Shaivism is the second largest religious community in cotemporary India. It has several distinct and important branches, and is commonly associated with asceticism. Lord Shiva himself is often depicted as a yogi sitting in meditation in the Himalayas. Shaivism includes the principle of avatar, but the concept is less developed than in Vaishnavism. Shiva has important forms as Rudra (in a fierce and angry mood), Nataraja (the King of Dance), and the Linga. Shiva’s followers often consider him the Supreme deity, above all others.

Worshippers at a temple in Wembley London, pour milk on the linga. It represents Shiva as the male, creative principle.


The roots of Shaivism are anchored in pre-historic India. Evidence of the worship of Shiva has been found in ancient archaeological sites, such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. In the Rig Veda, he is referred to by the name Rudra.The oldest story about Shiva concerns his destruction of the sacrificial arena of Daksha after Shiva’s wife (Sati) voluntarily gave up her life upon being insulted by her father, Daksha.

Between 700 and 1000 CE there lived sixty-three Nayanmars (singer-saints) whose poems are still recited today. Thereafter, Shaivism became the prominent religion of India, particularly in the South. The rulers of many major kingdoms became Shaivites and patronised its representatives. Magnificent temples were built in Shiva’s honour and many impressive sculptures were inspired by him. Shiva is mentioned in the four Vedas, and particularly the Svetashvatara Upanishad, the Shaivite equivalent to the Vaishnava Bhagavad-gita. There are numerous references to Shiva in the epics and Puranas. Most Shaivite theology though, derives from later scriptures, particularly the Agamas.There are five main traditions, shown below.

Main Writings

  • Svetashvatara Upanishad
  • Shiva Purana
  • The Agamas
  • Tiru-murai (poems)

Important Places

  • Benares
  • Kedarnath
  • Somnath
  • Rameshvaram
  • Chidambaram
  • Amarnath

Important Stories

  • Shiva drinks poison
  • Shiva destroys the three cities of the demons
  • Killing Andhaka and other demons
  • Daksha’s sacrifice

The Main Traditions


Perhaps the oldest school within Shaivism. The school of Shaiva Siddhanta (below) is a continuation of this tradition.

Shaiva Siddhanta

Followed by many intellectuals. It has a personal doctrine, stressing the plurality of souls (as opposed to the advaita idea that all souls and God are ultimately one).

Kashmiri Shaivism

Almost defunct today. Its most prolific writer is Abhinavagupta (c. 960 – 1020). The goal of this movement is to “become Shiva “and regain one’s universal nature. It is also called Shiva-advaita.

Virashaivism (the Lingayats)

Closely associated with the twelfth-century reformer, Basava. It opposed caste differences. Followers wear a small Shiva-linga round the neck.The present community is centred round Karnataka.

Shaiva Asceticism

Shaiva has long been connected with rigorous asceticism. Well known are the naked Nagas. Many yogis are Shaivites. Prominent are the Nathapatnis, followers of Gorakhnatha, and the Aghori who deliberately contravene moral norms.