Why is there a rising machismo of the Mahadev?

Devdutt Pattanaik
Grist Media

As someone whose work revolves around mythology (the study of sacred stories, symbols and rituals of all religions), I have been bombarded with questions on the phrase 'Har Har Mahadev'. I guess this has something to do with the 'Har Har Modi' controversy. Why do Modi fans equate him with Mahadev, as the chant seems to suggest? A friend (and a Modi fan) replied, "Because, like Mahadev, Modi is macho!" Suddenly that beard, that comment on his chest size, that flaunting of monk-like single status made sense. Macho, I guess. Not quite Putin, but macho! 

My mind then turned to the clean-shaven Mohit Raina, the protagonist of that extremely popular LifeOK teleserial, Devon ke Dev Mahadev, to which I have served as consultant since the very beginning. Different from the Shivas of earlier mythological productions - a great combination of a muscular body, sharp features and kind eyes, Mohit is a huge hit with the ladies. It is that popularity that has kept the show running. There is little doubt that he is good-looking. But macho? Yes, yes, the fans scream.

Then there is Amish Tripathi's bestseller The Immortals of Meluha, the first of the Shiva trilogy. He had kindly let me read the book before its launch, and I must say even then I was most impressed by the cover: the taut back of a very Conan-the-Barbarian-like muscular warrior with dreadlocks. Really macho! 

I also remembered the post-Hindutva poster art where everyone from Ram to Hanuman to Krishna needed to be aggressive warriors, in contrast to their gentle affectionate traditional grace. These images line the routes taken by the very energetic and occasionally aggressive Kanwariyas of North India, who in the month of Shrawan (July-August) fetch the waters of the Ganga and carry them on foot to temples back home in pots that are never placed on the ground. Shiva in this worldview always has massive muscles and a six-pack abdomen. Very macho indeed!

And let us not forget those gigantic images of an extremely fit Shiva that have cropped up across India and have become huge tourist attractions following the popularity of such images in Bollywood movies since the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Ram was the most popular Hindutva icon. Now, Shiva seems to have taken over. In the secular space too, there is an obsession with Shiva. Unlike Ram, he is an outsider comfortable breaking rules. Unlike Krishna, he seems firmly faithful to his one and only wife, Parvati. In fact, in the mythological space his is the only love story that culminates in a happy marriage. Ram-Sita and Krishna-Radha have tumultuous relationships to say the least. And Shiva is the only god - though a hermit - who is most popularly visualised as a family man with wife and sons in both miniature and calendar art.

But love is not the reason that Shiva draws the crowds. It is his machismo.

Somehow the idea of Shiva as a macho god never entered my thoughts in all the years I have been researching and writing on mythology. And I have written three books on Shiva: Shiva, an Introduction (VFS), Shiva to Shankara (Indus Source) and Seven Secrets of Shiva (Westland). Machismo is not the first thing that comes to mind when Shiva emerges from the Puranas, Agamas and Tantras.

Is it a case of the eye of the beholder? Why do young people want to see Shiva as macho, scriptural views notwithstanding? Is it an indicator of an anxiety amongst young people today? Is this anxiety similar to the anxiety many of our freedom fighters felt when the British mocked Hindus and their gods as being effeminate?

We Indians often do not realize it but the image of Shiva is very different in different parts of India. In the North, he alternates between the childlike Batuk Bhairava seen with the Goddess Sheravali and the bhang-loving Bholenath, the guileless hermit forced to be a householder who is offered dhatura flowers by devotees.

In Bengal Jatra (folk performances), Shiva is a mighty but old hermit with a young, demanding, rather quarrelsome and aggressive wife called Chandi. All he wants to do is run away for some quiet meditation up the mountain. This endearing tension creates great humor and appeals to people who see their own domestic issues reflected in the divine relationship.

In the South, he is the serene and handsome Sundareshwar, immortalised in sensuous Chola art. He is Dakshinamurti, the great teacher who sits facing the south (the direction of death), enabling people to discover the wisdom of the Vedas and find immortality. This is where Shiva is Nataraja, the dancer, and Vinapani, the musician.

In most villages across India, Shiva has been worshipped as an aniconic rock - the Shiva-linga - in the open under banyan trees near crematoriums on the edge of the village, accessible to all, over which women pour milk and offer bilva leaves to, especially on Mondays in their quest for good husbands. In the grand temple complexes of the brahminical South, however, devotees are often kept away from the sanctum sanctorum controlled by priests. The Shiva-linga is described as 'hot', not in the modern sense applied to good-looking people, but in the sense that - bursting with untamed power - and must be approached carefully. In the non-brahminical South, and in rural communities across India in general, Shiva is also seen as a village deity, fierce as Virabhadra, closely associated with other guardian gods or veeras such as the mighty Aiyanar.

Shiva has been the community deity or kula-devata of many warrior clans such as the Rajputs, Marathas and Jats. After all, one of the greatest warrior-leaders of medieval times, Shivaji, was named after Shiva. But Shiva was also the kula-devata of Brahmin communities such as Goud Saraswat Brahmins, as well as numerous non-Brahmin, non-warrior communities. Lata Mangeshkar's ancestral family, for example, is closely linked to Mangeshi, a form of Shiva worshipped in Goa, where the Shiva-linga is topped with the mask of a man sporting an impressive moustache, and sometimes a beard.


Any attempt to divide Shiva along caste lines is simplistic. Many 20th century American neo-Orientalists have tried to equate Vishnu with the upper castes and Shiva with the lower castes, not realising that prior to the arrival of Islam, the great clash in Hinduism was between Shiva-worshipping Brahmins and Vishnu-worshipping Brahmins, and this continues in the simmering tensions between Tamil Shaivite Iyers and Vaishnavite Iyengars.

Before the Americans, the 19th century European Orientalists with their pet racial theories tried to see Brahma and Vishnu as the Vedic Aryan god and Shiva as the non-Vedic non-Aryan god. They missed one detail in this fantastic but convenient theory: the 'Vedic' Vishnu is dark-complexioned and the 'non-Aryan' Shiva is called karpura-go-ranga, as white as camphor. These complexion issues are blurred today with even Krishna appearing on television as white as snow.

Many Western academics tend to describe Shiva as a wild, hemp-smoking forest shaman who indulges in orgiastic rituals. He has been most famously articulated as an erotic ascetic by Wendy Doniger, infamous for her irreverent style, and as one of the gods of love and ecstasy like the Greek Dionysus by the less controversial Indophile, Alain Daniélou. Does he not arrive drunk with ghosts and goblins to his own wedding to the horror of his very cultured to-be-wife's family? Does not the Hindi phrase 'Shivji-ki-baraat' or the wedding procession of Shiva refer to a band of rowdies, hooligans and iconoclasts? While this image of Shiva pleases every aspiring hippie, it annoys every self-respecting puritan, for this is not the feeling the devotee of Shiva experiences when he or she visits the temples of Kashi Vishwanath in the North, or Chidambaram in the South.

In her book The Presence of Siva, philosopher and art historian Stella Kramrisch is far more deferential. The first line of her book from the Aitareya Brahmana says, "His name is not uttered. It must not be mentioned; only indirectly is He to be referred to." In his Concept of Rudra: Siva Through the Ages, writer Mahadev Chakravarti sees Shiva as a distant but forbidding and powerful force in Vedic times, one that was probably from outside the Vedic fold, but which gradually became part of the mainstream, finally emerging as one of the focal points of worship by the time of the Puranas. In these stories, Shiva is a non-Aryan deity who forces his way into the brahminical pantheon. This idea does not work well with traditionalists who see words like Aryan, Vedic and Brahminism as referring to pure Hinduism.

At this point it is important to point to the book Indra's Net where NRI businessman and author, Rajiv Malhotra, renowned for his ballistic self-aggrandizing tirades, points to the rarely discussed but not unknown difference between the traditional Hindu gaze and the academic Western gaze (read SN Balagangadhara's The Heathen in his Blindness for a detailed academic analysis of the origin of this cognitive difference). To the Indian eye, Hinduism is continuous and homogenous, while to the Western academic eye, Hinduism is discontinuous and diverse. The West is unable to reconcile the varied images and ideas of Shiva over space and time. But in the experience of the practicing Hindu, the commonality across space and time is obvious in spirit, if not in word: thus everything about Shiva, his machismo included, is timeless, not historical. The well-funded American academics disdainfully dismiss the views of practicing Hindus as unscientific, even fundamentalist rhetoric. Rajiv and the Hindu American Foundation cry foul, offering counter theories. Neither side is willing to give the other space. Both are convinced they are right. So much for tolerance, inclusion and accommodation! But then tolerance, inclusion and accommodation hardly make us macho, do they? 

That being said many Indians want to see Shiva as a historical figure rather than an idea. For many have bought into the argument that 'true' religion must have a historical founder, like Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. And Amish feeds into this idea by presenting a delightful tale of a hero who in 1900 BCE emerges in the Indus valley civilization and leads a revolution against evil. Incidentally, 'evil' has no synonym in any Indian language as it makes sense only in cultures that believe in one birth, not in cultures that believe in rebirth, hence karma. I know so many people who became devotees of Shiva after reading his book. The phenomenal success of his book is an indicator of how much people want his re-imagination to be the real truth, the twisting of timelines notwithstanding. While the idea of Rudra, later identified with Shiva, is found in the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, the tale of the confrontation between Shiva and Daksha, and ideas such as Suryavansi and Chandravansi, that form the central theme of the book, comes from the Mahabharata dated between 300 BCE to 300 CE and the Shiva Purana that elaborates this story is dated to 500 CE. Of course, one can always argue that the stories were transmitted orally much earlier. How early is a matter of anybody's guess. Vedic scriptures such as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads that formed the bedrock of Hinduism till 500 BCE (prior to Buddha) were concerned more with mantras and yagna rituals, and did not pay much attention to stories. Indus Valley seals may have Shiva-like images but the earliest uncontested image of a warrior Shiva comes from the Elephanta caves off Mumbai dated around 500 CE. The worship of the aniconic Shiva-linga, of course, has a very old history.    

The machismo of Shiva can be traced today has many roots. Lets explore three of them in some detail: scriptural roots, political roots, and artistic roots.

Shiva in the scriptures commits the terrible Brahma-hatya-paap, killing a Brahmin as he pins Brahma to the sky with his arrow for desiring his own creation. Brahma's creation is symbolically identified as 'daughter' and 'doe' leading to incestuous and bestial connotations, exciting the vicarious sensibilities of even the most solemn scholars. Shiva also beheads Daksha for trying to control his creation (again, a daughter, called Sati). He goes on to destroy Daksha's yagna, the primal Vedic ritual, not because he is non-Vedic but because its performers fail to appreciate its deeper meaning. This obviously makes him the destroyer. But not quite. Shiva does something even more terrible, something that the 'machismo seekers' fail to pay attention to: he shuts his eyes. This symbolically means withdrawal from the external world; the end of perceived reality. In the Vedic scheme of things, this is equal to ending of the world for 'without the observer there is no observation'. In Tantra, this is expressed using sexual metaphors (vicarious thrill alert!) as urdhva-retas, reverse movement of semen upwards towards the mind and not downwards towards the womb. This withdrawal is then represented in art as the erect phallus. For the simple-minded, this 'phallus worship' of Shiva accounts for his machismo. But those not intimidated by the knowledge find this association of Shiva, the hermit, with the erect phallus rather counterintuitive. How can the 'destroyer' have an erect manhood that is conventionally associated with fertility? Until you notice the eyes of Shiva are firmly shut, indicating that his arousal stems not from external stimuli but inner wisdom. He is the supreme tapasvin, feared for accumulating energy that instead of making the world fertile gradually makes it sterile, turning the world around him into icy, stony, Mount Kailas.

The Shiva-linga then is NOT what it represents literally but what it indicates symbolically: a potent seed, a world with potential that cannot manifest itself. Shiva is the destroyer of Kama (desire), Yama (death) and the three worlds (Tripura). In many ways, he is an ascetic like the Buddha, associated with wisdom (destroyer of ignorance) and immortality (destroyer of death). But the Goddess holds Shiva's ascetic qualities in check. This is the unique feature of Hinduism where monasticism is not allowed to overwhelm family. She intervenes in the form of the leaf-shaped yoni-trough containing the infinite Shiva-linga. She transforms the hermit into a householder, husband and father. His virility germinated in several wombs creates the great warrior-god Murugan/Kartikeya. He also becomes fountainhead of many things cultural from the Natya-shastra (treatise on theatre), Kama-shastra (treatise on erotics), and Katha-sarit-sagar (treatise on stories). No more isolated in dark caves, the Puranas, Agamas and Tantras visualise him on mountain peaks sharing his vast wisdom with his adoring ever-curious wife. 

The political Shiva is no householder, or at best, a reluctant householder. He is the ascetic-warrior like the naga-babas of the akharas of the Gangetic plains who are aggressive and declare themselves defenders of the faith. This valorization of the celibate hermit was one way in which many leaders of the Indian National Movement from Swami Vivekananda to Lala Lajpat Rai tried to reclaim Hindu masculinity from the colonizer's criticism that Indians were not tough, like 'real' men. But it was not just about being masculine; it was also about rejecting the feminine. It is not by accident that both Modi and Rahul are determined to be single. They are celibate warriors fighting for India, or should we say, Bharat-Mata. Does Rahul sport stubble so that he does not appear too 'chikna' (cute, clean shaven, youth)? They are embarrassed by the Krishna of the rasa-leela and are not comfortable just being advisors on the Kurukshetra. They cannot project themselves as Ram for fear of alienating women (because of the Sita episode) and Muslims (because of the Babri episode). The women in their world can only be mothers who grant power, and daughters and sisters who need to be saved. Rahul does have a stern ascetic-like mother and the legacy of a mighty tigress of a grandmother behind him. And it is no surprise he appears obsessed with women's empowerment. Modi with his beard is quite a contrast to Rahul's image; he is the chai-walla outsider, the rattle-drumming hermit who promises to break the Congress-yagna at Delhi with his horde of ganas. And Kejriwal - with his moustache and muffler, and his shrill antics, is perhaps what we fear most: the confused but angry householder, who unsettles everything.    

And finally, we have the DC-comic-Marvel-world New Age art that influences many young creative minds of India. Young people have been swept away by Iron Man and Superman or Batman, or maybe Wolverine, and find the imagery of Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha boring, even though Nandini Chandra's book The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha, 1967-2007 points out that one of the ACK Rams was modelled after the Johnny Weissmuller of humungous chest! Wisdom or devotion are seen as passive and take a back seat in this new wave of art. This 'just do it' generation wants action with style and a macho sexiness. So across the Internet one finds many young artists reimagining Hindu gods and goddesses for the virtual world. Here everyone has the body structure of a Viking. There is no place for body fat. Long hair is cool. Ash is replaced by tattoos. Women are always fierce warriors to prove they are not at all traditional. And they are all constantly striking sexy poses. Shiva here is like a heavy metal rock star in a haze of cannabis smoke with heaps of skulls with a crematorium backdrop. Here there is no room for the simpleton husband who quarrels with his wife and sulks in the forest called Daru-vana. Here there is no room for the awkward father, who knows everything about the universe, but is at odds when asked to help around the house. The influences are Greek and biblical, hence the desire to be hero and saviour rolled into one. He is destroyer of the bad guys, not destroyer of ignorance and restlessness.

At its heart is a new form of misogyny that rejects everything remotely feminine, where even feminism becomes all about embracing the masculine as in the film Gulaab Gang. It celebrates the violence of the alpha predator who sits on top of the pecking order and dominates the pack. Not surprisingly, women are increasingly feeling increasingly unsafe in Indian cities. This new macho cult has no desire to be Ardha-Nareshwar, the half-woman God. It sees only cross-dressing television jesters embracing the female side. It is terrified of becoming Shikhandi, a constant pejorative term used in political arena nowadays. Implicitly we seem to agree with the British colonizer's gaze: effeminacy is a bad thing.  

Devdutt Pattanaik is known for his books and lectures connecting mythology to modern life. He is also consultant to Star TV and Epic TV.