The position of Lord Shiva in Hinduism is second to no other deity, and such has been the case since the time Shiva was formally given the status of a Vedic God in the later Vedic period. In order to get a proper grasp of the concept of Shiva within the Hindu Pantheon, we must try to approach the subject from a multivariate perspective. That is to say we must realize that monolithic identification of Gods and Goddesses within Hinduism and even ascription of a singular interpretation of the religion ‘Hinduism’ is a historically and socially flawed process. Unlike the unitary Abrahamic religions or even the ancient Greek pantheistic religions, Hinduism has been defined over millennia, and more than a religion, it is a philosophical practice. Historians have argued that the term ‘Hinduism’ was a later construct that was put into effect during the Indian National Movement of the late 19th and 20th century, that attempted to bring under one umbrella term, all the rituals and practices of ‘Sanatan Dharma’ that pervaded the Indian Subcontinent. Therefore to accurately understand the importance of Shiva in Hinduism we must try to locate the various sources in which he is cited.
Shiva’s Earliest Citation:
Shiva as an entity of worship may be dated back to the 2nd and 3rd B.C.E, in the Indus Valley Civilization. Seals bearing the image of a seated yogi, near a bull are considered to be Shiva by religious and historic critics of contemporary times. Research suggests that Shiva in those days was known as ‘Rudra’ or the angry one. He was prayed to, primarily to avoid his wrath. He was the violent warrior God who hunted and destroyed at whim, all that offended him. Rudra’s evolution into the Vedic God Shiva must have occurred as a result of cultural co option of the indigenous people who worshipped Rudra by the early Aryan settlers who came to inhabit the northern parts of India. As the co option took place, Shiva started to appear in major works of Literature and art.
Shiva’s integration into Hinduism:
The first serious integration of Shiva with the Vedic religion occurred with his association with the followers of Shakti. Given that Shakti is variedly known as Sherawali, Durga, Parvati, Meenakshi etc in different parts of the country, it is believed by religious leaders that the followers of Shiva made their first alliance with the followers of the mother Goddess Shakti in different parts of the subcontinent. The most powerful reason that backs up this assumption is the fact that almost all indigenous peoples and tribes had their own fertility myths and their own mother Goddess figure, such that, even today they may be identified separately, but are largely sublimated in the figure of Goddess Shakti.
So from such a point of social evolution we have texts that suggest how Shiva and Shakti were part of an indivisible whole. Most Purans advocate this position but the fact remains, Shiva was never entirely sublimated within the Vedic paradigm. His worship retained the original form, giving less importance to ritual sacrifices and yajnas which is the hallmark of the Vedic religion.
Shiva’s mention in Major works of Literature:
Shiva plays subtle yet extremely telling parts in the Hindu Legends of the Epic poems The Ramayan and the Mahabharat. Paying special attention to his role in these texts would help us note that his individual identity and following remained intact even as he became part of the Vedic Pantheon.
In the Ramayan, the arch villain Ravan is considered to be a prime devotee of Shiva. In fact the demon race is said to have held Shiva as their God of choice. Ravan is credited with authoring the Shiva Tandav Stotra as a prayer of appeasement for Shiva. This stotra remains, to this date one of the most popular and powerful mantra to evoke Lord Shiva.
For an alternate version of the Ramayan from Ravan’s perspective, read Ravan Taandav Stotram.
Lord Hanuman, Ram’s primary aide in his expedition to retrieve his wife Sita from Ravan, is also said to have been an avatar of Shiva. Indrajit, Ravan’s son and a warrior par excellence is known to have been a ardent worshipper of Goddess Chandi- a form of Goddess Shakti- eternal consort to Shiva. Before crossing the sea to invade Lanka and after returning from Lanka, having slain Ravan, Rama is known to have performed deep penance to Lord Shiva. On the first occasion requesting Shiva to not fight in Ravan’s defence and in the second instance, to absolve himself of the sin of having killed Ravan who was also a Brahmin, apart from being a follower of Shiva.
Consider the historical fact that Pallava and Chola dynasties of South India held their primary deity to be Shiva. Consider also the fact that Rama was the ruler of the Northern Plains of India and primarily Aryan by race while the southern kings were Dravidian by race. The typical description of a demon/rakshasha is tall, dark, broad eyed and thick browed feature coincide with the general physical description of Dravidian men and women who were ace warriors and deep venerates of Lord Shiva. Having considered these facts, it would not be too farfetched to conjecture there may have been a real war between the Aryan King Rama and the Dravidian King Ravan in which the latter was defeated. History was written by the victor and obviously the fallen one became the less righteous and more villainous.
What still should be noted from the above example is the fact that the victorious King Rama paid obeisance to Shiva, who was the primary God of so many Dravidians, men and women who had to be co opted into the fold of Vedic Hinduism and that is exactly what happened over the years!
In the Mahabharat, Shiva appears in a few places, even though it is a poem dedicated mostly to the brilliance and omnipotence of Vishnu in his avatar as Krishna.
Shiva mock fights Arjun disguised as a hunter and gives him his weapon of power, the Pashupat Astra to aid in the war against the Kauravas. As a boon to Amba, Shiva brings about the defeat and demise of Bhishma by letting her be reborn as Shikhandi. Gandhari, an ardent Shaivite is shown to have the ability to bestow upon her son, Duryodhan, the gift of being as strong, quick and lethal as the lightning. Shiva in his avatar as Hanuman rests upon the flag of Arjuna’s chariot, protecting him against harm.
While these roles are not as significant as the one he plays in the Ramyan, Shiva’s presence as a major deity confirm his importance as a major God even in the age of the Mahabharata.
Other Citations and Significance:
Almost all Purans, Shiva Puran, Linga Puran, Vishnu Puran, Brahma Puran etc, which are texts that simplify vedic knowledge through narratives, acknowledge the position of Shiva as a primary God, placing him as an integral part of the Hindu trinity alongside Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva’s boons of power are freely given to demons who worship him in all earnestness. Invariably whenever demons get out of hand empowered by boons from Brahma, the Gods always make a bee line to Shiva for help.
We can see therefore that the figure of Shiva has evolved from that of being an angry God needing to be placated to a multifaceted God who is integral to the very concept of Hindu metaphysical thought. Shiva stands as the mirror opposite of many vedic Gods and their customs. He is almost a foil to all of them and as such complements and completes them as a God and as a philosophical paradigm.