Vīra Śaivism: History and Literature

Vīra Śaivism
Qualified Monism
Bhakti to Śiva in form of Liṅgam,
Equality, Personal Worship
1105 CE in Bijapur district,
Karṇāṭaka, India
1167 CE Kudalasangama,
Karṇāṭaka, India
Famous in:
Philosophy, Religion, Social Reforms,
Śaiva Nayanars
7-11th century
Personal Devotion to Śiva,
refuted ritualism,
Equality of Castes & Women
Works About Vīra Śaivism:
1. Vīra Śaivism
2. Vīra Śaivism: History and Literature

History and Literature of Vīra Śaivism.

The name “Vīra śaiva” as applied to a particular Śaiva sect appears to be of a late date.

Mādhava in his Sarva-darśana-saṁgraha of the 14th century A.D., who mentions the Pāśupatas and the Āgamic Śaivas, does not seem to know anything about the Vīra- śaivas.

Śankara and Vācaspati and Ānandagiri of the eighth and the ninth centuries do not seem to know anything of the Vīra- śaivas. Neither are they alluded to in any of the Śivāgamas.

The Vātula-tantra seems to have two editions (in manuscript), and in one of them the ṣaṭ-sthala doctrine is mentioned in the form of an appendix, which shows that this introduction was of the nature of an apocryphal.

The doctrine of linga-dhāraṇa in the manner in which it is done by the Liṅgāyats of the Vīra-śaivas can hardly be traced in any early works, though later Vīra-śaiva writers like Śrīpati and others have twisted some of the older texts which allude to linga to mean the specific practices of linga-dhāraṇa as done by the Liṅgāyats.

There is a general tradition that Basava, a Brahmin, son of Mādirāja and Mādāmba was the founder of the Vīra-śaiva sect.

From his native place Bāgevaḍi, he went to Kalyan near Bombay, at a comparatively young age, when Vijjala was reigning there as king (A.D.1157-67).

His maternal uncle Baladeva having resigned on account of illness, Basava was appointed as the minister in complete charge of Vijjala’s treasury and other administrative functions.

According to another tradition Basava succeeded in deciphering an inscription which disclosed some hidden treasure, and at this, King Vijjala was so pleased that he gave Basava the office of prime minister.

According to the Basava-Purāṇa, which narrates the life of Basava in a mythical Purāṇic manner, Basava, on assuming the office, began to distribute gifts to all those who professed themselves to be the devotees of Śiva.

This led to much confusion and heart-burning among the other sects, and it so happened that King Vijjala cruelly punished two of the devotees of Śiva. At this, by the instigation of Basava, one of his followers murdered Vijjala.

Bhandarkar gives some other details, which the present writer has not been able to trace in the Basava-Purāṇa (the source, according to Bhandarkar himself).

The Basava-Purāṇa was written after the time of Śrīpati Pandita.

It is said there that at one time Nārada reported to Śiva that, while other religions were flourishing, the Śaiva faith was with few exceptions dying out among the Brahmins, and so it was decaying among other castes also.

Lord Śiva then asked Nandi to get himself incarnated for taking the Vīra-śaiva faith in consonance with the Varṇāśrama rites.

If this remark is of any value, it has to be admitted that even after the time of Śrīpati Pandita the Vīra- śaiva faith had not assumed any importance in the Carnatic region.

It also indicates that the Vīra-śaiva faith at this time was not intended to be preached in opposition to the Hindu system of castes and caste duties.

The rich
will make temples for Śiva,
What shall I,
a poor man do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola of gold.

O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

—Basavanna 820

Basava Monument

Basava Monument in Central London

It has been contended that Basava introduced social reforms for the removal of castes and caste duties and some other Hindu customs. But this claim cannot be substantiated, as, in most of the Vīra-śaiva works, we find a loyalty to the Hindu caste order.

There is, of course, a tendency to create a brotherhood among the followers of Śiva who grouped round Basava, as he was both politically and financially a patron of the followers of Śiva.

The Basava-Purāṇa also says that Basava was taken before the assembly of pandits for the performance of the rite of initiation of the holy thread at the age of eight, according to the custom of compulsory initiation among the Brahmins.

Basava, however, at that early age protested against the rite of initiation, on the grounds that the holy thread could purify neither the soul nor body, and that there were many instances in the purāṇic accounts where saints of the highest reputation had not taken the holy thread.

We find no account of Basava as preaching a crusade against Hindu customs and manners, or against Brahmanism as such.

Basava’s own writings are in Canarese, in the form of sayings or aphorisms, such as is common among the devotees of other sects of Śaivism, Vaiṣṇavism, etc.

It can be said that they contain a rapturous enthusiasm for the God Śiva, who to Basava appeared as the Lord Kudala Sagama. These sayings referred to Śiva as the supreme Lord, and to Basava himself as his servant or slave.

They also contain here and there some biographical allusions which cannot be reconstructed satisfactorily without the help of other contemporary evidence.

So far as can be judged from the sayings of Basava, it is not possible to give any definite account of Vīra-śaiva thought as having been propounded or systematised by Basava.

According to Basava-Purāṇa, the practice of linga- dhāraṇa seems to have been in vogue even before Basava.

Basava himself does not say anything about the doctrine of ṣaṭ-sthala, and these two are the indispensably necessary items by which Vīra- Śaivism can be sharply distinguished from the other forms of Śaivism, apart from its philosophical peculiarity.

On this also Basava does not seem to indicate any definite line of thought which could be systematised without supplementing it or reconstructing it by the ideas of later Vīra-śaiva writers.

Though the kernel of the Vīra-śaiva philosophy may be traced back to the early centuries of the Christian era, and though we find it current in works like Sūta-samhitā of the sixth century A.D., yet we do not know how the name Vīra-śaiva came to be given to this type of thought.

In the work Siddhānta- śikhāmai, written by Revaṇācārya some time between Basava and Śrīpati, we find the name “Vīra-śaiva “ associated with the doctrine of sthala, and this is probably the earliest use of the term in available literature.

Siddhānta- śikhāmaṇi refers to Basava and is itself referred to by Śrīpati. This shows that the book must have been written between the dates of Basava and Śrīpati.

The Siddhānta śikhāmaṇi gives a fanciful interpretation of the word, ‘Vīra’ as being composed of ‘vi’ meaning knowledge of identity with Brahman, and ‘ra’ as meaning someone who takes pleasure in such knowledge.

But such an etymology, accepting it to be correct, would give the form ‘Vira’ and not ‘Vīra.’ No explanation is given as to how ‘vi’ standing for ‘vidyā,’ would lengthen its vowel into ‘vī.’

Therefore it is difficult to accept this etymological interpretation as justifying the application of the word ‘Vira’ to Vīra-śaiva.

Moreover, most systems of Vedāntic thought could be called Vīra in such an inter­pretation, for most types of Vedanta would feel enjoyment and bliss in true knowledge of identity.

The word “Vīra” would thus not be a distinctive mark by which we could distinguish Vīra-śaivas from the adherents of other religions. Most of the Āgamic Śaivas also would believe in the ultimate identity of individuals with Brahman or Śiva.

Therefore we can imagine that Vīra-śaivas were called Vīras or heroes for their heroic attitude in an aggressive or defensive manner in support of their faith.

We have at least two instances of religious persecution in the Śaiva context. Thus the Chola King Koluttunga I, a Śaiva, put out the eyes of Mahāpūrṇa and Kureśa, the Vaiṣṇava disciples of Rāmānuja, who refused to be converted to Śaivism.

The same sort of story comes in the life of Basava where the eyes of two of his disciples were put out by Vijjala, and Vijjala got himself murdered by Basava’s followers.

These are but few instances where violence was resorted to for the spread of any religion, or as actions of religious vengeance.

We can suppose that the militant attitude of some Śaivas, who defied the caste rules and customs and were enthu­siasts for the Śaiva faith, gave them the name of Vīra-śaiva or Heroic Śaiva.

Even the Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi refers to the view of Basava that those who decried Śiva should be killed. Such a militant attitude in the cause of religion is rarely to be found in the case of other religions or religious sects.

In the above context Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi points out in the ninth chapter that, though Vīra-śaivas are prohibited from partaking in the offerings made to a fixed phallic symbol sthāvara-liga, yet if there is a threat to destroy or disturb such a symbol, a Vīra-śaiva should risk his life in preventing the aggression by violent means.

So far our examination has not proved very fruitful in dis­covering the actual contribution to Vīra-śaiva philosophy or thought, or even the practice of a-sthala and linga-dhāraṇa, made by Basava.

He must have imparted a good deal of emotional enthusiasm to inspire the Śaivas of different types who came into contact with him, either through religious fervour or for his financial and other kinds of patronage.

It seems from the Basava- Purāṇa that his financial assistance to the devotees of Śiva was of rather an indiscriminate character. His money was poured on all Śaivas like showers of rain.

This probably made him the most powerful patron of the Śaivas of that time, with the choicest of whom he founded a learned assembly where religious problems were discussed in a living manner, and he himself presided over the meetings.

It is considered that the kernel of Vīra-śaiva thought is almost as early as the Upaniṣads, and it may be found in a more or less systematic manner by way of suggestion in the writings of Kālidāsa who lived in the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Sūta samhitā, a part of the Skanda-Purāṇa, seems to teach a philosophy which may be interpreted as being of the same type as the Vīra-śaiva philosophy propounded by Śrīpati, though the commentator interprets it in accordance with the philosophy of Śankara.

The Sūta samhitā gives a high place to the Āgama literature such as the Kāmika, and others, which shows that it was closely related with the Āgamic Śaivism.

But it is difficult to say at what time the Vīra-śaiva sect was formed and when it had this special designation.

Vīra-Śaivism differs from the Āgamic Śaivism and the Pāśupata system in its philosophy and its doctrine of sthala, the special kind of linga- dhāraṇa and also in some other ritualistic matters which are not quite relevant for treatment in a work like the present one.

It is unfortunate that Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi, a work probably of the thirteenth century, should contain the earliest reference to Vīra- Śaivism in literature.

A small manuscript called Vīra-śaiva-guru- paramparā gives the names of the following teachers in order of priority:

(1) Viśveśvara-guru, (2) Ekorāma, (3) Vīreśārādhya, (4) Vīra-bhadra, (5) Vīraṇārādhya, (6) Māṇikyārādhya, (7) Buccay-yārādhya, (8) Vīra-malleśvarārādhya, (9) Deśikāradhya, (10) Vṛṣabha, (11) Akṣaka and (12) Mukha-liṅgeśvara.

In the Vīra- śaivāgama, eighth paala, it is said that in the four pīṭhas or pontifical seats, namely yoga-pīṭha, mahā-pīṭha, jñāna-pīṭha and soma-pīṭha, there were four teachers of different priority: Revaṇa, Manila, Vāmadeva, and Paṇḍitārādhya.

These names are of a mythical nature, as they are said to be referred to in the different Vedas.

But the names that we have quoted above from the Vīra- śaiva-guru-paramparā form a succession list of teachers up to the time of the teacher of the author of the manuscript.

On studying the succession list of teachers, we find that we know nothing of them either by allusion or by any text ascribed to them, excepting Vīra-bhadra, who has been referred to in the Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi.

We cannot say how much earlier Vīra-bhadra was than the author of the Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi. But since Vīra-bhadra is mentioned along with Basava in the same context, we may suppose that this Vīra-bhadra could not have been much earlier than Basava.

So if we are safe in supposing that Vīra-bhadra lived somewhere in the twelfth century, we have only to compute the time of the three Ācāryas who lived before Vīra-bhadra.

According to ordinary methods of computation we can put a hundred years for the teaching period of the three teachers. This would mean that Vīra- Śaivism as a sect started in the eleventh century.

It is possible that these teachers wrote or preached in the Dravidian tongue which could be understood by the people among whom they preached. This would explain why no Sanskrit books are found ascribed to them.

Basava was probably one of the most intelligent and emotional thinkers, who expressed his effusions in the Kāunāḍa language.

But about our specification of the succession list of Vīra-śaiva teachers much remains yet to be said. It does not explain any­thing about the other lines of teachers, of whom we hear from stray allusions:

Thus we hear of Agastya as being the first pro­pounder of the Śaiva faith.

We find also that one Reukācārya wrote the work Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi based upon the verdict of other Vīra-śaiva works and giving us the purport of the mythical dialogue that took place between Reṇuka-siddha and Agastya some time in the past.

The Reṇuka-siddha was also called Revaṇa- siddha, and it is supposed that he expounded the Vīra-śaiva Śāstra to Agastya in the beginning of the Kali age.

We find at a much later date one Siddha-rāmeśvara, who was impregnated with the doctrine of Vīra-Śaivism;

it is in his school of thought that we have a person called Śiva-yogīśvara, who gives us the supposed purport of the dialogue between Raṇuka and Agastya, as it had traditionally come down to him, supplementing it with the teachings of other relevant literature.

In the family of Siddha- rāmeśvara there was born one Mudda-deva, a great teacher. He had a son called Siddha-nātha, who wrote a work called Śiva- siddhānta-niraya containing the purport of the Āgamas.

The other teachers of the time regarded him as the most prominent of the Vīra-śaiva teachers (Vīra-śaiva-śikhā-ratna) and Reṇukācārya, who called himself also Śiva-yogin, wrote the work, Siddhānta- śikhāmaṇi.

We thus see that there was a long list of Vīra-śaiva teachers before Reṇukācārya, who probably lived somewhere in the thirteenth century.

Even if we do not take this into account, Reṇukācārya, the author of Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi says that he had written the work for the elucidation of the nature of Śiva by consulting the Śaiva Tantras beginning from the Kāmikāgama to the Vātulāgama and also the Purāṇas.

He further says that the Vīra-śaiva Tantra is the last of the Śaiva Tantras and therefore it is the essence of them all.

But what is exactly the content of the Vīra-śaiva philosophy as explained in the Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi?

It is said that Brahman is the identity of ‘being,’ ‘bliss’ and ‘consciousness,’ and devoid of any form or differentiation.

It is limitless and beyond all ways of knowledge. It is self-luminous and absolutely without any obstruction of knowledge, passion or power.

It is in Him that the whole world of the conscious and the unconscious remains, in a potential form untraceable by any of our senses, and it is from Him that the whole world becomes expressed or manifest of itself, with­out the operation of any other instrument.

It implies that when it so pleases God, He expands Himself out of His own joy, and there­by the world appears, just as solid butter expands itself into its liquid state.

The qualities of Śiva are of a transcendent nature (aprākta). The character of being, consciousness and bliss is power (śakti).

It is curious, however, to note that side by side with this purely ultra-monistic and impersonal view we find God Śiva as being endowed with will by which He creates and destroys the world.

As we shall have occasion to notice later on, the whole doctrine of ṣaṭ-sthala, which forms the crux of Vīra-śaiva thought, is only an emphasis on the necessity on the part of every individual to look upon him and the world as being sustained in God and being completely identified with God.

There are, indeed, many phrases which suggest a sort of bhedābheda view, but this bhedābheda or difference in unity is not of the nature of the tree and its flowers and fruits, as such a view will suggest a modification or trans­formation of the nature of Śiva.

The idea of bhedābheda is to be interpreted with the notion that God, who is transcendent, appears also in the form of the objects that we perceive and also of the nature of our own selves.

The Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi was based on the Āgamas and there­fore had the oscillating nature of philosophical outlook as we find in the different Āgamas.

Thus in Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi, ch. v, verse 34, it is said that the Brahman is without any form or quality, but it appears to be the individual souls (jīvas) by its beginningless association with avidya or nescience. In that sense jīva or the individual soul is only a part of God.

Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi further says that God is the controller, the mover (preraka) of all living beings. In another verse it says that Brahman is both God and the souls of beings at the same time. In pure Śiva there are no qualities as sattva, rajas and tamas.

Again Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi oscillates to the Vedanta view that the individual souls, the objects of the world as well as the Supreme Controller, are all but illusory imposition on the pure consciousness or Brahman.

The Siddhānta-śikhāmaṇi admits both avidya and māyā after the fashion of Śaṅkarites:

It is in association with avidya that we have the various kinds of souls and it is with the association of māyā that Brahman appears as omniscient and omnipotent.

It is on account of the avidya that the individual soul cannot realise its identity with Brahman, and thus goes through the cycle of births and rebirths.

Yet there is another point to note.

In the Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali, it is said that the nature of our birth, the period of life and the nature of our experiences, are determined by our karma, and that the law of the distribution of the fruits of karma is mysterious. But the effects of karma take place automatically.

This view is only modified by the Pāśupatas and the Naiyāyikas who belong to their fold.

It is interesting to notice that the Siddhānta- śikhāmaṇi borrows this idea of karma from the Pāśupatas, who hold that the distribution of karma is managed and controlled by God.

Siddhānta- śikhāmaṇi thus seems to present before us an eclectic type of thought which is unstable and still in the state of formation:

This explains the author’s ill-digested assimilation of elements of thought on Pāśupata doctrine, the varying Āgama doctrines, the influence of Sāṁkhya, and ultimately the Vedanta of the Śaṅkarites.

This being so, in the thirteenth century we cannot expect a systematic Vīra-śaiva philosophy in its own individual character as a philosophical system in the time of Basava.

It will be easy for us to show that Allama-prabhu, the teacher of Basava, was thoroughly surcharged with the Vedantism of the Śankara school.

In the Śankara-vijayaĀnandagiri, a junior contemporary and a pupil of Śankara gives a long description of the various types of the devotees of Śiva who could be distinguished from one another by their outward marks.

Śankara himself only speaks of the Pāśupatas and the Śaivas who followed the Siddhāntas or the Āgamas, in which God Śiva has been described as being the instrumental cause, different from the material cause out of which the world has been made.

Vācaspati in his Bhāmatī, a commentary on the bhāṣya of Śankara on the Brahma-sūtra II. 2. 37, speaks of four types of the followers of Śiva.

Of these we have found ample literature of the Śaivas and the Pāśupatas, and had ventured to suggest that the Kāruṇika-siddhāntins were also the followers of the Āgamic Śaiva thought.

But we could find no literature of the Kāpālikas or of the Kālamukhas referred to in the bhāṣya of the same sūtra by Rāmānuja.

In the Sūta-samhitā we find the names of the Kāmika and other Āgamas, the Kāpālikas, the Lākulas, the Pāśupatas, the Somas, and the Bhairavas, who had also their Āgamas.

These Āgamas branched off into a number of sections or schools. In our investigation we have found that the Lākulas and the Pāśupatas were one and the same, and we have the testimony of Mādhava, the author of the Sarva-darśana-saṁgraha, to the same effect.

Sūta-samhitā was probably a work of the sixth century A.D., while Madhva’s work was of the fourteenth century.

Nevertheless, it seems that the Pāśupatas were earlier than the Lākulas. Neither Śankara nor Vācaspati speaks of the Lākulīśas as being the same as the Pāśupatas.

But some time before the fourteenth century the Lākulīśas and Pāśupatas had coalesced and later on they remained as one system, as we find them regarded as one by Appaya Dīkṣita of the sixteenth century in his commentary, Vedānta-kalpataru- parimala on Brahma-sūtra 11. 2. 37.

But there can be but little doubt that the Lākulas had their own Āgamas long before the sixth century A.D., which is probably the date of Sūta-samhitā.

We find references to the Bhairavas, and the name Bhairava is given to Śiva as the presiding male god wherever there is the Śaktī deity representing the limbs of Śaktī, the consort of Śiva and the daughter of Dakṣa.

But we have not been able to secure any Āgamas containing an account of the philosophical doctrine of this creed of Bhairavism, though we have found ritualistic references to Bhairava.

The Sūta-samhitā also refers to the Āgamic Ṛṣis such as Sveta, etc.; each of these twenty-eight Ṛṣis had four disciples, thus making the number one hundred and twelve.

They are also referred to in the Sūta-samhitā (Book iv, ch. xxi, verses 2-3), where they are described as smearing their bodies with ashes and wearing the necklaces of Rudrākṣa. We have noticed before that Śiva-Mahāpurāṇa also refers to them.

The existence of so many Śaiva saints at such an early date naturally implies the great antiquity of Śaivism. These Śaiva saints seem to have been loyal to the Varṇāśrama dharma or duties of caste and the stages of life.