Shaivism Sects

Shiva as Samhara Murthy

by Jayaram V

Technically, Shaivism qualifies as a religion in itself. It has its own appeal, distinct philosophies, beliefs, practices, pantheon and traditions that date back to thousands of years. Shaivism played an important role in the continuation of Hinduism. Its beliefs, philosophy and practices enriched Hinduism and contributed to its success against Jainism and Buddhism. Much of the Hindu tantric and ascetic practices are rooted in the ancient Saiva practices.

Although neither Shaivism nor Shiva figure prominently in the ancient and early Vedic hymns and Upanishads, Shaivism became an important and integral part of Vedic religions during the eastward and southward expansion of Vedic communities in ancient India. Currently, Shaivism has four major sects. Each of them has a long history of its own and contain elements of both Vedic and tantric beliefs and practices. Each of the sect has a distinctive character, following and philosophy of its own.

All the schools hold Shiva as the highest Supreme Brahman, who manifests the entire diversity in creation and holds beings bound to the mortal world by casting upon them the net of delusion or Maya. The four major schools or sub-sects of Shaivism are: Saiva Siddhanta, Vira Shaivism, Kashimiri Shaivism, and Gorakhnath Shaivism. In addition, we may also include Pasupatha Shaivism, which is a very ancient and esoteric sub-sect of Shaivism, and enjoys a very limited but dedicated set of followers.

Saiva Siddhanta

This school is popular mainly in southern India and derives its doctrine from the 28 Saiva Agamas and the works of several Saiva saints and philosophers from the South. The most prominent among them was Nambi Andar Nambi, who composed Tirumurai, which is considered the foundational work of the school. It includes the works of several other saints, such as Appar, Sundarar and Sambandhar. According to the school, Shiva is the highest reality. A living being (jiva) has the same essence as of Shiva, although a jiva is not identical to him. Creation is made up of 36 tattvas. Reality consists of Shiva, and innumerable jivas or individual souls, who are bound by desires and attachments (pasas) to the cycle of deaths and births. The existence of the world and beings is not an illusion but a reality.

Shiva is both the efficient and the material cause of creation. He manifests the world through Sakti or Prakriti, the real material cause of the universe. In his dynamic aspect he performs five functions of creation, preservation, destruction, concealment and liberation. All living beings are subject to delusion or Maya, which is of different types. When beings achieve liberation by overcoming their delusion, they become free from the cycle of births and deaths. The souls are innumerable. They are either free or bound to one or more impurities. Among the bound souls some remain forever bound. Liberation is achieved by four means: devotional worship (carya), devotional service (kriya), the practice of yoga (yoga), and liberating knowledge (jnana). The first three are preparatory for the fourth, which is considered the highest. After liberation, souls attain purity and supreme consciousness, but retain their individuality and some distinction from the Supreme Being, Shiva.

Vira Shaivism

Vira Shaivism rose to prominence during the medieval period in Karnataka and the adjoining areas of Andhrapradesh and Tamilnadu. Vira Shaivism derives its name from the heroic nature of Shiva Himself in his ferocious aspect as Virabhadra. The sect is also known as Lingayata sect, since its followers wear a Shivalinga around their necks or on their bodies. The sect was made popular by Basavanna in the Karnataka region in the 12th century C.E. According to this sect, God and the individual souls are aspects of the same reality. Individual souls make up the body of God, held together by the power of Shakti, while God is its Soul. Shiva is the efficient cause of creation. He remains constant and immutable in creation, while Shakti evoles and transforms into the phenomenal world. Each individual soul has the same essence as that of Shiva and is an aspect (amsa) of Shiva. However, it is somewhat similar but not the same as Shiva. It is also subject to the impurities of egoism, attachment and delusion. When they are overcome, the individual soul regains its blissful nature and experiences its oneness with the subtle body (linga sarira) which in essence is the same as that of Shiva. The concepts figure prominently in Vira Shaivism, namely Guru, Jangama and Linga. The guru is the spiritual teacher, a Jangama is a self-realized soul, higher than guru, and Linga is none other than Para Shiva. Those who aspire for liberation should acknowledge these three entities and observe eight rules (astavarana) of virtuous conduct, which help them in their purification and transformation and their final union with Shiva.

Kashmiri Shaivism

While the previous two schools acknowledge some distinction (bheda) between Shiva and the individual souls, Kashimiri Shaivism consider Shiva the only reality and everything else a mere illusion. The entire creation including the individual souls are a projection of Siva. At the end of creation they are withdrawn and only Shiva, the ultimate reality, remains. Kashmiri Shaivism derives its name from the region of Kashmir where it gained prominence initially before the arrival of Islam in India. It is also known by other names such Trkia, Spanda and Pratyabhijna. Trika refers to the triple principles, Pati (Shiva), Pasu (jivas) and Pasa (bondage) of existence. Spanda refers to the causative, responsive and transformative aspect of life whereby beings learn to adapt to the phenomenal world and act according to their desires and delusion which results in their bondage. Pratyabhijna is the distinct awareness, or the remembrance which arises in the souls at the time of their liberation regarding their Shiva nature or their oneness with Shiva. According to this schoo, Shiva is the ultimate reality. There is nothing beyond. He is everything, both the material and efficient cause. The whold diversity is either a reflection or projection or appearance of Shiva only in the qualities of Nature. He manifests it through his shakti, which becomes fivefold in the process of creation, namely the mind power (cit-shakti), the bliss power (ananda-shakti), the will power (iccha-shakti), the knowledge power (jnana-shakti) and the active power (kriya-shakti). Using these five powers, Shiva manifests in the world in innumerable forms and shapes as both objects and beings. Although the individual souls are the same as Shiva, since they are subject to the triple impurities of egoism, attachment and delusion, they forget their true Shiva nature. Through liberation (moksha) they regain their awareness and return to their original state of omniscience, perfection and absolute purity.

Gorakhnath Shaivism

This sect is also known as Natha Shaivism or Gorakshanatha Shaivism. It rose to prominence during the 12th and 13th centuries in some parts of northern India. It is a predominantly ascetic sect. Its members practice austerities, tantra, and hathayoga, and subject their minds and bodies to rigorous discipline, often torturing themselves with extreme practices to transcend their attachment to names and forms and stabilize their minds in the contemplation of Shiva. The sect derives its name for the nine or twelve legendary teachers called Naths or lords. Followers of the sect believe that these teachers are still alive in the physical plane and keep a watch on the spiritual transformation of the world. The most prominent teacher of this sect is Goraknath, who lived in the 12th century C.E. He also figures in the Buddhist tantric lineages. He is credited with a number of compositions and tantric practices. He was also known to possess several magical and spiritual powers, including the ability to arrest aging and transcend physical death and decay. Members of this sect smear their bodies with the ash collected from graveyards and practice several tantric rituals to train their minds and bodies. The practice alchemy, magical rituals, kundalini yoga to awaken chakras and offensive public behavior to invoke public censure and overcome their pride. They also use herbs and chemicals to induced trance and prepare the mind to enter altered states of consciousness. However, they avoid the use of sex and contact with women. Like Kashimiri Shaivism, this sect also believes in the non-duality of existence and sees no distinction between Shiva and the individual souls.

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