Why is there a rising machismo of the Mahadev?

An explanation for the muscular, political Shiva.

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.

Actor Mohit Raina in costume as the Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev in the new television show. Image credit: Life Ok

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! 

Cover art of the best-selling The Immortals of MeluhaI 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!

Poster art of Shiva. image credit: EbayAnd 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.

A modern Shiva statue at the Murudeswar temple, Karnataka. Image credit: Murudeswar temple

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.

Shiva the family man. Image credit: The Hindu WebsiteBut 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.

The Batuk Bhairav. Image credit: Dolls of India

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.

Shiva the householder in a Kalighat painting. Image credit: Harekrsna.comIn 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.

The fierce village diety Veerabhadra. Credit: WikimediaShiva 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.


An image of the Mangesi idol. Image credit: Wikimedia

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.

Shiva as a hunter on a wall painting in Puri, Orissa. Image credit: India History Speaks

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.

The wild Shiva from Kulu. Image credit: India History Speaks

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.    

An image of what is thought of as the Indus valley seal of Shiva. Image credit: Wikimedia

Shiva in Elephanta caves as killer of Andhaka. Image credit: Mumbai Meri Jaan

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. 

Shiva in conversation with his wife. A carving on a Hoysala temple in Halebeedu. Image credit: Yahoo LifestyleThe 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.

A New Age Shiva. Image credit: Artist RunninkoolAt 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.


  • Everyone has their Pashto cinema storyTue 12 May, 2015

    But only some of us have the deep reserves of courage to tell that story

  • Kushinagar: The place where Buddha diedTue 5 May, 2015

    The town in Uttar Pradesh where the Buddha died is of great significance, but remains relatively unknown. A new graphic book recounts a journey to the historical sites associated with the life of the Buddha, and how in the midst of India’s spiritual collisions the author came face to face with his mortality in Kushinagar.

  • Who decides how much my Crocin will cost?Mon 4 May, 2015

    A month ago, the government raised the price of 500-odd essential drugs by 3.84 percent. Is it a fair rise, and does it ultimately benefit the consumer? Is controlling the prices of all drugs sold in India – which the government is considering – a good plan? A manufacturer of low-cost drugs explains.

  • You’d probably make more money in a fixed deposit than a news channelWed 29 Apr, 2015

    Wait. No one watches the news? Then why are there so many news channels. The writer of a new book on the industry explains the real reason these channels are launched.

  • How Reliable is the World’s Most Influential Business Consultant?Mon 27 Apr, 2015

    Ram Charan has worked ascetically for almost half a century consulting with top CEOs and businesses across the world. He claims to live in planes and hotels and own a house only for tax reasons. But as a writer of case studies, Charan has left the historical record poorer without a sense of how businesses deal with corruption and politics. His public analyses are usually simplistic, reducing complex corporate stories to tales of thrilling heroes who succeeded because they did something.

  • The Extraordinary Network Across India That’s Helping Restore Our Film Heritage, One Trashed Reel At A TimeFri 24 Apr, 2015

    From Alam Ara to Black Friday, from Paanch to Thalapathi, the list of Indian films whose prints have been lost is long. Not only have we lost almost 80 percent of our films made before 1964, we continue to lose recent ones too. But there are some extraordinary efforts now underway to hunt and restore these films, some of which involve the very people who used to destroy these prints for profit.

  • How I Began to ReadWed 22 Apr, 2015

    My discovery of reading and the books that inspired me

  • Your Handy-Dandy Guide to the Bihar Assembly ElectionsMon 20 Apr, 2015

    Bihar will see Assembly elections before the end of November this year. But the games will begin long before that. Who are the key players? What are the cool moves? Our writer digs through perception and realpolitik to bring you this primer to the upcoming tournament.

  • Good People and Bad People Meet in ShimlaFri 17 Apr, 2015

    The UK television show ‘Indian Summers’, set in the 1930s Raj summer capital of Shimla, has been Channel 4's most expensive drama ever. As it concludes its finale this weekend and readies for a second season, will it go beyond an understanding of the British Empire as largely a case of bad manners and political incorrectness?

  • Are Farmers Going to Be Modi’s Biggest Blind Spot?Wed 15 Apr, 2015

    Narendra Modi declares his commitment to farmers all the time but his government has steadily acted against them. The political cost is going to be steep. From rail rokos and stone-pelting to urea trucks being looted, farmers across the country are increasingly ranged against the NDA government.

  • Three Supreme Court Orders Later, What's the Deal with Aadhaar?Mon 13 Apr, 2015

    By law, you should not be denied any government service in India if you don’t have an Aadhar card number. So why do various government programs continue to ignore three Supreme Court orders and insist on the dreaded number, and how are they getting away with it?

  • Five problems ailing veterinary medicine in India that you should know aboutFri 10 Apr, 2015

    Besides our attachment to pet animals,India’s livestock industry alone contributes almost four percent of the GDP. So why does veterinary medicine in India languish with perennial problems?

  • The Slave Ship that Ran from Kerala to New OrleansWed 8 Apr, 2015

    Post Hurricane Katrina, a whole new American dream was designed for some Indians — how to get trapped in a guarded labor camp by an American company. Five of these Indians just won $14 million in damages in their fight for justice and dignity, in one of the largest labor trafficking cases in US history. There are more than 200 other plaintiffs awaiting justice in this explosive, racist example of how America's broken visa program continues to exploit international migrants.

  • Why Spanish Is On Its Way to Becoming One of India’s Favoured Foreign LanguagesMon 6 Apr, 2015

    The New Delhi branch of the Instituto Cervantes had the highest number of enrollments in the world in 2014. In Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, young people are betting on Spanish for their big city dreams. What’s going on with desi learners of Espanol?

  • Hello? Anyone seen my swine flu mutation?Thu 2 Apr, 2015

    An MIT study says the swine flu sweeping India might be a deadly new mutation. The National Institute of Virology in Pune firmly disputes this. How can there be such a vast difference of opinion? Could both be right or both be wrong? Is there a scientific conspiracy, a cover up, a screw up or something else entirely? We sought an independent scientific analysis and, as the Internet phrase goes, our conclusions may surprise you.

  • Does Kerala need a share of the Rs 200 crore Naxal pie?Mon 30 Mar, 2015

    This month the Kerala Home Minister approached the Union government to declare three districts from the state as Naxal-affected. But does the state have a Naxal problem and who would it benefit to have it declared so?

  • That Thing About Creating NalandasFri 27 Mar, 2015

    If India were to have one library for every 3,000 people it would need around 4,23,333 libraries. It is estimated that India has 54,856 libraries. A recent national conference talked of ways to fix this, but are numbers all that we are falling short on?

  • How to Go From Boyish to ByomkeshWed 25 Mar, 2015

    Sushant Singh Rajput and the man behind the star. And how Dibakar Banerjee moulded him into the beloved everyman detective, Byomkesh Bakshy.

  • What is terrorizing Marathwada’s farmers?Mon 23 Mar, 2015

    The hailstorm and unseasonal rains in 2014 that destroyed the rabi crop were thought to be freak events until they happened again this year, spurring fears of a sharp rise in the number of farmer suicides, bidding to outrun Vidarbha in its tragic scale. Is the weather the sole cause of Marathwada’s agrarian crisis, and how can this crisis be tackled?

  • Can a Counterculture Become an Ethical Industry?Fri 20 Mar, 2015

    These days several Indian cities are enlivened by splashes of color: an imaginative mural, a stylish tag, a critical stencil. Street art and graffiti seem to be sprouting everywhere, but there is growing skepticism in the community on what it means when our consumer culture starts patronizing this usually unsanctioned art form.

  • Is the AAP Crumbling? Again?Wed 18 Mar, 2015

    Despite its incredible win in the Delhi polls, the party’s implosion started a while ago. A look at how all the infighting and backbiting has been steadily coming to a boil.

  • When I Die, I Want A PartyMon 16 Mar, 2015

    In June 2013, the writer met Suzette Jordan a week after she’d decided she would no longer be stifled by the name, ‘The Park Street Rape Victim’ and all that it implied. And there began a quiet friendship. This week, shaken by the news of Jordan’s sudden death, the writer attends the funeral and joins the family in remembering this extraordinary woman.

  • Things I learned at the Asian Women’s FestivalFri 13 Mar, 2015

    The International Association of Women in Radio and Television held its Asian Women’s Film Festival again this year, showcasing the work of women, but not necessarily about women. Here’s what our writer found.

  • Everything you need to know at the legal end of the Masarat Alam controversyTue 10 Mar, 2015

    And what's with Jammu & Kashmir’s Public Safety Act?