The Rise and Decline of Shaivism in Ancient India

With the collapse of the Gupta Empire, Saivism became the dominant religion of India. 

Manish Maheshwari
| 12 min read
June 07, 2021
shiva, tantric shaivism
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Not many people are aware that, between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, Śaivism—or Śiva Dharma—was the most dominant religious tradition within Hinduism. During this period, most of the Indian kings were Śaiva and patronized Śaiva institutions. For much of this time, Śaivism was also the dominant religion in most of south-east Asia, most notably in the Champa Kingdom of Vietnam and the Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia. Such was the dominance of Śaivism that even Mahāyana Buddhism modelled itself exclusively on the lines of Tantric/Agamic Śaivism, and transformed itself into a Tantric tradition called Vajrayāna. Jainism and Vaiṣṇavism also adopted and adapted Śaiva ritual techniques to their own tradition. This period of Śaiva dominance is also called the ‘Śaiva Age.’1 The vast corpus of Śaiva texts composed during this period and the dizzying variety of Śaivism practiced have now been all but forgotten (except in western academia, where a massive effort is being made to research and understand the phenomenon of Śaivism during that period).

Interestingly, the rise of Śaivism coincided with the collapse of the Gupta Dynasty, though we cannot be sure if there is any connection between the two historical developments. Śaivism, during the age of the Guptas, was already a very popular religion among the masses, though the Gupta emperors themselves were followers of the Vaiṣṇava religion, calling themselves the bhāgavatas. In what follows, rather than delve into the details of the fascinating ‘Śaiva Age’—which will require multiple essays—we will trace the rise of Śaiva tradition from its textual and epigraphic emergence before the common era to its great flowering in the fifth century onwards, especially the transition from Vaiṣṇavism to Śaivism during those crucial decades of late fifth and early sixth century.

Before discussing the origins of Śaivism, it must be noted that while Śiva is eternal, its worship began at some finite period of time. By ‘origins of Śaivism’, we simply mean the point at which we find the first evidence in archaeological and textual sources for the worship of Śiva. This in no way implies that the worship of Śiva emerged only when we have surviving material evidence of it. This distinction is often overlooked.

Early Śaivism

Any discussion on the origins of Śaivism begins with the discovery of the pre-Vedic seal, also called ‘proto-Śiva’. The iconography of the Indus Valley’s proto-Śiva and the iconography of Śiva that emerged a few thousand years later is remarkably similar. This has led to a lot of conjecture of Śiva being a non-Vedic God—be that as it may, our first concrete evidence of Śiva in the Vedic literature emerges in that famous hymn to Rudra in the Yajur Veda, also called Śatarudriya. However, there is no agreement that this Vedic Rudra-Śiva is the same as the Śiva which emerged in the archaeological and epigraphical sources at the turn of the common era. Despite this controversy, it is universally accepted that the Śatarudriya was one of the most important hymns of Śaivism from the very beginning of the Śaiva textual corpus. 

shiva, pashupati, indus valley Indus Valley Seal - Proto Shiva (Source: Wikipedia)

According to scholars, the first clear-cut textual evidence of Śiva worship is found in Patañjali’s, Mahābhāṣya, a monumental text of Sanskrit grammar written around 2nd century BCE.2 Patañjali speaks of a group of people who venerate Śiva as the lord (śivabhāgavataḥ). There is also a reference to small images of deities such as Śiva and Skanda sold to the householders. This evidence suggests a group of people in about 200 BCE, with a Śaiva identity conspicuous enough that they were identified as worshippers of Śiva. 

The earliest epigraphical evidence for the worship of Śiva is found in the Swat Valley region, datable to around 65 CE. It records that one Moïka, son of Urumuja, had a śivasthalam (a place for the worship of Śiva) made there.3 Notice that the names of Śiva worshippers are Iranian, rather than Indian, implying that at the turn of the common era Śiva was also worshipped by people of Persian origin. The next fragmentary evidence, from a few decades later, is found in Dharwad, Karnataka, on a stone inscription which records a donation to a Śiva temple of Caṇḍaśivamahādeva during the time of a Sātavāhana king, Śrī Puḷumāvi (III). There is further evidence during the 3rd century of a land grant to a Śiva temple in Andhra Pradesh. During this period, there are many archaeological remains of chaturmukhaliṅga (four-faced Śiva) found in northern India.4

The epigraphic evidence is indeed sparse before the 3rd century. However, Alexis Sanderson states that despite the lack of material evidence for the worship of Śiva between the Maurya and the Gupta period, the worship of Śiva was common and widespread across the entire Indian sub-continent. This can be demonstrated by the proliferation of names related to Śiva—Śivadatta, Śivadāsa, Śivadhara, Śivarakṣita—in the donative inscriptions found across India from the 2nd century BCE onward.5 Śiva is also mentioned in Jain and Buddhist texts of that period. From the early common era, there is also evidence of a flourishing temple tradition related to Śaivism which later became associated with the Pāśupatas. From the 4th century onwards, epigraphic, archaeological, and textual evidence for the worship of Śiva is found in abundance.

The Dominance of Śaivism from the late 5th century

Based on the above, we can say that Śaivism’s rise to being the predominant religion of India from the 5th century onwards was built on the widespread tradition of Śaiva worship dating back to before the common era. But how can Śaivism’s ascendency be reconciled with the fact that the Guptas, who were the predominant power in Northern India between the 4th-5th century, were all followers of the Vaiṣṇava faith? The answer lies in the monumental political development taking place in northern India at the end of the 5th century. Hans Bakker describes the fifty years 484-534 CE as a period that changed Bhāratavarṣha.6 Nothing similar would happen to Bhāratavarṣha till the Islamic onslaught of the 12th century, which eventually led to the collapse of Śaivism.

During this fifty-year period, India faced repeated attacks from the Huna kingdom, which had already established itself in northwest India. The mighty Gupta empire which had ruled northern India for two hundred years, weakened by their wars with the Hunas, finally collapsed in 510 CE when the Huna King, Toramāṇa, defeated the Gupta king Bhānugupta in the battle of Eran. Northern India lay in ruins, its most important cities, such as Kaushambhi, completely sacked by Toramāṇa. After incessant warfare over the next few decades, the Hunas were finally chased out of India by the confederacy of post-Gupta kingdoms, led by Aulikara kings of Daśapura. The defeat of Huna king Mihirkula in 534 CE marked the end of Huna incursions into India.

mandsaur victory pillar, gupta, huna Mandasor Pillar built after the victory over the Huns (Source: Wikipedia)

With the fall of the Gupta empire, the state religion of the Guptas, Vaiṣṇavism, received a great setback, as patronage and devotion to Vaiṣṇavism dried up. However, during this period, something remarkable happened that changed the religious landscape of the country. The post-Gupta kingdoms of Northern India—Aulikara kingdom of Daśapura, Maukhari kingdom of Kanyakubja, Maitrakas of Valabhī, the Kalacuris of Māhiṣmatī, the Vardhanas of Sthāneśvara, etc.—all became followers of Śaivism.7 It is during this period that Śaivism eclipsed Vaiṣṇavism as the dominant religion of Bhāratavarṣa. Even the Huna King Mihirkula, who finally lost to the post-Gupta kingdoms, had converted to Śaivism. Here is an inscription from that time that states his Śaiva affiliation. 

[Toramāṇa], who had raised his family to fame, had a son of unequaled prowess, a lord of the earth (patiḥ pṛthvyāḥ), whose name was Mihirakula, and who, (though) unbent, [was bending to] Paśupati.8

The conversion of all the successor dynasties of the Guptas during these important years of Indian history is still an enigma. Scholars have posited multiple theories, but they remain conjectural. We may never know the complete religious history of this period, unless more material evidence comes to light. Be that as it may, we must be careful that by using the term ‘dominance of Śaivism’ we imply that all the kings considered Śiva as the foremost among the gods, and that Śaiva institutions received the most state patronage. It does not mean that Vaiṣṇavism or other religious traditions collapsed or stopped receiving patronage. The Śaiva kings also gave grants to the Vaiṣṇava temples (though nothing comparable to Śaiva grants), and there were also multiple Vaiṣṇava kingdoms during this period (the Sena Kingdom of Bengal, the Gādahavāla of Varanasi etc.). If this were not the case, Vaiṣṇavism would not have been able to establish prominence again, as it did some eight hundred years later. 

Conclusion

The Islamic invasion in the 12th century led to the collapse of Hindu kingship in northern India and, with that, Śaivism ceased to be the dominant religion (especially the Śaivism as prescribed in the Śaiva Āgamas). Scholars usually talk of the destruction of Buddhism due to Islamic invasion, but Śaivism also suffered a similar fate (as did the Saura religion, connected with the worship of the sun, although scholarship on the history of the Saura religion is still in its infancy). The destruction of Śaiva temples, maṭhas, vast troves of manuscripts and, more significantly, the complete collapse of state patronage in Northern India resulted in a permanent contraction of Śaivism. Śaiva rituals only survived in a diminished form in Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, and Nepal, though certain forms of Śaiva asceticism, such as Haṭha yoga of the Nātha, did gain prominence during the later period. When Islam became politically dominant in the North, Bhakti-inflected Vaiṣṇavism would become the most dominant religious tradition—but that is a topic for another essay!  

Manish Maheshwari is the curator and editor of Tattva. He can be contacted at manish@tattvamag.org. He tweets at @manish_tattva

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