Shaivism to an Outsider

I will begin to answer some of the basic questions about Hinduism that I have been asked by my readers from the start. What do they believe and how does it contrast with Judaism? I will present these basic posts over several months to allow for feedback. (So, therefore next week, I return to blogging about Jewish Orthodoxy and/or Jewish-Christian encounter.)

Hinduism is a variety of denominations and from a Western and more specifically Jewish perspective can even be seen as separate religions in term of both theology and practice. There are the classic major denominational rubrics of Hinduism consisting of Saivism, Vaishnivites, Shaktism, and Smarta as well as the current denominations that one would find in the US like BAPS, Sai Baba, Iskcon , or Sri Chinmoy. I cannot repeat enough that you cannot know anything about Hinduism from the few ancient texts that might have been in your introduction to religion course. We will look first at Saivism.

I lived in a city dedicated to Shiva and on a campus with a major Shiva temple in the center of campus and I was there for the major festival of Mahashivarati. I will come back to the personal stories in a follow-up post. I am treading carefully since this is someone else’s religion. I am not claiming any special knowledge. This is a guide for outsiders, especially my Jewish readership, that will avoid the typical American academic approach. This is specifically a first draft. I will revise this as needed.


Saivism presents itself as the world’s oldest religion, the roots of Siva worship back more than 8,000 years to the advanced Indus Valley civilization. Many aspect of this religion are Dravidian pre-dating any Aryan or Vedic understandings. Historians date the religion to have been formed between 200 BCE to 100 CE, and fully recognized as a branch of Hinduism during the early Gupta period (c. 320 CE). This corresponds roughly to the same era as the Rabbinic scribes and Tannaim. Shaivism is the second largest branch of Hinduism, with over 198,000,000 adherents worldwide. A note on spelling: the pronunciation of Saivism and Siva is with a Sh as if it is written Shaivism. Usually the S has an accent to indicate the SH sound. Since this post is cut and pasted from dozens of sources, it was hard to be consistent here.

The worship is to Shiva as the central deity, a monotheism combined with panentheism, similar to mystical Judaism. Siva is portrayed by Saivites as the compassionate One present everywhere and offering grace or liberation to those who serve Him. “The Lord is one. He is the supreme of all existences and pervades all….He is kindness and love. His kindness is bestowed upon the suffering souls through the medium of His grace.” Shiva is the ultimate reality endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, independence, freedom from sin, benevolence, blissfulness, and purity. Shaivites hold that Lord Shiva performs five actions – creation, preservation, dissolution, concealing grace, and revealing grace.

Saivism sees Siva as a personal God neither male nor female. He is pure love and compassion, immanent and transcendent, pleased by human purity and spiritual practice. There is no incarnations or avatars as in Vaishnavism, no embodied male deity like Krishna since that would make the divine corporeal. On the other hand, they reject the Smartism approach that the divine is impersonal Oneness and the personal deities (Ishvara) are only a concession or a needed instrument.
Saivism does not encourage worship of minor deities. If any benefit is derived by worshipping them, it is only a temporary psychological benefit that will becomes a hindrance to spiritual progress. Whatever historical antecedent of many gods that had once existed has been reduced to all being attributes of Siva.

For spiritual progress and to earn Siva’s Grace, Saivism encourages everyone to develop good qualities such a love to all beings and to imitate Lord Siva who is seen as a personification of wisdom, love, and all good qualities. Here is a theistic hymn to Shiva as Lord of Heaven and Earth as well as personal god.The Lord is beyond all laws of heaven and earth but at the same time he is very near

Oh God Shiva, Oh remover of all problems, Oh personification of truth,
Oh all knower, Oh holy god who lives in every one’s heart,
Oh God who blesses with all types of wealth, Oh friend of people devoted to you,
A lustrous good morning to you, Oh my Lord of the universe.

The foundational text of Shaivism is the Svetasvatara Upanishad (work s such as the Bhagavad Gita are primarily for Vaishnavites). Here is one of the key verses about the lord sustaining the world, while the soul is bound in this world but freed by knowing the divine.

The whole world is the perishable and imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest joined together —the Lord supports it all. The self (atman) who is not the lord, remains bound because of enjoying. By knowing the divine, one is released from all restriction.

Shaivism make use of rational proofs for the existence of God found in the Indian philosophers. From a Jewish perspective they are not far from Islam, except they have universal reincarnation. The major difference is that the infinite Siva emanates and maintains the world personified by his consort Shakti- who is not considered a separate god from Siva. One could compare Shakti to the real of the kavod, the sefirot, the celestial hierarchy of the medieval Jewish cosmologies. (Christian comparative works treat Shakti as the Logos). In many ways, they fit the category of Tosfot or the Rama in that they worship the God of creation along with an association with other aspects (shituf). Or it can be better understood through the more expansive version of R. Yakov Emden who frames it as accepting an absolute God, a god of gods and not just having intermediaries.

The second major difference is that divine blessings, divine providence, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of children are personified by devas such as Ganesha or Parvati. The store keepers selling clay idols in town as well as everyone on campus was quick to remind me that these cannot be referred to as separate gods if one is a Shivite rather they are devas. A term already translated by medieval Jews when they looked at Hindu religions as angels. Today, they would not be seen as gods or medieval angels, rather personified attributes. In actual practice for the last 200 years, they have been presented in basic works as allegories of ethical struggles, similar to the way S.R. Hirsch, Hertz, or Baeck read prior texts as ethical. [This is unlike the Smarta, with an Absolute above all forms.]

Shaivas often pray to Ganesha for worldly things, reserving prayers to Shiva for worship and asking for spiritual insight, help and advancement. Thus they might ask Ganesha for help in preparing and taking an exam, but ask Shiva to help us see our true spiritual nature.

The final, and for many, the main distinction is the extensive use of images.

Siva in His inherent form is formless. He is manifested in three ways, form without a body, form with body, and form both with and without body. The image of Siva Linga is symbolic of the last category, which is the intermediate stage between the other two.
For the first category, Śaiva texts describe Śiva, the highest aspect of reality, as a stainless void, “One who sees one entity as it really is sees all entities as they really are. One entity has the (same) innate nature as all entities, and all entities have the same innate nature as any single entity.”

The second way with a pictured image, representation of deities is where it is unlike Judaism but do not turn the image into an incarnation or shituf. It is a symbolic image that is not used in Temple worship, the linga is used. Some groups such as the Lingayatism, do not use the images (see below).
In the pictured image, Siva is seated on Nandi, his bull mount, the perfect devotee, Lord Siva holds japa beads and the trident, symbol of love-wisdom-action, and offers blessings of protection and fearlessness. Mount Kailas, His sacred Himalayan abode, represents the pinnacle of consciousness. Shiva has a crescent moon on his head. He is said to be fair like camphor or like an ice clad mountain. He wears five serpents and a garland of skulls as ornaments. Shiva is usually depicted facing the south. His trident, like almost all other forms in Hinduism, can be understood as the symbolism of the unity of three worlds that a human faces – his inside world, his immediate world, and the broader overall world. Shiva is often depicted with a third eye, with which he burned Desire (Kāma) to ashes. When Shiva loses his temper, his third eye opens to reduce most things to ashes. Shiva smears his body with ashes said to represent the end of all material existence.

The third category is the image of Sivalingam, Linga (Sanskrit for “symbol”) is the form in which he is most commonly worshipped and is often the most often misinterpreted symbol. Basically, it is a natural stone or natural pillar. American Temples in the West use beautiful crystals and boulders, many Hindus use an oval or egg shaped polished stone or painted oval figure. From a Biblical perspective, it is a pillar such as used in Genesis and then forbidden to Jews in Deuteronomy. Linga that have formed naturally are some of the most auspicious forms.


Many of the forms are that of a phallic symbol, and is usually the main object of worship in Shaivite temples. The linga is a simple stylized phallus that nearly always rests on pedestal of a stylized yoni, or female sex organ. Together, the linga and yoni represent the power of creative energy and fertility.The linga’s form began to be conventualized during the Gupta period, so that in later periods its original phallic realism was to a considerable degree lost. There are precise rules of proportion to be followed for the height, width, and curvature of the top. Variations include the mukhalinga, with one to five faces of Shiva carved on its sides and top, and the lingodbhavamurti, a South Indian form that shows Siva emerging out of a fiery superiority over Vishnu and Brahma. Some lingas are topped with a cobra, symbolizing the kundalini chakra located at the base of the spine.
Another image of Shiva is the Nataraja, on Western book covers it is probably the most iconic image of Hinduism. Nataraja is Shiva as the multi-armed Lord of the Dance. This image pictures Shiva in the dance of creation, preservation and destruction. In this multi-armed form Shiva holds a drum in one hand, representing creation, the fire of destruction in another. One of his right arms is in the gesture meaning “no fear”, signaling preservation. His fourth arm is held in an elephant trunk like posture, alluding to Ganesha, the removal of obstacles, again showing help and preservation to all people. Dancing Siva is expressive of the highly evolved arts and culture. The art of Siva is extensive but not generally used in Temple worship.

dance of shiva

Four types of Shaivism
Even within this one denomination of Shaivism, there are many subdivisions with major theological distinction. I will present four. Lingayats who do not use images or accept reincarnation, Saiva Siddhanta who want God to free their souls, Kashmir Shaivsm which is a monism, and the Ascetic Shaivism.
Lingayats (also know as Virashaivas)
Lingayatism established in 12th century by social reformer Basavanna makes several departures from mainstream Hinduism. It propounds monotheism and avoid images. It only worships Lord Shiva in the form of linga or Ishtalinga. an oval-shaped emblem symbolizing the absolute reality, It is worn on the body by a cord hung around the neck. They were sold in the campus bookstore.

They also bury the dead rather than cremate them. It also rejects the authority of the Vedas, the caste system and some Hindu beliefs such as reincarnation and karma,


Major Concepts of Saiva Siddhanta
The Saiva Siddhanta School is one of the most ancient schools of Saivism, currently popular mostly in the south.
The three fundamental concepts of this ideology are the divine, the soul, and the bonds of existence. Saiva Siddhanta believes in the three eternal entities of God, Soul and Bondage. These are called Pati, Pasu and Pasam respectively. Pati means Lord (of the souls) who is God. Pasam means bondage of the soul. Pasu means that which is under bondage. All things known and perceived are included in these three categories.

According to Saiva Siddhanta God is one, Souls are many. No two persons or beings are alike, every living being has a personal soul of its own. Bondage consists of three impurities called Anava, Karma, and Maya. God, soul and the bondage are all eternal and real. It has a personal doctrine, (as opposed to the advaita idea that all souls and God are ultimately one). The version of Brahmanism that R. Saadiah is familiar with seems to be some form of this, an eternal creation, with the world as bondage.

Siva is the ultimate and supreme reality, omniscient, omnipresent and unbound. He is Pati, the primal being and the supreme deity. Siva alone is the efficient cause of all creation, evolution, preservation, concealment and dissolution. He brings forth the worlds and their beings through his dynamic power, Shakti.
Anavam is the cause of all inherent negative qualities of the soul, ego, ignorance, hatred, etc. Like tarnish on copper, or the husk on wheat, it has a natural association with the soul. Anavam is spoken of only in Saiva Siddhanta and not in any other Indian philosophies. (Only Jewish adherents of Musar or those who follow medieval ethics of Maimonides have this a major concern of life)

Karma or binding action is the second impurity. It binds the soul to the consequences of its actions. Actions done from a self-less perspective do not bind the soul to the world. But actions done with an egoistic attitude, driven by ones desires, are binding.

Maya, the third impurity, binds the souls (jivas) to the sense objects through desires and ignorance. It is the first cause of all material things. It is real, and not an illusion as in Vedanta philosophy. To perform any karma or action, material objects such as the physical body and worldly things are required. These are created by God from maya. This is akin to a potter making pots from the clay. The physical body is made from maya and given to bind the soul. Modern Siddhanta literature compares maya to the Big Bang theory, in which the universe had an origin from a ‘cosmic egg’ and expanded to the present state. It is an expanding Universe.

The purpose of maya is two fold. First, to subject the souls (jivas) to the conditions of material existence and help them acquire sensory knowledge and material knowledge.

Second, to prepare them for final liberation by subjecting them to the laws of karma and helping them discriminate between right actions and wrong actions so that they can gain merit by doing right actions and avoiding wrong actions.
This is of course a long and tedious process and the souls (jivas) have to spend many lives before they feel the need to work for their liberation.

The difference from Judaism is that Rabbinic Judaism see that we have good and evil inclination, and that both are needed. All is not self-less and free of desire in that without it, a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade (Gen. R. 9:7). It is only when it gets out of hand that it becomes the cause of harm. An effective antidote is the study and observance of Torah (cf. Kid. 30b). Greatness does not necessarily render a human being immune from the power of the evil inclination, which manifests itself in such traits as vindictiveness and avarice (Sif. Deut. 33), anger (Shab. 105b), and vanity (Gen. R. 22:6). In fact, the greater the man, the stronger are such tendencies apt to be in him. Maimonides’ reading of the garden of Eden of the fall into desire from pure soul is closer to this perspective.

Obligations and Liberation
In this life of maya, the soul evolves through karma and reincarnation from the instinctive-intellectual sphere into virtuous and moral living, then into temple worship and devotion, followed by internalized worship, or yoga, and its meditative disciplines. Union with God Siva comes through the grace of the satguru and culminates in the soul’s maturity in the state of jnana, or wisdom. In contrast, most Vaishnavites believe that religion is the performance of bhakti
In Saiva Siddhanta true liberation is a gift from God and the result of his direct intervention. The soul learns true and false through maya, basically theoretical knowledge or lower knowledge. In every birth, the soul, through its action, gains experience, and through experience gains knowledge. It does not help them to transcend their conditioned minds and experience their true consciousness. It is only when Lord Siva bestows his grace upon them and comes to them in the form of a personal guru.

Liberation is made in four progressive stages of belief and practice called charya, kriya, yoga and jnana.
The path of charya involves serving Lord Siva in a temple or religious place by performing tasks.
The path of kriya involves performing devotional tasks such as worshipping Siva , singing devotional songs, reciting the mantras, narrating stories about Siva or doing personal service to Siva like a son does to his father.
The path of yoga involves practicing yoga exercises (asanas) and meditation and contemplation (dhyana). By following this path one gets an opportunity to live constantly in the company of Siva and become his spiritual companion.
The path of knowledge is the fourth path, considered the most direct path. The other three are actually considered inferior to it. On this path, jnana or knowledge is the mean to become aware of their true Siva consciousness.

After liberation, the liberated soul knows that its intrinsic nature is that of Siva but that it is not Siva or the Supreme Self. Thus in its liberated state it continues to experience some form of duality, while enjoying Siva (pati) consciousness as its true consciousness free from all bonds (pasas).
Judaism spends most of its efforts on the two lower paths, but Maimonides, Kabbalah, and parts of Hasidut focus on the higher two paths. As Alon Goshen-Gottstein pointed out, the learning done in an ashram is as if we had a program of all Kabbalah and Hasidut.

In Saivism, the soul needs to perfect itself and then it merits liberation. In contrast, rabbinic texts allow greater moral latitude and laxity because the Jewish God in Rabbinic literature is ever patient, ever forgiving, long-suffering, and even takes bribes. Here too, the Maimonidean world-to-come based on knowledge and conjunction is closer to Hinduism. Also Kabbalists such as R. Azriel of Gerona and the Ramak share this spiritualization.

Kashmir Shavism
Kashmīr Śaivism: codified by Vasugupta (ca 800), is mildly theistic, but intensely monistic school, a well-known branch is Pratyabhijñā . Besides having ordinary traditional worshippers it is attractive to foreign outsiders and many intellectuals as a form of Hinduism similar to monistic immanence and identity of humans with God as found in Hasidut. I hear there are currently several Israeli Kabbalah scholars looking into the similarities.

The central thesis of this philosophy is that everything is Shiva, absolute consciousness, and it is possible to re-cognize this fundamental reality and be freed from limitations and immersed in bliss.

Thus, the slave (pasu – the human condition) becomes the master (pati – the divine condition), a self-realization that God is within one’s own soul. It believes that all reality, including Shiva and Shakti, is mirrored in the human soul and that recognizing this image is the means of liberation. This is like acknowledging that the sefort or the higher unity are states of the soul- Think of Rav Zadok Hakohen, Komarno, or the Mittler. The inner core of a person is consciousness which is identical with Shiva

Unlike Advaitan teachings in Kashmir Shaivism, God has volition, reality and maya are real, humans souls are limited, and yoga is a tool not a an end or method unto itself

Shavite Asceticism
Shavism has long been connected with rigorous asceticism. Many yogis, ashram, and holy men are shavites. They go beyond the personal relationship with the Lord who will liberate them by living a life beyond the categories of life and death. Well known are the naked ascetic Nagas. These form of Shaivism is almost the opposite of the aforementioned householder form of good deeds and knowledge leading to liberation. The ascetics are living to show that they are already above the world.
Prominent are the Aghori who deliberately contravene moral norms. They engage in unsavory activity– ghastly acts to show they are outside the realm of the house holder such as eating their food from a human skull, or covering their body with ashes of the dead, Do not conflate this version with the householder version described above.

This aspect contributes to the colorful folk religion and memorable street life of a Saivism event. It also colors events such major events- the last one had 12 million people attend- as the Kumbh Mela, the event every four years when the ascetics recruit.


Sahivites downplay the ancient Vedic canon in favor of later and for them more profound works, leaving the Western reader in the dark about their religion. There are extensive Shaivite Agamas of 28 volumes, a collection of provides instructions for the worship of Shiva. There principal collections of sacred narrative are the Shiva Purana, the Linga Purana, the Skanda Purana, Also many hymns and devotional books.

The first known guru of Saiva Siddhanta tradition was Nandinatha, (c. 250 BC Kashmir. He left behind a compilation of twenty-six Sanskrit verses called the Nandikesvara Kasika, in which he laid down the basic tenets of Saiva Siddhanta school. Tirumular, who composed Tirumandiram in Tamil and introduced the Nandinatha tradition to the people of southern India. He was instrumental in making Saivism popular in the south by emphasizing the devotional aspect. The 11th century AD Tirumurai is an authoritative source of Saiva Siddhanta literature.

Tirumular’s work was carried forward by subsequent devotional saints such as Appar, Sundarar, Sambandhar, whose works are preserved in Tevaram (the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Tamil Śaiva devotional poetry.) These saints moved from place to place and temple to temple, singing the glory of Siva and making Saivism a popular movement
Nayanars were a group of 63 saints (also saint poets) in the 6th to 8th century- Tamils saints writings are more important than your western religion book

Manikkavacakar, who came after these great saints, contributed substantially to the popularity and theology of Saiva Siddhanta school in the south. His work is preserved in the collection of poems known as Tiruvasagam.There are also the lives of the Saiva saints Periyapuranum, and Umapati’s Shivaprakasham (“Lights on Shiva”) in the 14th century.

Unless you have read selections from this Tamil literature then you have not read anything relevant for the Shaivite religion.

Finally, Western interest was to try and make Hinduism into Christianity. Many Western books include a discussion of the Trimurti, somehow implying that the Hindus worship multiple gods this can be understood as similar to the Christian Trinity.
The Trimūrti is an image of Siva as three faced, as three forms of the same God in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. They are personified attributes. There are very few places in Indian literature where the Trimurti is mentioned. In fact the parallel is not very close, and the Hindu trinity, unlike the Trinity of Christianity, never really “caught on”. The other forms of Hinduism such as Vaishnavism generally do not accept the Trimurti concept at all. It is many know from unique archeological sites such as the 7th century, Trimurti Cave , alight atop a steep cliff, in Mahabalipuram. The theologies of these sites do not reflect current Hinduism, even if they make great book covers.

3 responses to “Shaivism to an Outsider

  1. Very interesting – glad to see some information coming from someone who bothered to study Hindu communities in-depth. I will re-read later to wrap my head around all the denominational differences but a few things stood out to me –

    “The major difference is that the infinite Siva emanates and maintains the world personified by his consort Shakti- who is not considered a separate god from Siva. One could compare Shakti to the real of the kavod, the sefirot, the celestial hierarchy of the medieval Jewish cosmologies. (Christian comparative works treat Shakti as the Logos). ”

    Shakti sounds an awful lot like the Shekhina.

    “Shaivas often pray to Ganesha for worldly things, reserving prayers to Shiva for worship and asking for spiritual insight, help and advancement. Thus they might ask Ganesha for help in preparing and taking an exam, but ask Shiva to help us see our true spiritual nature.”

    What does it mean that they pray to Ganesha and Shiva separately, if they see them as aspects of essentially the same entity? Is that just a matter of liturgical formalism? Are they never interchangeable?

  2. In my opinion, one god has shown up different forms of himself in different situations.Ppl pray to his different forms. Finally it is the same supreme.

  3. You kinda messed up the Virasaivism part. Here is a more comprehensive introduction to Virasaivism in eight articles by one of the best modern Hindu philosophers Gopinath Kaviraj(you can look him up)

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