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February 26, 2023

First published February 25, 2023

 in The Times of India

Why the Location of Shiva’s Pillars Has Become So Controversial

Published on 25th February, 2023, in Times of India.

The Assam government’s claim that the Bhimashankar Jyotirlinga is located in the northeastern state has spawned yet another religious flashpoint. This is what happens when mythology is assumed to be history

Until recently, most people believed that Bhimashankar Jyotirlinga is located in Maharashtra. But then the Assam government declared the jyotirlinga is located near Guwahati, at the hillstream of Bhimeshwar Dham, creating confusion.

Similar controversies are found with the Ramayana. After firmly establishing Ayodhya as the birthplace of Rama, right-wing leaders are desperately trying to locate all sites linked to Ramayana ‘history’. This proves a problem.

For example, where would be the birth place of Hanuman? There are places in Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh making that claim. The resolution will take place not through the understanding of scriptures, which is often vague and even contradictory, but through political force. This is what happens when mythology is assumed to be history.

Emergence of Shiva

Hindus believe that, at the dawn of time, Shiva appeared in the world in the form of a fiery pillar (jyotir-linga). This pillar had no beginning or end. Brahma, who claimed he had created the world, searched for its tip in the form of a swan, while Vishnu who said he preserved the world, searched for its base in the form of a boar. Both failed.

Vishnu admitted his defeat. But Brahma lied and claimed he had found the top of the pillar and showed a flower that he claimed he had found there. At that moment, a being emerged from the pillar and identified himself as Shiva. He said that he has no beginning or end. So, Brahma’s claim was false, and that is how Brahma became unworthy of worship.

Vishnu’s honesty made him worthy of worship. But most venerable was Shiva himself, the being who embodied the infinite pillar of fire. This concept of Hindu trinity, so familiar today, was a revolutionary one. Not found in Veda, it eclipsed the popularity of Buddhism.

The earliest Shiva’s stories are found in Ramayana and Mahabharata, indicating that the idea of Shiva was gaining popularity two thousand years ago. But this story of the pillar of fire comes to us from the Puranas that began to be composed from about 500CE. This is at least one thousand years after the Vedic period (1500BCE to 500BCE) by conservative estimates.

In the Yajur Veda, there are many hymns to a fierce god called Rudra, father of Maruts, who is identified with the Shiva of the Puranas. But while the Vedic Rudra is a wild god linked to cattle, he is not linked to Mount Kailasa, Parvati or Ganesha, the Shiva that we are familiar with now.

Puranas indicate a later form of Hinduism — the transformation from firebased Vedic rituals to water-pouring temple rituals. This transition happened as Vedic Brahmins responded to Buddhism and Jainism by embracing folk gods, rituals and beliefs.

Here Shiva is not only mighty, he is also married. Marriage is key as it is in direct opposition to monasticism. It was the weapon of the Brahmins against the Buddhists. While Buddha shunned marriage, Shiva chose marriage.

But the story of the limitless pillar of fire is not about marriage. It is about power. Brahma, humbled by Shiva, decides to control Shiva by ensuring his marriage, first to Sati, and then to Parvati. Thus marriage controls the mighty Shiva.

As per a famous Sanskrit mantra attributed to Adi Shankaracharya, who lived in 8th century CE i.e. 1,200 years ago, Shiva appeared as this pillar, in 12 spots across India. They are known as the 12 jyotirlingas. The locations of some of these are fairly standard; some are controversial.

The standard ones are Kedarnath in Uttarakhand, Kashi Vishwanath in Uttar Pradesh, Mallikarjun in Andhra Pradesh, Somnath in Gujarat, Trimbakeshwar in Maharashtra and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. The controversial ones are Nageshwarnath and Vaidyanath. Nageshwarnath has been identified in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttarakhand. Vaidyanath has been located in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Himachal. Now comes the new controversy of locating Bhimashankar not just in Maharashtra, but also in Assam.

No one wonders why there are no jyotirlingas in Rajasthan, Kashmir, Odisha, Meghalaya, Tripura, Goa, Karnataka, or Kerala, even though Shiva is worshipped in almost all villages in India. These kinds of logical questions are usually avoided by politicians.

Favourite of kings

The oldest image of Shiva in human form is tough to identify. That Shiva was worshipped in Harappan cities is more wishful speculation, than proven fact. It is perhaps the Gudimallam linga image from Andhra region, near Tirupati, dated to the Satavahana period (100BCE to 100CE), or an image from a Northwest Indian coin of the Kushan period (200 CE) showing a man with three heads, and a trident. Both these images do not show Shakti. The deity is independent and masculine. Gudimallam-linga is prominent and shows a mighty hunter with a weapon in one hand and his kill, a ram, in the other.

Shiva’s mainstream popularity owes greatly to the Pashupata cult organised by Lakulish who offered to invoke Shiva and enhance the power and prestige of kings. This idea appealed to many kings not just in India but also in Southeast Asia. This explains the presence of Shiva-ling and images of Shiva in My Son temple complex in Vietnam, Prambanan in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia as early as 5th century CE.

Gupta kings had favoured Vishnu in the form of a wild boar (varaha), but kings who rose after the fall of Gupta empire seemed to have preferred Shiva. By the 7th century, Shiva was being invoked by Chavda kings of Rajasthan, Kesari kings of Odisha, Kalchuris of Maharashtra, Pallavas and Cholas of Tamil Nadu and Chalukyas of Karnataka.

This was when the earliest Hindu temples were being built, mostly dedicated to Shiva. These kings sponsored grand ‘Kailasa’ temples in places like Elephanta near Mumbai, Ellora near Aurangabad, Mogalrajapuram near Vijayawada, Kailasanathar temple in Kanchi, Parashurameshvara temple in Bhubaneshwar.

In these early Shiva temples (many caves, many rock cut and a few free standing) the fabulous stories of Shiva was a way of displaying royal power. It was a departure from the still serene images of Buddha that had been popular since 100BCE. Shiva images evoked power.

A king, like Shiva, could control the waters of the Ganga. Like Shiva, the king could destroy demons like Tripura and Andhaka, and crush the pride of kings like Ravana and arrogant princes like Arjuna. Without his support, Ram could not rescue Sita and Pandavas could not be king.

Shiva as political metaphor

For those who are interested in looking at Shiva as a metaphor, we realise that by making Shiva emerge from an endless pillar, a statement is being made. Early Buddhist and Jain kings of India like Ashoka raised pillars to establish their royal authority. The Puranic story of Shiva declares that while regular kings can raise pillars of limited length, Shiva is greater than all kings as he can create a pillar that has no beginning or end.

The Vishnu worshipping school of Hinduism similarly argued that Narasimha can emerge from a pillar and kill bad kings. One can say this idea of limitless pillar of fire was a political statement made by the Pashupata ascetics. This Shiva was a fiery pillar and surrounded by yoginis, who calmed him down.

This may explain the open-roofed circular shrines of 64 yoginis found in many parts of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, built around this time. Some say this idea was shared by Buddhists who saw Shiva’s fiery form as Heruka adorned with skulls and snakes.

Kings who originally identified themselves as Shiva on earth, later preferred presenting themselves as servants of Shiva. They sought power from Shiva and offered the heads of enemies as gifts to Shiva’s wife, Shakti, who was also the fierce Chamundi and Durga.

Over time, Shiva the single fiery warrior god was eclipsed by stories of the benevolent Shankara, the husband of Gauri, and a family man. Chamundi and Durga became more gentle like a queen. Their son, Kartikeya, was Shiva’s military arm. Their son, Ganesha, was his intellectual arm.

Shiva continues to play a political role in modern times, especially with the rise of Hindutva or political Hinduism. So Shiva is shown with a six-pack abdomen like a bodybuilder, and every state wants to claim him. Modern gurus and mythological fiction writers even present Shiva as a historical figure who lived in Tibet thousands of years ago.

In their imagination, Shiva is an alpha, a fearsome warrior, not Shiva the dancer or the family man. Right-wing politicians are clearly uncomfortable with a married, indulgent family man Shiva, and prefer him as the lone warrior, firm as a pillar of fire.

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