The worship and prayer in Hinduism to one God (Brahman) under different names is considered as monotheistic polymorphism (Ref. 1). The multitude of names and titles as different deities (e.g. Agni and Indra et al.) correspond to special aspects / attributes of Brahman who is the driving force for all phenomena. It is therefore in agreement with the Shruti proclamation that “whatever is beautiful and good, whatever has glory and power is only a portion of Brahman’s radiance” (the Gita: Ch. 10 – V. 41).
Using different names to invoke Brahman as personal deity or “Ishta” during worship, e.g. Vishnu and Shiva et al., is thus consistent with the idea of monotheistic polymorphism and it helps in the unique “one to One” relationship between the worshipper and Brahman. Anyway, the origin of different names for deity seems to have taken place at different times in history to meet the changing liturgical needs in society.
In this regard, the origin of the name Shiva for deity appears to be quite recent. During perhaps in the post-Vedic era, the word “shiva” (in use already as “auspicious” in Vedic literature including the Rig Veda, e.g. RV: Book 6 - Hymn 75.10) was first used in conjunction with “linga” (meaning “symbol” in Vedic context, such as the Gita: Ch. 14 – V. 21) giving rise to “shiva linga” (meaning “auspicious symbol”). “shiva linga” (representing the live flame symbolically) was created to replace the live fire / flame in yajna so that the worship could be performed anywhere, anytime without using live fire (Ref. 2).
The practice of using “shiva linga” in the place of live fire during worship (such as yajna dedicated to Agni previously) over time gave rise to the name “Shiva” for deity (Brahman), based on “shiva” meaning auspicious in “shiva linga” (Section ‘b’, Ref. 3). In addition, Shiva (worshipped as “shiva linga”) became closely related to Agni whose yajna (fire) “shiva linga” represented.
Considering there is no mention of Shiva as deity (similar to Agni and Indra et al.) in the Vedas, even though the word “shiva” meaning “auspicious” is used several times in the Vedas, it is clear that the use of Shiva for deity must have started during the post-Vedic period and very likely from the previously existing word “shiva” (meaning “auspicious” in the Vedas).
Had the name Shiva for deity (similar to Indra et al.) existed when the Vedas were first composed (while using the word “shiva” meaning auspicious in Vedic hymns), the name Shiva for deity would certainly be mentioned in the Vedas along with other names for deity (Indra et al.). But that did not happen. Vedas do not talk about Shiva as deity but only mention “shiva” in the sense of auspicious, which indicates that the transformation of Shiva as deity happened very likely during the post-Vedic period when the word “shiva” (meaning originally auspicious) began to be used in “shiva linga” (the “auspicious symbol” created to replace the live fire in yajna dedicated to Agni).
There is further evidence based on religious practices of Shiva worshippers currently indicating that the origin of Shiva as deity is closely tied with Agni worship using fire in yajna long ago. Many worshippers of Shiva still put ash markings on their foreheads and bodies, smear the Shiva linga (symbol used in Shiva worship) with ash and continuously pour water and libation on Shiva linga.
These practices among current Shiva worshippers seem to be the remnants from the ancient Vedic practice of worshipping Agni by using live fire in yajna, where ash from wood burning in yajna was always a natural byproduct and often left markings on the bodies and foreheads of worshippers lighting the fire and participating in the yajna (Ref. 4). The ancient Vedic yajna would also involve the worshippers pouring libation into the fire, the practice which now continues with Shiva worshippers pouring libation / water, sometimes continuously, over the Shiva linga (Ref. 2).
Similarly, the snakes (“nagas”) shown in Shiva art (paintings and sculptures related to Shiva) also point to the link between Shiva and Agni. The flames streaking out of fire during yajna (dedicated to Agni originally) seem to be portrayed in Shiva art (after the introduction of “Shiva linga” to replace the live yajna / fire during worship long ago) as the snakes wrapping around Shiva linga and snakes coiling around the neck of anthropomorphic (human like) Shiva.
However, the stories created later to explain the presence of snakes (“naga”) in Shiva art seem to miss the real connection with flames streaking out of yajna. Perhaps because of a lack of proper understanding among Puranic authors, the snakes in Shiva art (coiling around Shiva’s neck and Shiva linga) are described, probably wrongly, in later stories as a symbol of Shiva seeking relief through snakes against the poison he supposedly had consumed after the mythical Samundra Manthan (churning of ocean).
There also is no relation between “naga” (snake) coiling around Shiva linga or Shiva’s neck in Shiva art and the real people and tribes known usually as “Naga”. The former (“naga”) seems to be based on the flames streaking out of yajna, whereas the latter (“Naga”) probably applied to people / tribes living originally in low lying areas etc. which had large number of “nagas” (snakes). Note, in low lying areas, especially with high rainfall, the soil is often inundated and that makes the snakes routinely come out of their pits and burrows. This leads to increased sightings of snakes by humans and there are also more incidents of snakebites in such areas.
Similarly, the association of Naga and other tribes with Shiva as the favorite deity in Puranic and other stories appears to be a mere coincidence. Perhaps people (Nagas etc.) living in areas with more sightings and confrontations involving snakes thought that Shiva (depicted with snakes in Shiva art and literature and sometimes referred to as “Nagaraja” or Lord of snakes) would provide protection against snakes, which probably led them to choose Shiva as their favorite deity. In addition, according to some ancient narrations the leader of a tribe would occasionally carry Shiva linga or its image ritualistically on his head, which led him to be called “Bharshiva” (“putting Shiva on the head”) indicating again that the origin of Shiva as deity is due to “Shiva linga” first.
Various texts and stories (including in the Shiva Purana) depicting Shiva anthropomorphically (in human form) as a great person and warrior who sometimes engaged in battles and fights against other gods and people are generally of fictional nature and intended mostly to convey important messages and for use as parables. Thus to think that Shiva in reality might be a historical figure (even the leader of people in human form long ago) is quite far-fetched.
The idea that Shiva (supposedly the possessor of enormous destructive powers) might be based on Rudra (also possessing enormous destructive powers) is also not correct. Any mistaken similarity and connection between Rudra and Shiva in terms of their destructive powers is basically due to Shiva’s enormous destructive powers having roots in Agni (the ultimate destroyer, Ref. 2) and not Rudra.
Considering also that Shiva linga represents the flame / fire in yajna (Section ‘b”, Ref. 3), any misinterpretation in Shiva art and literature (including the stories in Shiva Purana) about Shiva linga as a phallus symbol and the pedestal holding the Shiva linga as “yoni” (vagina) is wrong. Moreover, to assume in any context that Shiva linga (the most commonly used symbol in the worship of Shiva) might be a phallus symbol is in violation of the Veda or Sruti (Ref. 5), because there is no mention or support in the Veda for worshipping or praying to sex organs (penis and vagina) directly or as symbols.
Perhaps the confusion about Shiva-linga as a phallus symbol in Shiva literature and art (including in some temples) arose initially due to ignorance on the part of Puranic authors (not necessarily Veda Vyasa who is mistakenly credited with writing all the Puranas). It seems these authors were unable to identify and explain Shiva linga correctly, as a worship symbol representing the live fire / flame in yajna. Instead, due perhaps to the peculiar and elongated shape of Shiva linga, they mistakenly thought that it might be a phallus symbol (representing Shiva’s penis). To back up their spurious claim, they even created the imaginary Puranic story that Shiva linga originated when Shiva lost his penis due to a curse by sages for walking nude in front of their wives.
There is hardly any basis for the above Puranic story justifying “Shiva linga” (originally meaning “auspicious symbol” and used for worship in the place of live fire or yajna) as phallus. The meaning and the use of the word “linga” in Vedas etc. (including the Gita: Ch. 14 – V. 21) is as “symbol” (sign) and not phallus.
Thus any reference or connotation in Puranic stories that Shiva-linga (used for worship of Shiva) might represent a phallus is totally wrong and in violation of the Vedas. Shiva linga is just a fire symbol which is placed on a pedestal so that the worship to Shiva (originally Agni, worshipped using the live fire) can be performed without lighting the fire and the libation poured over it without spilling or splashing (Ref. 2).
Note that Shiva (Siva) and Shakti (Sakti) as Lord and his creative energy (Shakti also mentioned sometimes as feminine aspect or female counterpart of Shiva, Ref. 2) have their theological basis in the doctrines of Saivism and Saktism which draw significant support from Brahamanical (Vedic) philosophies (specifically the Samkhya and Vedanta, Refs. 6 & 7). This again shows that Saivism and Saktism (including the deity names Shiva and Shakti) are chronologically and theologically from the post-Vedic era and rooted in the Vedas.
(1) Subhash C. Sharma, “BRAHMAN (God) in Hinduism,” Feb. 24, 2004, http://www.geocities.com/lamberdar/brahman.html
(2) Subhash C. Sharma, “Shiv-ling and Agni worship (yajna),” June 6, 2005, http://www.geocities.ws/lamberdar/agni.html
(3) Subhash C. Sharma, “Farming and philosophy in India during ancient times,” June 29, 2011, http://lamberdar.sulekha.com/blog/post/2011/06/farming-and-philosophy-in-india-during-ancient-times.htm
(4) Subhash C. Sharma, “Saivite and Vaisnava interpretations of Brahman,” Dec. 2, 2010, http://hubpages.com/hub/saivite-vaisnava_brahman
(5) Subhash C. Sharma, “Compatibility of a text with the Srutis,” Sept. 2, 2006, http://www.geocities.ws/lamberdar/sruti_compatibility.html
(6) Subhash C. Sharma, “The doctrines of Saivism and Saktism,” May 3, 2004, http://www.geocities.ws/lamberdar/saivism-saktism.html
(7) Subhash C. Sharma, “Theistic and non-theistic Hindu philosophies,” Aug. 3, 2007, http://www.geocities.ws/lamberdar/aastika_nastika.html
by: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
(April 15, 2013)