Today’s entry is a continuation of the previous post on Ashtamurti, the eight classical forms of Shiva, which together constitute His universal form (Vishvarupa). The Ashtamurtis, as mentioned before, are associated with the eight terrestrial directions, as well as eight existent entities.
In all probability, the idea of the Ashtamurtis as Guardians of the eight directions is derived from the older Vedic Guardians of the eight directions (Digpalas). In the Vedic scheme, the Guardians of the directions are as follows:
Indra rules over the east
Ishana rules over the northeast
Soma (or Kubera) rules over the north
Vayu (or Marut) rules over the northwest
Varuna rules over the west
Nirriti rules over the southwest
Yama rules over the south
Agni rules over the southeast
There are at least a couple of commonalities we can note here that are overt. First, the name Ishana appears in the list of Vedic Digpalas as well as the Shaivite Ashtamurtis, although the direction assigned to Ishana is different. Secondly, we also note that some of the Deities of the Vedic Digpalas and the Shaivite Ashtamurtis are lords over certain material elements. For example, in the above scheme, we have Vayu who rules over the wind, Varuna who rules over water, and Agni who rules over fire. Other commonalities may be found, if we were to delve deeper.
Yet another Vedic scheme to consider vis-à-vis the Ashtamurtis is the octad of the Vasus. The Vasus (“Dwellers”) are Vedic Deities who rule over the elements, just as the Ashtamurtis rule over the eight existent entities. Per Shukla Yajurvedic tradition (Shatapatha Brahmana and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad) the eight Vasus are as follows:
1. Agni – fire
2. Prithvi – earth
3. Vayu – air
4. Antariksha – atmosphere
5. Dyaus – sky (space)
6. Aditya – the sun
7. Chandramas – the moon
8. Nakshatras – the asterisms
The above list of Vasus mentions antariksha (atmosphere) as an element, whereas the Ashtamurti list mentions water as an element. It must be noted though that in some lists of Vasus, Ap (water) is indeed mentioned instead of antariksha. The other main difference, alluded to in the previous post, is that there is no hint of anything metaphysical in the above list. The eighth element is listed as the asterisms, whereas in the Ashtamurti list, the eighth element is the Kshetrajna (Soul).
The main conclusion we can draw based on the Vedic octads (Digpalas and Vasus) and the Shaivite Ashtamurtis is that the Shaivite scheme is essentially derived from the Vedic scheme. Although the two schemes do not bear a one-to-one correlation, the overt similarities are enough to show that the Shaivite Ashtamurtis are built upon the Vedic octads, and have improved upon them to include metaphysical principles.
With time, the Ashtamurtis of Shiva have come to be very important, not only as representations of Shiva’s universal form (Vishvarupa) by their association with the elements and directions, but also as a way to establish Shaivite philosophy. In the mid-eleventh century CE commentary on Sage Vyasa’s Brahmasutras, Srikantha Shivacharya puts a different spin to the eight forms. Instead of aligning the Ashtamurtis with the elements or directions, the author concludes, based on the root of each name, that the eight names are designations of the Supreme Brahman (Shiva).
According to Srikantha Sivacharya, Brahman (Shiva) is called:
Bhava because He is the one existent everywhere.
Sharva because He is capable of destroying all.
Ishana because He has Lordship without limitations.
Ishvara (Pashupati) because He rules over all Pashus (Souls).
Rudra because He tears away the pains of worldly existence.
Ugra because He unimpeded by the luster of others.
Bhima because instills fear in souls based on their own karma.
Mahadeva because He is of great luster.
With this, we conclude our brief, yet broad, study of the eight forms of Lord Shiva; their meaning and significance as well as possible derivation.
© Agnideva, 2007
Related post: Ashtamurtis I