Category Archives: Siva

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.

Saiva Siddhanta

Saiva Siddhanta is a bhakti (loving devotion) tradition. This system is a dualist (this is somewhat problematic but will be discussed in the section on philosophy) form of Saivism that has ancient roots in north India, though is most popular now in southern Tamil regions of India (Prentiss 1996). The goal of this system is ultimately liberation (moksa) from the cycle of rebirth, achieved through the Lord (Siva).

Hillary Rodrigues translates Saiva Siddhanta to mean “the ultimate goal of Saivism” (Rodrigues 270). In a definition that expands from a literal translation to one more anchored in the Indian philosophical system, Dr. S.C. Nandimath tells us that Saiva Siddhanta “means a system of Saivism, the doctrines of which are logically proved and are accepted as true” (Nandimath 80). The portion about being “logically proved” will come up again when we turn to Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. In the past, Saivism and even Saiva Siddhanta had a very strong presence and development in northern India (Gwalior state for example), though now it appears to be most influential in southern Indian Tamil regions and Sri Lanka (Prentiss 1996).

Saiva Siddhanta is an ancient system that has an equally long textual tradition. Tracing its history through its literature we see that Saiva Siddhanta seems to have gone through earlier phases to later become the influential tradition it is now. According to the tradition the Saivagamas are the original works, but according to Nandimath “available copies are very corrupt; therefore an attempt to determine their age on linguistic evidence must be abandoned at present” (Nandimath 80). This is important because it directs us towards a more historical study, as does Nandimath’s approach to Saiva Siddhanta literature. In the earliest phases the literature appears to be somewhat ambiguous. The tradition appears to be found in inscriptions as early as 6th or 7th (Nandimath 80) century with the Pallava king Rajasimha. Nandimath also tells us that there is a very important link with the Saivacayas. He argues that the Saivacaryas became prominent around 900 CE (Nandimath 82) and had links with Saiva Institutions (mathas). It is through monasteries, and mathas that Saivism, and particularly Saiva Siddhanta was spread through out India. According to Nandimath the Saivacaryas were not simply Saivites; many were followers and teachers of Saiva Siddhanta. Vairocani and Srikanthasiva are said to significant Saivacarya teachers of Siddhanta doctrine. This demonstrates that as early as the 6th or 7th century, Saiva Siddhanta existed in some form and that it was spreading and still popular nearly one-thousand years later. This has been a short history of a massive amount of literature of Siddhanta Saivism produced over around two-thousand years of existence.

Ultimately, all Saivism sects directly trace their lineage back to the sage Durvasa. Somananda wrote that there was a time in which all rsis, the Saiva Sastras and their knowledge disappeared. This seems to have been heralded as a particularly spiritually bleak time. As mythic accounts tell, Siva took pity on the mortals and went to a particularly chaste sage named Durvasa, and charged him with spreading the sastras (Nandimath 83). Durvasa in kind “charged [his three sons]… with establishing spiritual order and of teaching men again the…Saiva faith and doctrine in their three aspects of Unity, Diversity, and Diversity in Unity” (Nandimath 83-84). Tryambaka is the immediate ancestor (after Durvasa) of Somananda, who is held to be responsible for establishing Kashmiri Saivism. There is disagreement as to which branch of Saivism was originally established by Somananda in Kashmir. Dr. S.C. Nandimath argues that because Tryambaka was charged with teaching the aspect of Diversity (here the dualist or rather the pluralist Saivism), it is most likely that Somananda and his ancestors also taught the dualist version of the Trika; “Trika refers to the triad of God, souls, and bonds, with which the philosophy deals” (Rodrigues 566). This is problematic because Trika generally is used in reference to a non-dualist philosophy, and has for some time. Rohan A. Duniwala states that Amardaka was “one of the reputed founders” (Dunuwila 26) of the pluralist Saiva Siddhanta. The issue here is on the specific roots and founders of Saiva Siddhanta. The position that Nandimath takes is based on an interpretation of the mythic account of the origin of Saivism (in which Somananda (descendent of Tryambaka) actually taught a dualist version of the trika), where as the argument that Dunuwila makes is based on tracing the history of literature (Dunuwila 27).

Saiva Siddhanta is a dualist tradition, though in reality this tradition appears to be pluralistic. The simile most often evoked to explain the basic elements of Saiva Siddhanta is that of the pot (Nandimath 145). Here Saiva Siddhanta claims “three important eternal entities” (Ibid). The three eternal entities are explained in terms of the evolution of the universe; here the name Siddhanta is evoking the logic previously mentioned. To start Saiva Siddhanta does not deny the reality of the material world. In fact, the existence of the material world is crucial to understanding Saiva Siddhanta. The three basic elements are the Lord (Siva), Matter (the world) and the Soul. These elements are eternal and are eternally different. In this system Siva “is both transcendent, yet immanent in all aspects of creation” (Rodrigues 270). To better understand what the above quote means we can think of the evolution of the universe as being conceived in this way: the Lord creates a pot (Lord and Matter), and only creates a pot for the use of a consumer (soul)(Nandimath 145-146). Through this simile we again see that all is dependent on the Lord and yet is distinct from him. Liberation, as is implied, is achieved through the Lord. The critical distinction in Saiva Siddhanta (that distinguishes it as pluralistic) is that once a soul becomes liberated and realizes it is like the Lord, the soul does not then become (or become united with) the Lord after liberation (i.e. “three eternal distinct entities” and “the Lord is immanent and yet transcendent”). While caught in the cycle of rebirth the soul is completely dependent on the Lord as the source of all knowledge and especially of liberation. By saying that the soul realizes it is like the Lord the system is recapitulating the idea that makes this system dualist; it is saying that the soul is intelligent like the Lord and also is liberated like the Lord. The important piece of information here is that the soul is like the Lord and is never equated with the Lord as per the three eternal entities. This is a major point of philosophical difference between Saiva monists and dualists, as both take Siva to be the immanent factor in the world. The point is that for monists once liberation is achieved the soul is no longer distinct from the Lord (in this system the only reality is Siva), while for dualists (or more appropriately pluralists) the soul and Siva are eternally different.


Dunuwila, R. A. (1985) Śaiva Siddhānta Theology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Nandimath, S. C. (2001) Theology of the Saiv¯agamas : a survey of the doctrines of Saiva Siddhanta and Veerasaivism. Thiruvananthapuram : International School of Dravidian Linguistics

Prentiss, Karen Pechilis (1996) Tamil Lineage for Saiva Siddhānta Philosophy. History of Religions, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Feb., 1996), pp. 231-257. Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook an Online Introduction. Published by: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Related Terms:









Siva in Srikantha form

Matta-Mayura matha



Saiva Siddhanta Church:

Vedic Books (a good source for books on a variety of topics relating to Hindu religion/spirituality)

A general google search that has a lot of promising websites:

Written by Calvin Gee (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Siva has been recognized as an omnipotent creator deity, the Lord of the Dance, a deity of destruction and the maintainer of the universe. Part of the Hindu trinity, Siva is accompanied by Brahma and Visnu; however, Siva’s true devotees view him as the supreme Lord who creates, maintains and destroys the cosmos (Flood 150). Siva “contains all opposites within him and is even described as being half male and half female (ardhanarisvara)” (Flood 151). An example of these opposing virtues is that he is the destroyer and the regenerator of life, he is also claimed to be a great ascetic but also the symbol of sensuality (Ghosh 17). Siva’s physical appearance is rather interesting, his naked body is smeared with ash, and he is usually depicted with four arms. Siva’s nudity is particularly important because it exposes the linga. Many sages were upset by this exposure and spoke words that made Siva’s linga fall to the ground. Consequently, the three worlds were dishevelled, until Devi took the form of the yoni to hold the linga. Siva has three eyes, two eyes which witness the past, present, and future; the third eye, the inner eye, “…is responsible for higher perception, turning transcendental” (Ghosh 18). This eye is believed to have been the result of Parvati carelessly covering Siva’s two eyes. Siva wears a garland of skulls and necklace of snakes; this combined with the ashes on his forehead and body, represent detachment (Merchant 1). Siva is known to hold a trident in his hand; this trident represents the Hindu trinity. It also represents the nature of each person (creation, preservation, and destruction) (Ghosh 19). Matted hair and a crescent moon on his head top off the appearance of Siva, the crescent moon is said to represent perfect mind control (Ghosh 18). Siva possesses characteristics of three gods: Rudra, Indra, and Agni. Rudra is the god of destruction, and it is that destructive aspect which Siva takes on from Rudra. Siva is sometimes referred to as Rudra in the Puranas. Indra passes on to Siva “his phallic and adulterous character” (O’Flaherty 83). A similar characteristic between Indra and Siva is that they both have three eyes. From Agni, the God of fire, stems the intensity of asceticism and passion (O’Flaherty 83). He is worshipped and iconographically depicted typically in four main forms. The first depiction, The Lord of Yoga, touches on the appearance previously discussed as he mediates atop Mount Kailasa (or Kailash) in the Himalayas. The second depicts Siva as family oriented, with Pavarti and their two sons at his side. Siva’s third form is represented as a linga and the last depiction is of Siva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance (Flood 151).

Large statue of Siva in Bhaktapur, Nepal
Large image of Siva in Bhaktapur, Nepal

In western society Nataraja is the best known form of Siva. Nataraja translates to ‘King of Dancers’. “Nataraja dances, his right foot supported by a crouching figure, his left foot elegantly raised. Of his four arms, one swings downwards, pointing to the raised foot; another with palm held up signals, ‘Do not Fear!’ In his other hands he holds aloft a drum and a flame. The river Ganga sits in his hair. A cobra uncoils from his lower right forearm, and the crescent moon and a skull are on his crest. He dances within an arch of flames.” (Smith 1) This dance is the Dance of Bliss (anandatandava). This dance is of particular importance to Siva devotees because it is viewed as eternal, that is, having no beginning or end (Smith 1). The Cidambaram temple is considered by some the most important of all Siva temples. Cidambaram is said to be where the dance originated. Other temples dedicated to Siva always have a Nataraja shrine, or image next to the Siva linga shrine (Smith 1). It is said that Nataraja’s left foot is raised so those can bow before it, he grants all wishes, and is said to free one from rebirth if worshipped (Smith 2).

Parvati is Siva’s wife and the mother of his sons Ganesa and Skanda. Siva did not want a son nor did he need one as he never dies. Despites Siva’s opposition, Parvati insisted on having a child, explaining that she would take care of the son and Siva could be a yogi as he wished. This desperation further complicated Siva’s roles as an ascetic and householder, conflicting roles which some say make Siva a poor husband (O’Flaherty 211). Siva did not give into Parvati’s demands; however Ganesa was born from the unnaturally shed seed of the yogi (O’Flaherty 212). Parvati and Siva’s relationship is often contrasted to that of Rama and Sita in the Ramayana (Caughran 514). Rama and Sita are known for their love and devotion to one another, a mutual respect. Parvati, on the other hand commonly interrupts Siva’s meditation, she also argues and mocks him; however, Siva does not kill her as promised, though he does occasionally abandon her (O’Flaherty 211). Parvati questioned why she loved such an unusual god, one who indulged in activities that may repulse some such as the consumption of hemp. However, despite this, she not only loves him she is obsessed with him (O’Flaherty 236). As previously stated, Siva and Parvati’s dysfunctional marriage is often compared with Rama and Sita’s marriage. Siva and Parvati, however, allow one to reconsider Rama and Sita’s marriage as being ideal. The renowned quarrels between Siva and Parvati may enhance their sexual relationship, and their distance from one another can also be seen as strengthening their love (O’Flaherty 233).

Saivism is a faith based on the teachings of Siva; followers worship Siva or sometimes his consort Sakti. It was in India and Europe that symbols pertinent to Saivism first appeared. Symbols included the bull, the phallus, the ram, the snake and the Lady of the Mountains (Danielou 32). Although there was a wide spread of these symbols across the Asia and Persia, India is the only place to maintain traditions of Saivism. There are six branches of Saivism: Kalamukhas, Kapalikas, Kashmiri Saivism, Pasupata Cult, Saivasiddhanta, and Virasaivism (Ghosh 73). Kalamukhas and Kapalikas worship the destructiveness of Siva; they are known for their odd cult practice which is thought to draw on the descriptions of Rudra. They wore garlands made of human skulls, and their practices of cannibalism horrified some (Ghosh 75). The Kalamukhas were powerful during 700 AD – 1200 AD, and the Kapalikas during the seventh century. The opposite of the previous two branches Kashmir Saivism was Saivism at its finest. Its followers are monotheistic, viewing Lord Siva as the supreme and only reality. This branch is credited with being very scientific and logical (Ghosh 75). The fourth branch is the Pasupata Cult which state Siva “is without beginning or anadi, and cause of creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the world. He is both transcendent as well as immanent” (Ghosh 77). Saivasiddhanta is similar to the Pasupata Cult in regards to philosophy; the only difference is that the Pasupata Cult accepts thirty-six basic principles of the evolution of the world whereas Saivasiddhanta accepts only twenty-five. The last branch, Virasaivism, is characterized by its emphasis on the worship of Siva Linga (Ghosh 78). “Lingayata signifies the religion that considers the linga as the prime support or basis” (Ghosh 78).

Siva is without a doubt one of the main components of the Hindu tradition. He is a very complex god, exemplified by his multitude of forms. One main form of particular importance is the Nataraja, the dancing Siva. His struggle between asceticism and householder, resulting in conflicting values, furthers this complexion. His wife Parvati is completely in love with Siva, but this does not stop him from abandoning her occasionally in his pursuit of becoming a yogi. A highly developed creed developed around Siva, and cumulated in the monotheistic worship of Siva as the High God. Siva has been everlastingly worshipped and will continue to be worshipped by many.


Caughran, Neema (1999) “Shiva and Parvati: Public and Private Reflections of Stories in North
India” The Journal of American Folklore 112, No.446 (September): 514-516

Daniélou, Alain (1992) Gods of Love and Ecstasy : the traditions of Shiva and Dionysus. Vermont: Inner Traditions / Bear & Company.

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

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

Merchant, Vasant V (2003) “Siva-Nataraja: The lord of dance, drama and music Siva—the cosmic dancer, transformer, liberator” International Journal of Humanities and Peace 19.1 (Annual 2003): 3(2)

O’Flahery Doniger, Wendy (1981) SIVA The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

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

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhairava the Terrible









Siva Siddhanta


The Trinity


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Rachel Davis (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Nataraja: Lord of the Dance

Since the seventh century, Cidambaram has been the center of worship of Nataraja, the captivating iconic representation of Siva as Lord of the Dance (Smith 1). Although a very well known depiction of Siva, the Nataraja image is not very widespread. Most images of Siva as Nataraja are found in southern India (Gaston 47).

The term ‘Nataraja’ refers to the dancing posture of Siva. There are many different dances of Siva, one hundred and eight of which are sculpted on either side of the east and west gopurams (ornate, monumental towers) of the Nataraja temple at Cidambaram (Natarajan 84). The ananda-tandava is the cosmic dance of bliss; one of the many dances of the great Hindu god. It is in this pose that Siva is primarily worshiped in both the Golden Hall and the Hall of Consciousness in the Cidambaram temple. Earliest forms of dancing Siva date back to the fifth century (Smith 1). The sculptures of Siva dancing the ananda-tandava, however, only date back to the tenth century (Kaimal 397). The ananda-tandava is the particular dance, according to Hindu mythology, that Siva performed in the Golden Hall of Cidambaram, or Tillai as it is also known, at the request of his devotees (Gaston 47, Natarajan 84).

In south India there are five sacred places, each with a linga associated with one of the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and ether (air). The Cidambaram temple is famous for its akasa lingam, Siva as the formless space or ether (Natarajan 2). Siva is predominantly worshiped in the form of the linga, not in an anthropomorphic form such as the Nataraja. This is what makes the dancing Siva so unique. Siva dancing the ananda-tandava is the most celebrated and beloved of the Nataraja figures. There is extensive symbolism embedded within each element of the elaborate posture. It should be noted that, the degree to which the Nataraja images have always held this meaning is questionable. The significance of the images has likely evolved, and changed over the years, and there is little evidence surviving from medieval South India to decipher their original meaning (Kaimal 391). That being said, I believe that the following description of Siva as Nataraja is just a small insight into what the icon means to people today.

Unmai Ulakham, a Tamil text, eloquently begins to describe the ananda-tandava: “Creation arises from the drum; protection proceeds from the hand of hope; from fire proceeds destruction; from the foot that is planted upon Muyalahan proceeds the destruction of evil; the foot held aloft gives mukti…..” (Klostermaier 162). Usually in the form of a statue, Siva has four arms and stands on his right leg. One right hand holds a drum shaped like and hourglass that symbolizes creation. The other is raised, palm up, in the sign ‘do not fear’ (abhaya) with a serpent wrapped around the wrist. One left hand holds fire, the symbol of destruction, and the other points downwards towards the raised foot of liberation. His hair is braided and jeweled, and the lower locks whirl in the dance (Coomaraswamy 86). His matted or braided hair refers to the ascetic nature of Siva. Often, there is a cobra, a skull, a crescent moon, or the river goddess Ganga entrapped within his hair. Siva integrates male and female attributes by sometimes wearing a man’s earring in the right ear, and a woman’s in the left. He is adorned with an abundance of jewlery, and a long piece of cloth is tied around his waist. The majority of Nataraja icons will also have a third eye. Underneath Siva’s right foot is a dwarf, or demon. This is to represent his victory over ignorance. Finally, Siva in a perfect balance between creation and destruction, is encircled by a ring of fire which not only represents the universe, but also consciousness.

This dance of Siva is also thought to represent his 5 activities: Shrishti (overlooking, creation, evolution), Sthiti (preservation, support), Samhara (destruction, evolution), Tirobhava (veiling, embodiment, illusion, giving rest), and Anugraha (release, salvation, grace) (Coomaraswamy 87). Siva is part of the Hindu Trinity, with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Siva as the destroyer. However, in the context of Siva as Nataraja, he becomes a fusion of the three. The dance of Siva symbolizes the action of cosmic energy in creating, preserving, and destroying the universe (Natarajan 86). The dance of Siva has also been called a synthesis of science, religion, and art (Natarajan 2).

The legend of the Cidambaram temple incorporates the popular Pine Forest myth of Siva. It begins with Siva disguised as a handsome, naked, wandering sage. Accompanied by Sesa, and Visnu disguised as an entrancing woman, the three go to the Pine Forest to test the sages and the fidelity of their wives (Coomaraswamy 85, Smith 33). With their negative magical power, the sages were stealing the forces of creation. The rsis attempted to destroy Siva for the intrusion by means of their sacrificial fire and incantations. The first of their attempts was a tiger. Siva peeled off its skin and wrapped it around himself. The second was a snake, which also failed. Siva began to dance as Nataraja, and the furious sages set a dwarf monster upon him. Siva placed his foot on the dwarfs back, breaking it, and resumed the ananda-tandava. Sesa, entranced by Siva’s dance, begs for another opportunity to behold the dance. Siva promised to dance again in Tillai, the center of the world (Natarajan 85).

Numerous legends exist surrounding Siva’s many dances. One tells of a competition between Siva and Kali, during which Siva dances the urdhvatandava, the High Tandava pose (Smith 24). Other dances of Siva include the evening dance in the Himalayas, and the dance performed in cemeteries and on burning grounds (Coomaraswamy 98).

Chola bronze depicting Siva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), his iconic form at Cidambaram Temple in Tamil Nadu
Chola bronze depicting Siva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), his iconic form at Cidambaram Temple in Tamil Nadu

The bronze Nataraja is housed at the innermost place in the Cidambaram temple, the cit sabha, or the Hall of Consciousness. The kanaka sabha, or the Golden Hall, is directly in front the cit sabha. This is where the rituals of worship are performed. In this courtyard there is also a shrine to Visnu, known as Govindaraja. The famous akasa linga resides in the next surrounding courtyard. The third surrounding courtyard is immense, containing various shrines, halls, and the temple tank. It has four gateways or gopurams, one leading in from each direction (Smith 5). Most of the buildings have been significantly renovated and none are older than 1070, but the existing buildings were likely built in the images of their predecessors (Kaimal 398). The cit sabha is thought to be a copy of the oldest, original shrine, which would have been built before the tenth century (Kaimal 399).

It is interesting that this specific dance of Siva has gained so much prominence over all the others. In doing so it has become encompassed by a vast amount of symbolism, and is of great significance to many people of southern India. One explanation is the prestige that was given to the Nataraja image from the tenth to thirteenth centuries by the Cola dynasty. Some scholars believe that the Nataraja actually represented a victory dance ancient Tamil warrior chieftains would perform, over the bodies of their dead enemies. The Cola kings expanded their dynasty through military aggression, therefore, it seems reasonable to suspect that the early Cola kings saw the Nataraja as a perfect emblem because of its warrior connotations (Kaimal 405). Secondly, it is thought that the Nataraja icon was catalyzed into fame by priests and kings in an attempt to attract pilgrims and bring the town spiritual prestige. Through this process a mythic identity was generated for the icon to identify it more with Siva, and less with local, malevolent deities. It was also around this time that the name of the city was changed from Tillai to Cidambaram (Kaimal 406).

Many festivals are held at the temple of Cidambaram such as Brahmotsavam, Ani Thirumanjanam, Thai Poosam, Natyanjali and Arudra Darsanam. The bronze Nataraja and the icon of his consort are decorated with flowers and paraded around the city during the ten-day festival of Arudra Darsanam (Natarajan 137). Natyanjali is a dance festival that coincides with the auspicious day of Maha Sivaratri, the Great Night of Siva. The celebration lasts for five days between February and March, during which people come from all over India to dance at this holy site (Pintchman 194).

Although the ancient history of the Nataraja image is obscure, and the original meaning of the icon may be lost forever, it has been reborn to a new life full of legend, worship and celebration.




Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1991) The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Gaston, Anne-Marie (1982) Siva in Dance, Myth and Iconography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kaimal, Padma (1999) “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon.” The Art Bulletin 81, no. 3 (September): 390-419.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1984) Mythologies and Philosophies of Salvation in the Theistic Traditions of India. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Natarajan, B. (1974) The City of the Cosmic Dance: Chidambaram. Delhi: Orient Longman.

Pintchman, Tracy (2007) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

Smith, David (1998) The Dance of Siva: Religion, art and poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Readings


Davis, Richard H. (1999) Lives of Indian Images. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fuller, Christopher J. (2004) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Related Research Topics


Pine Forest Myth

Cola dynasty

The 5 sacred lingas


Ani Thirumanjanam

Thai Poosam


Arudra Darsanam


The evening dance of Siva

Siva’s dance on the burning grounds

Rudra Tandava


Related Websites

Written by Cheyenne Conrad (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Siva (Erotic Nature)

Siva at South Indian Temple

Siva’s name has been derived from the Dravidian term for “red” and can also be translated as “auspicious” (Rodrigues 296). He is believed to have shared common characteristics with the Vedic god Rudra who was known to have a “shining exterior and a dark interior” (O’Flahertry 1969b:1). Along with sharing some characteristics with Rudra, Siva is also thought to share characteristics with the Vedic gods Indra and Agni because Indra is thought to be the phallic god of fertility and Agni is believed to be the god of heat [Agni is accurately referred to as the god of fire, however, Siva uses heat as energy therefore “heat” is used in this case to characterize Agni instead of fire (O’Flaherty 1969b:3)]. Siva is regarded as the destroyer (Clooney and Long 2). Therefore, by encompassing the features of a destroyer, Siva is identified as part of the trimurti or the Hindu Trinity [on the trimurti see Woodburne 1925. The trimurti is also comprised of Brahma (the Creator) and Visnu (the Preserver)]. As the destroyer, Siva is often depicted in images as being dressed in animal skins with long matted hair from which the goddess Ganga flows (Rodrigues 296).

According to the Puranic myths, Siva is an intense ascetic generating tremendous inner heat to the point where ash is said to be flowing through him (Rodrigues 296) [the Puranas are a composition of many “Sanskrit verses dealing with every subject under the Indian sun” (O’Flaherty 1973: 1)]. Along with having ash flow through him, Siva has been able to create tapas through his extreme yogic practices. Tapas can be defined as a potentially destructive or creative heat that can be derived through severe ascetic practices (O’Flaherty 1969a: 301)]. The Puranic myths of Siva, however, reveal that Siva in fact displays dualistic characteristics (Rodrigues 296). Along with being an ascetic, Siva is also revealed to be an erotic lover (Rodrigues 296 and O’Flaherty 1973: 5). However, since Siva is most commonly depicted as an ascetic, this article will focus on Siva as the erotic lover.

A common value in Hinduism is renouncing from all material and pleasurable things and surrendering to God (Rodrigues 155). On the other hand, begetting offspring as a householder in order to ensure that one’s lineage is carried on is also a crucial element of Hinduism. Clearly attending to both of these requirements is unattainable. Consequently, a compromise between the two has to be made and according to the Puranic myths, Siva does just that (O’Flaherty 1969a: 301).

Siva is referred to as being “ithyphallic “because he is often depicted with an erect phallus (Rodrigues 296). This erection is in fact the result of his “creative power.” Thus Siva is often worshiped by devotees in the form of the phallus (linga) (Rodrigues 296). The erect phallus typically symbolizes chastity and not eroticism because Siva is able to retain his semen. This ensures that there will be future creation. (O’Flaherty, 1969a: 311).

Siva embodies two types of heat according to O’Flaherty (1969b:5). One is tapas and the other is kama – the heat of desire [the Vedic god Agni is often personified as Kama]. Many myths about Siva are a combination of tapas and kama (O’Flaherty 1973: 90). It is said that Siva was the enemy of Kama because Kama was the opposite force of Siva. In one variation of a Puranic myth, it was said that the sage Himalaya attempted to coerce Siva to marry his daughter

Parvati, and Siva responded by saying that an ascetic, or a yogi should never come into contact with a woman because it conflicts with his chastity (O’Flaherty 1973: 141, 1969: 309). Another Purana says that in order for Siva to marry, Kama shot arrows into Siva’s heart that caused him to develop a desire for Parvati and this then lead to the many lustful feelings that Siva began to develop (O’Flaherty 1973: 145).

A very common myth surrounds Siva in the Pine Forest; however there are innumerable variations of this myth. In the Pine Forest, lived seven sages and their wives (O’Flaherty 1973: 172). Siva entered this forest naked with an erect phallus (O’Flaherty 1973: 172). There are many variations as to why Siva had entered the forest with an erect phallus, but in order to accent his eroticism, only one will be examined. It has been said that Siva entered the forest in guise of an ascetic when in fact he was truly aroused by the wives (O’Flaherty 1973: 173). O’Flaherty (1973: 173) wrote that Siva had entered the forest naked because he was not being sexually satisfied by his wife Parvati and therefore he wanted to seduce the wives. A similar version outlines that upon noticing that Siva was arousing the seven wives, the sages announced that Siva’s penis was to fall off (O’Flaherty 1973: 178). After the penis had fallen off, it began to burn everything in sight. The gods then asked Parvati to take the form of a vagina to hold the penis in place so it could be worshiped by all, and this in turn lead to the formation of the linga [for an in-depth look into the curse made upon Siva see O’Flaherty 1980]. These examples demonstrate that Siva is in fact highly erotic, and the use of the phallus is eminently prominent (O’Flaherty 1973, 1980).

Another Purana tells the myth of Siva seducing Mohini. Visnu had taken the form of a beautiful woman named Mohini in order to retrieve the soma (am intoxicating plant (Rodrigues 67)) from the demons (O’Flaherty 1973: 228). After retrieving the nectar, Visnu was approached by Siva and Parvati, and Siva had asked Visnu to show him the disguise of Mohini. Upon showing him the disguise, Siva became aroused and by embracing Mohini, his semen fell to the ground (O’Flaherty 1973: 228). It seems evident that Siva is not ashamed or withdrawn about his sexuality even with the presence of his wife.

Having an erotic god would seem like a problem because brahmacarya (celibacy) plays a large role in the lives of many Hindus [On the role that brahmacarya plays, see Rodrigues 132). It has been theorized that Siva is worshiped by Hindus all around the world because he is able to occupy contradictory roles (O’Flaherty 1973: 3). Siva is able to remain chaste in order for world creation to carry on and he is also able to play the role of the erotic lover to demonstrate that everyone has sexual urges and finding the right balance in between is the key. Even though Siva’s roles are truly contradictory, he is still seen as “whole” to his devotees (O’Flaherty1969a:301).



Clooney, Fred W. And J. Bruce Long (1983) “Introduction to the Religious Experience in Saiva

Thought and Literature” in Experiencing Shiva, edited by F. Clooney and J. Bruce Long,

Missouri: South Asia Books.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1969a) “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Siva: Part 1.”

History of Religions 8: 300-337.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1969b) “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Siva: Part 2.”

History of Religions 9: 1-41.

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

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1980) “Dionysus and Siva: Parallel Patterns in Two Pairs of Myths.”

History of Religions 20: 81-111.

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

Ethics Online Books.

Woodburne, A.S. (1925) “The Idea of God in Hinduism” Journal of Religion 5: 52-66.

Related Topics for Further Investigation









Pine Forest myths




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Ashika Singh (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva Festival)

Maha Sivaratri is a Hindu festival of devotion to the diety Siva. It is celebrated by Hindus who worship Siva as their primary deity. Maha Sivaratri mans “the Great Night of Siva” and it is the fourteenth lunar night (Chaturdasi) of the dark fortnight of the Hindu month of Phalgun. This typically falls between February and March. There are a number of myths regarding the origin of Sivaratri and most of the stories can be found in the Puranas.

Siva has been worshiped in India since ancient times. He has been worshiped in the form of the Sivalinga or jyorti-linga symbolically representing the jyoti or flame of fire. “Siva is the one of the highest gods of the Hindu pantheon” (Mukherji, 35). Although Siva is known as a destroyer he has numerous other characteristics. His names include Mahadeva, “The Great God” and the name Siva means auspicious God. “Among the Hindu triumvirate, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is considered the destroyer (Thakur and Roa, 01).

The date of origin of Mahasivaratri is as anonymous as the origin of the Hinduism. The word Sivaratri appears in the Mahabharata and in certain Puranas such as Garuda, Padma, Skanda and Agni Puranas (Welbon and Glenn, 192).

According to the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, which is believed to be apocryphal, the Sivaratri vow was put into the Bhishma’s mouth. “Bhishma was the octogenarian leader of the Kuru forces in the great battle of Kurukshetra.” “According to the legend thus put into the mouth of the dying hero, the fast of Sivaratri was first publicly observed by King Chitra Bhanu” who was the king ruling over the whole of Jambu-Dwipa(ancient name of India) (Mukherji, 39).

As King Chitra Bhanu was on a holy fast on the day of Sivaratri, one of his sages, Ashta-Bakra came on a visit and questioned his abstaining. He told Ashta-Bakra that in his previous life he was a hunter by the name Suswar. He made his living by hunting and killing animals and selling them in the markets to feed his family. On one occasion as he wandered through the forest, he failed to realize that darkness had rolled around and he was unable to go back home. In order to shelter himself he climbed up the bilva (wood-apple) tree. He had hunted a deer that day but he could not take it home to feed his family. He thought of his hungry family and wept. His tears along with the leaves of the bilva tree landed on the linga (Lord Siva). Lord Siva regarded this as an offering from one of his devotees. The next morning as he returned home he bought some food by selling the deer that he hunted in the previous day. A stranger appeared at his doorstep and begged for food before he could eat any himself. Suswar then fed the stranger before he was going to break his own fast. Unknowingly Suswar accomplished the proper observance that Sivaratri requires, a day of fasting and serving food to a Brahman. Suswar lived many years without any idea of the spiritual gain that he attained by accomplishing the Sivaratri Vrata (Ascetic observance on the Night of Siva). When the afterlife came, he learned that he had been blessed and was rewarded with a grand life. According to the Mahabharata, Suswar lived in Siva loka(realm of Siva) for thousands of years and also lived in Indra loka or (realm of Indra)- the heaven, and Brahma loka or (realm of Brahma) the higher heaven. Finally he was promoted to Vaikunda-the realm of the highest heaven (Mukherji, 43).

In the Puranic accounts, Siva married the golden Parvati and tells her that this day is remarkably valued him. Therefore, those who perform the prescribed ascetic observance on this day will be freed from all sins. According to the myths of the Siva Purana, the gods Vishnu and Brahma wanted to know who between them the superior power was. This let them to fight each other Siva intervened as a jyoti (Flame of fire) to make them realize the futility of their fight (Thakur and Roa, 01).

According to another legend in the Siva Purana, during Samudra Manthan(the churning of the ocean) by the Asuras and the Devas, Halalak (a highly toxic poison) came out from the ocean and it was capable of destroying the entire creation. Visnu advised the Devas and the Asuras to prey to Siva for their lives. Siva drank the poison and it lodged in his throat; thus Lord Siva is known as Nilakantha (the Blue Throated). In order to dissipate the poison Siva had to stay awake the whole night.The Devas and Asuras prayed the whole night in the vigil. Pleased with their devotion, Nilakantha declared that whoever worshiped him on that day would have their wishes fulfilled.

Celebration of Mahasivaratri

The celebration of Sivaratri differs from place to place, and actual practices also differ depending on the circumstances (Welbon and Yocum 203). For example, in Chennai (Madras) people usually limit themselves to fasting, keeping awake, and listening to stories of Mahasivaratri. However in other places such as Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh Mahasivaratri is celebrated as their royal family festival and their rites of worship are more elaborate (Thakur and Roa, 04). “In certain parts of India people still drink a concoction called bhang, prepared by pouring water over hemp leaves and adding almonds, rose leaves, opium etc (Welbon and Yocum, 204)”. They believe that this is the favourite beverage of Siva.

On Sivaratri day, devotees awake at sunrise and purify them with a bath in the Ganga River or in the sacred water at their local temple. Purification is not only for their body, but also it involves a mental, moral, and spiritually by cleansing by calming certain qualities within them (Manohar 200). During the day devotees will fast; the types of fasting differ from person to person according to their circumstances. Some devotees will fast the whole day and others will get one light meal (vegetarian food mostly fruits and milk). They may spend their day repeating mantra (japa of Om namo sivaya) and Meditation. At night they conduct a Vigil and rites such as offering bilva (wood apple) leaves, water, and milk. The rituals involved abhiseka (bath to the Sivalinga), and offering of Puspa (flower), dhupa (incense), dipa (flame), naivedya (food). The next day devotees must entertain a stranger or guest with offerings of food and gift. This is said to accomplish the custom of Mahasivaratri and devotees believe they will receive blessing from Siva himself.

Fasting, Vigil, and Puja

Fasting, vigil, and puja (Prayer) are the most important religious observance among the devotees of Sivaratri. In order to achieve the successful outcome of Sivaratri, the devotees must prepare themselves physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually by cultivation of certain merits such as ten set of injunction in the Kalanirnaya of Madhva(Patmury, 1994);

1. Ahimsa (non-violent), it is a rule of conduct that prevent the killing or injuring of living beings. “It is closely connected with the notion that all kinds of violence entail negative karmic consequences (Wikipedia)”.

2. Satya (Truthfulness) which includes refraining from false witness. It is a term of power due to its purity and meaning.

3. Akrodha (freedom from anger) keeping the mind free from feelings of anger, jealous and hatred (Patmury, 1994).

4. Bramacarya (Celibacy) is true love of God, its include being celibacy in mind. Body and mind should wander from though of God (Patmury, 1994).

5. Daya (compassion) is being sympathy. It means ‘suffering in the suffering of all beings’

6. Ksama (forbearance) is being patience, forgiveness or quietude.

7. Santatman (calmness of mind) is being peacefulness and surrender to the God. Accepting happy and pain equally or accepting victory and defeat equally.

8. Krodhahina (Devoid of fits of passion) mind and thoughts completely focuses on God.

9. Tapas (Austerities) fasting, wakefulness, and concentration (Patmury, 1994).

10. “Drohahina (free from malice) destroying all corrupting influences (Patmury, 1994)”.

According to Sivapurana (a legend of Siva), Upavasa (fasting the whole day) is the most important worship of deity Siva, and there is a special significance of the six essential items are used in the worship of Siva in the festival of Sivaratri puja.

1. Ritual bathing of Sivalinga with water, milk, honey, and bilva (wood apple) leaves.

2. The vermilion paste applied on the Sivalinga

3. Offering of fruits symbolizes long life and indulgence of desires.

4. Burning of incents sticks surrender the wealth.

5. The lighting of the lamp symbolizes attainment of knowledge

6. Offering of betel leaves marks satisfaction with worldly pleasures.

“The fasting and keeping vigilare symbolic of the control of the senses so that they may be restrained from wandering in search of deluding objects (Patmury, 1994)”. Keeping vigil also means waiting for the self-revelation of the Lord. It is also means that awaken from the darkness. Awake from the darkness is believed to be the attainment of self- realization (Atman).


Mahasivaratri unifies the many different life and experience in the life of Hindus, not only in the community but also in the relationship between God and worshippers. As we know, in the Hindu tradition, Brahmin worships the God representing the entire community of worshipers. Though, in the festival of Sivaratri all men and women gain permission to perform the ritual rites from the brahmins regardless of their class or caste system. It symbolizes that all human being are equal. Further, by undergoing preliminary purification rites of physical and spiritual purification with “holy water” and “sacred mantras” the relationship between god and devotees even become closer. Man became a giver and God become a receiver of devotees’ offerings, which open up the channels of power and mutual relatedness between God and Men. The channel between God and men blocked the selfish desire and false notation. Finally, the miserable forces of sin and guilt are destroyed by the production of auspicious forces.

The festival of Sivaratri begins with the grave vow and accomplishes with the prayers, request for compassion and thanks giving. Devotees of Siva believe that pure love of God is a way of achieving moksa (self-realization).

According to J.H.M. Yinger’s definition of religion, “Religion, then, can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with these ultimate problems of human life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human association… the quality of view implies two things: first a belief that evil, pain, bewilderment and injustice are fundamental factors of existence; and second, a conviction that man can ultimately be saved from these facts (Patmury, 1994)”.

According to the Hindus believe, as a destroyer, deity Siva destroys the bad sins, and provide welfare for the worshipers who accomplish the vow of the Sivaratri; thus, devotees live more peaceful, more loving with giving and sharing. Therefore, celebrating the festival of Mahasivaratri helps human lives become more peaceful and joyful, and it leads to have a healthful life, which means festivals are not only the believes of particular society, they are the way of life to being part of the world.


Welbon, Guy and Yocum, Glenn (1982) Studies on Religion in South India and Sri Lanka, Volume 1: Religious festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. lucknow: Perm Printing Press.

Mukherji, A.C (1989) Hindu Fasts and feasts .New Dhelhi: India. Efficient offset Printers.

Thakur, Anita and Rao, Nalini (2000) Maha Sivaratri: A Study in South Asian Woman’s forum

Vanlaltlani, T and Patmury, Joseph (1994) Sivaratri: An Indian festival of Repentance. Doing theology with the festivals and customs of Asia, Singapore. pp 59-68


Written by Saga Perinpasivam (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.