balance of Siva’s being, illustrating again that he does not fall to one extreme, but most often exists as both natures, in a balance. The linga is frequently seen as an erotic symbol, but when looked at more closely, is also a representation for chastity. The idea of chastity connects with concepts of self control and discipline, and the erect phallus represents the containment of semen, which is a symbol itself of chastity. Therefore, Siva’s chastity is not in conflict with his eroticism, but is rather complimented and strengthened by it, allowing chastity and sexuality to coexist (O’Flaherty 1969a:308-309).

This myth cycle is important in the Hindu tradition, as it draws on prevalent concepts in Hinduism such as sexuality and chastity. As seen in the narrative, sexuality and chastity are not viewed as opposing forces in Hinduism; they are not opposites, but are thought to work together, and are connected (O’Flaherty 1969a:311). Just as Siva represents two concepts that appear contradictory, a Hindu’s role and responsibilities in society are often seen as conflicting, and this myth cycle offers guidance to the Hindu reader on how responsibilities need to coexist, and cannot all be obtained independent of one another. O’Flaherty (1981:38) explains how the responsibility of the sages to be chaste but yet still devoted to their wives presents an ideal that is not realistic. In the same way, the societal demands for Hindus to be both involved in their family life in the householder stage but yet also fully dedicate themselves to seeking god as a renouncer cannot be attained. One application for Hindus that can be drawn from this myth cycle is the importance of balance, and recognizing how two ideals must coexist.

            Mythology plays an important role in Hinduism, and it has been argued that the lessons found in the mythology of Siva specifically “lie at the very heart of Hinduism” (O’Flaherty 1981:1). The depth offered in Hindu mythology is complex and layered, as is evident in the pine forest myth cycle. Under further examination, the seemingly opposing forces at play act to balance each other, and it is evident that what may at first appear paradoxical can exist as complimentary. Although Siva represents many opposing forces in different myth cycles, he most clearly represents erotism and asceticism in the pine forest myth cycle. Despite the fact that there is not one singular clear meaning or interpretation of the narrative, but rather many alternative forms that differ greatly from each other, there are evident overarching themes that remain consistent throughout the myth cycle. From a Western perspective, there is often a misconception that Siva is an inconsistent deity (O’Flaherty 1969a: 303). The mythology of Siva, although complex, should not be viewed with the intent of finding one singular meaning or interpretation, but needs to be viewed with an understanding of the complexities and variations that exist.


Clothey, Fred W., and Bruce J. Long (1983) Experiencing Siva: Encounters with a Hindu Deity. Columbus: South Asia Books.

Handelman, Don, and David Schulman (2004) Siva in the Forest of Pines: An Essay on Sorcery and Self knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

— (1969a) “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Śiva. Part I.” History of Religions, 8:300-37. Accessed January 29, 2020.

— (1969b) “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Śiva. Part II.” History of Religions, 9:1-4. Accessed January 29, 2020.

— (1971) “The Submarine Mare in the Mythology of Śiva.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1:9-27. Accessed January 29, 2020.

— (1981) Siva, the Erotic Ascetic. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

This article was written by: Kayley Grasmeyer (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.


Saivism is known to be the oldest and the most dominant sect of Hinduism sect alongside with Vaisnavism, they are centered on the two supreme deities (Rudra-Siva and Visnu) respectively who are recognized in most established, significant Hindu literature (Gonda 64). In Saivism, the worship of the deity Siva maybe traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization (Rodrigues 212). However, in the Rg Veda, there was no mention of Siva; instead, he was first introduced as Rudra the “Howler.” Rudra-Siva is known as the God of Storms, destroyer of cattle and human beings (Rodrigues 212). Siva is worshipped through a linga (phallic emblem) that could be traced to the 1st century BC and is mentioned in the Mahabharata; however, in the Ramayana, there were less encounters with Siva compared to Visnu. Siva’s powers are often viewed by how destructive he is during battle. The deity is often referred as a Lord, master and many-sided (Gonda 13).

The sect emphasises the worship of Siva. Going more into depth, Siva is regarded by many as the Supreme Deity in Hinduism realm. Rudra was first introduced as the chief of an indefinite host of manifestation of a deity (Gonda 4). Siva is considered to be a complex deity throughout the Rg Veda. Both Visnu and Siva are known to be ambiguous figures based on their background. On one hand, Siva demonstrates strong heroic attributes and represents as a Supreme Deity; however, on the other hand, he is looked at as a deva (powerful demon) and the God of Storms. This demonstrates that both deities embody divine like qualities (Gonda 12). As mentioned before, Siva is a complex deity because of the different identities he holds. Throughout history, the deity is claimed many different names during different periods; for example, in the earliest school, Pasupatas, Siva is claimed to be Pasupati (Lord of the Cattle). Throughtout the Rg Veda, Siva was first regarded as Rudra. However, the name Siva is commonly used throughout different texts and literature.

Saivism is still a huge sect in Hinduism today. Temples and shrines are still placed in India today to worship deity Siva. Over time, there have been many schools that have developed. Visnu and Siva are often compared to another based on their placements in the Epics. Siva is perceived in many different forms, making him known as many-sided; however, Siva is regarded as one of the most important deity and Supreme being. The linga is a key symbol in this sect, as it appears in many temples and shrines. The linga is a representation of a male presence; the representation of Siva could be depicted through many different interpretations. The sect can be broken down too many different branches, such as the trantic groups Kalamukha and Kapalikas, that are no longer present, but made an impact in modernity. Saivism is dominant even to this day and is one of the most popular sects in Hinduism.

The worship of Siva takes place throughout temples and shrines made at home containing different images (Flood 151-152). The temples are most sacred to many Saivites, and different blessings radiate from the emblem depending on the location of the temple. Most temples, shrines, and sanctuaries contain different symbols and images; however they all worship the Supreme Deity, Siva. As mentioned before, the Saiva temples are consistent in Siva being worshipped through the form of a linga and in association yoni (womb) which is the female association; though the meaning of the symbol is up to interpretations (Holm 92). The symbol is usually depicted through temples and a linga and also what seems to be the face of Lord Siva represented with four or five faces. The five different faces are to represent the five elements of the universe. In some cases, the linga represents a “fiery column of light” (Holm 92-93). Every manifestation is presented through the linga making this emblem extremely important to the worship of Siva. It would be rare for a shrine or temple not to have one present. Linga was more commonly known with the non-Aryans, however throughout history and time, more and more individuals started to use the phallic emblem. As the worship of Siva has become more common throughout India, there are many festivals where worshippers sing and chant and offer devotions. Siva is depicted with his animal, Nandi, the Bull that symbolises fertility (Holm 93).

There are many schools of Saivism, but the earliest is a bhakti group known as the Kalamukha that derived from one of the first schools, the Pasupatas (Rodrigues 213). The Pasupatas maybe traced back to the 2nd century. Pasupati can translate to Pati (lord) of Pashus (cattle). As many schools and sects of Hinduism, each have their own set of stages in life. The Pasupatas stage of life starts with a period of moral development: this stage requires a devotee to gain a guru to have initiate them and to guide. The action of smearing ashes on their bodies thrice daily. Throughout this stage, the action of smearing ashes on their bodies thrice daily, as this is a ritual. Next, is their change of behaviour in the public sphere, which includes different speech and crude behaviour. Finally, they reached seclusion: this stage focuses on extreme mediation and is believed to have a final union with Rudra before the recognition of Siva being Rudra (Flood 156-159). The movement was influential in South India, however it gradually faded away as more Siva worshippers disagreed with some of their early rituals.

The Kalamukha “Black Face” first explored the realm of bhakti and ascetic (severe self-discipline) in some extreme form (Flood 154-156). They are considered to be extreme devotees of Siva. As mentioned before, modern Saivites do not agree with the old rituals of the Kalamukha. The Kalamukha emphasised the need for sacrificial rituals that contain both animals and humans. Their name of “Black Face” is most likely derived from their process of renunciation, where a black streak of ash is prominent on the individual’s forehead. Most of these devotees were found near temples where women stayed to attend to the offer patron deity and to a temple prostitution (Stefon 1). The earliest set of devotees of Siva, they are no longer present and gradually faded away as their rituals were not accepted by the majority of Saivites.

As modernity began to spread throughout India and the different major sects of Hinduism, more schools and comparisons began to pop up. Visnuism and Saivism are often compared to one another (Gonda 1). Another devotee group would be the Kapalikas known as “skull bearer”; they were also known for their very extreme rituals, such as cannibalism. This group of people worshipped Bhairava-Siva which led them to becoming a Saivite sect. They are known for eating from a skull bowl and worshipping the gods through a pot of wine (Lorenzen 8). Similar to the Kalamukhas, they covered themselves in funeral ashes. Both of these sects was shown hostility because of their crude practices. Both of these Saivite devotees are considered to be a tantric group (Lorenzen 37).

Most sects worshipping only one god are regarded monotheistic. There are divine figures that are worshipped to maintain good fortune and merit (Gonda 62); individuals come together to worship a deity in hopes of gaining both fortune and merit. There are many cult practices that contain higher deities which includes Siva. Siva urges the need for Saiva diksa (initiation into a Siva order) (Gonda 64). Most sects each share the similarity of trying to reach the final goal, which is final liberation. In order to reach this, the individual must initiate through a guru that is classified as a Brahman. All finalized initiation is considered to be a manifestation of Siva himself (Gonda 64). Gurus are an important role when reaching final liberation as they help their mentee with mantras (sacred utterances) through their process. After learning the mantras, the individual is now entitled to perform certain ritual rites. Reaching full purification is another life goal many want to achieve (Gonda 65). These stages are achieved through different ways, depending on the path the individual decides to take. Some achieve Brahman which is a key aspect to Saivism. Brahman is the supreme existence or the absolute reality one wants to achieve. Saivism explores the deity of Siva and many Hindus today follow this sect as it dominates throughout India today.



Flood, Gavin (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gonda, Jan (1996) Visnuism and Sivaism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Holm, Jean (1994) Picturing God. London: Printer Publishers.

Lorenzen, David Neal (1968) “The Kaplikas and Kalamukhas Two Lost Saivite Sect” The Australian National University 1-325. Accessed October 22, 2018.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism The ebook: An Online Introduction Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Indus Valley Civilization

Rg Veda

The Epics







Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jacqueline Paule (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

Mahanirvana Tantra

The Tantras are texts that deal with an assortment of ritual methods used to control and manipulate the cosmic powers, belonging to the literature of the Saktas. The Tantras deal with a wide variety of subject matter such as yoga practice, dharma behavior, the prescribed stages of life, the realms of heaven and hell, and importantly, worship ritual. The Mahanirvana Tantra was composed in the 18th century and is the most well-known Tantra in the west (Payne 53-55). It is regarded as the revelation of Siva, the destroyer of the world and god of the Yogis, to his wife, Parvati, at the summit of Mount Kailasa.

It was on Mount Kailasa that Parvati found her husband, Siva, described sitting silently on the mountain surrounded by a beautiful landscape. The text begins with Parvati asking Siva a question relating to the liberation of beings. Siva’s answer to Parvati is then answered in the chapters of the Mahanirvana Tantra. Siva begins the first four chapters by relating the importance of worshiping Brahman, the ultimate reality. Siva explains when good is done to the universe, He will be pleased, as He is the soul of the universe and it depends on Him (Avalon 3). Siva tells her that by worship of Brahman, there will be no need for any other religious observances (Avalon 4). Due to Siva’s strong affection to Parvati, he tells her more about the Supreme Brahman, and the secrets of worshiping Him by prescribed mantra to attain siddi, the enlightenment and understanding possessed by a siddah, or accomplished one. Siva states that liberation “does not come from the recitation of hymns, sacrifice or a hundred fasts… man is liberated by the knowledge that he is Brahman himself” (Payne 10). Pleased by what Siva has bestowed on her, Parvati asks another question concerning worship of Supreme Prakrti in union with Supreme Brahman. This delights Siva and he spoke unto Parvati how everything in the universe owes its origins and manifestations to the Supreme Prakrti and Supreme Brahman in motion with each other (Avalon 5). He relates the Supreme Prakrti to the Deva herself, informing her that she is everything in all forms and manifestations, and everything is her. Siva explains that success is solely achieved by Kaulika worship, the most supreme doctrine, and the merit achieved by honoring a Kaulika, is enough to protect one from all the harm the Kali Age has to offer (Avalon 5).

In the fifth chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra, Siva speaks to his wife of the formation of mantras, composed of single letters, syllables, a word, or an entire phrase to make a sacred sound (Feuerstein 191) and the preparatory acts to be done each day. Mantras are creative forces that act upon one’s consciousness when empowered and communicated to a disciple (Feuerstein 191). Siva explains to Parvati that there are countless mantras for worship, presented in the various Tantras but he only states twelve of them, because these twelve are for the pleasure and benefit of all humanity (Avalon 6). After presenting the twelve mantras to Parvati, he moves on to explain worship of Sakti by the five elements, wine, meat, fish, grain, and union of man and woman to attain the position of vira (Bhattacharyya 121). After which he describes placing of the jar, which is called a kalasa, because Visva-karma, son of Brahma, composed it from various parts of each of the Devatas (Avalon 6). He explains the measurements in fingers, and that it is to be made of gold, silver, copper, metal, mud, stone or glass free from any imperfections and on the left side a hexagon enclosed by a circle, enclosed by a square. In detail Siva speaks of the proper worshipping and mantras to be recited important in all power of creation, preservation and destruction of the universe.

The sixth chapter of the text Parvati asks Siva about the Pancha-tattvas and the appropriate worship of the Deva. The Pancha-tattvas, or five elements, are given in sacrifice to propitiate the Deva (Avalon 7). Siva declares that there are three kinds of wine, made from molasses, rice, or the juices and flowers of plants, that are first tattva and no matter how it has been made, is equal in the worship of the Deva. The second tattva is meat from three kinds of animals, those of the earth, sky and water. Siva explains that to please the Deva it does not matter where or by whom the animal was killed, so long as the animal being decapitated is male and not female (Avalon 7). The third tattva is three kinds of fish, ranked in superiority and quality due to their bones. Fish with the most amount of bones, considered inferior, must be well fried before being offered to the Devi. Parched food is the fourth tattva and contains three categories. Superior food is white rice, barley and wheat all fried in butter, the middle being a fried paddy, and the most inferior food consists of any fried grain that is not contained in the superior category (Avalon 7). After explaining the first four features, Siva looks unto Parvati and says “O Great Devi! when the weakness of the Kali Age becomes great, one’s own Shakti or wife should alone be known as the fifth tattva”(Avalon 7). Thus, making sexual union between man and women the fifth and final Pancha-tattva. Before revealing the mantras to Parvati, Siva warns her that man who offers these sacrifices to the Devas without proper purification will not please the gods and one will go to hell for it (Avalon 7).

The seventh chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva addresses the Goddess Kali as the supreme yogini, for at the end of time she devours Siva, the devourer of time himself (Feuerstein 35). Kali, who’s name relates to the words “time” and “death”, is the dark goddess and the Destroyer. Siva recites a hymn to Parvati, containing the Hundred Names of Kali, all beginning with the letter Ka, entitled Adya-Kali-Svarupa. By worshiping Kali and repeating her Hundred Names, one will enjoy a happy life and becomes suffused with the presence of the Devi (Avalon 8). Only when one is in the presence of the Goddess, does he reach the hearts of women, attain his desires, conquer his enemies, master his caste and enjoy good fortune. For once she suffuses him “there is ever victory, and defeat never” (Avalon 8).

Parvati asks Siva in the eighth chapter to hear of the castes, the prescribed stages in life, and the mode they should be observed in, having just heard the different dharmas and union with the Supreme. Siva tells her in the Kali age, there are five castes, Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and Samanya (Avalon 9) and each of these castes has two stages of life. He begins first by describing the householder stage, with devotion to Brahman. He tells Parvati the importance of pleasing one’s mother and father, raising obedient and educated children, being kind to neighbors and cherishing his wife, so she will be ever devoted to him. Siva after explains the exclusive mantras to be performed only by the twice-born, and the other mantras to be used for the lower castes. Siva relates to Parvati the duties of the king, that he is to watch his subjects and protect his people and describes the manner in which he should present himself. The king is to be the courage of his warriors, highly knowledgeable, discriminatory, and honorable, but never arrogant, when awarding both reward and punishment (Avalon 8). Agriculture and trade, are only appropriate for the vaishya class and all acts of negligence, laziness, untruthfulness and deceit should be avoided. Finally, servants should be clean, skillful, alert and careful, they should treat their master with the uttermost respect as the servant should be aspiring for happiness in this world and their next incarnation.

In the ninth chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva explains the ten kinds of Purificatory Rites, or sangskaras to Parvati. He tells her that each caste has their own specific rites that need to be performed to purify the body. These ten ceremonies deal with the events of conception, pregnancy, birth of the child, naming of the child, the child’s first view of the sun, its first eating of rice, tonsure, investiture and marriage (Avalon 10). Following the introduction of the events for the ceremonies, Siva recites all the sangskara mantras to Parvati. After listening to the mantras, she inquires about the rites dealing with funerals, Vriddhi Shraddha and Purnabhisheka, thus beginning the tenth chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra. Siva informs Parvati of the importance of offering Pinda, a cooked ball of flour, butter and seeds, along with repeating the mantras to please the ancestors. The Vriddhi Shraddha is the ritual performed during special occasions to get the blessings of the ancestors, and the Purnabhisheka is the rite of initiation (Avalon 11). Siva presents the funeral rites and mantras to Parvati, explaining the period of uncleanliness dependent on the caste system. Brahmanas are unclean for ten days, Kshatriyas twelve days, Vaishyas a fortnight, Shudras and Samanyas are unclean for an entire month (Avalon 11).

In chapter eleven Siva introduces the expiatory rites, and explains to Parvati the types of sins and their accompanying punishments. Siva tells her that there are two types of sin, both which lead to pain, sorrow and disease. The first sin is one that leads to injury of one’s own self, and the second being one which leads to injury of others. Siva informs Parvati that men who sin and who are not purified by the form of punishment or expiation will be doomed to hell, and will not be incarnated into the next world (Avalon 12). In this chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva recites no mantras to Parvati, alternately he explains each sinful act one could perform and the accompanying punishment for each caste. The twelfth chapter entitled “An Account of the Eternal Immutable Dharmma” is the outline for the regulations which deal with property, inheritance and wealth. Siva explains to Parvati of the inheritance hierarchy, and how it is to be distributed among the living members of the family or the spouse’s family. Siva tells her of the rules in agriculture, mercantile transactions and other monetary dealings so that they may be deemed Dharmmic (Avalon 13). At the close of the chapter, to enforce the greater purpose of the accounts of Dharmma, Siva claims “The Lord protects this universe… Therefore should one act for the good of the world” (Avalon 13).

In the final two chapters of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva reveals the installation and worship of the Devata and Shiva-linga. Siva tells Parvati that all beings have qualities of the goddess Kali, and to worship Kali one must form images in adherence to her. Siva says that there are two types of men, those who act with a view to the fruits of action, and those who act without a view to the fruits of action and the latter will attain final liberation (Avalon 14). He recites the mantras of this chapter to Parvati, dealing with the worship and meditation of Vastu and Dhyana. Siva concludes the thirteenth chapter by telling Parvati that by worshipping the gods with immense devotion and act, without a view of reward, will be released from rebirth (Avalon 14). In the final chapter, Parvati asks Siva to tell her of the distinct features of the four classes of Avadhutas. There are two kinds of Shaivavadhutas and Brahmavadhutas, either purna or apruna, meaning perfect and imperfect, respectively. The first three classes practice yoga, have enjoyment, and are liberated. The fourth chaste is known as the hangsa, and does not touch metal nor women (Avalon 15).

The Mahanirvana Tantra is described as noble work, probably produced in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Bengal, and belongs to the left hand school (Payne 55). Until the twentieth century, the Tantras had not been seriously studied or translated in the west, and there was little access to the religious materials in them. The Mahanirvana Tantra was translated to English by Arthur Avalon in 1913, and has since gained much more recognition in western cultures. The Mahanirvana Tantra is known as the Great Tantra because it contains all the Dharmmas, while the others deal with one subject only. The Lord Siva tells Parvati in the conclusion of the Tantra that man who knows the book, knows also the three worlds of past, present and future, and by worship of the Tantra will be liberated (Avalon 15). “What further shall I tell Thee of the greatness of the Mahanirvana Tantra? Through the knowledge of it one shall attain to Brahma-nirvana” (Avalon 15).


Avalon, Arthur (2010) Mahanirvana Tantra of The Great Liberation. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Avalon, Arthur (1918) Shakti and Shakta. London: Luzac & Company.

Bhattacharyya, N.N. (1987) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

Feuerstein, Georg (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Payne, Ernest A. (1997) The Saktas: An Introductory and Comparative Study. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Woodroffe, John (1980) Introduction to Tantra Sastra. Madras: Ganesh & Company.

Related Readings

Avalon, Arthur (2010) Mahanirvana Tantra of The Great Liberation. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Hugh B. Urban (2001) “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship, and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 69, No. 4 pp. 777-816. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pechilis, Karen (2016) “Bhakti and Tantra intertwined: the explorations of the Tamil Poetess Karaikkal Ammaiyar.” International Journal of Dharma Studies 4: 2. doi:10.1186/s40613-016-0024-x

Related Research Topics

  • The Saktas
  • Hindu God Siva
  • Hindu Goddess Parvati
  • The Tantras

Related Websites

This article was written by: Emily Sim (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for this content

Demons defeated by Siva

In this article we examine myths of various Asuras defeated, by Siva and Rudra “The Howler, Roarer and the Terrible,” a fierce form of Siva. (Williams 248). Asuras are demons, and not every demon is evil. In the past, the Aryans believed demons not to be evil but that they opposed Devas. Siva is known to “encompass three seemingly contradictory planes of truth: Beauty, Wisdom, Power” (Williams 267). To define Avesta, which translates to demons, is known as daeva also known as deva in sanskrit (Bhattacharyya 10). It was seen at first that both Devas and Asuras had similar traits, but it wasn’t till after their fall, Asuras had come to be the evil demons (Kramrisch 394).

The first demon Siva defeated was Andakha. Andakha was Siva and Parvati’s son. Siva and Parvati were married. Andakha is defined as blind, he was created when Siva called Parvati’s skin colour dark, which caused her to leave her home and, that would have been the time the demon entered her (Kramrisch 384). The Asura then became blind when “Parvati placed her hands over Siva’s eyes in jest, only to throw the universe into total darkness. But her touch heated Siva so that a drop of sweat fell from his brow and became an angry, deformed, dark demon…” (Williams 54). The demon named Hiranyanetra practiced austerities to win a boon from Siva, and asked him for a heroic son. Siva granted Hiranyanetra, his own son Andakha. Andakha then started to desire Parvati, and decided to abduct her. He made his way to Mount Mandara, where Parvati was at the time while Siva was away. Andakha attempted to molest Parvati; Siva then appeared and impaled Andakha with his trident (Williams 54).

Adi was another demon that was defeated by Siva. This Asura was Andakha’s son and wanted to avenge his father’s death. To do so Adi performed austerities to be granted a boon, which he received. He asked for invincibility in battle. What led to Adi’s ultimate destruction by Siva was the way he had asked for the boon. Adi then went to Siva, and transformed into a serpent form. Siva is known as lord of all creatures, he is a friend to all snakes (Williams 45). Once Adi had entered the palace via snake form, he changed into the form of Parvati. Parvati was Siva’s wife at the time, and had left Siva to come back with renewed austerities. Siva recognized that this in fact was not Parvati, but rather an Asura. This was due to his realization that Parvati wouldn’t come back without fulfilling her purpose, and he also noticed the demon (in form of Parvati) did not have her mark of a lotus. To kill the demon Adi, Siva then put a thunderbolt on his penis, which “rendered ineffective the strong sharp teeth that Adi had put into the vagina of his Parvati disguise” (Kramrisch 385). This was possible because Adi was in a different form at the time, which meant he wasn’t invincible (Williams 45). “Siva administered death to the demon by means of sex, a method the demon had meant to practice successfully on Siva” (Kramrisch 386).
As noted in the beginning, many Asuras aren’t always bad. We look at Daksa, who started out as “the right thumb of Brahma”(Williams 105). Daksa was once a positive figure that became a negative figure, as he attempted to humiliate Siva. Daksa does not approve of his daughter Sati’s relationship with Siva, even though they are married, because Siva was not Vedic and it would pollute Daksa’s ritual (Williams 106). Sati then sacrificed herself and became Sati. Siva became angered at this, which resulted in two Asuras to be created, named Virabhadra and Bhadra-Kali who then killed Daksa. As noticed, it was through demons, which Siva produced to be able to defeat Daksa (Williams 106).

Siva defeats the demons through Parvati, by using her beauty as bait for the Asuras. At one time, Parvati was playing ball, and the demons that saw her became excited as they watched her play. The demons that watched Parvati full of lust were named Vidala and Utpala. Parvati then threw the ball at and was able to hit both of the demons at the same time, in which case the demons collapsed, as if being struck by a thunderbolt and then the ball changed into Siva’s linga (Kramrisch 388). “The thunderbolt power of Siva’s linga directed against demons by Parvati’s hand protected Parvati’s chastity” (Kramisch 388).

In the legend of the Tripura, the three different demons whose names differ throughout the stories represent the coordination of the Asura clan in three cities. “The legend had it that the demons were destined to be exterminated when under special circumstances the three puras or forts would be joined together and pierced by a single shaft” (Bhattacharyya 144). Siva was the one to ultimately destroy the Tripura, by piercing it (Bhattacharyya 144).

This article was written by: Avneet Sidhu (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Primary sources:

Kramrisch, Stella (1981) The Presence of Siva. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

William, George (2003) Handbook Of Hindu Mythology: Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Inc.

Bhattacharyya, N.N. (2000) Indian Demonology: Delhi: Replika Press.

Related reading:

Hackin, J., Huart, Clement., Linossier, H., Wilman-Graabowska, De., Marchal, Charles-Henri., Maspero, Henri., Eliseev, Serge., Couchoud, Paul-Louis (1994) Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia: London: George G. Harrap & CO. Limited.

Doniger, Wendy, (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology: Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Article written by: Avneet Sidhu (Spring 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Lakulisa: An incarnation of Siva

Lakulisa, the holder of the club (Chitgopekar 138) and 28th incarnation of yogic lord Siva, was particularly worshipped in South and Southeast Asia.  The fabricator and leader of the Saivic Pasupata cult, Lakulisa is known to be an object of worship in iconic ithyphallic representations in temples. Dependent on age and region, Lakulisa is characterized as an ithyphallic figure, seated in padmasana posture, with two or four arms, generally holding a club or staff in his left hand, and a citron in his right (Collins 107); although this is controversial due to damaged artifacts. Scholars may emphasize the importance of seated or squatting posture, as to not confuse depictions of Lakulisa with Siva, who is usually standing. The club is an reoccurring characteristic, that is understood to have been a threat tactic to rival cults, such as the Jains. Lakulisa is considered to have been a prominent human figure and after believed to be an incarnation of Siva due to historical iconography depicting him with two arms, rather than four like Siva (Chitgopekar 139). Notably, D. R. Bhandarkar’s theorizes that a human teacher named Lakulisa was identified with Siva due to his yogic persona, and was later regarded as Siva’s 28th incarnation (Fleet 424).

Differentiation in Lakulisa imagery depends on the Pasupata sect and school common to India and Orissa during the Gupta period. Known as the yogic incarnation of Siva, Lakulisa and his sculptural depictions became particularly important among the Pasupata practitioners (Agrawala 43). Much of Lakulisa’s Saivic history has been transformed into sculptural art, which originates in the northern territory of the Kusana Dynasty, spreading to Kasmir and Gujarat before being discovered at Elephanta. Elephanta existed between the 6th and 9th centuries with little evidence of when it thrived and who inhabited it. The mysterious culture was influenced by surrounding cultures and sculpture of the deity Lakulisa such as the Kalacuris culture and iconography (Collins 4-5). Elephanta temples in the 1st century CE possessed subtle inscriptions and artwork of Lakulisa, typically found above entrances and doorways.

The carvings found at Elephanta are described as being difficult to recognize due to damage and corrosion, but most depictions maintain the image of a deity seated in padmasana pose, handling a club. Within the Linga, and Vayu Puranas there are further portrayals of Lakulisa’s image by suggesting the surrounding of Lakulisa by his disciples with one hand in the air explicating his doctrine. Continued writings such as Visvakarmavatara Vastusastrain (Collins 107) and the Karvan Mahatmya (Collins 109), provide further depictions of Siva’s reincarnation and accentuate Lakulisa’s erect phallus and his wielding of a citron in his right hand.

Aside from original carvings discovered at Elephanta, other depictions of Lakulisa appear in temples in Naudeval, Bhuvaneshwar and Jageshwar, where the Lakulisa Pasupata sect was said to be situated (Joshi 268). Among these sculptures are mundane characteristics that can be dated back to the 4th century CE, of an erect phallus, two to four arms, seated in lotus posture, surrounded by his sons, while possessing a club or staff, and a citron, which are mentioned in a variety of Puranas.  In excavation accounts including the Mrtyunjaya temple (Joshi 269-271), Dag and Ekalingaji (Agrawala 43-44), and temples in Karvan (Srinivasan 131-133), Lakulisa is accompanied by figures other than his disciples and acquiring articles other than the typical club and citron.

In a temple at Mrtyunjaya, Lakulisa is accompanied by a Katyuri King and Queen who represent the royal patronage to the Lakulisa Pasupata sect in the 13th century at Uttarakhanda which began to deteriorate after a misunderstanding concerning Visnu (Joshi 271). In the representation of Lakulisa in Dag, he bears four arms. The first pair of arms wields a staff and citron and the other pair acquires a lotus flower and documentation (Agrawala 43-44). In regards to this four-armed depiction of the yogic figure, another sculpture in Ekalingaji (Agrawala 43-44) possesses four arms, yet bears a serpent and wears a headdress in the company of Brahma and Visnu. In the Linga Purana, Siva discusses his numerous incarnations with Visnu, most importantly his incarnation into Lakulisa. Western regions put emphasis on artistic depictions of this incarnation as a result of Karvan’s association with the incarnation of Siva in the 6th and 7th centuries. Temples in Karvan depict carvings of Lakulisa along with Brahma on his right hand, and Visnu to his left.  A controversial depictions of Lakulisa is found at Uttarakhanda (Joshi 268) where he is accompanied by two attendants who cannot be identified as his disciples due to their raised seated stature to their teacher, going against Hindu tradition.

Within Saivism, the Pasupata sect is most often overlooked. It should be credited for its distinction from other Siva worshipping sects, in that it regards Siva’s many incarnations. Siva takes on the role of a yogin with emphasis on knowledge through the Sayujya yoga (Collins 123-124). In the Pasupatas, the goal of moksa, as D. H. H. Ingalls suggests (1962), can be obtained through the nature of Rudra Siva; the end of suffering (Collins 124). Credited Scriptures of Lakulisa emerge from the Pasupata sect in Elephanta, known as the Lakulisa Pasupata, are separated into two influential texts known as the Ganakarika and Pasupata Sutra (Collins 121). The Pasupata Sutra was more relevant for its practitioners, being the oldest and most original of the two texts; many scholars relate it to the Pasupata Sastra and the Pancartha Vidya. The Pasupata Sutra was translated by Minoru Hara (1966), Professor Daniel H. H. Ingalls (1962), and Haripada Chakraborti (1970) and is concerned with education and rituals, but occasionally dabbles in philosophical theory (Collins 122).  The Ganakarika, is described as being less insightful and lacking in symbolism and is involved with proper time, ritual, material unity, and initiation. It amplifying the importance of the Pasupata sutra, while exercising the importance of reverence one must pay to their teacher (Collins 133). The Ganakarika makes reference to obtaining the goal of the Pasupatas through bathing in ashes, praying, making offerings, and spreading the doctrine (Collins 137). Together both the Pasupata sutra and Ganakarika discusses proper action and forms of worship through laughter, song, dance, sacred sound, inner worship, and prayer. Through these rituals one activates the mouth, body, and mind in worship (Collins 138).

The reincarnation of Siva into Lakulisa is discussed in the Vayu as well as the Linga Purana, although no two sources are identical in their accounts. In the Pancartha bhasya, (Collins 122) the origins of the incarnation of Lakulisa takes place in the Kayavatara sanctuary were Siva descends into a dead man’s corpse through Yogamaya. Lakulisa then lives on an altar of ash, surrounded by his disciples Kusika, Garbha, Mitra, and Kaurusya; who are born free of impurities (Collins 49), and follows the path of Pasupati (Collins 123). This myth is also referred to in the Kurma and Linga Puranas. There is a lot of ambiguity around the role of Lakulisa’s disciples, and many scholars refrain from going in depth. Atler (2006), referencing Feuerstein’s work (1987), describes the followers of Lakulin, or Lakulisa, as displaying animalistic characteristics in the way they speak and walk.

In another description of the incarnation, Siva descends and takes the form of a Brahmacharin after entering into a dead body. He is then referred to as Lakulisa, a Brahmin teacher, after which his ascetic sons are born with knowledge of Mahesvara yoga (Fleet 421). In the Visvakarmavatar, a unique interpretation makes reference to Lakulisa raising his hand to teach a mudra to his disciples after he enters a dead body (Collins 109). Another source talks of Visnu’s incarnation into Vasudeva (Collins 49) where Lakulisa is mentioned again. Siva states that he will reincarnate as Lakulisa by entering a dead body within the holy cave Meru, later known as Kayavatara (Collins 49-50). Within the reincarnation episodes of Lakulisa, speculations arise concerning its origination and authenticity. An early account in the Kurma Purana, states that Lakulisa is a reincarnation of Siva, but as a tirtha to Siva, a statue that can free one from sin during worship.

There is also a great deal of emphasis on Vedic, Puranic, Epic, and Secular literatures. Within the ten reliefs of Pasupata literature, it is interesting to note the counter clockwise direction they appear, starting with the Mahabharata relief and ending with the Kalidasa which ties into the Lakulisa Pasupata’s emphasis on ritual and auspiciousness (Collins 41).

Siva’s reincarnation of Lakulisa and the Lakulisa Pasupata are excellent examples of an under appreciated historical culture that once flourished, but slowly faded out to extremes where most individuals of Saivism rarely appreciate or understood the importance of its literature and yogic essence. It is difficult to understand the spiritual nature of the Lakulisa Pasupatas and the variety of characteristics they use, depending on location, to identify Lakulisa due to loose strands within literature and destruction of artifacts. This Saivic culture can be taught and understood through the analysis of artistic depictions of Lakulisa and his followers. Examining Lakulisa Pasupata’s reliefs and literature gives a mythological description of its founder, but without excavations of temples and caves throughout history, those stories would be inapplicable.  The values and rituals within the Lakulisa Pasupata are emphasized, and reoccur in all aspects of their culture. There is an intertwining facet within the Lakulisa Pasupata sect’s beliefs, literature, and artwork that upholds a general census of the tradition regardless of the time period or location. Although this culture is almost forgotten, the deep rooting of traditions within each other is what continues to keep it alive.



Agrawala, R. C. (1958) “Some Interesting Sculptures of Lakulisa from Rajasthan.” In Artibus Asiae, Vol. 21, No. 1: 42-46.

Atler, Joseph S. (2006) “Yoga and Fetishism: Reflection on Marxist Social Theory.” In The Journal of the Royal Anthological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 12, No. 4: 763-783. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Bisschop, Peter (2010) “Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series.” In Saivism in the Gupta-Vakataka Age, Vol. 20, No. 4: 477-488. Cambridge: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (1998) Encountering Sivaism: The Deity, the Milieu, the Entourage. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Collins, Charles Dillard (1988) The Iconography & Ritual of Siva at Elephanta. New York: State University of New York Press.

Donaldson, Thomas E. (1986) “Bhiksatanmurti from Orissa“, in Artibus Asiae, Vol. 47, No. 1: 51-66. Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Feuerstein, Georg (1987) “Journal of Indian Philosophy.” In The Concept of God (Isvara) in Classical Yoga, Vol. 15, No. 4: 385-397. Springer.

Fleet, J. F. (1907) “Siva as Lakulisa.” In The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland: 419-426. London: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Hara, Minoru (1994) “Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde Sudasiens / Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies.” In Pasupata Studies 2: 323-335. Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Ingalls, Daniel H. H. (1962) “The Harvard Theological Review.” In Cynics and Pasupatas: The Seeking of Dishonor, Vol. 55, No. 4: 281-298. Cambridge: University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity School.

Joshi, Maheshwar P. (1989) “Sankaracarya, Lakulisa-Pasupatas and Uttarakhanda.” In Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 70, No. ¼: 266-272. India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Srinivasan, Doris Meth (1990) “From Transcendency to Materiality: Para Siva, Sadasiva, and Mahesa in Indian Art.” In Artibus Asiae, Vol. 50, No. ½: 108-142. Zurich: Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Trivedi, R. D. (1972) “East and West.” In Visnu and His Incarnation in the Works of Kalidasa, Vol. 22, No. ½: 51-62. Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente.

Williams, Joanna (2000) “Chachaji: Professor Walter M. Spink Felicitation Volume.” In The Eponymous Elephant of Elephanta: 51-58. Freer Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and Department of the History of Art. University of Michigan.


Related Topics for Further Investigation





















Noteworthy Websites Related to Lakulisa


Article Written by: Courtney Nibogie (2015) who is solely responsible for its content.





The Lord Who is Half Woman

 The deity Ardhanarisvara is depicted as Siva in half female form, otherwise known as “the Lord who is half woman”. In Hinduism, Siva is the personification of the Absolute and goes by many names [see Yadav 18-19]. Siva is regarded by some scholars as the most ancient of the gods, originating in pre-Vedic and non-Aryan times, perhaps even from the age of the Indus Valley Civilization (Yadav 5). Ardhanarisvara is one of the most popular and distinguished forms of Siva (Nataraja being the most popular). Confirmation of this is found in the large number of Ardhanarisvara sculptures available to us from all over India. The earliest images of Ardhanarisvara can be dated back to the late Kusana period or early Gupta era (320-550 CE), first noticed in Mathura (Yadav 33). Another one of the early Ardhanarisvara images appeared in South India between the late Chola period (9th-13th century) and early Vijayanagara period (mid-17th century). The Chola period artists depicted Ardhanarisvara as a slim, willowy figure covered with intricate ornamentation. The Vijayanagara period however, transformed Ardhanarisvara into a large, dense figure that appeared more chivalrous (Seid 2004).

Ardhanarisvara image (Airavatesvara temple, Darasuram, Tamil Nadu)
Ardhanarisvara image in the Chola style
(Airavatesvara temple, Darasuram, Tamil Nadu)

Ardhanarisvara is the manifestation of Siva combined with his spouse: the right half of the deity being Siva and the left half devoted to Parvati or Sakti. Evidence of the duality is shown in the name Ardhanarisvara itself, which is a composition of three words: ardha, nari, and isvara. These are recognized to mean “isvara (i.e., Siva) with the nari (i.e., Parvati) and his ardha (i.e., half)” (Yadav 9). The half male and half female aspects of duality have also been found in Egypt and Greek myths [see Neeta Yadav 10-14]. From a philosophical perspective, Ardhanarisvara is the idea that male and female concepts are entangled and forever bound together in cosmic union. It is believed that this image came into being as a symbol of a “Supreme Being” that is capable of doing all things singly.

Ardhanarisvara is “the name given in Indian Mythology to one of the forms in which Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati appear together as one body — half male and half female” (Kumar 109-110). The Ardhanarisvara form of Siva resembles two essentially contrasting cosmic forces, named prakrti and purusa. They are continually drawn together to envelop and combine with each other, but are detached by an intervening axis. One of the oldest and most common representations that is based on the duality of male and female principles is the concept of Father heaven and Mother earth. The concept of the universe beginning with a union between a female and a male is more thoroughly discussed in Vedic texts, which discuss the union of husband and wife, or Heaven (dyaus) and Earth (prthivi) (Yadav 131). There is a philosophical concept behind this notion of duality, which can be found in the Sankhya philosophical system. That system teaches the existence of eternal spirits called “the self or male on the one side and eternal productive force or prolific germ on the other, and the union of the two was believed to be indispensable before any creation could result” (Yadav 131).  A notable attribute of the image of Ardhanarisvara and its duality connecting male and female is the flawless balance of Siva and Parvati. They each preserve their own identities while being dependent on each other but neither outshining the other. In some works Siva is exemplifies the extreme of austerities and Parvati symbolizes a more extravagant or lavish lifestyle. Their marriage is seen to symbolize stability and unity through merging these two urges of humanity and all other living beings (Kumar 109-110).

In a general sense, analysis of the distinguishable features of Ardhanarisvara imagery testifies that the standard “bipolar” human body of the deity is differentiated along a central vertical axis, dividing it into male and female sides (Goldberg 2002:12). Siva is often found in two forms, a human form and the form of a phallic symbol. Ardhanarisvara however is a saumya and santa (peaceful) aspect of Siva. These depictions evolved from early iconic motifs that existed long before the clarification myths were created (Yadav 6-14). If you look at the images associated with Ardhanarisvara from top to bottom, they are generally depicted as having only one face, but other variations exist.

The male right half of Ardhanarisvara can include the following variations: a head-dress formed from matted hair (jatamukuta) decorated with a crescent and ornamented with snakes; be in company of the goddess Ganga; may or may not be decorated in jewels; have a smaller right eye; and include all or multiple combinations of the following: male figure, flat chest, half moustache, broad shoulder, wide waist with less curvature, and a large thigh (Goldberg 2002:12). In the right ear is an earring in the shape of either a shark or a crocodile (makara-kundala, sarpakundala or any other kundala) often symbolizing the Supreme. The female side earring is called valika and is worn on the left side (Goldberg 2002:12). Earrings are one of the most obvious and primary identification symbols that separate the male and female duality. The entirety of the right side should be embellished in ornaments specific to Siva, as well as garments that cover the body from the waist and down to the knee, usually made of either silk or tiger’s skin (Yadav 20). Unusually, the right side should also be covered in ashes that are red in color. The right side of the image of Ardhanarisvara may have 2-4 arms, each in different poses [see Yadav 19], usually holding a weapon, most commonly a trident. Siva’s right leg should be bent and resting on a lotus (Yadav 19).

The female left side of Ardhanarisvara includes the head as having a karanda makuta or dhamilla, which is a braided hairstyle or bun, sometimes embellished with jewels or other ornaments (Goldberg 2002:14). On the female forehead is half a tilaka mark or dot (bindu) that adjoins with the half eye on the forehead of Siva (right Ardhanarisvara). There are different variations of the bindu on the forehead of Parvati such as either being placed in the center of the forehead or no bindu at all but instead a shared third eye between the two halves in the middle of the forehead (Goldberg 2002:14). The left eye should be painted with collyrium and should be slightly larger and more elongated than the right eye. When a color is stated for the left side, it is commonly the whole body painted in either saffron or parrot-green, but is very rarely seen in practice. Nose ornamentation is also very rare in the earlier depictions of Ardhanarisvara but it appears to be progressively gaining popularity in current depictions (Goldberg 2012:14). The images of the female side usually vary in the number of arms shown, and for each variation there are different poses for the hands and often an assortment of objects being held [see Yadav 20]. A fundamental characteristic of the left half is a woman’s breast that is particularly large and round. The waist appears smaller and the hip appears more voluptuous than that of the male half. Embellishment of the female half includes jewels, earrings, draped silk cloth to the ankles, saffron body powder, various jewellery, and red henna coloring on the left foot or hand (Goldberg 2002:14).

There are a number of overlapping shared characteristics between the male and female sides. They include ornaments on the chest, upper arms, wrists, ankles, neck, fingers and waist. They share an ellipsoidal shaped halo, which frequently lights up the entire deity figure from behind its head. A “sacred thread” (yajnopavita) worn by the twice-born class appears on this deity from the Gupta period forward and is sometimes seen on Ardhanarisvara in the appearance of a serpent (naga yajnopavita) across the upper torso of both the male and female halves. The body of the Ardhanarisvara image is seen in various poses, most prominently, the tribhanga pose where the body is seen in three bends, the head (leaning to the left), torso (it leans to the right), and in the right leg (displaying the voluptuous left hip) (Goldberg 2002:13).

As mentioned above, the earliest verified image of Ardhanarisvara was found in Mathura, displayed in the form of a stone sculpture of a torso. It was dated to the late Kusana period or the early Gupta era and can be found in the Mathura Museum. [See Yadav 33 for other evidence of early sightings of Ardhanarisvara and its locations]. The roughness of the stone sculpture gives evidence that it could have been located underwater for a great deal of time. The body of the sculpture found in Mathura has the appearance of being half male and half female. Ardhanarisvara has been featured on many coins directly dating back to the Kusana period; one of the very first mentioned is the Coin of Kaniska III. It has the king facing right on one side and Ardhanarisvara on the reverse; the coin was made of gold and round in shape. Ardhanarisvara has been documented as being shown on coins, seals and other iconographic motifs (Yadav 35-36). [See Yadav 37-112 for specific dated pieces, illustrations and locations where the art was prominently found and its variations].

Ardhanarisvara worship, often associated with Siva in literature, frequently occurs in the Puranas. It develops out of the conception found in Rgvedic mythology, of creation beginning with the merging of male and female principles. The creative process of one dividing into two is found in the Rgveda and Puranic cosmology, and expressed in a variety of ways, including as father and mother, husband and wife, man and woman. In Rgvedic texts, Dyaus and Prthivi are the universal parents. They mostly appear as a pair of deities in the Rgveda and are rarely mentioned individually (Yadav 113). [Yadav 114-130 explains this concept in greater detail].

The Ardhanarisvara form developed over time, changing from a benign to a fierce aspect and in the interim the conjugal and erotic aspects also evolved. The erotic symbolism, often only seen in temples of an erotic nature, gradually merged with forms of Tantricism. Tantricism is the belief in a transcendental duality of Siva and Sakti. Conjugal love is often found throughout poetic representations of Ardhanarisvara in Hinduism. There are cases where the literature views Siva as “a lifeless corpse” without wisdom and physically immobile without the strength of Siva’s power (Sakti). Males must worship both the wisdom and the power principles (male and female), making the two deities “inseparable” (Yadav 127).

A new line of interpretation promoted by some scholars suggests that the images and texts associated with the concept of duality (male and female) offer evidence of inequality surrounding Ardhanarisvara imagery. Ellen Goldberg (1999) addressed this issue noting that even the name “Ardhanarisvara” devalues the female aspect of this duality. It does not translate as “half male half female” but “the Lord who is half woman”; this is seen as an inequality despite their conjoined figures. Another point Goldberg (1999) addresses is the deliberate placement of the female on the left side and the male on the right side, diminishing the female status when compared next to Siva. In Hindu culture, deities are known for their extravagant number of arms in association with the power or strength that they possess. In the Ardhanarisvara image it is very common that the male half is shown with more arms than the female half, supporting Goldberg’s (1999) notion of inequality. The male half of Ardhanarisvara is usually depicted as holding weapons in its multiple arms whereas the female half is usually holding (if anything) a flower or other devalued motif. As mentioned above, Ardhanarisvara is typically depicted as having a divided symbol on the forehead, which can be seen as a sign of privilege. The female side typically has a bindu or dot on the forehead, which is a clear indicator of marital status in Indian culture. Males, however, have a third eye which attests to Siva’s divinity or transcendence, creating another controversial imbalance of power in the Ardhanarisvara image. Unless identifying marks, as mentioned above, are present it is rather difficult to distinguish the male side from the female side. If female vertical indicators are not present in the deity (left breast, full hip, earring, etc.), other secondary supporting features are not enough to establish the identity of Ardhanarisvara. Hence, the female side of Siva or Parvati may be implicit and not obvious but when paired with the Lord Siva the female features then become explicit. This creates an androcentric ideal of Ardhanarisvara, based on the assumption that male is viewed as the norm and female is viewed as an exception (Goldberg 1999).



Courtright, Paul B. (2005) “Review: The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective by Ellen Goldberg.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 73, No. 4: 1215-1217.

Goldberg, Ellen (1999) “Ardhanarisvara in Indian Iconography: A New Interpretation.” East and West (Vol. 49, No. 1/4: 175-187.)

Goldberg, Ellen (2002) The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Harsh, Kumar (1983) “Review: Mantra, Ardhanarisvara, Parinior by George Anca.” Indian Literature (Vol. 26, No. 3: 109-111.)

Seid, Betty (2004) “The Lord Who is Half Woman (Ardhanarishvara).” Notable Acquisitions at The Art Institute of Chicago, p. 48,49+95.

Yadav, Neeta (2001) Ardhanarisvara in Art and Literature. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd

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karanda makuta






naga yajnopavita

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rudra aspect







trubhanga pose


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Article written by: Miranda Payne (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.