Category Archives: Saiva Deities

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.


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


Ganesa Chaturthi (Ganesh Chaturthi)

Ganesa Chaturthi

Ganesa Chaturthi is an annual festival celebrating the birth of the god Ganesa. It is celebrated on the chaturthi, or the “fourth day” after the new moon, in August/September (Hinduism Today 196). Ganesa is an elephant headed, short, pot-bellied god who is the immortal son of Siva and Parvati [Also known as Shakti]. Ganesa is said to have only his right tusk, as his left one was chopped off. For this he is known as Ek Danta (one-toothed) (Verma 44). Ganesa is believed to be the destroyer of obstacles (Vighna Vinashaka); the harbinger of happiness and joy (Sukha Kartha); the absorber of sorrow and misfortune (Dukha Hartha); and one who makes wishes come true (Siddhi Vinayaka) (Bhalla 18).

Ganesa is usually seen sitting on a padma lotus flower. He has four arms, each holding a different weapon. He carries around an axe (parasu), lasso (pasa), hook (ankusa) and a lotus flower. On his left side sits his vahana (that which carries) a mouse (Musakavahana). This mouse is usually seen eating a modak (sweet dumpling). His trunk is usually curved to the left and he is wearing a dhoti (cloth wrapped into pants). His head represents atman and his corpulent body the things of the earth (Brockman 226). He is the supreme lord of dharma and we pray to him for guidance and direction of our lives.

There are two myths on how Ganesa was born. The most common one suggests that “ disliking Lord Siva’s surprise visits during her baths, Parvati formed a human figure out of clay and water into a man’s figure and gave it life” (Verma 43). This figure had come to be known as Ganesa. Ganesa’s mother, Parvati, then put Ganesa on guard as she went to go bathe. Oblivious he had a father, Ganesa, came upon an Aghori-like man holding a trident. This man was none other than his father, Siva. Upon Siva’s arrival from samadhi, he tried to enter the house to see Parvati, but Ganesa would not let him in. Siva enraged, takes his trident and cuts off Ganesa’s head. As Parvati returns from her bath she sees her son headless. She questions Siva as to what had happened and explains to him that Ganesa was their son.

To ease Parvati’s grief, Siva promised to cut off the head of the first living thing he would see and attach it to Ganesa’s body (Bhalla 18). The first thing Siva came upon was an elephant, therefore, Ganesa has an elephant’s head. Ganesa was thus restored to life and rewarded for his courage by being made lord of new beginnings and guardian of entrances (Bhalla 18).

The second myth is about Parvati and Siva having a son together. Every god had come to see this new born except one, Sani (Lord of Saturday). Sani desisted from it because he was under the curse that, whomsoever he had beheld will be burnt to ashes (Verma 44).  Parvati had thought that if everyone came to see Ganesa, then Sani should have to. Sani then agreed to see Ganesa, but as soon as he did, Ganesa’s head burnt and fell off. Parvati, being short-tempered, was starting to give Sani a shraap (curse). But Brahma interrupted and said that if they had found a head, it would not be to late to reattach it. So Visnu set forth on his Garuda [Vishnu’s mount who has the body of a bird and the head of a human] in search of it and the first creature he found was an elephant sleeping beside a river. He cut off its head and it was fixed on Ganesa’s body (Verma 44).

People who are starting a new beginning worship Ganesa, because he is known as the “Lord of new beginnings” and “Lord of Obstacles”. Ganesa Chaturthi is a festival that many people are engaged in before they start their new beginnings. Ganesa Chaturthi is a festival that lasts 10 days. Initially a private celebration, it was first turned into a public event by the Indian leader Lokmanya Tilak who used it as a means of uniting people in the freedom struggle against British rule (Bhalla 18).

Two or three months before the Chaturthi, people start making idols of Lord Ganesa. These idols can range from three quarters of an inch up to 25 feet. They then bring the idol to their house and set it on an elevated platform. The murti (idol) is then placed facing east in the padma (lotus flower) with uncooked rice underneath. The priest then invokes life into the idol amidst the chanting of mantras. This ritual is called pranapratishhtha (Bhalla 18). Followers of Ganesa then decorate their house to make it appealing to the lord. Author of Loving Ganesa states, “we decorate the temple and home shrine with banana leaves, sugarcane and strings of mango leaves, making it look like a small forest” (Subramuniya 300). Pandit Arunachalam notes,

“In Karnatak, India, young people make a ritual of seeing 108 Vinayakas on this occasion, so they go about visiting their friends’ and relatives’ houses on this day…the worship of Ganesa on this day is supposed to confer advancement in learning to the young student and success in any enterprise undertaken” (Festivals of Tamil Nadu, p.110-121)

Right after the devotees bring food, fruits, and sweets to offer to Ganesa. Modak (sweet dumpling) is often offered to Ganesa, for it is Ganesa’s favorite thing to eat. During this time special pujas (prayers) are done. The idol is anointed with red unguent (rakta chandan). Throughout the ceremony, Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda and Ganapati Atharva Shirsha Upanishad, and Ganesa stotra from the Narada Purana are chanted (Bhallah 18). One popular chant is “Ganapati Bapa Moriya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya” (Oh father Ganesa, come again early next year). Devotees of Ganesa usually fast during this ten-day period if they have a wish to ask for.

The Ganesa Visarjana (a Sanskrit word meaning “departure”) takes place after the 10 days of the Ganesa Chaturthi. In some places, the Visarjana is done on the same day as the Chaturthi. The clay idol is taken from the house to the river and then it is submerged. In bigger cities, idols up to 25 feet are taken to the sea while chanting “Ganapati Bapa Moriya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya.” They then immerse the idol into the water. “We honor His departure with a grand parade, as we carry Him on a palanquin bedecked with flowers and accompanied by puja, music, dancing and celebration” (Subramuniya 301).

The Ganesa Chaturthi has started to become a global festival. In 1988 Ganesa broke new ground in his public relation when Visarjana was held in the United States. It was the first large scale interdenominational public Hindu festival held in US history (Subramuniya 303). In San Francisco, California almost 2000 people had come together on September 25 to celebrate Ganesa Chaturthi. The idols were submerged into the Pacific Ocean. Following this, places like Sydney, Australia had started celebrating as well.

The Ganesa Chaturthi is a very important festival in the Hindu religion. It signifies the birth of Lord Ganesa and it is not only celebrated in India, but it is celebrated worldwide. From the early ages up till now, the deity Ganesa has been known as the Lord of Obstacles. He is the one who is always worshiped at the beginning, and ending of a prayer. Ganesa Chaturthi is a very beautiful event that everyone should one day be a part of. It is very enjoyable and to sum it up into a sentence: It is a ceremony of fond farewell to a beloved god (Subramuniya 301).


Bhalla,  Kartar Singh   (2005)   Let’s Know Festivals of India.   New Delhi:   Star Publications.

Gupte,   B.A   (1994)   Hindu holidays and ceremonials. New Delhi:   Asian Educational Services.

Editors of Hinduism Today   (2007)   What Is Hinduism: Modern Adventures Into a Profound Global Faith. India: Himalayan Academy Publications.

Subramuniyaswami,   Satguru Sivaya   (2000)   Loving Ganesa: Hinduism’s Endearing Elephant-Faced God.   India: Himalayan Academy Publications.

Brockman,   Norbert C.   (2011)   Encyclopedia of Sacred Places.   USA: ABC-CLIO.

Verma,   Manish   (2007)   Fasts and Festivals of India.   Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Related topics for further investigation











Article written by Ajay Parekh (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.


Bhairava, the fierce form of Siva, has many monikers. He is Siva’s form of terror and transcendency (Kramrisch 471). He is Siva in his entirety, yet displays ugly characteristics unbecoming of an all-powerful god. Bhairava is known to have eight names and representations: Kala Bhairava (that which time is afraid of), Kalaraja (lord of time and death) Kapaline (skull carrier), Asitanga (one with black limbs), Sahara (destruction), Ruru (storm) Unmatta (raging) the Supreme Beggar, and Rudra (Knappert 49) [literature consistently discusses his 8 names, but rarely does one source list them all]. His name is derived from the Hindu word bhiru, meaning timid or fearful. Bhairava’s physical description is controversial at best, for there is not one stock image of what he should look like – no single image can truly personify the fearful mystery that is Bhairava. Some say he is emaciated and ghoulish looking, others believe he is stern and bloated, with long, black matted hair, occasionally surrounded by flames, and as black as Kala, with a coy smile of his face (Kramrisch 297). Still other sources indicate he has flaming hair with a necklace of skulls and a viper coiled around his neck (Knappert 49). The differing arsenal of physical traits of Bhairava is a testament to his enigmatic, mysterious presence. Some similarities between literary descriptions of Bhairava are his general lack of clothing, be it nakedness or filthy rags emphasizing his nakedness, and fangs that glint whenever he smiles (Kramrisch 297). He is armed with a pasha (noose), trishula (trident), damaru (drum) and a skull in his left hand (Knappert 49). It seems bizarre that a holy deity such as Siva could have such a dark side. The myth explaining the creation of Bhairava will untangle the complexities and seeming idiosyncrasies of this mystery.

Prajapati and Brahma are the successive names of The Creator in Hindu mythology, each name representing the same entity in a different eon (Kramrisch 251). Prajapati, in the form of an antelope, lusted after his daughter and was shot by Rudra-Siva in disgusted anger. The head of the dead antelope flew into the sky and became a constellation. In a gesture of compassion, Prajapati-Brahma was revived and given four heads, one for each cardinal direction (Kramrisch 252). Four heads did not prove enough though. Once again overcome with lust for his daughter, the lust from which his four heads had been created, Brahma sprouted a fifth head to gaze at her as she ascended towards heaven.

Brahma refused to accept the testimony of the Vedas, which declared Siva the Ultimate Truth of the Universe, and scolded Siva for his sexual activities: ”‘How could the Brahman [i.e.; Siva], free of all attachment, lustily sport with his wife in the company of his troops of deformed churn goblins?’” (Visuvalingam 160). In a rage, Siva appeared as an infinite column of fire. Not heeding this warning, Brahma lied, saying he had gone and seen the top of the fire-linga, further inciting Siva’s wrath. Brahma then reminded Siva that he was, in fact, created from the forehead of Brahma, and patronized him further by calling him ‘son’ and offering him protection.

Out of Siva’s rage Bhairava was then created, in a human form. Bhairava, or Kala-Bhairava, is called the ‘Lord of Time-Death’ and was created of the most terrible, horrifying features, inconceivable to even the most imaginative dreamer. Time itself is afraid of Bhairava. With a subtle movement, Bhairava decapitated Brahma’s fifth head with the fingernail of his left thumb, or, in other versions of the origin myth, with the nails of the fingers of his left hand, or after a great battle (Kramrisch 261). The skull instantly became melded with Bhairava’s left hand, and could not be dislodged. In penance for his crimes, Siva ordered Bhairava to wander the earth as a renouncer with the skull as his begging bowl (Visuvalingam 161). The Brahmanicide would be absolved once Bhairava reached the holy city of Kasi.

Bhairava, through his wanderings, eventually came upon the Deodar forest. Here he stumbled upon a group of sages (rsis) and their seven wives. His stark, naked, erotic presence and kingly aura attracted the women and infuriated the seers (Kramrisch 288). Bhairava was castrated after sleeping with the wives of the rsis who were helplessly attracted to his god-aura. His severed linga created a momentous event as it fell to the earth, erupting into a fiery pillar without beginning or end that traversed the universe, much like the pillar from which he was created (Kramrisch 288). The sages fell and worshipped the linga, and Siva vanished. It was during this incident in the Deodar forest where Bhairava became known as the Supreme Beggar (Kramrisch 288). After wandering further, Bhairava came upon the house of Visnu to find the entrance blocked by the doorkeeper, Visvaksena. Bhairava impaled him on his trident and walked into Visnu’s abode with the guard dangling limply from the weapon. Unphased, Visnu attempted to fill the skull with blood from a vein on his forehead, but it was unquenched and would not fill, not even after one thousand years [other sources merely cite ‘eons’] of Visnu’s pouring blood (Kramrisch 293). Visnu agreed that Bhairava must proceed to Varanasi [referred to as Kasi or Banaras in other literature], the holy city. Upon finally reaching Kasi, Bhairava must have been a sight to behold, a naked wanderer with a skull in his left hand and an impaled body on his trident. Once within the limits of the holy city, Bhairava sank into the ground, the skull falling from his left hand. He had been freed from his Brahmanicide. The holy ground upon which he is said to have sunk into is known as Kapalamocana (Visuvalingam 161).

Bhairava Image, 13th century, Karnataka (Musee Guimet, Paris)

The origin myth is an extremely detailed, rich story recalling the creation and journey of Bhairava as he attempts to absolve himself of the most unholy of sins, Brahmanicide. As with all things Hindu, symbolism and meaning abound in Bhairava’s myth. In this section, I will delve into some of the major motifs and symbols used in the origin myth and explain their significance as it relates to modern Hinduism.

The origin myth is permeated throughout by transgressions from different gods, in many different situations. The origin of transgression derives from the creation of Brahma’s fifth head. The fifth head is often described as having the long hair and unkempt appearance of an ascetic. Representing an outgrowth of uncontrolled desire, the fifth head is used as a symbol for transgression across India (Kramrisch 255). The head was said to have brayed like an ass, proposed incest to Brahma’s daughter, directed evil sounds towards Siva and even to lie (Visuvalingam 170). It is the fifth head of Brahma that lead to his beheading by Siva. Just as Prajapati in past eons had singled himself out for Rudra’s arrow by consorting with his daughter, Brahma’s fifth head likewise displayed an unnecessary lust, and once again provoked Siva; indeed, only Siva of all the gods had five heads, and Brahma’s fifth head of transgression negated all that which Siva’s fifth head had symbolized (Kramrisch 255).  Bhairava’s theme of transgression is obvious, due to the nature of his very creation, and continues with his naked appearance and erotic persona. Bhairava is often shown with a dog or as a dog, the dog being one of Hinduism’s least auspicious animals (Knappert 49). The murder of Visvaksena, Visnu’s doorkeeper, further increases his deviance. The use of his left fingernail to decapitate Brahma, an inauspicious side, further stresses his negativity (Visuvalingam 165). On the human side, even the rsis, whose wives Siva lures into his clutches, commit a heinous sin by castrating Bhairava.

Yet, in modern Hinduism, there is celebration, worship, and even festivals of Bhairava [to be explained further in the reading]. How did such a ‘bad’ god and transgressive myth become associated with joyous festivities? The key is that all of these transgressions are eventually appeased – Brahma is punished with decapitation, Siva is forced to make Bhairava wander to Kasi for absolution, and even the seers are repentant after Siva exposes himself as a fire-linga to them. It is in this pursuit of ‘forgiveness’ from their transgressions that the characters become holy and sanctified, and from this pursuit comes the empathy of Bhairva’s worshippers. The condemnation of Bhairava as a heretic for the decapitation is simultaneously accompanied by his worship for truly valourizing Brahma by serving out his punishment in due course (Visuvalingam 166). Had he not cut off Brahma’s fifth head, he would not have achieved his infamy nor his fame. Through his act of transgression he achieved Brahman. From night came day, and from fire came water. The origin myth is sacred and good because even throughout the inauspiciousness, it preserves the dharma inherent in the universe.

It is interesting to note that there is no force stronger than Siva that could oblige him to comply with the Brahmanical law, in other words, no ‘deity police’, per se, which could punish Siva for his Brahmanicide. It seems as though Siva makes Bhairava comply with the Brahmanical laws only out of due respect for Brahma; in a sense, trying to seem apologetic for his deeds. “Visnu venerated him as the Supreme Being, untainted by sins like Brahmanicide, and acknowledged that [Bhairava’s] degradation and dependence were a mere fancy.” (Visuvalingam 161). This quote, from a conversation between Bhairava and Visnu in his forested home, indicates that even Visnu realizes that there is nothing keeping Bhairava on earth to continue his plight other than goodwill from Siva. This realization that Siva-Bhairava is adhering to Brahmanical law and striving for auspiciousness further reinforces the positivity and worship associated with Bhairava in modern Hinduism, and has also earned him the name of Sin-Eater (Visuvalingam 169).

The first and most important temple dedicated to Kala Bhairava was located on the banks of the Kapalamocana Tirtha river, where the Sin-Eater waited permanently to devour the past wrongdoings of pilgrims and devotees (Visuvalingam 163).

Bhairavastami [alternatively called Bhairav Ashtrami], the festival of Bhairava, is a temple festival derived from the Brahmanicide myth. It is held on the eight night of the waning moon in the month of Margasirsa (Visuvalingam 159). The transgressions of Bhairava can be seen symbolized in the inauspicious setting of the festival. Those who fast all day and stay awake all night during Bhairavastami are freed from great sins (Visuvalingam 161). If one performs ablutions at Kapalamocana (the holy site where the skull fell from Bhairava’s hand) they become absolved of Brahmanicide. During Bhairavastami, various large vegetables such as pumpkins, jackfruit, watermelons or coconuts are used as sacrificial human heads and placed at a stake within the temple. Some sources state it is likely that in much earlier times real human sacrifices were made (Visuvalingam 169).

Bhairava is also honoured during the cosmogonic New Year festival in Bhaktapur (Nepal). He is symbolized in linga form as two large poles crossing over each other, with the earthen holes holding them in place being the yoni. Bhairava is said to come and witness/supervise the ritual death of two snakes during this festival (Visuvalingam 184).

It is not surprising that, being the Time-Death god, Bhairava is associated with Hindu funeral procedure. His occasional moniker ‘Lord of Ghosts’ illustrates the extent to which he is associated with death (Visuvalingam 178). Pilgrims on their way to Gaya to pay respects to their deceased ancestors (pitr) and can give offering to Bhairava enroute (Visuvalingam 178).

Certain sects of Hinduism worship Bhairava at a higher level than the average Hindu. The Kaulas, or Kapalika-Bhairava, are an offshoot of Hinduism which advocate impurities such as transgressive sexual union, excessive consumption of meat and wine and other inauspiciousness. (Visuvalingam 196). They have adopted Bhairava as “a symbol of reality more ultimate than even the Brahman of Sankara” (Visuvalingam 159). Kapalikas are also known to take up a skull and staff of a Brahman in order to do a pilgrimage in Bhairava’s footsteps (Visuvalingam 164). Bhairava is held so closely to them because his transgressions, impurity and eroticism match up very well with the beliefs of Kashmir Saivism. The Kapalikas will also participate in human blood sacrifice in order to please Siva-Bhairava and truly display their dedication to the impure god (Visuvalingam 164).

On a less extreme level, Bhairavic worship is still very common in modern day Hinduism. On special days of worship the Brahman priests will offer patrons meat, wine and fish, and occasionally devotees will perform an animal sacrifice on special days (Visuvalingam 206). The Kala-Bhairava temple is still the most popular temple to the deviant god, offering regular goat sacrifices and ‘head’ sacrifices (pieces of fruits as explained above) to please Bhairava. In Nepal, Bhairava is honoured by the royal community (the Newars) in their entirety at the Bhairavi Rath Jatra festival. It culminates in the sacrifice of multiple buffaloes and goats, whose outpouring of blood symbolically feeds the eternally empty skull-begging bowl (Visuvalingam 208). Criminals in Nepal testify in front of the police-magistrate of Kasi (Bhairava) are swear an oath while touching the foot of Bhairava. It is said that any liars will be killed on the spot (Visuvalingam 210).

Bhairava has permeated throughout Hindu religious practices in many convoluted ways. Much of the lore concerning him has been lost over generations, but the central theme of his transgressions and their absolution has remained as a reminder as to just how important he is. Bhairava is a great example of the ways in which Hindu mythology contains ethical transgressions, such as decapitation of a god, and uses these issues to explain the universal truths with realistic emphasis. Elizabeth Visuvalingam states this concisely at the end of her chapter:

“Although much of the symbolism surrounding Bhairava is no longer understood even by his most ardent devotees and the cult itself is being rapidly effaced, one only has to replace those symbols in their original context to recognize the transgressive mode of sacrality that inspires them.” (210)


Knappert, Jan (1991) Indian Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend. Michigan: University of Michigan Aquarian Press (Harper Collins).

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

E. Visuvaligam (1989). Bhairava’s Royal Brahmanicide: The Problem of the Mahabrahmana. In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Hiltebeitel, Alf (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Related Readings

Eck, Diana (1999) Banaras: City of Light. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lorenzen, David (1972) The Kapalikas and Kalamukhas, two lost Saivite sects. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Stientencron, Heinrich von (2005). Hindu myth, Hindu history: Religion, Art, and Politics. Delhi: Permanent Black.

Topics for Further Investigation





Animal vehicles – the dog, the donkey




Linga – religious importance

Blood sacrifice

Transgression in Hinduism

Noteworthy Websites Related to Bhairava

Article written by: Adrian Tomei (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Sati

The goddess Sati may be recognized by her relationship with the great god Siva as she is his first and second wife. Sati is more than this, however; she is known by many names and is worshiped as her reincarnation Parvati. Her whole being may in fact be summed up to lure Siva into marriage so that he may be incorporated into more of the world, such as to keep creation enlivened and to enter the householder role in order to release his stored energies in a positive fashion (Kinsley 1986:35).

The origins of Sati are unknown, she is not a Vedic goddess but there are references to the wife of Siva in some Vedic literature by the name of Ambika. This name, however, is later used to represent other goddesses. Another name used for Siva’s wife is Rudrani. It is not certain whether these goddesses are in fact Sati, and therefore, whether or not Sati’s origins are in Vedic literature. Later Sati goes by one of her modern and more common names, Uma Haimavati in the Kena-upanisad, although her role is not as Siva’s wife. Just as suddenly as she appears in this text she disappears, and though this may seem untrustworthy other texts reference this as proof of her origins in past Hindu tradition (Kinsley 1986:36).  One of the earliest references using the name Sati is in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata where she is described as living with Siva in the Himalayas (Rodrigues 298). In addition to the textual evidence, there is some archaeological evidence for her origins and history, including coins that have an image of a goddess that is linked with a Siva symbol (Kinsley 1986:37).

The main myth of Sati is also important in her history as it provides insight into her characteristics and life. She was the beautiful daughter of the god Daksa, considered the male Vedic creative deity. Sati desires the god Siva, the destroyer, and through her devotion and ascetic practices she finally attracts Siva’s attention and becomes his first wife. Her motives for wanting to be his wife are not clear, and in some texts it is Brahma who sets up their marriage as he wants Siva to feel sexual desire. In the Siva-purana, specifically the Rudra-samhita, Brahma says that if Siva does not involve himself in the created world then creation cannot continue. When Siva starts noticing Sati he develops kama (desire), which he has not felt before and the couple are married. After their union the couple retreat to the mountains for love-play (Kinsley 1986: 37-38). Siva and Sati are very much in love as told in the Kalika Purana, Siva painting Sati’s feet, gathering flowers to make her garlands and he becomes invisible to surprise her with embraces (McDaniel 40). The couple stay there for many years, but the marriage is not a happy occasion for everyone. Daksa does not approve of Siva due to his messy appearance and different habits. In order to disgrace Siva, Daksa plans a yajna, or sacrifice, but does not invite either Siva or Sati. Sati is very insulted by this and shows up at the event only to be snubbed again by her father (Rodrigues 298). This frustrates her even further and in her rage she commits suicide by closing the nine doors of her body and while sitting in an asana, or yoga position, sends her spirit out her tenth door, or the top of her head (McDaniel 40). When Siva hears of Sati’s death he becomes furious and creates terrible beings that kill Daksa, the divine hosts, and destroy the sacrifice. He then takes Sati’s body and travels the universe, grieving. This upsets the cosmic balance of the world and Visnu is called upon to end the turmoil. While Siva is traveling Visnu follows him and cuts off pieces of Sati’s body, which fall to earth and become holy places or pithas. When Siva realizes that Sati’s body is gone he returns to the mountains and continues his normal practices (Kinsley 1986: 38).

This myth contains many underlying themes in the Hindu tradition such as a wife’s loyalty, the cosmic balance and Siva’s role in the universe. Before Sati, Siva lived in the mountains to practice austerities and was disinterested in the world around him. Nonetheless, when he is married he engages himself in the world and develops a householder role. His awakening desire is important for the universe because with the release of his seed creation is enriched and enlivened (Kinsley 1986:38). There are also some tensions in this myth, between deities and even references to unease between religious and caste groups. For example in the early period of Hindu history the Saivites, at the time considered a non-Vedic unorthodox group, have disagreements with the orthodox Brahma worshipers, who follow the Vedic tradition. These groups are paralleled in the myth, Siva representing the Saivites with his ascetic practices and dissociation with Vedic sacrificial rituals, whereas the orthodox group is represented by Daksa, the son of Brahma. In the myth this conflict is mediated by Sati, as she brings Siva into the householder role. Although Siva demonstrates his power and his dislike of yajnas when he destroys Daksa’s ceremony, in the restoration myth he is incorporated into the orthodox tradition and returned to order when the yajna is reenacted (Rodrigues 299). Another theme in this myth is the connection between Sati and Siva, as their union may represent many things. For example, the traditional union between a deity of the earth and a deity of the sky is expressed by the relationship between Sati, who represents the sky and Siva who represents the Himalayas. Historically this union creates and sustains life as the marriage between Sati and Siva allows creation to continue (Kinsley 1986:40). In a simpler association Sati represents the yoni while Siva represents the linga, and in one version of the myth when Sati falls and creates pithas Siva follows and embeds himself in her yoni, keeping him on earth (Kinsley 1986:39).

Sati’s name and suicide may be paralleled with the act of sati or widow immolation, where a widow, showing undying loyalty to her husband, will burn herself alive on his funeral pyre (Rodrigues 563). This act was widely accepted in the medieval period and the word sati means “faithful wife”, so there is an association between the act and Sati’s suicide as a devoted wife. This correlation is obscure at best though, because the purpose of sati is for the wife to follow the dead husband, whereas in this myth Siva is not dead, and Sati’s death causes him great sadness and finishes their relationship rather than continuing it (Kinsley 1986:40-41).

After her death, Sati is reincarnated as Parvati, “she who dwells in the mountains” or “she who is of the mountain”. Parvati’s life is essentially the continuation of the life of Sati, and in some myths she agrees to be reborn with the goal of luring Siva into desire and marriage. In other myths she says that she is rewarding Mena, Parvati’s mother, with her birth, as Mena was very devoted to Sati. In other versions Sati and Parvati are both seen as embodiments of the great goddess Mahadevi to retain the balance between dharma and adharma (Kinsley 1986:42).

Parvati is the daughter of Himavat, the deity of the Himalayas and his wife Mena, and she is described as being very beautiful but dark-skinned being given the nickname Kali “the dark-one”. A sage comes to her home he looks at the markings on her body he predicts that she will marry a naked yogi, or Siva. Unlike Sati’s parents, Himavat and Mena are honored to have Siva as their son-in-law and the god Kama is sent to stir lust in Siva so that he will notice Parvati. This does not work as planned, as Siva is annoyed by Kama’s attempts and kills him with fire from his third eye. Parvati is not deterred by this and she begins austerities to create tapas. Tapas has many functions; in this case it is an extreme heat produced by praying that makes the gods uncomfortable so that they grant the ascetic wish, thus preventing the world and themselves from being burned. Through her persistence Siva finally notices Parvati and falls in love with her and they are soon married (Kinsley 1986:42-43). The couple then retreat to Mount Kailasa for love-play and they engage in love-making that shakes the cosmos. During their passion they are interrupted by the gods who are afraid of the quakes, and Siva accidentally spills his seed outside of Parvati which passes to the Ganges where it is incubated and becomes the child Karttikeya. Their child makes his way back to his parents where Parvati then welcomes him as her own son (Kinsley 1986:43).  Parvati also conceives her own son, Ganesa. As the tale goes, while Siva was away Parvati yearns for her own child and creates a boy out of her own body, who she then he asks to guard the entrance of her home to prevent anyone from entering and disturbing her. When Siva arrives home Ganesa blocks his path, angering Siva who cuts off the boy’s head. This greatly distresses Parvati and she orders Siva to bring Ganesa back to life. Siva complies and while looking for a new head for the boy encounters an elephant, whose head he takes and places on Ganesa’s body, reviving him in the process (Rodrigues 302). In this way Sati fulfills her role as a maiden, then as a wife and even later a mother.

Sati also has an alter ego that is named Kali. In the Vamana Purana it is written that Parvati receives this name as she is dark-skinned, but when Siva uses this name in teasing Parvati, she becomes irritated and performs austerities to become the “golden one”, or Gauri. Her dark sheath is left over however, and it transforms into Kausiki the ferocious battle queen who in turn creates the goddess Kali (Hawley and Wulff 79). In the Mahabhagavata-purana Siva forbids Sati to disrupt her father’s yajna and in doing so he makes her very angry. In her wrath she transforms into a fearful woman who is plainly unlike the graceful Sati. She loses her composure, her hair messy and her temperament fiery; she develops four arms and her wagging tongue lolls out of her mouth. She is also garbed in a garland of human heads and a half-moon crown. This terrifying form of Sati is known as Kali. Siva is so afraid by this he tries to flee but to prevent his escape Sati blocks his way with her ten different forms, the Mahavidyas or wisdom goddesses. Siva is so shocked and terrified by this that he finally allows Sati to go to the sacrifice (Kinsley 1997: 23-25).

Worship of Sati varies because when pieces of Sati’s body fall to earth they create pithas, or holy sites where it is believed the goddess shows her powers. Even in modern times these sites are visited by pilgrims and are worshiped. (McDaniel 3). The number of sati pithas varies between accounts, as little as four to as many as one hundred and ten sites are recorded (Kinsley 1986; 186). These pithas may be stones or statues, but some believe in a variation of the Sati myth where the earth was created from her dismembered body, and the separate pieces of her body each have different levels of power. The pieces with the most power are recognized as sacred stones called thakurs. A temple built where there is a stone may be revealed and then recognized as a sati pitha, and new sites have been preserved throughout history, even in the present day (McDaniel 31-32). The most documented and well known site is Kamarupa in Assam, and some of the newest sites from the ninteenth and twentieth centuries are Adyapitha and Tarapitha in West Bengal (Kinsley 1996;186)(McDaniel 33).

References and Related Readings:

Dallapiccola, Anne L. (1944) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson Press

Hawley, J.S., and D.M. Wulff. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David R.  (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press

McDaniel, June. (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2006) Hinduism- The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books

Related Research Topics:





Sati pithas




Related Websites:

Article written by: Briana Smith (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

Siva and Kali

There are many different deities that can be found in the Hindu tradition, two of which are Siva and Kali.  This article will be focusing on these two gods through the discussion of different myths associated with them, primarily dealing with those myths that associate the two of them together.  Before getting into the different myths, it may be beneficial to first introduce these two gods a little further.  This will provide a better understanding of the various characteristics that are associated with each of the gods, which will be beneficial in the discussion of the different myths presented later in the article.

Siva, whose name when translated means “auspicious”, is primarily identified as the supreme ascetic, or yogi.  He is depicted with long matted hair that is often tied up in a topknot.  He has bracelets of snakes, a trident, and is usually riding a bull (Nandi).  Siva is known as “the destroyer,” who is responsible for destroying the cosmos at the end of time.  He is also known as “the creator,” who through his ascetic practices stores up his seed, the source of all creation, and is often depicted with an erect phallus known as the linga, which is one of the most worshipped symbols in Hindu practice (Rodrigues 296-297).  An interesting aspect of Siva is that his persona is often described as embodying a bipolar character (Rodrigues 296).  On one hand, Siva is the ideal ascetic (yogi) spending all of his time in meditation generating knowledge, and storing his seed preventing creation, while on the other hand he is described as extremely erotic by nature.  Stories found in the Puranas associate Siva with Parvati and provide evidence to his erotic nature.  Another interesting note is that Siva has also been described as being confused, or torn, between these two different aspects, at times trying to understand why Parvati appeals to him since he is such a perfect ascetic (O’Flaherty 4-7).

Kali, whose name can be translated to mean “dark time,” symbolizes the destruction that time brings to all things (Rodrigues 319-320).  She is described as being dark skinned and wild looking, with her tongue sticking out.  She is usually naked wearing only a belt of severed arms, a necklace of human heads, serpent bracelets, and the bodies of children as earrings.  She is frequently found on a battlefield with weapons and a severed head in her hands, usually drunk on the blood of her enemies, and engaged in a furious rampage (McDermott and Kripal 26).  The origin of Kali varies in different myths, some of which will be discussed later.  Many of the myths involve her being brought into being during times of battle, which result from the transformation of different female goddesses such as Durga, Parvati, Sati, and Sita (McDermott and Kripal 24-26).

There are many different myths in Hinduism that show an association between the two deities, Siva and Kali.  The exact degree of this association is under debate, with many claims identifying Kali as a consort of Siva (McDermott and Kripal 23).  One story supporting the consort theory can be found in the Mahabhagavata Purana.  In this story Kali and Sati are identified as the same being.  Kali, as the Great Goddess, creates Brahma, Visnu, and Siva.  They are then each required to fulfill a test for the honor to win her as their wife.  For this test she appears before them in a horrible form that actually made Brahma, and Visnu both turn away from fear.  Siva, being the only one that did not turn away, won the right to marry her after her birth as Sati, the daughter of Daksa (McDermott and Kripal 47).

Another story that supports the consort theory of Kali and Siva involves the creation, and death of Ganesa.  Ganesa was created as a son to Siva and Durga, while Siva was away.  Because Siva was gone, Durga ordered Ganesa to guard the door while she took a bath.  When Siva came back he discovered this young man guarding his door.  Siva was not aware that this young man was his son, as he had been away at the time of Ganesa’s creation.  After trying to get into the house, and being stopped by Ganesa, Siva chopped off the head of Ganesa (which the gods later replaced with an elephant’s head in an attempt to calm Durga).  Upon discovering what had happened to her son, and after being unable to find Ganesa’s head, Durga became enraged, turning black.  She then started to kill men, and drink their blood, and the gods started to call her Kali Ma (McDaniel 236-237).

As is shown by the story of Ganesa, many of the stories about the origins of Kali actually have her being created through the anger, or grief of other goddesses.  The goddesses, through their emotions (usually anger), are transformed into Kali.  Another example, also involving Durga, occurs during the battle with the demon Mahisasura.  Durga was created by the gods to destroy Mahisasura who, due to a boon given to him by the gods, would only able to be killed by a naked female.  Durga had gone into the battle without knowing this condition.  Eventually she was notified of this boon, and after stripping noticed that Mahisasura would stare at her yoni, providing her the opportunity to finally defeat him.  After Durga had destroyed Mahisasura, she became so embarrassed and enraged by this boon the demon had, that she turned into Kali and set about trying to destroy the world.  Kali (Durga) felt that a world with such gods should not be in existence.  The gods then, out of fear, turned to the ascetic Siva to try to calm her down.  Siva, seeing the world was in danger, lay down in front of Kali, so that while she was dancing in her fit of destruction she would step on him.  The moment Kali stepped on Siva she stopped her dance out of shame and embarrassment for having stepped on her husband, and turned back into Durga (McDermott and Kripal 84-85).  Another interpretation of this story actually suggests that Siva was sent to have sex with Kali to calm her down.  By her dancing on top of him, his linga actually entered her, and she stopped her dance of destruction calming down and turning back into Durga (McDaniel 238).

The Linga-purana portrays Kali as a result of the transformation of Parvati.  In this story Parvati is summoned to destroy Daruka as he, like the demon Mahisasura, can only be destroyed by a female.  Parvati then enters into Siva’s body, transforming herself from the poison in his throat, into the blackened, bloodthirsty goddess Kali.  Once she has transformed, and with the help of some flesh eating spirits (pisacas), she is then able to destroy Daruka, and his army.  Following the battle, Kali then becomes enraged and more bloodthirsty, threatening to destroy the world prematurely, until Siva again comes along, and is able to calm her down (McDermott and Kripal 25)

The god Siva accompanied by Kali and Ganesa, is depicted on a wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore
The god Siva accompanied by Kali and Ganesa, is depicted on a wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore

As most of the stories seem to indicate, in many situations involving Siva and Kali, Siva appears to play a large role in the calming, and controlling Kali.  Kali is usually portrayed as a bloodthirsty goddess who is often found on a battlefield in some kind of rampage. Kali’s behavior is also often described as erratic, causing her to be easily angered.  Siva has been known to use different techniques to control Kali, including the laying in front of her after the battle with Mahisasura.  During another similar rampage, Siva appeared on the battlefield as an infant, and is able to calm Kali by drawing out her motherly emotions (McDermott and Kripal 36).  In another story Kali and Siva engage in a dance contest in the forest (Smith 145).  In this story, Kali, having just defeated Sumbha and Nisumbha, takes up residence in a forest and begins to terrorize its inhabitants.  One of these inhabitants is a devotee of Siva, and goes to him for help in ridding the forest of Kali.  When Siva shows up he challenges Kali to a dance contest, which he eventually wins by performing his tandava dance (McDermott and Kripal 26).

As mentioned before, Siva always takes the role of calming Kali, not the other way around.  Some stories, however, indicate that Kali is rather successful at bringing out the wild and destructive side of Siva as well.  They both are said to feed off one another’s destructive tendencies, which often result in frenzied dances, threatening to destroy the cosmos.  One such instance is told in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, where Siva and Kali are found dancing madly around Kali’s temple, with the destructive nature of the dance frightening all those present, including the goddess Parvati (McDermott and Kripal 26).

The question of who is dominant in the relationship seems to be a major topic of debate in the Hindu tradition.  Images that portray the two together almost always show a naked Kali on top of Siva either engaging in sex in the “reverse position,” where the female is on top, or just with Kali standing on top of Siva, like in the story of the defeat of Mahisasura (though some argue that the image does not actually represent the location of a battlefield, but actually occurs on a mountaintop). There are also arguments as to whether it was actually Siva’s idea to lie in front of Kali, or if Kali had actually been able to throw him to the ground during his attempt to stop her rampage (McDermott and Kripal 82-85). Kali is also shown to be sticking her tongue out which has been widely interpreted as representing her embarrassment and shame (lajya) for stepping on her husband.  Another interpretation of the image is that Kali is shown dancing on the corpse of the world at the end of time, which is symbolized by her dancing on Siva who is responsible for the destruction of the cosmos (McDaniel 242-243).  The Mahabhagavata tells a different story where Siva, after having forgotten that his wife Sita was the Supreme Goddess (Kali), sees her transformed appearing as Kali, and asks for the boon to always appear at her feet as a corpse as a sign of devotion (McDermott and Kripal 49-50).  Many also identify the image as portraying the relationship between purusa and prakrti, where Siva is the inert purusa, and Kali represents the creative and active aspect of prakrti (McDermott and Kripal 53).

There are many different stories and images that include Siva and Kali.  As should have been made evident in this article, there is also a lot of controversy over the interpretation of these many sources.  These interpretations, especially those dealing with the proposed dominance of one god over the other, seem to depend largely on the degree to which each god is being worshipped.  Those that focus their worship on Siva, such as many ascetics do, would argue that he is above Kali on the hierarchy, which would be in contrast to those worshiping Kali, or that of the divine female power (McDermott and Kripal 86).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Harding, Elizabeth (2004) Kali. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls. New York: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. London: Oxford University Press

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources: A Sectarian Reader. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism-The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Smith, David (1998) The Dance of Shiva. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Article written by: Zack Olsen (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.


Some Hindus believe that Harihara is the Supreme God. In the Hindu tradition the supreme gods are Visnu and Siva.  Visnu is known as Hari and Siva is known as Hara. In Sanskrit Hari means a yellowish or khaki color, which represents the sun and the Soma plant. Put together Hari and Hara are Harihara, which is a combination of the two gods. Harihara is also commonly known as Shankaranarayana; “Shankara” is Siva while “Narayana” is Visnu. Devotees believe that Siva and Visnu are different aspects of the same reality. Sometimes they are thought to have been brought together because they were ‘rivals’ but there is no evidence to show that this is the case. Harihara is occasionally used in philosophical terms to indicate Visnu and Sivas unification of different aspects of the Supreme God (Olson). The most famous philosophical analogy is the yogurt and milk analogy, which says that yogurt is a groundwork of milk but yogurt cannot be used as milk. Siva is an expansion of Krishna but Siva cannot act as Krishna. Also Siva has a connection with the material world while Visnu and Krishna do not. It is thought that Visnu is a part of Krishna as the whole.

Harihara image (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)

Harihara was very popular in Cambodia in the beginning of the seventh century. It is thought to be popular in Cambodia because previous Cambodian rulers had worshiped Siva in the seventh and eighth century. The rulers tried to maintain and control southern Cambodia, which had a strong connection to Visnu. The northern rulers wanted an icon that would represent the unification of the south and north, which lead to Harihara. Evidence of Harihara worship was most commonly found deity during the seventh century in the Preangkorian Khmer empire (see Lavy 22-31). Archaeological evidence relates to clay Harihara figurines, which suggest that Harihara was the main deity being worshiped in seventh century Cambodia.  The worship of Harihara did not spread to India or Southeast Asia until many centuries later. The worship of Harihara began to die out of the Khmer culture in the thirteenth century.

Temple for worship of Harihara are very rare. One of the main temples for worship is in Shankaranarayana village. Shankaranarayana is located east of Kundapura in Karnataka, India. The village gets its name from the temple. The temple is thought to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World that was created by Maharshi Parashurama (Meister 167-170).

The main festival for Shankaranarayana is the Shankaranaraya Jaatre. The festival begins four days before Makar Sankranti, and celebrates the sun passing from one zodiac sign to another, and runs for a week. The first six days of the event consist of a variety of rituals devoted to Harihara. The last day of the festival is the main event, when Rathotsava is celebrated. This occasion frequently falls on January 16. At the Rathotsava festival, more then ten thousand people from different parts of India come to worship (Meister 170-173).

When Harihara is depicted with four arms, the right side is shown as Siva while the left side is Visnu. Siva is portrayed as being the destroyer and in his right upper hand holds a trident; the points on the tridents are believed to represent trinities for example, past, present, and future or creation, maintenance and destruction. Some people also believe that it represents the three channels of energy or nadis. The right side of the head of Harihara consists of Siva’s matted locks with a headdress. Siva’s third eye is visible on the right side of the forehead as well. On the left side of Harihara Visnu is shown calm and holding in his upper left hand the wheel emblem; his head is also portrayed with a crown; the crown represents Visnus’ supreme authority while the wheel represents the circle of life, unity, the sun, and reincarnation (Lavy 21).

Although not widely known, Harihara is a significant and interesting deity within the Hindu tradition.


Lavy, Paul A. (2003) Journal of Southeast Asia Studies: “As in heaven, so on earth: the politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara images in Preangkorian Khmer civilization.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meister, Michael A. (1976), Artibus Asiae. Vol. 38, Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

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Article written by: Rose Naigus (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Siva and Parvati

There are numerous myths separately depicting Siva and Parvati, as well as being together.  As a couple, the majority of these myths can be found in the several of the Puranas, telling many tales on how Siva and Parvati came to be. Although Parvati can been seen as the reincarnation of Siva’s first wife Sati, their stories are very much different.  According to the Puranic myths of Siva and Parvati, their story begins with the demon Taraka. Taraka, the king of the demons, was oppressing the gods and creating havoc in the celestial world. The god Brahma had granted Taraka one boon. Taraka wished that no god could slay him except for the one who is born of the god with braided hair (Siva) (O’Flaherty 1975:155).

To avoid further chaos caused by Taraka, Brahma’s main concern was to find a woman or goddess who was capable of luring Siva into a sexual encounter or marriage (Kinsley 42).  This is a difficult feat because Siva is yogi who takes pleasure in tapas, which is described as a potentially destructive heat derived from extreme ascetic practices (Kinsley 42). Many texts describe Siva’s celibacy and the ongoing physical, emotional and mental battle between Kama and Siva. In one variation of this tale, Kama enters Siva’s heart where an immediate sexual desire stirs throughout his body (O’Flaherty 1973: 149). Siva is outraged by this attempt and expels Kama from his body using heat, causing Kama to leave his human form. As a last attempt, Kama shoots the arrow of desire into the heart of Siva and is immediately scorched and turned into ashes from the flame exerted out of Siva’s third eye (O’Flaherty 1973: 149). Rati, Kama’s wife who was distressed by the sight of her husband’s burnt body, started rubbing his ashes all over her body protesting that she was going to kill herself. Siva consoled her and reassured her that Kama would be reborn again, which is illustrated later on in the tale of the couple (Kramrisch 352).

Parvati whose name means “she who dwells in the mountains” was born to Himavat and Mena (Kinsley 41). According to Brahma’s plan, Parvati was born to practice austerities in order to marry Siva, and when united in marriage with Siva, their combined tapas will be so intense during love making that they would be able to create a son strong enough to destroy the demon Taraka (Kramrisch 350). In many ways, Parvati knew that they needed to be together in order to save the cosmos and everything in it; they were destined to be with each other. During the seduction of Siva, Parvati visits Siva trying to interrupt his meditations, where Siva dismisses her over and over again.  Her determination was as firm as the Mountain, her father (Kramrisch 356). She eventually leaves the palace, abandons the householder status and becomes a renouncer, much to the dismay of her mother, in order to practice austerities within the forest (Kramrisch 356 & Kinsley 43).

The austerities performed by Parvati, described in most versions of this myth, outdo many of the great sages (Kinsley 43). Eventually, her tapas generates so much heat that the universe begins to heat up, forcing Brahma to grant her a boon to acquire Siva as a husband, which is instantly rejected by Siva (O’Flaherty 1973: 153). This rejection causes Parvati to make the universe smoke which eventually frightens Siva, who is shaken from his own meditation (O’Flaherty 1973: 153). Brahma promises Parvati that Siva will come to her. Using her tapas, she heats up Siva’s seat on Mount Kailasa and Siva is forced to appear before her (O’Flaherty 1973: 153). He was swayed by Parvati and was drawn to her as an ascetic. Siva decided to test Parvati’s resolution, the intensity of her asceticism, the clarity of her mind, the purity of her devotion,

Bronze Masterpiece depicting Siva and Parvati (Patan Museum, Patan, Nepal)
Bronze Masterpiece depicting Siva and Parvati (Patan Museum, Patan, Nepal)

and her knowledge (Kramrisch 356-357). Seven sages were sent to Parvati to dissuade her from her duty and described Siva as being “naked, ferocious, dweller of the cremation grounds, the carrier of skills, a hermit, statue-like in action, a beggar, mad, fond of collecting ugly and terrible things, and inauspiciousness incarnate” (Kramrisch 357). Parvati, in response to their tests, does not deter in her mission and replies to the sages that they do not know the Great God (Kramrisch 357). Delighted with her determination and strength, they return to Siva retelling him what took place. He then goes to Parvati’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage; Parvati’s parents are honoured. The marriage ordeal is described in great detail in many variations of the myth with a common theme. During the marriage procession, Mena, Parvati’s mother sees Siva for the first time. She is outraged by his appearances and threatens to commit suicide and faints when told that the odd-looking figure in the marriage procession is her future son-in-law (Kinsley 43). He turns into something more suitable and beautiful in response to Mena’s cry.

After their marriage, Rati, Kama’s widow is said to have brought Siva to the ashes of Kama where Kama, as beautiful as before and wielding bow and arrows, emerged from the ashes (Kramrisch 363). Siva and Parvati then retreat to his mountain dwelling, Mount Kailasa, where they engage in intense sexual activity. Their lovemaking becomes so intense that it is said to have shaken the cosmos, frightening the gods (Kinsley 43). Parvati, according to Brahma’s plan, longed for a son of her own. As their lovemaking continued, the gods, in some texts, became impatient and scared of the child that would come from these two great deities. In one instance, the gods interrupt Siva and Parvati during sexual intercourse, causing Siva to spill his semen outside Parvati (Kinsley 43). This fiery, potent seed was transferred from one container to another, in many variations of the myth, where eventually it settles in a suitable place, often in the Ganges River, where it is incubated and born as the child Karttikeya.  The boon granted by Brahma to Taraka, the king of the demons, had been fulfilled and the child born of Siva seed defeats Taraka and rescues the world from utter chaos. After some time, Karttikeya finds his parents, where Parvati accepts the child as her own (Kinsley 43).

The Puranas identify Parvati’s willingness to have another child. Siva, on the other hand said ‘I am not a householder and I have no use for a son’ (O’Flaherty 1973: 211). However, Parvati still insists on having a child telling Siva that once they conceive a child he can return to his yoga, leaving all of the parental responsibilities to Parvati (O’Flaherty 1973:211). Siva yet again refuses to give into her request. Instead, in desperate want of a child, she creates Ganesa from the dirt and sweat of her body and commands him to guard the entrance of her house against any intruder (Kinsley 44). When Siva tries to enter their hermitage, Ganesa denies his entry. This infuriates Siva and leads him to decapitate young Ganesa. As a result, Parvati becomes upset and demands that Siva restore Ganesa’s life (Kinsley 44). Siva restores Ganesa to life yet with the head of an elephant and is said to have been put in charge of all Siva’s troops and heavenly attendants (Kinsley 44).

Siva and Parvati’s marriage and family life is portrayed as harmonious, blissful and calm. Some quarrels, recounted by some of the Puranic myths, occur throughout their marriage, where they leave each other for a brief period of time to practice their austerities, but eventually end up together recovering from their altercation because of the intimate love and devotion they have for each other.  Siva is a god of excesses, both ascetic and sexual, and Parvati plays the role of modifier (Kinsley 49). Much of the tension and conflict exhibited by this divine couple is identified with the concept that Parvati is Siva’s sakti, or power, which is often personified in the form of a goddess (Kinsley 49). Her role as sakti is active, in that she is sometimes identified with prakrti (nature), whereas, Siva is identified with purusa (pure spirit). Without Parvati, Siva’s power ceases to exist. Parvati’s sakti not only complements Siva, she completes him. The reason for Parvati’s existence is just that; the celestial world would not exist if it weren’t for their undying love for each other. Many metaphors illustrate this dependence on the couple as complementary opposites throughout the Purana texts. It can be argued that the two are actually one-different aspects of ultimate reality- and such are complementary, not antagonistic (Kinsley 50).





















Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kramrisch, Stella (1981) The Presence of Siva. United States of America: Princeton University Press

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1975) Hindu Myths. London: Penguin Group

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist


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Mount Kailasa











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Article written by: Rachael Collette (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Siva and Demons

Siva is regarded as one part of the Great Hindu Trinity, alongside Brahma and Visnu. Brahma is the creator, Visnu the preserver and Siva the destroyer of the universe (Ghosh 13). Siva resides on Mount Kailasa along with his wife, Parvati. While he is known as the destroyer of the universe, Siva possesses a myriad of contradicting qualities. He is both terrible and benign; the supreme ascetic, yet a symbol of sensuality; granter of boons to those who are most devoted to him, and destroyer of those who displease him. It is these qualities which result in some interesting encounters with various demons.

While we can call some of the beings that Siva encounters and battles with “demons” in English, there is not always a clear-cut line between good and evil in Hinduism. Although gods are supposed to be different from demons, there is not always a clear cut distinction between the good characteristics of one and the evil characteristics of the other. While most Hindu demons behave in the way that is expected of them in the West – stealing, killing, raping, generally being evil – there are some demons in Hindu mythology that are righteous and practice asceticism. It is through this asceticism that the gods grant boons to these “good” demons, and it is through the abuse of these boons that they become evil. Siva’s mythology tells of encounters of both “evil” demons and “good” demons, and has even granted boons to some “good” demons, only to have them turn around and use their boons against him.

It is possible for demons to be born from gods, and for gods to cleanse demons of their “demon-ness”. The story of Andhaka illustrates both concepts. Once, Parvati covered Siva’s two eyes, and a drop of sweat fell into his third eye. From this, the demon Andhaka was born, with Parvati as his mother and Siva as his father. Siva saw the evil that Andhaka was capable of and gave him away to the demon king Hiranyaksa to raise. When Andhaka was older, he inherited Hiranyaksa’s kingdom. After meditating and sacrificing pieces of his own flesh, Andhaka was able to request a boon from Brahma. Andhaka wanted to live forever, but as all things must eventually die, Brahma could only grant him near immortality; Andhaka had to declare the conditions for his death. Wanting to make the conditions near impossible, Andhaka wished that his death would only come when he developed feelings for his own mother and that even if he desired his own mother, only Siva could kill him. One day, while in the forest, Andhaka encountered an ascetic and his beautiful wife. Andhaka tried to seduce the woman and demanded that the ascetic surrender his wife, as a man who had renounced his worldly ways would have no need for a beautiful woman. The ascetic refused, to which Andhaka sought to do battle with him, not knowing that the beautiful woman he lusted after was Parvati, his mother. This meant that the ascetic with whom he challenged to battle was Siva. Siva impaled Andhaka with his trident and burned him with his third eye. Siva’s third eye was so powerful, he not only burned away Andhaka’s body, but also his sins and demonic ways. Then Siva gave Andhaka a form with three eyes, a blue neck, and matted hair, and Parvati adopted him as her son (O’Flaherty 1973:191).

When seduction is used by both Siva and his enemy, Siva emerges supreme by virtue of his sexual powers (O’Flaherty 1973:184). Siva once commented on Parvati’s dark complexion, which angered her. She left to perform austerities to lighten her skin color and assigned her attendant, Viraka, to guard the door, fearing her husband’s lust would get the better of him and he would sleep with another woman before she could return. While she was gone, Adi, the shape-shifting son of Andhaka, learned of her absence, and devised a plan to avenge his father’s death by killing Siva. Adi figured that if he could destroy Siva’s linga (phallus), Siva himself would be ultimately destroyed. He snuck into Siva’s palace by transforming himself into a snake and slithered past Viraka undetected. He then transformed himself into Parvati, but placed sharp teeth inside the vagina. When Siva saw Adi in his Parvati form, he embraced him/her, but was suspicious that Parvati would return before completing her austerities. He began to look at his wife more closely and seeing that the Parvati in front of him was missing a birthmark, Siva suspected that it was a demon in disguise. He then placed a thunderbolt on the tip of his linga, and while making love to Adi, killed him with it.

So far, Siva has been shown to be able to spawn demons and to kill demons, but Siva also from time to time helped demons out. The demon Bana is one of these cases. Bana was the son of the demon Bali, but Siva and Parvati adopted him as their own son. With the backing of Siva, Bana became strong and hungered for war. He once complained to Siva that there were no wars to fight and that he was depressed. Siva smiled and told him that when his flagstaff fell, a great war would come to him. When Bana’s flagstaff broke, he happily relayed Siva’s message to his minister, Kusmanda, but Kusmanda, who was more level headed than Bana, could sense trouble brewing. Bana’s daughter, Usa, wanted a husband and Parvati told her that one night she would have a dream where a man would come to her and join with her in sexual union. The man in that dream would be her future husband. Sure enough, one night she had this dream and the man was Aniruddha, the grandson of Krsna. The problem lay in the fact that Krsna and Bana were sworn enemies. Usa asked her friend Citralekha to find Aniruddha and bring him to her, which she did. The two had a secret love affair, but Bana found out and sought to punish Aniruddha. Aniruddha proved to be an experienced fighter and Bana could not defeat him in physical combat. Under the advice of Kusmanda, Bana resorted to magic instead and managed to tie Aniruddha down with ropes made from snakes. Bana was about to kill Aniruddha, but the wise Kusmanda suggested that since the boy was such a great warrior, it might be better to inquire as to who he was and to protect him instead of killing him. If he did manage to secretly marry Usa, it would not look good if Bana killed his own son-in-law. Meanwhile, Krsna heard about Aniruddha’s capture and mobilized a great army to Bana’s capital, set on either rescuing his grandson or avenging his death. Bana’s army and Krsna’s army collided on the battlefield, but Krsna’s force proved to be the better and Bana was forced into a corner. This was unacceptable to Siva, who felt he needed to protect his adopted son, so he sent his own army to help Bana and even stepped on the battlefield himself. The war turned into a battle between Siva and Krsna, who was an avatar of Visnu. The Earth was under great stress from the war and Brahma requested that Siva step out of the fight, since both Siva and Visnu were invincible, so the fight would be never-ending. With Siva gone, Bana had no chance of victory and was facing defeat, but Siva took Bana away with him and granted him immortality. Aniruddha was rescued and was married to Usa and Bana’s kingdom was given to Kusmanda to rule.

These were only three examples of Siva’s encounters with demons. With Siva’s unique contradicting characteristics and the ambiguity of evilness of demons in Hindu mythology, there are a vast number of demon encounters that were not mentioned. Even the three examples given were only one version each of a myriad of versions for the same story. However, unlike Western mythology, where there is usually a distinct black and white aspect to good and evil, where gods are good and demons are bad, in Hindu mythology, sometimes the gods are good and the demons are bad, but other times, the gods do terrible things and the demons are righteous. Similar to India’s class system, “god” or “demon” is like a class that one can be born into. How one acts in that class is of their own volition.


Bhattacharji, Sakumari (2000) The Indian Theogony. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (2000) Indian Demonology: The Inverted Pantheon. Daryaganj:  Manohar Publishers & Distributors.

Ghosh, Mandira (2007) Shiva and Shakti in Indian Mythology. Gurgaon: Shubhi Publications.

Michaels, Axel (2008) Siva in Trouble. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Siva The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

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












Mount Kailasa








Article written by Allan Chiem (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Nandi the Bull

There are animals that are deemed sacred in the Hindu tradition and deities to whom these animals are dear and connected to in worship. These animals are said to be the vahanas (vehicles), the means of travel for the gods and goddesses of the Hindu tradition (Wilkins 448). The vahana does not have just one sole purpose; aside from being a mode of transportation, many deities exalt their vahana to the level of protector or disciple. One vahana of prolific stature is that of Nandi [or sometime referred to as Nandin or Nandiksvara] the mount of lord Siva [The Destroyer deity]. Nandi is described as a white vrsa (bull), having a large notable hump and tall horns. Worship of the bull can be dated as far back as the days of the Indus Valley Civilization, some 5,000 years ago (Murthy 1). This particular bull is widely known and worshipped alongside Siva as a result of the latter exalting Nandi to the position of ganapati (leader of the ganas (a body of followers)), his main companion, his foremost sectary and most notably as his vahana (Chakravarti 103). Nandi is also evidently known as the doorkeeper of Siva. There are many instances of which describe the regular intimacy of Siva and Parvati (female consort of Siva) on Mount Kailasa, as it is believed that when the two deities wed they made love for a hundred celestial years. There are many variations to this episode depending on the narration, yet Nandi is ubiquitous in the motif of interruption. Nandi is the gatekeeper who deters others from interrupting the deities’ intimacy. Although through many depictions of the story, Nandi is eluded by the unexpected guests, thus the two deities are interrupted (see O’Flaherty 290-310). To this day a temple of Siva is not without a statue of Nandi facing the linga (phallus) in worship; illustrating the role of the gatekeeper. One of the more notorious known forms of Mahadeva (epithet of Siva) is that of Nataraja (Lord of Dance). It said that Nandi is a skilled musician and provides the music for Nataraja to perform the cosmic dance of destruction (Turner 335).

Image of Nandi, the bull mount (vahana) of Siva in its own shrine at Khajuraho, India
Image of Nandi, the bull mount (vahana) of Siva in its own shrine at Khajuraho, India

Many stories exist about the introduction of Nandi into the Hindu tradition. A few of the more well known depictions are as follows: In the Sivapurana it is explained that Nandiksvara is the son of the rsi Salankytana. Visnu [The Preserver of the cosmos] is impressed by the rsi’s pious meditations and grants him a boon [a wish]; that boon being a son, Nandiksvara almost instantaneously emerges out of the right side of Visnu. In the Mahabharata we hear another depiction of how Nandi became associated with Siva and the worship thereof. It is explained that Daksa Prajapati (an ancient creator god; a son of Brahma) offered the bull to Siva in an attempt to please him and in time Siva appointed Nandi as his vahana. It is also within this epic that Nandi is portrayed as his bull-faced human form of which he is known as Nandiksvara. The Skandapurana [one of the 18 puranas; devoted mainly to the life of Skanda/Muruga] describes Nandi’s origin as a transformation from Dharma [as a deity in this context]. Upon being asked for a boon, Dharma promises to take on the form of a bull and become the vahana of Siva. The Lingapurana and Kurmapurana depict how Siva was born as Nandi; being upset about the finite life of a bull he meditates upon Siva. After pious meditation the deity appears and grants Nandi immortality alongside the role as leader of his ganas (Chakravarti 102-105).

There is extensive symbolism associated with Nandi in the Hindu tradition and in some instances he projects exactly that of Siva. “Nandi conveys Siva in every sense for not only is he the conveyance of the god, but he conveys the presence of Siva and stands for Siva himself [sic]” (Sunderland 1). Anna L. Dallapiccola, author of the Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend, explains that Nandi on one hand symbolizes dharma and on the other hand virility, fertility and strength (Dallapiccola). As stated in the Skandapurana, it was Dharma that assumed the form of Nandi, which favors the idea of Nandi representing Dharma, emerging as Siva’s lifelong attendant of righteousness. The bull is generally deemed an adequate representation of the potent force of man because of the strength and sexual virility it posseses. The bull personifies fertility, of which in Hindu tradition takes manifestation through many forms of devi (female aspect of the divine: goddess), including Parvati (Chakravarti 94). A story arises about the two sons of Siva and Parvati; Vetala and Bhairava [born of Taravati and Candrasekhara, avatars of Parvati and Siva respectfully] of whom have not fathered any sons yet. It is Nandi who advises the two sons to procreate, as he implies there lack of sons is not appropriate (O’Flaherty 70). Thus the promotion of procreation by Nandi helps to confirm the association of fertility with him. “ Mythologically the god’s vehicle and attendant, the bull is, in the eyes of the students of history, a theriomorph duplicate manifestation or representation of the fertility and procreation aspect of Siva’s nature and energy [sic]” (Gonda 76). The idea that the bull generally roams the earth looking to procreate and satisfy its sexual impulses, speaks to the representation of fertility through the bull. Riding on the hump of the bull suggests the notion that Siva has mastered his sexual urges and brought them under control. It is often said only those who have mastered their impulses may ride atop the bull. The bull is often portrayed in images with a very robust frame and a loud roar. The roar of Nandi is said to be a symbol of Siva’s roaring vitality (Chakravarti 97).

Images and statues of Nandi are found in all temples dedicated to Lord Siva. Upon entering a Siva temple one will pass through the mandapa ( pavilion preceding the temple) of where Nandi is found, usually squatting on a platform facing the Sivalinga (prevalent icon of Siva; linga) in admiration of his symbolic form (Chakravarti 101). The largest statue of Nandi resides in the Nandi Mandapa of a Vijayanagara temple in Andhra Pradesh. The importance and elevated stature of Nandi is evident through the numerous uses of his image. Nandi was known to grace many different coins; one in particular being the Ujjayini (now known as Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh) coin of which Nandi is seen gazing up at his lord (Chakravarti 100). It was as far back as 400 BC that Nandi even graced punch-marked coins of other traditions. The Kushanas [a tribe from China, arrived 100 AD] of India minted gold coins with Nandi and Mahadeva on them. There are also many sites within the subcontinent that have been named after Nandi. Within the Chikkaballapur district there is a village titled Nandi. Nandigrama is the place where Bharata is said to have laid down the slippers of Rama and worshipped them as he awaited his return from exile; as illustrated in the Ramayana (Murthy 2). An interesting ritual of which often still takes place today at the funerals of Saivas [worshippers of Siva], is the release of a bull(s). The bulls are let loose by pious friends of the deceased, said to wander and eventually find themselves in the presence of Siva. The release of the bulls is meant to represent a gift to Siva as he found great delight in his sacred bull, Nandi (Wilkins 277).


Chakravarti, Mahadev. (1986) Concept of Rudra-Siva. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press

Dallapiccola, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson

Gonda, J. (1970) Visnuism and Sivaism. London: The Athlone Press

Murthy, Narasimha A.V. (2008) Nandi in Indian Tradition. Mysore: University of Mysore

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1973) Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. London: Oxford University Press

Peterson, Indira V. (1989) Poems to Siva. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Sunderland, John. (1969) The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 111 No. 798. London: The Burlington Magazine Publications

Turner, Patricia. (2001) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. London: Oxford University Press

Wilkins, W.J. (1975) Hindu Mythology.Calcutta: Rupa Co.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indus Valley Civilization











Mount Kailas



Motifs of Siva

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Chris Wolsey (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.