The Meaning and Significance of Pāshupata


Shiva Riding Nandi

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay describes the etymology, meaning and significance of the concept of Pashupata in Sanskrit with a brief note on Pashupata Shaivism.

Pashupatha Etymology

The word Pāshupata (also spelled as Pāshupatha or Pasupata) is derived from the word Pashupati (or Pasupathi), which is a popular epithet of Lord Shiva, meaning the lord of the animals or the lord of all living beings (jivas). In Saivism, all are considered animals only, including humans, until they achieve liberation. Shiva is the husband (pati) or the Lord (Isvara) of all creation. Hence, he is called Pashupati.

He is also the lord of the animal nature in us, which is a direct consequence of Tamas, one of the triple gunas, which he personifies. The sacred bull Nandi, which is his vehicle (Vahana) personifies the animal (Pasu or Pashu) or the animal nature (especially lust or virility), and he rides upon it as its lord.

Because of his power over our sexual nature and animal tendencies, celibate ascetics are advised to worship Shiva to gain control over their desires and lustful thoughts, and anyone who has trouble with his or her emotions, cruel nature, inertia, anger, envy, evil thoughts and demonic behavior.

Pāsa, the bonds

Pashupata means the path that leads to Pashupati, or to the tranquil, omniscient state of Pashupati or the union (yoga) with Pashupati. The word is traditionally pronounced as paashupata. It is a combination of two words, pāsa and patha. Pasa means a rope, chain, or fetter. Symbolically, it represents the bonds or the attachments which beings form upon earth with material things due to desires and delusion.

Pasa also means a snare or a trap. In the imagery of Shaivism, it refers to the snare or the trap set by Shiva, the Lord of the universe, to ensnare beings by casting upon them the net of delusion. Hence, Shiva is also known as Mayavi, the magician.

Pāsa, the noose

Pasa has another meaning, the noose, which is used as a weapon by a few Hindu divinities such as Lord Ganesha, Varuna and Yama. In this context, Pashupata means the weapon which causes the destruction (pathana) of pasas, meaning desires and attachments and liberates them from the snare of ignorance and delusion. When the bonds are cut (cheda), by practising the Pashupata Vrata according to the prescribed procedure (vidhi), one achieves liberation or oneness with Rudra (Rudra Sayujya).

Pashu, the animal

Pashupatha also refers to the doctrine by which beings in the animal state (pashu) escape from the cycle of births and deaths and become one with Shiva. Considering that Lord Shiva is known as Pashupathi, Pāshupata also means the path of the animals by which they attain him.

As stated before, in Shaivism all living beings are called pashus, or the embodied souls (jivas) who are caught in the cycle of births and deaths and subject to the triple impurities of egoism, attachments and delusion. Pāshupata is the path by which these beings (pasus) become liberated. Pasu is derived from pasa only. Pasa or pasana means the beings that are bound (pasa) to cause and effect and to the cycle of births and deaths. Upasana is the spiritual practice in many traditions by which the pasanas or pasas are weakened. Dependence, cause and effect and bondage denote Pasutva or the animal nature. Since cause and effect are bound to Kala (time) all the beings are subject to birth and death.

Each being is a combination of a pashu (the body or Nature) and the pati (the soul or Shiva). In this context, Pāshupatha means the path or the doctrine which causes the destruction (patana) of the animal (pasu or the body) in the beings and leads to the liberation of Pati (the soul) who is caught in the Samsara (the cycle of births and deaths). As the lord of the animals, Lord Shiva presides over this process, functioning both as the subject and object, and so also as the teacher (guru), husband (pati) and liberator (Isvara).


Pāshupata also refers to the weapon by the same name (pāsupathastram), which is a weapon of mass destruction. It was obtained by Arjuna at the advice of Lord Krishna by observing a severe penance (Pāshupata Vrata) and propitiating Lord Shiva on the hill of Indra Kiladri, which according to some accounts is located on the banks of the River Krishna, at Vijayawada.

Pāshupata Shaivism

The word Pashupata is more popularly associated with Pashupata Saivism, which is one of the most ancient, ascetic sects of Hinduism and Shaivism. At one time, it rivaled both Buddhism and Jainism in popularity.

According to the available sources it was either founded or systematized by Lakulisa (or Nakulisa) in the early Christian era. His time is uncertain. Scholars suggest that based upon the circumstantial evidence, he might have lived sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD. The Puranas describe him as a manifestation of Shiva himself in the body of a Brahmana. According to legends, Shiva entered the body of a dead Brahmana and manifested in the form of Lakulisa to help his followers with the knowledge of liberation.

Lakulisa had four disciples. They spread his teachings and set in motion a long line of teachers and teacher traditions, spanning several centuries. Both Shankaracharya and Abhinavaguta were conversant with his teaching. The teachings of Lakulisa are partly preserved in the Pasupata Sutra and in a few Upanishads and commentaries or expositions on it by Kaundinya, Madhavacharya and Haradattacharya.

Pashupatha Saivism has aspects of devotional theism, classical Yoga, ritual worship and extreme left-hand methods (vama marga) of Tantra for self-control and purification. Followers of the sect believed in rebirth, but considered karma secondary to the will and grace of Shiva. Unlike the followers of Vedic religion, the Pashupathas aimed nearness to Shiva (samipya) or union with him (sayujya) rather than a temporary or permanent stay in an ancestral heaven or eternal heaven.

Pashupata school identifies five basic realities (pancharthas) namely the effect (karya), the primal cause (karana), the spiritual means to attain union with Shiva (yoga), observances and ritual practices (vidhi), and the end of suffering (dukhanta).

The principal means of salvation is the Pashupatha Vrata, which was practiced in four stages until the aspirant overcame his weaknesses and imperfection and became an adept. The adjuncts to it were eight Ganas or sets of practices, each Gana having five focus areas. They aided the aspirants in their purification and liberation. In many ways, the four successive phases of the Pashupatha Vrata represent sub stages in the Fourth Ashrama (Sanyasa) of the Vedic Varnashrama Dharma, starting with initiation and ending with the final departure.

The sect was very popular in ancient and medieval India but is presently extinct. During his travels in India in the seventh century, Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, encountered thousands of Pasupatas both in the North and the South. Although it is currently extinct, its importance lies in the fact that its beliefs and practices found their way into several other sects of Saivism, especially those which fall under the atimarga (extreme) Saiva traditions.

For more comprehensive information on the sect, please check this link.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page